Matte Painter

Personality type:

The lowdown

  • Creating Digital Matte Paintings that are virtual backgrounds used to either completely replace or embellish live action photographed plates
  • Working with the environment team in larger VFX houses, they produce anything from imaginary cities, forests and oceans when it's too expensive, dangerous, or just not feasible to build it in real life

Is this role right for me?

To do this role, you will need to:

  • have a thorough knowledge of matte painting techniques including colour space, digital paint and photo-realistic collage techniques
  • have a good understanding and application of the rules of perspective
  • have technical proficiency in photography with an emphasis on composition, depth, light interaction, tone and colour
  • communicate with colleagues and work as part of a team 
  • understand the different elements of the VFX pipeline, including compositing, lighting and matchmoving
  • take direction and critical feedback in your work
  • manage your priorities to move each work through the VFX pipeline
  • constantly develop your skills to keep up with new technlogies
  • apply your skills across a range of different software packages, which could include Maya, Nuke, ZBrush and many more

What does a Matte Painter do?

A Matte Painter creates virtual backgrounds used to either replace or enhance live action photographed plates. The artist works with stills taken from live action photography, digital still photography, rendered CG elements and digital paint to create believable ‘environments’ that are seamlessly integrated into the film by compositing artists. Matte painting now tends to come under the umbrella of environment work , completed in the larger VFX companies by an environment team/department. However, in smaller VFX houses, many artists may contribute to all the different sections of the VFX pipeline.

Matte painting in itself is as old as the history of VFX – originally using oil painting directly onto glass in front of the camera, helping create the wonderful worlds seen in the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. It is the area of VFX that has both changed the most and changed least over the years.

Will I need a qualification?

Most VFX Artists are likely to have done either a VFX undergraduate or postgraduate course or undergone training with a private training provider. Some study Art at FE or University but are likely then to enter the industry as a Runner and use that as an opportunity to be trained ‘on the job’ in all the junior 2D roles including rotoscoping and paint/prep. Some companies provide formal training as a Runner, either through formal mentoring or by being asked to work on training shots independently. Qualifications in Computer Science, Physics Art and Maths are all looked upon favourably in junior VFX roles.

What’s the best route in?

Matte Painters usually come from traditional art and design backgrounds. Although a showreel of matte painting work can be called for, consisting of landscapes, set extensions and interiors. Images demonstrating careful skill in integration, match grading and an understanding of depth of field, exposure, scale, lens distortion and grain can also be presented as part of job applications.

It is possible to move into matte painting with more of a blend of skills in 2D digital preparation (prep/paint) or junior compositing – particularly for people who show skills as part of their junior compositing showreel. Use breakdowns to show how your work was built up in layers and with colour adjustments. Photorealistic work is always in-demand.

From 3D texture painting, you can also look for opportunities to move ‘across’ to junior or entry level matte painting.
If you are at university or college, look out for the competitions that the larger companies now run to find matte painting talent.

Where might the role take me?

For people coming from VFX courses, or from backgrounds in CGI with skills as a 3D Generalist, the next step would be to apply for a position as Environment Technical Director. Some Senior Matte Painters have often been working for ten to twenty years. It is likely that these longest serving VFX artists will have come from traditional art backgrounds and often successfully work interchangeably as concept artists. The ability to turn ideas on paper or in the head of the film (or game) maker into images that communicate a look or vision to other production departments as well as the VFX team, or to direct the camera department by showing them a concept of how the final shot the DOP is about to shoot, when finished in post production can be hard to find.

Junior Matte Painters will usually start out by filling in the gaps in 2.5D projected shots, or by adding simple elements such as an extra piece of mountain or tree line to a completed plate. It is this ability in realistic painting that accords with the rules of photography that a lot of companies now have trouble recruiting into their matte painting/environment departments. Matte Painters can go on to eventually to make good VFX supervisors, especially on very concept/design driven VFX sequences.

An Environment Artist/Technical Director who has more of a background in art and design may want to specialise in more concept driven/matte painting work or progress into more specialist CGI/3D roles such as lighting, or look development.

Interested? Find out more...


  • Animation Magazine - a US magazine about the business, technology and art of animation and VFX
  • Animation World Network - production news, interviews, jobs and a big archive 
  • Shooting People – community-driven site, founded by filmmakers, and providing opportunities, news and animation jobs 
  • Skwigly Animation Magazine - the longest running UK based animation magazine and community. Offers news, interviews, reviews, podcasts, videos and tutorials 
  • Toonhound – website about cartoons, animation, comic strips and puppets in the UK
  • Own-it - offers intellectual property (IP) advice, information and learning resources for the creative sector 
  • Animation Nation - Animation industry news and useful links
  • 3D World Magazine - international magazine for CG artists, covering the fields of animation, VFX, games, illustration and architecture
  • Computer Graphics World - magazine covering innovation in computer graphics technology across various industries
  • Cinefex - quarterly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects


  • The Art and Science of Digital Compositing by Ron Brinkmann (pub. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers)
  • Digital Compositing by Steve Wright (pub. Butterworth-Heinemann)
  • Visual Effects in A Digital World: A Comprehensive Glossary of over 7,000 Visual Effects Terms by Karen Goulekas (pub. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers)
  • How to Get a Job in Computer Animation by Ed Harriss


  • Houdini Apprentice - Specialist effects software, used in many high-end VFX productions to create smoke, water and particle effects.
  • Maxon Cinema4D - Available free for students and teachers, offers a much easier learning curve than most 3D software, and full integration with After Effects.
  • Blender - Free and open source 3D modelling and animation software, used to create open source films like Sintel and Tears of Steel.
  • The Foundry's Nuke Non-Commercial - Powerful node-based compositing software, free for training and personal projects.
  • Autodesk 3DS Max/Maya Academic - Industry standard and very popular 3D modelling and animation tools.


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