Thursday, 14 October 2010

Cinema Goes to War - mattes and miniatures in war pictures

*Just before launching into a quite sizable blog I'll mention a couple of updates pertaining to earlier blogs.
My Jan Domela page has several new images, and to my surprise is my most read blog topic of them all.  This is great news, not just to me as I try to uncover the work of old Hollywood (and British) matte artists, but also welcome news to Mr Domela's family, who are delighted with the interest shown toward Jan, so many decades after his death.  There is a considerable volume of old Domela material still outstanding, from which I may be forced to add a whole new page to display it.

I've also added quite a bit of background info to the biography of British matte artist Ray Caple, which was very kindly supplied to me by Ray's former effects associate and friend Brian Johnson with wonderful recollections of their work together on films such as THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE and other Bowie projects.

Likewise, on Albert Whitlock, I  have considerable technical info courtesy of Al's cameraman Bill Taylor some of which I have added and much more still to work in to the existing text on many of Al's amazing achievements.

I'm frequently adding photos to my Warner Bros page and also to my John Fulton page, though on the latter I've decided to do a whole new 'special' on all of those great INVISIBLE MAN series photo effects soon.

Finally - for those who liked this very 'War films' blog, I've just added several more pictures from some more films such as ACES HIGH, SECRET MISSION and others. (18/10/2010)


I thoroughly enjoy a good old war film.  Films such as Raoul Walsh's gritty 1945 picture OBJECTIVE BURMA are still top notch entertainment as as exciting today as when I first saw it.  Likewise for THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944) - a terrific picture and still one of the all time special effects film greats.  Although absent of any visual effects, John Frankenheimer's enormously exciting 1965 epic THE TRAIN is outstanding, both narratively and in the jaw dropping full scale physical effects sequences which include the destruction of an entire railroad shunting yard among other things.  TORA, TORA, TORA is another one of those great films that succeeds in spite of a non-big shot cast - and is all the better for it.  The full size mechanical effects in this show easily out shadow the many miniatures, and are among the most frightening physical effects of their type - and if you don't know what I mean, take a look at the runway bombing sequence where the revving propellor blade on the exploding American (Mustang?) fighter literally 'flies' off the drive shaft and richochets across the tarmac filled with terrified extras and stunt guys!  Jesus H. Christ!  ...(And to be sure you see it the editor cuts that shot into the subsequent action some three times). What follows are many good examples of the art of the visual effects cinematographer, miniaturist and more often than not, the matte artist in assembling thrilling war time drama.. ... so many great films and memorable shots...

Zeppelin - model fx by Wally Veevers
There are so many great films I'd like to cover, and as usual I'll exceed my somewhat flimsy self imposed limit on such things due to way too much enthusiasm, poor editorial discipline and not much else to occupy my mind.  So without further ado.... "Get onto the parade ground of great military effects shots.... you heard me... move your sorry asses....on the double.... quick march..."

Master of the miniature, the great Derek Meddings contributed a number of his specialised and convincing model shots to the outstanding 1976 picture of the (short) life of fly-boys in the First World War, ACES HIGH.
B52 Bomber miniature set up in front of Dennis Lowe's VistaVision camera rig for THE AMERICAN WAY (1986)
Matte shot from Henry Hathaway's excellent 1946 espionage drama 13 RUE MADELEINE with James Cagney
Jack Cosgrove effects shots from ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC (1944) with the night time inferno at sea sequence being especially good combinations of models, live action and cell animated 'figures' jumping through fire.
British effects man Tom Howard supervised the miniature RAF Mosquito assault on the Nazi fuel depot in Cliff Robertson's 633 SQUADRON (1963). Several scenes involved matted in ack ack guns and optical flak overlays - and all to the terrific, stirring score of Ron Goodwin.

The making of a great and utterly convincing trick shot, as seen here in this excellent example from THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944) with, from top down a rare glimpse at an original Newcombe painting, the limited soundstage set added in addition to an ocean element, with the final image showing the completed composite as part of a process shot. One great movie with top notch fx.
Two more sensational matte painted shots from THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO.
Donald Jahraus' superb miniature of Tokyo for the bomb run sequence from 30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO.  Miniatures cinematographer Maximillian Fabian, mechanical effects A.D Flowers and Jack McMasters, matte cinematography Mark Davis, miniature construction Marcel Delgado,  matte supervisor Warren Newcombe, special fx head A.Arnold Gillespie.

A.Arnold Gillespie's miniatures unit at work shooting an elaborate sequence in the MGM tank for the Spencer Tracy film A GUY NAMED JOE  (1943)

Another photo as published in LIFE magazine from the above effects sequence.

Success!  Pyro, wire rigs, painted backing and skillful cinematography:  A GUY NAMED JOE

More terrific matte work from the Newcombe department at MGM - from BATAAN (1943)

Also from BATAAN. I love the bold perspective in this matte shot - one of several beauties in the film and it's sequel.
RKO followed up the above film with this excellent, effects heavy sequel, BACK TO BATAAN (1945) with the frame here being especially good.  Depicting the dreaded Bataan Death March the view is mostly painted, with several areas in the glass having live action soldiers on the march.  The gently moving foreground foliage is undoubtedly one of Linwood Dunn's gags to bring life to the complex composite shot.  Matte painters at the studio during this period would have been Albert Maxwell Simpson and Juan Larrinaga, with other former RKO artists Chesley Bonestell and Mario Larrinaga most probably already over at Warner Brothers by this stage.

United Artists big budgeted story of the heroic efforts of the RAF to fight off Hitler's aerial advances on Britain in Guy Hamilton's THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN (1969), with this superb, expansive photo real Ray Caple matte painted view above beautifully composited by Ray and cameraman Martin Body.
BATTLE OF BRITAIN features excellent visual effects work throughout, with John P.Fulton engaged to handle the effects shoot.  Fulton's untimely death left the project in limbo for a time until a new effects team could be put together.  The outstanding miniatures above are the craftsmanship of Brit Mick Charles (above right) and supervised by veteran American effects man Glen Robinson.  The many aerial dogfights and collisions look superb on screen and the film could just as well been a contender in the visual effects Oscar to my thinking - but, no... not to be.  :(

One of the many remote controlled scale model Hurricane's used in the filming.

A Wally Veevers composite of German Luftwaffe over London.  Matte cameraman on the project, Martin Body, explained this shot to Domingo Lizcano:  "...this shot was one of Wally's 'sausage factory' shots - ie: stills of the aircraft glued to a large sheet of glass with the background plate duped in the camera.  Pass one would have had the aircraft stills front lit against black with just the raw negative stock in the camera (Kodak 5251), passes two, three and four would have the aircraft stills back lit against white with the raw negative and RGB separation masters bi-packed in the camera.  Camera moves had to be repeated exactly for each pass on a camera dolly and head fitted with synchronised Selsyn motors operated from a central controller.  It was, if you like, the forerunner of the Motion Control rigs commonly used today".

Although a fairly pedestrian film, the huge Ultra-Panavision 70 war epic BATTLE OF THE BULGE made in 1965 featured a number of outstanding miniature sequences, some so darned good I never even spotted them until a recent 're-evaluation' of the show!   The above sequence is an invisible, and very large miniature shot with a free flowing camera move tracking down from the bad guys' flag across a beautifully detailed miniature city, complete with a mobile vehicle on one road!

Again from BATTLE OF THE BULGE  with very large miniature tanks.  Production designer and effects coordinator Eugene Lourie described this as ..."My miniature tanks were about three feet long with two horsepower motors and had numerous electric commands to advance, retreat, turn the turret and shoot the guns..."

Eugene Lourie with one of the marvellously detailed miniature tanks, which I recently discovered were all thrown into the trash some time after the filming..... enough to make a grown man cry.

More of the extraordinary miniature work from BATTLE OF THE BULGE.  Models were built by Charles Henri-Assola, with special effects by veteran Alex Weldon with Basilio Cortijo and Richard Parker.  There were also a vast number of blue screen comps in the show, presumably done in the UK.  The above battle set piece was described by Eugene Lourie in his memoirs ..."The tanks had realistic recoiling guns and were perfect reproductions of real tanks down to the smallest detail.  All the action scenes that were difficult or impossible to achieve with real tanks were performed by miniatures"  And as an observer I must compliment Lourie and team on one hell of a spectacular result

Frames from the 1969 Toho production BATTLE IN THE SEA OF JAPAN, featuring much miniature work by Japanese maestro Eiji Tsuburaya who proves more than Godzilla and Mothra made the man tick.

Behind the scenes shots of the Tsuburaya effects unit at work on the film BATTLE IN THE SEA OF JAPAN  (1969)

Japan's miniature effects wiz, Eiji Tsuburaya with some of his cinematic big boy's toys.

Not a matte nor trick shot, but a great example of a painted backing from the Rank film BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE (1956) possibly painted by Cliff Culley.
A Shepperton Studios miniature shot presumably overseen by Wally Veevers and Ted Samuels for the utterly brilliant 1965 Cold War thriller THE BEDFORD INCIDENT starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, both of whom were never better than in this unforgettable film.  Highly recommended!

Two frames from the same matte shot as seen in the 1956 Fox film BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL.  The entire view from the hill ridge is painted under the supervision of effects head Ray Kellogg, with the actor's head moving into the soft blend matte line on the lower frame.  The matte artist would have been either Emil Kosa jr or one of his staff.
Two of the many lovely matte composites from the Frank Capra 1933 film THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN starring Barbara Stanwyck and set during the cultural uprising and civil war in China.  I'll do a Columbia blog soon with the rest of the many mattes from this and many other Columbia pictures....just gotta find the time.

Richard Attenborough's enormous blockbuster A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977) featured numerous matte composites put together by Doug Ferris for effects supervisor Wally Veevers.

Another of Doug Ferris's painted mattes from A BRIDGE TOO FAR.  Visual effects man Dennis Lowe told me of working with Doug around that period painting on other shows and being captivated by the very glass painting seen above leaning against a wall with several miscellaneous glass shots in Doug's busy studio.

One of Wally Veevers composite shots adding squadrons of non existant bombers to the skies over England for A BRIDGE TOO FAR.  Matte cameraman was John Grant with Robin Browne handled special photography on the film.

Mike Nichol's huge, and by many accounts, utterly disasterous (though I like it) CATCH 22 (1970 with an example here of the excellent front screen process projection used in all of the B52 scenes.  Various names have been associated with the FP process on this show  - from Bond visual effects man Robin Browne, (whom I'm sure photographed all of the background plates)  process guru Bill Hansard and even avant garde visual fx designer Bran Ferren, who is singled out on the DVD commentary.
Paramount's VistaVision show THE BRIDGES AT TOKO RI (1955) featured Academy award winning effects by John Fulton.  This shot is a Paul Lerpae-Jan Domela trick shot where the same battleship is 'optically flopped' and matted onto the other side of the pier, with a matte painted island added in the background.  Now that's how to double your armed forces and save money at the same time.

The tight 1949 Clark Gable - Walter Pigeon airforce drama COMMAND DECISION had several well orchestrated Arnold Gillespie miniature sequences such as this, a beautifully scaled model crash and explosion.  Also featured are some good Newcombe mattes to establish the UK setting.

Although it looks passive enough, this invisible matte (the upper third of the frame) from Tyrone Power's CRASH DIVE was one of the effects shots which garnered the film an Oscar to Fred Sersen for best visual effects.

The lower frame is an old Sersen trick - inserting live actors onto moving miniature ships via blue screen travelling matte - a trick he used well in the earlier film THE BLACK SWAN.

A miniature barracks fully ablaze, with separately travelling matted in actors running from the inferno.

Some more examples of Fred Sersen's travelling matte insertion of actors into burning miniature ships from CRASH DIVE

CRASH DIVE - pyro miniatures in the Sersen tank on the Fox ranch.

The famous Sersen tank with painted backing as used in CRASH DIVE.

Michael Anderson's classic and stirring THE DAMBUSTERS (1954) which was nominated for special effects work.  A large miniature of the dam and surrounding countryside was overseen by George Blackwell and photographed by Gil Taylor, with the actual vital explosion photographed separately as a full scale element and meticulously roto matted into the (moving) simulated aerial POV.  Photographic effects were controlled by Les Bowie and his long time partner, travelling matte exponent Vic Margutti with rotoscope cameraman Ronnie Wass charged with the extremely difficult task of matching (match moving essentially)  the large scale pyro element to the deliberate fly-by POV as seen from the bomber.  Wass and Margutti also added reflective flare effects across the water and did alot in the flying sequences to add tracer fire in all directions.  Of all the films my fellow countryman, Peter Jackson is involved in, this remake is the one I await most anxiously.  As far as I know much of the miniature stuff was shot a couple of years ago with just the 'actual film' still to be shot.

The mayhem downstream as the DAMBUSTERS hit their target.  Excellent miniature factories and composite photography of German munitions workers fleeing in terror.

I'm fairly sure this is a George Blackwell miniature - though there is the possibility of it being a genuine location with the flood torrent matted in later?  I'll go with the first option I think.

About the only shot resembling a matte painting that I could spot in THE DAMBUSTERS (1954)

The 1938 remake of THE DAWN PATROL has some great climactic effects, most, if not all lifted straight out of the earlier 1930 version where the same effects cinematographer, Edwin DuPar,  was involved.
Some of the many mattes and trick shots in the Fox's 1956 CinemaScope war love story D-DAY, THE SIXTH OF JUNE.

Tunisia matte shot as seen in D-DAY, THE SIXTH OF JUNE.  Effects supervisor Ray Kellogg.  Matte chief Emil Kosa, jnr.

Same film - the eternally tasty eye candy Dana Wynter wines and dines Robert Taylor in an entirely matte painted setting.


  1. My favourite post of yours yet. Exhaustively compiled. Thank you sir.


  2. Your blog is "Book Worthy" and the photos are incredible. You blog is in the top 5 I check daily reading past posts in the last couple of weeks. The amount of detail put in by you on people whose very job demanded just that, detail has been greatly informative on a subject I’ve always found fascinating since I was a kid reading “Star-log and Cine-magic “ magazines. Keep up the good work.

  3. Hi and thanks to both Marlon and the curious individual named (by his folks?) after a car engine ;)

    I am so pleased to receive such feedback, as I sometimes think I'm in a very small minority of guys who really dig this stuff. I'm always afraid of overdoing it. My own 'blogger' sons tell me I'm "out of control" and "blogs should be short and sweet with one or two pics, max"..... One or two pics, indeed!!! As it is I pull stuff at the last minute to keep it 'reasonable'.

    Sooner or later the blogspot outfit are bound to call me and say "we've got no more freaking space left...go away!" :)


  4. Great blog, very instructive. I enjoy reading it each week, thank you for your excellent work!

  5. Best post yet Pete.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. In the Von Ryan photo, is the cliff face a painting or a model (the one with the train/bridge on the right side) ?

  7. I've wondered that myself. There are 3 similar views around that part of the film and I tend to go along with miniature split screen. The light and very slight depth of field in the focus tends to suggest 'model' to me.

  8. Another incredible post; thanks, Pete!

    BTW, a long time ago I noticed that the explosions in "To Hell and Back" were very similar to those in "This Island Earth." Being that they were both Universal pictures, I figured the same in-house FX crew worked on them.

    Keep up the great work!

  9. Hi Ivan

    Yep, the same effects people on both - Clifford Stine on photographic effects, Ross Hoffman on matte photography, Millie Winebrenner on rotoscope duties, Russ Lawsen painting the mattes and most probably Frank Tipper on the cell animation.

  10. Brilliant article David! This is a wonderful walk thru some fantastic work.
    I'm so glad you mentioned Dambusters; not only as a fascinating story from WW2, but so nicely done with the miniature sets and matte paintings. Sadly, it is a difficult DVD to locate here in the US, due to an unfortunate naming of the squadron's dog mascot... but worth hunting down.
    I'm going back and re-reading this again... fantastic stuff!

  11. The photos attributed to "The story of GI Joe", I think are actually from "A Guy named Joe" the Spencer Tracy movie that Spielberg remade as "Always"

  12. I think you may be right on that. I've never seen the Mitchum nor Tracy films but did see the rather poor Spielberg one. I'll amend that caption.


  13. Michelle Anderson Van Fleet23 December 2010 at 13:26

    I want to thank you Pete, for all of your amazing effort and heartfelt work ~ this blog is indeed "book~worthy" ! In that I am Fred Sersen's (only) granddaughter, I have been perusing all of the reference's to 'granddaddies" work today, and learning alot in the process. Kudos!!!

  14. Hi there Michelle

    What a wonderful 'gift' to have you add a comment to my blog. I am indeed an epic fan of your grandfather's work - truly one of the greats in cinematic trick shots and a man whose achievements still astound me.

    I'd love to hear from you about Fred should you wish to email me.... I'd be very appreciative to chat with you.

    Check my blog again in a few days as I have a big Sersen double bill in the final stages with Fred's Oscar winning THE RAINS CAME and his (should have won an Oscar but they weren't doing fx awards then) IN OLD CHICAGO.

    Kindest regards


  15. great work - watched Dam Busters yesterday for the first time and I'm very excited about the remake.

  16. Yes me too.... of all the Peter Jackson projects post Lord of the Rings, THIS has to be my most eagerly anticipated as well.... but it keeps getting pushed back.

    Apparently a fair chunk of the effects work was shot at WETA a few years back with just the 'story' to be shot now... or so I'm told.


  17. Damned Blogger system again!!
    I just took a look at my War Films article out of interest and noticed (as often is the case) that a HUGE number of my original article/photos are missing! The blog should be well over double this length and much has 'dropped off' the article!!!!!! VERY bloody irritating, especially as I put so much time into these things.
    When I get a spare 'day' I'll try to resurrect the 50 or so LOST frames.


  18. Excellent site! Great pix (too bad some of them weren't higher rez though)!