Tuesday, 23 August 2011

DICK TRACY - from comic strip to matte painted wonderland

Well, I'm back home here in New Zealand after a really great 3 weeks in Vietnam and Singapore with my wife which proved to be the ideal getaway from an unusually cold NZ winter which, during our absence saw a couple of dustings of light snowfall (some claimed it as just soft hail) in Auckland for the first time ever...... very unexpected for this part of the country though certainly not on a par with the sorts of blizzards some of my correspondents and friends encounter in the Northern Hemisphere.


Well, those who know me know that I'm not at all enthused about 'new' effects driven pictures, and generally avoid them like the bubonic plague as the material on offer simply doesn't interest me entertainment wise, let alone the migraine inducing out-of-control overindulgence of 'technique' over substance.  In saying that though I couldn't resist the temptation while in Singapore to see the new offering in the popular PLANET OF THE APES  series, especially seeing as the first Franklin Schaffner film is one of my all time favourite pictures (the less said about the excrutiating Tim Burton farce the better).   Well the new RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES surprised me and as it turned out is a cracking good, well paced science fiction film with utterly gob smacking visual effects work which left me speechless.

I can't speak highly enough of the incredible work of (arguably the worlds best) mo-cap actor Andy Serkis and the amazingly convincing CG interface where human-simian-computer have worked so well in giving us not just beautifully nurtured and subtle screen primates, but on screen material which 98.8% of the time doesn't cheat in the delicate balance of the often problematic domain of physics of weight and motion of the final action where so often this technology fails in other projects.

I'll bet a kidney that this work will shine at next year's Oscars and will more than likely snatch yet another Oscar for WETA, and I'm hoping, long overdue recognition for the unique talents of Andy Serkis, who, if not recognised for his one of a kind abilities in the supporting actor category, should possibly share the limelight of the inevitable best visual effects Oscar lineup.  I think Pierre Boulle, Roddy McDowell and Rod Serling would approve.....highly recommended.


DICK TRACY - From comic strip to matte painted wonderland

 *I'd like to express my gratitude to matte painter and visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw for very kindly sharing photographs from his album from DICK TRACY and other Disney shows.

Now the 1990 Warren Beatty picture DICK TRACY is a film which you either love or hate.  I actually liked it, as much for the phenomenal production design and dazzling matte wizardry as for the escapist pulp fun of the endeavour as a whole.  I've had discussions with some matte pals where I seemed to be in a minority inasmuch as loving the matte effects myself, whereas some viewers seemed to be totally off put by the garish, arguably 'unreal' aspect of the many  many painted mattes.
For my money the visual effects work, along with the cinematography and art direction in DICK TRACY is tremendous, both in it's technical execution and it's unique screen look - a look which went through numerous incarnations throughout pre-production, shooting and post production.  Although I'm not a reader of comic books nor am I familiar with the original pulp graphic novels, I'd like to hope the cinematic rendition compliments the Chester Gould comic strip of old.  The special photographic effects of DICK TRACY rank as the high water mark in my book for the in house Disney fx operation Buena Vista Visual Effects.
Matte artist and co-effects supervisor Michael Lloyd
Initially, Disney matte painter Michael Lloyd was enlisted to oversee the mammoth effects project - a project which would encompass some 50 some matte paintings along with complex miniature set ups and a one off dusting off of the company's tried and true sodium vapour travelling matte set ups.  The scale of the project was so immense that it became all too clear to visual effects supervisor Lloyd (who in addition to overseeing the trick shots also painted a number of the many mattes himself) that the effects workload simply had to be divided with a another effects veteran in order to crank the many shots out in time for the release deadline.
Co-supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw
Called in as co-effects supervisor would be matte painter and visual effects man Harrison Ellenshaw - himself a Disney icon who, following in his esteemed fathers' footsteps, would run the Mouse Factory matte department for close to a decade as well as providing mattes for two Lucasfilm epics and several other shows.  So vast a show was the Warren Beatty helmed and starring film that Ellenshaw and Lloyd would need to enlist the services of 7 other artists to produce the look as dictated by director Beatty and production designer Richard Sylbert.

Primary matte painters would be Michelle Moen - experienced in the medium though herself a newcomer to the Mouse Factory matte department - as well as a trio of artists who did indeed have Disney connections - Paul Lasaine, David Mattingly and Harrison's dad, the legendary Peter Ellenshaw himself.  Additional matte painting was shared with Tom Gilleon and Leon Harris, whereas Lucy Tanashian would act as matte assistant.  Matte camera duties were principally the domain of Peter Montgomery.  Bill Neil was in charge of the motion control miniature shots of the Mark Stetson models.

I've always felt that DICK TRACY should have have been at least considered in the visual effects category for the 1990 Oscars, as the work is fresh, supremely well executed and a welcome reprieve from ILM hogging the ceremony year after year - although in saying that, it was Dream Quest Images who took home the statuette that year for TOTAL RECALL - a questionable decision in my book.

The DICK TRACY title sequence is  a tour de force of matte art, miniatures, live action and atmospheric elements all combined via motion control.  Seven matte painters worked on this vast mural sized matte and it's a wonder to me that the finished piece has any sense of uniformity with so many 'hands' in the mix - but it looked great despite all of that.

Detail from the central area of that mighty painting with those oh so controversial billboards and advertising hordings painted in after director Beatty initially wanted name logos, then after painting, wanted no adverts at all, then changed his mind and wanted anonymous generic logos..... and so on!  I believe this chopping and changing drove Ellenshaw and Lloyd to distraction to say the least.  Thankfully, the fx supervisors elected to not persue original negative matte compositing and instead went with VistaVision rear process or bi-pack comping to allow for the continual lack of concise decision making on the part of the film's director/star.

Paul Lasaine at work on the grand opening painting.
Frames from that very tour de force effects sequence where the camera pans up and across TracyTown past (miniature) smoking smokestacks and foreground structures.  Effects cameramen Bill Neill, David Hardberger and Glen Campbell.

Frame from the title panoramic sequence with lens flare elements and foreground miniatures .

The shot finishes on the kid in the alleyway.  Sadly, this time consuming and very expensive set piece was marred by Beatty's insistence that the footage be skip framed in optical - substantially - in order to quicken the pace and fit more in with the opening music score - with much detail and carefully assembled visuals being lost due to the sheer speed of the shot.

Another classic behind the scenes photo of the grand matte vista in progress - with from left to right Michelle Moen, David Mattingly and Peter Ellenshaw shown here at work.
Production designer Richard Sylbert's garish colour schemes as translated to matted set enhancements.

Tracy at the opera - with two major matte art set extensions by Michelle Moen and compositing of actors into the painting by way of Disney's tried and true sodium vapour travelling matte system due to the blue colour schemes in the composition, under the supervision of Phil Huff and Kevin Koneval.

One of the wonderful TracyTown night time cityscapes, possibly from the brush of Paul Lasaine or Michelle Moen.

Before and after matte with Paul Lasaine's El-Train and cityscape added to Universal Studios backlot set.

The amazingly talented and experienced Michelle Moen - a protege of the legendary Matthew Yuricich.

I'd imagine this show to be a joy for the artists and designers, through and through.

Lots of effects animation for the flickering neon signs and so forth with up to 16 camera/optical passes for twinkling stars and lights.

Harrison's dad, the great Peter Ellenshaw at work on the block in of a second vast sweeping panoramic matte.

Frames from this broad citywide pan, beginning on one area of rear projected live action and finishing off on a second rear process element on the other side of town.  Beautiful.

The closing frame of that sweeping panorama with process plate in centre area for live action.

Frames from the shantytown shack matte shot

A great before and after painted matte.

At left, a subtle painted set extension, while at right a painted cityscape-travelling matte combo.

Matte line demarcation with final composited painting by Paul Lasaine.

Under Paul Lasaine's watchful gaze, Michael Lloyd airbrushes in a preliminary acrylic painting which will serve as the basis for one of the several matte shots used in the train shunting yard chase sequence.

The early stages of one of Michael Lloyd's shunting yard mattes with rough block in and perspective lines deliniated.

The chase sequence, with substantial Paul Lasaine matte art, a large gauge miniature locomotive and wagons all beautifully composited into a tiny piece of bare earth backlot.

An entirely visual effects fabricated environment with very large scale miniature train, fully painted location and rotoscope footage of the boy - supplemented with interactive on set light effects.

Reverse angle, again with large scale miniature train from a private collector, minimal live action and much matte art.

I seem to recall reading that extensive rotoscope work was needed for part of this sequence to allow brief cuts of the kid to run in front of the model train in a wholly manufactured fx environment.

Miniature and matte art combo.

Split screen matte shot with minimal set and significant painted additions added.

Harrison Ellenshaw matte painted TracyTown

An almost full Michelle Moen painting with very narrow band of live action. In the Cinefex issue dedicated to this film Michelle, who's experience up until then was primarily in oil painting commented upon the need to quickly retrain in acrylics to work within the Disney established style; "It caused problems for me at first.  Acrylics looked and felt harsh compared with oils. Oil based paints have a softer, fluid feel - both in appearance and application - so I had to learn to play with acrylics.  There were some nice things about it though.  For large areas I could use an airbrush for blending, which I did not use in oil...that helped alot. There were other advantages as well.  As paints dry they change colour.  Since acrylics dry right away, you know what the colour shift is going to be within a minute or two, so you can account for that".

Universal backlot is transformed into Chester Gould's comic strip wonderland by Buena Vista Visual Effects.

The fifty five painted matte requirements on DICK TRACY were spread between the numerous artists with both Michelle Moen and Paul Lasaine taking the lion's share with some 22 mattes each - a quite considerable number in anyones book.  David Mattingly executed two paintings, Lucy Tanashian provided two small renderings with six  sizable paintings from co-effects supervisor Michael Lloyd.  Although he was too busy to paint any complete mattes himself, co-supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw worked on a number of the other mattes and painted in conjunction with Lloyd and Lasaine on some shots.

Although unsure, I think this shot is one of Paul Lasaine's painted mattes.

Michael Lloyd painted matte
Exterior of the tram yard as depicted with an extensive Michael Lloyd painting with tiny live action rear projection.

The interior of the tram barn, as painted by Michelle Moen and added to a virtually non existent set.

A frame from the second extensive panoramic panning shot across TracyTown - a vast 15 foot painting which looked great with the added passes of lights blinking and an El train.

A combined Harrison Ellenshaw-Paul Lasaine matte painting.

A double piece of trickery where not only is the shot mostly painted by Michael Lloyd - including part of the pier in the foreground - but also some ingenious split screen work was employed to re-employ part of the same Madonna live action walk on footage to provide more bredth to the shot.

A shot from the finale which is part miniature-part Ellenshaw painted matte.

Harrison Ellenshaw at work on the above matte shot.

Before and after frames from a Paul Lasaine matte.

Two mattes seen as very quick cuts

The Disney matte room with (from left) Paul Lasaine, Lucy Tanashian, Michelle Moen and Michael Lloyd.

Yet another of the 60 odd mattes, many of which occur in the last 10 minutes of the show.

Another well blended matte composite from the chase on foot.

Miniature-matte-live action combination
Tracy Town - I'd prefer it over Gotham City or Metropolis personally.

Gorgeous birds eye view night effects shot.

A beautiful and large sized acrylic matte painting by Michael Lloyd fittingly closes the film, and the last effects shot completed - just one week before the film's premier.



  1. Great post -- just love the look of this film. The paintings have such a rich and stylised feel to them, while still being believable (real light). In fact, the shots with the train feel like more like a Pixar image...a shot from the Incredibles or Toy Story 3. I just wish the Warren had warn a nose appliance, because without it he just wasn't Dick (and of course, a better script would have helped too). But overall, this really is a fantastic achievement. Thanks for posting!

  2. I have a painting of dick tracey it is gray black and yellow ive ive called hundredes of people including a guy named scott that ownes the rights and nothing the canvas painitng is on a 48×36 Fredrix frame can anyone help me i want to get this to a collector its not about the money this is a 60 to 80 year old painting that need to be with someone that will appreciate it as much as my grandfater did if anyone can help please text me 5742227746