Musings & Interests of David Stipes
RSS icon Home icon
  • Matte painting masters

    Posted on May 21st, 2009 dstipes No comments
    Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

    Buck Rogers in the 25th Century by Syd Dutton

    Matte painting has been a love of mine for years. As a high school student I would look at the California skies and fantasize what steps I would have to take to render them out in paint.  My early dinosaur stop motion experiments often had painted back grounds or elements in the shot.  Over the years I have gathered a few fun matte shots that I can share. 

    This is a painting by Syd Dutton for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979). It was shot at an existing demolition site and employed the “original negative” compositing technique.  This means that the live action was photographed with a masked off (the matte), unexposed section of the frame. This film was not developed immediately, but was returned to the studio where Syd painted the ruins and sky to fit into the unexposed section of the scene.  The negative was run through the camera again and the painting was finally exposed onto the original negative of the live action then developed.

    This provided first generation quality matte painting composites.


    15 responses to “Matte painting masters”

    1. Kevin H. Martin

      I thought most of the matte painting stuff done for the BUCK pilot/feature was really excellent, but haven’t rented the DVDs so I didn’t know how they held up. Didn’t Jena Holman do a lot of this, like the distant city views? I seem to remember that she did some of this plus RIGHT STUFF and DAY AFTER.

    2. It is too bad that matte painters are so underrated as the great masters that they are. To be able to create a painting and seamlessly fit it into a film is a fantastic gift.

    3. Hello Kevin,

      Syd Dutton did the big establishing matte shots for the feature film. Syd was based out of Al Whitlock’s Matte Dept on the Universal lot.

      Jena did a number of matte shots for the TV series out of the Universal Hartland facility. I got to work with Jena Holman and Dan Curry as their matte cameraman at Hartland.

      You are correct, Jena later went on to do matte work on The Right Stuff and The Day After. She passed away a few years ago.

    4. Hello Cookster,

      Yes, matte art is underrated and often unseen. Author Craig Barron named his famous matte painting history book, “The Invisible Art” for this very reason.

      And so it is … invisible, unappreciated … but still loved by some of us.

    5. There’s quite a few impressive matte shots in the Buck feature.

      The one with Buck and Wilma in New Chicago on the roof of some building comes to mind. I think some sort of train is seen moving in the background.

    6. Pullin’ it off old-school. Willis O’Brien would be proud. His compositing work never ceases to amaze me, as does this piece. 🙂


    7. I recently discovered that Obie (Willis O’Brien) may have done some freelance matte painting on a film or two.

      O’Brien, Syd and so many others really showed us how it was done and before all the new digital toys.

      I have nothing against digital technology … but, man, the old analog days were hard to work in and pull off this level of quality!

    8. Yeah, as a digital artist myself, I too have nothing at all against the “new brush” that is CGI, but I was raised on old-school SPFX/SPX, and “Special Photographic Effects” before that, and thus I revere the roots and progenitors of the art-form.

      There’s nothing but more to learn from studying the past masters and techniques. I emulate old-school thinking and applied techniques of principle all the time in my digital work. I feel being aware of the history of the art-form just gives me a broader horizon of overall understanding as to principles of special photographic effects, outside and beyond the scope of my computer.

      Thanks David!


    9. OH, and I’d be interested in knowing just what those films were that Obie freelanced on, eh.


    10. Hello Deg,

      I teach the digital approach but it is totally founded in old-school, traditional techniques.

      And … I’ll look up the info on Obie for you. 🙂

    11. Yeah, that does not surprise me. 😉

      And thanks much for the films, David. 🙂

      I looked him up on IMDb, but it seems to list just general duty descriptions, so can’t really tell which show(s) he would have pulled matte painting duties on, eh.


    12. deg,

      Check out this thread at RE: O”Brien and matte painting.

    13. Ooooooooooo, thanks much, David! 🙂


    14. I always loved this matte painting of the ruins !!!

    15. This is some fantastic work that really is old school, and needs to be remembered as a true art. Like David said nothing against digital, but a labor of love has much a great reward over dragging and clicking a mouse around. Thanks for sharing this work.

Better Tag Cloud