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