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MPC dossier: What is Digital Matte Painting?

MPC's Marco Genovesi explains what digital matte painting is, and how it's no longer a backdrop but very much part of the main action.
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My name is Marco Genovesi. I am the global head of 3D DMP. I’ve seen a very, very broad evolution for my painting since it was just painting on glass. And then it was using models, and then it became using software to create 2D images, and then projections. And now it’s computer graphics together with photographs. Our department– 3D DMP– does matte paintings and environments. So backgrounds, which are going behind the characters. And this is a technique that is very, very old. It was initially painting over glass. That’s why the name matte painting. So we start from a plate, if we have one. That implies having some match-move geometry, some cameras done for us.
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And then either we go for set extension, meaning that we have to build the geometry, or we can go for something completely created from scratch. I would say if I have to pick one show in particular, I would probably pick Prometheus, because it felt like a great opportunity to work on a franchise that I really loved. And it was very challenging. And in the end, our team created some beautiful images, so I was very pleased with the output of the department at MPC as a whole.
Marco Genovesi is MPC’s Head of 3D Digital Matte Painting. In this clip he explains what that actually means in a modern VFX company.
The word Matte can be misleading in this context, but it’s a nod to the historical lineage of film as we’ve seen previously.
With 3D compositing, matte paintings are no longer just the plate stuck in the far background- they are much more incorporated into the whole environment. To think of DMP (Digital Matte Painting) as just inert layers behind the action is to underestimate what the prefix ‘digital’ has afforded matte painters.
You can get a great idea of what MPC’s matte painting department contributed to Marco’s favourite film Prometheus (2012) via his blog here.
What films really stand out for their matte painting to you? It’s harder to spot it these days, as it is more integrated- but feel free to mention pre-digital films too. Do you think Matte Painters get recognised enough for their contribution these days, or are they still seen as ‘background artists’?
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