Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Epics... THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD matte shots - part three in an ongoing series

George Stevens' THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) was really one of the last of the huge Biblical genre films (though not the last in my series of tributes) as the theme tended to become more personalised in the forthcoming years with much smaller religious type shows such as BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON and such.  GSET is an extremely well made film with beautiful production values and even the odd guest director such as the eminent David Lean and Jean Negulesco to fill some gaps in the narrative once Steven's was done with it.

Visual effects wise it's a bonanza!  Colleagues on matte painting thread I'm sure are sick to death of me praising the effects in GSET, so anyone tired of this, best skip to another blog as I'm going to really sing the praises of these effects here.  The film was Oscar nominated in a number of categories, including best special visual effects, yet unbelievably lost that year to the frankly plain third rate effects in the 007 adventure THUNDERBALL!!  Incredible... a film with minimal, and quite poorly executed visuals even getting a nomination is one thing, but taking home the bloody statuette is quite another.  I guess it's all down to film popularity above quality (same story with 'ET' years later when clearly BLADERUNNER should have swept that and other awards, but don't get me started).

GSET was a mammoth production, and it shows.  It's all up there on the big CinemaScope screen - in fact in 70mm 6 track stereo on initial runs.  Glorious visual effect design by Joseph MacMillan Johnson, a long time figure in volved with big effects shows such as GONE WITH THE WIND and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.  Not a special effects man per se but certainly the vision behind the effects concepts, most of which in this case were matte paintings.  Johnson headed the MGM visual effects department after the departure of Lee LeBlanc and oversaw a number of films.

Among the myriad of effects people concerned with GSET were veteran visual effects cinematographer Clarence W. Slifer - another key player from GWTW as well as KING KONG, BEN HUR and hundreds of others and one of the industry's most acknowledged visual effects cameramen for his applications of aerial image optical cinematography to facilitate clean, non locked off matte composites. With such a load of matte and glass shots the film employed several matte artists, namely Jan Domela, Matthew Yuricich and Albert Maxwell Simpson.   Simpson had enjoyed a long career as a matte artist and had worked extensively with Slifer on numerous shows, including KONG and GWTW.  Future effects cinematographer Richard Yuricich, Matthew's brother, was also involved with the matte photography in what very well could have been his first film.

So without further ado, on with the show....................

Special Effects Supervisor - A.Arnold Gillespie
Special Photographic Effects Supervisor - J.MacMillan Johnson
Visual Effects Cinematographer - Clarence W.D Slifer, ASC
Matte Camera Asssistant - Cliff Shirpser
Matte Artists - Matthew Yuricich,  Jan Domela and Albert Maxwell Simpson
Matte Rotoscope Effects - Richard Yuricich
Optical Effects - Robert R.Hoag
Process Projection - Charles MacLeod

Probably a Jan Domela matte painting as I have a number of before and after old photos from Jan's daughter of this view.As with all of the mattes in this film I must whole heartily compliment the wonderful final composites overseen by Clarence Slifer and in many shots such terrific atmospheric elements such as this breathtaking daybreak effect.

I love this view - and as I've said before, 'the music maketh the matte' - in this case, Alfred Newman's score.  What a magnificent shot.

I'm guessing it's the same basic Jan Domela painting with new skies added to it (?)

I recall that the show was filmed in Utah and Arizona and much of those landscapes are well utilised, and as seen here adapted with matte art to lend a terrific 'edge' to the narrative.

Classic matted set extension with upper third or so painted in to conceal studio lights and such.

Another view of what I assume to be the same Domela painting - or maybe these are all separate paintings each view?

Pretty much invisible set extension here with Matthew Yuricich adding alot of subtle architecture that's never obvious.

A Jan Domela painted addition to the Arizona landscape.

The city once again, and with beautiful dusk interactive lighting effects - maybe a whole new painting here?

A Jan Domela shot.

Not sure here, but that distant out cropping of rock may be artificial?

A vast set with subtle painted cityscape seen at right and I'm assuming the left top of the frame as well.

Possibly the real deal Arizona or Utah here.  May be slightly altered in the fx studio...I dunno.

Process projection shot with a composite painting and ocean as background plate.

That city again, with rain storm overlay.

A Jan Domela combination painting, locale and optical starburst.

A beautiful and full painted matte with minimal live action added lower centre.

Jan Domela's finished painting of the above on the matte stand at MGM.  Domela's diaries mention such a positive and happy time while employed at MGM for a year or so on this and a couple of other shows.  Domela's daughter Johanna recalls visiting her father then and told me how the effects cameramen on the shoot praised her dad for the no nonsense speed of his painting. So very different from his later years of constant stress under John Fulton at Paramount. She also remembers the matte building as "old and rickety and ready to fall down at any minute".  (*it was eventually torn down in the mid seventies and an awful lot of original classic matte art was chucked into dumpsters)

A Matthew Yuricich matte extending the view outward from just below the upper edge of the city walls.

A rare unfinished test comp of one of Domela's exteriors of the city with the sea beyond.
Yep, it's those city walls again - but this time we can see Jan Domela's original painting below...

Domela art on masonite ready for the matte camera.

Close up detail of Jan's city walls.

Another beautifully detailed aerial Jan Domela shot - and one I couldn't find in the film.  Though just between you and me, I did fall asleep for a while during this three hour marathon, so maybe I missed more effects shots?  Keep that to yourself.

The epic pullback shot  - frame one

Frame two

Frame three

Frame four

Frame five, just as it dissolves into a new scene.  Fellow matte painter and long time friend of Matthew Yuricich, Rocco Gioffre shared with me some details on the Slifer aerial image process used on this shot - ..."Clarence Slifer had been in charge of Selznick Studios visual effects department from it's beginning and as early as 1938 he had developed a technique for doing post production camera moves on matte painting shots. This method was used on Gone With The Wind as well as other features. The unique set up he devised involved a lathe bed arrangement with the camera focused on a process projector movement in the same manner as an optical printer, but instead of using a lamphouse for a light source he mounted an additional (aerial image) lens behind the projector head and focused it on a brightly lit artwork easel, which held the matte paintings and other artwork elements. [...] I'll tell you that the pullback shot in The Greatest Story Ever Told was plagued with a number of problems among which was a visible seam that appeared during a part of the scene. So they hid the problem by photographing a flock of pigeons flying in the area and then rotoscoped all these birds onto a series of glass panes (!) in the closest artwork plane of the matte stand ( which was used strictly for foreground roto'd items like people's heads crossing matte paintings, etc..) The closest art stand was slightly out of focus, so it helped a bit for fake motion blur. So even these guys use to hide their problems by devious means!"

Interestingly, this old photo of that amazing painting still in progress here as seen in the sequence of frames above was part of Jan Domela's collection of memorabilia, so I wonder whether Jan also painted on the shot with Matthew?

Extremely rare test comps of Domela's painted city with the matte cameramans (Slifer?) notations on the edges here illustrating the choice of filters for the painting shoot, filtration for the plate, the take, length of shot and lenses used.

Mood and forboding added by the matte artist during the crucifixion scenes is a pre-requisite of the genre - excluding naturally, MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN, which took an arguably less regimented viewpoint.

A vivid cloudscape, possibly manufactured in the fx unit thus endeth thou George Stevens' epic


  1. Oooops... I meant to publish this in a day or so after the QUO VADIS post, but pushed the wrong button. So, two E P I C posts for the price of one, and both in the same day. Ya' can't ask for a better deal than that.


  2. I'm a bit late to this party but I wanted to write to let you know how grateful I am for these examples of film craftsmanship and film art. I also wanted to express my pleasure for your far kinder views of that unjustly maligned film TGSET than I have been accustomed to see almost everywhere else. I recognize the film's one or two flaws, such as Stevens' ill-advised tampering with Newman's beautiful score. But I also recognize that there were moments of beauty in the film that are unequalled.

    Thanks again.