DreamWorks' Matte Department
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 3 (March 2006)

DreamWorks' Matte Department

Creating matte paintings for CG animation requires a different approach than it does for live-action films with digital effects, according to Ronn Brown, head of the matte-painting department at DreamWorks Animation’s Glendale, California, facility. The department generated the backgrounds and scenery in the images shown here, which are from the team’s first project, Over the Hedge.

“In CG animation, there usually isn’t much to match other than key art, an overall aesthetic, light direction, and, sometimes, rendered elements,” Brown says. “So, there is more of an opportunity to get creative [than there is in live action].”

3D character modelers (and their creations) often steal the show in CG films, while digital matte painters work quietly behind the scenes, crafting the actual scenery where the characters perform. Realizing the importance of these “scene makers,” DreamWorks Animation last year established a matte-painting department at its Glendale, California, campus headed by artist Ronn Brown. At the time, the studio already had a small department in place at the PDI/DreamWorks facility in Redwood City that had worked on such box-office hits as Shrek, Shrek 2, and Madagascar. But when the Glendale studio shifted to making full-CG animated films, the need for more matte painters became very clear.

“Matte artists have, and always will be, a great alternative both financially and artistically for shots where it’s not feasible to film in live action or build entire 3D environments,” says Brown. “The matte painters always bring a quality aesthetic to vistas and set-extension shots.”

As Brown points out, matte paintings for CG animated features require a style that has to be matched-one with some semblance to reality without the full-blown reality of a live-action plate. “Most matte painters are more ‘realistic’ and paint to match filmed scenes,” he explains. At DreamWorks, the objective of the matte painters is to create vista shots of landscapes and cities, as well as do render enhancements. Currently, the group in Redwood City is working on Shrek the Third, while the Glendale team is focused on Over the Hedge (due out this summer), and is beginning work on the upcoming comedies Flushed Away, Bee Movie, and Kung Fu Panda.

A selection of images from the matte-painting group’s most recent project, Over the Hedge, is featured on these two pages. -Karen Moltenbrey

Interior and exterior shots: These two series of images from Over the Hedge illustrate the extensive digital set paintings done by the newly formed DreamWorks matte-painting department. From left to right in each series shows the compelling CG backgrounds-one indoor, the other outdoor-crafted by the group. Next is a shot of the characters, followed by the fully composited image.

Says Brown: “We work hand in hand with the art and lighting departments on each show. Matte artists typically have years of artistic training. They can do concept designs for visual development, as well.” In fact, most of the matte artists at the Glendale facility have live-action visual effects film experience, as well as some animation and background painting experience.