The Magician’s Medium
With cameras and computers everywhere in our modern world, it’s easy to forget that the very first motion pictures were, themselves, essentially a special effect. It’s here at the beginning of filmmaking that we’ll start our journey: the close of the 19th century with one of the world’s first prolific filmmakers - a man who spent his life studying the art of illusion - Georges Méliès.
In his 1898 film Four Heads are better than one, (Un Homme De Tête) Méliès employs a visual trick that is the rudimentary beginnings of what we now think of as greenscreen compositing. The use of mattes for multiple exposures.
Compositing is a technique combining different shots and elements into one image. The matte shot was the first compositing techniques employed by early filmmakers such as Melies. In his film, Melies would black out parts of the frame using a piece of glass with some black paint. This “matte” made it so no light would reach the film so it wouldn’t get exposed. Then Melies would rewind the film and this time matted out of everything else and expose only the part of the frame that was under the matte earlier. The resulting double exposure could combine two or more different shots into one frame all done inside the camera.
This matte technique was used again on Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery but this time not as magic trick but as a means to create a larger more realistic world
Notice the train moving outside the window of the train station - also the open door of the mail car with the scenery in the background. Both of these shots were done using mattes and double exposure.
Now the fair question to ask here is why didn’t they just shoot it in a real train station or a real train car?
The answer is it was technically impossible at the time. Early orthochromatic film needed a lot of light and the technology for efficient electrical lighting for film was still a decade or two away. That’s not even considering the inherent exposure problems of shooting an interior scene with a window in the shot. Even modern day cameras have trouble with the brightness differences between interiors and exteriors. In order to make film behave they way we experience the world, visual trickery had to be done.
As film grew up in the 1900s and 1910s more techniques for augmenting sets and creating false realities would be developed. The Glass shot was a technique of painting elements on a piece of glass and placing that glass between the subject and the camera - a sort of real world compositing which was refined by early filmmaker Norman Dawn, using it to augment sets making them look much bigger and more elaborate without the costs of construction.
But the problem with the glass shot was the paintings had to be ready on set. Norman Dawn solved this problem by painting the glass black and treating the shot like a matte shot. The matted film would be transfer to a second camera where matte artists could take their time creating the matte paintings. This matte painting concept continued seeing use in the golden era of Hollywood and continues with us even in our digital world.