Before CGI Backgrounds, Film Makers Used A Technique Known As?
Answer: Matte Painting
Long before computer rendered graphics would create sweeping backdrops in everything from Sci-Fi movies to summer blockbuster action flicks, film makers were already inserting fake backgrounds into their films in a distinctly more analog way.
The technique was known as “matte painting” and was created primarily by the placement of detailed background paintings on large sheets of glass. The sheets were inserted into the physical space where the live action film was shot and, when viewed on film, appeared to be a seamless component of the scene. Why glass instead of sheet board or canvas? Placing the paintings on glass allowed the artists to fill in only the necessary elements while leaving the required components of the scene visible. The powerful scene in 1968’s Planet of the Apes which shows the Statue of Liberty crumbled, corroded, and sticking up out of the shoreline of a long forgotten New York was created using matte painting. The artists painted the statue to perfectly fit with the scene of the shoreline such that the sheet of glass could be held up in front of the camera during filming and, when viewed as a finished product, the painted statue looked like a distant, real, and properly sized statue.
Although almost entirely replaced by computer rendering now, matte painting was used extensively in 20th century film making and you’ve most certainly seen a film or two (and more likely dozens of them) with matte paintings. Matte paintings were used, for example, to create the crystal fields in The Never Ending Story, the massive Roman cities in Ben Hur, the fleets of ships in Treasure Island, the Fortress of Solitude in Superman, numerous scenes in Gone with the Wind (including the scorched battlefields), and, pictured here, the massive warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones: Raiders of The Lost Ark.
The last example is a great one because the entire scene was painted on matte glass. When you’re watching the scene at the end of the movie with the lone and unidentified government worker pushing the crate containing The Ark down the aisle of a government warehouse to be stored with the thousands upon thousands of other artifacts secreted away, the only thing in the entire scene that is actually live action is the tiny swatch the real actor is walking through with a real cart. The rest of the scene, roughly 90 percent of the entire screen, is a painting held in front of the camera with a little rectangle left blank to film the actor walking. That right there is a testament to the skill of the matte painters that brought movie scenes to life: millions upon millions of people enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark and few, if any, of them finished the film going “Wait. That amazing warehouse was a painting!”