When the first “Star Wars” movie came in out in 1977, people were shocked at how realistic epic shots of spaceships and alien landscapes looked. Knowing that computer graphics were just in their beginning stages, you might believe that these images were created using miniatures. However, the real story is even more impressive, and it begins in the early 1900’s.
In 1907, filmmaker Norman Dawn had a problem. He was making a movie called “Missions of California,” but many of those missions he wanted to film were crumbling away and missing arches. To fill in the missing pieces, he painted on glass to create matte paintings of the missing parts, and the missions appeared complete again. Dawn was employing a technique that was essentially the first form of special effects. In 1918, Frank Williams improved on it, because in order to work, the camera had to stay still on a glass pane with no actors moving across it, or it would be obvious that it was just a painting. Williams had actors stand in front of black backgrounds, and then copy the film to high-contrast negatives, turning the actors into white silhouettes. Matte paintings could be inserted into the black background, combining live action with the still painting.
The Williams Process was used throughout the next few decades in movies like “All Quiet On the Western Front” and “King Kong.” However, it wasn’t until “Star Wars” that people saw just how amazing matte paintings could be. In 1975, George Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic, his visual effects company. Painters like Ralph McQuarrie and Mike Pangrazio went to work on creating the sets using big plexiglass panels and oil paint. The fact that these shots would all be in color, as opposed to the old movies that used matte paintings, meant the artists had to be really exceptional. The paintings had to be extremely detailed so audiences would feel totally immersed in the world of Star Wars. ILM artists worked on all three films. In this shot of the droids C3-PO and R2-D2 outside Jabba the Hut’s home, you can see the painting of the door and area where the live-action droids are inserted in post-production:
ILM used their team of artists in other movies, like the Indiana Jones series. Mike Pangrazio, who eventually designed Disney’s current logo that plays before their movies, painted the final warehouse scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with its seemingly-countless crates.
Matte paintings have come a long way since the days of glass and oil. Now, artists use computers as well as pencils and brushes, and do everything from scanning sketches, rendering 3D elements and 2D textures, enhancing paintings, and combining photos with paintings in Photoshop. One of the most stunning examples of the union between mattes and computers can be found in LOTR and its huge landscapes, like this one of the Fellowship leaving Rivendell:
Matte background paintings fall into the “practical effects” category, and as Hollywood moves further towards using only digital effects like CGI, that art might be lost. Hopefully, filmmakers today look back at movies that use mattes like “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars,” “The Fifth Element,” and the LOTR series, and see that just because a technique might be a bit older, it doesn’t mean it’s obsolete.
Photos: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock.com, Luca Lorenzelli/Shutterstock.com