Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Epics - ALEXANDER THE GREAT and SOLOMON AND SHEBA matte shots: Part nine in an ongoing series

I was only ever going to do a couple of 'Epic' blogs but upon a couple of recommendations from like minded fans of 'visual effects old school', I have continued this series, as I do after all have a zillion old matte shot frames gathering dust (or whatever they gather in a computer).... so without further ado, on with the first of today's double feature, ALEXANDER THE GREAT (1956).

Not to confused with the convoluted, out of control ego trip that Oliver Stone turned out a few years back, this Robert Rossen version with Richard Burton, although no masterpiece, wasn't too bad and at least got to the point and stayed there.  Of course Dickie Burton was afraid by now of being typecast in this sort of thing as he'd just done the big Fox biblical epic THE ROBE (next installment on the very matte shot blog you are reading at this exact moment) though I think he's good at this type of thing, being principally a stage actor and a Shakespearian one at that, which more than lends itself to this larger than life genre.

Being chiefly a hybrid international production as far as I could ascertain - with an American director, a Welsh star, an Australian lighting cameraman (Robert Krasker), an Italian composer (Mario Nascimbene) and a Russian art director (Andrei Andreiev) it just made sense to employ a British visual effects supervisor (Wally Veevers).

As I've mentioned here several times in the past, Wally ran the effects unit at Shepperton for many years, having had his on the job training as a visual effects cinematographer in the old Percy Day matte department through all those Korda films in the mid thirties.  Wally's specialty, aside from effects camerawork was designing and constructing his own camera equipment and special effects rigging himself at home in his garage while listening, so I'm told, to country and western music (!)  Now, normally I'd not give the time of day to ANYONE who liked 'country and western' music, but Wally is different.  I've admired his work for years and feel agrieved for the man being robbed of his Oscar for 2001.
In fact, alot of the miniature rigging and specialised photographic gear Wally used on 2001 and THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN was knocked together by Veevers himself at home with his fully equipped little workshop.

Veevers (right) on the 2001 set
Shepperton had a good sized matte department in the fifties consisting of chief matte painter George Samuels, artists Bob Cuff, Albert Julion, Joseph Natanson, Judy Jordan and later on Alan Maley, Gerald Larn, Doug Ferris, Peter Melrose and Bryan Evans.  Matte cameramen Geoff Stevenson, Bryan Loftus, John Mackie, Peter Harman and John Grant all featured within Shepperton's hallowed halls at various times and together a great many excellent and sometimes ambitious matte effects were turned out.
I fully intend to demonstrate many Shepperton mattes from various productions here on my blog at a later date, with such beautiful showcases as TAMING OF THE SHREW,  DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, THE COLDITZ STORY, VALLEY OF GWANGI, ANNE OF THE 1000 DAYS, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and many more,  in addition to profiling Shepperton matte painter Gerald Larn.


Wow, what a poster!  This magnificent British Quad (the UK version of the US one sheet) is, sadly a thing of the past.

Although Wally Veevers had effects credit I don't know who painted the particular shots, though it's a safe bet that George Samuels and Bob Cuff would have been principally involved.  Sadly Bob passed away earlier this year folks.

Admittedly quite an obvious painting, but I still like it and the fire element looks great.  According to Gerald Larn most, if not all of the matte composite work was done using the colour separation dupe method and none of it as far as he was aware was original negative nor rear projection.  One of the few original negative composites was done for David Lean's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO in 1965.

A wonderful full painting of the army encampment at night with tiny flaming torch effects added.
Although ALEXANDER THE GREAT predated Gerald Larn's tenure as resident matte painter by some eight years, these candid photographs of Larn at work in the mid 60's reveal that very night encampment matte painting ias llustrated above on the wall behind him amid a variety of Shepperton matte paintings from various films.  Where these masterpieces ever ended up was a total mystery to Larn who said that they'd be there one day and gone the next - just where, nobody ever seemed to know, or care.

From conversations I've had with retired Shepperton matte painter Gerald Larn, the glass paintings were generally quite large at Shepperton, measuring six feet by three feet typically - a size long established as ideal by Wally Veevers, especially with the advent of CinemaScope in 1954. Frequently miniature elements were matted within areas of some paintings to lend a three dimensional aspect to suit particular requirements. 

Gerald Larn commented ..."the matte studio was long and narrow and consisted of four identical easels permanently fixed to the floor and the up and down motion of the heavy framed glass paintings was counterbalanced by weights that ran up and down in a boxed in channel, much like the old sash windows"

An old Wally Veevers trick - to simulate ocean going vessels in miniature without the hassle that comes with scale of water and waves Veevers would photograph static models in the studio and matte them into a real ocean plate - a trick he utilised extensively for the 1952 Trevor Howard war film THE GIFT HORSE

One of several painted mattes ruined with the superimposed map overlay.

Same again - damned map!
No, not a matte painting but in fact a scenic backing painted by Spanish matte effects wizard Emilio Ruiz Del Rio.



A big United Artists extravaganza, that although it's been 30 yeras since I last saw it I recall it as being a pretty okay sort of a show with the ever watchable Yul Brynner doing his stuff.  Effects wise, it's a bit of a mystery.  The only special effects credit was to Alex Weldon, a mechanical or physical effects specialist on many films.  Photographic effects were not credited, so it's wide open to speculation as to who could have done these matte shots and the few great miniature set pieces as well. From my colleague Domingo Lizcano I'm reliably informed that Spanish miniaturist Francisco Prosper was involved in the model work, and by the look of the high quality effects shots the mattes may well have been in camera glass or foreground shots.

My first guess would be Linwood Dunn's Film Effects of Hollywood, as he often supplied the visual effects work for United Artists product - or maybe Howard A.Anderson's effects house?  There is also the distinct possibility of the matte shots all being completed in Britain with either Shepperton, Pinewood or MGM-Elstree being candidates.  To me the work looks like that of Emilio Ruiz, though I don't believe that's ever been established.
We may never know... so while we ponder that, lets take a look at the impressive mattes and foreground miniatures from SOLOMON AND SHEBA...

Typical of this film are the really impressive paintings and composites such as this.  I'd love to know the origins of these.

The last time I saw this was on tv in an awful pan and scan print which cropped off so much of the matte art.

I'd almost go along with the 'foreground miniature' theory on this one.  The light and shadows are perfectly matched.

A really stunning matte shot with a terrific sense of colour value and matching to the location daylight and time of day.

At left we may see the actual set as built, and at right the carefully placed foreground miniature with a tilt down camera axis.  The clouds tend to look painted to me which makes the shot all the more baffling.  In all likelihood the work of Spanish miniaturist Francisco Prosper.

A Francisco Prosper miniature set where the army blinded by the intense sunlight reflected on the shields all stumble into the abyss.

"oh the humanity"...... the devastation that is mandatory in this genre.  Possibly a matte shot or painted backing?

One of Emilio Ruiz's large painted backings.

Another example of a large Emilio Ruiz painted backing.

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