Thursday, 24 June 2010

THIS ISLAND EARTH - Universal takes to the skies...and beyond

Todays' retrospective is a look back at the various matte paintings, optical composites and bug eyed monster that make up the big Universal sci -fi picture "THIS ISLAND EARTH" made in 1955.

* by the way I forgot to mention that if you want to see the majority of my images in big screen quality, click on it, and then click again to blow them up.  I always try to post as higher quality frames as I can.  Also I often add new and improved images to these blogs so check back sometime, you never know what you might find.

Above - Terrific advertising campaign artwork by the great Reynold Brown

Special Photography - David Stanley Horsley and Clifford Stine
Matte Artist - Russell Lawson
Optical Cinematography - Roswell A.Hoffman
Animation Effects - Frank Tipper
Rotoscope Artist - Millie Winebrenner
Special Effects Cameramen - Jim King and Wes Thompson
Mechanical Effects and Miniatures - Charlie Baker and Fred Knoth
Special Make-up - Bud Westmore,  Jack Kevan, Chris Mueller, Millicent Patrick and Bob Hickman
As you'll discover on this blog I'm a huge fan of old style main title cards and the artful techniques therein - "THIS ISLAND EARTH" regrettably has the dullest of dull title cards and is reproduced here purely out of  a sense of 'completeness'.

Above - One of those many old time 'invisible' matte shots I spoke of in an earlier blog - and a frame I was going to include there.  Only the plane and midground are real with all else added by matte artist Russell Lawson.

A wonderfully inventive explosion visual effect - the likes of which I've not seen elsewhere in what appears to be a carefully manipulated series of explosion practical elements massaged on Ross Hoffmans' optical printer with the aid of colour filtration and soft roto mattes.  Great stuff!

Top shot - one of the convincing and fluid outer space travel shots.

 Middle shot a printed down version of Lawson's matte painted hilltop manor home.  Bottom shot - animation and possibly a painted spacecraft (for reasons of focus and depth of field).

Classic 50's sci-fi stylised matte painting  with matted in live action portion.  The shot reminds me (as did many other 50's mattes) of Chuck Jones classic "DUCK DOGERS IN THE 24 1/2th CENTURY" Daffy Duck cartoon designs by the equally great Maurice Noble.

A terrific series of lap dissolves and artwork supervised by Frank Tipper for this creepy for the day hyperspace sequence.

Large scale Metaluna planetscape miniature with practical effect meteorite crash and optically enhanced explosions. The miniature was some 200 feet across and the meteors travelled down piano wire - and effect Horsley had earlier utilised with mixed results in the 1953 "IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE" where guidewires and devices were clearly visible on camera (which oddly the Universal executives just loved).

Russ Lawsons' matte painted view of Metaluna enhanced with wonderfully 'big scaled' practical explosion elements and animation of the elevator and interactive lighting.  For more wonderful matte paintings from Lawsens' extensive career at Universal, click here.

Another Lawson matte painting - again with optically added explosion effects which in themselves were maniplulated for greater effect and awe.  The bottom frame highlights the frailties of the blue screen travelling matte technique in the 1950's.  Apparently the resulting blue fringe which plagued so many films in the 50's was as much due to shrinkage of film elements as it was to unavaoidable blue spill.  In this incarnation shown above I actually feel it adds to the 'extraterrestrial' feel of the proceedings as much as anything else.

More great miniatures and some of the best explosions of their type.  Apparently George Lucas was so taken with these explosion elements that he obtained the original effects out take footage dailies, still in the vaults at Universal, in 1976 to show to John Dykstra and the infant ILM outfit to show just what he wanted for a little sci-fi flick called "STAR WARS".  Of course NO retro look at "THIS ISLAND EARTH" would be complete without a look at the brilliant make up effects that comprise the Metaluna Mutant (above).  This fellow was the sole reason for the film being 'restricted to 13 years and over' in New Zealand back in the day and I remember trying to 'look old' when sneaking in to it underage back in the early 70's.
Very nicely shot climax with wonderful optical manipulation of the flaming space ship close ups - really very impressive and so authentic as the much later real Apollo re-entries would demonstrate, but Horsley was way ahead of his time with this effect.  Terrific work David.  Sadly, at least as far as the story goes, Horsley was demoted or had his contract terminated as I recall after or during "THIS ISLAND EARTH" due to cost over runs and back stabbing studio politics, and was replaced with Clifford Stine as head of special photographic effects. Recent reports suggest that in fact Universal's head of production, Edward Muhl 'spat the dummy' and fired Horsley on the spot with still a few weeks of effects to be completed.  Horsley was apparently ordered off the lot right then and there, with DOP Stine pulled in to finish the effects shots Horsley had yet to shoot - modtly the spacecraft crashing into the ocean at the climax.   Horsley went on to handle effects in other studio films and did uncredited visual effects work (shooting the titles) on "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS" with John Fulton among them.

Cliff Stine had a long, long career in cinematography and visual effects being one of the original team on the 1933 "KING KONG" with Willis O'Brien and Vernon Walker, Stine ran the Universal effects dept for around 6 years with such films as "THE DEADLY MANTIS", "TARANTULA" (more about this later) and the exceptional "THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN" (all with Ross Hoffman) - which should have garnered Universal an effects Oscar.  Stine supervised the split screen work to multiply the scale of the armies on Kubricks' "SPARTACUS" and also I suspect looked after the Russell Lawson matte shots as well, which numbered some dozen shots.  Stine was an expert at shooting miniatures and did alot of work on "PATTON", "EARTHQUAKE and "THE HINDENBERG" - all three of which were Oscar recognised with the latter two winning.

A behind the scenes look at some of the visuals of "THIS ISLAND EARTH".  Top left a miniature sphere as earth with a Russ Lawson painted glass in foreground representing the atmospherics.  Top right - effects cameramen Jim King and Wes Thompson setting up a saucer travel shot, which were very effective in fluid movement and spacial distance of stars etc.  Bottom left - monster suit specialist Jack Kevan and make up head Bud Westmore prepping the Mutant suit.  Bottom right - Westmore and Kevan with suited stuntplayer.  The only drawback in this nightmarish beast were the silly blue trousers that 'he' wore.... crazy stuff.... should have had alien creature make up legs not a pait of Sears and Robuck track pants!  Bloody hell!  Still, the bugger gave me nightmares back in the day!
I've added this sidebar of colour photos which I recently discovered in my files.  These wonderfully demonstrate the terrific miniature set and the novel use of the Universal Globe.  At lower right is former beauty queen and model turned conceptual designer Millicent Patrick, seen here at work on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.  Apparently the lovely and talented Patrick was a thorn in the side of the ego-centric head of make up Bud Westmore as the top brass sent her on the promotional tour for CFTBL instead of Westmore. Author Tom Weaver states that Westmore never touched foam rubber, let alone making molds from sculpted figures for all those wonderful creature flicks, and it was people like Millicent, Jack Kevan and Chris Meuller who did all the work - yet as the departmental system stood, it was the HOD who should recieve all the glory.  Patrick was quickly demoted after (rightfully) taking the limelight.

Bud Westmore getting up close and personal with the Metaluna Mutant - in fact as the story goes, this was as up close as Westmore ever got....when the press photographers were around!


  1. Wonderful! Saw this at age 5 and it altered my imagination forever.

  2. 100 times better than that fake CGI crap.

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  4. yeah i agree for stop motion animation it looks like real compared to cgi crap...

  5. A tragic end to Horsley's tenure. I read that the last shot was completed in a hurry, and that Horsley had planned something much better. Apparently he went way over budget. But it sure has the look of old science-fiction illustrations, doesn't it?

  6. "Oh it ain't no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones" bits, doing the freezer inside a giant "feel like a new toothbrush" tube - One witty wag called these skinless shots "the integumentary strip-tease." Immobility then being prime requirement for the animation to come. The bones and muscles were all canted a bit to the right... but creepy indeed, nonetheless. CHECK OUT French author Raymond Durgnat's book FILMS AND FEELINGS. He does an incredible job pointing up infinite details about This Island Earth, odd reversals of transport and post-war American culture at the time (1955). Such a French brainiac, he is or was. I am so glad a film freak directed me to it back in 1971.
    Directed by Joseph Newman. Hmm. Jack Arnold said so. Was he just being nice? Jack would have gotten us down in the Shrinking Man's basement sooner, they say. Won't know till I see the pay stubs! Hours worked on the clock...
    Reputedly the last 3-Strip Technicolor SyFy film ever from Uni-bloody-versal Inter-friggin-national.
    But then, after all, dammitol, what the &%*#$@ do I know?

    Decibel Jones