Beyond Human Challenge: Matte Painting Winners Interview

In the Matte Painting portion of the challenge, participants had to create one master digital matte painting of an environment where the next evolution of humanity lives and then render it through a slight camera move, using camera projection techniques.

Browse all Matte Painting entries for the Beyond Human Challenge. 

The winners Jie ZhouJacek Pilarski and Maciej Biniek share their experience with the challenge and process for how they created the photorealistic result.

How did you interpret the theme and how was this reflected in the scene you created?

Jie:  I think there was a lot of possibilities within “Beyond Human” for starting with the concept art. There are some directions I tried like the frozen landscape, manmade homeland on the ocean, and even the idea humanity moved to Mars…I tried some sketches for all of them. By looking at those sketches, some of them were interesting but too crazy for production and others had a good story but were not telling enough by the painting. At the end, I picked up the cityscape one as it had the most potential for me to develop and  finish on time.
In my working process creating this cityscape matte painting, I often switched between different roles. I needed to think about the painting from art direction perspective, how to design the lighting, how to make the compositing looks better and needed to constantly look back to think about how it makes sense relative to the theme. I thought about the current situation of the human being, and how we can improve more based on what we have. For this piece, everything I made is based on our current environment but more futuristic in a way you could imagine makes sense for decades in the near future.

Jacek: This project was one big experiment to test new workflow and tools. Thinking of the next step for humanity, I always imagine giant structures impossible to build nowadays. I started to think about simple shapes and did a research for concepts. I didn’t want to model everything from scratch as I didn’t have time because of work. I used Mandelbulb to generate massive round shapes and all other details were generated. I tweaked parameters to get a result closest to the one I had in mind. Unfortunately exporting camera or proper geo is not possible from this program but there are some ways to work around it. I had exact camera parameters that I could adjust in Maya to position geo and create trees, I’ve exported a chunk of geo that you can generate inside of Mandelbulb but it’s not perfect and very heavy. Next I used Maya’s MASH world ecosystem to generate the trees layout. I literally could not decide which one I liked the most. This plugin gives so many possibilities. After having everything rendered I moved to Photoshop to paint the background and combine all the elements together.

Maciej: Beyond Human meant for me that we as humanity are not in control of every aspects of matter around us – that’s why i’ve created some sort of intelligent tissue that was spreading over a city. I wanted to create something slightly different from other popular neon cyber-punk styles.

What was your strategy for the challenge? 

Jie: This is my first-time participating in a matte painting challenge at Art Station. When I saw this is a challenge specific to matte painting, I just came up the way I did my full-time job. I think my strategy is first knowing how matte painting works, and second listen to feedback. From my work experience, matte painting is a faster and cheaper way to make things happen by using 2D or 2.5D solution than CG, which works for a fast VFX pipeline. Most of the daily work as a matte painter is creating things based on a live-action plate. Nothing too fancy but everything needs to be sitting on the plate properly and be updated with critiques.

Also, listening to feedback is very important. In the process of challenge, I posted my updates, got feedback replies, then listened and updated. I think that’s just like part of my job. At work, we will get internal notes and notes from the agency or director and I need to always be patient and come up with a way of how to update it properly. In the challenge, there are no clients so I look at the replies and ask around for feedback from my friends. Sometimes they give me inspiration from a totally different angle and it’s always interesting to know what people are thinking when they looking at my painting.  So, I think my strategy is knowing how matte painting works, ask for feedback and putting good thoughts into my painting.

Jacek: The easiest part is always the beginning and the most difficult is finishing, especially on time. During the challenge, I was extremely busy at work and final result I had to finish on my holidays. My overall strategy was trying to keep everything simple from shape to final projection.

Maciej: In terms if design I’ve wanted to create something slightly different from the popular neon cyber-punk style. From an execution point of view, I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about creating a shot. I’ve split my scene to background – made in 2.5 D and foreground rendered in 3D. That gave me more freedom in setting camera movement and general artistic expression in a shot.

Were there any other submissions you were following?

Jie: Hu Te and Bin Zhu. They’re my friends so I followed their updates and we would talk about our work sometimes. Hu Te makes art by coding, which is incredible and very talented. Bin Zhu and I used to work on our graduation thesis together and he has a solid knowledge of modeling, always having things done properly. I’m very happy to find I have friends doing the challenge together, it’s a happy experience.

Jacek: Yes, I like to see others artists ideas.

Maciej: I was following: Julien BerneronJie Zhou, Te Hu and Alena Hovorkova‘s submissions. I was very curious to see how they would end up!

What do you think is the most difficult part about the matte painting challenge?

 Jie: Totally the beginning, at the time when I need to decide what to paint with a certain topic. As I mentioned before, I tried a lot of possibilities, and I failed a lot too. That’s really a hard time, needing to decide to give up or keep on trying new ideas. Also, it’s hard when I was very busy at work near the challenge deadline. At the time, I almost gave up because it was too busy but I got encouraged by seeing people’s replies and I really enjoyed the process of doing this piece of personal work, so I decided I wanted to finished it, no matter how busy I got. I used my sleep time to finish the piece at the end, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to do it too much. Too many good excuses stopped me these years doing some personal work, so I very much appreciate the chance to push me to finish this.

JacekTrying to keep everything simple. It is very easy to “get lost” combining different techniques, elements and finally making projection out of it.

Maciej: For me it was a 3D part – it took me a lot of time to optimize renders, work on shading and lighting. In general, I think the task of creating a shot instead of a still raised the bar, especially for challengers that weren’t familiar with what exactly a DMP work is all about.

What is your advice for future challenges? 

Jie: I don’t have too much experience for challenges, but it’s really good motivation to do personal work. It’s also a practice for creating art by sticking to a certain topic. I think to enjoy the progress is the most important thing for doing a piece of work, that was the motivation for me to stay happy doing my job for many years. Don’t think about the happy ending or not, just enjoy doing it, and in the end, it is always worth it by thinking back to each step you did.

Jacek: Spend time finding the best references and start matte painting from a good base rather than combining too many elements and trying to marry them.

Maceij: In this kind of challenge, I’d advise that you plan exactly what you do and how you execute your shot before you start. Otherwise a scene you want to create might turn out to be too time consuming, or even impossible to execute.


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About the author

Sierra is the Editor of ArtStation Magazine.