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  • Battle of Galactica rare matte shot

    Posted on April 2nd, 2010 dstipes No comments

    Battlestar Galactica was so popular during the late 1970s that Universal Studios created a special Galactica themed “ride” or event as part of their back-lot tram tours. It was named “The Battle of Galactica” and opened in 1979 and ran to1992. 

    Courtesy of Dale Long.

    While the ride was being designed and constructed, Universal wanted to generate excitement and buzz about their new attraction. A promo / publicity film was to be shot and shown to generate excitement and attract people to the show. The major drawback was that nothing was finished enough to be photographed or to show off.

    Universal Studios contacted the effects producers at Universal Hartland where the Battlestar Galactica visual effects were created. It was decided that a matte painting would be created to show a Cylon styled ship or structure that opens and kidnaps a Universal Studio Tours tram. Hartland’s resident matte artist, Jena Holman, was to do the painting and I would supervise the matte plate (live action background) photography and composite the matte shot. 

    Jena and I went to the Universal back lot where a large wooden flat had been set up to stand in for the Cylon spaceship doors. This was not shot on the actual location of the ride as it was under construction. We set up the camera to frame the shot per the desire of the producers.

    Live action back-ground "plate"

    To preserve the maximum quality of image, we elected to use an “original negative” or “latent image” matte painting compositing technique. This is a very old technique originally developed by Norman O. Dawn in about 1914.  During the 1960s and 70s the technique had returned to favor largely due to the outstanding work of Albert Whitlock.

    This process required that we set up black cards in front of the camera to hold back or “matte out” part of the scene that would be replaced with the painting.  The matte ran along the road, around the “spaceship” door and through the trees next to it.

    Live action with matte in place

    We would shoot a couple of good approved takes of the action then we would shoot 300 feet of test footage also including the black hold-out matte in front of the camera.  For the last take, we removed the black masking and shot a “clean” reference plate of the scene. A back ground plate is the live action that effects will go into. The term “plate” is attributed to Norman O. Dawn and may have come from his early photography experience. A “clean” plate means there are no rigs or masking or anything in the scene except what is naturally present. This is used for reference, rotoscoping and perspective.  This last take is the only one that was processed or developed. Later, back at the studio, the good approved takes and the 300 feet of test footage were separated, rewound and frozen. They were kept “latent” or undeveloped.

    The day we shot was pleasant except that winds began blowing through the rolling hills of Universal’s back lot. As I looked through the lens, I saw the live action portion and the black matte in the scene. What alarmed me were the live action bushes and trees leaves blowing like crazy through the soft matte that ran through the trees. We could not cancel the shot so I knew that I would somehow have to match the motion of the real trees into Jena’s painted trees!

    The next day, Jena and I took the one developed clean scene and projected it onto to a white, primed piece of glass. Jena traced out (or “rotoscoped out”) the details of the live action to know where the painting had to line up and match.  Over the following days, Jena would paint the sky, Cylon ship and the trees and each evening I would photograph a painting test over some of the 300 ft of test footage.  The hero live action takes remained safe in the freezer.

    Painting with blacked out area for live action. Note left tree area is dark.

    To solve the blowing tree challenge, I set up a black matte board that matched Jena’s painting glass and ran motion and exposure experiments. Over this black board, I placed large sheets of clear celluloid or “cels” that had dots of color and texture that matched the real tree leaves in the live action portion of the scene.

    Analyzing the motion of the trees, I realized that the artwork had to move or rotate from the bottom of the cel. This made sense as trees are rooted in the ground and sway in the breeze. To match the motion of the real trees, I found I needed at least three passes or exposures of the leaf textures and they had to be different from each other in speed and angle of rotation. These passes were each stop motion animated frame by frame by hand.

    Diagram to show how cels were animate to simulate moving leaves.

    Jena laid in darker tree colors and I did multiple exposures of animated leaf high-lights over top of her painting.

    The final step was to thaw out a good take of the live action (the original negative) and expose the painting and animate leaves onto it.

    It requires a number of experiments, but Jena and I achieved a match of color, texture and motion between the matte painting and the live action that allowed Universal Studios to show off their new ride attraction months before it was physically completed.

    Final composite of matte painting and live action.


    I wish to thank Dale Long ( ,  Marcel Damen  ( and  Diane Cook  (  for their assistance with this article.


    Links, Battle of Galactica:


    Links, Battlestar Galactica:


    Links, matte painting:

    Retrieved from ““:


    “Battlestar Galactica” and  “Battle of Galactica” (c) 2010 Universal Studios 
     Presented for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement intended or implied.


    16 responses to “Battle of Galactica rare matte shot”

    1. David that is fantastic work under those condition with the wind. I like that you explained the matte a bit more. I had a general idea, but that really spelled it out. Awesome work, and thank you for sharing this with us.

    2. Dale,

      Thank you for your help and willingness to share your research on The Battle of Galactica ride!

    3. I love seeing this stuff. It’s amazing to me how resourceful and creative the process was (is). The information is presented in a very thorough format, but having had the fortune to study under you I am never surprised by it.

      I wasn’t able to find a copy of the promo video that your prepared (the YouTube video was of the completed ride from 1984). I imagine that it must have gone the way of so many of the work from the analog age, sadly.

      Just reading about keeping the negatives raw and using the latent image technique makes me nervous. Were you such a practiced hand at that point that it didn’t bother you or did you ever get that “oh boy” moment when it came time to expose the painting?

      Thanks again for sharing this information.

    4. Hello Tyler,

      I appreciate your kind comments!

      That promo may be gone, it seems. I consider myself fortunate that I discovered these few frames from the project in an old envelope from yrs ago.

      Working with original negative was nerve racking at time as with the issue of the blowing trees in this shot.

      I did have a shot where the camera moved and the test footage did not match the selected takes. I was doing one or two foot test on what was the pre-“action” footage at the head of the hero take! That one had me sweating!

    5. Great info would never have worked out how to solve the tree problem.

      Latent image processing must have aged you a few years.

      Thank you for this post, after a bad day doing accounts and no design work or photography, this cheered me up as this was a good read.

      Sometimes I wonder if the digital generation could have coped with this shot using just this technique.


    6. Hi Rich!

      I am pleased to hear from you!

      The original negative technique was a bit like working with a loaded gun at times. When it worked it was great … but it could blow up in your face, too.

      I hope some of the new digital guys would figure it out. I had the advantage of an art, model making, cartoon & stop motion background. I think it gave me some alternate ways of thinking about the problems.

      The animated tree leaf patterns would be managable with After Effects or similar program. Today I would probably just go out and take video of blowing trees. (Gotten spoiled and lazy …) ;^)

      I could have done something like that in ’79 if my rear screen projector had been running.

      We do the best work we can with the resources and time available to us.

      Again, glad to hear from you. Best wishes!

    7. How nice and ingeniously assembled shot. The old techniques are admirable and yet, so important today too for the digital world. This article is a wonderful resource for the new generation, because it is not all about layering things, but about blending and matching as well. Thanks for sharing!


    8. What an awesome article! i’m glad to see you are back up an running on the blog! Can’t wait for more!


    9. Hey Lisa and Flo,

      Thank you for the encouragement and support. I like to write and share these techniques and stories with up and coming artists like you two!

    10. Heya David!

      Good to see ya postin’ up some yummy ol’ school VFX posts! Man, that’s ingenious! Good thinkin’ and über-impressive execution!

      And to think, all the promo for a show that only ended up airing one season, wow.

      Thanks, David! Always a joy to read your entries! Hope all is well on your end, eh! 🙂

      peace | deg

    11. DEG!!!

      Hello again! I’m glad you liked the post.

      I couldn’t really describe the sinking feeling I had when I looked at that “dancing” matte edge. I had to come up with something! :^0

      Things are well! Good wishes to you, too!

    12. Hi. I think I found the promo for this.

    13. Hello billie!

      Wow! Thank you!

      Dale aka Gold Cylon and I have been looking for it.

      I have not seen this in almost 30 years! Terrific find!

      Now that I see it again, it is so short that the effects animation I spent time doing is virtually invisible. Of course when we were compositing it, we had no indication of its final edit length. ;^)

      Best wishes,


    14. you are very welcome i have been looking for a different battle of galactica promo for years and i was floored when i ran across this page. i just posted the link to the video on dales page so other fans can enjoy the promo


    15. Thanks, billie! 🙂

      Wowsers, all that work for that short lil’ snip! Well, ya cut a great rug with that matte edge, David! I know the feeling when ya see something like that. How am I gonna “fix” that?! But lets’ face it, that’s the “kick,” makin’ “challenges” like that work, eh. 😉

      If anybody could do it, well, everybody would be doin’ it. But neither are the case. So, well done, my friend!

      Glad to hear all is well with you! 🙂

      peace | deg

    16. I remember this ride. I went on it when I was a little kid. It was in 1988 and it was awesome. It scared me at the time for some reason lol !

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