Saturday, 16 July 2011

Walter Percy Day - the master of the matte

*Many of the images in today's blog are frame grabs from the excellent feature length video documentary by UK based film maker and special effects man Dennis Lowe and are used here with his kind permission.  Click here to go to Dennis' site where the extensive  and utterly fascinating interview with Susan Day, Percy's grand daughter is just one of the many worthwhile treats to be foundSusan's own meticulously researched website on Percy with much background detail on the man and his long list of film titles may be found here.
Walter Percy (Poppa) Day, RA:  1878-1965

One of the most important names in any historical survey of matte painting and special photographic effects development from the silent era of the early twenties right on through to the technicolor period of the mid fifties must be that of noted British artist and cinema pioneer Walter Percy Day.

A popular misconception among authors and filmographers is that Day was French - quite a popular misconception due in part to his long involvement as something of a celebrated cinematic svengali in the highly productive silent film industry in France throughout a significant period of the 1920's and early 30's.

As with other notable matte painters from the formative days of the medium, Day was first and foremost a fine artist - and a highly regarded one at that who's works would later hang 'on the line' (which in itself was no mean feat) at the Royal Academy in London.  An outstanding oil painter of the much admired (especially by this author) school of Orientalism, Day would in fact reside for several years in Tunisia as part of an active artists colony - a popular route for budding painters to follow in the 19th and early 20th century where many would find their artistic expression in London, Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice being the most popular for practically all painters of note, with Egypt and North Africa the place to be for those with an Orientalist bent. 

Pop all-a-smiles, a rare event according to Peter Ellenshaw
As far as I can ascertain, largely from Susan Day's comprehensive biographical information, Percy's first involvement in the world of film came about in 1919 when he was approached to work for a time at Ideal Films at Borehamwood, near London.  The early photographic effects techniques employed to enhance or extend  sets were either in camera foreground glass painted shots with had been around since 1905 or the popular  alternative Hall Process technique, devised by British art director Walter G.Hall whereby painted cutouts on board were mounted strategically in front of the camera and married up with the set - an extremely effective method which, notably would later be adapted and used extensively and invisibly by Spanish matte effects maestro Emilio Ruiz for the majority of his career up into the 2000's, among others.

Poppa - a truthful self portrait in oils.
According to Susan Day's research, the British film industry went into a bit of a nose dive around this period, whereas the French film industry across the English channel was booming.  Percy saw an opening to utilise his newly found talents to the maximum and took advantage of the calling.  Day's talents in creating the impossible were highly regarded in the French film industry and he found himself called upon to execute many outstanding and elaborate glass painted effects shots (and even a few on screen acting cameos) on a variety of pictures, such as Abel Gance's NAPOLEON (1925) and THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1932).
It's likely that both of Day's sons, Tom and Arthur, were already starting to work (unpaid) for their father on films from the late 20's - roles they would continue well into the late 1940's.

In an effort to  circumvent costly delays on set where the whole production would grind to a halt while Day would create his  glass painting, Percy would adapt his matte methods to utisise the held take method where the initial live action plate would be photographed with appropriate black masking in place for the later addition of the painted matte as a separate exposure.  The latent image composite would be the mainstay for many practitioners in the international film industry for several decades, though as fate would have it, the steady sprocket to pin registration in the gate of the silent era 35mm French built cameras was not  achievable with the advent of sound and the new, 'improved' Debrie cameras where pin registration was inadequate, resulting in unstable  frame jiggle and, ultimately unusable matte composites - unlike the British made Bell and Howell counterparts which were rock steady workhorses ideal for such specialised requirements.

The year 1933 would see Day return to the British side of the English Channel and never look back.  The Hungarian movie mogul family, The Korda's were setting up shop at the enormous Denham Studios. The ambitious Alexander, Vincent and Zoltan would be the veritable Louis Mayer, David Selznick and Sam Goldwyn equivilants of the United Kingdom film industry with many grand and critically well received productions coming forth - almost all of which would enlist the services of Pop Day.  From initially humble and makeshift premises within Percy's very house, the little homegrown special effects operation picked up speed within a short space of time and quickly outgrew the very basic Day cottage.

Korda's London Films painted logo.
Around this time to ease the ever increasing workload, Day would take on an eager young assistant by the name of Peter Ellenshaw.  Ellenshaw himself would of course in time become a legend of the painted medium - both in film special effects and in gallery fine art, and would always make the point of acknowledging the importance of Pop Day's influence in his own success "without whom, I'd still have been an angry young man with no sense of direction" as Peter said in his wonderful memoir 'Ellenshaw Under Glass'.


Among the influential films which Day played an important part in  over this period were THINGS TO COME (1936), SIXTY GLORIOUS YEARS (1938),  FIRE OVER ENGLAND (1936) and MAJOR BARBARA (1940), THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1940), LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943),  BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)  and ANNA KARENINA (1948) to name but a few.  Day's crew would by now primarily include Ellenshaw as assistant matte painter, Tom Day as camera operator, Arthur Day as draftsman with Wally Veevers as visual effects cameraman on several shows along with Douglas Hague as optical cameraman. Veevers told author John Brosnan in 1974"...I joined Mr Percy Day - known as Poppa Day to many people in the industry - who was a matte painter for Korda at Denham Studios.  I went to to work for him for two days but we got on together so well that I stayed with him for years.  Eventually he retired when he was about 84 and I took over the department, which by that time had moved to Shepperton."
Wally Veevers
Percy would take on a number of trainee matte painters once Ellenshaw joined the RAF during the war years, with Ivor Beddoes, Joseph Natanson, Albert Julion, Judy Jordan, Joan Suttie, George Samuels and Les Bowie among them.  It's long been debated as to whether Albert Whitlock ever trained under Day.  Some people in the know say "yes" while others say "no".  Bill Taylor maintains that Albert never worked with Day.  Whitlock himself, when asked this question by author Craig Barron, responded with "I never met him (Day)" - yet several interviews with Whitlock conclude with clear statements that he did paint under Pop with Les Bowie - with one interview stating "..Day was a better painter than any of us, though his mattes tended to be far too detailed and drew attention to themselves".

Peter with Poppa - circa 1944

Such was the sense of intense competiton between Day and former protege Ellenshaw that the pair parted ways shortly after Peter returned from the second world war, with Peter headed to MGM's British base of operations and Day continuing on for a while at Denham until moving to Shepperton Studios (possibly via Highbury for a period?) in 1946 with several of his group including Wally Veevers and several of the matte painters.

The late Les Bowie who learned the matte process from Day described his time with Poppa Day to author John Brosnan in the indispensible special effects book Movie Magic -
Ellenshaw in the old Denham matte dept.
..."I had worked with Poppa Day at Shepperton just after the war.  This was when he would have been the only one in the country doing matte painting.  He tended to make a great magic out of it and while I was there I realised there must be a quicker way of doing it.  His method was to use a number of girls who would paint and do only what he told them.  Firstly they would trace off a drawing of the original set onto a sheet of clear glass with wax pencil, then they would add onto it with slow drying paints.  It was a painstaking process that would take anything up to a month to complete...... there were endless tests to make sure that the colours matched etc."

Day protege Les Bowie paints a matte
The vast list of credits attributed to Pop Day make for interesting reading, with some being inaccurate and some downright perplexing.  Powell and Pressburger's beautiful film THE RED SHOES (1948) has long been attributed to Day and Ellenshaw but the pair had nothing to do with that film, based on the comments by Peter himself ,as well as those by matte cameraman on that film Leslie Dear who confirmed that Joseph Natanson, Ivor Beddoes and Les Bowie were matte artists.
MIKADO - before after

Other odd credits I also doubt too, such as John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), William Dieterle's HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) and Alexander Korda's 1941 JUNGLE BOOK - all of which were American based studio films that wouldn't need to contract out matte work across the Atlantic to my thinking.  I'm also sure that Day had nothing to do with two David Lean pictures - OLIVER TWIST (1948) and GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) as both were Rank films with Les Bowie and fellow Pinewood based artists such as Joan Suttie
The layout of Pop Day's Shepperton's matte dept, unchanged in 1964.


Percy would continue on as head of the special effects department at Shepperton, and even lived in a cottage on the actual lot for another six or seven years with his second wife, who happened to be Ellenshaw's mother. Filmwise, Wally as his principle effects cinematographer, George Samuels as key matte artist and designer with George's brother Ted as physical effects chief.  Matte painters Ivor Beddoes, Judy Jordan and Joseph Natanson remained with Pop until his retirement in 1952 and would themselves go their own ways within the next year or two respectively carrying on their matte artistry for other studios. 

Percy would be rewarded in 1948 with the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to the film industry.  From what I've gleaned on Day, he always tended to downplay his 'movie magician' moniker and, as with many in that field, just tended to see it as a job with some creative challenges occasionally, though pure painting was his true passion.  Though the relationship between Day and Ellenshaw was apparently a strained one by all accounts (Day was a notoriously temperamental and oppressive figure at the best of times, even frightening, according to Peter), Percy and wife, Adeline would eventually 'pull up the tent pegs' and , in 1959, would move across the world to California to be with Pop's one surviving son, Thomas, and later on moved again to live out their years near the Ellenshaws. Walter Percy Day passed away in May of 1965 - not long after his former apprentice Peter Ellenshaw was rewarded with an Academy Award for his beautiful matte work on Disney's MARY POPPINS...... I wonder if the old man felt a sense of pride in the creativity and eye to translate the artist's vision to the silver screen which he had passed down to young Peter.  I reckon so.

A selection of glass painted shots from some of the many films Pop Day painted on while associated with the French film industry in the 1920's.

More Day mattes from numerous silent French features of the twenties.  As was common in the day, many of these mattes were invisible top up shots where ceilings and ornate architectural detail was added, generally as foreground glass shots.

French cathedral glass shot - film unknown.

Silent French classic Percy Day glass shots - this time identified by title.

The 1925 French picture LA TERRE PROMISE.

Abel Gance's NAPOLEON which featured Day's talents behind and in front of the cameras.

Assorted Day glass shots from French cinema, except for the bottom right which is from Hitchcock's THE RING (1927)
Before and after frames from two early Day features - left film is unknown but the right ballroom shot is LE BOSSU (1932)
A very early example of Day and Ellenshaw's effects work, the 1936 THE GHOST GOES WEST which tends to look more like miniatures than pure glass art to me.
Day's first technicolor film, THE DRUM (1938) and according to some sources, possibly the first picture to utilise the matte process in colourBottom picture shows Day's matte camera set up on location in Wales with masking in position to allow later doubling in of painted cliffs and mountain range to simulate the Indian setting.

More from THE DRUM  (1938)
Glass shots from FIRE OVER ENGLAND  (1937)
The matte department (at left of picture) at Denham Studios, near London where Day and Ellenshaw would paint and composite mattes for many years as a team, and would serve as a solo operation later on for Ellenshaw's British Disney films after Day had moved over to Shepperton

Zoltan Korda's THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939) had several mattes such as the ceiling and walls in the banquet hall, some mattes of the fort and one of a street with everything above the first floor painted in by Day.

Ellenshaw and Day at work on the Korda picture STORM IN A TEACUP (1937)

Alexander Korda's 1936 visionary classic THINGS TO COME had many incredible foreground miniatures and perspective shots courtesy of Ned Mann and his American crew, with Percy Day and Wally Veevers providing several matte painted shots to excellent effect.  Ellenshaw assisted Day on these mattes, though by his own admission did nothing creative, and "I was just the boy... Day's helper".

More Poppa Day-Peter Ellenshaw matte effects from Korda's landmark THINGS TO COME

Mattes from Charles Laughton biopic REMBRANDT (1936) which also had numerous hanging miniatures by Ned Mann.

Probably a complex Ned Mann foreground miniature with painted backing from THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934).  According to veteran British effects man Cliff Richardson, who was part of the Ned Mann miniatures crew at London Films, there existed at this time an immense amount of antagonism and feudal in fighting between Day and Mann, as to who should control the effects requirements on the numerous shows, with Richardson stating ..."Ned looked upon Pop as an old fashioned man whose ideas were out of date - though I didn't agree with him - and Pop looked on Ned as the interloper who wasn't even necessary, so there was this sort of unfortunate atmosphere. I was about the only one in Ned's crowd who was allowed into Pop Day's department."

Two Percy Day shots from a film packed with impressive and inventive miniatures and Ned Mann trick shots.

Alfred Hitchcock's JAMAICA INN (1939)
Day's censorship fix.... to conceal the manhood of a stone idol for ELEPHANT BOY (1937).

Emily Bronte's timeless classic WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939) with Laurence Olivier.

Blu-Ray frame of Day's ornate painted pagoda for THE MIKADO (1939)

The 1942 British wartime thriller SECRET MISSION.

The Oscar winning effects movie THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940) was an all out visual fx showcase, with Lawrence W.Butler receiving the statuette.

Rare before and after matte shots from THIEF OF BAGDAD with these mattes being multiplane set ups with slowly moving clouds and sky painted on a separate glass.

More wonderfully subtle before and afters, some where you'd least expect them.

Shot initially in the UK, production was forced to move to the USA due to wartime restrictions and problems.

Rare alternate matte composites from THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940)

Mattes from David Lean's THIS HAPPY BREED (1944).

Several dazzling matte shots are seen in the David Lean-Gabriel Pascal picture MAJOR BARBARA (1941)The frame at the right may be a partial miniature with moving cars etc and artwork added beyond nearest set of buildings.

Pop Day with cast and crew of MAJOR BARBARA with Day's matte camera anchored for a locked off split screen shot.

More tremendous mattes from MAJOR BARBARA (1941)

Another of the many Powell and Pressburger films Day would paint on and oversee the photographic effects.

I'm not sure whether Day had any connection here - Korda's 1941 American shot THAT HAMILTON WOMAN.

The excellent 1948 Ralph Richardson drama THE FALLEN IDOL which had this matte painted by Judy Jordan under Pop Day's supervision.  There are supposed to be more mattes but I could never spot them.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943) used many matte shots, a number of which were invisible ceilings and set extensions.  This shot was a full frame painting for a key setpiece, which was surprisingly effective on screen as the illusion of wind, rain and a running stream were achieved purely without any animation or effects overlays and  just through sound effect editing and a slight camera move across the painting.


One of the many undetectable mattes that fill in ceilings and walls for various shots in COLONEL BLIMP.

Bombed out ruins of wartime London according to Pop Day for COLONEL BLIMP.

The duelling hall sequence with entire setting painted in by Day and co for COLONEL BLIMP.

Two more COLONEL BLIMP matte paintings.

The fairly tedious CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945) was an astounding exhibition of Pop day's mastery with the brush and compositing techniques as seen here.  Beautiful work!

Exquisite matte composites from CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA though I'm not sure whether the lower frames are matte art or large scale miniatures... though the matching of angle and perspective is superb.

More impressive matte shots from CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945)

Korda's big budget 1948 version of ANNA KARENINA had numerous clever effects shots, mattes and miniatures such as this train station shot where a Percy Day painting of St Petersberg has been split screened with actors on a set, and this in turn used as a rear process plate behind a separate foreground miniature by Cliff Richardson of a train pulling into the platform.

Before and after Day composite matte from ANNA KARENINA

More matte work from ANNA KARENINA with Wally Veevers on effects camera.

Some interesting shots from ANNA KARENINA with the top right being an elaborate miniature set rear projected behind gondola, and lower right shot looking upon repeat viewing to be mostly an actual view of the Venitian Grand Canal but with Day's addition of a moving painted sky matted in. The point where the sky passes 'behind' the two central domes is apparent as a somewhat larger matte than the actual dome, thus lending a curious 'blank' circumference where clouds are wiped prior to reaching the structure.

Laurence Olivier's Oscar winning HENRY V (1944) featured a number of mattes, all painted to the specific request of Olivier and art director Paul Sherrif that the mattes retain the highly identifiable look of 16th century tapestries, thus the theatricality in the final shots.

The vast opening miniature shot of 16th century London from HENRY V (1944) which may have been executed under Day's supervision.  Much of the background city area appear to be painted cut outs to me.

An extremely rare collectible - an original signed HENRY V glass painting which resides in a private collection today.  Former Shepperton matte artist Gerald Larn told me how this classic painting (along with several others) was in the Shepperton matte department when he started, some 20 years after the film's release, leaning against a wall (a picture of which is in my previous blog 'matte artists at work'). Gerald told me of how, at the suggestion of matte cinematographer John Grant that he grab a brush and pretend to be finishing off this magnificent piece, which was jokingly photographed for posterity.

Day, seen in his studio painting the winter view of Henry's castle.

A last minute fix up job from HENRY V where star and director Laurence Olivier needed one last shot for which Day added an eerily atmospheric horizon and sky.

Pop Day on the set of BLACK NARCISSUS with star Sabu.

The glorious opening title paintings for BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) which were the work of Peter Ellenshaw.

I've always been mystified as to why those nuns never put up safety railings around the mountain top monastery!

Art director Alfred Junge's drawing and Day's final matte composite for a magnificent shot in BLACK NARCISSUS.

One of the original backlot sets at Pinewood, with Day's painted scenery matted in.  Oddly, the final cut used includes a flock of birds seen flying directly right to left and vanishing through the matte line.  I don't know why Powell or Day didn't select another take as that slip up stands out like a sore thumb.

The Pop Day matte shot of movie legend, bar none.... the stunning bell ringing scene from BLACK NARCISSUS.

More wonderfully evocative mattes from BLACK NARCISSUS which fooled so many critics and viewers alike into actually believing the production went to India whereas the whole deal was a backlot Pinewood affair, aside from one or two second unit shots for the much censored Kerr flashback.  As someone with a perpetual fear of heights these shots on the edge of the precipice still give me the willies!!
Now, everyone remembers Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in BLACK NARCISSUS........... well... don't they?  Actually the duo's 1962 comedy THE ROAD TO HONG KONG required a number of mattes, some of which Wally Veevers adapted from Pop Day's BN glasses still stored at Shepperton, with additional elements added such as an overlay of falling snow into a cropped in view and a subsequent shot where the full painting was extended even further either by an additional painted glass or stage dressing, with the comic duo added via blue screen composite.

The top left shot is only seen in the theatrical trailer and not in the film.  The top far right shot is a miniatureJust love that lower right matte with the mist shrouded valley floor far below.

Rare out takes of an unused Pop Day matte shot from BLACK NARCISSUS

A beautiful high resolution blu-ray grab which reveals much detail hithertoo unseen in this dizzying matteshot.  The top images are a glimpse inside the many albums of Pop's before and after mattes carefully archived by Susan Day.

Carol Reed's classic THE THIRD MAN (1949) used Day's skills to add to the cavernous sewer chase sequence.

Two mattes from the 1948 David Niven film BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE which would turn up again later on in the 1953 Errol Flynn Warner Brothers picture MASTER OF BALLANTRAE.  I'm reliably informed that Judy Jordan probably painted these with Les Bowie, under Day's steely gaze of course.
One of Percy's last films was this big budget adventure THE BLACK ROSE (1950) with Tyrone Power - and a tremendous matte showcase it was at that with excellent artwork and integrated visual effectsWally Veevers was visual effects cinematographer here and would have been responsible for the tremendous flaming city composites which really look first class.

More mattes from THE BLACK ROSE.  Wally Veevers was Day's cameraman, and in all likelihood artists Albert Julion and George Samuels worked on the many paintings.  Sadly, the film isn't as good as the mattes would like you to believe.
The 1950 David Niven adventure THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL.

GONE TO EARTH (1950) was probably the last film Day would work on, though he still lived another 14 odd years.


  1. There are 3 editions (one of those is from Australia from Australia)of The Drums on DVD; which edition did those screen grabs comefrom ? I want to get the best available for Region 1? Thanks.

  2. Superb research ,this would make a brilliant documentary. Thanks for a fascinating journey through some of my favourite films . I remember seeing Percy Day's credit on films from the age of 9 and if his name was attached, it was likely to be a good film.
    Derek Smith

  3. Steve,

    Those 'Drum' frames were actually from a rental vhs, hence the lousy quality. I've never seen it on DVD.


    Thank you so much for your comments. Much appreciated. Check out the documentary on the link on that page and you'll learn so much more.


  4. I notice there's a company called FCE that has burned DVDs of The Drum and Sixty Glorious Years. Does anyine know about the quality of the image ?

  5. No idea, but sound like public domain or 'greymarket' editions.

    "SIXTY GLORIOUS YEARS" has quite alot of really good technicolor matte work in it - plenty of ceilings and palace facades which are very nice, most of which are undetectable.


  6. Great work Peter! Percy Day was a real Master and his influence was not only on the British matte painters that learn with him ( Ellenshaw, Bowie, Jordan, Beddoes...) he also left his mark on French film industry, and he even went all the way to Spain. From some recently book I´ve got, I learned that when Day left France, there were some French artisans that took over his painting work. Art director Jean Perrier who worked with Day on several films, executed some matte paintings after he left, but instead of painting on glass on location he preferred to paint on cardboard in his studio. FX and miniature artist Charles Assola adopted Perrier system when using matte paintings.
    Another artist who worked with Percy Day was Russian art director Pierre Schildneck who worked on French film Industry with Day during several years before to come to Spain, when he brought the technique of matte painting.
    Two other Russian artists that worked on French films with Percy Day were Paul Minine and Nicholas Wilke, they specialized on using foreground miniatures on camera, instead of paintings.

    All of them worked with Percy Day and they should have witnessed how he made his tricks. When he went back to Britain, they continue to use those tricks, although none of them get specialized on matte paintings.


  7. Hi Domingo

    Thanks for all that valuable additional info - it's much appreciated. I should have asked you first as you have such an encyclopaedic knowledge of European fx artists I'm envious of.

    With so much documented material and photographs etc just not surviving (nor recorded in the first place) on the British matte industry, it's great to know a vast archive still exists and is being maintained by Pop's Paris based grand daughter, Susan.

  8. What a truly wonderful blog, and what beautiful rare pictures you show. If only there were more like these, or maybe not; it would take the magic and rarity of seeing and reading this, if everyone did something like this. Fantastic.

  9. The article chronicles a rivalry between Mr. Day and Peter Ellenshaw--this should not be mistaken for ingratitude on the part of a student. Peter Ellenshaw ..circa 1980 ..remarked "without Pop Day I might still be working at a filling Station." The incident took place when Mr. Ellenshaw was driving around Hope Ranch in his new Porsche. I know this to be true for I was the passanger and am proud to call Mr. Ellenshaw "Uncle Pete" Jack Price, Jr