Sunday, 13 December 2015

More Magical Moments From The Optical Printer

Hi friends and fellow special photographic effects enthusiasts.  It's that time again where NZPete will open up his extensive (and I do mean extensive) archived wonders stashed in an ever growing treasure chest of movie magic.  Once again I'll be taking a long overdue look at some wonderfully inventive optical effects - from intricate optical composites, cel animated effects gags, travelling mattes and other fascinating visions created, for the most part, in that once vital though now extinct contraption, the Optical Printer.  As always on this blog, it's all conventional, hand made wizardry without a 'workstation', 'software' nor any of that sort of PC/Mac/Silicon Graphics equipment anywhere to be found.  As discussed in the first part of this post, this work was executed by technicians, cinematographers, artists, animators and specialists of a breed we aren't likely to see ever again.  This blog does it's best to bring attention to these people and the glorious work that kept audiences entertained for around seventy years.


Just before we embark on today's blog, I feel I simply must draw my readers attention to the long awaited second volume (of three) of visual effect artist Jim Danforth's wonderful memoir DINOSAURS, DRAGONS & DRAMA - THE MEMOIRS OF A TRICK FILMMAKER.  As per the first volume, this is a titanic effort to say the least, and represents a huge chunk of Jim's life just in the preparation alone.  The book is (sadly) only available in CD-ROM format, which to conventional, old school 'text on the printed page' readers like me, can represent something of a challenge (but hey, I don't even own a cell phone nor any of those silly toys).  The volume clocks in at an amazing 790 pages and is absolutely packed from end to end with photos, drawings, frame blow ups and Jim's own amazing artwork.  This edition covers Jim's 'middle years', with shows such as FLESH GORDON, TIMEGATE and CLASH OF THE TITANS, as well as the Cascade era and much, much more.

THE DAY TIME ENDED. A squeezed painting composited in Jim's garage.
Jim describes each and every project with wit and passion, with such detailed recollection that I wish all trick exponents had such amazing recall on seemingly each and every facet of production and incredible technical detail.  Below are a few sample pages from the volume, which may be purchased from Ernie Farino's ever reliable Archive EditionsClick the link to find out more.  Tell 'em NZPete sent you!

"This is a TIMEGATE valley with the volcano.  This was also done in my garage in an attempt to raise completion funding for the film. The smoke was reused from footage I filmed for WDRtE, using Roger Dicken's pyro work.  The volcano is a painted extension of the real (flatter) hills near Bishop, CA."



So, with the reader comfortably seated, let us embark upon a journey into the sometimes astounding, sometimes confounding world of the special photographic effect and those unheralded technicians behind the camera.

A rare look at the optical printer set up at the old Hal Roach studio in 1938.  Shown here is chief of photographic effects Roy Seawright preparing hand inked rotoscope cels for the Cary Grant picture TOPPER.  Also shown here assisting are William V. Draper and Frank W. Young
A wonderful illustration commissioned expressly for the indispensible book THE INVISIBLE ART by Craig Barron and Mark Cotta Vaz.  I'm fairly certain that the artist has captured Clarence Slifer operating his tried and true aerial image optical set up, with matte artist Spencer Bagtatopoulis depicted in the background.
Now I didn't say that all of the films in this blog were classics.... Lou Costello's final picture THE 30 FOOT BRIDE OF CANDY ROCK (1959) must be the first (and last) film shot both in 'Wonderama' and 'Mattascope' (!).  Old time pro's Jack Rabin, Irving Block and Louis DeWitt were once part of the matte department at Fox under Fred Sersen and went out on their own to provide a ton of cut rate effects shots for bargain basement shows like this.  Some interesting work here though, with upper left probably being forced perspective shots, and the top right being one frame from an excellent process sequence where Costello walks up to and around the lovely Dorothy Provine, in what was incredibly crisp, balanced merging of the two.

War pictures would often resort to optical printing to accelerate the level of mayhem on a tight budget.  The 1964 Cliff Robertson film 633 SQUADRON required Tom Howard's optical printer to add in gun batteries and muzzle flashes to miniature bombing run set pieces.

ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS (1953) was a silly affair, though likeable enough.  Lot's of opticals including this errant rocketship out of control all over New York city, thanks to effects man David Stanley Horsley and rotoscope artist Millie Winebrenner.

That same year we also had ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET DR JECKYL AND MR HYDE which had Boris Karloff change into his alter ego courtesy of Ross Hoffman's optical printer.

If one can get past the clunky dialogue, cliched secondary characters, and the most irritating female character of the decade (the black woman with the cowboy hat!), James Cameron's THE ABYSS (1989) delivered the goods as far as phenomenal visual effects went and certainly deserved the Oscar for that feat.
THE ABYSS - sublime visual effects, largely supplied by the always reliable, always creative Dream Quest Images, where our cast are confronted by a multitude of strange deep-aquatic alien forms, all of which are beautiful in both design and execution. Hoyt Yeatman supervised the Dream Quest team.

Although THE ABYSS's central alien life form (not shown here) was a computer generated creation from ILM, all of the other effects consisted of practical, miniature, puppeteered optical and matte painted in certain cases as required.
Behind the scenes look at one of the sensational life forms encountered by Ed Harris (who, unlike much of the cast, was terrific as usual).  The alien shown here was designed by Steve Burg and built by Steve Johnson.  The puppets were constructed of clear urethane with many fibre optic light sourses built in.  Simple rod and wire manipulation in actual water created the desired effect, with the alien elements later composited optically with live action shot elsewhere.

THE ABYSS - probably the screen's best representation of alien life forms I've seen.
A minor, though essential optical from the Frank Sinatra actioner ASSAULT ON A QUEEN (1966) where Paramount optical effects veteran Paul Lerpae has carefully split screened separate plates of the Queen Mary and an ex German U-Boat.

While on submarines, the low budget THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE (1959) had these animated effects by Jack Rabin.

Disney remade the old BABES IN TOYLAND (1961) with mixed results.  Some nice effects work including Jim Fetherolf's matte shots and these Eustace Lycette sodium composites.
Industrial Light & Magic did many bang up effects shots over the years, especially in the 1980's where they were at their peak to my mind.  The Kurt Russell fire fighter drama, BACKDRAFT (1991) featured a whole slew of amazing visual effects shots - and that's in addition to the frightening physical fx work.  The shot here is one of those optically created and massaged trick shots that would have been impossible to achieve as a practical shot.  I think the show was nominated in the visual effects category.

Even as far back as the old, original BEN HUR (1925), optical processes were already well in use. This scene depicting the collapse of the Senate building onto crowds of extras was an exceptionally well done travelling matte by the inventor of the process, Frank Williams.  The shot still looks great even today, near on 100 years later!

For the Martin Scorsese remake of CAPE FEAR (1991) Juliet Lewis squirts lighter fluid over an arguably 'off his tree' Robert DeNiro and sets him on fire.  Illusion Arts made the shot happen with vivid realism.  VFX cameraman Bill Taylor filmed DeNiro simply pretending to be alight - aided with effective interactive lighting - and then later filmed a stunt double dressed in black and against an all black set actually being set alight.  The stuntman perfectly immitated DeNiro's movements and 'performance' allowing Taylor to then optically composite the flaming human form exactly over DeNiro.

One of the less visible visual effects shots from Paul Schrader's CAT PEOPLE (1982) where the actress is photographed (with leopard!) against a blue screen and composited into an evocative Albert Whitlock matte painting.
Much valued future Production Designer, William Cameron Menzies directed this quite odd little picture CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932) where a great many trick shots and mattes occur - though not all of them make much sense and one gets the idea that some may be there just because 'they can'.

More from CHANDU....  Chandu??...Can do!

An old magazine article hyping the wonders of split screen photography as used in the Fox picture MASQUERADE circa 1930.  Charles Clarke would be an important figure in the development of matte and glass shots later on.

I remember my Grandmother taking me to see this as a kid (maybe in 70mm?) at the old Embassy theatre here in Auckland (now, long demolished, RIP).  CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) actually wasn't too bad, as far as these things go, and the recent BluRay is a stunner.  Roy Field composited the many travelling mattes in the show.
Ernest Schoedsack's DR CYCLOPS (1940) was pretty silly, and surely wasn't helped by Albert Dekker's over the top scenery chewing performance.  Nominated for a visual effects Oscar, the film has quite a few mattes, process shots and some opticals, all supervised by Gordon Jennings.  Some of Farciot Edouart's large screen process shots worked surprisingly well, especially when you consider it was a Technicolor film and virtually ALL colour movies suffered from atrocious rear screen process shots at the time which looked awful for the most part.  Some interesting work here though, possibly multiple projector type set ups.

David Cronenberg has always been a director I look out for, though not all of his films work.  DEAD RINGERS (1988) is possibly his best film, and as well as being a tour de force for Jeremy Irons, is also a remarkable photo effects show with many flawless split screen twinning shots, often while the camera is dollying or panning.  Lee Wilson oversaw all of the complex optical work, which I think for memory, was all done in a small effects house in Canada.

Larger than life(!) story of miniaturised people, THE DEVIL DOLL (1936) is a bit of a hoot.  Plenty of travelling matte work either of the Dunning or the Williams variety.

Very much a hit or miss affair in most respects, David Lynch's DUNE (1984) did have this neat effects sequence where a couple of guys fight it out while wrapped in some sort of pre-CG human body shield or armour type of thing.  All animated by hand in what amounted to an absolutely phenomenal scaled assignment for this brief sequence alone. A great sequence and pretty much the show stopper for me (ie: I'd had enough of the movie by then and wished I could get a refund!)
The article in Cinefex stated; "Working over live action plate material shot in Mexico, animators at Van der Veer Photo Effects first rendered the multi faceted shield using line drawings and basic rotoscope techniques.  Each individual image was then broken down into specific surfaces, with a separate animation cel for each shield segment.  A computer controlled ripple wheel system built into the optical printer provided the desired diffusion and three dimensional effect.  Among others, Jeffrey Burks and Richard Malzahn devoted some nine months to animating the sequence."
John Boorman has made some great films, and THE EMERALD FOREST (1985) is pretty engrossing.  A number of pretty hard to spot visuals occur, mainly at the end, where our star, Powers Booth (so bloody good in Walter Hill's terrific SOUTHERN COMFORT, though as usual, I digress...) is caught up in a collapsing dam and flood.  Lots of miniature work here with Booth added into many shots via blue screen.

While we're on John Boorman, EXORCIST II-THE HERETIC (1977) sadly isn't one of his better efforts, where it's a total mess and only the visual effects save the day.  Of the effects, including several Whitlock mattes, the locust sequences really stand out in a class of their own.  Boorman wanted several full frame in flight tracking shots of live locusts - an expectation that would defeat most cinematographers I'm sure.  Enter the small, but highly regarded British film unit Oxford Scientific Films who specialised in all manner of natural history and biology assignments.  Founders Peter Parks, Gerald Thompson and Sean Morris had made quite a name for themselves in extra special special optical effects, and were a natural for this project.  Sean Morris photographed the locusts against a backlit blue screen for subsequent compositing with plate material shot elsewhere. Some of the locusts were attached with superglue to special, ultra fine stainless steel wires which allowed for some degree of actual, though anchored movement.  The foreground locusts were afixed to solid rods, again via superglue, to an area of the locust such as the thorax.  The locusts were then encouraged to flap their wings and move by directing a fine jet of air over them.  Although told the rapid wing movement would prove impossible to composite, this technical aspect in fact turned out be quite the opposite, with Roy Field merging the locust and plate material with a great deal of success at his company Optical Film Effects in London.  I recall that in one of my earlier conversations with Jim Danforth, he mentioned having also worked on some of the locust photography.

Although I covered DAMNATION ALLEY (1978) in the previous blogging, I omitted this frame of the extensive optical manipulation that was carried out for what must have been at least a hundred shots where Earth's post apocalyptic skies look this way.  A massive amount of optical rotoscoping was needed I believe.  Linwood Dunn's Film Effects of Hollywood did much of the work.
The mega-hit GHOST (1990) made a mint, and was better than I had anticipated.  Low key visual effects throughout, but vital to the script.  Numerous effects facilities were involved such as ILM, Available Light and Boss Films.  I'm not sure who did this shot.


The weepy finale from GHOST is made all the more potent as we remember the actor Patrick Swayze who did in fact leave this world prematurely himself some years ago.  I'm not certain, but there maybe a CG element to this sequence, though I do try to avoid such.
Universal always knew how to treat a monster, and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) had it all.  A couple of great conflagrations here courtesy of the great John P. Fulton with excellent Charlie Baker models optically matted by Ross Hoffman behind the actors on a stage.
I made mention of THE GOLDEN CHILD (1986) in the previous blog, though I forgot to include these terrific shots.  Pretty much a dismal misfire as a film, but a winner all the way as far as visual effects go, and all top shelf stuff it is. ILM were effects providers with Ken Ralston in charge.  Randy Dutra built the demon shown here, with Harry Walton and Phil Tippett handling the excellent go-motion.

Also from THE GOLDEN CHILD.... every evil demon has his day!

Individual frame from the above scene demonstrates multi-layered elements combined.

It's all over in around one second on screen, thus the importance of screen captures.
THE GOLDEN CHILD's Arch villain Charles Dance is reduced to a mere church mouse through ILM's optical manipulation.
Way back in days of olde, one mother of a locust plague swept through a Chinese village in the MGM classic THE GOOD EARTH (1937).  James Basevi was supervisor at the time, with a young assistant named Arnold Gillespie pulling some illusions out of his hat such as this great sequence.  The locusts, if I recall correctly, were nothing more than coffee grounds swirling around in a tank of water, and then optically superimposed into various shots... and to great effect.

Shelley Winters is wiped out by a hit and run driver in Paramount's THE GREAT GATSBY (1949).  Winters was shot as a separate element in front of a blue screen on a stage, with Paul Lerpae then 'jerking' the actress backward within the optical composite.

Joe Dante's GREMLINS 2 - THE NEW BATCH (1990) was a heap of fun, in jokes, cameos, industry references and more... with the only problem being Joe just didn't know when to call it a day and send the negative to the lab!  That said, the effects are fun, such as this wacked out piece that owes more than a nod to Chuck Jones. Opticals maestro Peter Kuran was on board for all of the fx animation.

More from the same as the high voltage takes on a life of it's own...

Screen icon Christopher Lee delivers one electrifying performance.

An interesting one this.... the main title from RKO's classic GUNGA DIN (1939) which in itself is a complete photographic effect of some gravitas.  Linwood Dunn combined several elements on the optical printer, namely a matte painted archway that dominates the screen, footage of the man whacking the gong, as well as the actual title element itself which was reflected into a pan of shimmering mercury.  Uniquely brilliant!

Original effects animation elements produced at ILM for the unspeakably witless HOWARD, THE DUCK (1986)
An effects frame from HOWARD, THE DUCK, which incidentally had a last minute title change here in NZ (and maybe elsewhere) after it crashed and burned at the US box office.  They changed it to, get this, HOWARD - A NEW BREED OF HERO, with not so much as a hint of any poultry on the one sheet and ad campaign (!)  Sounds like fowl play to moi!
John Sturges' ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968) had it's good points, especially if you like submarine drama's as I do.  Clarence Slifer and Robert Hoag contributed some opticals to the opening sequence.

ICE STATION ZEBRA - some fine work here, with excellent optical photography and fx animation as the capsule re-enters Earth's atmosphere.  The film was nominated for the effects Oscar, but never really stood a snowball's chance in hell up against Kubrick's 2001.
John Dykstra's Apogee were on Tobe Hooper's forgettable INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) with some interesting optical work.

John Fulton could always be depended upon to inject that something different into the effects shots he was in charge of.  For THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936) Fulton had to transform a falling Karloff into a ball of flame while in mid fall.

Musicals, especially those from MGM, were often great showcases for special photographic effects, from matte paintings to elaborate optical combinations. IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955) was just such a film with this glorious, old school montage sequence involving beautiful hand lettered neon sign matte artwork all cross dissolved into a wonderful shot.

The big, all star Paul Newman western THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (1973) included this interesting scene as the town burns to the ground and effects veterans Larry Butler and Donald Glouner have optically added in a flaming oil derrick collapsing across the screen.

Tyrone Power's KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES (1953) was an early CinemaScope film with this zinger of a dust storm being memorable.  Ray Kellogg was fx chief with Fox's optical cameramen making it all happen.
As an example of how complex the average optical can be, even in a non-effects film, I have included these optical timing charts used at Peerless Optical in the UK for Tony Scott's opulent vampire film THE HUNGER (1983).  Optical cameraman Stephen Perry told me that Scott's film required a vast amount of optical massaging, with many shots being 2,3 or 4 times printed, then same in reverse, then double exposed.  Some shots required as much as 8 time reprinting and sometimes re-framing.

Another sample of the many optical fix ups that Peerless Optical were called upon to do for THE HUNGER.  According to Peerless's Stephen Perry the David Allen decomposing monkey stop motion sequence was plagued with tech problems due to camera malfunction, thus requiring extensive optical repair to save the original, painstakingly animated footage.  Allen's camera was skipping frames and Perry had to take the sections of footage that did expose correctly and join them with mixes to obtain one single piece of animation.
Matted in pyro is often a recipe for disaster.  This is from one of those cheap Cannon Indiana Jones ripoffs of the 1980's, either KING SOLOMON'S MINES or ALLAN QUARTERMAIN.  Live action bottom half, matte painted upper half and optical explosion element dropped in.

Irwin Allen's cult series LAND OF THE GIANTS from the mid sixties was my bread and butter as a kid and I loved it and all of Irwin's other shows.  L.B (Lenwood Ballard) Abbott supervised and shot all of the effects, with decades of broad experience going back to the late 1920's and early 30's.

Also from LAND OF THE GIANTS is this typically Irwin Allen 'to be continued' style travelling matte.

Now, it just looks unremarkable, I know, but this seemingly straight forward shot of Richard Burton delivering a lengthy soliloquy from DOCTOR FAUSTUS (1967) posed no end of problems for Shepperton's Wally Veevers.  Originally shot as a standard blue screen shot with twinkling stars as the background, the temporary comps all exhibited an all too obvious flickering shimmer around Burton's hair which proved a major distraction to the director.  The solution, to make a series of roto mattes to replace the annoying blue screen artifact.  Matte artists Gerald Larn, Doug Ferris and Bryan Evans were tasked with hand painting several hundred individual acetate cels to conform precisely to Burton's head movement.  Gerald Larn told me he well remembers the entire matte painting studio (a large room in itself), the optical line up room and all other available space in the Shepperton effects studio being festooned with that multitude of carefully inked and numbered cels, drying in readiness for the camera.  All worked out in the end with a new travelling matte being achieved whilst retaining the original live action, with all individuals glad to be rid of black paint and happy to get back to coloured hues once again.
Not even John Wayne was exempt from the magic of the optical printer as demonstrated in this scene from the Henry Hathaway desert trek adventure LEGEND OF THE LOST (1957).  For a scene where The Duke prowls about some ancient ruins, a sudden outpouring of bats fill the set, all of which are cartoon cel animated and optically added later.

MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) was another of Peerless Optical's assignments, with matte paintings, miniatures and optical marry ups required. The spaceship abduction was one such sequence with a few shots consisting of models, while most were made using simple photo cutouts.  The bad guy spaceship was made out of car hubcap while the cityscape at the end of the sequence was a collage of photo cutouts of various Tunisian buildings.  Stephen Perry mentioned to me that additional work fell onto the optical department when it was discovered that the plates intended for matte paintings were not shot with a steady camera such as a pin registered Mitchell, and were instead made on a standard production Arriflex 35BL which was far from suited to mattes.  Perry and other line up technicians were faced with re-aligning every single frame of a given matte shot in order that it matched frame #1, with a rock steady interpositive created which could then be used for the matte composite.

Disney were huge advocates of the sodium vapour travelling matte process, with the majority of their live action films showing a surprisingly heavy reliance on said technique.  Shown here is THE LOVE BUG (1969), with Eustace Lycette as long time resident optical cinematographer.
Another Disney show, LT. ROBINSON CRUSOE, USN (1966) had this delightful mix of painted mattes and fx animation overlaid for this cracking scene.  Peter Ellenshaw and Alan Maley were matte artists though I don't know who animated.  

There have been a great many cinematic versions of Shakespeare's MACBETH, though I reckon the 1971 Roman Polanski version to be the best.  This shot was put together by Shepperton's Doug Ferris.

Around 1970 or so Irwin Allen made a pilot THE MAN FROM THE 25th CENTURY for a series that to the best of my knowledge never got the green light. Judging by the pilot, the show was packed end to end with matte shots and optical effects, perhaps excessively so?  The frames here are interesting as they resort extensively to virtual sets, with many settings being either matte art or miniature with the actors just dropped in by blue screen.  Quite bold for it's time, though commonplace nowadays. Not sure who did the work but L.B Abbott had a long association with Irwin Allen.

More fascinating 'virtual set' photo effects from THE MAN FROM THE 25th CENTURY with the actors performing on completely bare blue screen stages by the looks of it, with everything else either painted or a miniature.

Ned Mann was considered by many to be the grandfather of special effects and a great many profile effects technician in Britain owes it to Mann.  For the film THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES (1936) we are treated to the spectacle of an elegant temple being created out of thin air.  It's strictly my guess, but I'd reckon the temple miniature may well have been suspended upside down, prescored and set to literally fall apart.  That footage might then have been reversed, flipped right side up, and rear projected as a process plate behind the actors?  Sound plausible?
Now folks, it's time for some wacked out craziness!  William Girdler's monumentally off the wall Exorcist spinoff THE MANITOU (1977) was a heap of fun back in the day on Sunday triple bills.  Tony Curtis heads an all star cast in this gore soaked, effects laden shocker involving an extremely pissed off diminutive Indian demon who erupts out of Susan Strasberg's pregnant back (yes, you heard it right) and creates havoc in a hospital that just so happens to have a doorway that's a portal to another fucken dimension.... And then it get's weird!

Tons of crazy-arsed opticals by Frank Van der Veer as poor Strasberg hurtles laser beams and fireballs at The Manitou, who's none too impressed and fires meteorites straight back.  I've seen this sucker many times over the years and always find it a hoot.

Although these frames look much cleaner than as I recall the shots, MAROONED (1969) was a pretty interesting sci-fact drama of it's day, with photographic effects by Larry Butler and Donald Glouner.  Surprisingly, Robbie Robertson won the effects Oscar for his models on this.  I say surprising as it was up against the technically superior  KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA that year.

007 is almost always a guarantee of great entertainment and big effects, though NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983) was the odd man out and never worked. This ridiculous sequence where Bond and the villain battle it out for world domination using quasi-holographic X-Box styled handsets, though quite well rendered using the available methods, was actually laughed off the screen when I saw it back in the day.

An untitled set of frames from the 1920's demonstrating some of the steps involved in the Williams Process.
I've seen some strange William Castle films in my day, but this one takes the cake by a country mile.  PROJECT X (1968) is one of the oddest films I've seen, and although it is a non stop, rollercoaster ride of densely layered optical effects and 'so you think you've seen it all' set design, I couldn't make head nor tail of it, though Christopher George does his best to make it all seem important somehow. 

More from PROJECT X.  Optical effects by Paul Lerpae and The Optical House.

Frames from the grisly finale to PROJECT X which is pretty powerful imagery for 1968.  The optical printer must have exploded by the time this job was over!
The third in the original Omen series, OMEN III - THE FINAL CONFLICT (1981) lacked the panache of the first two but wasn't completely without a charm of it's own.  I think Dream Quest did the optical work.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) was pretty thin on the ground  effects wise, until the last reel where all hell breaks loose - literally!  ILM took home the Academy Award if I recall for these visuals, under Richard Edlund's stewardship.

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are befriended by an amourous camel in THE ROAD TO MOROCCO (1942), with Paul Lerpae's optical printer and rotoscope artists providing the laughs.
The finale of Paul Verhoeven's popular ROBOCOP (1987) sees bad guy Ronny Cox fall from grace.  An entirely fabricated shot with the actor actually being a 12 inch stop motion puppet, animated frame by frame by Rocco Gioffre, and the rest of the shot being a beautifully detailed matte painting by Mark Sullivan.

A nice BluRay close up.
Probably my number one Hitchcock film would be SABOTEUR (1941).  Not only is it just a great thriller that never lets up for a minute, but it's Hitch's biggest effects film outside of THE BIRDS.  Bursting at the seams with mattes, opticals, miniatures, split screens and composite shots... this show has it all.  John P. Fulton supervised the huge workload, with longtime optical cinematographer Roswell A. Hoffman putting together all of the comps.  This scene from the opening is a ripper of a photo effect in my book.  A fifth columnist has sabotaged an armaments factory and the blaze wipes out an innocent man, shown here in what appears to be frame by frame cel animated destruction where the guy is incinerated in ghastly fashion.  Sensational opener for any film.

The conclusion of SABOTEUR sees our villain fall to his death from the Statue of Liberty.  Fulton photographed the actor seated on a gimbled chair against a blue screen, trucking out as the actor gesticulated wildly.  Ross Hoffman assembled that footage with a miniature of the base of the statue.
I liked STAR TREK IV - THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) as much for it's script and characters as for it's visual effects.  Industrial Light & Magic once again came to the party and furnished the fans with great photographic effects.

More of what placed ILM at the top of their game in the eighties.

Not only the most memorable effect in STAR TREK IV, but for me the most perplexing.  No idea how this was achieved as I've never found a copy of that particular Cinefex issue.
Cecil B. DeMille's SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) would see something of a revolutionary development whereby basic camera tilt or pan moves could be recorded and, in the case of a special effects shot, be accurately repeated.  A sort of primitive motion control system.  Both Paramount and MGM had similar devices in play around the same time, with this film being a Paramount picture, the Stancliffe-Jennings device would allow for a gradual tilt down as the miniature temple collapses.  The repeater aided in the marrying up of the miniature mayhem with separately filmed actors in a most convincing fashion.  Additional roto work would envelope some extras in falling debris.  Gordon Jennings was Paramount's effects boss, with long time optical cinematographer Paul Lerpae assembling the elements on the optical printer.

For the Don Knotts comedy THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST (1968), Albert Whitlock would orchestrate an amusing mirage gag where the waterhole mysteriously dries up just as our hapless hero dives on in.

The Ursula Andress version of SHE (1965) wasn't a patch on the old RKO one by a long shot, but was better than the ludicrous 1980's incarnation FYI.  The moment of truth shown here is reasonably effective, with Les Bowie, Bob Cuff and Ray Caple on effects duty.

Easily Ray Harryhausen's weakest film, SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977) wasn't at all as memorable as pretty much any of Ray's titles you'd care to name, sadly.  In addition to the stop motion there's a mountain of seemingly unnecessary travelling matte composites (many done I believe as a matter of course as the actors hadn't been cast when the locations were available).  Anyway, there are a number of virtual set optical comps such as those shown above where miniatures and painted augmentations have had the actors added in later by blue screen methods.  I believe Les Bowie had involvement in these virtual sets, with optical expert Roy Field compositing the footage.

War films, especially those actually made during WWII, would often rely upon the special effects department to furnish aircraft, ships, tanks and whatever that was simply unobtainable due to urgent need in theatres of war.  A good example, and one of many, is this shot from Paramount's SO PROUDLY WE HAIL (1943) where the hospital is strafed by a non-existent Japanese dive bomber.  The aircraft is either a model or a photo cutout which has been combined optically in time with the practical pyro on the ground.  Lots of good models and composites in this gripping film which was Oscar nominated for the vfx.
Another all time favourite thriller is Alfred Hitchcock's wonderful STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951).  Here I've chosen a pair of sequential frames from the pivotal murder sequence with the event and the killer reflected in the victim's fallen spectacles.  Hans Koenekamp was Warner Bros resident photographic effects man for several decades and pulled off a terrific narrative moment so well that the image stays with the viewer for years!

Now, while we're on Warner Bros, mention must be made of some quite incredible work done on the Raoul Walsh-Errol Flynn historic epic, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941).  The film was a huge special effects show, with a large number of matte painted shots and some wonderful montages such as that shown above, but it was in the optical effects arena that the film deserves attention in today's blog, as explained below.

I've seen the film many times over the years but it was only recently while watching a high definition print that I spotted a multitude of hitherto unseen optical trick work.  The film concerns the lead up to and events surrounding Custer's Last Stand at Little Big Horn, with the massacre itself being a seriously big set piece at the end.  What caught my eye this time around were the dramatic skies.  Now, these aren't real skies, nor are they for the most part locked off static matte painted sky shots, but are, after much study and replay, optically composited sky effects that appear in virtually every shot during the vast, climactic sequence - even in moving camera shots!

I'm guessing that the original live action was probably shot against an ordinary blue, cloudless sky, which may have been lacking the dramatic mood director Walsh may have been hoping for.  I'm of the opinion that each of the sky shots as seen in the final film consist of a matte painted sky which has been later burnt in optically under the careful supervision of photographic effects head Byron Haskin.  My reasons for coming to this conclusion is that in several shots the foreground action is covered by a truck in camera shot or some degree of tilt, with the sky seemingly match moved to accomodate the camera move, though the registration between the elements is slightly 'off'.  On a few occasions the actor's hat or the horse's head show a slight bleed through of painted background cloud as the action moves into the 'busy' area of sky.

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON - matte painted sky combined with live action and filmed from a speeding camera truck.  The shaking of the camera vehicle filming the live action tends to 'scissor' in registration against the painted sky element.... but it's still all one moving shot!  Bloody awesome.
As mentioned, I can just imagine the difficulties in bringing all of these shots together - and there are just so many, with scores of individual shots and angles making up the Little Big Horn sequence, with every shot apparently an optical or matte.  This one is pretty ambitious with the camera panning with the action and trucking in slightly.  The matte painted sky element is clearly being maintained 'in register' as best as possible by Haskin's optical people, but it is a giveaway when the two elements have quite different 'camera registration'.... but still amazing without question!

The live action seems to carefully confine itself, by careful design, to the 'flat' areas of the painted sky, presumably to facilitate easier superimposition where possible.
I was only going to include a couple of shots from THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON but as it's a tough nut to explain, I've included several more (out of dozens of examples) to clarify.  Again, this shot is a rapid motion action shot, filmed from a vehicle as we follow the soldiers into battle, with what is apparently a painted sky burnt in later and sort of match moved to accompany the main action, though the registration between the two is slightly uneven.

One last shot from the same classic film.  I wonder whether Haskin possibly achieved soft edge articulate mattes directly from the production footage shot against a plain actual sky and successfully burned the high contrast action into substantial, rectangular Paul Detlefsen painted clouds.  Charles G. Clarke at 20th Century Fox had developed an in camera means of adding dramatic clouds to otherwise dull skies by producing foreground photographic transparencies of stock skyscapes that had cloud detail only down to a point where live action might occur.  At this point the photo transparency was effectively 'clear', thus allowing the real exterior action to smoothly merge with the fabricated sky - and all in camera.  Fox would use this technique for years.
Universal were king of the monster movies for decades and TARANTULA (1955) was one of their best.  A big effects field day for Clifford Stine, Ross Hoffman and Millie Winebrenner, with a huge number of optical marry ups and split screens.  This shot is probably the best, with much careful hand rotoscope work by Millie Winebrenner.  The giant spider has been matted into the hillside behind the two farmers, with roto facilitating their escape as they run in front of the spider.  Nice work.
More insect mayhem from TARANTULA

They say that every spider has his day... and I guess this was the day. Multi part composites with main street and desert being two separate plates; the spider being another element; and the napalm element yet another element.  That final frame is one amazing shot, and yes, it was Clint Eastwood who dropped that napalm.

I illustrated some of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) effects in my last post but neglected to highlight the components such as the visual effects design and original plate.
Another TEN COMMANDMENTS effects breakdown from Paul Lerpae's optical department.
An excellent before and after from Lerpae illustrating the matted off plate prior to the addition of Jan Domela's painted extensions and the proposed cel animated pillar of fire.  Great stuff.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS Red Sea exodus combining an incredible number of separate elements, with the walls of water alone consisting of dozens of soft blended, optically massaged and roto re-shaped water elements all smoothly combined.
You can keep all your CGI guys, this one is still one of THE great show stopping effects set pieces... and they did it without an 'undo' button... .
Some of optical supervisor Paul Lerpae's hand written notations are visible on the blue screen proof above.
The effects photography may be creaky but it's still a great movie.  George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE (1960) sees Rod Taylor speed through the centuries without gaining so much as a five o'clock shadow.  Blue screen shots here with a succession of Bill Brace painted views or Gene Warren miniature settings all rushing by.

While on George Pal, here's a very cool shot from THE POWER (1968) directed by former Warner's effects man Byron Haskin.  A great little movie actually with effects by Project Unlimited's Gene Warren and Wah Chang, and even some Matthew Yuricich matte art at the start.

Travelling matte shot breakdown from Charlie Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH (1925)
A multi-part composite from Fox's TITANIC (1953).  Only the most foreground aspect of the ship is full scale to allow the lifeboat to be lowered.  The rest of the ship is a matte painting or miniature; the throngs of people are the same group reprinted over and over to fill out the deck and matted in optically; the lifeboats in the sea were filmed in the tank at Fox.  Fred Sersen and Ray Kellogg co-supervised this film, with a young Matthew Yuricich involved with this shot.

Also from TITANIC is this impressive shot of the iceberg puncturing the lower decks.  All in miniature with the three crew added in later as travelling matte elements to excellent effect.  Veterans James B. Gordon and L.B Abbott were most likely involved on this film.
Still an excellent and frightening film, Irwin Allen's THE TOWERING INFERNO (1975) is probably the best of the genre and works still today.  This shot, which I could barely look at when I saw it in the cinema back in '75, has Paul Newman negotiate a very, very deep ventilation shaft - some 138 floors as I recall.  The shaft is a Matthew Yuricich matte painting and Newman has been shot blue screen and matted in optically.

All of the effects work in the film is solid stuff indeed, with the rescue via cable from building to building being especially tense and well executed by L.B Abbott and Frank Van der Veer.  Everything here except the actors and rescue buoy are miniatures, with Van der Veer, assembling the elements on the optical printer.

John P. Fulton was Oscar nominated for TULSA (1949), and it stood a pretty good chance in my book as the effects work was, with the exception of the awful rear projection shots, really good.  This is an interesting scene where an Oklahoma oil well blows it's top, with the resulting sizable chunk of debris flattening one of our principal characters.  Fulton employed a miniature chunk of derrick which was rotoscoped to envelope and crush the actor convincingly right on camera.
Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1958) had more visual effects in it than one might think.  A number of matte paintings, miniatures, optical work and more, all under the watchful eye of John P. Fulton.  This shot's a doozy with the great James Stewart clinging on with his fingertips.  I think the matted in down view is a miniature set which would account for the unusual use of camera focus and the then revolutionary reverse zoom elongation effect which was pioneered by Paramount effects cameraman Irmin Roberts for this film and used infinitum ever since.

The helpful policeman slips and falls to his death.  Actor blue screened into what I am sure is a miniature set.  Shortly after, a group of bystanders is matted in down below gasping at the fallen cop.  Optical work by Paul Lerpae, Jack Caldwell, Aubrey Law and Carl Lerpae.

Jimmie Stewart's nightmare from VERTIGO

I've always had a thing for the old 'fall away from camera' death scene visual effect, and Hitchcock has utilised it in several films, though none more so than in VERTIGO.  Here, the lovely Kim Novack falls for Jimmie Stewart...literally!  A complex, multi element shot with most of the scene, the tower, rooftops being a Jan Domela matte painting (which easy going Domela had to defend to a fiery Fulton who wasn't easy to work with)... the area of garden and pathways is an actual setting.  The Novack figure is a startlingly convincing piece of 'pretend falling' against a blue screen and optically combined with the Domela painting.  One hell of a scene.
Irwin Allen again, with VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961) offering some stunning visuals courtesy of L.B Abbott and his photo effects unit at Fox.  The flaming skies of the Van Allen Belt (?) were achieved with much optical manipulation and blending of flame thrower footage and then matted over the skyline of New York city.  Additional interactive lighting reflections and so forth also being superimposed on the printer.

As mentioned previously, war films produced during the actual era of WWII necessitated special measures to lend authenticity to the narrative.  The gritty and gripping Paramount film WAKE ISLAND (1942) used Gordon Jennings skills to bring strategically important air raids to the screen.  The sky and horizon is Jan Domela matte art and the squadron of fighters are animated as an optical effect.

George Pal's WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) had a ton of effects shots in it, though this one is especially good.  The camera pans with a bus as it drives screen right to left, with an imperceptible optical wipe as it passes the background which is a Jan Domela matte painting of the countryside and mountain combined with an Ivyl Burks miniature spaceship and ramp.
George Miller's THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987) broke new ground as far as optical effects were concerned.  Industrial Light & Magic were tasked with realising a remarkably 'skewed' game of tennis between Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer.  The ball takes on a life of it's own as the contestants battle it out on the court.

The ball halts mid serve, hangs in thin air and takes flight.

In addition to providing a convincing weight, trajectory and speed to the ball, the ILM animation department under John Armstrong also had to add shadows frame by frame when required and ensure that the appropriate timing was in order for the ball to reach each player's racket.  It's hard to appreciate here as mere still frames but it's quite something else when viewed in motion and in context.

At left is ILM motion control cameraman Bruce Walters with animator John Armstrong shown here with the purpose built tennis ball gimbal rig.

For Sidney Lumet's THE WIZ (1978) Al Whitlock with vfx cameraman  Bill Taylor were required to create a tornado which would take Diana Ross from the street in Brooklyn to the hand of Lena Horne and thenceforth to the magical land of Oz.

Lena Horne blows a gentle puff of breath upon the miniature tornado in which young Dorothy is trapped, which then dematerialises into a sort of pixie dust.  An extraordinary sequence that's been beautifully rendered by Bill Taylor and Dennis Glouner.

...and Diana Ross (as Dorothy) is sent on her way to the land of Oz.
One of my favourite films, and one that hardly ever saw the light of a projector is Michael Wadleigh's excellent WOLFEN (1981) with Albert Finney and Gregory Hines.  A striking, hypnotic thriller that stays with you long after, with a forboding tone established by remarkable cinematography and special optical effects.  The optical work was designed and supervised by Robbie Blalack, who had learned much from his time as optical supervisor on the original STAR WARS (1977).  The visuals in WOLFEN appear to be largely solarisation effects, often with just a portion of the frame altered to sometimes jarring effect.  It's all very creepy and sends a shiver down one's spine.

More of Robbie Blalack's optical work from the outstanding WOLFEN.  To my knowledge the director only ever made two films - this one and the rock concert classic WOODSTOCK (1970).  You couldn't imagine too less similar films in a hundred years.  Full marks to all concerned on WOLFEN, except the executives at Orion pictures who pretty much shelved the thing as too difficult to market !!  Arseholes!

WOLFEN... it knows what scares you.
The wafer thin musical XANADU (1980) was one spectacular visual fx extravaganza back in the day and the R/Greenberg optical effects look pretty impressive some 35 years later.  This opening number with a wall mural coming to life is beautifully realised.  Robert and Richard Greenberg were responsible for a number of exceptional effects projects in the 1980's, with Woody Allen's ZELIG and John McTiernan's PREDATOR being especially noteworthy.

Joel Hynek would oversee the optical photography with Frederick Green and Paul Chervin among the optical printer crew.

The film is as light as a feather without question, but the visuals do hold up remarkably well.

The sort of optical dazzle that R/Greenberg became renowned for in the 1970's in numerous tv commercials made them ideal candidates for XANADU.
The James Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) was among the best in my book.  This is one of the photographic effects sequences where matte art, miniature and fx animation have been composited to good effect on Roy Field's optical printer at Pinewood Studios.

To conclude, we have another ILM film which broke some barriers in the field.  YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, aka THE PYRAMID OF FEAR (1985) had some extraordinary effects work, among which was this stop motion (or was it Go Motion?) Harpie attack sequence.  I think the film may have been nominated for a VFX Oscar that year.

Well folks, that's it for now.  Have a good Christmas season wherever and whoever you are, and I'll be back after the holidays with some great matte magic.



  1. Sterling work as ever, Pete: you have done the Analog Effects Industry, and us traditional FX buffs, a proud service. I saw DR ZHIVAGO [1965] at the theater last week, but never noticed any obvious FX work---maybe Lean never went the effects route? cheers Rob

    1. Hi Rob

      Thanks form that.... it's what we're all about!

      Re-DR ZHIVAGO, well it actually did have a few invisible matte painted additions in it, though they are undetectable. Shepperton Studios fx department under Wally Veevers was tasked with fixing some scenes here and there. Matte painter Gerald Larn told me (and sent me some clips) of a small handful of shots where he and fellow artist Bryan Evans were required to add more snow to those spectacular 'wintery' sequences (shot in Spain of all places!), including making that house look far 'colder'. There is also a sky replacement matte painting as part of the forest/railway sequences which Gerald rather liked. I have included these on past blogs.

      While on David Lean, The Veevers matte dept also did a shot for LARRY OF ARABIA with a full on, white hot blazing sun occupying much of the frame.


    2. OK Pete I will pick up the blu of ZHIVAGO --its very cheap---and run it through the Digital projector and look for the glass paintings. cheers and have a great festive period. Rob

  2. Yet another wonderful entry in your fascinating series! I think I look forward to your work more than for any blog I follow.

    I've been trying to come up with additional sfx shots you haven't yet covered, and I'm hard pressed to, but I'm sure I will. There are some shots in some favorite movies that HAVE to be mattes or optical composites. I'll let you know when I have a few.


  3. Had a thought about those skies in _They Died with their Boots On_. I recall a technique from the black-and-white days for creating dramatic skies. The scene was shot through a glass plate. The bottom part of the glass was clear, but the upper part was a slightly transparent "sky" where the cloud shapes were clear and the "blue" sky areas were, well, tinted blue or grey. The areas of the sky shot through the clear areas were brighter, and read as clouds: the areas behind the tint read as slightly darker, as a blue sky would.

    Only limit is that the foreground figures (actors, buildings) should be kept in the areas of the frame that are clear.

    1. Hi Brian

      Yes, I wondered about that method too and actually mentioned it in one of the captions. Charles Clarke pioneered the method at 20th Century Fox. I have an interesting article on it.
      Incidentally, Jim Danforth wrote me about that too and figured as you did, the 'Clarke' glass method. Would fit most of the shots, but some are full on rapid truck/tracking shots with sky 'added in'... It's all really impressive.


  4. Very good stuff...

  5. re William Castle's PROJECT X: The world of the future scenes were done by Hanna-Barbera's background department (yes, the same people who did The Jetsons!). I'm =guessing= Castle thought they would be an inexpensive source for matte paintings and was disappointed with the unreality of their work and overlaid it with various optical effects inc. solarization to hide its cartoon origins. The design work isn't bad when you get a good look at it, but it's clearly the work of cartoonists and not skilled matte painters (two entirely different disciplines).

    1. Hi Buzz

      Thanks for that info. That explains the weird 60's 'limited animation' look to the backgrounds and matte art. A completely insane film that defies description. Must have been a 'must see' for potheads and LSD freaks back in the day...It makes Kubrick's 'timegate' thing look almost pedestrian.