What is a Matte Artist?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A matte artist is a filmmaking professional who develops mattes, scenes which are used to create background texture in images. Mattes are used when traveling to a site or building a set is not practical and they can be seen in many films large and small. The technology behind matte paintings has changed considerably since they were introduced in the early days of filmmaking and the matte artist has been forced to evolve along with the development of film technology.

Woman painting
Woman painting

Mattes are inserted into shots during the compositing process. In a simple composited image, live action shots are transposed on top of a matte image to make it appear as though the live action is occurring inside the matte. However, multiple layers of mattes can be used, adding to the complexity of the process. It is the job of the matte artist to make a matte feel realistic and to meet the artistic needs of the production.

Historically, mattes were painted on canvas or glass and then filmed. Today, most matte artists work with computers. Some may refer to themselves as digital matte artists in a reference to this. The job requires artistic skills because a high degree of ability is needed to produce mattes and it also requires computer skills on the part of the artist. Complex software is used and it can be challenging to manipulate at first.

A matte artist is not simply a visual artist who creates background sets for film and television production. Matte artists must also be familiar with the filmmaking process. This member of the film crew needs to understand how mattes work so that he or she can design a matte well and identify potential problems which may emerge during filming. Matte artists are sometimes also required to work very quickly, which can make the job highly stressful.

To become a matte artist, people usually attend art schools to refine their art schools and learn about the filmmaking process. Matte artists can also take coursework at film schools to learn about film technology, compositing, and the computer systems used in the production of mattes for filming. People who exhibit a high level of talent as matte artists can demand high fees for their services, working independently or for special effects companies which maintain a staff of skilled artists to provide special effects services. It is also possible to work directly for a studio.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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