Sunday, 21 September 2014


A stunningly rendered pastel matte, purportedly from DAVID COPPERFIELD, though I suspect not.
Although I had fully intended to dedicate this post to the second part of the Lands of Wonder article with many more delightful images from worlds far away (and even galaxies far, far away too), I simply have got to take this opportunity to share with my friends and fellow matte art enthusiasts out there the news of a forthcoming sale of over fifty classic era Metro Goldwyn Mayer Newcombe mattes under the stewardship of the esteemed Hollywood memorabilia auction house, Profiles in History


It's not entirely unknown for the odd matte painting or two to show up on various movie memorabilia auction sites, with Profiles in History undoubtedly being the most widely acknowledged in the field, but for such a large number to appear at any one time is indeed rare and an opportunity not to be missed!  This one is Hollywood Auction no.65

Matte art from the Golden Era is, in general, as rare as hens teeth, with original art traceable to most of the studios all but extinct except that of MGM.  As reported here in past write ups, MGM filed and stored their decades and decades worth of mattes with great care - from preliminary sketches right the way through to the final highly (and I do mean highly!) polished product.  The downfall of the once proud king of all motion picture factories in the early seventies saw backlots dug up, sets torn down, artifacts junked willy-nilly and land sold off to be re-zoned as residential suburbs, while the once vital studio departments were downsized and in some cases demolished completely, such as the old matte department once staffed by arguably the very finest artists and draftsmen the industry had available. 

The wanton destruction of the old matte department saw all of those wonderful old delicate pastel and charcoal matte paintings snapped up - some by studio employees such as long time effects artist Matthew Yuricich - and a great many by outside parties who were involved with the deconstruction work on the lot at the time.  This all sounds grim but in fact it was a ray of light by way of the saving of a huge number of those magnificent pieces which would otherwise have been shamelessly dumped or burned as was the case at other Hollywood and UK studios too for that matter.

A few thousand mattes actually survived the wrecker's ball, unbelievably, and a vast number of these form important archival collections at Universities in California and Texas and possibly elsewhere.  Many others were sold off piecemeal over the years to individual collectors (I grabbed the last two I believe from the initial 'wreckers ball' saviour without whom, most would be long destroyed by now).
As mentioned, Profiles in History has procured a large cache of these important pieces from an unidentified private collector and have prepared an exciting catalogue (even more than usual) for this auction lot which is scheduled to occur in the coming weeks, so I've taken it upon myself as an unrepentant advocate and true devotee of said artwork - especially those from the Warren Newcombe unit at MGM - to spread the word among you.  The reserve prices seem mostly pretty reasonable - with price tags from between US$300 to $600 for a great many very fine pieces, with some in a higher bracket of around US$500 - $800.  Just one is in the really high range of several thousand dollars, and that of course is a rare WIZARD OF OZ matte which is the key selling point of the collection, but not to my mind the most desirable by a long shot.  The jaw dropping GREEN DOLPHIN STREET landscape and some of those dazzling 'neon' theatre frontages which feature below are more my cup of tea - with those neon billboard type mattes my fave genre as we all know.

As someone who has in the past procured a couple of mattes from overseas, the biggest sticking point from my point of view isn't in fact the cost of the matte, but the phenomenal expense of airfreight DHL/Fed-Ex to anywhere that isn't America... with New Zealand being at the ass end of the world down here in the Pacific having many benefits of isolation in itself, though airfreight ain't one of them!!  Also, here at least, the import tax/duty on said shipments can be crippling and a real pain.  The recent mattes I bought from Rocco Gioffre were fairly priced I felt, but the incidental expenses referred to here came to almost as much as the original art itself!  My wife threatened to perform an 'orchiectomy' upon my person (look it up folks ... my long former career in Anatomical Pathology is catching up with me) if I ever did it again!  Wives.... they just don't get it... am I right?

Composite matte shot: THE SEVENTH CROSS
Anyway, this sale shouldn't be in the least a hassle for any potential American or Canadian collectors, with significant ease of shipping etc.  The MGM mattes are almost always 'painted' on artists board, and done so bloody exquisitely with fine tipped pastel crayons, chalk, charcoal and even some goache.  No glass and rarely done in oil, at least not in the period under discussion here.

One thing of note, some of the lot's on auction have titles attributed that may in some cases be incorrect or absent altogether.  One example being a lovely matte purporting to be from Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) which wasn't in fact an MGM film and was a Universal film - plus the shot in question doesn't seem to have any connection with the film?  Likewise the stunning matte at the top of this post is reportedly from DAVID COPPERFIELD, though I have my doubts.  Of course some mattes are of shots ultimately not used or significantly re-designed for some films.  Case in point is an interesting untitled painting which is clearly from THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL with a massive roadblock on the Brooklyn Bridge.  The shot was ultimately not used as is and was repainted by Matt Yuricich or Lee LeBlanc for the final cut, as illustrated below.
THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1959) - unused initial matte and final shot as it appears on screen.  Being a CinemaScope film it appears the dimensions of the original unused matte was intended to be used as a tilt down big reveal.

Just before we have a look at a selection of these auction mattes, a word about upcoming blog posts.  As promised I'll have a lengthy sequel to the Lands of Wonder post as well as a career interview with matte painter Ken Marschall and his long time associate, matte cameraman Bruce Block. Can't wait for that as Ken has done so much great work that we just never noticed.  Also, a fascinating look at the largely unheralded career of pioneering British trick shot man Filippo Guidobaldi - with some terrific, rare behind the scenes photos of miniature set ups and fx crews at Rank and Gaumont from the 1940's supplied to me most graciously by Guido's grandson. 
There is also the distinct, though unconfirmed possibility of some career retro on silent era glass shot artist Conrad Tritshler too, hopefully.  As if that weren't enough, I'm hoping to do a photo tribute of all my favourite optical and effects animated gags from a myriad of films.  Finally, UK 007 effects chief and Matte Shot blog reader Steve Begg has suggested I do a tribute to great miniature effects from the past -which is something I've been thinking about for a while..... so watch this space.


Glorious old Newcombe matte art from TARZAN ESCAPES (1932)

Claimed to be from the (Universal) Hitchcock picture, though I saw it again recently and don't recall any similar setting??  Yet, it's still a superbly accomplished piece of artwork in it's own right.
Exquisitely detailed matte art which was used as an RP process plate for ANNA KARENINA (1935)

Final comp of above artwork, water plate and foreground set.
Architectural top up from THE MERRY WIDOW (1952)
The best in the whole selection to my eye is this stunner from GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (1947) which won the Oscar for it's mattes and miniatures.

like many of these, title not known...

As was the approach of the day under Warren Newcombe, mattes such as this were recycled in other productions with slight modifications to signage etc.  The different production numbers scrawled on the bottom attest to it's varied use.

Incorrectly identified in the catalogue as from The Marx Brothers' A DAY AT THE RACES it's actually from a lesser Marx show AT THE CIRCUS (1939)
From Frank Sinatra's musical TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (1949)
Several unidentified mattes

Matte art from the amazing effects filled Clark Gable comedy COMRADE X (1940)Some of the most incredible Buddy Gillespie miniature work you'll ever see in this show.

Before and after POW camp matte from THE CROSS OF LORRAINE (1943)

One of my favourites - the Gothic manor home from THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER (1944)

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) with miniature ferris wheel doubled in for final comp.

May be from THE CROWD ROARS (1932)
Esther Williams' THIS TIME FOR KEEPS (1947) typifies those fantastic old glittering neon styled matte shots that this enthusiast loves so much.  MGM were king of the art form in this sort of thing.  Reportedly Craig Barron's favourite Newcombe shot of all.

The cornball Spencer Tracy ethnic picture TORTILLA FLAT (1942) had some nice matte art.

An amazingly bold pastel matte from SEA OF GRASS (1947).  Note just how much here is pure artwork!
An extensive full painting with a teeny section of live action from SCARAMOUCHE (1952)

Before and after atmospheric matte art from the excellent THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945)

The 1947 version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS with final matte art being somewhat revised from this unused work.

Classic MGM theatre frontage for an unidentified film which would be altered for other pictures such as ME AND MY GAL as shown below.  Having one of the old MGM theatre facade mattes myself I can attest to the meticulous care taken in literally cutting out of elements of signage and carefully substituting these with new 'headliner act' or theatre name as required.  The MGM artists were such bloody brilliant signwriters as well as technical draftsmen.  Just love it!
Various 'billboard neon' mattes from assorted pictures such as THE GREAT ZEIGFELD and MAISIE WAS A LADY.   Top left is from SHIP AHOY.

From CABIN IN THE SKY (1943)
One of the many mattes from the Tracy/Hepburn show KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1943)

Surely a masterpiece of the medium!

Assorted mattes

A variety of romantic sky painted mattes.

Photographic blowup with painted on architectural extension etc from SUSAN AND GOD (1943)
Assorted theatre frontage mattes

IT'S IN THE AIR (1935)
Partial photographic elements with painted in additions, possibly from LITTLE NELLIE KELLY (1940)

Reportedly from LASSIE COME HOME

Paris by night from Greta Garbo's wonderfully satiric NINOTCHKA (1939).  Best line:  "We now have far fewer, but better Russians."


PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1940) with trees flawlessly added to photographic scene by matte artist.


Although described as being from TALE OF TWO CITIES, the shots are new to me and I've not noticed them in the film.  I may have to take another look-see.

Now, isn't this a superbly photo realistic matte that no one would ever detect!  Amazing technical work by artist.

May be from THE BEGINNING OR THE END (1947)  ?

Matte at right from THE REFORMER AND THE REDHEAD (1950)

Matte of the 'Copper Cat Inn' from a 1940's Charles Brabin short subject

I know the shots but can't place the film??

From SEA OF GRASS I think.
Just so darned good............

Various billboards and frontages with an especially brilliant full painted matte at lower right from A STRANGER IN TOWN (1943) where everything has been manufactured by a skilled artist in Newcombe's studio.

Misc skies from various films.

ROSALIE (1937)

A great matte is always worth repeating.... GREEN DOLPHIN STREET painted as far as I know by Howard Fisher.


  1. Glorious matte art!!!! Many thanks Peter for sharing that information. I wish I could by some of them but I have the same problem as you. The shipping costs will raise the final price, and also I have a wonderful wife that just doesn’t understand that matte fever. Anyway that little article is much appreciated and makes me very happy to known on the survival of so many old matte paintings. It would be difficult to choose one but after first view I would love to catch the one from Tarzan escapes or Cairo
    Can you imagine all those art pieces on exhibition at a Matte painting Museum?

    1. Hi Domingo

      Yes, my friend, they are so exhilerating to look at, even as a mere photo. Imagine having a few of these on your wall. I agree with you on the TARZAN painting.... just glorious. I've always felt the 1930's and early 40's were the best era for the artform of matte magic.



  2. Wow! Again with the huge number of amazing things! For example,that shot from THE WIZARD OF OZ was one I had been told was an actual glass shot turns out to be one of the Newcombe gouache, pastels, and colored pencil mattes done on illustration board! Who knew?

    1. Hi Spencer

      Always good to hear from you. Goodness... doesn't that collection just make your mouth water? Such precision and care evident in each piece.



    I would be forever in your debt if any mattes obtained could be nicely photographed (including some close ups of detail etc) and any high resolution images thus shared with me. I would really, really appreciate it I assure you!


  4. Can you point me to a website that explains how these are used? I always thought matte paintings were done on glass and the film projected behind it. Why are these on matte board?

    1. I can't think of a specific site, though Wikipedia probably has a reasonable explanation of the various matte processes. Of course the very site you are presently reading has detailed the numerous processes in detail in previous posts.

      In brief, not all mattes were made on glass, though it was favoured by many very early pioneers as the painted matte could be completed on the spot on location directly as an in camera composite. The use of glass as a surface became somewhat less popular as camera sprocket movements improved and film registration allowed accurate repeat exposures onto the same negative, whereby the 'plate' and the painting could be photographed entirely separately and successfully combined as one image later on.

      Mattes could, and very often were, painted on hardboard or heavy artists card for years, partly as a safer option against accidental breakage and with ease of handling. Some studios preferred the non-glass method, such as MGM, largely due to their chosen medium of using fine pastel crayon, pen and ink and other tools to paint their mattes, which would work so much better on artists board. Matt Yuricich said that there were very rare instances of mattes being made on glass at MGM (and I think the same was true of Fox, if I recall)

      The painting need not be on glass as the area to be doubled in with actors etc would conform exactly to the black 'matted' area on the original painting and it was always done as a separate pass either in the matte camera or on the optical printer with countermattes etc.

      Later practitioners such as Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock almost always used glass instead of board as the preferred surface, with glass being good for scratching or scraping off areas of paint where 'gags' or back lit fx might be included. The British studios as far as I know were heavily reliant on glass for their matte shots, often with several layers of painted scenery to build up a shot.

      The question you raise, re: film projected behind the glass, well yes, that was one of the various methods available to composite painted artwork with a rear projected 'plate' and was favoured by some such as Jim Danforth and also the Disney Studio, who were 100% gung ho about it. Later, places like ILM took it up and used it successfully, before adopting the 'cleanest' of the compositing techniques available - that used for decades by Albert Whitlock - original negative latent image matte shots, where, unlike the rear screen and other dupe matting processes, the original footage and the painted work lost no image quality and retained the truest of hues, contrast and tonal range when combined.

      I hope this explanation helps.


  5. Damn! Another missed opportunity!!
    Especially as i have a particular love of black and white mattes, oh well, sigh.
    At least I can enjoy them on here, thank you Pete.

    1. Hi Simon

      Yes, I kick myself for not being more pro-active, but overseas auctioning is a BIG deal and there are other secondary costs that also come into play, thus raising the tally considerably.

      I've just received some beautiful close ups from one of the boldest Newcombe mattes to feature in the auction which thankfully was purchased (for a very reasonable price) by FX man and fellow matte painter Harrison Ellenshaw. I'm expecting pics of at least another 9 or so from another purchaser who was utterly elated at having successfully bid.

      Yes Simon, like you i just love old B&W matte art from that period, which is why you see so damned much of it in my blogs.

      All the best