Monday, 16 May 2011

Ellenshaw sets sail - Treasure Island, Horatio Hornblower and Swiss Family Robinson matte shots

Blog update:  I've added several new pictures and made some corrections to a few captions from the past.  Of note are some wonderful John P.Fulton effects shots from the totally insane Olson and Johnson 1941 farce HELLZAPOPPIN.  Among the many gags are a unique bit where the boys come across a Russell Lawsen painting (as an actual piece of art), pick it up and gawk at it while the live action element materialises within the painting and helps to explain the plot!!!  The bizarre, indescribable nature of this film - arguably years ahead of it's time - makes such a joke seem quite at home.  Also from HELLZAPOPPIN I've posted a number of terrific Fulton frames from another off the wall set piece whereby our heroes lose the upper and lower halves of their respective bodies and decide to join forces by reforming as 'one' man - though with the lower half being the wrong way around(!!!)  Virtuoso optical work in a lengthy and absolutely brilliant SFX sequence where huge amounts of work would undoubtedly have been required by Universal's resident optical maestros Ross Hoffman and Millie Winebrenner to pull these scenes off.  There are also some new pics of John with miniature airplanes and an amazingly rare original Technicolor lab order requisition for WONDER MAN effects elements signed by Fulton himself.  From all reports Fulton was impossible to work with, but my admiration for his incredible achievements just goes on and on.  To see those shots, click here.
Additionally I've added some rare pics of the actual miniature rowboat complete with puppets of Gregory Peck and crew from MOBY DICK - still a great film with equally great effects work. Click here for this.
My recent Illusion Arts blog has had several 'lost' pictures reinstated too which nicely illustrate the working methods of Robert Stromberg and Syd Dutton.  
My popular War Films Effects blog has a few additions too.  Several wonderful mattes and miniatures from the Pinewood effects unit headed by Bill Warrington and Bryan Langley for the heroic Douglas Bader true story REACH FOR THE SKY (1956).  The multiplane matte of Colditz castle may have been done by either Cliff Culley or perhaps Les Bowie who may possibly have still been on staff.  Click here for this blog article.  Lastly, I have two nice before and after mattes by Leigh Took from the 1991 Disney tv film SPIES and the television series REILLY ACE OF SPIES.  Those are here on Leigh's page.


The mattes from Treasure Island,  Captain Horatio Hornblower and Swiss Family Robinson.

Anyone familiar with my blog will know how much I admire the cinematic career and fine art of Peter Ellenshaw.  For a good background on Peter I have previously penned several articles on some of his best matte shows, which may be read here, here, here and here with even more in the works which will appear soon.
Today's blog is one with a maritime theme, which is quite befitting a fine artist whose body of gallery work has included several dozen marine paintings of angry seascapes and elegant tall ships on the high seas.

Denham Studios matte department.
I've got three of Peter's matte shows here today - the first being the 1950 Byron Haskin version of TREASURE ISLAND which was Peter's first voyage into the welcoming creative world of master visionary Walt Disney, in a move which would see Ellenshaw establish a comfortable and rewarding career in matte art and art direction for the remainder of his working life.

Peter and daughter Lynda with seascape
Walt with Peter at Denham studios.
TREASURE ISLAND was the opportunity of a lifetime for Peter, for once Walt saw what this formally unknown and quietly unassuming English painter could conjure up with mere brushes and oil paint Disney saw immediate gains that could be made by the art of the glass shot in not only telling classic stories on film, but in opening them up to previously unavailable scale.  I'm pretty sure TREASURE ISLAND was the first Disney picture to include matte art of any sort, though not the first to utilise photographic effects.  Several earlier productions such as SONG OF THE SOUTH were ahead of their time with cartoon-live action combination opticals, supervised by the legendary Ub Iwerks with back up by long time Disney optical men Bob Broughton and Art Cruikshank.  To the best of my knowledge all of the TREASURE ISLAND mattes were painted at the Denham Film Studios outside of London, in what used to be the old Pop Day matte department where Peter had worked alongside his mentor from the late thirties up until WWII.  By the time of this Disney picture Day had relocated to Shepperton Studios with Wally Veevers, Albert Julion, Joseph Natanson and Judy Jordan.  It's quite likely that future DOP Wilkie Cooper may have photographed Peter's mattes as he was at Denham in that capacity around that time.

CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER (1950) and SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1959) are also great examples of Peter's maritime work and are here for your enjoyment, with some nice on set before photos of Ellenshaw painting SFR glass shots.     HORNBLOWER was a US/UK joint production released by Warner Bros with a mostly British crew and a near half and half effects unit with all of the miniatures and mattes being  shot at Denham Studios, United Kingdom.                                      Enjoy.   :)

Peter Ellenshaw painting on glass directly on the set for a high quality in camera matte effect.

Disney's first live action feature film, and largely a big gamble as animation was their stock in trade.

The opening shot - and one I'm sure is largely Peter's handiwork.

The matte which sold Walt on the magic of the Ellenshaw paintbrush, and one which would start a trend in period adventures - a whole series of which would be made in Britain by the UK arm of Disney over the next five years.

Before and after matte work by Peter which adds significantly to the inner harbour and adds flawlessly many tall ships.

Two Ellenshaw matte shots adding both foreground (a PE specialty) and background detail.

More Ellenshaw than actual setting.

Classic example of before and after shots from TREASURE ISLAND.  In later years Peter cringed when pointing out "that strange looking tree on the left"

Ellenshaw's first love, artistically speaking at that period was the sea and maritime vessels and I personally find his Irish seascapes to be so inspirational.  Above frame is all paint except the water.

I'm not certain whether Peter did this show or QUO VADIS first.  Both films were made around the same time though I suspect the big MGM epic came first, and boy was that a showcase of Peter's talents (see elsewhere on my blog for QV)

Again, a beautiful matte which I think is a full painting, probably photographed by Wilkie Cooper.

Before and after Ellenshaw matte with invisible result.
Three painted skies and some additional land mass from three shots at end of the film. With the completion of TREASURE ISLAND Peter never looked back and was welcomed into the Disney family.

The 1950 British made swashbuckler epic directed by Raoul Walsh again utilised the uncredited services of Ellenshaw.

The glorious opening shot by Peter Ellenshaw.  Interestingly, Byron Haskin who had directed TREASURE ISLAND had been head of special effects at Warner Bros for years prior to taking on prestige jobs, and was uncredited visual effects consultant here, which leads me to presume Haskin was responsible for bringing Ellenshaw on board, so to speak.

The classic 'top up' matte so prevalent throughout the golden era to finish off sets.

If there were ever a single phenomena which sells an Ellenshaw shot and is always identifiable it would have to be Peter's wonderful cloud filled skies in backlight.  So many of his mattes have the 'signature' skies, from DAVY CROCKETT,  SUMMER MAGIC to ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR all of which will be covered here sometime soon.

Again, just one real ship and all the rest pure Ellenshaw.

A curious shot this one, with either all or most of the ship painted in and a clear demarkation on the deck area where the actors have been matted in. It looks like a partial set on a stage with the majority added by Ellenshaw and this in turn matted onto an ocean plate.   Quite a bold trick shot.

What appears to be a full matte painting with the only live action element being the fluttering flag.

Possibly a genuine location, though I'll include it here as there may be some Ellenshaw augmentation to the tower?

The conclusion of the film has this shot with a painted in foreground wharf and possibly two of the ships as well.
As I love old time miniatures I'll include this as well as the film does have excellent model action supervised by Warner fx veteran Harry Barndollar in conjunction with British model specialist George Blackwell.  All of the miniatures were shot in a purpose built 300x200 foot tank constructed at Denham Studios, and according to effects man Cliff Richardson the model ships were around 30 feet in length and motorised each with it's own three man crew below decks and out of camera range.  Excellent work here.

Yep, a screen credit for Peter!

Peter's on location glass shot set up in use as he paints in additional sailing ship to complete a shot.

In addition to subtle matte work Ellenshaw supervised the excellent miniatures for the opening stormy sea voyage.

Very convincing model sequence before the cameras in the effects tankBritish effects veterans Bill Warrington and Les Bowie also worked on SFR in what was a not entirely harmonious Anglo/US blended crew.

Frames from the final sequence.

A close up of Peter carefully painting the pirate ship onto a large sheet of glass for in camera compositing as evident in the first generation final effect seen below.

All of the SWISS FAMILY mattes were executed as in camera glass shots and were painted on location in Jamaica.

A second glass shot of the pirate junk and nice detail of Ellenshaw's handiwork.

The foreground junk is real but the distant British gunship as well as the two islands are Peter's artwork.

The final glass shot with the British ship at anchor off the headland.


  1. Just for the record:
    The Nazi "Titanic" (Tobis Films) was shot in 1942 but not released by the regime, at least not in Germany (East German audiences saw it in 1950, West German in 1955). The original director, Herbert Selpin, although a member of the Nazi Party himself, was put in jail since he had badmouthed the regime during location shooting and committed suicide. The miniatures were filmed on Scharmützelsee, a lake located between Berlin and Frankfurt/Oder. It took them from April to September to finish the model shooting and sink the miniature ship via a specially built slipway. In charge of the models were production designer Fritz Maurischat and cameraman Ernst Kunstmann, both pioneers of the Schüfftan process.

    Dr. Rolf Giesen

  2. You mention Wilkie Cooper possibly photographing Peter's matte shots. Wilkie was at Denham in the Korda days, from approx 1935 onwards, until he became a DOP around 1941. He most certainly worked with Percy Day then (And later on,when Day did the effects sequences for the 1948 MINE OWN EXECUTIONER, which Wilkie photographed. He also most certainly worked with Albert Whitlock.

    Cooper knew Ellenshaw when they were both at Denham in the early days so it is possible he may have photographed some of Peter's mattes. In his career Wilkie would work closely with other effects maestros, from Larry Butler (on THIEF OF BAGDAD) and, of course, the late, great Ray Harryhausen for whom Wilkie photographed six films.

    One cherished memory I have dates back to 1992 when Harryhausen was given the Gordon E sawyer Academy Award for his lifetime of work. At a subsequent luncheon for Ray which was held at Sony/Columbia I was in attendance, and after awhile I noticed that Albert Whitlock, who was also there, was occasionally taking a glance over at Wilkie Cooper (who had flown in from England to attend the award ceremony for Ray), while Wilkie was likewise occasionally looking over to Albert. They both had that "where do I know him from?" expression on their faces. Eventually they wandered over together and at the same instance blurted out "Albert!", "Wilkie!" They hadn't seen each other in decades and it was marvellous watching them meet up again and share happy memories. It was a great day.

    1. Thanks so much for that wonderful flashback on Wilkie. Yes, I read a column in American Cinematographer about Wilkie and Albert's quizzical reunion - perhaps you were the author of said article?
      I always appreciate feedback and info such as this, and it all contributes to the age old mystery: "who did what, with whom and when was it?"