Monday, 7 February 2011

The Painter's Art: mattes up close-part one

It's with great pleasure that I present today's (or this week's as the case may be) blog which I feel is an exciting and exceedingly rare review of a number of never seen before matte paintings (for the most part) from several different matte artists, studios and general points of origin.  Today's special issue blog will try to reveal to you, the matte art enthusiasts out there, the styles and techniques of this honourable cinematic profession of old, with a number of what can pretty well be best described as jaw droppingly wonderful mattes from several sources, as well as two of my very own which are ideally suited to today's theme.

In putting this blog together, I have, as is my personality quirk, gone way beyond my intended five or six film examples and found that I have so much material that I'll need to break this topic into 2 or maybe 3 separate blog articles - depending upon the interest and feedback I receive.  I
'm forever conscious of overloading my blog storage allowance (if there is such a thing) and the "Blogger" outfit sending me a terse note stating that I'm out of control and need to limit my jpegs, seek psychiatric help and get a real job or they'll confiscate my matte shots, or some such thing.

What makes this blog different is that in addition to some magnificent pieces of glass art I'm including some exquisite close up photographs taken from areas of interest on the actual glass painting for the most part for your close inspection. I anticipate both the fan and the modern era matte digital painter will find much of this fascinating and useful.

I've got several terrific old Warren Newcombe MGM mattes here today, mostly from the 40's such as CROSS OF LORRAINE,  some never before seen Matthew Yuricich paintings from a couple of 80's shows such as THE THORN BIRDS,  two utterly gorgeous and pristine original Shepperton mattes painted in 1961 by Bob Cuff for the film GUNS OF NAVARONE, a couple of invisible Doug Ferris glass paintings from THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN  and SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET as well as a few others from other studios as well, all of which are guaranteed to delight, thrill and work up the fx enthusiast into a state of near sensual arousal...... Gee, I've gotta seek professional!

In order for today's spectacular blog to proceed I must thank the following gentlemen, without whom, as they say, none of the following would have been possible.  A very big thanks to my friend Dennis Lowe first and foremost for going the extra mile into, (in his words) "smelly London" to locate and photograph the two magnificent Bob Cuff GUNS OF NAVARONE mattes, both of which are in the care of Bob's son Simon Cuff.  Dennis also used his 'little black book' extensive contacts to call in a few favours whereby a number of 'lost' matte glasses turned up in a storeroom at Shepperton Studios, and glorious hi-rez images quickly came my way!  Dennis, you're a prince and a gentleman!

A serious debt of gratitude must be extended to another matte provider, Mr David Stipes, who, with his son Nathan have been like Father Christmas over the years in the gems sent my way , most dating back to the halcyon days where David's own FX house was so busy executing matte paintings, composites, motion control and miniatures for many features and tv series.  Thanks due also to Gary Moore for access to his fantastic collection of old MGM mattes, two of which I now happily own.

                                 Part one

I assure you the scribble says Whorf, and not 'Whore' as it appears!
 I'll start off this roll call of great matte art with my own two prized vintage MGM mattes - with the first one being a style and artistic genre that interests me greatly  - that being those glorious old time Metro glittering neon marquees which appeared in so many memorable pictures throughout the 30's onward to the mid 50's.  I've not yet been able to put a name to this film, though I did find the same painting with an altered 'show sign' in the 1946 Judy Garland musical TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, and this variation is seen below.  I'll explain this quizzical scenario shortly.

Director Richard Whorf's name is inscribed across the bottom of the painting which suggests to me that the present incarnation of this matte with 'Midnight Girl' across the marquee probably came after the Whorf picture.  The matte is painted in what appears to be goache directly applied onto artists board and I'm so glad I own this as it is a living breathing special effect just as is.

reverse side of the matte with gels.
I've always been transfixed by the flickering neons and theatre bulbs that these visual effects shots have and as luck would have it, this matte still has it's 'gags' intact, which I'll demonstrate with other pictures below.  It was common practice to ever so carefully drill tiny holes where the light bulbs were to go, with, as in the case of this perfect example, coloured gels afixed behind the matte board to facilitate the animated lights, no doubt carried out in a separate camera pass.  I don't know who painted this, but Warren Newcombe would have overseen it, and Mark Davis would have been in charge of the photography and backlit animation effects.

the same basic painting modified.
bottom-the theatre lights backlit
What makes this so interesting to me is that the piece of artists board which is noticably cut off from the edge was in fact re-used as an insert for this new 'Midnight Girl' banner, as was a piece of board substituted for the theatre name.  The original 'Leave it to Jane' neon banner used for the film TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY was evidently excised and replaced with the altered matte I now have, though it's undetectable and so carefully applied.  This sort of re-use of MGM marquee mattes was common and lot's of films are evidence of this such as THE BAND WAGON and EASTER PARADE among others.

 At left I have created a before and after effect if you like, simply by backlighting the matte, whereby one can appreciate in the lower image the three dimensional quality of those dozens of animated lights simply by holding this matte up to the window for illustrative purposes. Often these backlight gags would be animated by means of an interferance device to silulate alternating flicker patterns.  I never tire of viewing this sort of visual effect in old films, with the results always enchanting and quite something else.
Here too are some nice close up details of the MGM painting style, which, unsurprisingly, is very detailed and executed in a very draftsman-like manner.
I find this painting to be just wonderful, and I'm so happy to have a piece of not just matte painting history, but Newcombe's MGM department in my home. 

As with all of these images, click on them for a large image.
This second matte which I have is another unidentified one, though as the inscription by the artist on the black area suggests it was for a W.S (Woody) Van Dyke film, probably made in the late 30's.  The architecture of the gateway and pillars looks similar to Van Dyke's 1936 film SAN FRANCISCO, though I suspect it's not from that show.  This, although not spectacular as so many were, is still a most fascinating matte, especially insofar as the bizarre choice of matte line goes.  I can't for the life of me understand why Newcombe would deliniate a split that intrudes so far up both pillars??  I showed this to retired Shepperton matte artist Gerald Larn recently and he too was bamboozled by this odd choice of blend line.

As with most mattes of the day this was painted (or by close inspection, it looks as if it were drawn) with pastels and perhaps waterbased paint, with, as one would expect a very delicate surface to contend with - even more so when one considers just how old this piece is - which by my reckoning is around 70-75 years old!  The painting is applied directly onto a very thin sheet of black primed particle board that's just 3 or so millimeters in thickness - which again makes it even more surprising to me that it has lasted this long - especially when you learn of the back story of how this matte, and hundred like it came to be preserved.  
Intricate detail of the chain, fence and foliage.
This, along with nearly 2500 others were literally thrown into dumpsters during the destruction of the old MGM matte department back in the mid seventies.  This vast collection eventually fell into the hands of collector Gary Moore by way of the junk man himself,.  Years were spent in identifying and corolating this massive treasure, some more of which I've included below, with the end result being the majority now form a special collection at the University of Austin, Texas.  Some of those mattes were recently displayed at the special TARZAN retrospective organised by A-list Johnny Weismuller fan boys Craig Barron and Ben Burtt.

Bob Cuff test comp, though in final release is printed way down!
The big budget 1961 war picture THE GUNS OF NAVARONE  featured alot of matte work, supervised by Wally Veevers at Shepperton Studios.  Bob Cuff was matte artist on this film with John Mackie as matte cameraman.    I'm so pleased to have had access to Bob's original matte paintings, thanks to Dennis Lowe's tireless efforts in tracking these down to Bob's son, Simon, as Bob had passed away recently.

I'm so thrilled that these pieces are still in mint condition, having been famed and hung on the walls of Simon Cuff's office in London.  We can really celebrate the painting style and brushwork here thanks to the excellent close in details as photographed by Dennis.  Sadly the finished matte comp is wasted in the final film as the scene is printed so darkly that it's barely even visible, especially on the appalling DVD transfer which is grainy, dark and muddy.  The film has never looked terribly good in any format for some inexplicable reason.

Among the numerous mattes in NAVARONE is this lovely establishing matte of the Greek town and harbour with those towering cliffs beyond - all of which was painted by Bob Cuff and put together on the matte stand by John Mackie and Peter Harman.  Interestingly, this film picked up the Oscar that year for special effects though this was only in the physical effects and miniatures category, with the photographic effects work going by unrewarded for some odd reason..... but don't get me started on bloody Oscar injustices!!!!

Quite a few of the mattes here had to be scaled down significantly from huge files for blogger purposes.

Artist Bob Cuff was one of the 'new breed' of matte painters to staff the iconic former Poppa Day effects department at Shepperton under Day's long time associate Wally Veevers stewardship for the next 15 years.  Cuff would depart in 1964  to join Les Bowie's operation with Ray Caple and Kit West.  Cuff's replacement was Gerald Larn who would continue on the traditions and artistry that began at that studio with Percy Day and would continue on through to the closure and dismantling of that once great facility.  Cuff would paint on many, many classic films such as RICHARD III, THE COLDITZ STORY, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and the epic matte show MACKENNA'S GOLD.  He died in 2010.

remember, most of these images may be double clicked to produce a very large image.

Harrison Ellenshaw, or Peter S. Ellenshaw, junior as he was known at the time, contributed several mattes to outside productions during his Disney era in the 70's, with this one, the Nicholas Roeg masterpiece THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1975) being one such job, and if reports are to be believed, one Ellenshaw himself was never too happy with.
The film is a one of a kind cinematic experience, and is a film that stays with the viewer long after the fact.  Ellenshaw contributed a couple of shots of the space craft on the launch pad and this quite beautiful and haunting flashback cum dream sequence depicting alien David Bowie's home planet in better times.  
Harrison's brushwork may  be appreciated here in these pictures where it's a surprisingly loose collection of dabs and strokes very reminiscent of the French Impressionists, and not too dissimilar to his father, Peter's style.  I like the sky in particular, and despite compositing flaws is still a memorable matte shot in an unforgettable film.  I've often said it, that "music maketh the matte", and in this instance as used over this scene, it's bang on target.

Harrison's sky is not unlike his father Peter's many Ireland themed gallery paintings from the 1970's

MGM's 1943 film THE CROSS OF LORRAINE is a wonderful example of Newcombe department matte design I'm keen to share here.  Once again I don't know who the individual artist was but some of these guys were Joe Duncan Gleason, Rufus Harrington, Jack Robson, Oscar Medlock and Stanley Poray among many others during the 40's.Click here to find out more biodata.

The image at left shows the composited scene as featured in the finished film, with my set of images below beautifully demonstrating the MGM standard of one of the industry's biggest and proudest matte departments.

The 'tight' style here is interesting to compare with the 'loose' style of Al Whitlock below.

As was the case for decades, mattes were almost always architecturally precise illustrations with every detail drawn in.

Close up detail from one of the CROSS OF LORRAINE matte paintings produced at MGM in 1943.
We are all familiar with Albert Whitlock's work, and I've dedicated several posts to the man and some chosen films, though it's worth including this marvellous EARTHQUAKE glass painting as it so fits the bill for today's blog as an excellent example of the the astonishingly loose technique eventually adopted by Al in the latter half of his long career. 
I recall seeing this and a few other Whitlock paintings on display as a part of the Universal Studios Tour back in 1979 on a special effects stage.  We were also shown the final comps with effects added to this shot as well as the El-train matte from THE STING.  Now I adore Whitlock and his talent, no two ways about it, and I'll be honest to say I was so disappointed when I actually saw this painting back in the day!  It just looked so rough and unfinished I thought it must have been a conceptual sketch or something similar... though now, with increasing years and a bit more grasp of this artform I'm happy to say I know better!!!

There's probably no better example than this one of the Whitlock collection of dabs and dashes that amazingly make up a masterpiece.  Al's secret of course was to not be concerned with the object itself but more with the phenomena of light and hue which gives us the impression of reality.  I've studied this painting so much over the years, and even tried to emulate it myself back in the late 70's, but to no avail.  It's a bold, brave work of genius that only works because the painter had such an inate sense of just what will or will not work and simply zeroing in on those aspects.  What amazes me totally with this painting and some of Al's others such as the ballroom in DAY OF THE LOCUST is, what could almost be termed clumsiness of the artist's hand, inasmuch as pencil lines of unrealised areas are clearly seen under close inspection, especially off to the side of the big building in the centre (and the ceiling of LOCUST with it's blue perspective lines simply left as is).  Newcombe, Day, Sersen or Cosgrove would never have allowed this as things then were that much more academic and precise, whereas Whitlock just knows these artifacts will never be picked up by the camera nor the viewer by managing to draw the viewer's eye to specific 'phenomena'.

The next example is a beautiful case of skillfully prepared matte art ending up as being so invisible in the final scene that surely the glass artist must have had mixed feelings about all of his work either being wasted, or looking so convincing it was all worth it?

The film is the (dire) Terry Gilliam show THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN  (1989) whereby a trio of British matte painters, Leigh Took, Bob Cuff and Doug Ferris, had to conjure up all manner of settings to satisfy the demands of a film maker whose unique visions frankly don't do alot for this author with it all being lost on me.
Doug Ferris was the artist on this brief, but amazing shot, with long time associate John Grant performing effects cinematography duties.

This wonderful glass painting executed by Doug Ferris was one of a number of Doug's located recently by Dennis Lowe during a visit to the stage where the former Poppa Day-Wally Veevers matte department used to be sited at Shepperton Studios and is now a machine shop and storeroom.  The dozen or so large glasses were leaning against a wall in the back room, though amazingly were all in great condition which is a surprise knowing just what the rooms are used for nowadays.
These progressive close up pictures show the extraordinary degree of painted detail Ferris applied to the fictional setting, with even the lighthouse and ships rigging being oil paint!  Effects cameraman and long time Ferris associate John Grant composited in  sea and sky elements and added smoke trails to the apparent destruction. 


Another of the numerous Doug Ferris mattes recently recovered was this grand full painting for SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET (1997) - and interestingly, one which was commissioned at the very last minute after the planned digital effects shot failed to meet up to the director's expectations.  This is widely regarded as being possibly the last traditional matte painted effect in the UK.   The shot consisted of a telescope POV which sweeps across the village.

Doug Ferris's original glass painting which was stored in the Magic  Camera Company stage at Shepperton.

Glorious, methodical detail - and all for a shot that sweeps past, semi-obscured in a brief 4 seconds.

All of the Ferris paintings I've had the privilege to view have extensive, detailed layout drawing evident.

I've written at some length about long time Paramount matte artist Jan Domela and find the sheer number of mattes Jan executed throughout his 40+ years of effects work to be awesome.  This example is a classic Domela shot, though I don't know the title of the film it's from unfortunately.  This is one of those invisible composites that even if one suspected something was afoot, you'd never find the joins in a million years, which is why I've put the before and after images here, along with some of Domela's meticulously painted detail.
Irmin Roberts was Jan's long time matte cameraman and frequent skiing companion during weekends away.

Jan was of the school of matte artist, beginning in the late 1920's where everything was carefully drawn out and laboriously painted in, with no detail left out.  This was the fashion of the time and for many decades this was the modus operandi of pretty much all matte art - all very precise and very academic with many artists such as Jan having had officially recognised Atelier training in Europe.
I never tire of examining and enjoying the mattes of old, with the 1940's for sure being my favourite period of the artform, and possibly the peak of the use of matte art processes.

Close detail from an unidentified Jan Domela Paramount matte painting, probably from the 1930's.

Not a name immediately recognised by matte shot enthusiasts, Richard Kilroy painted a number of traditional mattes at David Stipes Productions back in the late 80's, with this example I've selected being a particularly nice painting from the made for television film THE FLASH.  This grand night cityscape is quite reminiscent to me to the IRONSIDE (1972) full painting that Albert Whitlock did of San Francisco and I'd not be surprised to learn that Richard may have been inspired by that beautiful painting - one that Syd Dutton especially liked.  Ricard is painting this matte in acrylics with a few amazing 'dribbles' seen at the bottom of the painting where Kilroy was presumably working his brushes to a finer point for detail work.
The sprawling night cityscape of THE FLASH - courtesy of the brush of Richard Kilroy.

Detail from Kilroy's painting.

An area of Kilroy's painting detail and highlights.

The 1945 Edward G.Robinson MGM film OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES  had this stunning pastoral matte painting in it, and it's a matte that I love so much and consider it so rich in it's  pure narrative storytelling power.  A glorious composition to my eyes, and one so splendidly combined with the live action plate, I'm delighted to be able to share this shot with the readership.  As per normal I don't know who in fact painted it, and it's a good bet we'll never know, except that Warren Newcombe would have overseen this and Mark Davis would have photographed it.

My, now this is a matte I'd love to own!  Just take a look at that sky.
As is my aim this blog, here's the OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES  artistry for your enjoyment and education

As a frustrated painter I love skillfully painted skies, and this segment from the same matte demonstrates a particularly good sky.  Much later on master matte painter Peter Ellenshaw would corner the market in superb skies, both in film and in gallery art.

Just recently I received some long lost Matthew Yuricich mattes from David Stipes from a number of films and tv shows that the pair worked on together in the early 80's.  Two of these mattes were from the inexplicably popular 1983 miniseries THE THORN BIRDS, though David didn't have any frames of the final composites and asked me if I had them.  Well, no I didn't, and in fact wasn't aware of any matte work in this series, so I volunteered to rent out the DVD and grab the shots in question.

Easier said than done folks!   Little did I know that this show was in fact a seven and a half hour arse-numbing, marathon must see for insomniacs, snooze fest with the two Yuricich paintings only occurring at about hour SIX - and both appearing back to back in one sequence.  I feel like I've lost a part of my life that I'll never get back again. 

Anyway, the shots were wonderful, totally invisible glass shots that not even a PhD in matte-ology would detect, so the arduous journey was worth it in the end.  Thankfully David still has all these Yuricich paintings in safe keeping and having seen all of them I'm so pleased that they are still in pristine condition.  The two shots in question depict an non-existing plush estate on a beachfront on a Greek Island.

Matthew Yuricich glass painting
Matthew painted two different angles for the director and although the visual effects were a Pacific Title contract David's visual effects house were subcontracted to do the matte work.  David's FX house had contributed many matte shots to such shows as BUCK ROGERS, CREEPSHOW and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA to name a few, with in house matte painters Jena Holman, Jim Danforth, Dan Curry, Sean Joyce, Mark Sullivan, Matthew Yuricich, Rocco Gioffre and David himself assuming painting duties at various times on busy shows such as the original 'V' series among others.  I'll illustrate more fascinating mattes from David Stipes Studio in an upcoming blog.

schematic diagram especially made for this blog by David Stipes.

The paintings are very interesting and offer the student of matte art the  unique opportunity to take a close, leisurely look at both the time honoured painting techniques, perspective, brush work and colour handling of one of the few surviving masters from the Golden Era, in addition to appreciating a flawless blend of the painted and the actual in a seemless fashion.   The detail at the left with the loose rocks is an example of David's careful use of a razor blade to gouge out areas of the painting to gradually reveal more pockets of the rear projection plate, thus creating a less obvious join between the two, and as is evident in the examples here from THORN BIRDS an utterly invisible marry up of fact and fiction.

Typically in situations such as those demonstrated here David would go to location to shoot the plate, and once processed the editor would select the appropriate take.  A low contrast registration positive colour print would then be projected onto translucent screen positioned behind a sheet of unprimed glass (as per the diagram above), whereby Stipes would trace off the projected image onto the glass and then pass it over to Matthew who would proceed with the painting side of things.   The art side of it would take around 7-10 days, depending upon the complexity of the shot, with a 2 week turnaround being about average for this sort of matte.

According to David, Matt would paint in a fairly rough approximation of the scene very quickly, from which David would photograph the art in front of the projected plate.  There would then be a series of wedge tests, a series of exposures and colour filter takes to narrow down the correct exposure and overall colour balance of the shot (see photo upper right of Stipes examining processed clips of 35mm film).  Over the next few days Matthew would re-work the painting as required to achieve a result that best satisfied him and David, from which point the final composite would be shot by David for inclusion into the film.  These rare images have never been seen before and offer a unique close examination into the workings and painterly style of one of the special effects communities true legends,  and probably the last remaining Hollywood traditional artist from the good old days, though it is such a shame that Matthew "doesn't do computers" according to his long time pal  Rocco Gioffre, as I'd love for him to pay this blog a visit and make a comment or fifty!

Although much of the Stipes Productions matte comp  output was done as original negative compositing, these two shots were put together with rear projection process, a technique favoured at the time by Jim Danforth for matte shots as well as at Disney Studios especially.    

Close examination here will show that Matt has a wonderful ability to achieve textural effects, quite possibly a trick he learned from his mentor Henry Hillinick all those years ago at MGM where razor blades were useful in gently scraping across a painted wall to create an ideal roughness that wasn't easily achieved through paint alone. Whitlock was another advocate of the razor blade technique when painting rocks and stone, and no doubt others were too.  Speaking about Matthew, with whom he'd worked on many shows David told me "Matthew worked very quickly - his style was loose and impressionistic".  For those who may have missed it, I did a special blog on Matthew a few months ago and it has a zillion great shots to enjoy.

Robert Skotak
The brothers, Dennis and Robert Skotak have been providing audiences with fantastic imagery for a couple of decades now, largely in the field of phenomenal in camera miniature work aided by ingenious first generation compositing with beam splitters, so not many people know how skilled Robert is in the matte art area, which is well represented by this mammoth matte painting for James Cameron's ALIENS (1986).  
Dennis Lowe's motion control set up
Some sources report that former Shepperton artist Peter Melrose painted this shot, though I can confirm that Bob Skotak did the painting, as used in the final film as shown below.  Dennis Lowe was on the effects crew as a partner in Brian Johnson's Arkaddon motion control effects operation and told me how the Skotak boys had a tendency to closet themselves away from the rest of the mainly UK based FX unit during this troubled production, seemingly regarding the British fx people with suspicion while carrying out their own work in self imposed secrecy.

Bob Skotak's vast and impressive space station painted matte from ALIENS

Close up detail of the above matte.

Although I know some enthusiasts who won't agree with me on this one, I happen to love the extraordinary matte painted shots in the fairly entertaining Warren Beatty picture DICK TRACY (1990).  Among the 60 dazzling mattes is the magnificent grand vista that opens the film as a vast panning shot across an entirely fabricated 'Tracy Town'.  A myriad of artists painted on this film, and I'll be doing a one off DICK TRACY blog in the near future.  Under visual effects supervisors Michael Lloyd  and Harrison Ellenshaw were the talented Paul Lasaine, David Mattingly, Michelle Moen, Tom Gilleon, Leon Harris and Lucy Takashian. 
  Even master Disney stylist Peter Ellenshaw came in at the 12th hour to work on this particular gargantuan painting.  I don't know of any individual painting or any other film for that matter where so much matte painting talent was grouped together on the one show!  These photos show the  ensemble at work - all on the one giant painting.  Leon Harris was involved in some of the matte art on THE GREAT RACE in 1966 and was key layout man here.  Although all artists seemed to have some input on this one, I believe it was primarily Paul Lasaine, Michelle Moen and Michael Lloyd - with Ellenshaw senior tackling the sky in a single afternoon.

So with that, here are some close up images of the detailed artistry which caused the artists so much grief - what with director/star Beatty's constant changes of mind over concept and specific elements, the artists were forced to constantly alter and repaint so many sections such as the many signs and billboards at Beatty's whim.

Miniature foreground buildings were added via motion control to give depth to the proceedings, and beautifully so.  Some live action elements were also introduced as rear projection process.

To add insult to injury the final sweeping camera move was eventually skip printed severely and sped up like a seagull on crystal meth to keep the move up to the tempo of the score.  The shot suffered regrettably.

The advertising billboards that were such a bone of contention for Michael Lloyd and his team of matte artists.

The overall design campaign for DICK TRACY was one of some genius to this commentator.

I don't have Hi-Rez images, though these standard images should adequately demonstrate the matte detail from one of the night scenes in George Cukor's THE PHILADELPHIA STORY  (1940).  Warren Newcombe was photographic effects supervisor and some 3 mattes made it into the finished film.  I also have images of the deleted matte and I'll save that for another blog.  The shot featured below left is really one of those great slight of hand fx made all the more convincing with an overlay of tree foliage gently moving in the foreground to sell the shot.

Utterly invisible MGM trickery with virtually the entire shot painted in the matte department as shown below.

The country house painting - one of those 'junked mattes' that made it's way into Gary Moore's collection.
Close up detail of the window area with partial, careful cutaway to facilitate a backlit gag.

Tim Burton's 1992 BATMAN RETURNS was a step up from the first movie in my opinion, and featured some very nice painted trick shots courtesy of Craig Barron's San Francisco effects house, Matte World.  The shot I'm highlighting here I find particularly beautiful and wonderfully atmospheric as a stand alone shot, let alone a good narrative device.  Bill Mather painted this unusually large glass, orientated for a sideways VistaVision tilt down, with a rear projected live action element that in the end scheme of things blended very well.  I know nothing about the elusive Mather other than he did some great work on BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, also a Matte World effects show.  I think Bill's snow here is extraordinary in texture and wintery streetlight illumination. Wonderful art!

Matte artist Bill Mather at left confers with effects cinematographer Craig Barron on BATMAN RETURNS
Visual effects man Harry Walton mentioned being involved in the shooting of this grand snowscape painting to me "When I was working in the Bay area from 1985 to 1994, I had my own studio (when I was off from ILM and Tippett Studio) about 1 block from Matte World and I did a lot of optical work such as making masked projection plates for their matte paintings. The night park scene from Batman Returns was one of them. I enjoyed walking over to their studio to deliver plates and looking around at all the great matte paintings and miniatures".

There are so many great Albert Whitlock examples I waded through in preparation of this article that it was hard to settle on just a couple of films from all of the hundreds of Whitlock shots I have on file.  Hitchcock's 1963 suspense classic THE BIRDS is, I feel, an excellent example well representative of Whitlock's brush style.  Of course this is the famous closing shot, which Hitch himself said was the single most difficult shot he's ever dealt with in any of his 50 odd films.  Ub Iwerks was photographic effects consultant here, on loan from Disney where he and Albert had worked together for several years on films like JOHNNY TREMAIN and THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR.  This painting is perhaps one of Whitlock's most famous and well recognised, outside of EARTHQUAKE I suppose.
The frame at left is from the cropped 1.85:1 print which loses quite a bit of painted detail, something that occurs frequently in re-formatted DVD authoring, though I do have the original full frame 1.33:1 shot below for comparison.  Whitlock's mattes in DAY OF THE LOCUST and FRENZY suffer badly from this letterboxing, whereas both films were shot open matte full frame.  Long time Universal career effects cinematographer Roswell Hoffman shot all the mattes.
At left is the original live action plate, and right, Whitlock's composite minus the Ub Iwerks sodium matted in foreground
Whitlock sky
Dots, dashes + squiggles= birds!

 Above are two detailed photos from the Whitlock painting, with one of Al's wonderful skies that I feel are very influenced by his quasi-mentor Peter Ellenshaw during his Disney era.  The close up at right is a superb insight into Whitlock's 'dots and dashes' approach, which Syd Dutton once called it,where the key is the feeling of backlight, the time of the day and just the impression of hundreds of pissed off birds.  A classic shot!
Of course, the film with all of it's many effects shots lost out in the visual effects Oscar race to the Liz Taylor fizzer CLEOPATRA for which Emil Kosa picked up the statue for the three glass shots actually done by  an uncredited and sorely underappreciated Ralph Hammeras.  Ahhh, Hollywood...ya gotta love it.

Mickey Rourke and pal on billboard scaffold.
Another great matte artist  I want to highlight here is Rocco Gioffre, who's output over the years has been memorable, particularly during his time as one of the founders of that top line effects house Dream Quest Images in the 80's.  This example is an invisible trick shot that nobody ever noticed from the Mickey Rourke chase movie HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN (1991). 

Beautiful LA as per Rocco's brushes.

The action was simple, just two guys kicking back some cold suds on the scaffolding of one of those big freeway signs after a tough day with psycho drug dealers etc.  I recall Rocco mentioning this shot as one that was easier to shoot as a matte as opposed to doing it for real over a real Los Angeles freeway.

The painting was extensive, and if I recall correctly, was an original negative matte shot, with the freeway element shot guerilla style on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles, the two actors shot separately on a small mockup partial billboard set in Tucson Arizona and all else created by Gioffre who did mention the difficulty in matching the signwriting on glass to the actual prop sign used on the live shoot.  The sun flare effect was created by pointing a light source at the camera through a small unpainted hole in the painting as I recollect.

In the two blow ups I've included below one can detect Gioffre's sense of humour as both he and his matte cameraman Paul Curley get prominent 'product placement' by way of illuminated neon signs  in the background of this marvellous glass painting.  The show utilised not less than 5 matte painters for the relatively few shots needed, including Matthew Yuricich, Ken Allen, Jesse Silver, David Stipes in addition to Gioffre.
Next blog will have a few more mattes from this film for your enjoyment and edification.
Note 'Rocco's Diner' all lit up.
That Deli is presumably fx cameraman Paul Curley's?

 I've shown alot of great matte shots from the small, yet formidable Selznick Studio over a number of previous blogs, mostly highlighting the magnificent work of the great team of Jack Cosgrove and Clarence Slifer, though I was saving this sensational shot for the proverbial 'rainy day'.  Well, it's hot and humid here and it hasn't rained in ages and I've given up holding back, so I'll highlight this shot from the  not terribly good Hitchcock film THE PARADINE CASE (1947) anyway as it's an absolute classic trick shot orchestrated and composited by Clarence Slifer.

Remarkable in every respect this Spencer Bagtatopolis interior matte shot.
Selznick's effects house was one of the smaller units in town yet was able to turn out so many astonishing matte shots over it's relatively short life time - and many of these were huge effects shows such as GONE WITH THE WIND,  GARDEN OF ALLAH,  DUEL IN THE SUN and REBECCA to name but a few.
Jack Cosgrove set up this unit, and if anyone want's to know more about Jack, I've written 6 or 7 blogs about his work last year, and in fact will do a follow up article soon as I've recently found some never before seen photographs of all of his DUEL IN THE SUN paintings and others such as even a GWTW matte from a private collection!!  But that's a blog for another day!

Back to THE PARADINE CASE shot.  Apparently this shot was one of about 6 urgent last minute mattes ordered by Selznick (or Hitchcock) to fill in some gaps all for one extended sequence in the narrative.  Among the artists on the film were Cosgrove, Hans Ledeboer (who was Paramount matte artist Jan Domela's mentor way back in the late 20's), Jack Shaw and one Spencer Bagtatopolis, who was the creator of this magnificent piece of 'pull the wool over your eyes' mastery shown above.  I find this matte to be the true definition of 'movie magic' - the true special effect that doesn't call attention to itself

While on MGM, I have some more great photographs taken of the detail in some of their 40's shows, such as these from the film DRAGON SEED, a 1944 Katherine Hepburn drama set in Japanese occupied China.  Once again it's always so fascinating
DRAGON SEED Newcombe department painting
to be able to closely examine the demarcation line where the blend will occur and just how much overflow there is from set to artwork.  This has always been my key interest in this artform - the blend itself and just how well woven those elements tie  together.  The 40's was a great era for quite amazing soft blend marry ups, with in many cases the soft split running horizontally straight across otherwise vertical painted forms, with the joins so often being imperceptable.

An enlargement from the left side of the matte painting with those wonderful Newcombe skies.

From the right side some astonishingly detailed bamboo.  Note the precise, yet subtle overlap of some of the matte art to match the production footage.  The notations at bottom are classic Newcombe, always scribed onto the black matte to identify the shot by director, shot type, matte stand and the ever curious 'hole' reference which I just put down to a means of cataloging the actual painting with the required 35mm take for later compositing.  I think this signifies that this was the 60th matte comp of 1944.
A film I've never seen, nor a final composite do I possess, but I must include these pictures taken at a matte art expo in California around a decade ago where a number of vintage MGM Newcombe mattes from the extensive Gary Moore collection were put on display.  I wasn't there, so these photos came to me third hand.  This matte shot is from the musical TWO SISTERS FROM BOSTON made in the mid forties.
Not only is this a great piece of classic matte art in itself, the matte, much like my own 'Midnight Girl' neon matte shown at the start of this blog, it's a revealing 'gag' painting as well.  The two close up pictures nicely demonstrate the method of drilling out (or, on glass, scraping away paint) to allow a backlit interference gag device to simulate the clapping of hands of the 'fake' audience.  Usually a slowly revolving disc with scribed on patterns will be manipulated behind the artwork, presenting remarkably convincing 'animated' life.  This was common place and occurred in so many movie classics such as CITIZEN KANE, SCARAMOUCHE and even the Bond film THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.  The mattes here were, as usual, overseen by the eccentric Warren Newcombe, with the names of the actual artist responsible probably lost to the sands of time

What's the film and who's this man???  Find out next blog!!
Well that's about it for this episode. Fingers buggered from two digit typing and carpal tunnel syndrome setting in.  I will return with part two of 'The Painter's Art - Mattes Up Close' next blog, as there is still alot of material in my files that I feel will interest some, if not many, subscribers out there such as my pal Thomas in Stuttgart, where those of you curious to know just who this fellow is and what is that fascinating matte painting he's holding will all be revealed, plus more great mattes from Matthew Yuricich, Mark Sullivan, Ray Caple and others.

I'm keen as always for your feedback, and if you happen to one of those marvellous individuals out there who's lucky enough to own a matte painting, or have photos you'd be happy to share, do contact me.


  1. I love it!
    Thanks for this magnificent new entrance. I hope you have some more for the near future.

    All the best,

  2. Entry not "entrance" of course. Sorry for that. Where's the edit-function when I need it?

  3. You got that right my friend ! Can't wait for part 2.

  4. I know I'm preaching to the converted here, but don't you just love those magnificent old MGM paintings. The sky in "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes" is nothing short of breath taking.

  5. Are all of the MGM matte's at U of TX archived as hi-res images - are they available for fans on CD if we contact them ?

  6. Hi Steve

    I don't have any idea about the U of Texas deal. The fellow I bought my paintings from only ever photographed a few dozen mattes back years ago (I'm not sure if he's an 'enthusiast' as such) and I spoke to him just today about the blog and he said the task of recording all 2000+ just seemed too daunting at the time.
    I wonder though whether Craig Barron might have images as he was brought in to evaluate the collection I think?

    He had at one time access all of the MGM stills library as well to try to identify all those mattes, and I do however have quite alot of the scans from that of various matte shots from the 40's.

    Just one of those sad things we have to face Steve....

  7. Hey Peter,

    I am so pleased to see my old mattes being shared with others. You have done a commendable job.

    Gary Moore

  8. Thank you thank you thank you - I love this stuff.

  9. MIndblowing - I love the old B/W mattes they just keep on giving.
    And then you see Albert's Earthquake matte which is a masterpiece.

    His control of detail is what makes it so great - what he leaves out as they say!

    Justin Atkinson

  10. Wonderful stuff to see for artists and illustrators alike! Thanks you so much for this blog! Painting and illustrating (my particular vocation) is all about using pigment or pixels to create an illusion, hopefully without needing to get all photographic in the rendering. I love that looseness in the Whitlock style. I'll eagerly be looking forward to your next installment.

    Cort Skinner

  11. Referring to some earlier comments: A little disappointed to see that Wally Pfister won the Cinematography Oscar for "Inception" - a movie who's look (I suspect) had as much to do with the processing power of Apple as a great DP.

    Roger Deakins' day will come...