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How to become a professional Digital Matte Painter

What is Matte Painting?

A Matte Painting is a painted portrayal of a landscape, set, or place that allows filmmakers to create the illusion of a setting that doesn't exist while filming on the set. The word matte in matte painting alludes to the fact that the image in the backdrop will be matted out or blocked. Digital Matte Painting is an artistic field that breathes new life into static film footage.

How are Matte Paintings created?

Before computers, the matte painting was created in the old days by painting on glass. While the glass provided the transparency to see through into the live-action, the image would be visible to the camera and superimposed in the live-action footage.

Matte painting has evolved into Digital Matte Painting. With computer software like Nuke, After Effects, Flame, and others, Digital Matte Painters can create multilayer scenes with more controls and realism than before.

What are some movies that use Digital Matte Painting?

Some movies with Matte Painting are "The Wizard of Oz," in which the Emerald City scene was painted, and the original "Star Wars" films, "Mary Poppins," "Titanic," and "Indiana Jones" feature digital matte painting.

For instance, in 1968, a matte painting depicts the Statue of Liberty at the end of "Planet of the Apes." Likewise, a matte painting completed the dramatic shot in Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film "Modern Times," Chaplin's Tramp character is precariously roller-skating while blinded at the brink of a hole in the floor.

What skills should I have to become a professional Digital Matte Painter?

Aspiring Digital Matte Painters should learn traditional art and digital art. For instance, classic art is essential because it brings arts foundations such as perspective, composition, and colour. Digital Art is necessary because it accelerates production pipelines, provides precision to produce believable environments, and decreases production costs.  

In a nutshell, to become a Digital Matte Painter, you need to learn the following skills:

  • Art and Software
  • Traditional art and digital art
  • Knowledge of composition, colour, perspective, depth, and lighting
  • Software, such as Nuke, Maya, After Effects, Photoshop, and Maya
  • Soft skills
  • Good communication skills
  • Able to work with a team of people as well as individually
  • Motivation and willingness to perfect all aspects of your craft
  • Patience and flexibility

Study the fundamentals of classical drawing and painting as these will teach principles of perspective and drawing foundations.

Next, learn to draw simple three-dimensional primary geometric forms like cubes, cylinders, and spheres. And then move on to drawing advanced geometric shapes like torus and terrains.

Is it easy or challenging to learn Digital Matte Painting?

While learning new skills might seem intimidating, learning digital matte painting is a creative and fun endeavour, yet you have to specialize to become a professional.

If you are entirely new to traditional art, you'll need to start at a foundational level from drawing basics. However, if you have already studied art foundations, you can get a head start on digital art.

Digital Matte Painting requires the sensibility of a traditional artist and technical ability. Most of the work done by Digital Matte Painters is on the film's backgrounds. For example, there are green screens behind the actors in a production set. The digital matte painters replace the green screens with a city, exterior, interior, a set extension, or other environment supporting the narrative.

As a beginner, where do I learn Digital Matte Painting?

There are many resources for beginners to learn Digital Matte Painting, but beginners should not create bad habits. For instance, beginners generally start with tutorials on YouTube or Facebook groups. But these tutorials may be incomplete, outdated, with no progression or continuity.

We recommend that you open your free account on VANAS Plus and start learning digital matte painting from industry experts and a quality curriculum.

  • Additionally, the technical terms beginners should know:
  • Grading - ensuring that all the photos' colours, saturation, and brightness are consistent.
  • Integrating - entails blending the photos so that the content appears seamless and lifelike.
  • Atmosphere - adding haze and fog to the scene to create depth where it's needed.
  • Post Processing - finishing touches and post-processing.

And as you learn, set some goals to guide you:

  • Make goals for yourself
  • Start with the basics
  • Practice regularly
  • Create a source of inspiration from movies and video games
  • Have a good time

Once you master the fundamentals and enjoy the creation process, you are on the right track and profession. Lastly, be consistent and motivated in learning as digital matte painting brings new technology and techniques annually.

Is it worth attending a Digital Matte Painting school?

Yes, it is worth attending a Digital Matte Paint school but make sure they have a specialized and industry-connected program. For example, many schools teach Visual Effects (VFX), but it doesn't mean they teach Digital Matte Painting. For instance, VFX programs teach general education about computer animation, modelling, lighting, rendering, and compositing. Perhaps, they may have Digital Matte Painting as part of their curriculum, but it's only a couple of weeks.

A good school provides an excellent environment for Digital Matte Painting students as they are assisted throughout their learning process. Moreover, a great school accelerates learning that otherwise can take years. So, it is good to study digital matte painting at the right school.  

What school should I attend to become a professional Digital Matte Painter? While many schools teach visual effects, a few have specialized Digital Matte Painting programs.

For instance, visual effects (VFX) is a common term that includes general computer animation and film education. VFX is offered as a program of study at schools, but most VFX programs have a short or sporadic digital matte painting class that lasts for a few weeks or a few months. As a result, you won't learn much about Digital Matte Painting.

So, to become a professional Digital Matte Painter, you must specialize and practice for more than just a few weeks. First, find a school that offers at least a 1-year Digital Matte Painting program.

Consider the following essential factors when selecting a school:

1. Website

While many schools have great websites, they don't tell the whole story. Consider this, in today's world, it's easy to have a great-looking website, but it doesn't mean the school is any good. So, once you are interested in a school, do research outside their website. For example, go to Reddit forums, industry forums, Facebook groups, etc.

It may not be suitable if a school's website is outdated. For instance, digital entertainment is a fast-moving industry, and if a digital entertainment school can't even update their website, then something is off.

You are looking for a school with a great-looking website, the program you want to study, industry faculty, and honest student reviews.

2. Faculty

The faculty is the most critical factor when considering a school, ensuring the instructors are established with industry experience. And while you'll find schools that showcase industry artists, it doesn't mean they can teach. So, look for a school with an outstanding faculty with at least ten years of teaching Digital Matte Painting.

Also, when comparing schools, do some research on your potential instructors. For instance, look at their websites, demo reels, and credits like IMDB. Additionally, check if you can connect with the teachers at the school at industry events like webinars, trade shows, career fairs, and others.

3. Alumni

Review the students who graduated from the school. You can find their websites and portfolios or look them up on LinkedIn networking websites. Also, some schools feature their alumni's awards on their websites. Once you find this information, you'll discover how effective is the school and its reputation.

4. Campus

If you study in person, you can ask the school for a campus tour, and if you attend online studies, make sure the school has a head office you can visit any time.

While visiting schools in person, ask for the student-to-teacher ratio and make sure it is small. Otherwise, teachers won't be able to teach all students. A good teacher ratio is 8:1, meaning eight students and one teacher.

Also, if the school has a physical campus, make sure the lab hardware and software are up-to-date.

5. Financial Aid and Scholarships

Some schools advertise scholarships, but these could be misleading practices. For example, new schools with a bad reputation will tell you that they offer scholarships if you sign up on their mailing list, enter your name for a raffle, or any other practice that doesn't make sense. So, stay away from these types of schools.

Established schools offer financial aid and scholarships based on merit. Each year, they have funding allocated for diversity, inclusivity, and talent. Applying for funding requires your portfolio, work experience, and previous education. In addition, once you are awarded financial aid or a scholarship, you'll have to maintain it with good grades, attendance, and other program requirements.

6. Consider testing the school before enrolling.

If you have doubts about committing to a school, check if they offer an introductory course. Then, you can experience the school's education before committing to a long-term program.

How can I be a successful student?

To be successful as a Digital Matte Painting student, we recommend the following:

  • Prepare yourself mentally to work hard through the duration of your program
  • Choose the correct and relevant elective classes
  • Be ready with all the materials you need, including hardware and software
  • Arrive early to every class
  • Meet assignment deadlines
  • Don't just complete the assignments, but go the extra mile and put more effort
  • Ask questions each time you don't understand
  • Take notes in a physical notebook
  • Be proactive during class by participating and sharing information
  • Impress your teachers and classmates with your positive energy and commitment
  • Network with students in other classes

While most of the above recommendations are common knowledge, you'll be surprised how many students don't follow or do any. So, if you do, then you are on your way to becoming a professional Digital Matte Painter.

What career options can I expect after graduation?

When you study a specialized program in Digital Matte Painting, complete all assignments, follow instructions from your industry teachers, and finish a demo reel, your career options should be Junior Digital Matte Painter or Digital Matte Painting. The hiring time frame may differ from studio to studio and country to country but should be between 3 weeks to 6 months after graduation.

Digital Matte Painters work in Visual Effects, Animation, and Video Game studios when looking for jobs.

Is it easy to find a job as a Digital Matte Painter?

There are plenty of studios looking for Digital Matte Painters, yet the number of positions within the studios is limited. For example, if a studio has 50 artists composed of 20 animators, 15 modellers, 5 riggers, and 15 lighters, their digital matte painting department may have 1 to 3 digital matte painters.

Once you land your first job as a digital matte painter, focus on building a good reputation for quality, punctuality, accountability, and reliability. Over time, job opportunities will come your way because great talent is difficult to find. So focus on becoming an asset to the studios.

Do I need to travel as a Digital Matte Painter?

If you live in a city that has a Digital Entertainment ecosystem, you should be able to find a local studio. However, suppose you live in a small town without visual effects or video game studios. In that case, you'll need to relocate to a city within your country or travel internationally to where the studios are.

Working internationally is exciting and nurturing for your career. You'll meet like-minded individuals, work on better projects, and build your resume.

Which cities are best for Digital Matte Painters?

Canada's best cities to work for are Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are the top cities in the USA.

You can refer to international cities in this other article.

What is the salary of Digital Matte Painters?

Digital Matte Painters are well paid, even from junior positions. Digital Matte Painters are part of Special Effects Artists and Animators, and according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2021, Special Effects Artists earn the following:

  • Industry Employment (1)
  • Percentage of industry employment Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage (2)
  • Motion Picture and Video Industries
  • Hourly $ 42.53 Annually $ 88,470
  • Software Publishers
  • Hourly $ 46.47 Annually $ 96,660
  • Computer Systems Design and Related Services
  • Hourly $ 38.71 Annually $ 80,510
  • Specialized Design Services
  • Hourly $ 42.13 Annually $ 87,640
  • Advertising, Public Relations, and Related Services
  • 1Hourly $ 43.57 Annually $ 90,620

How do I become an Advanced or a Senior Digital Matte Painter?

It takes years of working experience to become a senior Digital Matte Painter but make sure those years are well spent. For instance, search for new challenges and experiences in various projects, apply to different studios, meet other digital matte painters, and continue to be reliable and accountable.

Education and continuous learning are pivotal factors in solidifying and accelerating your progress. Attend established schools, master classes, and networking events.