Don’t have the artistic skills to “matte paint” the backgrounds for your film? Do it the easy way and composite Creative Commons pictures and your own renders (or game screenshots, if you’re not bothering about the “royalty free” thing). Animator Cathy yesterday showed an excellent Evil Castle example made from just three pictures…

A couple of Photoshop tips for compositing:

* Choose images that are photographed “head-on” and have similar contrast. Or try to select pictures with much the same angles. As you can see above, both the castle and rock are seen from about the same angle. Combining shots taken from different angles usually ends up as a mess.

* The images will likely have different color-casts or tones. Auto color-matching of images rarely produces satisfactory results. Keep the parts of the picture on separate layers, and tweak the colors and brightness/contrast by eye.

* When you’re ready to “cut it out” from the original image, a right-click on the selection you’ve made (i.e.: inside “the marching ants”) is your friend. Select “Refine Selection” first, and shrink the selection in just a little — three or four pixels perhaps, sometimes more. Then after that, “Feather” the selection by one or two pixels depending on your image size. You’ll get a less harsh-edged blend between elements that way, and there will be less unwanted fringing.

* Colour grade the whole image once you’re finished. Unless you’re a Photoshop expert, don’t expect to get a “natural look” in all the colours in all the elements you used.

And don’t forget that an iClone render of your main object (one of Lord Good’s excellent free castles, for instance), can first be lit and rotated against your other main element (the rock, for instance – seen above) and then a white background can be dropped in once you’re satisfied. The resulting render will make the extraction of the castle in Photoshop very simple, since there’ll be no fiddly background to have to cut it out from.

Or you could just hand-paint it all 🙂 Head on over to Animation Backgrounds if you want to see how the hand-painting pros do it. Actually, I’m wondering when the first color animation background-mattes will fall into the public domain? Not for another 20 years or so, I’d suspect. And in Disney’s case, probably never, since they’ll have the lawyers tangle them up somehow.