SO, YOU WANT TO BE A MATTE PAINTER? But don’t have clue what a career in Matte Painting is like, what tools and skills you'd need, or even know where to begin? Well, the following is for you! I'm often contacted by students and emerging artists asking these very questions, so have compiled the most common questions with my best answers here. I hope this helps!
HOW DO YOU BECOME A MATTE PAINTER? It's truly a journey! This field is unique, we're specialists within an industry of specialists. Very few of us actually go to a school with the goal of becoming a Matte Painter, but find ourselves gravitating to it after some eureka moment of visual and technical problem solving. We're often trained on the job, as our techniques are constantly evolving, and there are really no formal programs to actually learn matte painting - it's often an Apprentice > Journeyman > Master process.
WHERE DO I LEARN MATTE PAINTING? I highly recommend The Digital Matte Painting Handbook by David Mattingly, it is an excellent place to start and covers all the basics well, using much of the same processes and software I use myself. Gnomon Workshop has some good DVD's, and there are also many great online tutorial and teaching resources, such as CGWorkshops, Digital Tutors, or Video Copilot. Then, practice, practice, practice - set yourself some projects, and start making matte paintings! However, your best training will happen on the job, experience is the greatest teacher. You will learn more 10x more working on a production with other artists than you ever could from a book, tutorial, or classroom!
WHAT SOFTWARE SHOULD I LEARN? Photoshop is our main tool, but I recommend also having a thorough understanding of a compositing package, such as NUKE or After Effects. In Production, all matte paintings are finished by the Compositor – not the Matte Painter! We do a lot of 3D camera projection of matte paintings now, so you have to be basic proficiency with 3D software, and definitely understand that process. A lot of Matte Painters use Cinema 4D, but I recommend the mainstream powerhouses, 3DS Max or Maya. Also, many Matte Painters use 3D terrain generating software like Vue or World Machine in their work now.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE TRADITIONAL ART SKILLS? Very important! I see a lot of beginning artists who get caught up in learning new software and the whole digital process, without first getting the basic artistic foundations under them. If you've not already had them, you should take Drawing, Photography, 2D Design, Color Theory, and of course, real Painting (not digital) classes. These will get your mind and hands moving in physically creative ways that will train your brain to see detail, form and space in ways that a computer simply can't! Then, when it comes to making images with computers and software, you know where to begin before even picking up a Wacom stylus.
WHAT HARDWARE DO I NEED? You will need a Wacom tablet, and the fastest machine, with as much RAM and best monitor and video card you can afford. Mac or PC, it doesn’t matter! Most of the Visual Effects industry is PC based though, with the only people on Mac’s being administration and design. Just don’t get too used to any one platform, because you never know what kind of workstation you’ll be handed on the job. Most importantly, remember that computers and software are only tools! More RAM does not equal more talent!
WHAT RESOLUTION DO I NEED TO WORK AT? Film 2K is 2048 x 1556, which is what’s projected at the movie theater, and HD 1080p is 1920 x 1080, which is what your basic LED TV displays. These are the bare minimums! Don’t worry about DPI, that’s only for printing, instead Bit Depth and Image Size is where our work lives. I recommend working at 4K (3840 x 2160), as that technology will soon become standard!
HOW DO YOU ACHIEVE PHOTOREALISM? The overly painted look is not desired at all in VFX! So why not work from the real thing, meaning photo stock? I've often described Digital Matte Painting as "advanced photo collage", as we often work from photographs, manipulating them, combining them, and painting over and between. I personally have a huge library of photographs that I reference, but I never use them outright, only using parts or as a base, and changing them to extremes. This may seem like cheating to some, but hey, even Vermeer used a camera obscura!
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE ON GETTING A PORTFOLIO TOGETHER? Start with a clean, easily navigated website and only show your very best work. Think quality, not quantity, when selecting images! Creating a demo reel isn’t always necessary at first, but making your matte paintings move within a real shot is the ultimate goal, also showing any animated “making of” stuff is always good. Though, if your portfolio doesn't meet the quality of high end projects, you won’t even be considered for professional level jobs. Your work must match that of a AAA movie, commercial or game in quality – nothing less!
HOW DO I BREAK INTO THE FIELD? You get your work in front of as many people as you can; go to trade shows, knock on some doors, approach professional artists, ask for feedback (and listen to it), and put a face with your matte paintings. It's all about networking! You have to work your way up from bottom, getting blooded on small projects while moving towards the big ones. Not least, be persistent and don't give up! To quote a religious saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” That means, if you work hard, keep improving your skills and art, keep putting yourself out there, and not least, have faith in yourself, nothing is beyond your reach.
WHAT DOES BEING A PROFESSIONAL MATTE ARTIST MEAN? Professionalism means being able to follow direction, because you actually have very little creative input on the on the very matte painting you’re making. It’s often someone else’s, or even many people’s vision, and you’ve just been hired to bring it to life for them. Professionalism means being able to communicate, and understand what the client wants so you can deliver it for them. Being able to explain to your superiors where you’re at in the process, and follow their direction as well. Plus work well with your coworkers! Professionalism means being able to stand and deliver. When the deadlines are pushed up, when the hardware and network fails, when the client changes their mind at the last minute, when you’re tired and burnt out because of long hours and endless revisions. Professionalism means being able to get along. We can work some long highly stressful hours, so being able to keep your cool, and be pleasant and positive to your coworkers is a must. VFX is a very small community and word gets around, your coworkers can and will get you hired or passed over for a job!
PLEASE NOTE. You're welcome to use this FAQ in a publication or other document, but please ask first, and give credit where it's due. Thanks!