• CGNetworks Feature :: Reader Project
    Talaros City: Matte Painting of a Futuristic Metropolis

    Frederic St-Arnaud, 17 December 2004

    Frederic St-Arnaud demonstrates the process of realistically integrating 2D and 3D CG elements into a 2D photo-based matte painting.

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    Concept and Sketches

    The main idea must be clear in your mind at the beginning of a project. In this project my main idea was to create a matte painting depicting the aerial view of a futuristic city. I wanted something with a lot of details, so I decided to create a huge building under construction in the middle of the frame. This was my basic idea and other decisions such as the palette, the general atmosphere of the scene, the lighting and the rest would come later.

    To find a visual theme for the building, I used reference in books and did a lot of sketching on paper. I decided to do a cylindrical building to provide contrast between the forms of the other buildings and the new construction, and also to give an impression of a new sort of skyscraper, something more high-tech.


    As usual, the modeling for this matte-painting was quite simple. I build simple objects such as cubes, rectangles and cylinders and place them on a grid which represents the ground and this helps me to find the horizon line. I create highways and bridges according to the original image to give an impression of a bigger city. All the 3D elements are polygonal objects made in Softimage XSI.

  • Painting/Texturing

    Most of the time, primitive shapes in grey-shaded mode are enough for matte paintings. Painting over the primitive shapes in Photoshop is a good way to save time rather than applying textures on each 3D object, especially if there is no camera movement in the scene. When I render my 3D elements and place them on my original picture and the most interesting part begins – the painting!

    First, I make a new layer called ‘rough drawing' and start to paint over my 3D layer rough and quickly. The detail is not important so I don't focus on it in the beginning. I just want to create a general ambiance by roughly putting brush strokes where I want. I am trying to test what works and what doesn't.

    I continue to paint in Photoshop by using multiple layers and refining my details as I go along. I create a new layer and, using the rubber stamp tool, I retouch the image, cloning pieces onto the new layer. I use the ‘use all layers' mode for the tool, which allows cloning between layers. To add texture, I use an image with a strong texture like cement or something and overlay this image in places where I need the texture, cleaning it up to fit the objects with the eraser tool. This is a way to break up my brush strokes and add more realism. To make highlights, I create a layer and paint the highlights in and blend this layer using ‘softlight mode' or ‘color dodge mode”. Both of these are great tools to create lighting effects in your scene.


    The lighting in a matte painting is defined by the original plate. In this case, the sun was coming from the lower right corner of the image so every new building was lit by this light. I made all the lighting effects in Photoshop as I painted, including the drop shadows. The most important thing with lighting is to know where your light source is. When I determine where it is, I draw lines from it to my objects to figure out where the drop shadow will fall and what parts of the objects will be affected by light or shadow.

  • Who is Frederic St-Arnaud?

    Frederic St-Arnaud was born in the small town of Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada in 1976. Interested in art from a young age, he started to draw before he reached his teens. After two years studying Fine Arts and one year of Communication Arts, he worked on theatre plays and had exhibited his paintings during this time. In 1997 he was admitted into a 3D Animation School in Montréal for an intensive 2D and 3D Animation program.

    At the end of his studies St-Arnaud worked as a Storyboard Artist for a time before moving on to Character Animation for several TV Series and commercials. Currently, he is a Matte Painter and Concept Artist at the visual effects company Hybride, which combines his three big passions: Cinema, Computers and Arts.

    St-Arnaud recently worked on “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, “Spy Kids 2 and 3” and “Once upon a time in Mexico”. Presently he is working now on the new Robert Rodriguez movie starring Bruce Willis called “Sin City”.

    Compositing and Post-processing

    This project was pretty much a Photoshop job because it doesn't need to move. The 3D elements are there mainly to help prevent perspective mistakes and to give a solid base of clean objects with sharp edges, which is difficult to create with a graphic pad.

    When I have finished the painting I play with filters and effects to correct the color of image and integrate the painting with the original photograph. The tint and the lighting of your objects are the most important aspects of doing a good integration. I color corrected the image as a whole and also in specific places. Using a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer on a selection of the sky, I made it look like sunset. I made a selection of the dark tones, created a color balance layer, and added more black. Then, I created a color balance layer for the whole image and gave it a yellow tint.

    high-resolution detail

    Final Image

    It was a lot of fun to work on this project. I spent approximately 6 to 8 hours on this image because it was a personal project and there was no deadline. Talaros City was only a work to improve my skills in Photoshop as a Matte Painter. Now that it's finished I hope the image and sharing the process I followed to create it are useful for CGTalkers.

    Related Links
    Frederic St-Arnaud's website
    Talaros City in the CG Choice Gallery
    Download large image

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    Words and images by Frederic St-Arnaud

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    Clockwise from top left: Day After Tomorrow concept; Railway City concept; Harmington Manner; Drakensberg; Somalie concept. All images © Frederic St-Arnaud (click images to enlarge)

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