Friday, 1 October 2010

The Epics - LAND OF THE PHARAOHS and THE PRODIGAL matte shots - part eleven in an ongoing series

Every time I feel the 'epics' have run their course I find more old matte shots in my files that I just can't skip, so although I was planning a new topic today I feel the urge to still upload more great old styled epic mattes, with today's effects shots from the studios of Warner Bros, Paramount and MGM respectively.

First up is a film unjustly relegated to camp status, Howard Hawk's 1955 LAND OF THE PHARAOHS which actually isn't all that bad.  Sure it has the larger than life characterisations mandatory to the genre, and all of the ingredients that go along with it - plenty of flagellation, slaves eaten by hungry crocs, psychotic femme fatale in the shapely shape of a young Joan Collins, and some really nice Lou Litchtenfield matte paintings - some of which I illustrated earlier in my special tribute to Warner Brothers blog a while back.

An ever so slight exaggeration, but a hell of a piece of ad art if ever there was one.

Boy do I love old time title cards, and the fonts here are just sensational.  Where, oh where are the decent titles nowadays

An impressive pan introduced to Lou Litchtenfield's painted city wallsLou wasn't screen credited on this show.

Real estate salesman of ancient times.  Now would you buy a used pyramid from this guy?

The Pharaoh's tomb, by way of an entire pyramid years in the building was just a tad excessive I'd reckon.

"The slaves were entitled to one hot meal a day - a bowl of steam"      (with apologies to Woody Allen)

A split screen matte with painted stonework and third element of workers atop of painting.

Jack Hawkin's intended tomb in the making - and it's only taken a record fifteen years to get this far.  Some forward planning really is essential on your average Pharaoh's wall planner.

A stunner of a matte composite - and one of my favourites from this genre. It was great to finally see this in CinemaScope after so many old 'flat' 4x3 video versions.

The final matte just as the end title dissolves in.

Next up are the Oscar nominated, though surprisingly few in number, effects shots from Cecil B.DeMille's SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949)The film has a few Jan Domela matte shots but the key effects sequence which lead to the Academy nomination was the astonishing set piece where Victor Mature's Samson destroys the columns propping up the temple and the whole lot comes crashing down.  A terrific sequence that still looks great all these years on.  Notable for what may be the first use of an early prototype of motion control to faciliate an exact duplication of a mechanised camera move, thus permitting a perfect marry up of miniature and separately shot extras in front of a black screen with a downward tilt camera move.

At least two Hollywood studios came up with similar devices around the same time - MGM's camera effects department under Warren Newcombe and Paramount under Gordon Jennings.  As best I can gather, the Jennings department was first off the block with this device, having utilised it successfully on a picture  titled THE BIG CLOCK (1948), one full year prior to MGM's unveiling for EASTER PARADE (1949).  Oddly though, I can barely note down more than a couple of Paramount films in which I've seen such repeater moves.  The studio was pretty conservative in such matters, especially under the reign of Jenning's successor John Fulton.  There were some tilt matte composites in  the VistaVision film WE'RE NO ANGELS in the mid fifties but that was a rare and to my observations uncommon occurance.

Brothers Gordon and Dev Jennings had very long careers with Paramount, with both men dying suddenly one year apart.

Two Jan Domela painted mattes in a film rather unusually  rather scarce on matte shots.

The G.L Stancliffe Motion Repeater in action (though these frames don't demonstrate the effectiveness particularly well).  The extras were filmed in front of a black backing by effects cameraman Wallace Kelly, with the footage optically combined by optical cinematographer Paul Lerpae who utilised roto mattes to gradually envelope the crowd in falling masonry.  The people in the galleries watching in horror were all puppets articulated for certain degrees of movement. Optical effects man Spencer Gill explained the actual technical process to me as thus; "... they were filmed against black and the composites were helped with soft-edged, animated, rotoscoped mattes.  The sequence of four photos show (upper left) the approximate size of the live action element, then (upper right) the miniature and live action split screen with some "motion control" match moves (very slight) that tie it all together. As the model crumbles the debris line "wipes off" (via the soft-edged roto mattes ) the live action and you then see revealed the small dummies flopping about. There is a foreground of folks matted in via black-backing and density mattes. There is smoke and debris matted over everything and as the dust flies up everything gets a diffusion pass. All pretty clever. The bouncing, "chattery" roto around some of the folks and the miniature debris not withstanding"..

Visual effects supervisor Gordon Jennings posing in Ivyl Burks miniature temple set.


 Whereas LAND OF THE PHARAOHS was lumbered with the camp classic moniker I'd be more inclined to say that this next picture deserved that label.   THE PRODIGAL made the same year as the Warners film (1955) had several terrific matte painted composites, some with optical moves, though the film itself was an often laughable affair.  Photographic effects were under the control of MGM veteran Warren Newcombe, whom we've discussed here several times previously.  Director of effects photography was long time MGM effects cinematographer Mark H. Davis, who according to Rolf Giesen's book Special Effects Artists assembled approximately 3000 matte shots in some 470 feature films throughout his career, mostly with Metro.  Apparently davis was also an accomplished matte painter as well and left the studio in 1956 to seek independant effects work after more than 26 years in the Metro camera effects department.

Yes, it really is that tacky.

Subtle set extension via matte art that remains totally credible and low key.

A beautiful vista from one of Newcombe's matte painters, and the optical pan across to Lana Turner's boudoir below.

I like these shots for there subtlty  -with added rooftop skyline above and clouds added on lower frame.

The Roman guards dump Ed Purdom's not-as-dead-as-they-think body into the vulture pit.

I was quite surprised with this matte as it's quite below par for a Newcombe departmental job with serious colour matching issues and a glarying obvious matte line stretching across the frame.


  1. You never know how much time someone had to do the job.

  2. I watched this film on TCM recently in a letterbox presentation and was still impressed with the matte shots. I saw the film in its original release in Chicago as a 14-year-old and thought it was a bit weak even then. But I was already interested in special effects of all types, so I had a good time looking at the mattes.

    1. Hi Arnold

      Yes, those PRODIGAL mattes hold up very well I feel and are painted with care by Newcombe's artists. The match up on the final closing matte as they walk off into the hillside was below par though.