Period matte paintings are those that need to recreate an environment from the past, whether it be Washington D.C. during the Civil War, or Rome in the Renaissance.  Places change throughout time, due to new buildings, new styles of architecture, and of course new technology. Our goal is to go back in time to what it used to look like.

Period matte paintings are used frequently in movies, videogame trailers, TV shows and even in print ads.  Being able to adjust your reference images to match a given theme or time period is one of the key skills for any matte painter.

If you are interested in learning more about matte painting, check out our other free matte painting tutorials:

Hope you find the tutorial useful!

Reference is Key

After you have your footage or plate, you need to do some research as to what your scene looked like in the past, or what it MAY have looked like in the era you are trying to recreate.  Look for photos, find articles of what objects existed that aren’t around now, but more importantly look for things that DID NOT exist then. Things like cars, telephone lines, parking signs, lamp posts, even roads. It all depends upon the era you are trying to recreate and reference is key to taking your viewers back in time. Here is a breakdown of my shot.

Here is my plate.

I wanted to turn this into a scene from 1945.

Notice all the modern elements that I have circled in red.


Most are fairly obvious like the cars and movie posters. But notice the four plaques on the wall.  Those are plaques stating that this building is a Historic Site. Well it couldn’t be a historic site in 1945, (three years after it was built) so those plaques wouldn’t be there. I only figured that out from research and reference photos.

Cleaning Up the Plate

Here is the plate cleaned up with all modern elements removed, except the movie posters.

I used the clone stamp, patch, and healing brush tools to remove elements. Some hand painting was done as well. I also added in a more dramatic sky.

Adding in Era-Related Elements

To add in elements that should have been there in 1945, more research was needed. So I went online and found a car from the 1940s. I masked it out of its original image and matched its color to the plate with a trick I use.  Here is the trick.

1. Select the darkest and lightest parts of your plate that portray its overall color with the eyedropper. In this case, the plate had an orange color cast to it.  So I selected a bright orange in the highlights, and a dark brown, almost black in the shadows. Make sure these become your foreground and background colors on your tool pallet.

2. Add a levels effect to the layer you are color matching and hit the options button. Use the eyedropper to select the shadow and highlight colors from the tool pallet. If you selected the right colors you can get 90% there and a few separate levels or curves adjustments will finish it up.

I then added in movie posters from 1945 using the match color trick above and placed them in the poster slots using the free transform tool. I added the DICK TRACY (another movie from 1945) text to the now playing section using proper perspective.

I added the “COMMODORE” neon glow by painting with a solid color in LINEAR DODGE mode. This gave me the glow that all neon signs have.

Taking it Farther

Sometimes the story will call for some extra elements, even if they didn’t really exist back then. So I decided to add a giant vertical sign of the theater’s name.

First thing I did was to take my plate into 3ds Max. I matched the 3d ground plane with the plate by checking the EXIF data from my image, and making a 3d camera with the same focal length. I then modeled my sign and placed it into Photoshop.

I painted in some highlights and shadows using curves adjustments. I then blurred the render to match the plate. Finally I added grain to match the footage.

All that was left were some final color corrections.

For this example and especially for the more complex period matte paintings, reference is key!

I hope you found this tutorial useful.