“A 2,000-word text on the use of a physical set extension in a pre-1989 movie or genre, outlining how it was done (or how you assume it was done) and how it might be achieved these days, with clear diagrams of how it might work in 2.5D Space”
The procedures and approaches taken within the Visual Effects industry have undergone many changes over the years since their introduction. Some of these are subtle however; some of the well-known alterations changed the direction of post-production. One of the most prominent changes to take place and expand the possibilities to turn today’s films into what they are, was the transition from using 2D physical elements to working in digital 3D, with the introduction of CGI.
One of the main elements in the development of VFX production is the use of software, and how its developments and capabilities now facilitate more ambitious types of production. This dates back to earlier instances of film, in the era of Georges Méliès, known as ‘cinema’s first true artist and the most prolific
technical innovator of the early years‘, when methods like superimposing parts of one camera matted into a separate camera plate were considered ground-breaking at that time. It is fair to say that this is now considered a basic technique for making a composite shot (for example types of mattes such as roto-painting and set extensions.
Matte paintings (and other forms of set extension) are vital to selling shots and producing landscapes or sets that film studios do not have the budget to actually produce/visit or are simply physically impossible. An example of this is Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). The reason for this use of a set extension was due to the physical constraints of actually filming on a train with the background visible, owing to early orthochromatic film requiring too much light for both the subject and background to be visible within one shot, resulting in a double exposure method being established. Nowadays, after the introduction of both better recording equipment and better computer software, there are many easy ways around this in the rise of technology, with methods involving camera tracking and 3D models. Prior to this, up until the last main instance of this technique inside a major movie in 1997’s Titanic, hand drawn matte paintings were made by an artist or group of artists which is superimposed on top of a camera-filmed plate. In this text, I will be exploring the methods of different artists on different works in the action/sci-fi genre.
The first known instance of set extensions date as far back as 1902, in the first science fiction movie ever made, which was ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902) by Georges Méliès. This method was known as ‘forced perspective’ and was achieved when a set would be painted onto a wall and is shot at from a certain angle that, when looked at, feigns depth. Whilst the use of forced perspective has since become redundant for creating set extensions, this is something worth considering as the origins of a crucial technique.
After painting entire plates to be backgrounds on walls, the next technique artists established was painting sets onto glass surfaces that would be placed in between the subject and cameras in order to live-feed an extended set into the tape that was being filmed. Norman O. Dawn (who did not wish to take the credit for this, as he admitted to only having built on the idea of painting onto glass plates atop of images to boost their desirability, only to move onto moving image) pioneered this technique in 1911. The constraints of this approach were that matte shots could only be filmed at certain times in the day, so as not to break the effect with the angle of lighting shown in the painting. The first famous instance of this effect was in 1933’s King Kong movie, where artists used a combination of glass matte paintings, miniatures and rear projections to sell their high-action shots. At this time, this project was considered groundbreaking because it had no known precedent; artists themselves were so impressed with the work they were unwilling to share the processes on how some of the effects were achieved, the creator of King Kong himself said: “the secret is not mine to divulge. It belongs to Willis O’Brien [chief technician] and his splendid technical crew”. This video offers more of an insight into how this technological feat was pulled off. In the video, it was stated and shown through a diagram, which details the layers involved in a shot, from a painted backdrop, to miniature elements like trees and vines, a screen with the live action plate and parts masked out to create the matte, then a sheet of glass in front of the camera with foreground elements. This differs from typical matte painting setups, which only involve filming live action and having a pane of glass projecting directly onto the shot.
Slightly later down the line, in Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963), matte paintings had moved beyond solely being used to create imaginary worlds or unfeasible sets, it had gone onto being used to feign realism, in this case creating a city. This scene would presumably have aided selling a birds-eye shot, and made it easier to composite the bird into the shot in a time where rotoscoping was the new skill in the industry. It had been pioneered by Max Fleischer, which involved tracing around subjects frame by frame in order to speed up animation times and provide a more fluid effect, a technique pivotal to filmmaking. It was previously used to animate cartoon characters whilst the Fleischers worked with Paramount studios, then went onto being used for live action footage as a replacement for mattes and inconvenient filming methods. Rotoscoping is a technique that continued to be used in film and has been digitised in that they are more widely available in many VFX software packages, replacing the hand-tracing method with masks and keyframes.
It is also worth noting the most recognised examples that come to mind when mentioning classic matte painting. These are from Star Wars (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), released at the dawn of the digital age. Star Wars employed Industrial Light and Magic whose artist Christopher Evans created many of the large-scale images using the classic aforementioned technique of drawing on glass to be placed atop of the camera, hand drawing characters, environments and spaceships.
Forced perspective continued to be used alongside this method too. A noteworthy use of this was in Stanley Kubruck’s 2001: A Space Odyssey of 1968, which, similarly to Georges Melies movie of 66 years before, this, used forced perspective to create the illusion of depth. In order to pull this off, crew used a “forced perspective model of the moon” built to be larger in the foreground and smaller in the background, to give the illusion of a space and distance. The live action plate, forced perspective moon and sky (earth, stars etc) were shot in separate exposures and stitched together through the use of a negative matte as a split screen.
After the digital age the 80s heralded, all aspects, not just set design, had been revamped, modernised and continued to go from strength to strength to bring us up to where we are now. Were the films mentioned previously made in today’s era, I think they could have been made in half the time, there would be ways of making them look more photo-real than the reaches of painting could achieve.
After the 1980s when digital means of creating VFX became more prominent, the steps required to pull off effects and visuals were altered to accommodate the rise in computer-based technology. The name for the technique of matte painting, which is still used today, became “Digital Matte Painting” or “DMP”, with the first instance of this being in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with digitally painted texture maps to create floors.
In terms of recreating these effects in the modern day, the visuals from the previously mentioned films would be completed slightly differently to how they were. The shot from ‘A Trip to the Moon’ would have been achieved with a green screen with tracking points to suit camera movement (if any), whilst the cannon and environment would be completely computer generated, with the tracking points making integration between the subject and the background. I do not think the shot from The Birds would have required a matte painting at all, were it in modern times, because technology like cameras inside helicopters and drones are much more readily available. Additionally, 3D tracking is now able to pin a CG explosion onto a live action plate (and special effects can safely create real explosions for authenticity), along with a 3D bird which would follow the scene naturally. Alternatively, the producers could have approached this the complete opposite way and had the entire city as a 3D render, similar to the style of Star Trek. This would naturally make it easier to incorporate other computer generated assets like explosions and birds; the downside to this would be the complexity of modelling an entire city, along with the render times that would be associated with it. A similar approach would have been taken for the Star Wars scene, and if I were to recreate this in the modern day, I would suggest filming from a birds’ eye view, with crowd replication applied for characters, and CGI for the spaceships. Integrating matte shots with live action would also be easier in the present day because the live action plate would be shot first so that there is freer rein in matching colour and camera angle. The scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey also has multiple ways of being executed now. Film budgets are a lot higher nowadays, so it would probably be perfectly acceptable to build the surface of the moon inside a studio as they did in the film without it affecting the overall budget. From a digital perspective, I think it would be approached similarly to the hypothetical means of recreating the shots from ‘A Trip to the Moon’, in that actors stand in front of a green screen with tracking points while the entire environment is digitally modelled. The obvious advantage to this is the aforementioned free rein in camera angles, however limitations of this would be that due to everything being computer generated, there is more pressure to achieve photorealism.
To conclude, I have been impressed by the ways in which all the aspects of visual effects have evolved over the years, namely set extensions among many others, and look forward to seeing the gradual progression and evolution of this as procedures and software capabilities continue to expand.