This article about Star Wars matte paintings came through a friend’s Facebook feed and it got me thinking of yet another “get off my lawn” article about how, for the sake of progress, maybe we actually lost something.
In the old days, if you wanted to create a sweeping artificial vista, you usually had to create a painting on glass and then typically project live-action through the transparent section. There are countless examples of this, not only from sci-fi but fantasy and period-pieces as well.
The limitation, of course, is that the perspective was static. The net effect of this is similar to walking through an art gallery and seeing paintings, but with a portion of it featuring movement.
Here is the shot from Forbidden Planet, after the one composite featuring miniatures. Only a gentle Ken Burns style 2D pan is applied because the actual 3D perspective can not change. However, some special overlaid 2D animation is added to try to compensate for the fact the background is painted.
Here is another clip that skips through FX history so you can see the transition between classic “static” techniques and modern 3D compositing with camera match-moving.
The real demarcation line here happened around the time of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, where the live-action camera moves themselves would be executed with mathematic precision and then translated to a virtual camera. These days the only thing you really need for live-action are the actors themselves and it is routine to have them act in front of greenscreens, even for television, and then drop in backgrounds separately.
As far as the pursuit of seamless FX, it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for”. Now that we’ve attained perfection, special effects in some way don’t seem that special anymore. For instance, in Rogue One, the CG is mated so seamlessly with the live-action that you cease to think of anything as being an FX shot. It sounds good in principle but there actually is a certain charm in having a dose of unreality blended in with the live-action, especially if that unreality is created through the craftsmanship of a painter.
Of course, the quality of such matte paintings can vary widely, as was the case in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This one, for instance is quite good:
This one, however, is horrible (replaced in the 2000 director’s cut).
Some matte paintings are so beautiful they’d make awesome posters, like this one from Star Trek’s pilot, The Cage:
The end goal of expanding reality is the same, but the change in medium from oil-paints to CG makes a real difference in the effect on the viewer. Hollywood’s endless pursuit of realism has come at the cost of the imagination. They’ve lost an appreciation for deliberate stylization or expressionism.
The old matte paintings, for all their limitations, were like having characters walk through fine art in an art gallery, itself visualized by Akira Kurosawa in his last film. So I’ll just embed this to allow for proper mourning of the art-form: