Mattes are used in photography and special effects filmmaking to combine two or more image elements into a single, final image. Usually, mattes are used to combine a foreground image (such as actors on a set, or a spaceship) with a background image (a scenic vista, a field of stars and planets). In this case, the matte is the background painting. In film and stage, mattes can be physically huge sections of painted canvas, portraying large scenic expanses of landscapes.

In film, the principle of a matte requires masking certain areas of the film emulsion to selectively control which areas are exposed. However, many complex special-effects scenes have included dozens of discrete image elements, requiring very complex use of mattes, and layering mattes on top of one another. For an example of a simple matte, we may wish to depict a group of actors in front of a store, with a massive city and sky visible above the store’s roof. We would have two images—the actors on the set, and the image of the city—to combine onto a third. This would require two masks/mattes. One would mask everything above the store’s roof, and the other would mask everything below it. By using these masks/mattes when copying these images onto the third, we can combine the images without creating ghostly double-exposures. In film, this is an example of a static matte, where the shape of the mask does not change from frame to frame. Other shots may require mattes that change, to mask the shapes of moving objects, such as human beings or spaceships. These are known as traveling mattes. Traveling mattes enable greater freedom of composition and movement, but they are also more difficult to accomplish. Chroma key techniques that remove all areas of a certain color from a recording – colloquially known as “bluescreen” or “greenscreen” after the most popular colors used – are probably the best-known and most widely used modern techniques for creating traveling mattes, although rotoscoping and multiple motion control passes have also been used in the past. Computer-generated imagery, either static or animated, is also often rendered with a transparent background and digitally overlaid on top of modern film recordings using the same principle as a matte – a digital image mask.