How Matte Painting Expanded the Star Wars Universe

An exploration of the art you almost never notice.
By  · Published on December 16th, 2016

An exploration of the art you almost never notice.

Long before computer generated effects dominated science fiction, matte paintings were the go-to aesthetic tool in creating evocative outer space environments. A long used technique in classic Hollywood for films that couldn’t afford on-location shoots or in situations that defied the production limits of the pre-digital world, matte painting was often deployed in conjunction with live-action shots. The aim was to create a seamless blend between the real and imagined world being created for the cameras. Of all the techniques that brought together the magic of the original Star Wars trilogy, it is likely that matte paintings rank among the least heralded – though without the contribution of artists like Chris Evans, Mike Pangrazio, Frank Ordaz, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Ralph McQuarrie, it’s hard to imagine how Star Wars could have so thoroughly captured our imaginations.

While there are a number of techniques used in the making of matte paintings, for the original trilogy, the oil paints on glass technique was used. Glass was preferred largely for its ability to be illuminated, whereas oil paints have long been the preferred medium for lifelike and fluid images. Unlike other paints, like acrylics or watercolors (discounting that these two other mediums would also be less effective on glass), oil paints are able to hold the most pigment, creating more vivid colours. Also, unlike acrylics that darken as they dry or the more translucent watercolor, oils appear as applied – though they require more time to dry and often a more in-depth chemical intuition on the part of the artist.

Matte painting has a texture of heightened reality, a little more precise and clear than the world we can see and experience with our own eyes. Elements worth noting are more defined, whereas those that are not important fade towards the background. Also, in the case of Star Wars, they are filled with incredible and seemingly unnecessary detail – leading to an incredibly rich and lived in environment. More often than not, the effect is so lifelike that the transition between painting and live-action is unnoticeable to even the trained eye.

One of the best examples in the entire trilogy of the realism and effectiveness of matte painting comes in Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader awaits the arrival of Emperor Darth Sidious. In two sequential shots, two matte paintings are used. First, an exterior of the Death Star with the Emperor and his approaching entourage followed by the meeting between Sidious and Vader. If you take a moment to pause at the exterior, you can see in astonishing detail the different metallic shades, glowing lights and added grime go into creating the illusion of a created object. In motion, in particular, as your attention is focused in the arriving ships rather than the backdrop, it is nearly impossible to tell that what you are looking at was painted by hand.

The interior is even more impressive since it tricks the eye into believing a crowd of motionless stormtroopers are in fact, living, breathing, and sentient. In this behind the scenes featurette, the true scope of what was created through painting is revealed, showing how smooth the transition was. Through the added magic of matte printing, in which the still and live-action image are combined, just a handful of extras is used while the painting rather seamlessly hints at thousands on hand for the emperor’s arrival. The clip gives an interesting perspective on how, up close and personal, the illusion remains strangely hypnotic and effective.

The Matte Paintings of The Original Star Wars Trilogy

These sequences used throughout the original trilogy lent Star Wars an impossibly larger scope than what would have been impossible to achieve through mere production design. It would be decades before computer effects would be able to achieve any semblance of the same reality or richness of vision, as evidenced by Lucas’ rather primitive attempt to use computer generated backdrops and environments in his prequels. While in some cases the effects are pretty dated, they are still undeniably well ahead of their time. The problem with the prequels’ attempt to computerize the effect of matte painting was foregoing depth of field: more often than not, Lucas rarely had any characters moving or even existing on anything but a horizontal axis.

While, as with the example from Return of the Jedi, characters move through space dynamically. This not only serves to distracts from the stillness of a painted image but, more integrally, creates an image that is more appealing and exciting to the eye. Without the thankless work of matte painters, the original trilogy would never have felt so expansive. Though these craftsmen are increasingly rare and under-appreciated, Star Wars owes much of its heart to their dedicated efforts.

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