Monday, 16 August 2010

Willis O'Brien vents natures' fury for THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII

Among effects master Willis H.O'Brien's more atypical film credits would have to be the big Merian C.Cooper Roman-disaster epic LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935).  Whereas O'Bie was the specialist in stop motion animation as witnessed in a number of classic films, most notably KING KONG his skills in special visual effects were less often utilised elsewhere, with LAST DAYS OF POMPEII being a prime example.

I get the impression from all of the articles I've read on O'Bie that he never reached the degree of fulfillment in the field of special effects that he'd have desired - with often considerable gaps between assignments and many projects which never got off the ground such as GWANGI (pictured here with O'Bie posing with a Jack Shaw pre-production oil painting).  As if his stuttering film career wasn't impediment enough, the numerous personal tragedies that befell O'Bie were enough to sink the strongest of men.

Vernon Walker and Linwood Dunn
POMPEII is a fascinating film on a number of levels.  It's a film that tries hard to give the big studio look to an apparently modest budget film from a minor studio at the time.  It's pretty well written and well paced with several set pieces that shine through.  Of course it's the climactic eruption of Mt Vesuvius that was the selling point for the movie, and even though we have to wait until the last reel to see it there is enough drama and spectacle throughout to not leave one wanting.

Naturally to achieve such a setting as ancient Rome and Jeruselem photographic effects were required, and these are for the most part plentiful and well executed.  O'Bie surrounded himself with many of his tried and true crew from the two KONG films, and some even from THE LOST WORLD - all names familiar I'm sure to anyone who reads this blog - Byron Crabbe, Vernon Walker, Clarence Slifer, Harry Redmond, Marcel Delgado and Linwood Dunn to name but a few.  Many of these key figures also worked on the excellent SHE (which is covered elsewhere in detail in a previous blog here), with both films coming out in 1935 the workload at RKO must have been considerable indeed.

As this blog is primarily dedicated to glass shots I've assembled all of these here but not at the cost of overlooking the many miniatures and travelling matte composites, so these are here too.   Sadly I'm unable to locate an old magazine article I have from the thirties about this film which has photos showing before and after of some of Crabbe's glass shots.  If it turns up I'll add to shots to this blog. *(it did show up and it's now added just down this page 28/8/10)

I must say that the Warner Home Video DVD is up to there usual high standards and looks superb indeed.  Some of the matte shots are extremely grainy but that isn't due to the visual effect necessarily - more so down to the fact that many of those key narrative glass paintings occur during dissolves, which in themselves are optical dupes.  This isn't an uncommon irritation, for many older films had awful optical dissolves employed during matte painted shots, thus almost destroying the integrity of the visual effect that the matte artist and cameraman were trying to achieve.  I remember matte artist Rocco Gioffre once telling me of his utter annoyance at this exact phenomena, as the carefully painted and composited rooftop to an existing castle he had done for the movie ROB ROY being ruined by excess optical tampering to add a dissolve to the shot in the final film - an effect he said he could have facilitated quite easily at his end while making the composite, thus saving the image quality.  Of course this sort of 'wrecking' of such shots was dominant throughout the 30's and up until the early 60's where the optical transition such as the fade in or dissolve was orchestrated on separate elements altogether and spliced into the printing negative, with always obvious and distracting results - change of colour hue, grain and the rest of it.

Anyway, on with the show....

Director of Special Effects  Willis H.O'Brien
Matte Artist  Byron L.Crabbe
Production Illustrator  Mario Larrinaga
Photographic Effects  Vernon L.Walker
Miniature Process Projection  Carroll Shepphird
Model Makers Marcel Delgado and W.G 'Gus' White
Matte Cameraman  Clarence W.D Slifer
Optical Effects  Linwood G.Dunn
Mechanical Effects  Harry Redmond, jnr
The opening effects shot - a Byron Crabbe glass painting with separate smoke and sea elements, with studio mock up boat and people added via travelling matte, presumably the Frank Williams modified blue screen method.

As with all of the film, it was a soundstage shoot with extensive use of glass shots to open up the scenes.

A closer view of the same setting, presumably with a separate glass painting.

Nice subtle use of matte art to realistically extend a confined set.

More of the same with Byron Crabbe matte art.

A particularly nice matte composite.  Matte cameraman was the great Clarence Slifer who's career in effects cinematography would extend from the original KING KONG and GONE WITH THE WIND right up to BEN HUR, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD and many other films.

Iconic image of glass painted Jeruselem.

A large miniature palace and a painted backing with separate volcanic smoke elements and water.

Possibly a painted backing in this shot?

I suspect a process plate of a miniature as in a later sequence it all collapses.

'she's ready to pop her cork'
'thar she blows' - Some Harry Redmond pyrotechnics at play.
What appears to be a miniature split screened into a stage set.
The aforementioned process miniature, now collapsing onto extras.
Lot's of fireballs and pyro elements added to production shots.
Willis O'Brien seen here on the miniatures stage shooting the lava flow scenes.

Very steady matte comp with actors split screened into lava flow miniature set.

Pompeii in flames - probably a miniature set due to camera movement.
One of the numerous blue backing matte sequences, with frequent bleed or show through of the background plate, particularly on the outside edges of the frame where horses appear translucent briefly and wagon wheels are invisible.
Collapsing senate building with travelling matte for foreground extras, and optical overlays of flames and smoke etc.
The giant statue collapses onto the running crowds in an optical composite.

Extras run from approaching river of lava by means of another blue screen optical composite, presumably using the updated Williams technique developed and improved upon during the making of KING KONG.
The arena in a view never properly shown to it's best advantage in the film, with matte artist Byron Crabbe seen here painting the glass shot for the stadium and crowds - which again is not well used in the final edit unfortunately.
A terrific studio promotional paste up that caught my eye when I was a 9 or 10 year old in a book and had me utterly transfixed.  Sadly no shot such as the grandeur or wonder of this ad-man's retouched still exists in the movie, which disappointed me no end!!
Creator of visual effects Willis H.O'Brien seen here with a MIGHTY JOE YOUNG puppet, and matte artist Byron L.Crabbe.
Upper picture - Crabbe and O'Bie looking over the very large model palace, and lower picture of the model as depicted in the film.


  1. Pete:

    I'm reasonably sure that the traveling matte shots are density (luminance in digital terms) mattes. You know, they shot the actors brightly against black and pulled mattes from Hi-con film … usually sound recording film is what I've heard.

    The Dunning/Pomeroy blue-backing process involved a previously-filmed background that had been soaked in a chemical bath that replaced the silver image with a yellow colored chemical (I used to know what the chemicals were, they were also used for toning prints) that was placed in bi-pack with the raw stock. The foreground was lit in yellow light so the yellow-toned print in bipack didn’t affect the foreground. The background was lit in pure blue so that the toned print held back the blue light and the light only reached the raw stock where there was nothing in the foreground and no image on the film in bipack.

    For the shots in LAST DAYS OF POMPEI they probably shot the foregrounds before the backgrounds due to production scheduling. Also the shots have black-backing “artifacts” that read like matte line. Also the foregrounds are lit very flat.

    Spencer Gill (

  2. Hi Spencer,

    Many thanks for that detailed run down on the matting processes. These look a bit rushed and aren't up to the standard of other RKO shows such as KONG and especially the dazzling SHE made the same year as this.


  3. It's a shame that Obie didn't work on She...

  4. Well actually I thought SHE was, in the technical sense, exceptional, so I'm not sure what O'Bie could add to it. It even had those iconic animated birds added to a painted matte, almost as if Willis was acting in a consultant role.

    While on O'Bie I thought his BLACK SCORPION to be sorely under rated by some notable people and featured jaw dropping effects design and photography of the animation that even Harryhausen never attempted.

  5. Hi Peter,

    Just watched the film (Odeon Entertainment DVD, 2012) and couldn't help notice the obvious addition of smoke effects layered onto most of the destruction sequence. Any idea on how that was achieved? It honestly looks like a bird's eye view of ocean waves ebbing back and forth over the action.