How Star Wars Filmmakers Created Elaborate Scenes Before CGI

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swgeek

Sr Member
Matt painting is such a great, lost art. Incredibly talented people. Not only for their painting skill but also for their understanding of perspective, color, and how their painting would fit into the overall scene. Yet another aspect of film making done with computers now.
 

Riceball

Master Member
Matt painting is such a great, lost art. Incredibly talented people. Not only for their painting skill but also for their understanding of perspective, color, and how their painting would fit into the overall scene. Yet another aspect of film making done with computers now.

True, matte paintings are being done on computer now but it's really no different than before computers, same idea, different technique or technology but it still requires artistic talent and skill to do. It's not like these things are being created solely by the computer via some sort of AI at the push of a button or even created by a programmer, they're being created by talented artists who instead of painting on a plane of glass they instead painting with pixels on a computer.

It's funny how people complain about a lot of CG in movies and digital set extensions, green screen work, etc. yet have no problems with matte painting which is essentially the same thing. I remember seeing in that big book on ILM how what one scene in Jedi that had a wide shot of the Ewok village was done entirely with a matte painting with the only live elements being some fires. Another example is the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders, most of that warehouse was nothing more than a matte painting with a little bit of real set. How's that different from what they do now? The only difference is that it's digital but it's still not a practical shot done on set, it's still being done in post. That's not to say that I don't appreciate matte paintings nor do I particularly care for digital sets but you have to admit that a lot of today's CG work is really no different from what they used to do, the only difference is in how they do but for the most part the choice of which scenes and what elements to do in post aren't all that different.
 

niennumb1

Master Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
Well I think the one thing to truly appreciate about some of the old matte paintings is just how much of a laborous job that was then vs. now. Yes it's the same technique being used these days, but the methods on how things are made now have much more sophisticated tools that allow artists more options for adding digital elements and coloring, making the process overall a potentially much quicker result.

These guys who made those paintings back then was all by hand and to be able to do that with brushes and very little room (or none) to change something later... That's an enormous effort. Plus shot matching the painting with the camera live.... That's some serious work involved!

I know the technique of matte backgrounds and sets are still used today, but really the way in which things can get created these days are a less complicated process, but can still be flubbed if you don't match the look to the scene. I'm not saying the digital method is so easy an idiot could do it by any means, but you cannot say that those paintings are the same. We're surrounded by lots of enabling technologies to make the work we do easier and a lot of the art of hand-made pieces is dying.

It's a hard discussion because I really don't want to come off with the impression that using computers and new age techniques discounts the artist. It truly opens up the possibilities whether you talk movies, costumes, props.... anything! I think it's a matter of using those technologies the right way.
 

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Wetwired

Active Member
Well I think the one thing to truly appreciate about some of the old matte paintings is just how much of a laborous job that was then vs. now. Yes it's the same technique being used these days, but the methods on how things are made now have much more sophisticated tools that allow artists more options for adding digital elements and coloring, making the process overall a potentially much quicker result.

This is what one digital artist has to say about the time it takes to make a matte painting on a computer.

Sketches and concept work usually take from 2 hours to 2 days. Matte painting work can be from 1 day to 3 weeks depending on the resolution and detail. Obviously a futuristic city is going to take a lot longer than a sky replacement.

source: http://www.dylancolestudio.com/FAQ/FAQ.html

I don't see why it would be more labourious in the past than it is now.
 

Mola Rob

Sr Member
I've seen some matte paintings that are masterpieces and some that truly sucked and I've seen CGI that is brilliant and some that really sucks. It all depends on the talent involved, the time available and, most importantly in my opinion, how the shot is planned and how well the elements are brought together.
 

Riceball

Master Member
I don't see why it would be more labourious in the past than it is now.

It would have been a bit more laborious in the past because they would be doing it by hand and when you make a mistake there's no undo button. Granted, digital has its own issues like file corruption of losing work because of a crash but the actual work itself is a bit easier. Of course with digital you do have to worry about art directors and directors wanting multiple versions of a given piece so they can decide which they like best or they'l have you tweak something endlessly even if it's just to make it a little more or a little less of something.

- - - Updated - - -

I've seen some matte paintings that are masterpieces and some that truly sucked and I've seen CGI that is brilliant and some that really sucks. It all depends on the talent involved, the time available and, most importantly in my opinion, how the shot is planned and how well the elements are brought together.

I totally agree. At the end of the day CG is just another tool and there's nothing inherently better or worse in CG than practical/analogue, it's all a matter of how you use it and who's the talent behind it.
 

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Mola Rob

Sr Member
To me CGI is just an extension of the traditional matte painting, it's a great tool to "enhance" reality. I still prefer a good old physical model or the real thing for space ships, airplanes, and cars compared to their CGI counterparts but I do believe CGI is a great asset if used properly.
 

swgeek

Sr Member
True, matte paintings are being done on computer now but it's really no different than before computers, same idea, different technique or technology but it still requires artistic talent and skill to do. It's not like these things are being created solely by the computer via some sort of AI at the push of a button or even created by a programmer, they're being created by talented artists who instead of painting on a plane of glass they instead painting with pixels on a computer.

It's funny how people complain about a lot of CG in movies and digital set extensions, green screen work, etc. yet have no problems with matte painting which is essentially the same thing. I remember seeing in that big book on ILM how what one scene in Jedi that had a wide shot of the Ewok village was done entirely with a matte painting with the only live elements being some fires. Another example is the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders, most of that warehouse was nothing more than a matte painting with a little bit of real set. How's that different from what they do now? The only difference is that it's digital but it's still not a practical shot done on set, it's still being done in post. That's not to say that I don't appreciate matte paintings nor do I particularly care for digital sets but you have to admit that a lot of today's CG work is really no different from what they used to do, the only difference is in how they do but for the most part the choice of which scenes and what elements to do in post aren't all that different.

I work in VFX, I know nothing is created "by" the computer. That's why I said "with" a computer. And of course it takes real talent to do a good matte painting, with a computer or without. I just don't think it's the same thing to create a matte painting on a computer as it is on a sheet of glass. How many people do you know who can do a matte painting on glass as well as they can on the computer? I know quite a few talented people who make models on computers, some can build actual practical models just as well, some can't. Yes it's just another tool, but I just don't think it's the same as painting by hand.
 

Bones_68

Sr Member
I'm a big fan of any well done visual effect no matter what the technique, but I have a soft spot for traditional matte painting. There's a fantastic blog by a guy in New Zealand devoted to the subject, just tons of information and images. He's also done a few interviews with some of the artists, really interesting stuff. If anyone's interested, here's a link to his Harrison Ellenshaw interview:

http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com/2013/03/harrison-ellenshaw-reveals-allalmost.html
 

Michael Bergeron

Legendary Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
I work in VFX, I know nothing is created "by" the computer. That's why I said "with" a computer. And of course it takes real talent to do a good matte painting, with a computer or without. I just don't think it's the same thing to create a matte painting on a computer as it is on a sheet of glass. How many people do you know who can do a matte painting on glass as well as they can on the computer? I know quite a few talented people who make models on computers, some can build actual practical models just as well, some can't. Yes it's just another tool, but I just don't think it's the same as painting by hand.

No "copy and paste" with a matte painting. :lol

Love this lost art. As others have said, nothing wrong with the new stuff when it's done well. But man, the humongous talent required for a realistic matte painting is still impressive.
 

Bones_68

Sr Member
It's true, there are some poor effects in old films using traditional techniques. But I think part of the bad rap CGI gets comes from the way it's made it possible for film makers to do and show anything imaginable. Unfortunately, that often translates into some contemporary directors cramming so much visual information and action into the frame it overwhelms the senses to the point of distraction. It pulls you out of the experience.

There are a lot of amazingly talented CGI artists out there. I think the bigger problem lies with directors and producers who don't seem to remember that sometimes less is more.
 

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mistymills

Sr Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
Lots of people are under the misconception that it is 'faster' to use a computer to edit and do FX. You still need quite a bit of build time to create the stuff, then edit it in. Yes, in some ways it is easier with the new tools we have and yes, some things do go faster. But now you have to figure in things like render times and all that, too.

Practical effects are awesome in their way, CGI is awesome in its own way. Both have pros and cons and both are the 'standards' of different eras. Not entirely apples and oranges, but more like oranges and tangerines. Similar but different.
 

Clutch

Master Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
This one always bothered me. Never looked real.

 

Bones_68

Sr Member
"This one always bothered me. Never looked real."

Yea, that's a rough one. I read somewhere (maybe in the Rinzler book, The Making of Return of the Jedi) that Lucas was making so many editorial changes during the last months of post-production, the matte artists got overwhelmed. Too many paintings, not enough time to do them all justice, I guess. Even so, Jedi has some fantastic matte work in it.
 

Mola Rob

Sr Member
I saw it on the big screen in '83 and I thought it sucked big time. ROTJ has a number of matte paintings that aren't very convincing.
 

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