Like most aspects of visual effects, the art of movie matte painting has been transformed by technology, to the point that 'before digital' and 'after digital' techniques and end products seem only distantly related. Today, a matte painting can be a full environment – a three-dimensional collage of images and textures over, through and around which a camera, without film or lens, can be flown with total freedom. Not all that many years ago, a matte painting was … well, a painting.
Matte paintings were among the earliest visual effects tools; and for decades, filmmakers used variations on the theme to affordably alter and expand movie settings, both interior and exterior. The era of traditional matte painting was comprehensively and elegantly chronicled in The Invisible Art, by Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron, published in 2002, a must-have volume for anyone with a love for the art and history of visual effects.
A companion volume now exists. Peter Ellenshaw, one of the Michelangelos of matte painting, has produced Ellenshaw Under Glass– a mammoth coffee-table book filled with photographs and artwork and recollections spanning the entirety of his 80-plus years. Ellenshaw suggests that his love of painting dates to his World War I childhood, when he and his sisters were hustled under a kitchen table, with paper and crayons to amuse themselves, whenever German zeppelins made bombing runs over London. Having taught himself to paint by copying the old masters, Ellenshaw eventually approached the only artist he knew of – pioneer matte painter and effects artist W. Percy Day.
Ellenshaw spent seven years with the curmudgeonly master, learning the art and craft of visual effects on high-profile Korda productions, before setting off on his own. Eventually his work caught the eye of Walt Disney, who hired him to do matte paintings on his first live-action films, produced in England. The artist recalls creating 62 matte shots in 27 weeks for one of them. With no firm prospect of employment, Ellenshaw moved his family to the United States, where he soon made a career for himself within the Disney organization, working closely with the studio's gruff patriarch, who took an almost fatherly interest in the ambitious young artist.