Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Why a matte shot blog???

I'm a lifelong film enthusiast with a particular interest in the technical aspects of movie production - cinematography, art direction and sound design - yet my true passion lies within the field loosely labelled as special effects.

What I hope to do with this blog is to pay a tribute to some of the special effects veterans who contributed so many amazing shots and unforgettable sequences to films both memorable and forgettable throughout (mainly) the Golden Era of the artform from the late 1920's through to the late 1950's... (though this isn't a hard and fast rule - I will post material from 60's and 70's too as this was when master artists such as Albert Whitlock really came into their own)

I will concentrate in the large part upon the long lost art of the matte painting or glass shot from what has been termed the photo-chemical era when it was ALL done by hand - an artform lost today in the silicone chip revolution that is the digital revolution. It may be a sign of my years but the digital world may be able to successfully spin a great yarn like "Lord of the Rings"  (and great it certainly is) but the 'special' CG processes behind it bore me senseless. Terrific films worthy of the Oscars but speaking as a long, long time visual effect 'researcher' It's all so celestial, anonymous, faceless and devoid of individuality now-a-days I'm afraid. I'll talk more about this viewpoint in later posts...

There are several websites which focus in on the digital world of what some still term 'matte painting' - though I personally see this term as a bit of a mis-nomer myself. I'd prefer it be known more as 'digital special effect artist' or something similar. There are a few outstanding sites dedicated to traditional matte painting, with the king of all sites being one established by my friend Domingo Lizcano, a special effects man in Spain. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of Domingo's site and just how much he has contributed to this specialized art form. http://galeon.com/artinmovies/indexFX.html
Another vital site for those interested is the wonderful stop motion animation.com which has a large and vibrant section on traditional matte art and is fortunate enough to have a number of reputable and well known matte artists contribute occasionally such as Rocco Gioffre, Mark Sullivan, David Stipes, Jim Danforth, Craig Barron, Ken Marschall, Steve Begg, Gerald Larn and several others. It isn't my desire to 'cash in' on these other sites but more to fill a gap with albums of traditional matte painted special effects shots.

I have contributed alot of classic matte shot images over the years to SMA and will continue to, (though I'm never quite sure whether anyone really shares my obsession!). I've been passionate about matte painting since I first discovered a matte painting in Willis O'Briens' "KING KONG" when reading about it in Forry Ackermans' Famous Monsters of Filmland back in the early 70's and shortly after seeing that amazing, timeless film on television not long afterwards. As with so many likeminded individuals, "KONG" changed my life.

Over the decades I've built up a decent library of effects images - initially from TV with a 35mm Canon SLR camera (!), then from super 8mm condensed editions and 16mm prints and through an early career in film distribution here in New Zealand by actually enlarging 35mm frames from theatrical prints and photographing these on a homemade enlarger set up.  Talk about difficult!!! I even rotoscoped by pencil some Whitlock shots directly from a super 8mm projector freeze frame onto cardboard and later painted them in (!)   Now of course DVD makes it all so much easier and the imagery is so much cleaner, sharper and worthy of high quality printing and binding - which I have been doing for some years now.

I had the good fortune to visit Universal Studios in the late 70's and see first hand several Albert Whitlock glass paintings on display there including some from "Earthquake", "The Sting" and "Airport 77". Besides Whitlocks' art I also saw the finished comps on a screen as part of the Universal Tour. Naturally this was overwhelming! In 1986 I had a second epiphany when by sheer chance I met Whitlocks' long time assistant Syd Dutton in the projection room at Columbia-Warner Distributors where I worked at the time. Syd was running Al's matte reels for a NZ producer John Maynard and director Vincent Ward who was then in the process of making "The Navigator" (the project floundered at that stage but was later resurrected and made albeit without Syd's involvement)

I can still recall the staggering imagery that ran before me on the theaterette screen - shot after shot after shot of mattes and final composites from many films I recognised (and quite a few I didn't) - my jaw hit the floor - having had no idea whatsoever what was due to screen on the four or five 35mm thousand foot reels. Mindblowing to say the least. At that time Syd Dutton had just moved with Bill Taylor from the recently closed Universal matte dept to new premises in Van Nuys, Ca known as Illusion Arts. Sadly Illusion Arts has now also closed down as a result of the economic shift in visual effects companies based off shore (NZ included as a leader now I guess) and every kid and his uncle assembling effects shots in their bedroom/garages.

I feel quite fortunate in this 'hobby area' as I have managed to strike up rewarding and exciting relationships with various effects veterans who are happy to share their knowledge and images with us on the SMA forum. My serious lack of computer ability may hamper, hinder or otherwise sabotage my best intentions on this blog though I will persevere and see how things turn out.

Enjoy these wonderful images and the small tribute to those who created them.



  1. I just discovered your matte painting blog!!!
    How very cool is this! I'm a set designer for theatre and art director in film and the old Hollywood matte paintings are one of my secret passions! LOVE THIS SITE!!!!

  2. Hi Dan

    Nice comments - much appreciated. Lots more great stuff still to come which should be most illuminating.


  3. i'm just beginning the reading of your blog and i'm allready a fan.
    many thanks for all this work !
    a reader from france