Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Epics - BEN HUR matte shots: Part five in an ongoing series

I was tempted to cover THE TEN COMMANDMENTS here but have written extensively about those visual effects on earlier posts, in both the John P.Fulton career retrospective and the Jan Domela tribute, so today I'll upload some amazing matte shots from the 1959 MGM epic BEN HUR - arguably the grand daddy of all big Biblical showcases... and at no additional cost, I'll throw in some choice mattes and hanging foreground miniatures from the old silent version of BEN HUR as well....... but wait, there's more....phone in now and get a free set of steak knives...   ;)

This one was BIG!  An epic novel turned twice into epic films (though I've never seen the 1925 version) and only the biggest of the studios could handle it...MGM, where they had more stars than shone in heaven... or something along those lines.    Shot for the most part on Italian locations and at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome, with post production carried out back in Hollywood.  The film earned some eleven Oscars - I think a record only broken by one of my countryman's recent efforts, a little art house indie not many people have heard of, known as LORD OF THE RINGS - THE RETURN OF THE KING by fellow kiwi Peter Jackson (and that deserved every one of those while I'm on it....go Pete!).

Effects wise, BEN HUR was unique in some respects.  For one it utilised the services of not one but two of the very same special effects men as the earlier silent version - A.Arnold 'Buddy' Gillespie and Cliff Shirpser. Gillespie had had a marathon career at MGM, starting in the art department and then working under special effects head, Englishman James Basevi, Gillespie assumed the mantle of effects departmental head when Basevi moved across to Samuel Goldwyn in the middle thirties.  Gillespie (pictured at right) never looked back.  His career was rewarded with some thirteen Oscar nominations and four Academy Awards. 'Buddy', as Gillespie was known, handled all physical, miniature and rear process shots for MGM,  with Warren Newcombe looking after all matte requirements up until around 1957, with Irving G.Ries and Robert R.Hoag taking control of opticals for many decades. Among the sensational work the team should be proud of were the fantastic THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO, GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (set here in  Colonial NZ) and BOOM TOWN -which will appear on this very blog soon.  After a mammoth career Gillespie passed away in 1978.  
Cliff Shirpser was an effects cameraman who's amazingly lengthy career went as far back as the first HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME in 1924 and he carried on as primarily a matte cinematographer right through to THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD in 1967 - which is a pretty incredible run I have to say!

Matte chief Warren Newcombe had departed around 1957 and was replaced by Lee LeBlanc and Clarence Slifer as matte supervisor and senior visual effects cameraman respectively. Slifer replace the long time matte and effects cinematographer Mark Davis who had left to pursue independant work after working in MGM's photographic effects unit since 1930.  I've written often about Slifer and his methodology in shooting mattes using his special, then purpose built printer often in earlier blogs, especially in connection with the great GONE WITH THE WIND matte show - still my all time favourite of the art form.  Lee, who's shown in a delightful oil painting by his artist daughter, Dierdre, is pictured at left.  Process expert Carroll Shepphird was another original KING KONG veteran along with Slifer and would later head the visual effects department at MGM for a time in the late sixties.
The matte requirements were substantial on BEN HUR, and while I can't pinpoint all of the other artists on the film I can report that much of the fine matte art was painted by Matthew Yuricich, a seemingly lone, solitary survivor today of that golden era artform.  Matt, shown at right, had begun a visual effects assistant initially, under Fred Sersen at Fox around 1951 where he graduated from basic matte assistant to rotoscope animator and then into fully fledged matte painting under the reining head painter, Emil Kosa jr and alongside painters Lee LeBlanc, Jim Fetherolf and Ray Kellogg to name but a few key people.  Matt and Lee moved across to MGM as they were cutting jobs in the late fifties and as Yuricich was the last on board he figured he'd be the first one asked to go.

Some of the other names on the effects crew are important ones too.  A.D Flowers, who had also been at MGM for twenty years was to become one of the industry's finest physical effects men, with amazing credits as  THE GODFATHER films, TORA, TORA, TORA (bloody amazing full sized effects in that one), THE TOWERING INFERNO, APOCALYPSE NOW and best of the lot, Spielberg's 1941 which is loaded with awe inspiring effects work and should have taken the 1979 Oscar.... but don't get me started.

Glen Robinson is another big name, with Oscars for EARTHQUAKE'S miniatures, THE HINDENBERG and LOGAN'S RUN... together with an inexpicable and highly controversial  win orchestrated by the DeLaurentiis mafia threatening to bust some kneecaps if it didn't get the statue for the for the hyped non functional mechanical ape effects in the 1976 KING KONG.... better leave that one for another day.  :(

Special Effects Supervisor - A.Arnold Gillespie
Special Photographic Effects - Lee LeBlanc and Clarence Slifer
Matte Cameraman - Cliff Shirpser
Optical Effects - Robert R.Hoag and Petro Vlahos
Matte Artist  - Matthew Yuricich
Mechanical Effects - Robert MacDonald, A.D Flowers and Glen Robinson
Process Projection - Carroll L.Shepphird
Second Unit Cinematography - Harold E.Wellman

Gee, I love those old school main title cards.. you just don't see these anymore - with the powerhouse Miklos Rosza overture powers up and the lights dim you know you're in for something great.  Fantastic score - one of the best ever!

The pre-amble to the main story - and that fabulous Rosza orchestral score at it's brilliant best.
The opening sequence is wall to wall matte paintings and animation opticals, which I firmly believe work due to that great deservedly Oscar winning Miklos Rosza musical score which I adore.

A few of the many great matte shots, which to my eternal astonishment weren't rewarded in the visual effects Oscar category... I kid you not.  The Academy has five special effects sub categories: physical fx, models, mattes, opticals and I forget the fifth one.  Only Gillespie and MacDonald received the award for, respectively, the miniatures and process projection and full scale effects  - with matte supervisor and co effects credit LeBlanc not getting so much as a mention.!
I've read reports of the BEN HUR mattes being painted 'squeezed' due to the idiosyncratic CinemaScope process, where severe edge image elongation was prevalent, especially in panning shots. BEN HUR was lensed in the vast Camera 65 extremely wide 2.76:1 ratio, though the examples I've seen of the paintings on the matte stand all appear to have been painted in a ready to shoot widescreen ratio.

The Oscar winning sea battle, which unlike the original was shot entirely in miniature - and fairly obvious ones at that.

One of the better miniature shots, helped immeasurably by that sensational painted backing and overcast light, though the scaled down pyro effects kill the illusion somewhat.

A rare picture of a take during the miniatures tank shoot.
Upper image - a rare matte painting design applied upon a production still  from a frame enlargement of the proposed matte shot, probably prepared by the art director or an artist in the matte department.  The lower frame is the completed matte composite as it appears in the film and is interesting to compare the aspects originally shot to those added by LeBlanc's matte unit.  *upper photo courtesy of Jim Aupperle

A rare colour oil painted sketch for the proposed matte shot shown earlier in this article, and recently put up for auction

Art director Edward Carfagno's pre-production drawing for Matt Yuricich's monumental centrepiece matte shot, also put up for auction recently.

The central matte shot - and a sheer delight it is too.  Painted by Matthew Yuricich and photographed by Clifford Shirpser with compositing by Clarence Slifer, the effect extends way beyond Yuricich's beautiful painting, with the same relatively small group of marching centurians repeatedly matted in consecutive 'blocks' all the way down the thoroughfare.  A masterpiece of the matte process.
Close up detail of Yuricich's impressionistic technique for the cheering masses that would read as 'alive' on film.
Matthew Yuricich seen here painting his majestic, career best centrepiece shot.
Rooftop detail added by the matte artist, and lower frame, a Lee LeBlanc painting extends this angle of the centurian parade - a painting I believe still exists and hangs in the Lee LeBlanc Art Gallery run by Lee's daughter, Dierdre.

Exquisite perspective here in a Matthew Yuricich matte shot shown before and after Matt's art addition.
Before and after wide view of the famous chariot race demonstrates perfectly the craft of the matte artist in creating something essentially from nothing much at all. 
Again, the extent of the matte art can be appreciated with this telling pre comp take revealing the outer suburbs of Rome.
Well, we never really expected a happy ending, now did we.....?  The art of painted skies add so much to a shot.

BEN HUR - the original 1924 version - special photographic effects

I've not actually seen this but have several great  effects shots that are just crying out to me to include them on my blog somewhere....  The film, directed by Fred Niblo was pretty adventurous for the day, being shot in large part in Italy and finished off in Hollywood.  Technically the film is noteworthy as a fine showcase in it's own right for the ancient art of the hanging miniature, or foreground miniature - not to mention glass paintings.

Just who was in charge of effects I can't say for sure, but I can say that Paul Eagler was a key player in the special effects photography.  Eagler later became photographic effects man on many films including the excellent Alfred Hitchcock film FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) and alot of RKO pictures.

A genuine pioneer in the world of glass shots and a major developmental force in the techniques for painted mattes was Ferdinand Pinney Earle.  A pioneer of silent cinema and very much a man of his time Earle had studied fine art at the Academie Julian in Paris, as did other notable matte artists such as Walter Percy Day and Jan Domela.  Earle was frequently at odds with competitor Norman Dawn in licensing the matte process with court battles and such.  Earle made headlines with his ability to successfully shoot an entire feature (more or less) through the magic of his matte process, THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM in 1923.  Earle was mentor to long time Warner Brothers matte artist Paul Detlefsen with whom he had trained on DANCER ON THE NILE in 1923.  Earle's glass shots for BEN HUR, some of which are illustrated here are marvellous and unlike many of his other productions, are preserved for modern audiences whereas the many silent epics he made are considered 'lost' films.  For more telling observations about Earle, catch the documentary about his son, one of Disney's background artists, on the SLEEPING BEAUTY dvd where Earle senior is almost painted in 'Daddy Dearest' type harsh disciplinarian terms.

A key member of the BEN HUR crew, and an utterly indispensible one at that was optical effects exponent Frank D.Williams - a genuine pioneer in the then largely unknown world of optical processes such as travelling mattes and  multiple printing.  Williams had invented processes for multiple pass compositing onto 35mm film - then a near impossibility, and was owner the only dedicated special effects optical house on the west coast, the Frank Williams Laboratories.  I've written about Williams' revolutionary developments in the field of composite cinematography in my blog on the F.W Murnau silent film SUNRISE, so check that out for his amazing optical work which still stands the test of time.

As discussed at the start of this blog, special effects man A.Arnold Gillespie had the distinction of having worked on both versions, as did matte cameraman Cliff Shirpser.  Gillespie at this time was specialising in the art of the hanging miniature, a flawless and utterly believable in camera composite process  which is nicely demonstrated below.  The method of hanging foreground miniatures was extensively used in the early days of film, though some practitioners, such as the great Emilio Ruiz, continued to trust in the technique throughout his very long career with hundreds of film credits such as THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS  and DUNE.   I'll do a blog some day on this total genius - one of the all time greats in a class all of his own.

Special Effects Cameraman - Paul Eagler
Matte Artist - Ferdinand Pinney Earle
Miniatures Supervisor - A.Arnold Gillespie
Special Photographic Effects and Optical Processes - Frank D. Williams

One of Ferdinand Pinney Earle's painted glass shots

An excellent miniature of the senate collapsing onto terrified extras, and all perfectly composited through the Frank Williams travelling matte technique.

It may be a Gillespie hanging miniature, though I personally tend to favour an Earle glass shot for this view.

A revealing photograph of one of Buddy Gillespie's excellent foreground hanging miniatures - the benefits of which are obvious - immeadiacy of finished visual effect, accuracy in light balance, no matte weave nor duping irregularities.
Another totally believable foreground miniature featuring, if my memory serves me correctly, rows of tiny motorised miniature figures swaying in irregular patterns to suggest a live crowd.   The technique was extensively utilised throughout the silent era and onward through the sound era in a lesser extent.  Spanish visual effects maestro, Emilio Ruiz was a confirmed advocate of the method and continued to utilise it on hundreds of productions right up until his death in 2008 on films as big as DUNE with terrific results.  More about Ruiz later... a true genius in a class of his own.
A brief article from a 1924 publication reveals F.P Earle's magical matte process - the miracle of the age.
An auteur ahead of his time - Ferdinand Pinney Earle at work in his studio on the dozens of matte paintings for his ambitious silent epic THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHYAYYAM (1924)


  1. I happened to stumble upon some of the original matte's on display in an itty bitty musem where LeBlanc is from in Iron River, MI. They don't even mention it on the site. http://www.ironcountyhistoricalmuseum.org/

  2. How can I find more information about Cliff Shirpser? He is my friend's grandfather's brother, but he doesn't have much information at his disposal at the moment.
    Thank you.

  3. I wish I could offer you sound advice. I just don't know, other than possibly approaching the AMPAS research library in Los Angeles, and perhaps seeking help there. I know others have followed this route with specific search enqiries and have had some fruitful outcomes.

    There are just so many old time individuals I'd love to find out more about myself - such as Cliff.


  4. Thanks for the this post. Love it- Is there any way you could share larger versions of these film stills? Incredible :)

  5. "I'm sure the cartells are loving this, but you're opening the floodgate..." http://positiveadvocacy.webs.com

  6. Is there another site or whatever that I can find out more on the biography of Robert R. Hoag? The imdb lists all of his credits, but nothing as to his bio.

    1. Sorry, I can't help here, though if any info ever comes to hand I'd be keen to publish it and do for Robert Hoag as I've managed to do for a number of other long gone movie magicians via this blog.


  7. Ironically one of the most grandiose and widest aspect ratio films ever made has the smallest pictures of it's making on the internet. Wonderful articles and information, but larger versions of pictures please.

    1. I appreciate what you say. I can only use what I have available at the time, though now, I'm happy to say, I have the Blu Ray and have collected dozens of wonderful 1080p screen caps from the film (and many others) as well as some rare high rez photos of Lee LeBlanc's original matte art. Keep an eye on this blog for more to come!



  8. It's not well known that Eyvinde Earle had a sister, Yvonne, who also worked in the film business. When their English mother divorced their father, she took the little Yvonne back to Britain with her, where she grew up to become a trained artist, specialising in children's books and miniature portaits. Many years later, Yvonne (now Yvonne Perrin)came out to Australia, and became a background artist at the Eric Porter studios, working on the first Australian animated feature, "Marco Polo Jr".

  9. Very useful. Rare pics and behind the scenes. Keep up the good work.