The Matte effect is the evolution of the Schüftan effect. It is used to combine one or more images into a single, final shot. It is mainly used to introduce the shots of the actors into fantastic or sci-fi background, such as spaceships, scenic vistas, planets or a field of stars. Unlike the Schüftan effect, which makes use of maquettes, the matte is relying on large sections of painted canvases.
Take the example of a group of actors that the director wants to film in front of a store, but with a massive city and sky above the roof of the store. This is achieved by filming the actors in front of the set, which is the store, which is has a huge matte canvas with the sky and the huge buildings placed behind. There would be two mattes placed behind the store, one in vertical position and the other in horizontal position. This is a classic example of a static matte.
This procedure was invented by the Lumière brothers, the fathers of cinematography. They used cut-out cards to obscure their backgrounds. For live action portions and moving background, they simply did not expose the background portions of the film. Later on, the cut-out background would be placed under the live action film.
A classic example of the use of this special effect, which was a novelty at 1880, is the Great Train Robbery, released in 1903. In one of the movie scenes, a train is seen placed outside the window of a ticket office. The technique is used in a different shot, as seen from the train’s window.
An advanced procedure is the travelling matte. It gives a bigger freedom of the composition on set, but it requires a more complex process. This process has been replaced in modern cinematography by the so called blue or green screen.