Tuesday, 25 September 2012

IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS - Ellenshaw goes all out.


*I’d like to especially thank Harrison Ellenshaw for participating in this and other forthcoming articles on my blog, answering my incessant questions and for kindly granting me access to a healthy chunk of images, showreel clips and other rich material from The Peter Ellenshaw Archive.                I thank you sir.

Glorious Peter Ellenshaw ice cavern glass shot.
For this writer, the age old ‘trek’ adventure has always held a particular attraction, with IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS easily fulfilling the prescribed expectations.  As a child in the 1960’s, my friends and I would happily spend much of our weekends ‘reinventing’ such motion picture spectacle and timeless notions of discovering lost lands and so forth in the vast, densely bush clad mountain behind our house in Auckland.  The fact that the mountain was in actuality a dormant volcano – one of around 30 in the Auckland region, just added credibility to our imagination fuelled ‘re-enactments’.  Shows like JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, ROBINSON CRUSOE, SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, VALLEY OF GWANGI and even Irwin Allen’s LOST IN SPACE were 100% Aces in our book, with plot-line threads, sense of danger and characters recycled endlessly.  Try to tell today’s kids this and if they can tear themselves away from their Play Station 3 for a split second, they’ll stare at you blankly.

Maori village matte with bottom of easel visible in shot.
When it came to grand adventure, the Disney organization was surprisingly well equipped for a studio that didn’t have anywhere near the resourses of other, somewhat more substantial Hollywood production houses to step up to the mark and deliver big screen spectacle, albeit always within the carefully predetermined ‘safe’ framework dictated by Walt himself.  Though primarily recognized as a first class producer of animated films (though I'm more of a Chuck Jones man myself), the studio had embarked on several live action projects from the early fifties with their United Kingdom production arm of the organization with films such as THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN, ROB ROY- THE HIGHLAND ROGUE and THE SWORD AND THE ROSE.  In 1954 Walt Disney took considerable risks with bringing the grand Jules Verne adventure 20’000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA to the then new larger than life CinemaScope screen. This was to be the first live action outing to be put together at the Burbank based studios in California.  The film was a hit, both commercially, and most deservedly, critically. 

CASTAWAYS tells the story (in a most formulaic Disney fashion) of a couple of kids searching the world for their missing father -  a search which takes them from mid 19th century Glasgow to the South American Andes to colonial New Zealand, with stops in between.  Along the way they escape avalanches, volcanic eruptions,  savages, a giant condor, a tsunami, fire and pirates.  It's a decent enough yarn saved by outstanding production value which is all up there on the screen and looks a lot more expensive than it most probably was.

Peter Ellenshaw with animal trainer Jimmie Chipperfield
The Jules Verne formula was so well received by 20'000 LEAGUES audiences that after a string of fairly standard westerns and lightweight family pictures, in 1961 Walt initiated a second period Verne story adaptation, IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS.   In this, the second of three large scale adventure epics the studio undertook (the third being THE ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD somewhat later on in 1974 which will be our next blog topic) the mammoth, effects heavy production would be Disney’s biggest film since 20’000 LEAGUES –  in terms of complex special photographic effects, miniatures, optical composites and especially matte paintings. The film, in all likelihood would stand as one of the biggest special effect assignments in the studio’s history.
Naturally, no Disney live action project of such scale could even be contemplated without the vital pre-production input of resident chief of special photographic effects, Peter Ellenshaw.  I’ve written much about Peter in past blogs, in particular his jaw dropping work on the vastly neglected DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE which still stands up today as one of the absolute finest trick shot shows ever made.  Disney had many resident geniuses in various departments, from art direction and cell animation through to songwriters and matte artists.  Ellenshaw left his mark on a great many of Walt’s projects, and also on a high percentage of the pictures made after Walt’s death.  Peter was much more than a 'matte artist for hire' - he was a vital creative cog in the overall Disney machine.

One of Ellenshaw's trademark breathtaking skies.
Interestingly, although it had been five years since Disney had utilized Great Britain as a production base, the CASTAWAYS picture would see a return to England with the entire shoot and post production taking place at Pinewood Studios.  Many of the regular Disney stalwarts such as Ub Iwerks, Eustace Lycett, Albert Whitlock, Jim Fetherolf and Danny Lee had no involvement with CASTAWAYS and remained Stateside working on other projects.  This time around, the visual effects crew were entirely British, with a number of Peter’s helpers being key members of the Pinewood Matte Department such as Cliff Culley, Roy Field and Martin Shortall.  Future Shepperton Studio and subsequent Disney Hollywood matte artist Alan Maley was also a member of Peter’s matte unit working mainly on scenic backings for the many miniature sets. 
Ellenshaw with FX cinematographer Godfrey Godar
Sadly, Disney films were never known for memorable cinematography – quite the opposite.  The majority of the shows made under the Disney label featured unimaginative, lackluster camerawork coupled with harsh, television sitcom style lighting, even great films such as MARY POPPINS look incredibly dull, photographically.  Well, surprise of surprises, CASTAWAYS actually looks good.  Lighting cameraman here was British DOP Paul Beeson, and I’d rank it as Disney’s best photographed film (probably their only good entry in this field!) with a good deal of care obviously taken in setting up and lighting each shot, with even the process shots looking great.  Oddly enough, Beeson would later go on to shoot (very badly) one of Disney’s worst films ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING in 1975, so I’m guessing that the one off, out of the bag semblance of photographic style for CASTAWAYS was probably squashed after the fact by Walt who it seems liked it all to look ‘flat, dull and featureless’.

For me, the film excels in it’s special effects, with a large proportion being most impressive indeed with some of the best miniature photography ever seen in any Disney picture.  Even now decades later I find the model shots, beautifully lit by effects cinematographer Godfrey Godar, to be first class work, and of a noteworthy standard above similar work seen around that time such as the pitiful model shots in THE TIME MACHINE made a year earlier, which inexplicably took the Oscar for effects!  Even the couple of shots that Peter himself disliked intensely, notably the sleigh ride on the glacier, to me look terrific as much due to good lighting, swift camera pans and quick cuts.  CASTAWAYS has an astonishing number of painted mattes, with several set pieces featuring wall to wall matte art.  Not only are the paintings themselves quite exquisitely rendered – largely by Peter Ellenshaw himself – but also extremely well composited with a high standard of colour matching, balance and contrast.

Well assembled glacier sleigh ride travelling matte.
Optical compositing work in CASTAWAYS is also of a particularly high standard for the day.  The waterspout and inferno sequences in the tree are standout examples of flawless marrying of soundstage set and carefully staged miniature effects.  I think the sodium vapour travelling  matte system would have been used in the film as it was a Pinewood staple for composite photography under Vic Margutti with assistants Jack Mills and Roy Field.  The earlier sequences with the principals added into miniature backgrounds suggest the sodium process as fine details such as star Hayley Mills’ wispy blond hair matting very successfully into the background plate.  Oddly, later scenes on board the ship have a completely different, almost sloppy look with a harder, ‘cut out’ matte line around the performer’s heads – opticals which Peter Ellenshaw’s son, Harrison termed as “dirty opticals, but still better than almost anything done by the optical unit at Disney, Hollywood”.
So, aside from some flimsy narrative construction and a tear your hair out irritating Maurice Chevalier (is he ever anything else?)…. Let’s take a look back at the many, many special effects shots from   IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS.

Peter Ellenshaw at work at Pinewood Studios on an in camera glass shot for the ice cave sequence.

Special Photographic Effects:             Peter Ellenshaw
Special Mechanical Effects:                Syd Pearson
Matte Photography:                            Martin Shortall
Miniatures Photography:                    Godfrey Godar
Effects Camera Operator:                   Michael Sarafian
Asst. Effects Photography:                 Michael Reed
Optical Cinematography:                    Roy Field & Jack Mills
Principal Matte & Conceptual Artist: Peter Ellenshaw
Matte Department-Pinewood:             Cliff Culley, Alan Maley, T.W Stubbs & L.Boyes
Special Effects:                                    Howard Hicks, Bert Pearl, Brian Gamby, 
                                                              Jimmy Harris, Garth Inns, Jimmy Ward
SPX Unit-Production Manager:         Clive Reed
SPX Unit-Assistant Directors:            Ron Jackson & Grania O’Shannon

One of Ellenshaw's many evocative concept oil sketches which are mini masterpieces in their own right. Peter never signed his concept art, though in a few cases was persuaded in his later years to 'make his mark' on some of his original sketches.



Q:        It’s a real pleasure to be able to quiz you on this, and several other of your father’s films, Harrison.  It may be a bit of a stretch on your memory due to the five decades having passed since Peter set to work on this project, and you were of course somewhat younger yourself.

A:        Yes, in fact a LOT younger.  I was a teenager attending high school in California at the time, but I was fortunate enough to spend my summer vacation in England while my father worked on CASTAWAYS.

Q:        I feel this is one of Disney’s more neglected ‘big films’, and to my knowledge practically nothing has ever been written about the production, aside from some very interesting information from Peter himself in his wonderful memoir ‘Ellenshaw Under Glass’ – a book I’d encourage all devotees of traditional effects, fine art and the Disney film factory to read.

A:        Let’s face it, for so many reasons the film is not very good. Proving once again that good effects do not make a good film.  It’s all about story and casting, but maybe I’m being too simplistic.

Continuity capers?  Peter on location.
Q:        Let’s start at the beginning.  When did Peter commence work on IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS?

A:        I’ve just checked Peter’s passports and Peter arrived in UK on May 5, 1961 and left the UK on Dec 6, 1961. Only seven months!  [He does mention the seven month period in his memoir Ellenshaw Under Glass, but I always thought this was an exaggeration.]  He returned to the UK to 'time' the answer print on September 28, 1962.  This process would have taken about one week.  The film was released on December 21, 1962; four days before Christmas (seems a bit of a strange choice).  A year between the end of production (including effects) and the release date was not unheard of back then.  Oh, how times have changed!  Wasn’t CG supposed to make everything easier and cheaper???

Q:        Interestingly, Christmas time is the time when big films get released here in the Southern Hemisphere.  Your father was renowned for ‘wearing many hats’ with these Disney films.  Tell us about that if you will.

A:        Peter had main title credit as ‘Special Photographic Effects’.  Back then ‘Visual Effects Supervisor’ wasn’t a title and if you used ‘Matte Artist’ it implied you only painted paintings and had nothing to do with compositing them or shooting plates, etc.

Q:        I presume much, if not all of the conceptual artwork for the film was assigned to Peter?  Your father really had a flair for designing a given set piece or effects shot by way of his exquisitely rendered oil sketches.  I believe he could knock one of those out in mere minutes with his quick brushstrokes immediately selling a concept.
Another wonderful pre-production oil sketch for the major, effects heavy sleigh ride sequence.

A:       As I have said before, my father was hugely prolific. He so enjoyed painting and creating a visual story/concept that he would do sketches that would often truly design the production by doing hundreds of sketches for each film.
When my father did pre-production concept sketches he never signed them. It just wasn't done especially at Disney.  My father thought it was "tacky" to do so.  Fortunately some of the works that he saved we had him sign in his later years.

Q:        Although Disney had made a couple of CinemaScope pictures prior to this such as 20’000 LEAGUES, THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE and SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON for some reason the decision was made to shoot this show ‘flat’, rather than widescreen.

A:      In those days, doing composites in anamorphic (scope) was very difficult to do.  So even with 20’000 LEAGUES there are relatively few effects shots.  The film, CASTAWAYS was shot 35mm, Academy center non-anamorphic, composed to 1.75:1 and protected to 1.33:1.  The DVD advertises “Full Screen (1.33:1)”, but to me it looks like it is not really “full screen”, but a bit ‘smaller’ (slightly zoomed-in and slightly off centre) version.  I don’t think any of the effects plates were shot in VistaVision, but they were probably shot 35mm Full Aperture.

Q:        I’d agree with your ‘full aperture’ comment, as there is a most unusual moment later on in the film where the entire lower inch or two of the matte stand is visible on screen below the painting, which probably only fellows like me tend to notice.  Do you think the picture could have benefitted from the anamorphic process, given the spectacle and potential to design mattes with scope in mind?  It would have looked sensational.

A:        If shot anamorphic it would have much more costly and would have taken much longer to produce.

Q:        At the time Castaways was made there seemed to be a brief departure of sorts, from the Hollywood based Disney production house back to Great Britain for a few shows such as KIDNAPPED, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, THE FIGHTING PRINCE OF DONEGAL and this one.  Do you think Walt may have been trying to re-establish his former successful live action production base there, which had proven itself with the four early adventures TREASURE ISLAND, SWORD AND THE ROSE, THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN and ROB ROY?

A:       I hate to admit, but I have never seen all of KIDNAPPED or THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER.  But then maybe I did and I can’t remember either movie. I don’t know  Walt’s motivation to have these UK based productions at this time.  Perhaps it was taking advantage of using “frozen” funds in the UK.  I do know that for many years there were Disney offices in Soho and at Pinewood.  Hugh Attwooll was ensconced on the Pinewood lot for many many years, decades in fact.  At least up until 1981, when I went to Pinewood to do the reshoot shots for WATCHER IN THE WOODS and Hugh was still there to production manage. I think he retired a few years later.

Q:        The sheer volume of effects shots in CASTAWAYS seems pretty daunting to me, with the number of painted mattes alone way up into the high double digits.  What are your memories of your father’s schedule on this picture to deliver such a vast number of shots?

A:         I agree, while I was watching the film, I lost count of matte shots at over 50+.  My memory is that this was a typical situation with my father,  in that he did so many things on this and many other Disney films: production design, visual effects supervision, effects producer, a lot of 2nd unit work, all of the miniature supervision and photography, main title design, lighting consultant and perhaps most important, hundreds of production illustrations. He was tireless. He also worked at night at home on paintings for galleries.

Iver Grove, near Pinewood.
Q:        Did you and your sister and mother all relocate to England during this shoot, or was Peter going it alone?

A:        Lynda was four years old and she and my mom lived there for the whole seven months.  I visited for about 2 months in the summer.  For this film he had rented the top floor of a large country house (Iver Grove) close to Pinewood. I visited in the summer of 1961, I was attending high school in California at the time, so that was all I could afford time wise to be away from California for my school summer vacation.  I have a couple of photos of the house at Iver. Not exactly what you need for the blog, but interesting nonetheless. The Ellenshaw family stayed on the 3rd floor, I believe it's called the 2nd floor in the UK (and NZ). The house was built in 1722. It's still there we believe, but cannot be seen from the road outside. Only about 15 minutes from Pinewood. In the one picture is the car my father borrowed from the studio, a (yellow) Ford Consul. Being only 15 at the time, I got a kick out of driving the car back and forth on the gravel driveway. 

Q:        As a youngster did you find this sort of illusionary work that your dad did ‘special’?

A:        At the time I wasn’t necessarily impressed by what my father was doing, because that’s what he always did... it was “normal” to me.

Q:        I notice the film was shot mostly at Pinewood Studios, and I’m aware of a number of British special effects people involved in the shoot, such as Syd Pearson who looked after the many mechanical, or physical effects requirements.  Pinewood’s own photographic effects staff also seemed to have a hand in things, with people like matte cameramen Martin Shortall, Roy Field and one of your own future SUPERMAN IV effects collaborators, Godfrey Godar photographing effects shots here too.

The CASTAWAYS effects unit on the miniatures stage at Pinewood.  Alan Maley can be seen crouching next to Peter's elbow and matte artist Cliff Culley can be seen at the far left, and I think that's optical cinematographer Roy Field immediately behind Cliff.  Somewhere there is physical effects supervisor Sydney Pearson.
A:             I remember Godfrey even back then, he was the cameraman in Cornwall, for the ocean plate shoot that would be used for the tidal wave sequence.  It was summer then, so my mother, my sister and myself went down to the Cornwall location as well. Godfrey also shot many other effects on the show. He was such a gentleman, my father loved him, because he was always polite and egoless; happy to take suggestions. As opposed to the 1st unit DP, Paul Beeson, who was a rather prickly fellow, as I understand. The crew nicknamed him “Beastly Beeson”.

Godfrey Godar lines up for the 'tidal wave'.
Q:        A veteran of the British optical effects trade,  Jack Mills I believe was responsible for the optical cinematography on putting together the travelling mattes.  Of course he worked with Peter, Pop and Wally Veevers on the original THIEF OF BAGHDAD.  The effects business must have been a pretty small, intimate one, especially at that time where everyone knew each other, unlike now where hundreds of names feature in a VFX credit roll alone?

A:      It wasn’t until I viewed the movie this week, that I even realized the opticals must have been done at Pinewood.  They look really good and I think it might have been using sodium screen, but then did Pinewood have a working sodium camera?    A few of the opticals are rather dirty, but that was typical.  [There’s one good thing about digital: dirt/dust removal.]

Q:        I think I read in Peter’s memoir that Alan Maley was also engaged on the show, though not on mattes, more on painted backings for miniatures and so forth?

Peter sketching out the Condor rescue fx sequence.
A:    Alan did work on the painted backings for the miniatures and my father was very impressed by his work.  But I doubt that Alan did much on the matte paintings, since they all look like Peter’s handiwork.  Alan might have blocked some in if time permitted.

Q:        Do you think that this association with Peter and Alan may have lead to Alan’s subsequent recruitment as first assistant matte artist on a great many Disney shows based at the Disney Studios in Hollywood?

A:        Yes.  And I know that Alan asked to come to Burbank to work. Get away from that awful English weather.

Q:        I believe that longtime Pinewood matte painter Cliff Culley may also have been involved in some of the Castaways large roster of shots?  Do you know anything about that, and to the best of your knowledge would regular Disney matte guys like Jim Fetherolf or Deno Ganakes have played a role, or would they more than likely have been busy on Stateside Disney projects at the time?
A:        My guess is that back in the US, Albert Whitlock may have been in charge of working on Stateside Disney films.  I know for sure that Jim Fetherolf and Deno Ganakes did not work on CASTAWAYS.  I know that all the matte shots on CASTAWAYS were done by my father in England.  Yes, there may have been other members of the matte department, but my father always at least finished (though usually doing most "from scratch") every matte shot for every film he worked on during his tenure at Disney.   Yes, every single one.  

Talk about 'America's Most Wanted' - none too flattering joke mugshots of the Pinewood CASTAWAYS matte department .  Second from left is long time head, Cliff Culley; forth is matte cameraman Martin Shortall and far right is matte artist Alan Maley.  I don't know the other two fellows and suppose them to be Culley's assistants or camera operators.
Q:        Is it correct to say that a great many of Disney’s mattes at this period were executed as large foreground glasses, photographed in camera?  I believe most of 20’000 LEAGUES mattes were classic in camera glass shots, just the way Pop Day had been doing it as far back as the 1920’s, and I must add, with remarkable success.

The reverse side of the above 'matte dept. mugshots'.
A:       Using foreground glass shots after 20,000 LEAGUES was very rare. 20,000 used glass shots because it was shot in the new Cinemascope anamorphic format.  After that it was better to not use glass shots, too much time to set up and paint an entire matte painting, while the crew stands around waiting. Of course for CASTAWAYS there is the photo of my father doing the ice cavern foreground glass painting and there may have been a couple more in that sequence.  But he did those because he wanted to get shots done by any means in a short time, by Christmas  so he could go home to California.

Q:        Yes, we’ve all seen that marvellous photograph of your father painting that massive foreground glass for the ice cavern sled ride sequence.  What are your recollections on Peter’s preference (or not) for the old ‘in camera’ matte shot, with it’s immediacy and on the spot production value being presumably much appreciated by the producer and director?

A:       Peter’s only preference was to please himself first and then Walt.  Because the massive workloads for effects and because of Peter’s insistence that he control the look and photography of so many shots, it was a matter of being both efficient and excellent.  When the ice cavern miniatures were first shot, they were shot high speed in order to slow down the action and make the sequence look ‘full scale’.  Walt thought that the result was too slow and boring, he wanted the action to be fast and quick, not unlike the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland.  Peter reshot it at 24fps. So that is what is in the film and it looks like a miniature (which it is), my father never liked that sequence, but Walt was the boss.

Ellenshaw ponders miniature sleigh, which looked fine.
Q:        If your memory is up to it Harrison, what can you tell us about the painted mattes that Peter made for CASTAWAYS?           Run us through Peter’s process as best as you can if you will.

A:        Storyboard panels and production illustrations were very important to determine the “look” of the film as preparation for the final shots. That way the filmmakers decided what the film would look like and make final script decisions before the first day of production.  It was very rare that changes were made after that point.  Unlike today where indecision is the rule, right up until the last (literally) moment.  Don’t even get me started!!!

Q:        I remember seeing it first as a kid in the 60’s and loving it.  I think that despite some strange plot turns and a few too many songs, the show still stands up well today as grand old fashioned family adventure.

A:        In my humble opinion, it is not a very good film.  What I call “trek films” because of their nature usually suck (sorry!).  Even a  film like AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS  is pretty damn boring. 

Miniature ship in Pinewood tank.

Q:        I’d agree on 80 DAYS.  It hasn’t held up well at all, and is quite boring. Personally, I love the genre though.  JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH is still a winner for me.

A:        JOURNEY is a very good film, even if it is a ‘trek’ film.  It must have been the casting.  CASTAWAYS has major structural problems. There is no real hero with whom to identify.  Maurice Chevalier has nothing to do most of the time, but mug for the camera.  Not his fault, it’s in the writing (though let’s face it, he was never a great actor), considering we know nothing of his character’s emotional backstory.  E.g. why does he consort with these two children?  His character serves no purpose to the story. Additionally the character has absolutely no backbone, you just want to punch him in the face by the end.

Q:        I wanted to punch Chevalier the first scene he’s in….but there’s just something about that actor that grinds my gears.  That perpetual all knowing smirk gets to me.  Aaaaaargh!

 A:       Yeah, it’s a bit sad.  I think he was just cast in the movie to sing but there  aren’t that many songs in it, it just seems like there are!  It’s over one hour into the film before the villain (George Sanders) shows up.  By then no one cares.  Even though he is the most compelling character in the film (mainly because he is George Sanders after all), he is given no action to indicate he’s a baddie, we just hear that he is bad because he says he is... that is not enough.

Q:        I’ve always liked Sanders as an actor and I’d liked to have seen much more of him too.  As a New Zealander, I, and many others here, were most intrigued (some were quite baffled in fact) by the wild and wacky matte shots depicting Maori villages here perched atop high pinnacles of rock….sort of Monument Valley type shots.  Not something at all even near accurate, but kind of fun none the less.  I wonder how many tourists at the time would try to seek out those ‘amazing’ formations only to discover none ever existed.  If you can, tell us how Peter would have come up with those concepts?

Concept art for New Zealand sequence.
A:        Peter relates in his book E.U.G that Walt wanted to give him something to do at the studio with his free time, so he made Peter read Verne’s book and come up with some production concepts to inspire the screenwriter.  Maori villages on high pinnacles of rock and having rope bridges to a prison shack is more fun than the reality of real Maori life.  In a sense it is by today’s standard highly non-PC.  But that’s one of the reasons (amongst others) that studios don’t want to make Westerns that depict the “red-skins” killing white people for the sake of killing for killings sake.  Imagine the uproar!  Make a costly overwrought “epic” about comic book characters or fairy tales instead.  That’s safer.

Q:        Don’t get me started on bloody ‘Political Correctness’…. It grinds my gears more than Maurice Chevalier does!   Back to the mattes, I loved the mountain passage sequence which is all to wall matte art- and very ‘Ellenshaw’ if you’ve seen Peter’s gallery pieces.

A:         I agree.

Q:        My favourite matte is the fork of the tree shot where the actors appear to be the only real element doubled into a most beautiful and extensive painting of a giant tree with the POV through the tangled branches – all painted.  Love that shot.  Also, a few astonishing mattes where Peter runs the blend through sky – not something that every matte artist would be comfortable or skilled enough at – merging painted sky with real sky, and the results really looks like a million dollars.  I’m referring to the top of the mountain pass as the characters come around the rocky bend on donkeys, and a later shot as they approach the huge tree in late afternoon light.  Beautiful painting and compositing.

A:         Peter was the master of composition and using foreground painting to help tell the story.  It’s all about giving a sense of depth to the visual image.

Q:        As so often happens, mattes may be finished or nearly complete when someone somewhere makes the decision to abort a particular shot or sequence, with the result being many long man hours wasted in painting and sometimes photographing a trick shot.  Do you know whether this occurred at all on CASTAWAYS, and if so, what typically would have been Peter’s reaction?

A:        Shots were very rarely cut from the final movie.  If they were, Peter wouldn’t take it personally.

The only CASTAWAYS matte painting known to survive. The small black matted portion near the cabin has been touched up and filled in by Peter prior to his giving the painting away to friend Jimmie Chipperfield, who was in charge of all of the animals on the show.  A few other vintage Disney mattes were given away under similar circumstances, such as the opening view of Nashville and the full painting of The Alamo from DAVY CROCKETT a few years earlier.
Q:        To the best of your knowledge, do any of these Castaway paintings still survive?  

A:        Sadly I don’t know of any of the matte paintings surviving aside from the one with the hut atop the precarious ledge.  After this was comp’d, the ‘live action’ part was ‘painted in’ without the actors to use as an establishing shot.  That final painting was given by my father to Jimmie Chipperfield.  In addition to handling the animals on the production he was also owner of Chipperfield’s Circus. I think it may still be with his family. His son contacted me in 2006 asking for a valuation.  As far as I know this is the only painting left in existence.  However many of the production illustrations still survive, either stolen or in many cases given by Peter to crew members.

Q:        To the best of your knowledge was CASTAWAYS ever submitted to the Academy for special effects consideration?

Peter's concept painting for the inferno sequence.
A:         I’m not certain what the Academy rules were back then.  Most likely they are as they are today, in that the producers submit a film that is then considered in all technical categories by each of the Academy’s different technical branches such as sound, editing, cinematography, effects and so on.  So if CASTAWAYS was put on the eligible list for that year, then not receiving a nomination for visual (special) effects meant that the committee didn’t thing it was worthy.

Q:        Finally, you made mention at the start of this conversation of the ‘timing’ or ‘grading’ process, which of course is vital before a negative is locked and 35mm prints struck.  Could you explain that process and the workings therein?

A:        Color ‘timing’ is the process that makes the colour and exposure of all the shots in a movie match scene to scene.  Before digital, when cameras used film to shoot a scene, the exposed negative was then developed and printed at a laboratory [Technicolor being one of the best known] and the prints shipped to the film editor on a daily basis (hence the term ‘dailies’).  The resulting prints could range in different colour shades and exposures according to a large number of factors including: developer temperature, amount of time in the developer, chemicals, printing lights (one each for red, green and blue), light intensity and emulsion type.

A gift from the British special effects team.
Once the production was finished shooting and the editor had cut together all of the printed scenes, the negative was also cut to correspond to the (work) print.  This negative was then eventually printed onto intermediate print (IP) film with timings based on ‘educated guesses’ of various light intensities and color filters to achieve a consistent ‘look’. It could be an agonizing process since the results of these ‘guesses’ would not be seen until a test print (answer print) was projected the next day. Usually it would take three answer prints to find the correct and final timings for the whole movie. These final timings were then printed into a final IP which was then contact printed onto intermediate negative (IN) film.  From this timed IN final release prints for worldwide theatrical projection were produced.  One IN would usually yield about 2,000 to 3,000 prints.

With today’s digital technology, a timing process still takes place but usually on a computer operated by a ‘colourist’ who gets immediate feedback on a computer screen according to his/her adjustments, making it much more efficient.  The term ‘digital intermediate’ (DI) has now become part of the filmmaker’s lexicon.  But not all theaters throughout the world have converted to digital projection, so an IN (for film prints) needs to be made from the digital files for every major theatrical release.
Having been involved in timing and grading both before and after digital, I can say that digital is a lot easier, however sometimes having a director hanging over your shoulder giving bad input at a computer screen can be extremely frustrating.

Q:        Sounds technical?

Answer print timing and the joke telegram (Telegrams... remember those?)
A:        It is both technical and artistic. It takes lots of experience and an “eye” to do it well.  It is a bit like driving a racecar.  You have to know how the car operates; what makes is run, yet it still takes practice and talent to drive fast. It took me many years to understand what amount of a slight shading of a color would bring a shot in line with the rest of the shots in the film.  Not everyone has that. It is very subtle.

Q:        Well I just want to thank you Harrison for sharing your knowledge of your father’s work in bringing CASTAWAYS to the screen.  I look forward to your recollections on the making of ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD in the next blog.  I know you have a few dozen stories to share on that one!  

A:         Thank you, I look forward to your next set of questions.


It was impossible to grab frames of Peter's moody matte art behind the titles, so this is the best I can do.

And so it begins... an excellent establishing matte shot with nice composition.
At first I thought the frame at left was a matte shot but on closer inspection feel it's a really nice painted backing which works very well with Paul Beeson's sound stage lighting design raising this show a cut above the normal Disney stage bound picture.  The shot at right is a matte, albeit a minor one just to block out the stage lighting rigs.  Harrison Ellenshaw commented: "There is very little painting here. In my opinion it is timed too light on the DVD and hence reveals that it was shot on a sound stage.  Bit too flat lighting (nit picking)".

Miniatures merged with beautiful painted backing.  The wave scaling at left is better than the millpond harbour seen at right

Misty mountains and valley is but a brief throwaway shot but consumate Ellenshaw in terms of backlight and density

Some of the wall to wall matte shots comprising the mountain trek sequence.  I asked Harrison for his opinion on these shots and in reference to the frame at left he said: " Beautiful shot, but it does look like a matte painting.  I would have framed the action a bit more to the center, rather than overloading it so much to the left. I know it’s a story point, but as I see it, too 'on the nose'.”

A spectacular tilt up matte composite from the mountain trek sequence.  I am still in awe of the level of compositing on this show.  Practically every painted matte shot is remarkably well tied into the live action with no 'jiggle', skillful blending of hues and barely a matte line detectable.  And all this for 1961.  Harrison Ellenshaw tends to think that most of the mattes were rear screen composited, though not by way of Disney's stateside preference for VistaVision plates, rather 35mm Academy framed flat plates. Harrison said: "I wonder if the plate was shot outside with doubles since there are sharp shadows, which helps it look so real.  Nice how there are shadows from the right side mountains".   The one drawback with this tilt shot shown above is the mechanical looking camera move.

One of my favourite mattes in the show - and a brave, supremely well executed merging of plate and artwork.

In addition to the matte shots, CASTAWAYS is a winner through and through for it's excellent miniature photography.  This brief shot of a rockslide is typical of the remarkable lighting and depth of field - both uncommonly seen in a film of this age.  I can't get over Godfrey Godar's simulation of 'natural light' with studio tungstens - always a dead giveaway with bad model shots.  Just remember, only a year earlier THE TIME MACHINE took home the Oscar for effects and was infamous for the shoddiest miniature photography since the old FLASH GORDON serials!
Shot at left is a set augmented by matte art while I'm pretty certain the frame at right is a beautifully lit and framed miniature although Peter's son Harrison is of the opinion it's a painting: "Beautiful sunrise. Probably extra burn in for the sun in addition to another full frame painting".

The ledge shakes loose from the earthquake. More top shelf miniature work helped immeasurably by Oscar worthy cinematography and lighting.
The rock sleigh starts it's downhill thrill ride.  A daffy concept for sure but it works, and the painted additions to the miniature set are glorious. The matte line is evident but it all happens so fast it slips by.  According to Harrison, Peter was never happy with these shots due to Walt's insistence that the action be 'sped up' as opposed to overcranked to create a smoother motion.  To me, it looks fine and once again benefits from Godfrey Godar's careful lighting and choice of lens.

Peter and his miniatures crew on the glacier set for the above shots.  Note the track in the snow to guide the model sleigh

Another exquisite, though all to brief miniature with painted backing from the sleigh ride sequence.

Several frames from the sleigh sequence, some miniature, some matte painted, some a mixture of the two and one a large in camera foreground glass shot (lower right).  The upper right frame is a good example of the sodium vapour travelling matte process in dealing with wispy strands of Hayley Mills' blond hair blowing in the breeze (see frame earlier in this article).  Although a badly directed shot (nowhere near enough wind and bumpiness and Chevalier's irritating smirk....aaaaargh!) the optical assembly is especially good.

Ellenshaw examines the rigging for the miniature rock sleigh.  We can appreciate just how much matte art was added to this pretty minimal set to add considerable breadth and depth to the action.

The ice cavern - all painted!  Harrison commented: "Good shot, but it does stretch believability. Now ice is round not vertical.  Excusable, especially considering the schedule was crazy short and so much interest had to be created outside of the dreadful dialogue and lame story".

More nice effects work from the same sequence.  On the bottom right frame of the giant condor Harrison remarked:
"Typical of my father, his ability to make the plate (with the condor) with the very plain background integrate so well wit the sky/clouds is remarkable.  Few people could do something like that, then AND now!"

The giant condor swoops down to save the falling boy.  A quick but really impressive FX shot with, presumably a real condor doubled into a miniature set(?)  Really nice shot that's totally convincing.

Two more equally effective painted shots from the condor sequence.

An extensive matte painted shot with minimal live action plate.

Another magnificent Ellenshaw shot, beautifully designed and carried out.  Again, the blending of painting to plate is astonishingly good with an invisible join hidden with the tree (a nice touch) and low cloud.  A great deal of skill comes into play here to bring off such a bold shot so successfully. It's amazing how just a few brush strokes can be so effective.  Bravo Peter!

I did say this show was loaded with superb matte shots didn't I?  All painted except a small slot surrounding the trekkers on horseback.  The sheer volume of painting, let alone photography, tests and the rest of it is mind boggling - and all in seven months!  My God, Walt got his 'pound of flesh' from Peter with this show, though I get the distinct impression from Harrison that his father wouldn't have it any other way.

And they just keep on coming - shot after shot after shot.  Yet another beauty in terms of 'long lens' composition, time of day, receding daylight and masterful blending.  Says Harrison of this shot: "The match in the sky is genius".  I'd certainly go along with that.

Arrival at the tree, and all is not as it seems.  A prelude to disaster.  Extensive use of matte art with at least two of these frames being full frame paintings, with the upper left shot having an actor added in via travelling matte.

The tide has turned..... tsunami alert!  Multi part trick shots with matte art, separate seaside plates (see location photos at the start of this article) and split screened in actors. Harrison remarked to me that the matte line join is very visible in the long shot of the characters running up the beach and that the stars are a dead giveaway that it's a matte shot.  The lower left frame is one of Jack Mills' optical composites of high speed photography of very feeble English seaside breakers looking sufficiently engulfing.  Mills worked on THIEF OF BAGHDAD with Peter and Pop Day.

The instructions said 'Don't over water'... but what did they do!  Seriously, classic Ellenshaw clouds are a trademark of Peter's brushwork both in cinematic art and his gallery art and I'm convinced this quite expressive style directly rubbed off on Albert Whitlock and can be seen in many of his shows.  I'm a great lover of painted skies (might do a blog on matted skies!) and Peter was at the top of his game when it came to these atmospheric occurances.

Alright...I know I may have said it before, but THIS really is my favourite matte painted shot in the whole show.  Such bold, up front design and fearless expanse of oil paint right up to the nose of the audience.  Only Ellenshaw could be so courageous in designing and completing a shot like this.  All paint except two small areas of live action projected in.  Such a romantic vision.

The evening brings forth even more surprises.  Note the stunning sky at right.  Damn, that's good.

Jaguar on the rampage with cast combined through clever travelling mattes.  The raging inferno is also expertly designed, controlled (by Syd Pearson) and photographed.  When combined seemlessly with live action plates of the actors and the jaguar a most thrilling sequence results. Just look at those jaguar set ups above.  Again, production design complimented by a surprisingly artful lighting cameraman (for a Disney project!) really sells this show.  DOP Paul Beeson shot other Disney films but none had this degree of skill by a long shot (no pun intended).

Well, wouldn't 'ya know it.... the raging inferno is extinguished by a rogue water spout (it is a Disney show after all).  Shown above is the filming of the impressive waterspout sequence in the Pinewood tank.  That's Peter hanging on to the camera mag and looking decidedly saturated.  How the man managed to oversee all of these varied special effects sequences AND paint most of the 60 odd mattes is beyond me, especially under Britain's archaic heavily unionised workplace of the day whereby trade unions dictated that all work cease at precisely a given hour (I think it was 5 or 6pm) and not a second longer, no matter what was in progress at that moment.  The plug was literally 'pulled' and all the power would go off and workers would wander off home.  I know what I'm talking about here as New Zealand inherited that same unfortunate industrial scenario back then which did so much damage...thankfully long since done away with!

The water spout extinguishes the fire.  I bet Peter and colleagues scratched their collective heads over pulling off this sequence.  I don't exactly know how they did it but the results look great. Probably reverse filming somehow integrated with a burning miniature tree and stormy skies.  Some good process combination shots here too.  I suspect a hell of a lot of takes and experimentation came into play for this one.

Now, with such a good run of matte shots there had to be at least one that failed, and for me it's this one of the port of Melborne.  The colour palette is odd and the shot has forever bugged me with it's strangely flat 'tungsten' look to the entire image, almost as if incorrect colour correction filters had been used during photography on the matte stand.  The shot really is at odds with the rest of the mattes almost as if it were done by someone else altogether and doesn't have any of Ellenshaw's identifiable hallmarks of shadow, backlight and sense of depth.

Miniatures in the tank.  The travelling matte comps in this portion of the film look quite substandard when weighed up against the generally impressive similar shots in the first half of the film.  The figures all tend to have a hard cut out quality with ill fitting mattes, as opposed to the superior and quite fine TM's seen earlier.

And so we arrive in New Zealand... well Jules Verne and Walt Disney's version of NZ.

The Maori village perched precariously atop rocky outcrops are wholly from the realms of fantasy but do make for a pretty spectacular setting.

More views of the Maori village and detention centre.  I like the shot shown at right...nice touch with the volcano.

More painted set extensions for the escape sequence, some of which are barely detectable.  On the escape via swing rope (top right), Harrison commented: "My biggest problem with this shot and the 'swinging sequence' is that we in the audiece are not quite sure what’s going on and then, without warning the young boy is very close to the rock. Despite the lack of continuity the effects are super".

Now this shot is indeed interesting.  A nicely designed and executed matte painting with stuntmen doubled in climbing the rope.  Even Peter's son Harrison was gobsmacked by the very visible bottom strip of easel where obviously the painting ended well within the confines of the 35mm frame!  The optical overlay of the fuse burning it's way up the rope can be seen superimposed 'out of shot'.  In all likelihood this mistake would never be seen by audiences as the film would have been masked during projection to conform to a 1.77:1 or 1.85:1 theatre ratio.  It is amazing how often this sort of thing does show up though.  In non scope 16mm, VHS and TV prints of the Tarzan movie, GREYSTOKE. we were treated to the top of Albert Whitlock's easel clearly visible in the shipwreck matte shot.  I used to work in local film distribution here in NZ and I recall panic when theatrical prints of GREMLINS arrived with all of the puppeteering stuff visible well within the frame.  New footage had to be prepared with a black mask covering the rods and FX guys' hands.  But, as usual I digress.........................

A stunner of a matte shot - eerily atmospheric and superbly painted, which Harrison regards as "More corny stuff, yet another excellent shot and composite".  It dumbfounds me as to how this picture never received a nomination in the Oscar's visual effects category as the work is uniformly excellent and among the best overall effects work from the Disney studio.

Peter with an unidentified crew member on the miniature volcano set.

The volcano blows her top.  I regard this scene as sensational.  Fantastic though simple matte art with a terrific optical overlay of (I suspect) an actual stock footage eruption.  The optical line up has some slight jiggle, which may have been corrected frame by frame, but considering the origins of the footage, which would, out of necessity have been photographed with an extreme telephoto lens, image weave is unavoidable.  Despite this, the shot is very impressive and looks far better on screen than one would expect. The lower frames with the fast approaching lava work well too because unlike most films this lava really looks like lava (and may in fact BE real lava?)

The Maori chief and his warriors run for their lives.  Travelling matte composites shot on the stage at Pinewood with an actual eruption well utilised as background footage.  The stock footage is remarkable and I applaud whoever was responsible for going through hours of stock shots to select the final CASTAWAYS plates.  Job well done.

The escape from New Zealand.  Largely painted with real ocean and small area of beach.  The ship and sky are also painted.  Harrison told me he'd have brought the horizon line down a bit on this shot.

For the shot of the canoes paddling to the ship mechanised miniature boats with moving oars were utilised. Until Harrison Ellenshaw gave me this photo I had no idea I'd been tricked!  Damn special effects guys!
The flawless miniature shot as it appears on screen. 

And they sail off into the distance.  Moody Ellenshaw cloudscape which Harrison considers "One of the nicest shots in the whole show".

Well, that's it for now.  I know there are people out there who really like this film and it's outstanding special photographic effects work (yes Thomas...I know you'll enjoy this retrospective).  Tune in again real soon for part two of this Disney Epic Double Feature with a look at ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD.




  1. Wonderful! This has always been one of my favorite films! Thanks so much for all your efforts.
    Mike Goldberg
    Nashville, TN USA

    1. Hi Mike

      Thanks for that. Yeah, i like it too and as I said, Peter's mattes are astonishing. Really a neglected film which alot of people don't know about.


  2. I know that Disney has recently undertaken a massive project to scan/lightly cleanup/preserve their entire film library. Would Harrison have any news Peter's Disney film's being released on Bluray ?

    1. Howdy Steve

      I asked Harrison about this exact matter recently, and sadly he says he has no idea and in his words "wouldn't be surprised if Disney themselves had no idea either". I do know that The Black Hole is getting a makeover as we speak but aside from that, no clues.


  3. Hello Pete,

    wonderful as always. One of my absolute favorites when it comes to matte paintings. The other, you guessed it already, is "Island at the top of the world", which I like a little better, simply because of the story. Both have this naive charm, which can only be enjoyed, when viewed with the eyes of a child. I showed Island to my son Max when he was about 6 and it is still one of his favorite movies. If he had seen it later, he probably would have laughed at me. I guess todays boys and girls are is so sophisticated and saturated, they simply have forgotten how to be amazed.
    Disney films never have had a strong story - with the exception of 20,000 Miles perhaps. But what they’ve got, was this "sense of wonder". Nothing about them was perfect: neither the actors nor the effects or the screenplay. But they were bold and ventured to subjects that fire up your imagination: adventures, fantasy, mystery, natural disasters, science fiction. But you need to have an effects mastermind like Peter Ellenshaw to get them done on budget. Unfortunately, these kind of movies seem a bit out of fashion, except maybe, if you watch the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I, for my part, would like to preserve this children's view for myself, this ability to wonder.

    Thanks for bringing back those memories.

    Kind regards,

  4. Don't know if people heard, but Matte World Digital recently closed shop.

    1. Hi Steve

      Yes it is sad, but that's the way VFX is headed. It's all done on laptops by 20 year olds spread across the globe now it seems.
      The GOOD news is that this very blogsite will be publishing a 'Matte Art & Miniatures of Matte World' blog in the near future. Craig has graciously offered images of all of MWD's traditional era mattes and miniature shots to me, and I would be honoured to try to do Craig and his talented people justice with this tribute. As they say in the movies, 'Watch This Space'.

  5. Thanks for posting. I remember seeing this film on 16mm in a local film club for kids sometime in the late 70's. I think I was 6 or 7 years old, and I was truly flabbergasted at the whole adventure. The images from the film stuck to my brain ever since and was one of the main influences for me wanting to work in movies. I immediately ordered the dvd from amazon and plan on showing it to my kids next weekend ;-)

  6. You were a bit harsh when talking about this film. Of course I saw this at the proper age (I was 8 years-old) on its initial release and I was so upset when the film ended I cannot tell you.

    Many years later in the early days of VHS movie rentals (when I was sharing a house with some make-up effects guys) I rented a copy much to the amusement of my friends. They reacted with revulsion and amazement saying, "A DISNEY kiddie flick starring Hayley Mills!?!?!" We ran it first and it was the hit of the evening. Hayley Mills out-did Indiana Jones (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK had just come out) and managed to out-do him.

    Also virtually every other shot was a sodium Vapor traveling matte, a stunning matte painting, a miniature, or some combination of the three. You could tell it was sodium vapor on the big screen since the mattes had better detail than the color footage. That is even more evident in the Harryhausen MYSTERIOUS ISLAND especially in the balloon sequence. The reason Ray Harryhausen relocated in the UK was to use the sodium vapor process and Walt Disney had the only sodium vapor set-up in the USA. The beam splitters (it reflected only the wavelengths produced by the sodium vapor lamps) were of a batch created in the UK and in spite of Disney spending a fairly sizable chunk of money on replicating them they never had much success.

    The matte paintings really are amazing.

    Spencer Gill (opticalguy1954@yahoo.com)

  7. Hi Spencer

    We've not had a chat in ages and it's good to hear from you and I always appreciate your expert professional input. I'm actually keen on CASTAWAYS and consider it in the top shelf of Disney FX shows so I'm not sure where you think I'm "harsh" on the film. Peter Ellenshaw's son, Harrison, didn't think much of the film as he mentioned in the interview.

    Interestingly, Disney used both Sodium and Blue Screen processes on the 1974 epic ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD for a huge number of comps, and the reasons for this will be all detailed in my next blog out soon.

    All the best


  8. Nothing happening here for 47 days! Pete, I sincerely hope, you don't have lost interest in your utterly fantastic blog.
    Best wishes,

  9. Hi Thomas

    You sound like my wife - "fix this, why haven't you done that job, do that chore Peter..."
    It's hard to always stay 100% motivated, but don't fear, as I have the ISLAND article all ready to go (and several others too) with lots of wonderful Ellenshaw and Maley material. I've really got to be in the precise mood to make it happen. Hopefully this week it'll appear online.


  10. Pete, I'm sorry. I didn't want to rush you, nor did I want to sound like your wife ;-)
    I was simply afraid, that something happend to you or your wonderful blog and just wanted to be sure that everything is allright. Take all the time you need. Still, it has to be fun.

    And now hurry up! In Germany we call it "Zack, zack" ;-)

  11. Pete, firstly I would like to thank Harrison, once again his candor and generosity, sorting out art, scanning annotating and sending all those images along with a fine interview is no easy task, it helps that a very knowledgeable interviewer/archivist of this art form knows exactly what to say and to ask those questions that the audience would want answering, a sign of true appreciation.
    Im particularly looking forwad to the ILM article, i am wondering what Harrison will bring to the table, Harrison, Mike Pangrazio, Chris Evans and Macquarrie were my first introduction to this craft, so naturally they became an obvious target for my fandom and hero worship as an 8 year old, ...sorry guys, there's always someone younger, right?
    Bizarrely after emigrating to wonderful New Zealand 3 years ago, my pal Gino mentioned that Mike was working down the road from me!! small world the F/X community, still.

    On closing, I wish, there was a way to own large 1:1 prints of these things, you know, previously published mattes from books do not enlarge well, i know, i tried.

    Thanks nzpete, for another outstanding article and for introducing me to another largely unknown set of beautiful Ellenshaw works.

    1. Hi Simon

      Thanks for that great commendation on my matte site - it's appreciated.
      Aside from mattes and miniatures, I still love old time prosthetics and make up fx, with the great Dick Smith being my favourite inspiration and others such as John Chambers, Bob Keen, Gianetto Di Rossi, Rick Baker and of course Richard Taylor being true visionaries in the field.

      On matte reproductions, I'm fortunate in having a number of high resolution original images taken directly off the actual artwork at my disposal - courtesy of the original matte artists - many of which I have enlarged and study in detail.

      All the best


  12. Wonderful! This has always been one of my favorite films! Thanks so much for all your efforts.
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