Monday, 29 November 2010

Whitlock's magic creates Mel's world for HISTORY OF THE WORLD

Although never one known for subtlety nor tact,  the loud and brassy comic Mel Brooks has turned out a great many films of varying quality from the groundbreaking (for it's day) western hit BLAZING SADDLES (1973), the delightful and lovingly crafted James Whale spoof YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) and Mel's Hitchcock tip of the hat, HIGH ANXIETY (1978) which according to reports the great man himself loved!   Sadly Mel's consistency hasn't always been on target, and today's movie  under my matte shot microscope HISTORY OF THE WORLD-PART ONE (1980) is one of those which although amusing in a 'once over lightly' sort of way is in fact pretty weak with way too much Brooksian schtick. I do however love Mel's use of fantastic art in his movie one sheets and ad campaigns for this and those other mentioned titles - brilliant, and the sort never seen these days, sadly.  That said, I still hold the film quite high on the scale of must see's due in no small part to the astonishing work from Albert Whitlock and Syd Dutton at Universal Studios in what we all will agree is a monumental matte shot roll out.  

Al with Mel during HIGH ANXIETY

Like the film or not, the matte work is absolutely mindblowing and should have at least been up as a nominee in the visual effects category in 1980/81  -but don't get me started again on bloody Oscar injustices over the years!!!!   
Sure it's not a huge ILM space show (which had a considerable number of flawed photographic effects comps) but this little Whitlock showcase was and still is absolutely flawless in it's oil painted honesty - and Bill Taylor's exemplary composite photography pulling it all together beautifully.

I saw this show several months prior to theatrical release back in the day when I worked in the movie distribution industry and naturally the effects shots blew me away.  A few years after that I was fortunate enough to meet Syd Dutton in that very same company preview theatre projection room by sheer chance as he rolled a number of Whitlock-Dutton matte shot show reels for a NZ producer then seeking an effects house for a Vincent Ward film (THE NAVIGATOR) which ultimately got post poned and eventually was made locally with a severely downsized budget and rudimentary, yet effective local burgeoning effects talent.  During that meeting with Dutton (as I've mentioned here numerous times in the past - sorry about that guys) I was priviledged to see these HISTORY OF THE WORLD effects shots in their pristine original negative before and after glory.  Get a defibrillator somebody.... NZPete's heart was pumping at such a rate I fully expected to end up like John Cassavettes at the end of the (dire) Brian DePalma film THE FURY - all exploded to shit  (courtesy of the master of fx make up, an uncredited Dick Smith ... the Whitlock of special make up! .....  though as per usual, I digress).

So with that rambling introduction, I'm very pleased to present not just a photo album of Whitlock's work from the film, but also a step by step progression through a couple of the major matte effects shots whereby we see everything from Al's original photography, rough sketch in, broad layout, test composites and final marry up - but folks don't get your hopes up too high, as many of those special pics are from my very old vhs Albert Whitlock - The Master of Illusion documentary I taped off network tv back in 1980 - and have played probably near to 100 times since!  The quality is pretty poor, but I make up for it with some great BluRay mattes courtesy of my pal and fellow Whitlock afficienado Thomas Thiemeyer in Stuttgart, Germany, who IS still speaking to me despite my derogitory remarks recently about DUNE!   :)

*special thanks to Bill Taylor for kindly answering so many of my seemingly endless questions pertaining to Albert, Syd, matte photography, and effects shots in general.  Not only is Bill one of the industry's best visual effects cinematographers but he's also a heck of a nice guy.

Special Visual Effects - Albert J.Whitlock
Matte Cinematography  - Bill Taylor, ASC
Assistant Matte Painter - Syd Dutton
Matte Camera Operators - Mike Moramarco and Dennis Glouner
Matte Camera Loader  - Mark Whitlock
Key Grip  - Larry Schuler
Matte Shot Assistants  - Lynn Ledgerwood and Henry Schoessler

Setting up the big Rome 'moneyshot' matte with Al's son Mark (in red shirt) rigging the matte camera, and Al's long time assistant and protoge Syd Dutton seen next to Whitlock.  Larry Schuler was Al's key grip for many years and in Al's own words was "indispensible at building the parallells and all sorts of rigs needed for matte photography"
Al pointing out the desired cut off point for the opaque matte during original photography, with Syd Dutton at upper right checking registration of the matte deliniation as Mark Whitlock cuts and staples black card to the wooden frame in front of the camera.  Lower pic shows Whitlock in his home at Santa Barbara - (he lived on the same street and a few blocks from his former mentor Peter Ellenshaw!) - with some of his unused pre-production painted sketches for the proposed, but at that time unmade John Landis version of THE LOST WORLD.  As much as I love many of Landis' films I can't help wonder what the hell he was going to do with that film - with the requisite Landis running gag 'See You Next Wednesday' just never fitting in somehow!!! - Hey -I'm digressing again.  Damned brain...Doh!!
Yes, I know the quality aint there, but it's the best I can do...  Following photography on the Universal backlot (at 'Spartacus Square' no less) the matte dept proceed to render the intended sweeping vista of Ancient Rome as per Brook's and his art department's notion.  Here we can see Syd Dutton pencilling in the drawing of the view of Rome atop of a Chinese White primed large (around 6 foot) sheet of glass.  Whitlock proceeds to block in the sky - a key requirement in all Whitlock painted effects shots is achieving the most accurate sense of light right from the outset, with the colour of the sky at that given time of day being essential, and in fact the key to Al's success.

Behind Whitlock are the preparatory oil sketches for the proposed matte, as well as others for different scenes in the film.  According to Bill Taylor this painting room was spacious and well lit, with the one and only window in the entire department.
The matte gradually comes into a stage of semi-completion with Al very reliant on the carefully positioned mirror to constantly glance and detect perspective and tonal issues as they crop up.  I myself am a (very) amateur painter and have always relied upon the mirror myself as a way of keeping track and seeing the piece with a fresh eye as it progresses, especially in portraiture  - or not!  According to Bill Taylor, Al would frequently sing Cockney rhymes or tell jokes during the painting phase, which seemed effortless to him.

The set without the matte - and the final art.  Below left is an early preliminary composite done on a small length taken from of the excess 300 feet or so of original negative plate photography.  We can see from this example that the split screen blend is clearly visible and obviously needs more work.  Often up to a dozen camera tests were carried out to achieve the best marry up and then the matte is comped with the valuable original plate footage.  No 'undo' buttons here.
Bear with me here folks - the vhs origins betray the masterpiece within, but here are close up details from the same painting, now completed.  I personally love these closer views even more than the full vista, and the impressionist brush work and sense of backlight and soft cobalt violet hues are breathtaking in their own right.  Now who agrees?

After a night in a special low heat drying cabinet Syd and Al carry the final glass painting into the camera room at Universal.  Whitlock said once in an interview that he had broken a few glasses over the years, but had become less accident prone as a result of trying to patch up and rescue broken glasses.  Take note of the many other mattes in the background and on the walls.  The lower pics show Dutton setting up the glass in  the matte camera frame while Dennis Glouner (a relative of long time Columbia effects cameraman Donald G.Glouner) and Mike Moramarco prepare the camera. Bill spoke of the surprisingly old camera set up in the matte photography room:   "Back in the department we used 1950's -era Bausch and Lomb Cinemascope adaptors on the matte stands, which proved to be of very high quality in spite of their age.  They required focusing separately from the prime lens, which was no problem on our locked-of matte cameras.  The camera focus and the adaptor focus was slightly interactive, so we would shoot a 5x5 frame focus series around the best eye focus to get the best result".

Visual effects director of photography Bill Taylor with a later Mitchell matte camera "The picture of me with the camera is a later one from Illusion Arts.  The camera was on our motion-control track setup.  It can shoot 4-perf or 8-perf bipack and roll 180 degrees, but not with the magazine shown!  The camera, which we dubbed the "Mysto-flex" in tribute to the Dykstraflex at Apogee, is now at the AMPAS Pickford Center test lab.  The motion control stand was mostly used for miniature rear projection shots, a late development at Illusion Arts, which we used when we did multiplane shots.  Miniature rear projection as a matte shot technique goes back at least to Kong, and was used heavily at Disney and ILM long before we got into it.  In spite of the great pains we took with our process plates (8-perf, flashed and pull-processed negative, extensive testing to find best plate density and color)  we were never really happy with the projected images.  They were better at any rate than we could get from separations, which had to be developed outside their design range to copy onto negative stock".

Al's final painting.  The shot will eventually have a slight tilt down movement added on the optical printer.

The finished composite as it appears on screen.  With regards to the blending - an aspect that has forever intrigued me in the artform, especially in old school matte work where more often than not the mattes were married with the softest of blends that often ran straight through achitecture and foliage, I asked Bill about Al's methods and the role of the cameraman and this is what he said:  "I must say that the cameraman had very little to do with the blending or indeed with any aspect of the painting.  One of the reasons Al was able to achieve what he did was that he ran the show, while in some other matte departments it was run by the cameraman.  O-neg shots required great care and attention on the part of the cameraman, both on-set and in the studio, but the creative force was Al". When I asked about the edge of the painted area as it meets the live footage Bill then told me "When we set the mattes we made them just slightly soft (out of focus) to extend buildings for example, and quite soft if it ran through something that might move, like trees.  Al made his soft blends in the painting.  He blended in the photography with fine cross hatching (Peter Ellenshaw used a stipple technique) and kept track of where he was in the blend with a widely spaced line of dots of chalk or white paint.  He could judge the blend quite well from a hand developed negative trim, so he could make a lot of progress in a day.  Then he'd touch out the dots when the painting was ready to go."

An old style in camera glass shot in which Al just added the sign  - and on the spot!  I should add too that as with Mel's previous film Albert was requisitioned as a thespian in front of the camera.  His role here was a minor walk on as a 'used chariot salesman' whereas his HIGH ANXIETY role was quite a bit more, as a featured character and plot point.

Richard Schickel once said "Al is the master of the special effects that doesn't call attention to itself" - and here is a fine example of the craftsman at his best.

One of my favourite mattes from HISTORY OF THE WORLD - and one that slips by quickly, almost un noticed.

The ancient port of Ostea - as realised by Whitlock.  A stunning painting, beautifully composited by Taylor with trademark Whitlock gags including the illusion of moving (painted) water and the sail flapping in the breeze.  I was chatting to Bill about just such an effect in the movie CHAPLIN (1992) with a flag fluttering over a painted NYC and he described the above shot as this:  "Al loved to put foreground stuff over paintings when he could. In this case the sail was a miniature element then blue screened into the painting.  The water movement was painted sea with a moving pattern added over it"

Vhs images of the prelimary sketch for the Paris Notre Dame matte sequence.  Also, a view of the matte department, and a pic of Syd Dutton who Whitlock said "Syd showed promise right from the start.  I could make jokes about needing to whip him into shape but it wasn't neccessary". In an interview for Craig Barron's wonderful book The Invisible Art, Dutton said that "Key grip Larry Schuler alsways joked he thought my name was Jesus, because Albert would always mutter 'Jesus' before taking the brushes out of my hand and finishing off in a few minutes what I'd been struggling with for hours".

The finished composite of the Notre Dame matte which includes both a tilt down and a significant 10:1 push in on the live action. Bill Taylor told me about this:  "The idea in all these panning vista shots was to do an original negative in 8-perf (VistaVision) and do the pan or tilt in a dupe in the optical printer.  Since the dupe was usually a reduction from 8-perf it was pretty good quality. The History of the World shots were made with Panavision anamorphic lenses.  We built the lens mounts on our Vista location cameras to slide so that a 4-perf  lens could cover any 4-perf section of the 8-perf frame, and rotate so the squeeze could be on either the short or long axis.  All the tilting shots in "History" were made with the 8-perf camera on its side so that the long dimension of the frame was vertical.
Thanks to the sliding lens mount we could put the perspective vanishing point in the bottom half of the frame without tilting the camera.  This is demonstrated in the Notre Dame shot, where there is a 10 to 1 zoom into a gentleman relieving himself after the matte painting is optically tilted safely out of the frame.
On HISTORY OF THE WORLD I made a set of dupe negatives to splice into each of the four print dupe negatives, so even the dupe matte shots were the same generation as the rest of the film.  If the painting only occupied half the frame, the original taking camera could pan, tilt or zoom, finally locking down in register with the matte.  Of course the optical printer only 'saw' the part of the frame with the matte after the original camera locked off".

Another magnificent tilt composite - from the infamous Spanish Inquistion ("The Inquisition...what a show") segment. Bill Taylor mentioned to me that "Al never worked with Percy Day but was influenced by his style by looking over Peter Ellenshaw's shoulder at Disney in England and in the US.  Ellenshaw never taught Al in any formal sense but Al realised the importance of Peter's influence. Al's painting style derived from scenic painting: use a big brush and a simple palette.  If you don't use a big brush in scenic painting you'll never get done!  The paintings ALWAYS started off with the sky, then the landscape or skyline laid in in big blocks of colour.  Never any fine brush detail until the very end"

The successive shot in the Spanish segment with another grand tilt down off of Al's incredible painted dungeons and onto the live action set piece below. Bill Taylor = "Many of these tilting shots have big perspective cheats in the painting to keep the geometry reasonable.  Since the audience sees at most half of the frame at once, one is never aware that there are multiple vanishing points.  Another Whitlockism:  "If it looks right, it is right."

A rare before and after set of frames from the Versailles segment, shot at Blenheim Palace in England, with subtle painted additions and modifications to the architecture added to existing historical French buildings.
The final composite as seen in the film - which nobody even noticed, not even your humble correspondant! Upon viewing this shot from a BluRay disc a most peculiar matte line type artifact is evident running across the lower cloud area.  BluRay may not always be kind to matte artistry.
The grand finale as they escpe from the guillotine - a genuine masterpiece of visual effects work and a now lost craft.
Whitlock's original painting for the above sequence.
Detail from the same wonderful matte shot.

This scene should have come before the previous matte, but for reasons known only to 'blogger' it just won't re-position!  Well, anyway here is a multi-part composite with the crowd split screened into three separate areas and tied together with a Whitlock painting of distant trees, more people and some significant alterations to the palace location plate whereby some has been remodelled entirely and a central portion has been painted 'out' and replaced with a road and more scenery for a more photogenic composition.

The finished composited matte.
Before and after frames from the spectacular ending....
Now that's an ending!  A great matte with that customary Whitlock gag of the sun coming out and moving across the facade of the rockface.  When I mentioned the effect to Bill he told me: "This was one of Al's favourite techniques  -the use of the cel overlay.  When he needed to isolate or create a highlight on a painting, he would tape a big cel over the dry painting and then paint on the highlights he wanted to control seperately onto the cel.  For example, if he wanted to show cloud shadows moving over hills, he would paint the hills in shadow on the main painting and then paint the highlights on the cel.  Then he would transfer the cel,  in register, to a new unpainted glass the same size as the original.  We would shoot a hand test of the overlay and the original painting on film and develop it quickley in the darkroom, then project that negative onto the new glass to position the cell.   Then the cell would be double exposed onto the painting through a moving foreground glass with, say, cloud shadows painted onto it.  The illusion of moving shadows was remarkably convincing.  You would swear the shadows wrapped around the hills in three dimensions, which of course, they did not"

A frame from the epilogue of HISTORY OF THE WORLD, where a spoof coming attractions trailer entitled JEWS IN SPACE is revealed to us.  A number of optical effects and spacecraft models, though not the work of Al or Bill.  A small independent firm called The Magic Lantern produced all these shots for the film.

Albert J.Whitlock:  1913-1999


  1. Would anyone know what film that building behind Syd Dutton is from - it looks fantastic ?

  2. Could it be from "Dune"? Looks about right...

  3. I very much enjoy these highly detailed images, especially the ones of the isolated, finished paintings. They DO look a bit too detailed though, as though someone used the SHARPEN function in Photoshop on them. I assume filters were originally used to soften the mattes slightly and thus avoid this problem. Perhaps Bill Taylor could view the images and comment on this? Anyway, thank you for the great posts!

  4. Hi,

    Wondering how I can get my hands on that Albert Whitlock: A Master of Illusion.
    Been scouring the web for it, it isnt even avaiable for sale (or on youtube in english).

    Any chance you can share it?