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Matte World Digital © 2002

“The fact that you can get a little bit of paint and with film, create an incredible scene don’t you think that’s quite a beautiful equation?”

– Albert Whitlock, matte painter

Going to the movies has been likened to a shared dream, a ritual. An audience enters a theater and sits down, the house lights go dark, and a beam of light shoots out and hits a screen. As twenty-four individual frames of film roll through a projector each second, the rush of light-projected images moves with the illusion of life, an illusion audiences embrace they want to believe. But it’s a risky undertaking for filmmakers, because the slightest disturbance a set that looks phony, a costume not accurate to the period, a piece of botched continuity can “awaken” the dreamers.

For a century, matte painters have been an integral part of making these motion picture illusions. Theirs has been a painterly magic, most often consisting of the play of brush and oils on glass that, when combined with live action, produces truly moving pictures. Whether topping off a physical set with a ceiling, producing an emotional moment through dramatic composition, or creating such miracles as entire worlds floating in space, the matte painter has always been, above all else, a storyteller.

Matte painters have gone unsung because they are successful only if their handiwork is invisible, if moviegoers have no idea they’re looking at a filmed image of blobs of paint smeared on a glass or board surface. “If an audience even suspects that something is not quite right with a shot, that means you’ve failed,” matte painter Harrison Ellenshaw explains. “The pressure to achieve perfection on a shot can be immense. And guess what? You never know if you’ve really succeeded until the film opens in theaters. You know it’s a painting, and so does the producer and director and everyone working on the particular film. It’s only in the theaters, with a paying audience, that you get the unbiased opinion. And oh, the pain when you miss the mark! That’s a strange way to be humiliated, to hear the disapproval of strangers sitting in the dark.”

But through their long lineage, matte painters have usually fulfilled their pact with audiences, leaving the dreamers blissfully spellbound. The images that follow are a taste of true movie magic, an opportunity to appreciate an illusion as it unfolds before your eyes. Point and click to see where reality ends and the painter’s world begins, and how they are melded together. It’s a chance for revelations the dreamers of the past never had.