Friday, August 27, 2010

Greenscreen Compositing

Epic historical scenes in movies or TV specials are made up of lots of elements.

Things like buildings, ships, wagons, or crowds of extras can’t be photographed together so they must be must be shot separately against greenscreen or created digitally. Then they’re composited into a (hopefully) seamless whole.

This wordless video about the John Adams TV special shows the all the elements that make up each scene. The setups turn sideways so you can see the pieces dropping into place like pieces of a diorama.
More about Paul Graff and Christina Graff of Crazy Horse Effects


jeff jordan said...

It's been awhile, now, since I read that photographs from digital sources can't be admitted legally as evidence in court cases. Easy to see why.......

Matthew Scheuerman said...

James, you may not know this, but many of the matte painters that did many of the shots in that vfx breakdown, are artists that look up to YOU, and look to you for inspiration. Every matte painter I know, including myself, appreciates your work and we all agree, you would have made an awesome traditional oil-on-glass matte painter!

Matthew Scheuerman said...

Make sure you look at their sites to see more of the work they did on John Adams.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Matthew, The admiration is mutual! Dylan is a friend of mine, as is Christopher Evans, another great matte painting wizard.

For those interested, there's a great book on the subject of matte work called "The Invisible Art." The title suggests that when the artwork is successful, no one notices it.

Mary Bullock said...


Meredith D. said...

Wow. I knew there was a lot of digital post-production going on in modern films, but wow, I had no idea how much.

Tyler J said...

I want to put a question to the Gurney Community of Artists:

Why are some of these shots very successful (a la the horse scene about 1:12) and some not as much(the scene about :45).

This is not to disparage the efforts of the artists that do this work, it is all commendable.

Rather, I am trying to get at the heart of the mismatch. It's hard for me to put my finger on, much like the "uncanny valley" (see previous Gurney post where there is a fundamental misfire, where your brain just says "nah, ain't right."

Is it the lighting? The perspective? I would bet that the various backgrounds of the readers would have different and completely applicable thoughts on this.

Traditional artist must often compose various elements into one picture and have it "read." Why do some of these work and others don't?

Jon Hrubesch said...

Movie special effects have always excited me. I love to watch the behind the scenes videos on DVDs more than the movie. The process is so amazing. Computers have opened up such a vast doorway. As soon as computer technology became powerful enough I knew the possibilities would be endless. There is very little that cannot be done. Videos like this just remind me how much a production relies on the talents of these amazing and innovative digital artists.

Daroo said...

Great post -- its one part demo reel one part client education video.

I've always loved the art and science that goes into the traditional (pre digital) matte painting whether it be a practical in camera shot done on the set or a post production composite. Being able to match shadow densities of some previously shot background plate is amazing -- but what I really like is the thoughtful design that goes into the illusion and the loose and painterly (but very accurate) style of brushwork. To paraphrase Pink Floyd, it is done with "random precision".

Chris Evans is one of the greats, as well as Michael Pangrazio, Harrison and Peter Ellenshaw and even the model animator Jim Danforth also did his own matte paintings.

I need to get that book.

=shane white= said...

Years ago we worked with Paul Giamatti in his first green screen work for the FMV (full-motion-video) game RIPPER. Of course our pre-rendered game was a bit primitive compared to today's work but still it afforded us a great deal of flexibility in building a cyber-punk world that did not exist.

The best thing was having the chance to build the environments that Burgess Meredith inhabited where he I believe was the architect of White Chapel. I think it was one of the last acting gigs he had.


Rockhopper said...

the matte painting community is small but also the friendliest group of people around. My copy of the invisible art is well thumbed as is imaginitive realism. You do not need a massive budget to become good at visual effects, check out the fakin hoaxer on youtube.

However as a simple reminder, you have to be good artist understanding the basic fundamentals.

A true matte painter would be happy if someone said they didnt see your work in a film.

It would be awesome and a challenge james if you tried your hand at a matte painting.

It is interesting to see a lot of the great matte painters names here all of which I class as friends as many here selflessly gave up their time to help me.

As I said matte painters are the friendliest bunch.

James O'Shea said...

Be sure to check this out, on Robh Ruppel's site:
has some Al Whitlock and Ellinshaw pieces. ;)

James O'Shea said...

Can't forget about Mark Sullivan, Dusso, Syd Dutton, Robert Stromberg, Norman O. Dawn, I could go on...

MAQ911 said...

That's amazing! They make it look so dang easy. Of course painting all those elements would be certainly an epic task!

Matthew Scheuerman said...

@Tyler J : I see what you're talking about. Some audiences pick up on it and some don't. In fact until you pointed out slight lighting nuances, I didn't notice it.

With matte painting, sometimes it's not the fault of the matte artists, but sometimes it comes down to how the compositor completed the shot. One that comes to mind is a matte painting a friend of mine did for the film Outlander. The matte painting looked better and more "real" before the compositor handled it, but... Sometimes it's not even the fault of the compositor, as sometimes the vfx supervisor or even the Director, can be standing over your shoulder, tapping their toes, and waiting impatiently for the shot to be finished.

Tyler J said...


Thanks for the reply. Too many cooks spoil the broth, eh? =)

You bring up a great point about directors (or client) or whoever standing over your shoulder; on top of that, throw in deadlines and budgets, not to mention the inevitable technical difficulties and the fact that the completed work looks as good as it does becomes an even more impressive feat. In this particular example, most of it is great; some of those shots really sing.

I suppose what I was really looking for was perhaps a few "watch out for _________," with the critical blank filled in =D

I get so spoiled coming to this site with James so generously, and adroitly, sharing his vast knowledge. In addition, the comments section is very insightful, often teaching as much as James does.

I guess that it just depends on the shot. Sometimes its the composite, sometimes the perspective, sometimes it's just missing the TLC that would have been there with unlimited time and money.

Vicki said...

To Tyler J--Speaking as an artist but someone who knows nothing about digital graphics, to me the lion statue in the foreground of that scene reads wrong, and since it is so prominent, it makes the whole scene odd. It may be correct from the perspective they are using, but it just seems not to fit. There may be other subtler things, but that hit me in the face when I saw that scene.

Tyler J said...


Great eye. I went back and looked at it (around :37) and you're right, it does read wrong. At first I thought it might be a 2D element added in and that it blew the effect because of the camera move, but it doesn't seem to be (you can spot just a wee bit of parallax in the mane, but its subtle). From a composition standpoint, it seems a bit odd (although, there is no context for the shot). Each time I think I have it pinpointed, a second (or fifth look) shows I'm wrong; for example, I thought it was the lighting on the buildings on the left that didn't jive with the lighting on the lion, but a closer look reveals that they are pretty well matched.

One tiny issue I think I spotted on my 10th look at the same 5 second shot is that the original effigy of a red coat that they are parading through the streets has a bright highlight on the collar. When it was duplicated and flipped to fill out the mob, the highlight flipped as well. Granted, this is scruntinizing a tiny portion of a shot that is on screen for only seconds.

It's a good exercise in visual detective work, though. Perhaps its no Norman Rockwell's April Fool's Day cover (, but fun to try to figure out what is and isn't working and why. Ultimately, I think it will help to identify what works and doesn't in my own work.

Nice catch.