Thursday, 19 August 2010

Jules Verne take us on a trip... JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH

One of my favourite 'evergreen' fantasy films has always been the wonderful 1959 20th Century Fox adventure JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, a film that to me is still as entertaining today as it was when I first saw it on television (in black and white) back in the early seventies.

old tv showings were in 'EMASCOP'  !
There is so much going in favour of JTTCOTE  - from the story itself which is just delightful, to the casting of the ever reliable James Mason in the lead to the perennially sinister and slimy character actor Thayer David as the nemesis in the story.  Hell, even Pat Boone fits in here well too, though that bloody duck got on my nerves a bit!.  As a huge fan of the film scores of the great Bernard Herrmann I'd naturally have to put his name forward in this little tribute as well.  Lot's of organs at play in this score and it sets so uniquely vivid an atmosphere of creepiness, coupled with the virtual cathedral like settings and the equally 'cathedral-esque' ominous score complimenting the terrific Lyle Wheeler sets.  Bernie did several great scores for Fox, and I personally feel his utterly unique one of a kind score for the earlier Fox science fiction masterpiece THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL to be his career best (with 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD not far behind, though as usual, I digress...).

The trailer pomised it!
Well as this is a visual effects blog I'd better get to the photographic effects, of which there are so many wonderful and unforgettable examples I will display here today.  Let's be clear, I've never seen any of the other (three I think) incarnations of this Verne classic, least of all the recent CG one, which to be honest interests me not one iota.  Remakes don't cut the mustard for me, with so many disasterous 're-imaginings' or whatever sales hype they label them with nowadays depressing me endlessly.  The abysmal, bottom of the septic tank Tim Burton remake of the great PLANET OF THE APES should say it all!   Anyhow, I digress (when I do digress here, kindly tap me on the shoulder and politely suggest I get back with the job at hand - mattes!!  I'll not think badly of you for such gentle 'shake ups')
The effects - well where do I begin?  The film, being a period piece and a grand, epic adventure is chock full of sensational matte painted shots, which for this viewer still enchant and thrill fifty years down the track.  In fact I'd say that the race for the visual effects Oscar in '59 between JOURNEY and the competitor BEN HUR was a pretty close one, though the MGM show probably deserved the statue all things weighed up.

Emil Kosa jnr and his fine art
The Fox photographic effects department had a long and almost unequalled history of wonderful quality effects work, largely due to the stewardship of the legendary Fred Sersen who ran the shop for around 30 years.  Fred was a skilled matte painter who built up a large and well equipped photographic effects unit with many big name exponents in the field working with Sersen for, in many cases, their entire professional lives.  Ray Kellogg was with the department from the thirties as chief matte painter and right hand man to Sersen, and upon Sersen's retirement in the early fifties Ray assumed departmental head status.  According to long time matte painter Matthew Yuricich who had worked at Fox for several years at the beginning of his career "Ray Kellogg was a very conciencious all round visual effects man" - and I will cover key work from Kellogg's war film special effects in an upcoming post.  I mention this as it's fascinated me that several Hollywood effects units for decades were 
run by matte artists (Cosgrove, Sersen, Kellogg, Newcombe) and later on 
cameramen ran these same units.

Kosa - a portrait.
Upon Kellogg's departure to persue a career in direction and second unit work in 1957 long time visual effects cameraman L.B Abbott (Lenwood Ballard Abbott) assumed control of the unit.  JOURNEY was one of Abbott's biggest films as director of visual effects and utilised all manner of trick work. Sersen, though retired was retained as a special consultant for the remainder of his life.  By this time 'Bill' Abbott had hundreds of films under his belt  as chief cinematographer for the Sersen unit as it was known, from assistant cameraman duties on the silent masterpiece SUNRISE right on through to his earliest special effects assignments in that capacity such as SUEZ and IN OLD CHICAGO.  Abbott's wonderful autobiography 'Special Effects - Wire, Tape and Rubber Band' is essential for the visual effects fanatic and describes this film in detail.

The effects crew on JOURNEY included James B.Gordon as effects cameraman.  Gordon had a long association with Fox dating back to the thirties on such epic effects extravavganzas as THE RAINS CAME and IN OLD CHICAGO - two of the best visual effects showcases ever made.  Gordon later became director of effects photography for Linwood Dunn at his Film Effects of Hollywood on such big shows as THE GREAT RACE and IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD.   Another vital name associated with visual effects, possibly one of the most important names in this field who should never be overlooked although he so often was, was Ralph Hammeras.  Ralph had a vast history of expertise in this arena with expertise in every aspect from glass painting right through to model photography on films such as the original LOST WORLD.   Ralph was miniatures cameraman on JOURNEY and shot the lizard sequences and the volcanic finale.  Hammeras was a genuine legend in visual effects and contributed extensively to hundreds of films without screen credit such as painting the amazing Oscar winning in camera glass shots of Alexandria for CLEOPATRA (which Emil Kosa jr actually was given the Oscar for!).  Anecdotal evidence I have from two other matte painters who worked under Kosa suggest he was difficult to work with according to one Academy award winning matte artist "had a mean streak which he directed at the matte painters under him" and another Oscar winning journeyman matte artist ..."didn't have a single kind word for Kosa".

The matte paintings play an important role in this film obviously, and as such there are many expansive moments which are aided immeasurably by the artform.  Long time resident chief matte painter Emil Kosa jr oversaw this area with equally long time Fox artists such as Menrad von Muldorfer and Cliff Silsby providing the requisite art.  Fox had probably the largest effects department at that time with a veritable stable of top quality matte artists, cameramen and opticals people.  A number of blue screen travelling mattes also feature, mostly in the giant lizard sequences, and for the most part they are effective, though matte lines being as hard to conceal as they were with this process in the anamorphic process at the time are inevitable, but add to the fun of the ride to my eyes.  I didn't include the blue screen shots here, nor the collapsing miniature temple, but they look pretty good and add up to the overall high level of enjoyable entertainment that is JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH.                            So, on with the show...

Special Photographic Effects - L.B Abbott, ASC
Special Effects Cinematographers - James B.Gordon, ASC and Walter Castle
Miniatures Cinematographer - Ralph O.Hammeras
Matte Painting Supervisor - Emil Kosa, jnr
Matte Artists - Menrad von Muldorfer, Cliff Silsby and Gilbert Riswold
Process Projection - Sol Halperin
Miniatures - Herb Cheek
Mechanical Special Effects - Frank O'Connor
Special Photographic Effects Consultant - Fred Sersen

A beautifully atmospheric matte featured early on in the film which Bernard Herrmann's score really sold.
After years of only seeing awful pan and scan tv versions it was great to finally witness the effects in CinemaScope.
More widescreen spectacle - though the trail of dust does pass under the matte line.
The sunlight beam shows the group the secret passage - painting with animated light effect.
Vertigo inducing painted cliff face.
Beautiful CinemaScope wide view that is all but lost on televison.
The underground sea(!) - terrific art direction and a great painting marred by excessive grain from the duping process.
Danger lurks in this underground oasis - real beach with painted cliffs.
The beasts appear.  Real iguana with pasted on fins split screened to sea.  Cliff overhang is a glass painting.
A terrific split screen: miniature set, painting and actors at beach location.
My favourite matte shot in the film. 
This may be Lyle Wheeler's set all the way, or maybe a painted upper third added later?
A painted view up the volcano 'vent', from which our group make their non-regulation escape.
Thar she blows  -  probably painted volcano with opticals of fire, smoke and debris - split screened to Sersen tank lake.
A sensational painting and flawless matte photography to combine the elements. The actors in the raft are  in the Sersen tank at the Fox ranch at Malibu against a backing with, I strongly believe, to be a carefully laid out soft matte to blend the plain painted outdoor backing with the glass matte in the effects department.  Bravo Bill!


  1. Still one of my favourite adventure films. Not to be mixed up with that horrible remake.

  2. It's so gratifying to not be alone in loving these classics Thomas. Yep, still a fabulous film, which now you've prompted me I'll have to watch again tonight (I took those frames around five years ago).

  3. Still one of the grandest adventure movies of all time. I remember seeing it in the theaters (I was all of 8). I have watched it numerous times with my boys, who marvel at it despite growing up in the CGI world. Thanks for this.

  4. Good post, indeed the gaming industry is growing at an exponential growth rate and everyday its new level is coming. Once again a very inspiring and informative post.

  5. Now I have found your post, Pete, I am spending too much time looking through past posts when I should be writing. How can I resist when you feature my all-time favourite film? I first saw Journey during its original release (yes, I really am that old). Since then I have watched it more times than I care to recount, but I still enjoy it so much. I even bought the recent American Blu-ray, before I even get a player. I would love to see this on the big screen again, just to get that buzz again it gave me as a ten-year-old. This is the type of film that has given me a life-long love of cinema (with Mysterious Island a few years later a life-long love of the work of Ray Harryhausen). Modern makers of 'spectacular' films should watch this as an object lesson. It has a great story (carries you along in a believable way through an impossible premise), wonderful, sincere acting (just to hear James Mason's voice is worth the admission price alone), 'understated' humour (not out of place, trying to be clever), an intellegent script with so many memorable lines ("I hate those little slices of death")and art direction that gives you a warm feeling. I can even tolerate the 'lizards as prehistoric beasts' effects, although I would love this film even more if they were Harryhausen creatures.
    Just too minor quibbles about this particular blog. What you label as the volcano vent, is in fact the view of the Phosphorescent pool from the rock bridge. Plus, why wasn't this much, much longer. I was dying to see more.

    1. Hi Mike

      Glad to see (and a little surprised)that you loved JOURNEY, even with lizards and pasted on fins instead of stop motion. It worked really well I thought and, as a kid, I found it all quite frighteningly real. The monster composites were good too.
      I write as much as I can on these shows and just couldn't think of (or find) any other effects material to write here.
      I was in touch with an ex Fox effects department employee who told me he had 3 of those original matte paintings in his garage. He was going to take photos and send them but (as is so often the case) I never heard back from him. He told me one of his jobs at Fox was to thrown old masonite matte paintings into the trash for incineration. "The Horror......The Horror" !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  6. I suppose today you would call my love of the film a 'guilty pleasure', but it is something I saw at an impressionable age. It could have been worse, I might think The Beast With a Million Eyes was the greatest film ever made! The mixture of quotable lines and Bernard Herrmann's music still sends shivers down my spine. I used to listen to (on my reel to reel recording) the sunrise scene over and over again "There's our gateway" with the full force of Herrmann's music instantly recalling the scene in my mind. Can you imagine the impact of Mysterious Island on my sensibilities, with Herrmanns music and Ray's creatures. Now you know why I spent 25 years of my life putting together Majicks.

    1. Hi Mike

      Now you're buzzing.... Bernie Herrmann's many, many great scores. I agree of both of those shows, though think 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD was the best of the RH scores. What about THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL? A fantastic movie (the old one of course) and one of the most spine tingling and original scores ever set to film. I have a rare OST album with a number of unused cues, screw ups from that electronic contraption and even the conductor (either Herrmann or Alfred Newman) getting angry with the orchestra!!

      Once again Kudo's (and then some!!!) for MAJICKS. Surely the Pulitzer Prize Winner of VFX Monographs - or it bloody well should be.