Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A CAREER PORTRAIT OF A MASTER: The Mattes & Visual Effects of Albert Whitlock - Part One



Welcome friends and fellow devotees of traditional visual effects and old school ‘trick photography’.  
It’s time once again for another of NZPete’s in depth cinematic tutorials, for want of a better phrase,
where no stone is left unturned (or, as few stones as possible) as we examine the seemingly endless
wonders to be revealed in a unique artform that, ironically, itself pretty much came to an end some
years ago, the magic of the motion picture matte painter.

Pete’s Editorial: 

Jim Danforth's glass shot for IT CAME UPON THE MIDNIGHT CLEAR

With regard to my last blog article, CATHEDRALS OF MATTE ART, in my haste I neglected to include a couple of additional great mattes by two of the industry’s biggest talents in the matte painting field, Jim Danforth and Ken Marschall. 
 It’s always a delight to be awakened 
to any matte shot that I’ve never before seen, and in many cases as being from a film I’ve never heard of. Effects veteran Jim Danforth’s work has been covered here in great detail - as an animator and overall special effects designer and provider as covered in my retrospective 
for his Oscar nominated 1970 picture WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, as well as an extensive career interview covering Jim’s longtime industry experience as a matte artist. We never quite got to cover all of Jim’s matte assignments unfortunately, so I was delighted to receive the following matte of some heavenly Pearly Gates and a technical description from Jim recently. This lovely shot is from a made for television film titled IT CAME UPON THE MIDNIGHT CLEAR (1984) that I’d never heard of until now. 
 Jim outlined his glass shot as follows: “It's from the Columbia TV movie It Came Upon The Midnight Clear. It's a cathedral of sorts. I comped it via rear projection. It has double-exposed oscillating 'heavenly rays' generated via rotating slit gags. There was also a traveling matte I used to lighten the faces of the actors lined up at the heavenly gates (necessary because the DP ordered the haze blown out of the stage before I arrived on set. Without the haze, the lighting was too contrasty”. It’s a great shot and I appreciate Jim sending me the frame.

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One of Ken Marschall's amazing matte painted shots from MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK (1993).

 Although I included a few of Ken Marschall’s mattes in the same article I accidentally omitted a couple of superb mattes that Ken did for a film titled MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK (1993) - a film also known in some quarters as JOHNNY ZOMBIE apparently - which depict a heavenly ‘cathedral’ from two vantage points to wonderful effect. Beautifully painted in acrylic atop special high gloss black coated artists card measuring not much more than an A3 sized sheet of paper, as was Ken’s preferred modus operandi, and often painted on Ken's kitchen table at home, which must in itself be unique in the world of matte magic, the original negative composite was shot and put together by Ken’s longtime associate, visual effects cameraman Bruce Block at their small company Matte Effects, sited ever so discretely in a backroom of Gene Warren jnr's Fantasy II vfx house.

A reverse view of the same heavenly cathedral as painted by Ken Marschall and composited by Bruce Block for MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK (aka JOHNNY ZOMBIE).

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 A CAREER PORTRAIT OF A MASTER: 
 THE MATTES AND VISUAL EFFECTS OF ALBERT WHITLOCK - Part One 

 I love traditional matte art and old school ‘trick photography’. That will surely come as little surprise to my readers. I simply cannot get enough of it, no matter the genre, no matter the vintage, no matter the film, be it a timeless classic or a Poverty Row 'B' movie; no matter the artist or specialist responsible. The matte painter’s artform has no boundaries for me. I admire it for the purity, simplicity and honesty of the ‘trick’ - where the wool can be collectively pulled over our gullible eyes and have us believe that what we are seeing up there on the silver screen is fact, when as was so often the case, so many shots, scenes and set pieces were mere fiction, created by highly skilled artisans just by way of brushes, pigments, a smooth support and a steady camera.

For as long as I can remember, I have admired so many of the individuals responsible for achieving all of these magical shots and memorable moments. The hall of fame of matte shot giants could almost read as: Walter Percy Day, Jack Cosgrove, Norman Dawn, Emil Kosa jr, Chesley Bonestell, Paul Detlefson, Fitch Fulton, Jan Domela, Emilio Ruiz del Rio, Mario Larrinaga, Matthew Yuricich and of course the great Peter Ellenshaw just to name but a few, and these being just some of the ‘names’ that were fortunate enough to get a screen credit in the oddly covert side to the entertainment industry where motion picture ‘trickery’ was kept as far under wraps as an entombed Egyptian Pharaoh and rarely spoken about. Some studios and heads of departments would go to extraordinary lengths in order to keep their special effects secrets buried, with a general understanding that ‘what happens in the matte department, stays in the matte department’.

A most youthful Albert shown here at work, probably at Pinewood 1940's.
The specialist celebrated in this blog article however, would view things quite differently, and open up those locked doors as we shall discover. I’ve admired all of the above gentlemen, as well as the countless other, mostly anonymous and long forgotten artists from the matte business for decades, though I must say that there has always been one name in particular whose work has truly stood out in a class of its own and was largely instrumental for pulling me into this endlessly fascinating aspect of film production, and that name is Albert Whitlock. Although I have previously covered a great deal of Whitlock’s work in several blogs - an earlier, somewhat lighter career piece as well as a number of ‘stand alone’ examinations on some of his specific films, such as his Hitchcock pictures for example, it is my aim here to present as full and as comprehensive study of Albert’s matte and effects work as possible.

Three greats of FX, Jim Danforth, Linn Dunn & Albert enjoy their ASC lunch
I will be documenting not only the familiar shots - though for the most part now in spectacular high definition for the first time - but also a substantial number of rarely seen, forgotten, lost and completely new matte shots that I have been able to uncover and archive by one means or another. What follows, I hope, will be as complete a retrospective as has been published to date, and as such will occupy at least two blogpost articles (or maybe three, depending on how it goes, as I don’t ‘prep’ any of this beforehand and just ‘attack’ the blog in one giant almighty swoop and hope for the best). I’m thrilled to be able to present scores of new Whitlock shots, with a great many derived from excellent quality sources that only now revealed the ‘trick’ to me when viewed in a fresh, higher quality format, whereas until now some shots had entirely passed me by undetected, even in shows that I thought I knew quite well! I’ve also acquired excellent quality images of some of Whitlock’s original matte paintings that are still in the care of a few private collectors as well, just to add some icing to the proverbial cake, and they are sensational.

Whitlock surveys a VistaVision matte set up, circa late 1960's.
 In an effort to be as complete as possible, I have also included some examples of likely Whitlock scenic backing art from his early years at Gainsborough Studios in London, as well as a number of ‘educated guess’ matte shots in that I have no real concrete evidence as to their provenance other than various factors - which I will outline in each case - pointing toward a strong possibility of Albert having had involvement such as stylistic attributes and knowledge that the man was in fact employed at certain studio effects departments at particular times or freelancing for specific contractors on a regular basis. As I say, some of those shots are assumptions on my part, but I believe many of those to quite likely be candidates of Whitlock’s work during that tenure.
Face to face: Two masters of their respective crafts.

Those familiar with my blogs will know that I, at times, have a tendency to drift off-topic, and this blog post is no exception.  Hey, I love movies - all aspects of movies, so I'll occasionally talk about favourite actors, memorable lines, directors, cameramen, sound effects guys, Oscar injustices, old time movie houses from days gone by and even trailer voice-over artistes(!)   Just humour me guys!

Oh, and, you might wonder at the sheer numbers of frames included in todays blog?  Well aside from the fact that Albert did a lot of matte shots and other work throughout his very long career I've decided that in order to better appreciate certain key VFX shots, especially where animation or special gags of some description have been a vital component, to upload an entire sequence as individual frame grabs which after being clicked on may be toggled through to enjoy the magic in motion, such as moving clouds, animated shadows and complex interactive lighting tricks that enhanced so many of Al's shots.  I don't have a clue about making 'gif' files or inserting 'quicktime' clips, so this is as good as it's going to get here folks.  But hey, it's straightforward and it achieves what I want it to achieve!

*I’d like to express a special nod of gratitude to several people: Domingo Lizcano, Tom Higginson, Jim Davidson, Pam Carpenter, Chris Shuler, Syd Dutton, Jim Danforth & Thomas Thiemeyer for their various contributions, and in particular, Bill Taylor, who has been incredibly helpful with recollections, clarifications, technical explanations, industry gossip and an amazing memory.
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 Born in London in 1915, Albert John Whitlock’s early life was very much one of a working class existence within the very strongly defined ‘class system’ that was, and probably still is to a slightly lesser degree, Great Britain. Not uncommon for the time, able bodied young lads often left school after only a few years of basic education in order to help out the family financially. Albert left school at 14 years of age and through a relative was able to gain minimum waged, entry level work in 1929 at London’s Islington film studio as a general ‘dogs-body’ and factotum.

Alberts first foray into the glamour world of movies wasn’t quite so glamourous, was to hand out bags of nails to the carpenters and set builders in the studio. Whitlock eagerly took on the work and did just what he was told as it was the great depression and work was work. From this low level entry into the motion picture business the then 19 year old Cockney would gradually see various avenues open up for him which would definitely broaden young Albert’s horizons without question. If there ever was a case of being in the right place at the right time it was certainly true for him with these formative years at Islington.

The effects stage at Gainsborough, possibly for THE GHOST TRAIN (1941)
In addition to the mundane day to day storemans chores, Whitlock would find himself drawn into a quite surprising array of other duties. One was to deliver new release prints across London on public transport, which to those of the ‘digital age’ may think unremarkable until you understand that those 35mm reels were nitrate film - with nitrate being an incredibly combustible film base that was the result of many a projection room inferno and theatre conflagration until the arrival of acetate ‘safety film’ many years later (the film had a propensity to decompose and become quite unstable when stored in the film vault as I personally witnessed once). Coincidentally, the young Whitlock would later work in a junior behind the scenes capacity on an Alfred Hitchcock picture, SABOTAGE (1936) in which, in one unforgettable sequence, a child carries a similarly disguised package on a London double-decker bus which to our shock and horror is in fact a bomb and blows the bus and the kid to pieces! They don’t make ‘em like that any more.

During those early days, Albert would also gain experience as a young bit part actor, appearing in numerous British films as page-boys, newspaper boys and other blink and you’d miss it bits. When not acting, the young fellow was enlisted as a helper to on-set electricians, cameramen, scenic painters and just about anybody on the lot with all of this back and forth activity obviously before the industry became so heavily unionised and militant that the mere thought of lending an unauthorised hand to another discipline on the soundstage could result in an instant ‘walk out’ and strike! The young Whitlock would run into the actors such as Charles Laughton on DOWN RIVER and Conrad Veidt on JEW SUSS as well as Boris Karloff on THE GHOUL, who according to Rolf Giesen, didn’t even give him a tip, unlike the others!

The Schufftan Shot explained, circa 1931.
 Whitlock would also find much to do at Gaumonts Lime Grove Studios in London where to begin with he was the ‘fetch and carry boy’ who was expected to come running whenever somebody yelled out “Boy”. According to historian and close friend Rolf Giesen: “One single name that Al mentioned repeatedly was that of German born art director Alfred Junge.” By good fortune Albert would go on to be assistant to the same respected art director Alfred Junge as well as working in the miniatures department for the Hitchcock film THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) in addition to showing some flare for signwriting, which he had learned at night school,  that would see him on many a film set painting a wide variety of signage as required. Albert apparently worked with Junge on the 1937 version of KING SOLOMON’S MINES and it’s thought that this film may have been the one which made Albert aware of ‘glass shots’ and their usefulness. Italian born effects expert Fillipo Guidobaldi was in charge of the special effects department and he and Albert’s paths would cross again later on at Pinewood. Whitlock spoke on several occasions of his experiences during that time as he found himself exposed to so many incredibly talented technicians, cameramen, artists and other creative folk who had gotten out of Europe as World War II loomed close on the horizon. Probably the earliest exposure to ‘trick work’ would have been when Whitlock was asked to assist the set up of the Schufftan Process shot (**named after its inventor, German cinematographer Eugene Schufftan - sometimes billed as ‘Shuftan’ - the process was a superb, highly effective in camera method of combining multiple elements onto the original negative by clever use of a partially scraped away mirror and deep focus photography, all done right there on the set, the method was frequently applied throughout the 1920’s onward, especially in Europe and the UK, and even made it’s invisible mark in Disney’s wonderful DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959) and was ingeniously applied by Les Bowie to the famous closing shot of Hammer’s 1970 film WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH ).

German fx man Willi Horn with a typical Schufftan set up in the 1930's.
 Eugene Schufftan, as a sought after D.O.P would receive an Oscar for his outstanding black & white cinematography on the terrific 1962 Paul Newman picture THE HUSTLER. Al’s friend Rolf Giesen told me about the Schufftan experience as Al had recounted it: “Albert watched two experts from Germany handle the Schufftan Process and said ‘One was a Nazi, the other was not. They would make a big fuss and hide behind black velvet’. But Albert found out that the process basically was really quite simple. He remembered the technique and later suggested it to do the effects for Disney’s DARBY O’GILL in a similar way. This however was his only creative input on that picture and he was reduced to help with a few mattes.” 
Some Whitlock scenic backings from Gainsborough.  Top row:  THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) and WE DIVE AT DAWN (1943).  Bottom row:  THE 39 STEPS (1935) and CARAVAN (1946).

Scenic backing artists at work.
Meanwhile, Albert’s artistic horizons were opening up. He found his calling as a scenic backing artist and mastered the use of the ‘big brush’. If you don’t use a big brush, it’ll never get done. In later years Whitlock often spoke of his mentor in England, though he never named him directly. It’s most likely that this mentor was fellow scenic painter Albert Julion who himself would go on to various art director assignments and also have a successful matte painting career with Wally Veevers’ department at Shepperton for a number of years and was highly respected in the craft as Vincent Korda’s favourite matte artist. Many well known English matte artists such as Bob Cuff, Gerald Larn, Peter Melrose and Doug Ferris all spoke highly of Julion who, unfortunately died relatively young in his fifties and left quite a gap in the talent pool of the Shepperton matte department. Among the films Whitlock worked as a scenic backing painter in England during his early years were several Alfred Hitchcock shows, THE 39 STEPS (1935), SABOTAGE (1936), YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937), THE LADY VANISHES (1938) and JAMAICA INN (1939) as well as other productions of the period such as CARAVAN (1946) and MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS (1947).

 Even once he had graduated into full-on matte work it was not unusual in the British studios at the time for the matte artist to be assigned to scenic backings in addition to glass shots and miscellaneous other special effects jobs. The typical British effects man tended, out of necessity, to be more broad ranging in experience as opposed to their US counterparts who tended to specialise in particular defined fields.
Scenic backings that Whitlock would likely have had a hand in. Top row: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) and THE LADY VANISHES (1938).  Bottom row:  CARAVAN (1946) and THE WICKED LADY (1945).

Al's first matte assignment came with an actual on-screen credit!
Whitlock’s career would bounce between scenic backings, signwriting, miniature construction and meticulous lettering on sheets of glass for movie main titles and credits. He even hand painted the famous Gainsborough lady logo that would grace the start of many a British picture through the 1930’s and 40’s. His first venture into matte painting work came about when the original matte painter assigned the task (possibly Albert Julion) left to take up an art director’s post at the studio. Whitlock was a well established scenic artist by that time and so was deemed the obvious choice to take on the mantle of matte painter. The film was the Dennis Price headlined period drama BAD LORD BYRON (1949) where Al was to paint an ornate ballroom and a few ceilings. In these early films, Whitlock himself admitted that his "style was so tight that he was tied up in knots the whole time when painting matte shots", though his subsequent exposure to the style and technique of fellow Brit Peter Ellenshaw a few years later would prove to be a revelation, and, by Albert’s very own admission, his own matte painting ability would advance in great leaps and bounds as a result of observing Ellenshaws' approach and technique that was nothing like he'd ever seen before in terms of spontenaety, looseness and an incredible speed with the brush.


Some texts have stated that Albert trained under the esteemed British trick shot pioneer Walter Percy ‘Poppa’ Day though this is incorrect. Peter Ellenshaw certainly trained under Day, as did several others such as Les Bowie, Judy Jordan and Joseph Natanson to name but a few. What I can confirm is that Whitlock and Day did in fact meet though not in any special effects capacity. Albert’s friend Rolf Giesen wrote me many stories about Whitlock and mentioned: “I can tell you for sure that he met Day although he may not have actually worked for him. They both worked on MINE OWN EXECUTIONER (1947), though in different capacities. Perhaps Albert was sent by the art department to visit Day’s studio, but I saw no photographic record of him working in Day’s department, only from his days at Rank. By the way, he called Les Bowie his boss [at Pinewood] and not his mentor. The matte artists Albert mentioned most often were Norman Dawn, Conrad Tritschler, Peter Ellenshaw and Russ Lawson.” In one published interview, Albert described Pop Day as “a better painter than any of us, though he tended to make his paintings too detailed, which would draw too much attention to them.”

One of Percy Day's matte shots from MINE OWN EXECUTIONER (1947)
I’ve discussed the work and importance of Dawn, Ellenshaw and even Lawson to a somewhat lesser degree here in previous blogs, some quite extensively, though little mention was made of Conrad Tritschler, whom Whitlock was apparently so fond of. Tritschler was a well known British scenic artist in the London theatre world of the 1920’s and then progressed into motion picture work as a scenic artist, glass shot exponent and miniature effects man for such directors as Cecil B. DeMille, Ed Carewe, Frank Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks. He painted mattes for WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) and quite possibly for the 1930 Bela Lugosi DRACULA classic among other titles.
A wonderful 'family' portrait of the Pinewood Special Effects Department taken during the making of the Peter Ustinov film HOTEL SAHARA (1952).  Not all identified but some are as follows:  Back row standing at left is matte painter Cliff Culley.  Back row far right wearing hat is electrician Ronnie Wells and standing next to him is physical effects man Frank George.  Front row far right is head of department Bill Warrington.  Next to Bill smoking a pipe is VFX cameraman Bert MarshallAlbert Whitlock is standing in the middle next to Bert, and lastly, at far left wearing glasses is long time mechanical effects man Jimmy Ackland-Snow.  Also present may possibly be fx man Bert Luxford*Many thanks to Jimmy Snow's grand daughter Brigette for sharing this and other great photos with me.... very much appreciated.
Miniatures maestro Fillipo Guidobaldi on CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS 
It was around 1946 that Albert began work at J. Arthur Rank’s Pinewood Studios where he continued painting both scenic backings as well as glass shots. The special effects department at the time was under the control of Bill Warrington. Joan Suttie I believe was head of matte painting for some time until former scenic backing painter, Canadian born Les Bowie came along and eventually became chief matte artist for the studio. Albert worked under Les along with other scenic artists turned matte painters Peter Melrose and Cliff Culley. Albert must have been quite high in seniority as he alone among the artists actually received screen credit on a number of productions - usually with department head Warrington or Italian born miniatures expert Fillipo Guidobaldi with whom Whitlock had previously worked at Gaumont several years earlier.

Matte painter and all round effects expert Les Bowie.
 Peter Melrose would go on to a long career in both scenic and matte art (and he’s still with us) spoke about the Pinewood era where he and Albert would work together on glass shots and often devised multi-plane glass shots with numerous details painted as separate layers to allow depth to a trick shot, sometimes combining these with miniatures. Among the films Albert worked on at Pinewood were the Technicolor adventure CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1949), SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1949), ROMEO AND JULIET (1953) as well as the three critically acclaimed Somerset Maugham pictures QUARTET, TRIO and ENCORE from the late 40's and early 50's.
A typically large scenic backing being painted at Pinewood Studios by Al's former colleague, Cliff Culley.

Peter Ellenshaw on SWORD AND THE ROSE.  Note Al's title glasses ready
 From the early 1950’s Walt Disney had begun to experiment with full live action features in addition to the well loved cartoon shorts and full length animated classics. Several of these, such as the highly successful ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN (1952) would be based, filmed and completed entirely in England. The highly talented matte artist Peter Ellenshaw had already had his work cut out for him with Disney’s previous, and in fact the first live action adventure, TREASURE ISLAND (1949) and had scores more mattes to paint for the succeeding films that would number near 100 shots all told for the four feature films in total. It was on two of these pictures that Albert Whitlock joined Ellenshaw's department as an assistant. THE SWORD AND THE ROSE (1953) and ROB ROY THE HIGHLAND ROGUE (1954) were Albert’s first introductions to the Disney empire. I know that Al designed and hand lettered the main title 'cast and credits' glasses for both and may have participated in helping Peter with some of the mattes too, though I have no firm evidence. 

In an interview in 1979, Peter remarked that he very well remembered meeting Albert for the first time as he had just finished a glass painting for SWORD when the two men were introduced, though what made it unforgettable was that right at that moment a large painted glass matte snapped as Peter was moving it and a shard of glass hit him just below the eye. An inch higher and Peter may well have lost an eye! I believe that another of Albert’s Pinewood colleagues, Cliff Culley, also contributed to THE SWORD AND THE ROSE, though in what capacity I do not know. Later on Cliff was one of the uncredited matte painters under Ellenshaw on one of Disney’s most impressive special effects extravaganzas, IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962) alongside another important name in the field, Alan Maley, in what was a massive matte shot show if ever there was one.

Walt with Albert in the late fifties.
In later interviews with historian and co-author of the utterly indispensible The Invisible Art-The Legends of Movie Matte Painting, Craig Barron, Whitlock admitted that he learned so much just by observing Peter and watching over his shoulder. Albert remarked: “Peter didn’t teach me, he just let me observe him.” Albert would often refer to Peter's influence and just how it shaped his own abilities. Disney reverted to stateside in-house production for most of its subsequent films, with a few exceptions such as the remake of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER and the aforementioned IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS both made in 1962. Walt apparently liked Albert and struck up quite a friendship, the result of which saw Whitlock invited in 1954 to make the journey across the Atlantic with his wife June and sons John and Mark to the Disney Studios in Burbank, California for work, which sounded great in theory but hadn’t been properly thought through. There was no specific ‘work’ for Whitlock! Realising the dilemma, Walt saw to it that Albert had something to do in the meantime, with one of these jobs being to paint - as in house painting - the actual Main Street Theatre in the then new Disneyland theme park. Apparently Albert was also involved in some of the basic concepts for the park as well, though as to what extent I do not know.

One of Alberts hand lettered title glasses for a Disney classic.
Walt had long planned a big, epic scaled adventure picture - in CinemaScope and Technicolor - that he gambled would be a hit, and it was. The Jules Verne saga 20’000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) was that epic. Peter Ellenshaw was aware of Albert’s talent for hand lettered main titles and movie credits which lead to Whitlock being responsible for designing and painting the title glasses for the film. The film incidentally won the Academy Award for special effects, with Peter Ellenshaw, Ralph Hammeras, Joshua Meador and Robert Mattey cited, though none of these gentlemen actually received a statuette, as a solitary winning statuette went to The Walt Disney Studio and remained in Walt’s office, though I digress.

Al poses with his Lady Liberty matte for the film MAME.
Following the well deserved success of 20’000 LEAGUES, Disney went all out producing dozens of live action pictures, with nearly all of these requiring visuals and matte effects of some degree. Ellenshaw's tiny matte department, which was initially sited in a corridor in the animation building, expanded and moved into a fully fledged workshop complete with cameramen and additional artists. Albert was the first to join Peter in this newly formed department, followed closely by former 20th Century Fox artist Jim Fetherolf. Together the three skilled painters shared matte duties on a number of films, always under Peter’s supervision and watchful eye, with the Disney leadership being extremely ‘gung-ho’ on mattes, process shots and all manner of trick work often used extensively.
Al's matte from Disney's DANIEL BOONE,WARRIORS PATH
Some of the films that Albert painted mattes for included JOHNNY TREMAIN (1957), THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN (1959), WESTWARD HO THE WAGONS (1956), THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE (1956), KIDNAPPED (1960), ZORRO (1960), POLLYANNA (1960), DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959) and Whitlock’s own personal favourite from his time at Disney, GREYFRIARS BOBBY (1961) which was one of the few films in which he was able to receive a screen credit for while at that studio.
Albert would tell interviewer Tom Greene in 1974 that Disney was where he learned a great deal. "The studio housed tremendous talent and I have to give Peter Ellenshaw credit for being the one who convinced Walt Disney that the artist should be the one looking through the camera and blocking out certain areas, and was the obvious person to do the job."

Detail from an unidentified Whitlock matte painting.
Albert spent just over five years at Disney and eventually left, rather suddenly, at the invitation of Production Manager George Golitzen, who had worked with Al on Disney's THE PARENT TRAP, and was the brother of Universals art department head, Alexander Golitzen, to join Universal Studios. During this initial period, Al engaged in freelance matte painting requests as well, providing a number of mattes to independent effects houses such as Howard A. Anderson, Butler-Glouner, Film Effects of Hollywood and perhaps some others. Albert accepted the job as head of the matte department at Universal Studios, replacing the then retiring Russ Lawson who had been with the studio since the 1930's and had painted a huge number of mattes for hundreds of Universal films under the visual effects direction of the great John P. Fulton as well as later heads David Stanley Horsley and Clifford Stine.  According to Whitlock, Russ who had just inherited a fortune, shook Albert's hand and remarked "You can have it all!" (meaning the department I presume, and not the 'fortune').

Albert was highly productive at Universal and it wasn't long before the front office knew they were onto a good thing.  It is estimated that he worked on around 150 films and television shows, with a great many not being screen credited.  Al had already painted on several movies at the studio before any sort of credit, and the first actual credit was an odd one as 'Pictorial Designs by Albert Whitlock' for Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963) for which he painted some 13 mattes.  THE BIRDS sealed Al's creative cache with Hitchcock, who would use Albert's services on all of his subsequent pictures.  The pair hit it off without question, both being Londoners and of a similar background, not to mention a very junior Whitlock having worked on 3 or 4 of Hitch's very early British films.

Syd observes while Al explains to doco maker Walter Dornish.
Whitlock's department at Universal consisted of a pretty small group; Matte Cinematographer Roswell Hoffman - who like Lawson had been in the department forever, going back to the James Whale horror pictures of the thirties with the legendary John P. Fulton.  Ross, as he was known, was an extremely talented visual effects cameraman and optical man who worked right up to the Academy Award winning EARTHQUAKE (1974).  Other staff in the department included Assistant Cameraman Mike Moramarco, who would work alongside Albert for many years to come.  Millie Winebrenner and Nancy van Rensellaer were Rotoscope Artists - again long serving effects staffers whose careers went way back. Millie worked through to THE HINDENBURG (1975).  Larry Shuler was Albert's Key Grip and would be responsible for building platforms and special rigs for the camera and was among other things a studio fireman and a fine practical joker.  Larry passed away just a few months ago and his daughter was kind enough to send me some photos of some of the matte paintings he had up on his living room wall, with these marvellous images featuring at various points in this blog.
 Some time ago Larry dropped NZPete a line: "It was a pleasure to go back in the history of the matte shots. I worked with all of these folks starting in the sixties. Albert was an incredible person to work for . Thanks for the great site. Best regards, Larry Shuler: Key Grip." Following Larry's passing, I had the pleasure of communicating with his daughter Pam, who recalled a great deal: "He was working at Universal before Whitlock arrived. When Al starting setting up an effects department, my dad, Larry Shuler, was transferred to that department at Al's request after working there a few days, this was when Ross Hoffman was there long before Bill Taylor. Ross had been in the Special Photographic Effects Dept for many years since the 30's doing a lot of the westerns and horror pictures, working with Cliff Stein and Russ Harland [Lawson?]. Ross retired at age 75. That's when Bill arrived. Bill actually set up the the effects for the dogs in HOUNDS OF THE BASKERVILLE (1971), from his prior work with Ray Mercer doing a shampoo ad."

Bill Taylor shoots and original negative matte plate.
Following Ross Hoffman's retirement in 1974 a new specialist entered the department, Bill Taylor.  Bill had been working in the field of optical cinematography for many years at fx houses Ray Mercer and Film Effects of Hollywood with Linwood Dunn and had known Albert as a friend for many years after being invited to visit Al at his Universal workshop.  Bill recently discussed his initial visit to Albert's studio and subsequent employment with author Tom Higginson:  "His paintings were a revelation to me.  Al understood what the camera sees, and he developed all sorts of tricks to animate the paintings". It would be several years later that Bill would actually join Whitlock's department, just as they were getting ready for THE HINDENBURG in 1975.  "Al hired me as cameraman.  In those days we had to do lots of shots in a hurry and they had to be very high quality, so we relied heavily on the original negative process.  We put up a matte in front of the camera (see example at left) when the live action was photographed.  Then we took the undeveloped negative, or the 'held take' and refrigerated it along with a back-up take until the painting was finished.  Tests were made on clips that were shot on other rolls.  In the final stage, after the last test had been seen and approved, the 'held take' was defrosted and the painting was exposed onto the original negative.  So, the result was just absolutely pristine quality".
When compared with dupe matte shots, that were the most commonly utilised method for many years at all of the other major studios, the fidelity of the Whitlock latent image composite just stood out in a class of its own.
Al's son Mark, himself a matte painter, on location.
It would be some years later that the O/Neg technique would find a resurgence among a mainly 'new breed' of younger matte exponents such as Rocco Gioffre, Mark Sullivan, Ken Marschall, Robert Stromberg and of course, Al's former apprentice, Syd Dutton.  Even powerhouse effects suppliers like Industrial Light & Magic were tentative about embarking on such a seemingly 'risky' approach, and it was only around 1982 that ILM even experimented with Whitlock's modus-operandi on one shot for the film ET, and they were nervous about that simple moonlit sky split screen.  ILM's masters of the artform, Michael Pangrazio and Christopher Evans quickly adapted to the Whitlock approach and would emulate not only the pristine latent image technique but also the effects gags such as rolling clouds.

Al with documentarian Mark Horowitz, 1982      *photo by Walter Dornish
Whitlock's department stood by quality, and no lesser substitute would ever do.  No shot ever passed out of the department without Al's okay.  Whitlock was always happy to share his methodology with anyone who asked, and often gave seminars for budding film studies students and visual effects practitioners.  Veteran stop motion animator and vfx cameraman Jim Aupperle told me about one of these lectures:  "I'd have to agree that Albert was the master of the art of matte painting.  I was lucky enough to see several demo's over the years that Al gave on his work in various films, and I was consistently amazed.  He'd always show the shot first as it appeared in the finished film, and I'd look at it and think to myself, 'Okay...I can figure this out'.  Then, he'd show the shot broken down into various elements, and how they all combined.  My jaw hit the floor every single time."
Albert as photographed by friend Bill Taylor.
Fellow matte painter Ken Marschall also told me similar stories of when he first went to such a series of lectures in 1976 where notable giants such as Peter and Harrison Ellenshaw, Matthew Yuricich, L.B Abbott and Al were all giving lectures and all of whom showed amazing demo reels that left Ken stunned.  Seeing Whitlock's before and after reels was a revelation for Marschall who decided then and there that he just had to get into visual effects:  "Albert was always my favourite.  His work was always so real.  I got to meet and talk with Al and Bill there.  The whole experience was unforgettable."

Al's department was constantly busy through the sixties and on into the eighties with not only the myriad of Universal productions on the go, but many outside matte and effects jobs for other studios too, with some being quite unusual.  The acclaimed director Robert Altman even used Al to supply a lot of falling snow for his revisionist wintery western McCABE AND MRS MILLER (1971), made by Warner Bros, and even mentioned the fact on the DVD commentary track.  Mike Nichols hired Al for a matte and a unique one-of-a-kind visual effect gag on his classic CATCH 22 (1970) which was a Paramount picture. One of the moguls at another Hollywood studio even referred to Al as "Universal's secret weapon", as he had the ability to bring gravitas to a scene or film, and all on an affordable budget.  The workload was considerable, no two ways about it. When, upon the master's retirement in 1985, the studio decided it was high time to cut costs and close down the matte department, and others as well.
One of the last films that Al worked on as a Universal employee was GREYSTOKE.  Bill and Syd would wrangle a deal with the studio to maintain the facility and it's equipment which they would pay a rental on under the banner of Illusion Arts - a company name already trademarked by Bill as part of his side interest in stage magic (more than just an interest... a true passion, according to Syd, along with watches and old clocks),  This arrangement only lasted about a year with the decision to find some real estate to call their own, Illusion Arts moved to a new suburban home, near to John Dykstra's effects house Apogee, and another specialty house Grant McCune Miniatures.  Universal did a sweetheart deal on all of the old Whitlock equipment, cameras, optical printers and so forth whereby Dutton and Taylor got what they wanted at a bargain price.

Bill Taylor & Syd Dutton; Al at home; lecture on VFX; Mike Moramarco
Illusion Arts, as a stand alone matte shot and general visual effects company, proved extremely successful and highly respected effects house and lasted well over two decades.  Al would frequently come by and put his head in the door and "see what the boys were up to".  Bill remarked:  "After Al's official retirement he would come in and offer over-the-shoulder advice and some unofficial painting here and there - he couldn't help himself - but didn't take on shots per-se, with very few exceptions like FUNNY FARM."  A variety of projects, both large and small, were handed to Illusion Arts, with some quite substantial matte shot shows such as NEVER ENDING STORY 2 (1990) that would see Albert credited as Matte Painting Supervisor, though I don't think he actually painted any of the shots himself, with Syd painting most of them, plus one or two recycled from the first film and a few others done by another British artist temporarily based in Germany.
Albert would continue to paint, purely for his own pleasure at home, though by his own account "had nothing to say" as far as his private painting went, and would see it pretty much as an enjoyable past time.  Sometime in the 1990's Al developed the serious and incurable ailment that affects the neurological system, Parkinson's Disease, which would soon bring to an end the joy he experienced in applying brush and pigments to canvas.  That insidious, creeping disease would ultimately lead to Al's death in 1999 at the age of 84. In a very long and diverse career that spanned more than fifty years, hundreds of films and television shows, a pair of Oscars, an Emmy Award and various other nominations and accolades, Albert Whitlock was one of the most respected specialists in the motion picture industry, who not only had achieved a cast iron reputation among producers, directors and studio heads for consistently high quality, yet pragmatic solutions to even the most seemingly insurmountable visual effect problems, he would influence an entire new generation of photographic effects and matte shot practitioners whose subsequent success and mastery of their craft owed so much to Whitlock's guidence, advice and his time tested no-nonsense methodology.



One of Al's evocative marine paintings rendered in his own time at home, purely for the enjoyment of it.  This might be the Cutty Sark oil painting that Al's longtime friend, Jim Danforth told me about once.  What a magnificent piece indeed.
Splendid detail.  I'll include some more marvellous examples of Al's personal art in the second part of this article.

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THE MATTES AND VISUAL EFFECTS OF ALBERT WHITLOCK - image gallery


Although I've never had the good fortune to see A.D - ADDIS DOMINI (1985), mostly due to its lack of availability, I do have the matte shots courtesy of an enthusiast in Germany who not only has a copy of the made for tv film but also is fortunate enough to own a genuine Whitlock painting!
More mattes from A.D which won an Emmy Award for Best Visual Effects for Albert as well as his entire crew, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor, Dennis Glouner, Mark Whitlock and Lynn Ledgerwood.

Award winning mattes from the tv movie A.D - ADDIS DOMINI (1985)

Among the various films that Albert painted on at Disney was THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) where, according to Al's friend Rolf Giesen, he painted some of the cloud matte shots.  The film was nominated for its effects.

Now, I've always quite liked this disaster flick and feel it has been unjustly dumped upon.  AIRPORT 77 (1977) was a solid thriller buoyed by brilliant effects work, of which there is plenty, plus some solid screen work by the great Jack Lemmon.  The image at right is Albert's incredible full painting that serves as the spectacular opening vista.  The painting has been hanging on the wall of Larry Shuler's house for years and I am most grateful to Larry's daughter for sharing it.  I saw it in person about 30 years ago at Universal on the studio tour on the special effects stage.  Although I've not received it at the time of publication, I hope to have a high rez photo of this painting and close up detail, which I will include in Part Two of this tribute.

The shot as it appears on screen - complete with moving clouds - with the miniature 747 doubled in via travelling matte.

There were many sensational night time shots of the 747 jet cruising through atmospheric cloudscapes and thunder storms, all of which were manufactured in Whitlock's department.  Most of the shots comprised painted vistas, a miniature plane and carefully hand-crafted cotton clouds to add that extra dimension, all moving in an incredibly convincing fashion.  Note the distant sky which is classic Whitlock cloud art if ever I saw it.  I call that Al's donut clouds, and that same style appears in so many of his shots over his career.

The shots are dark, I know, though I did lighten some of them slightly for your viewing pleasure.  Here is a painted night sky with foreground cotton clouds (crafted by Syd Dutton) and a model plane starting it's hijacked descent in a most credible manner.  Bill Taylor and Dennis Glouner photographed all of the model shots, mattes and optical composites.

In a conversation with author Tom Higginson, Bill discussed the methods used for these shots:  "The clouds in AIRPORT 77 were our first big use of cotton clouds.  Syd or Lynn [Ledgerwood] were the masters at sculpting clouds and made these big cloudscapes basically built on a long sheet of black velvet."  From his conversations Tom told me that Bill elaborated further so say that they was able to achieve the effect of soft edges on the clouds by filming two passes at slightly different speeds after subtly changing the shape of the model clouds.


The hijacking goes very badly when the aircraft clips the top of an ocean oil rig derrick in a thick fog.  This sequence is very impressive and had me curious ever since I saw it originally in 1977, so I asked Bill about it.  "The water was all real, shot off Huntington Beach pier.  The flying plane model was a 12 inch plastic model kit, meticulously painted and lit and shot stop motion on an improvised track (no motion-control in our department yet).   It took three or four guys to shoot these, depending on the number of axes animated.  For this shot only there was a yaw axis for the reaction to the derrick strike.  The oil derrick itself was painted on its own glass with an overlay cel for the sparks highlight; the sparks were an SFX spark squib shot high speed.  I had forgotten about the reflection of the spark; nice touch if I do say so."



Same frame with my exaggerated adjustment to better see the elements.

Sequential frames from the oil rig wing clip scene.  Note the reflected squib flash across the water and the interactive 'flash' across the (painted) derrick.  A quick cut but so masterful in it's execution.
Pictured above is the purpose built rudimentary motion control rig built by Albert's key grip Larry Shuler - basic but highly effective.  Effects cameraman Bill Taylor spoke with author Tom Higginson about this unique piece of  equipment:  "Al had come up with the idea of a sled that travelled on two 45 degree aluminium channels.  It was basically a wooden platform with a Mitchell cast-iron camera head, a lock off head, and the camera.  That sled was crude and made out of wood but, man it worked."
Miniatures on AIRPORT 77 were purpose built by Universal's veteran model constructor Charlie Cleon Baker, who also had a very long career with the studio.  Also used was a regular off-the-shelf plastic kit model for some effects shots.  Note the optically doubled in spray as the 747's engine skims the water.
The moment the plane hits the sea was also very well executed, due in large part to the subtle use of soft split screens to combine full size ocean waves with the manufactured waves on the Universal lake.  Bill explained the shots to me recently:  "It was Al's great idea for the shots where the big air propelled model plane hits the water to shoot full-size water from the correct perspective and split it in just under the plane in the back lot Falls Lake.  For the panning shot I guessed at a bunch of different speed pans on the full-size water and we comped the best match in.  Speed matches only approximately but it's a quick shot." This technique may have been one that Al picked up while working in England, as ace visual effects cameraman Wally Veevers was a firm advocate of whenever possible utilising full sized actual ocean footage to maintain scale, and matting in either miniature or painted ships as he had done on such films as ALEXANDER THE GREAT (1956), THE SILENT ENEMY (1958), THE GIFT HORSE (1952) and THE LONGEST DAY (1962).

Multiple component matte shots.  The top frame has a miniature 747 matted with a soft blend into an actual ocean plate.  I suspect the distant US Coast Guard vessel may be painted.  The lower frame is interesting.  A large miniature in the studio lake has been split screened into real ocean waves to give proper scale, with the frogmen in the foreground blue screened in.

The previously mentioned set up though this time as the background plate combined via blue screen with the rescue ship foreground set where James Stewart anxiously watches and waits.  Incidentally, the entire rescue segment, which occupies a good proportion of the film, is authentic, with real procedures, first responders and so on, and is handled in a hand held documentary fashion much to the films benefit.

I'm not sure whether Albert had any involvement with this shot, though I did see it as before and after clips on one of his showreels back in 1986.  The film was a made for tv version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND made in the mid eighties.

One of my favourite films, the excellent Michael Crichton penned sci-fi thriller THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1970).  A brilliantly directed, intelligent film from Robert Wise.  A handful of matte shots by Albert as well as a number of inventive photographic effects by Doug Trumbull and Jamie Shourt.

The Vandenburg Air Force Base as seen in THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is a full painting complete with moving clouds.  Only the sea is real.

Oddly, the film was submitted to the Academy for Oscar consideration, though only for the 4 or so matte shots and not for the rather impressive Trumbull photographic effects work.  None the less, it would have been up against tough competition had it gotten through the selection process as TORA!, TORA!, TORA! was the deserving winner that year.  Universal really should have submitted COLOSSUS, THE FORBIN PROJECT that year as it would have been a hands-down winner in my book.

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN

Whitlock painted a ton of mattes for westerns over the years.  These shots are from the Doris Day comedy THE BALLAD OF JOSIE (1967).

THE BALLAD OF JOSIE concluded with this subtle matte shot that adds in the entire top half of the frame.  I couldn't get a frame without those annoying end credits spilling across the beauty of the trick shot.

It's had a number of remakes and spinoffs over the years and this 1966 version is certainly not the best of them by a long shot.  The old Gary Cooper version of BEAU GESTE made back in 1939 was the best.  Anyway, several mattes to be found including these curious views that appear to have matted alterations or extensions across the left hand side of the frame.

Two nicely done widescreen matte shots from BEAU GESTE (1966).

This one is a rarity, the 1963 Edward Small version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  The effects were contracted to the Howard A. Anderson company, with whom Albert would often freelance and provide mattes for.  A young Jim Danforth happened across Whitlock while he was at work on these and other paintings and described the meeting in his memoir 'Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama':  "On a visit to the Howard Anderson company, I encountered Al Whitlock, the Disney matte artist to whom Peter Ellenshaw had introduced me when I had visited the Disney matte department.  We got talking and I found that I liked Al a lot.  It was always a pleasure to talk to him for a few moments whenever we had the chance to meet at the Anderson company".  Jim went on to describe how impressed he was by the "truly beautiful painting of the French chateau at sunset" (shown lower right).

Other mattes from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1963).  Jim Danforth further described the meeting at Andersons effects house:  "Al told me that Darryl Anderson (Howard's brother) had insisted that it would be necessary for them to film some real grass and hedges for this (French chateau) shot because it was believed that a successful matte shot could not be more than 50% painting.  Al's response was, 'If you can paint, you can paint it all'.  In Albert Whitlock's case that proved to be true."

Actually a lot better than it sounds, the Burt Reynolds-Dolly Parton musical THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982) was a rollicking, fun diversion with some great songs, dance sequences and the bonus of the great Charles Durning dancing the side-step!  A few mattes occur right at the start of the show depicting the controversial 'Chicken Ranch', which was an actual ranch but significantly altered by Albert.  Bill Taylor took the time to elaborate:  "The shots in the film are the wide shots of the house that begin the movie, and the night shots that came later.  This set was built in the middle of a private ranch near Austin, Texas.  Al painted in the surrounding countryside for the best pictorial effect.  The opening shot (above) that comes out of the stereopticon pair was shot with an unusual lens setup that put a 2:1 horizontal squeeze on VistaVision.  In the optical printer we could simulate a very wide pan as we made the 35mm negative from the VistaVision interpositive".  The same technique would be used on the opening shot of HEARTBEEPS that same year.

Classic Whitlock night sky from BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE at top, plus, below, the latter portion of an elaborate camera move following the car up the driveway to the homestead and painted landscape surrounding.

I'm a big John Wayne fan and enjoy his films very much.  BIG JAKE (1971) was always a somewhat under-rated film of The Duke's, and is a great little western, albeit one with a massive body count for what was a 'G' rated film back in the day!!  Unbelievable... men die, women slaughtered, kids massacred, horses maimed and even the dog gets a friggen machete through him!  Jesus!  Anyway, a handful of great mattes by Albert including this quick cut of Chris Mitchum taking his new motorcycle through its paces over a matte painted canyon.

From BIG JAKE is this turn of the century oil field, many of which Al painted over his career.  Interestingly, the BluRay here shows a very oddly configured matte join, and not as one might expect it.

Al was at the top of his game when it came to creating stormy skies and sudden weather events on film.  These moody shots are also from BIG JAKE, which incidentally has one great music score too, by the legendary Elmer Bernstein.

Although Albert had been working in film for decades and already had a respected history in matte work, it was probably Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963) that gave him his cache and a certain degree of notoriety.  This low key shot followed Hitchcock's request that a certain ominous mood be established by way of Whitlock's painted skies and forboding cloud formations. I think the fence line at right may have also been painted in along with the uppermost ridge line of the hills.  Hitchcock was very specific with this and other shots, dictating that he did not want any 'scenics' as he called them, just some of Al's darkening cloudscapes to lower the mood.

Bodega Bay as it is in THE BIRDS, with the main action being a set of the Universal lot and all else an expansive Whitlock matte painting.  Rolf Giesen told me that this took just 8 hours to paint using Al's 'big brush first' technique.

Tippi Hedren crosses the bay.  All painted except the water and boat.

Al's original matte art at Universal.

The reverse view looking back toward the township.  All painted except water and Tippi's boat.

My favourite BIRDS matte.  A full painting with some real birds doubled in via Ub Iwerks' sodium vapour process.  Note that classic 'donut sky'.

There's that 'donut sky' (mmmmmm, donuts!) again, plus a painted town.  This film gave me nightmares when I first saw it on tv in the early 1970's, with the lower frame being the stuff that very bad dreams are made of.  It's actually a clever little trick shot courtesy of Albert who literally matted the dead guys eyes out as the make up artist, Howard Smit, wasn't able to create the same shock effect without obvious build up of make up appliances around the eyes.  Worked a treat back in the day.

Mostly Whitlock with doubled in masses of birds on the rampage.  Sensational audio sensory design by, of all people, Bernard Herrmann.

The central set piece where the birds turn the town square into a post apocalyptic wasteland was, and remains a bona fide winner.  A phenomenal optical assignment, with so many elements and layers of mayhem combined in a brilliantly directed and edited extended sequence.  Tippi is trapped in a phonebox while all hell breaks loose outside in an amazing optical jigsaw puzzle assembled by Robert Hoag over at MGM's optical department (top frame), while the reverse angle in the same sequence was a blue screen shot with an entirely matted in Whitlock town, street, truck and everything else.  Many top Hollywood optical men were recruited for the 400 or so optical composites in THE BIRDS, such as L.B Abbott at Fox, Robert Hoag at MGM, Ub Iwerks over at Disney and Linwood Dunn at Film Effects of Hollywood

The highlight of the film was this incredible 'birds-eye' view looking down onto Bodega Bay as the fires rage and the gulls swoop in.  A special unit comprising Al's cameraman, Ross Hoffman, assisted by Jon Hall (the former actor from THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE, now turned cameraman) to shoot endless footage of gulls swooping, diving and gliding - largely toward specially baited incentives - in order to capture as much potentially usable footage as possible for later isolation and hand painted rotoscope animation into a comprehensive Whitlock matte painting, that will also have had a significant 2nd unit live action component added.  The result was stunning, with superb roto work by Millie Winebrenner, a veteran in the field who had worked on many classic Universal shows like ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN and many more.

Detail from Albert's matte art.  I interviewed Jim Danforth in 2012 and he clearly recalled his time in Al's department and the rotoscope set up of the day:  "I met Millie but didn't really know her.  I had worked closely with her former assistant Nancy van Rensellaer during JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1961).  The hand drawn mattes at Universal were created on special drawing tables that had camera/projectors under them, projecting the image to be traced.  This eliminated the shadows of the artist's hand that occurs when the scene is projected downward onto a drawing table from above.  At Universal, when the cells had been painted and were ready to be photographed, the camera/projector was rotated from below the drawing table to a position above the drawing table, permitting the artwork to be photographed.  Sounds like a major engineering challenge to me, but it obviously worked".

An even closer look at Whitlock's painting.  I asked Danforth more about the travelling matte process employed by optical cinematographer Ross Hoffman on THE BIRDS:  "I talked to Ross a lot when I was working with Al or visiting him at Universal.  Ross showed me the set ups used for printing the rotoscoped mattes that were the norm at Universal for years.  The mattes were painted on cels, using opaque white paint.  These cels were placed a frame with registration pins that was positioned between an optical printer and a large studio lighting unit.  With the lighting unit on, the silhouetted cel formed an 'aerial-image matte', printing the background scene threaded in the printer.  When the lighting unit was turned off and the cel was illuminated from the front, the cel printed the portion of the live action scene that was being matted into the background".

The now iconic final shot from THE BIRDS that actually scared the hell out of me as a kid.  A massively complex effects shot with some 32 individual elements, or pieces of film, combined on the optical printer by Ub Iwerks at Disney.  Some real birds, some puppets, some cut outs and many just painted into Whitlock's vista, but the brilliant use of sound design completely sold the fright factor.  There was no score of any kind at any point in the film, nor even a 'The End' title card (which pissed off the front office and I believe theatre managers no end) just that eerie mass of chirps and squawks from our avian friends, and all electronically manipulated by specialised audio technicians.

Two of the elements - the live action driveway and car, and Albert's painting.


Close up detail.


Sky detail.  Albert, just like his former associate Peter Ellenshaw, would become the foremost renderers of matte painted skies and clouds in the FX industry.

Two 'maybe' shots from THE BIRDS.  Not sure about the one at left, and the shot at right is often discussed as being a matte but I'm not really sure it is, unless the boats are the 'trick'?
I don't have any evidence other than Al was in the matte department at Pinewood around the time THE BLACK KNIGHT was made in 1954, so he may have contributed, along with Cliff Culley.
Another of the dozen or so mattes to be found in THE BLACK KNIGHT, which Al may have worked on.

Albert painted this Bayou and swampland for the enjoyable Rock Hudson espionage thriller BLINDFOLD (1965)

One of my favourite films was and remains THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980).  Al, Syd and Bill created this stunning scene of the God-like heavenly rays shining on down to the little Soul church in Chicago.  An actual setting significantly enhanced with a beautiful painted sky, moving clouds, sun burst and the icing on the cake being the wonderful warm sunlight as it creeps along the walls of the church, accomplished via painted cel overlays, and all made on the original negative - a standard Whitlock gag to introduce moving shadows, sunlight or phenomena into his otherwise static paintings.  More details about this method later...
Again, a remarkable sequence from THE BLUES BROTHERS which sees the late Carrie Fisher blow up a skid row flop house.  Very ingenious planning and execution, not only by Carrie but also by Universal's matte department.  See below...
Note, a small error where the giant explosion is NOT visible through the windows of the cars.  Just sayin'.


I believe this effect was something of a last minute job for Al and his crew, though the final shot looks sensational.
Director John Landis was on the fx stage during this shoot and by his own admission was extremely un-impressed with what he saw (being a high speed shot it would all be over in the blink of an eye), and it wasn't until Landis saw the footage in the projection room run at 24 fps that he realised how good it looked.
There are also soft, articulated mattes applied to allow some of the junk to disperse at it crashes down.

Bill Taylor explained to me a while back just how this effect was created:  "The explosion shot for THE BLUES BROTHERS may be more amazing than you realize.  There is no actual miniature at work here; it's all a giant [hand retouched] photo blow up [made from the head end of the actual 35mm production take, just a few frames prior to Carrie's car entering the frame], with this blow up divided into two planes.  The back plane photo was pasted onto a large thin sheet of fabricated plasterboard made with a very brittle formula.  The photo/painting was heavily scored with a Stanley knife so that it would break apart at appropriate places.  There were holes cut clear through for window openings and so forth.  The back of the plasterboard was 'wired' with a large serpentine pattern of the smallest, 'gentlest' detonation cord available.  Because det-cord is virtually instantaneous, the timing was critical to allow the naptha bag explosion to develop before the plaster was blown.  A small scale test determined that timing.  There was only one full size take needed".  Al is seen standing with his hands in his pockets and Master Grip, Larry Shuler is over there in the blue shirt.  Not sure about the others.

A rare old matte from the Universal tv series THE BOLD ONES - THE LAWYERS (1971), with this episode being 'Letter of the Law'.

An unusual 'before and after' matte shot - I say unusual in that by way of a gross editorial error, both shots are shown at different stages of the movie (!)  The film is THE BROWNING VERSION (1951) made at Pinewood, so it's quite possible Albert had some involvement.

A 'blink and you'd miss it' matte shot from Hal Ashby's BOUND FOR GLORY (1976).

The show stopping dust storm from BOUND FOR GLORY is still a remarkable trick shot. I asked Syd Dutton what his favourite Whitlock shots were:  "Here are just a few of my favorites: All the museum paintings in TORN CURTAIN. The dust storm from BOUND FOR GLORY.  The elevated train from THE STING. A multitude of HINDENBURG shots....and the most brilliant one isn’t even a painting. FRENZY: The prison and The market.  If you were to as me tomorrow I would probably have a different list. But a favourite, I’m afraid not, old friend.  Quite honestly, Pete, I loved watching Al paint, and of course, I learned everything from him. I used the BOUND FOR GLORY  dust storm gag in a film that Bill supervised, LAWLESS,  except it was all done in the computer, but using the same method."

The location has been altered considerably with a matte painting, to lend a more sprawling mid-western setting and also to eliminate more modern elements that didn't fit a 1930's narrative.  The actual 'dust storm' is demonstrated below.

A pair of large cotton discs were hand coloured and stop motion animated frame by frame, with that footage being further manipulated in the optical printer with multiple exposures to soften and blend the action of the rotating discs in a most realistic fashion, with these elements then composited into the already matted setting.  The on screen effect is a show stopper and was often re-used I believe by weather forecasters at local TV stations to illustrate these events.  Whitlock showed incredible imagination when it came to dust storms, hurricanes and tornados, as you will discover as you continue through this blog...
One of the Whitlock mattes from the collection of Al's longtime grip, Larry Shuler.  The title though is a mystery and not even Bill or Syd can pinpoint the film.  As Al did a lot of tv as well as freelance for fx houses such as Howard Anderson, Film Effects of Hollywood and Butler/Glouner, in may have been for one of those and may date back to the 1960's.  If anyone recognises the show, please let me know.   *Thanks to Chris Shuler and Pam Carpenter for the great photos.

Detail 1

Detail 2

Detail 3

Detail 5

One of the many John Wayne pictures that Al worked on, apparently on the advice of The Duke's eldest son, Michael, who ran Batjac Productions.  This shot opens the violent CAHILL, U.S MARSHALL (1973), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, who also recruited Whitlock on many of his films over the 1960's and into the 70's.  There are also a few nicely done Whitlock night storm effects shots as well in this film.

This airforce base was entirely fitted out with painted planes and hangers by Al for the Gregory Peck drama CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D (1963).  The tail and wing of the plane pass under the matte line at one point.

Numerous period mattes were painted and photographed for the miniseries THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS (1976)

Albert's instantly recognisable 'donut sky' shows up yet again in THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS (1976)

THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS - a tv miniseries.

Before and after frames from THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS show the familiar Norman Bates real estate being transformed into a much earlier time period and setting, filled with oil derricks and wealth.  This shot was originally made for the Universal tv series HEC RAMSEY (1971) as I recall being transfixed by the shot when I saw it on television. 

A superb close up photograph of that distinctively impressionistic style of brushwork that Albert picked up from watching Peter Ellenshaw work on mattes back at Disney in the 1950's.

More detail, and what better way is there to appreciate Al's colour pallette and sense of 'phenomena' - ie, the effect of light upon the object rather than the object itself.  Magic.

Here is another British film that may well have had Whitlock's talents utilised, Rank's THE CARD (1952), also known in the US as 'The Promoter'.  I can't be certain, but I know he was working at Pinewood at the time with Cliff Cully, though Les Bowie may have gone off on his own by then.

Ahhhh, yes ... a guilty favourite of mine.  THE CAR (1977), a rather exciting thriller (for moi) of, well, a big black, loud, fast, homicidal car(!)  This was definitely not one of your pussy-hybrid Elon Musk Caftan Wearer's go-carts, folks.  Yeah, that's the plot, a  set of wheels that has a big darned chip on its shoulder, or hood, or whatever.... but I've always liked this film since I first saw it (at Auckland's mercifully long demolished and utterly flea infested Century theatre) back on it's first run.  Great John Stacy sound effects editing helped so much (I always take note of sound fx), and a rousing Leonard Rosenman music score too, though, like most of his scores (BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES etc, etc) they all seem to have the exact same chords and arrangement. 

The climax of THE CAR involves the Satanic presence within said vehicle, and I've always loved the sequence.  Bill Taylor was kind enough to explain the work to me, though he was a little embarrassed at my fondness for the the movie:  "I'm glad you like the shot.  As time has passed and technology has improved, it makes me wince. The demonic face was much more subtler in earlier versions, but previews revealed that most of the audience did not get the gag, so we re-did it much more blatantly.  I thought that a horn on the soundtrack, accompanied by a flashing title that read 'Big Demon Face' was the next logical step.  Well, we started with big naptha fires and slow motion flame thrower film elements just as you thought.  We shot elements of white Mole smoke against black in our studio, which we cherry picked to find interesting shapes, then reversed into 'black' smoke to serve as a background for the 'face'.  The 'face' features were constructed from black cloth on an articulated wire armature so that the mouth could move.  The cloth was dampened with napthalene (like lighter fluid, with a nice yellow flame) and set alight, blown with a fan and photographed in colour at a high frame rate, probably about 120 frames per second.  I recall that it dripped little drops of flaming naptha.  Even though the 'face' was a pretty good size, the flames were too big in scale, and 'miniature-y' looking, so we hit on the idea of shooting them through a moving distortion glass to break them up.  The final result was not exactly finished, as much as it was abandoned, since we just ran out of time.  Leonard Rosenman helped a lot with his music!"

THE CAR matte - it's gonna be a better day.
The remnants of the demonic automobile on the canyon floor, and to think The Devil never thought to take out Third-Party Car Insurance .. what in hell was he thinking?


Another of my favourite films is Mike Nichols' CATCH 22 (1970) - a seriously 'black' comedy with a cast to die for and so many memorable lines, oddball characters and epic set pieces.  For this sequence, which apparently cost the production some $300'000 to stage, with a fleet of bombers and big hydro-technics.  To complete the shot Albert was asked to matte in an entirely painted Italian town, though you'd never know.  During a visit to Al's studio while this matte was being prepared at Universal in 1970, a younger Bill Taylor, who was still doing optical work elsewhere in the industry asked Al what was he painting, with Al's reply being "I don't know what I'm painting.  I'm just painting the effect of light upon those objects."

A key scene in CATCH 22 sees one of our more deranged characters, McWatt, low fly his small plane into Hungry Joe, with the resulting human carnage right on camera.  This part of the sequence involved a lifelike human dummy filled with fake gore by the mechanical effects guys, though the subsequent shot (below) called for Al Whitlock's talents...

Bill Taylor outlined the latter shot where the pair of human legs, sans body, gradually teeter and tumble into the sea. "The technique for the guy cut in half was Al's idea.  A piece of front projection [highly reflective 3M Scotchlite material] covered his upper half, and a light on the camera near the lens was dialed in until it matched the sky behind the stunt performer.  A few frames of roto cleaned up the final fall."  It can't be fully appreciated until you see the actual film clip.
I've blown up the frames here as best I can.  Top frame shows physical effects man Lee Vasque's exploding gore filled dummy and a real plane in what must have been a tricky stunt gag to rig.  Below are two frames from the Whitlock front projection/roto trick, with the stunt man tottering around as a disembodied pair of legs and pelvis and then toppling backward into the sea.  When I first saw the film this and a few other scenes had been censored so all I saw was the approaching plane and a jump cut to Alan Arkin's shocked face.  Great movie that I heard the were going to remake..... Just leave the damned thing alone will 'ya.... and just go away and make another stupid Marvel film instead!  NZPete sometimes has to count to 10 and take a deep breath.


Albert's department had their paws full on CAT PEOPLE (1982) with a variety of visual effects, animation, mattes and blue screen composites.

The lengthy, dark and brooding opening sequence of CAT PEOPLE is wall to wall photographic effects shots, accompanied brilliantly by a mesmerising Giorgio Moroder score that manages to contribute so much to the on screen proceedings.  Reportedly, when he read the script, Al couldn't make sense of this entire prologue and questioned what it really had to do with the rest of the film.

Bill Taylor and fellow optical cinematographer Dennis Glouner assembled a number of travelling matte comps which included Albert's trademark 'donut skies' of which NZPete is so fond.

This exotic beauty is confronted with her destiny in these blue screen shots that also feature Whitlock scenery and sky.

A limited set, much matte art (two separate painted sky mattes) and beautifully handled overlap as day turns to night, which also required a vast on-set lighting change via a special dimmer system.

Visually stunning conceptual design looked a million dollars when I saw it up on the big movie theatre screen in '82.  A complete painting with added dust storm and associated light diffusion.  Only the big cat is real and doubled in later.  Originally there was a sound stage partial set which only went as far as the limited blue screen would permit, and was going to require a lot of fiddly painted set extension work by Albert who quickly realised it would be far quicker and easier to simply paint in the entire scene as one complete matte, and simply drop in the leopard later on,  Whitlock himself stated:  "There would have been so many little pieces, it was far simpler to just add in the animal."

The start point of an extreme tilt upward into a massive desert dust storm.  A very complex combination of elements including painted mattes and revolving disks of specially painted cotton - quite likely the same actual cotton disks used for the earlier BOUND FOR GLORY.  Albert carefully hand coloured the disks to give them a 'dirty' quality.  The spinning disks were shot with a high speed camera, with variable exposures on different areas of the disks.  The effect was filmed in VistaVision eight-perf, rigged to run in a vertical orientation so as to allow an extreme tilt up motion on the optical printer starting on the group of people advancing on the (painted) tree, and continuing upward through the storm and onto the sky.

My crude 'cut and paste' which more or less demonstrates the entirety of the shot.  Bill Taylor:  "At Universal our whole panning matte shot technique was devised to take advantage of CRI [Colour Reversal Intermediate].  The CRI process came along in the 1970's and it seemed like a big step forward.  THE CRI film was a reversal negative, which meant that you could make a negative directly from a negative.  The improvement in quality was tremendous; so much so that it seemed that the costly A and B printing process could be abandoned.  In the simplest case, a shot would be completed on VistaVision original negative, and a 4-perf CRI dupe made on a wet-gate optical printer we had specially made.  By extracting a 35mm image from within a Vista image, we could pan, tilt or zoom inside the Vista frame, producing the illusion of a panning shot with very little loss in image quality. We worked many variations on this scheme, sometimes combining several Vista images into a seemingly continuous pan, or, starting a pan 'live' on set and continuing it in the optical printer.  Even though Al's paintings had to be duped in this technique, he could see dupe tests quickly (overnight) and make adjustments to the paintings where the dupe emphasized human errors in matching tone and colour.  When CRI was discontinued, fortunately the quality of the IP-IN process had improved vastly, to the point where there was no net loss on screen."

Frame #1  In an interview with Cinefantastique magazine Whitlock explained; "Director Paul Schrader wanted the CAT PEOPLE prologue to be very theatrical, to set the fantasy mood right at the beginning.  We put in some moving sunlight shadowing the mountains.  Audiences may not register that consciously, but they know when it isn't there."  This frame, and the following four sequential frames represent the finest work in the entire film as far as I'm concerned.  I've included this set of frames for the readers to click on and toggle through to fully appreciate the craft of soft split moving clouds and Al's wonderful cel overlay creeping sunlight gag which he perfected and used on so many pictures.

Frame #2  Bill Taylor related to me the methodology of creating moving sunlight or shadow.  "Whenever Al needed to isolate or create a highlight on a painting, he would tape a big cel over the dry painting and then paint the highlights that he wanted to control separately onto the cel.  For example, if he wanted to show cloud shadows moving over hills, he would paint the hills in shadow on the main painting and then paint the highlights on the cel.  Then he would transfer the cel, in register, taped to a new, unpainted glass the same size as the original.  We would shoot a hand test of the overlay and the original painting on film and develop it quickly in the darkroom, then project that negative onto the new glass to position the cel.  Then the cel would be double-exposed onto the painting through a moving foreground glass with, say, cloud shadows painted onto it.  The illusion of moving shadows wrapped around the hills in three dimensions, which of course, they did not."

Frame #3  Bill elaborates further:  "In a few instances the shadows were actually three-dimensional.  If we were looking down at a big landscape, Al might put down a big black cloth on the floor and sprinkle white powder on the cloth to represent the 'lit' areas between the clouds.  The cloth would then be dragged toward the camera with a winch driven by a Minarik constant speed motor.  The resulting film mask would be used to print in the painted highlights.  There are a few shots in THE HINDENBURG (1975) using this technique".

Frame #4  Whitlock stated in an interview:  "There isn't any way you can try for a direct sunlight look without it being a terrible giveaway, so we put the sunlight in the background and kept the foreground in shadow, very low key." 

Frame #5  The same method can be seen in HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART ONE (1981), THE THING (1982) and THE WICKED LADY (1983) among other films, all of which will be demonstrated in this (very) extended article.

Whitlock was the absolute master of producing the sort of visual effect that didn't call attention to itself.  This is probably why Al slipped under the radar for so long as his work was for all intents and purposes, invisible.  This beautiful matte from CAT PEOPLE is one such trick shot.  An exquisitely painted sky and some minor architectural adjustments.

Rare before and after frames from CAT PEOPLE with a Syd Dutton painted zoo.
A crisp high definition frame of Syd's matte shot.



Another zoo matte, similar to an earlier view but this time with a different sky and time of the day.  Oh, and if ever there were a reason to see CAT PEOPLE - which in fact is a pretty good film - it's the sublime casting of the ethereal Nastassja Kinski (daughter of certified madman, Klaus - though curiously one of my fave actors BTW). Young Nastassja was born to play the lead role here and radiates a unique presence on screen that's hard to explain.  They'd have a hard time trying to get this show past the politically correct caftan-wearers we have around us today.

Sir Richard Attenborough's pleasing biopic of the great innovator of silent comedy and beyond, CHAPLIN (1990), had some nice matte work by Al, Syd and Bill, including this turn of the century matte shot of London and the River Thames.

Also from CHAPLIN is this interesting totally fabricated effects shot.  The ship is a photo cutout, painted on extensively and mounted onto a sheet of glass.  The New York City background is a full matte painting, though one actually painted many years earlier for the Lucille Ball musical MAME (1974).  Obviously a good cost and time saver.



The start frame from the dramatic 'Hollywoodland' pullback shot.  The high resolution clip nicely demonstrates brushwork and colour pallette, and what I suspect to be a rear projected live action element of Kevin Kline and friend up on the sign.

The great zoom-out shot as seen in CHAPLIN (1990)

Another of the frames shown full size for detail.

Farewell to New York as shown in CHAPLIN.  Practically all painted here, with the added twist of having the ship's flag fluttering in the breeze right over the painted part of the shot.  Bill explained the effect to me:  "Al loved to put foreground stuff over paintings when he could.  In this case, the flag was shot against a white sky and a registered colour print made.  The print was then bi-packed in the camera when the paintings were shot.  The light areas of the flag were actually transparent, but as they are against parts of the sky that have no detail, you would never know."
Another CHAPLIN matte that slips by un-noticed, with what appears to be the real Hollywood hills, though altered somewhat to remove unwanted areas of the view, additional foreground trees and repainted upper ridgeline plus a new sky and airplane passing over.
I was never one for the antics of the incredibly un-funny dopehead bad boys, Cheech & Chong, with their 'lifestyle' as it were being completely lost on me.  I suffered through CHEECH & CHONG'S NEXT MOVIE (1980) purely to obtain the matte shots.  The agonisingly awful film ends with the duo blasted out of their house and up into space (not a bad idea in fact!).

A decent BluRay grab shows quite a good trick shot, with Whitlock's painted vantage point up near the stratosphere, enhanced by a great parallax shift as they ascend, and some hand sculpted cotton clouds for density.


This is one of Albert's earliest on-screen effects credits, for the Technicolor adventure CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1949), which featured several matte shots by Al as well as miniatures by Filippo Guidobaldi, who as mentioned earlier had a fine reputation for this sort of work in the British industry.  His life story in itself is fascinating, as regaled to me by his family, some of which I included in my Magicians of the Miniatures blog some time back.

More Whitlock shots from CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1949).  The shot at lower left may be a hanging miniature ceiling?

A rare surviving Pinewood Studios Special Effects index card (they recorded each and every effect on all of their films).

Albert's painted composite of the interior of the Monk's refectory from CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS.

The very good Trevor Howard spy picture, THE CLOUDED YELLOW (1950) was a Pinewood show, so it's possible Albert had a hand in some of the work, maybe alongside Cliff Culley and Peter Melrose.

I'm quite fond of the classic 'guests invited to the mansion where the killer will be revealed' type stories, with some being out and out classics.  I don't think CLUE (1985) was a classic at the time but I understand that in more recent years it has garnered a substantial following.  Anyway, the mattes are very nice.  Typical stormy night mansion house shots, with two being tilt up shots.  I saw all of these as before and afters on Whitlock's sample reel years ago and never forgot them.

The house from CLUE.  I always know I'll be in for a great ride when one of the characters in these things states:  "Well I'm afraid the bridge is out and we're stuck here for the night!"

Another matte from CLUE.  Incidentally, my personal favourite of all of these shows was the extremely funny Neil Simon spoof MURDER BY DEATH (1976) which made fun of all of the Thin Man, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Miss Marple and Poirot thrillers by having ALL of these detectives gather in the one house at the same time.  Very funny, with David Niven, Maggie Smith and Peter Falk utterly stealing the show, hands down.  A classic, but no mattes at all :(

No film of this genre would be complete without the classic lightning storm.

A closer view of the matte art.

I've often been asked what my all time number one matte shot must be, and it really has to be the jaw dropping opening shot from the excellent COLOSSUS, THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970) where this gigantic Defence Dept mega computer boots up.  Absolutely mindblowing, and it's not just my opinion either.  Has to be seen to be believed, which is why I've gone slightly over the top with including a dozen or so sequential frames below from this one matte shot in order for the reader to 'toggle through' and truly appreciate the complexity of this awesome trick shot.  You can't accuse NZPete of skimming over this vital topic of matte magic.

The original Whitlock painting and the limited set built on the Universal sound stage become one almighty shot, in part through Al's painting but more so through his meticulous and brilliantly timed overlay animation - plus a remarkably good use of sound effects editing cut into the finished shot by the studio's sound department.  

Frame #1  Click on it to enlarge then toggle through the set of frames to see Al's imaginative and complicated cel animation.

Frame #2  In a 1974 interview, Al was asked by author Tom Greene which matte was his most complex.  "The hardest one we ever did without question was on a thing called COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT.  It was the interior of a big computer.  That by far was the hardest because it was all on original negative.  I kept it on that because the figure was small and the area of live action was also very small.  When you dupe a small area you get a grain build up and the figure gets broken up badly, so we purposely kept it on original negative.  It also required a tremendous amount of stop motion, and it took us a very long time to shoot the scene."  Even many years later post retirement Al would tell close friend Rolf Giesen that this shot was still the most difficult one he'd ever made.

Frame #3

Frame #4

Frame #5

Frame #6

Frame #7

Frame #8

Frame #9

Frame #10

Frame #11

Frame #13

Frame #14

Frame #15  Al's cameraman in later years, Bill Taylor, told me more about how this shot was achieved:  "The ultimate cel overlay shot is probably in COLOSSUS where the giant computer powers up.  There were many large cel overlays of blinking indicator lights [as well as the vast banks of ambient light and their associated reflections] which were painstakingly exposed onto the painting with short shutter dissolves.  As the lights come on progressively in depth, they are carefully timed to match the real lights coming on in the foreground, and all done on original negative."

Frame #16  The sequence continues though I think it's actually the same footage optically 'flopped' and minus actor Eric Braeden.  Although I can't put my finger on the actual correspondence, I seem to recall Bill mentioning that the whole exercise was carried out with a common stopwatch to establish as precise timing as possible, though Albert was (I think) a bit disappointed that the timing was ever so slightly out of sync for a part of it.  However, the Universal front office loved it and went crazy over it, and definitely had Al attach it to his showreel, unlike the shots he'd done years before for MARNIE (1964) which the top brass hated, apparently.

Frame #17

Frame #18

Frame #19

Frame #20

Frame #21  With such a fragile shot passing through the matte camera so many times, I asked Bill about the procedures Al and his then cameraman Ross Hoffman and his assistant, Mike Moramarco would have taken to ensure a clean shot:  "I'd guess that there were at least twenty passes through the matte camera,  Of course there would have been several rehearsals on raw stock or even test footage.  The procedures Al had worked out eliminated many potential sources of error, so it was not as nerve -wracking an experience as you might think.  We'd always shoot one last test through the lab, see it the next morning, and then put the shot together first thing, while we were fresh.  We'd always shoot one last 'hand test' to check for hairs or dirt in the gate etc."

It's not only me who liked this sequence but also Jim Danforth who told me: "It's a very intelligent film.  Whitlock's daring O/Negative computer room start up shot is famous in the world of matte paintings."

Following that mighty computer boot up set piece, we then see Dr Forbin secure his facility and exit via the most protective technology available, a receding metallic drawbridge across a deep rocky 'moat' that has some sort of high intensity laser field or some such thing.  Another great effects set piece, with matte painting, tiny live action figure and much animation.  

The high security protective 'moat' that keeps unwanted Census Takers, Scientologists, Insurance Salesmen and sundry other disreputable types away.

The COLOSSUS super computer is sited in the very depths of a solid rock mountain, and all exterior views are Whitlock matte shots.
For this invisible shot, Al's friend Jim Danforth told me:  "The shots are all very impressive.  I liked the shot of the couple sitting in the mountain shadow on a lookout point high above the distant Colossus facility in the sunlit valley down below.  To get that effect, Al had the grips build an awning over the young people.  Al then matted out everything except the shadowed couple, a few feet of fence and a little of the sunny valley beyond them.  He then flawlessly surrounded them with the painted valley and the Colossus facility."

A high def view of the same incredible matte.  All painted except the two people!

Exterior views of the well protected COLOSSUS super computer, all painted of course.  In case you didn't know, the story revolves around this highly 'tuned' US defence department 'brain' linking up with a similar, until then, unknown, Soviet super computer, with both having the intelligence - and control of nuclear weapon systems - to outsmart their human creators.  It may have read like science fiction once, but just you wait folks ... it's already happening!
One of the before and afters from COLOSSUS-THE FORBIN PROJECT.  If ever there was a film seriously overlooked in the Best Visual Effects selection with the Academy it would have to be this one (oh, and DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE while I'm on Oscar injustices).


A superb high resolution image of that matte shot.

Although it only ever appeared as a small tv news bulletin in the final film, this impressive full painting, with a small slot of live action with a few Soviet troops and a truck has recently turned up.  The red flashing sign says 'Danger' in Russian I'm told.

Similar, though closer in, this is another great composition.

As well as the many features, Albert painted numerous mattes for tv over the years, usually but not always with screen credit.  These are from a COLUMBO tv movie titled 'Short Fuse' from the mid 1970's.

Another COLUMBO tv film, this time 'Etude In Black' from the seventies.

Presumably Al just painted in the signage here for these two shots of a London theatre.  These are from another Peter Falk COLUMBO episode titled 'Dagger of the Mind'.

I cannot be certain, but I strongly feel that Albert contributed these shots to the American International show COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963) as he did quite a lot of work freelance for Larry Butler and Donald Glouners' company Butler/Glouner.  Rolf Giesen told me:  "Albert worked for Butler/Glouner on AIP's Edgar Allan Poe productions and said that Donald Glouner was no easy partner, but Larry Butler - a no nonsense guy himself - always treated Albert with respect and gave him a decent deal."  As an aside, the 'Glouner' family had a significant history in motion pictures going back to the 1930's with several members of the family being cinematographers or involved in special effects.  Donald's nephew (or some sources claim his son) Dennis, became Bill Taylor's colleague and proved to be a vital member of the Whitlock crew as matte and optical cinematographer on many of their projects.  More about Dennis later.


This matte from COMEDY OF TERRORS I am absolutely certain was the work of Whitlock as it has all of the hallmarks of one of his mattes.  The composition, design, strong sense of backlight and also the bold soft split that runs right across the shot, through trees etc,with the artist perfectly blending the join rather than awkwardly matte around objects as some might have done.  It's Albert, I'm sure.  Besides, those 'spindly' looking scary trees show up in many of Al's mattes over the years.  There were a few other shots in this film that I didn't include as they didn't look like Al's work at all, with puffy clouds and unrealistic buildings.
Credited alongside Syd Dutton and Mark Whitlock - Al's son, Albert assisted on some of the shots for the John Landis comedy COMING TO AMERICA (1987).  Bill doesn't recall Al painting any individual shots and mentioned to me:  "We were never happy with the palace.  The production designer was himself a wonderful painter - and a nice chap in the bargain - and he had a beautiful sense of colour, but architecture did not seem to be his strong suit."

Frames from the monumental opening flyover from COMING TO AMERICA which comprised a detailed jungle miniature, constructed at fellow effects house, Apogee, with this being shot in motion control in 8 perf VistaVision in several passes at Apogee (I read that they used broccoli for the trees).  Bill Taylor filmed the paintings back at Illusion Arts using the same motion control program.  The paintings were enormous, measuring 4 feet by 8 feet, on masonite (hardboard), and bent into a curve while being shot so as to fill the 20mm lens.  Bill laughingly called the process "Bend-O-Flex".  The latter part of the flyover comes after a dissolve whereby a multi-plane matte shot of the palace is used, with the live action below added as a rear projection element.
There are around 5 mattes in COMING TO AMERICA though I've not included them all here.  This one is an extreme tilt down and was probably painted by Syd Dutton.
I'm a big fan of WWII pictures and I love stumbling across one that kind of breaks the expected norms of the genre.  Ralph Nelson's COUNTERPOINT (1967) starring Charlton Heston and Maximilian Schell was an excellent and most unusual picture, and more a psychological battle of the wits than a gung-ho battle of the weaponry.  Two exquisite Whitlock mattes are shown, with this wide view of the French chateau and surrounding landscape over run by German tanks.  Practically all Whitlock art here excepting a small area with the foreground actors and one or two mock up tanks.

Also from COUNTERPOINT.  All painted except the two guys and some of the half track.  Gorgeous light.

The made for tv film  A CRY IN THE WILDERNESS (1974) with a sole matte shot, repeated later closer in.

One of the all time greats in the hall of fame of traditional trick photography was Disney's DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959), a film sorely overlooked when it came to recognising it's astounding technical feats.  Peter Ellenshaw was special effects supervisor on the show and painted many of the mattes, assisted by Jim Fetherolf and Albert.  This shot was one of the few that Albert recalled painting, though, as he told historian Craig Barron "I might have worked on some of the others, but Peter was always coming through the matte room and improving things with his brush.  This film was a real tour-de-force for Peter."  The sheer variety of trick shots in this film still amazes me.  Tons of ingenious in-camera perspective gags, Schufftan shots, extensive matte art, opticals, solarization effects and more.  Rolf Giesen told me that after Al had left Disney he was contacted by Walt asking for him to please come back.

John Schlesinger's strangely meandering DAY OF THE LOCUST (1974) was a hard film to digest.  So many weird characters and a plot that seemed to really go nowhere, though Donald Sutherland was very good, and about as 'normal' as anyone in this freakshow, and that's really saying something.  The film did however have some lovely matte work in it such as this opening sequence where not only was a matte used, but it was shown to be used, which must be something of a first.

Albert's wonderful matte; loose, instinctive and impressionistic, it even has his original pencil perspective lines still clearly visible.  Sadly the theatrical 1.85:1 showings cropped so much off the top, whereas TV showings being full frame showed the whole matte.

The grand climax is a mass of hysteria and brutality that comes out of nowhere.  Hollywood Boulevard circa 1939 and the premier that turns into a riot.  

A splendid high rez frame from the DAY OF THE LOCUST final sequence.  All on original negative and complete with a recurring lens flare as the searchlights criss cross the setting as well as other background searchlight animation.  There was another effects shot, not included here, of a long shot across Hollywood at night with searchlights - a shot I suspect was either a stock shot or an actual 2nd unit take with added in lights etc.

I'm definitely old school when it comes to 007.  I can't recall a single scene from the Daniel Craig ones that I've seen - totally forgettable, yet the older films still linger long in my grey matter.  The peak for the series were the latter day Connery films and the early Moore films - with the Lazenby effort sandwiched in between being a definite winner on it's own merits.  DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) was memorable for me and I've seen it many times.

Faced with the prospect of a lot of matte shots, 007 Production Designer Ken Adam personally called on Albert to provide these shots.  This matte, of a non existent skyscraper in Las Vegas was in fact an extension to a much smaller actual building, which also was revealed in the film with a slow tilt down as well as some beautifully animated neon signage 'The Whyte House'.

A daytime view of the same matte painted fictitious high rise.

A closer view of Albert's matte complete with animated outdoor elevator ascending.  Totally photo real.  Jim Danforth also worked on the film, animating a miniature nuclear submarine, and recalled watching Al paint this shot and animating the tiny elevator and being very impressed with it all.

Whitlock shared visual effects credit with fellow Brit Wally Veevers, who handled the miniatures and other work with his cameraman Roy Field.  I'm not sure about these two frames.  Certainly the model satellite would have been done by Wally's people at his UK studio, though maybe the painted views of the Earth might have been Albert's?  Whatever the case, I've always fondly recalled the sequence mainly due to John Barry's sublimely magnificent score, with the individual slow jazz hybrid orchestral piece here titled '007 and Counting' for any soundtrack buffs out there (come on, I know you're there...somewhere).  One of the finest 'suites' of Bond music out of the whole catalogue of 007 scores.

Also most memorable for me when I first saw it on initial release was the mighty missile silo sequence where Blofeld (he's not evil, he's just misunderstood!) zaps his inter-galactic laser and creates mayhem.  Practically all painted here, with just the small piece of live action with the scientists and soldiers up on the, most painted, gantry.
A minimal outdoor set with a few stuntmen and a doorway is all that was required for Albert to complete the scene with a Nebraska nuclear missile silo.

The silo glows red hot, with catastrophic results.  Whitlock matte art animated further with cel overlays that match the red brute light directed at the performers during the live action plate shoot.

These sequential frames can be clicked on and toggled through as well.


These technicians and scientists are definitely up the creek without the proverbial paddle, no question.

Blofeld, not content with blowing up an American missile silo, now directs his efforts to doing the same with a Red Chinese missile battery.  All painted except for the vehicles and soldiers.

Before and after for a composite travelling matte shot where the Communist Chinese missile battery is zapped and the soldiers go up in flames.  Bill explained this effect to me:  "The flaming guy was rotoscoped by Millie Winebrenner with the white cel system.  The backing shown here is actually neutral grey, the best compromise for roto work."  They later used the same method for roto-matting the guy blowing the horn in front of Alberts MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975) mountain top city painting.
Things look grim for Red China.  Matte painting, cel overlay animation and roto matted in stuntman in flames.

Memorable sequence made more so by John Barry's wonderful score, especially here.

The next shot shows the destruction from outside the base in Red China.  A very interesting shot this, with the entire thing being pure Whitlock artwork except the immediate spot where the guard is standing.  Nice interactive flare on the painted buildings, though the mushroom cloud here and in the other sequences were seriously lacking.


Director John Badham made a pretty effective version of DRACULA (1979) featuring the sorely under appreciated Frank Langella in the title role, and the effervescent Kate Nelligan as Mina.  A dozen or so matte shots such as this are utilised.  The film was in colour, as were all early incarnations on home video.  The BluRay edition was remastered under director Badham's specifications to deliberately desaturate the colour pallette and knock down the timing to seriously dark levels.  I've had to lighten all of these frames just so as to see the shot.

Most of the DRACULA mattes are good, but I never really liked this one.  The composition seems too forced and artificial to my eyes and draws too much attention to itself, which always tended to be exactly what Albert did not want to do.

An actual location enhanced and extended with Whitlock matte art.  Just love that sky.

Interestingly, Al's original boss back in the old Pinewood era, Les Bowie, was originally signed on to provide the mattes and other effects - possibly as a tribute for all of the Hammer DRACULA films Les had worked on.  Sadly Les passed away during pre-production, and as I understand it, on the eve of his Oscar win for SUPERMAN's matte effects.

Al in his studio with one of the DRACULA paintings in progress.

The final comp of the above matte painting, complete with rolling clouds coming in and smoke rising from chimneys in the village in the distance.

My pick of all the DRACULA mattes.  Wonderful composition and mood.

A flawless DRACULA shot that slips by most viewers, though much of this frame is painted.  The soft matte line crawls along just above the heads of Larry Olivier and Donald Pleasence, with the trees, sky and far off mountain and castle all painted in seamlessly by Albert.

Van Helsing drives toward the town of Whitby.  All painted except roadway and vehicles.

Whitby township matte shot from DRACULA (1979)

Al is listed on imdb as being matte consultant on this show, though I think Syd Dutton was primary artist.

The impressive drive up to the Hollywood sign in DRAGNET (1987), executed with a pan and tilt move.

A closer view.

David Lynch's DUNE (1985) was a bit of a mixed bag for me.  Great art direction, costume design and really impressive Gianetto DiRossi make up effects (he of the numerous Lucio Fulci Italian Zombie flicks for anyone who, like me, enjoys those things, though I digress).  The visual effects certainly ran hot and cold (as did the film itself!)  Van der Veer Photo Effects handled the bulk of the visuals though the mattes were parceled out to Universal's matte dept.  Albert oversaw all of the matte shots though only completed one full matte himself (shown above left).  Syd Dutton did much of the other painting (pictured above right), with Al's son Mark also lending his brush skills.  Several of the mattes were shared back and forth between artists.

Al Whitlock painted this matte himself and lent a hand on some of the others.

One of Syd's paintings of The Great Hall, presented as a tilt down shot.  I think it's all painted.

The money shot in DUNE was mostly Syd's work I believe, though Albert helped out a little on it.  Phenomenal shot.

Syd's painting is photographed at left, with crew member Lynn Ledgerwood shown here.  The painting was a multi-plane shot with an additional forward glass having superficial ducting, cables and other small details painted onto it.  A flying vehicle element will be added to the shot, probably as a bi-pack element.

DUNE, tilt down matte shot painted by Syd.

This shot's a mystery to me as I don't recall seeing it in the original theatrical release?  It certainly doesn't look even close to what Syd, Albert or Mark would have rendered.

The Great Hall, shown in a slightly different painted matte.  This, as with the other 'Hall of Rites' shots were painted by both Syd Dutton and Mark Whitlock.

Painting with lead actor blue screened in.

Effects cameraman Bill Taylor recounts DUNE:  "It was customary in the Whitlock department, and later at Illusion Arts, for artists to pass paintings back and forth, so most of the DUNE paintings were collaborations.  The master shot of the Shield Wall was mostly Al's work; the Geidi Prime shot was mostly Syd, and I think the rest were collaborations.  This method helps keep the artists from going 'stale' on an individual shot."


The rains have come so all is well.  Multi-element DUNE shot, much of it painted by Mark Whitlock.  Animated sky, interactive sunlight poking through the valley, superimposed rain, searchlights and a mass of damp painted people.

Here is another of my unsubstantiated potential Whitlock films, THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970).  Butler/Glouner were effects providers and would often use Al's painting skills, so these may be some of his uncredited work.  The upper shot has a very Whitlock-esque sky and foreground foliage, though it all remains surprisingly static, whereas Al would have introduced movement to the painting.  Maybe it was a rush job that didn't permit extra touches?  The lower shot is a real property with an additional top level painted and matted on.  The matte line is hard and visible, which again was not something Albert tended to do, so these may be the work of others but I include them purely out of conjecture.

On the set of one of the numerous disaster films made through the 1970's, EARTHQUAKE (1974) was a low budget, though smash hit among this genre.  Shown here is Director Mark Robson(?), Al, and star Charlton Heston.  Behind Al is matte shot assistant cameraman Mike Moramarco.

Although I'd always had a fascination with 'trick photography' and model shots it was undoubtedly EARTHQUAKE (1974) that introduced me to the work of Whitlock.  I loved the film back in the day, and in fact saw it on it's opening day in 70mm 6 track mag (foxhole sprockets) stereo and Sensurround back in Auckland's 'event' movie house, The Cinerama on Queen street.  It totally blew my mind and I went back and saw it several times.  I bought the paperback adaptation which was half dedicated to the making of the film (with a thick photo section in the middle).  It was here that the name Albert Whitlock became clear to me as well as detail about just what he did on the film. And yes, I did have that one sheet poster on my bedroom wall.

One of Al's best mattes ever was this innocuous quick cut of hero Chuck Heston arriving at the home of his 'bit of crumpet', the lovely Genevieve Bujold for a bit of the old 'how's your father' (American readers will have no idea what that means, though Brit readers certainly will).

Extensive, yet utterly flawless matte art that blends into the Universal backlot house setting so perfectly.  If ever there were a great example of what matte artistry is (or was) all about, then it's this terrific though understated shot.
Close up from the matte shot.

The second matte in EARTHQUAKE is also a ripper (no pun intended....well, maybe it was?)  Simple but completely convincing matte extension where Al has filled half the frame with his trickery.  The production dug a trench on the Universal lot, just enough to accomodate the action taking place, with Al just creating the rest of the great fault and all associated landscape.  Love the light here.
A cropped in view from the same shot.

Another undetectable matte that nobody ever notices.  The same view is seen later on after the quake as a second matte painting, this time with all in ruins.

The quake sequences were mostly full scale effects by Frank Brendel and Jack McMaster, and miniatures by Glen Robinson, though a few shots included Whitlock's matte art and optical rotoscope work.  This complex shot was made on the Universal backlot for the the first block or two, with Albert matting in the remaining street, buildings and fire and smoke elements.  The tops of the backlot set have been altered with matte art too.  The running man has been able to run 'through' the matte art through use of carefully rotoscoped animated mattes made by specialist Millie Winebrenner, and optically combined by cinematographer Ross Hoffman.  A blooper occurs here too.  The near building at the right of the action actually has large debris appear and drop from behind Whitlock's upper most matte extension, with the stuff literally appearing out of nowhere.

The after effects from the big shake show a wrecked city.  Entirely a Whitlock painting, and certainly his most famous and well recognised.  A superb piece of artwork in itself that I was lucky enough to see on the studio tour decades ago in 1979.  The peculiar colour hue is an artifact that is becoming increasingly common with 're-mastered BluRay' editions of films for some unknown reason.  They employ so-called 'colourists' to fiddle with the original timing on the film elements, sometimes to great detriment.  Much of THE HINDENBURG has an unwelcome magenta glow through it on BluRay, but looked fine (colourwise at least on previous DVD editions).  Often the so-called 'colourists' time shots down so damned dark for BluRay that the thing becomes barely visible!  Anyway, check out the standard DVD frame below for comparison and in addition to a completely different colour hue (that matches Whitlock's obvious intent) you will also see a major technical screw up that isn't visible in the BluRay shot.

The image at left needs clarification.  For decades various authors and suchlike have commended Al for this view of a destroyed LA, when in fact he had absolutely nothing to do with it at all!  This was a huge scenic backing, mostly a large photographic blow up, extensively painted upon and altered by Filipino born scenic painter Ben Resella at Hollywood's JC Backings.  Apparently Albert used to get quite annoyed at being constantly attributed this piece of art, and even esteemed journals like American Cinematographer promoted it wrongly as Al's.  The book The ASC Treasury of Visual Effects even include it around 3 times!  Great evocative artwork but it never worked in my opinion as the perspective of the thing was so far off track that it absolutely never matched up with the foreground action happening with Charlton Heston on the skyscraper set.  As to the frame on the right, it's the Whitlock shot as taken from the older DVD and demonstrates far more realistic colour than the strangely adulterated BluRay release.  Of great interest too for an odd artifact that not even Bill Taylor was able to explain.  The overall matte shot is somewhat wider on DVD, with a slab of additional information visible at the extreme right of frame.  It's attention grabbing as we can clearly see where the fire and smoke elements (shot separately on a darkened fx stage and doubled in) abruptly end with what appears to be the edge of the black velvet cloth that was hung behind the fx fires.  I sent Bill the frame some time back and here is his response:  "I have no clue about that odd bit in the EQ shot; certainly a mistake.  I've never noticed it before.  Each of those film elements made on colour prints, had glass mattes to mask off unwanted portions of the film, so perhaps one was left out or mis-positioned.  Since the shot is all painting and fire elements it could have been re-shot without any loss of quality.  Al would certainly not have let it go had he noticed it."  Personally, I think the DVD master was a curious case of 'overscan', where the original film elements may not have been from a release print and may have been from 'raw' footage not yet corrected for 2.35:1 lab printing, possibly minus the optical soundtrack which takes up about 4mm of your basic release print.  I've seen sample reels and clips before that exhibit unwanted 'junk' in the outer periphery of the frame that aren't meant to be projected for audiences.

Al poses with his famous LA in ruins glass painting.  Compare the colour hue to that of the BluRay frame.  

A high resolution image.  A certain phrase from Albert, "The right kind of scribble is better than the wrong kind of painting" has also been reportedly one of Peter Ellenshaws' sayings, and he apparently picked it up from his step-father, Walter Percy 'Pop' Day.  So it's one of those matte painters folklore that seems to be passed down through the ranks and generations.  I'd not be surprised it Syd Dutton used it too!

A wonderfully revealing close up of the same matte shows just how broadly painted it actually was (you can even see the still visible pencil drawing of the main building as a lay in, prior to Al 'wrecking' the structure).  In a 1974 article Albert remarked:  "As for the style of the paintings, it comes very close to French Impressionism, as strange as that may seem.  It's much more like that than like Academic painting.  If you look carefully at one of these paintings very closely, you will note that it's not very carefully painted.  With frequently only five hours to do a complete painting I don't have the time to do a highly finished job, but I've found out through experience that this isn't necessary to get a result.  When I first started in this work my style was so tight that I was tied up in knots all the time.  But then I made a discovery.  I would do a very rough sketch just to make my first test and then, when I saw it, I'd say 'My God, that little bit of stuff over there looks finished and I haven't done a thing to make it look that way - It's just an impression, but it has life to it and it moves.'  The same thing happened many times and, through the years, I learned where to put the work, and to what degree.  I'm more concerned with phenomena than with objects - the fading and infusion of light, and the feeling of backlight."
Making mattes on the EARTHQUAKE set.  At left is the special 'tent' set up by grip Larry Shuler for Ross Hoffman's matte camera and black masking.  Albert is visible making a 'face' at the photographer for some reason.  Seated in front of Al is assistant matte cameraman Mike Moramarco, and standing at left is director Mark Robson and I think that's production D.O.P Phil Lathrop sitting down.  The guy standing at the back may be Ross Hoffman?  The photo at right shows Robson and Whitlock discussing a photographic effect solution.

After the big shake, Lorne Greene's (not to be confused with the garden supplement, 'Green Lawn') office tower looks precarious.  All painted, with smoke overlays added.

One of several dramatic 'down' views Al supplied to spice up the action.  In addition to the substantial painted view and an upper area of live action, some roto work has been carried out to allow the stunt people to drop beyond the set and into the painted element.  The rotoscoped elements just required a half dozen hand drawn mattes, just sufficient to carry the performer 'into' the painting, which Whitlock felt was enough as if you believe he'd fall that far, then he must certainly fall the whole distance.

Al's matte art for the above shot
Another angle from the same sequence.

A wider painting again, with terrific perspective (I'm always a sucker for shots like this).  Again, roto has been employed to 'drop' the stunt guy down over the painted floors.

A follow up shot using the same earlier painting, though this time with fire elements added.

Matte painted up angles of the rescue.

The film cuts away for a bit to allow Genevieve Bujold to look for her kid.  Much of  the frame is a matte shot.

Subsequent rescue shots, all using matte painted set extensions.  As much as I loved the show back in the day, it is, admittedly, a bit hokey today.  Too many 'stock' characters, with some of these being laughable (Marjoe Gortner as a perv anyone?).  However I still have some admiration for the film as it was a relatively modest budgeted affair, costing a paltry $7 million to produce (TOWERING INFERNO cost more than double that at $15 million, though it does show in a somewhat superior film; JAWS cost $8 million a year later.), and the film was a real rush job by all accounts.  It was however a smash hit and made a huge amount at the box office, so that was a good return for Universal.

A sprawling scene of ruin is almost entirely painted, with just a small back lot set for the actors.

Albert's painting for the above scene.  He painted 22 mattes that would feature in some 40 cuts, or shots, and knocked them all out in just 12 weeks.

Detail from above, plus a little in-joke 'Shuler', for Al's long time key grip, Larry Shuler.


As per normal, all of these shots were made on original negative, thus preserving the fidelity of the elements.

The Wilson Plaza and city beyond.

Close up of the above matte shot.  Whitlock stated: "On EARTHQUAKE there were paintings dealing with a wrecked city, so I could do a little flashing around with the brush without doing too much harm.  But there's an awful lot of precision painting too that makes the result look right - the windows and details of the buildings for example,  I couldn't get too sloppy with that.  It's amazing how the effect can be that of very carefully painted detail when, in fact, it isn't.  It's strictly impressionistic.  Every now and then I put finished work into a little area and it gives an overall effect of finish."


The same Wilson Plaza painting used for the daytime view was painted over in order to render it suited for a later evening shot.

No matte art here but Albert did suggest split screening the eight foot miniature Plaza with the live action plate that he had shot for his paintings.  Clifford Stine filmed all of the miniatures, and very well at that.

Before and after Wilson Plaza.  A bit shoddy as a lot of falling steel vanishes through the split screen whereas som roto could have solved it.

Things just go from bad to worse.  Two quakes and an impending flood from a burst dam.  Live action lower half and painted buildings with added in smoke and subtle glow of flames from behind some structures.

The spectacular closing shot.  Small patch of live action in the lower middle with all else being entirely fabricated by Whitlock, Hoffman and Winebrenner in Al's department.  Numerous fires were initiated by special effects men in a darkened stage against black velvet, with cameraman Ross Hoffman shooting each fire individually with it's own isolating matte, thus creating 'layers' of fire rather than them all patently being on the same 'plane', so that some of the fires are behind ruined buildings and some are in front.  Whitlock's ingenuity even made possible the reflective flicker of an unseen fire, visible as that flicker upon the facade of a nearby building.  Bill Taylor:  "That reflective flicker used one of Al's favourite techniques, the cel overlay.  In the case of EQ, the foreground device that modulated the painted cel was a rotating wheel with a pattern painted on it.  Any kind of rotating wheel would be photographed in several passes at different speeds, so that the patterns would change as they moved, and there would be no repeats."
Whitlock's 'End of Los Angeles' painting
Fuzzy scan from my old American Cinematographer issue on EQ.

Los Angeles wasn't same even years after EARTHQUAKE as we witnessed in the film MISSION GALACTICA-THE CYLON ATTACK which came out around 1981 or so.  Spaceships added to Al's painting at left and also to a previously unseen out-take by Clifford Stine at right.  Is nothing sacred?

EARTHQUAKE collected a few Oscars that year, including a 'Special Achievement in Visual Effects' to three of the main guys.  Here Al gratefully accepts his Oscar, with Glen Robinson standing behind him; while the pic at right has effects man Frank Brendel with Al and Glen.


One of my all time favourite John Wayne pictures was Howard Hawks' EL DORADO (1967) which, although it was a Paramount show with veteran Paul K. Lerpae in charge of the effects, the matte department had long been shut down so the matte work was farmed out on this and other shows. I heard from Rolf Giesen that Albert had mentioned painting on this film.  The night skies are added in and at one stage someone passes through the matte line as they run for cover.  A great film filled with great lines and colourful characters: Following a shoot out with the bad guys, when asked whether he'd manage to shoot the bad guy, James Caan remarks "He was limping when he left";  to which Duke Wayne responds, in true 'Duke' fashion "He was limping when he got here!"

One of the three Somerset Maugham series of British films, ENCORE (1952) had some clever miniature work by Jimmy Snow, Frank George and Bill Warrington, as well as some painted set extensions, possibly by Whitlock who was there.

There are few stories I enjoy more than a rollicking WW II prison escape yarn, and the made for tv ESCAPE OF THE BIRDMEN (1971) wasn't too bad, given it's low budget limitations.  A handful of Whitlock shots of the infamous Colditz castle, though they weren't a match for the beautifully rendered mattes rendered years earlier for the Guy Hamilton classic, THE COLDITZ STORY(1954), painted by George Samuels, Albert Julion and Bob Cuff.  Anyhow, not all of the 'Birdman' mattes were painted expressly for this show as the upper left and lower right shots were a pair of Al's mattes originally featured in Universal's IN ENEMY COUNTRY (1968).

ESCAPE OF THE BIRDMEN.

The pretty amusing western spoof tv movie, EVIL ROY SLADE (1972) benefited a lot from lead John Astin and a good comic support cast.  This is Albert's matte shot where Astin jumps the canyon.  There were two other mattes in the show, but that's another story (see below...)

EVIL ROY SLADE also has these two mattes, though Whitlock's they are definitely NOT.  The shot at the left is from an old Columbia programmer called DRUMS OF TAHITI (1954) - directed by the great 'gimmick-meister' William Castle no less...and in 3D (!!).  The matte at right was lifted straight out of the Ernst Lubitsch classic HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943) and is the product of Fred Sersen's matte department at Fox.  I showed these shots to Bill and he was astonished that Al would associate himself with a matte project that had patently stolen mattes from other films, and not even Universal films!

Generally accepted to be a terrible film, John Boorman's EXORCIST 2 - THE HERETIC (1977) was well made but really an insult to the original Friedkin shocker.  Albert shared visual effects credit with Frank van der Veer on this, though Al was responsible for all of the matte shots, with a variety of pro's responsible for the remarkable locust composites (which really were something else), such as Peter Parks, Jim Danforth and Bill Taylor.

Whitlock's painted African savannah, with optically added locust plague.  Jim Danforth contributed to the locust plague when he was asked by Warner's to be the film's effects coordinator.  In my 2012 interview with Jim he told me:  "I ended up having to do some of the work myself.  I filmed 'locusts' in my backyard (vibrating grass seed), and did a bunch of cel-animated locusts, which several of my effects friends helped me to paint."

A low key Whitlock shot here, with a real location enhanced by the addition of a painted top of the rock formation and a temple.  Also interestingly, two tiny figures representing star Richard Burton and guide, climbing up the steep pinnacle which look to me to be some sort of animation gag.  I asked Bill but he couldn't recall.

Trick work on the run for EXORCIST 2 ... The film had been completed but Boorman realised he needed a couple of shots of a small plane flying through a thunderstorm so Albert and Bill made it happen.  An airplane painted on glass, cotton clouds and a lightbulb was pretty much it.  Said Whitlock at the time:  "It was nothing more than simple tabletop photography.  We did it for nothing, we did it in an hour, and it looked totally convincing on screen."
Whitlock and Taylor's tabletop photography was pure simplicity.

At right is a Whitlock matte shot, while at left is a frame from part of the amazing locust in flight sequence.  Bill Taylor did the very tricky composite work and explained some of it to me:  "On THE HERETIC I did many composite takes of [Oxford Scientific Films] Peter Parks' amazing blue screen macro locusts.  The story of the advances in making these shots possible may be worth telling because it has never been told.  This was one of those little wrinkles in the blue screen system that I kept to myself.  It also gives some idea as to the tremendous difficulties of doing photo-chemical compositing.  Just as you said Peter, these shots were very difficult because of the blurred, transparent wings.  I used Petro Vlahos' original Colour Difference matte principles, with advice from Art Widmer of Universal Studio's optical department, who had himself made valuable improvements to the system.  I finally solved the problem by creating a useful refinement to the Vlahos technique that eliminated the last vestige of blue screen colour from transparent and blurred areas."

Alfred Hitchcock always liked to have Albert around as they had so much in common.  When Al wasn't making mattes for Hitch he was busy painting replica copies of some of Hitch's own rare art obtained over the years so that Hitchcock could display favourite pieces in both of the homes he maintained.  The last film job they worked on was also Hitch's final film, the slightly underwhelming FAMILY PLOT (1976).  Al saw this as the chance to give protege Syd Dutton his first solo outing, so gave the shot to him.  It was a simple shot of a police precinct and the story goes that it wasn't even really needed for the story, but Hitchcock just wanted to have Albert on the project for old times sake.

As well as churning out an awful lot of schlock on a two dollar budget, director Roger Corman actually distinguished himself with his many Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, some of which were really good.  THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960) was a good film, beautifully made and true to the flavour of Poe.  I do know that Whitlock worked on several of these films in the early 1960's though I can't confirm this title precisely.  Certain attributes indicate he may well have carried out this assignment for Larry Butler and Donald Glouner.

Great mood and composition.  Jim Danforth knew Albert and would work for hima few years later at Universal.  The two often crossed paths at some of the independent effects shops in the sixties.  I asked Jim what he knew about Al's freelance work:  "I think Al painted at home on some of the Butler/Glouner jobs and on some of the Howard Anderson jobs, but on occasion Al painted at Anderson's facility on the old RKO lot in Hollywood.  The independent effects houses usually had a way to photograph [and composite] the paintings themselves."

This HOUSE OF USHER shot is the one that makes me think Al had a hand in this film.  Love this matte.

Matte art with cel overlay for painted interactive lightning etc.

Al's friend Rolf Giesen told me:  "While Albert worked at Universal he would continue to freelance.  For the Howard Anderson Company, while, as he put it, 'the old man was still around' [Howard Anderson senior]."

Cary Grant made many a great film, too many to recount in fact at a single sitting.  One that I've always thoroughly enjoyed was FATHER GOOSE (1964) which starts off with this undetectable Whitlock matte shot.

One of a lot of made for television films that Albert painted on, FEMALE ARTILLERY (1972)

I've always had a fascination for that shameful period of American history, McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities witch hunts. Martin Ritt (himself a former blacklistee) directed Woody Allen (in a dramatic role) for THE FRONT (1976).  I could never find the Whitlock work in the film so I made an enquiry with Bill Taylor:  "We did the shot where everyone in the room freezes, except for Woody, who walks out of the room.  It seems an odd shot for us, but Al had the complete confidence of the film makers."  The shot is most memorable for another reason.  The Woody character refuses to answer to the committee and tells them to go and fuck themselves, in exactly those words, before getting up and walking out.  Bravo.

Probably Hitchcock's most under-rated film was the diabolically brilliant, blacker than black, FRENZY (1972).  The dark though witty script was penned by Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote the incredible THE WICKER MAN (1973) - easily one of the best British films ever made, though I digress.  Anyway, the film is a winner all the way and deserves repeat viewing.  Actually very funny as far as psycho-sexual serial killer movies go.  Albert supplied two incredibly effective and invisible matte shots.  The first was this one where Jon Finch is taken into prison and Syd Dutton told me was one of his favourite Whitlock mattes.

A breakdown of the prison matte set up for FRENZY.

A fantastic image taken directly from Al's prison matte art showing his skill at play.

Closer look 

Detail from Whitlock's roof and framework brushwork.

The second matte is a night time shot of Covent Garden, though in the BluRay it's timed so damned dark.  Best line in the movie from Barry Foster:  "You really are my kind of girl you know."

Whitlock's original Covent Garden matte painting.  Don't you just love the way Al has accommodated the wide angle of the original plate photography.  So bloody good, I wish I owned it.

The Chevy Chase movie FUNNY FARM (1988) wasn't bad, as far as Chevy movies go.  It did have a few very clever matte shots in it that Albert worked on with Syd Dutton.  This seemingly unassuming sequence where a truck approaches a bridge was in fact a rather complicated visual effect, and as such, I just had to find out more from Taylor:  "Our panning shot was a VistaVision shot.  We set up our matte on location as usual, but it only covered perhaps the right 1/3rd of the frame.  I panned the camera to follow the truck but stopped the pan when we reached the point where the matte was set.  On the optical printer we saw only the left 2/3rd of the frame until the location move stopped, then continued the pan optically to bring the painted area into the 4-perf 1.85:1 frame.  The 8-perf frame looked very strange before the location camera locked off with the painting double exposed into the right 1/3rd of the frame, but no one ever sees that!  Of course all our test footage was made in the lock-off position.  We used this scheme often."

"The collapsing bridge was a big model made by our friends at Grant McCune's shop just up the street.  The model was shot in sunlight against a big scenic backing painted by Al, with an assist from Syd - a return to Al's early days as a scenic painter.  Because the sun direction was built into the backing, we could only shoot in a short time frame each day."

Bill continued:  "At the preview I heard one lady say how sad she was to see the lovely old bridge go down, so we fooled at least one person."

Also from FUNNY FARM was this shot, once again explained by Bill:  "The car driving off the road was a tiny model on a foreground glass which moved on a compound parallelogram pivot so that it pitched forward as it moved across the frame in front of the matte painting."

Coney Island in the 1940's as I recall, and it's a Whitlock shot from FUNNY LADY (1975).

Norman Jewison's GAILY, GAILY (1969) - aka CHICAGO, CHICAGO - is an extremely hard film to find, in fact I've never come across it on any format, nor even on tv.  This before and after matte would look great in a decent transfer, if one ever becomes available.

Although the subtitle above, I think, translates as 'The Sting', and the shot looks similar, it's not from that film but is in fact from GAILY, GAILY (1969).  Essentially, the scene comprised a live action lower half, a matte painted cityscape receding into the distance and a moving train rolling forward. The effect of the overhead El-Train was a complex one, with the train being a stop motion miniature precisely photographed and lit to match the gradient, light and time of day as seen in the original plate, with the final elements combined on the original negative.  Whitlock would repeat this trick from scratch for George Roy Hill's THE STING (1973) and again years later on a tv miniseries THE GANGSTER CHRONICLES (1982).

Period shots (of exceedingly poor resolution) from THE GANGSTER CHRONICLES (1982)

I've never been able to pin down just who worked on this and a couple of other shots for the Gene Roddenberry tv film GENESIS II made in the early to mid seventies.  It has all the hallmarks of Whitlock but nobody I've asked seems to know for sure.  It's not Jim Danforth's, who would have been my next guess.  Nice shot indeed and the infusion of light looks like something Albert would do.

Albert in front of his larger than usual matte which was intended to be used as the opening shot for the film GHOST STORY (1982) but the director proved so indecisive that this and many other mattes were either never used or left on the cutting room floor.

Another completed yet unused GHOST STORY matte painting, with this beautiful full painting being the work of Al's assistant, Syd Dutton.  I was aware that glass mattes were, on occasion, prone to mishaps, so I made enquiries with Bill:  "Breakage was vanishingly rare because we learned how to handle them and because of the way the frames were made: thick, soft pine pinned and glued at the corners.  You could drop a frame on a corner and the glass would not break.  Another cog in the Whitlock system to ensure results.  Elsewhere the glasses were in metal frames like you would find in a shower door; no shock absorption whatever."  
"At Film Effects of Hollywood all the paintings were on unframed Masonite, so no breakage but you could not backlight them; all the dupes were made with separate printer boards.  The boards all had metal grommets and were held in place in the matte sands with custom made conical thumb nuts.  All worked fine but it was very hard to get the high brightness needed for printing from a painted surface."

GHOST STORY again, and Craig Wasson gets the shock of his life and then falls 12 stories to a grisly demise.  A blue screen sequence utilising a miniature building and some clever camera work.  Wasson, incidentally was great in a terrific little low budget Vietnam war film titled THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (1978) directed by Sidney Furie, though, as usual, I digress.

Miniature building and street with the actor added in optically via blue screen travelling matte. I'm always intrigued by these 'falling away from the camera' shots in a hundred or so movies, and there have been some beauties over the years,  John Fulton did a bunch of good fx shots like this in shows like SABOTEUR and REAR WINDOW.  

The New England town in GHOST STORY where some eerie happenings are about to take place.  An actual setting I recall, but significantly altered and extended by Whitlock in the matte studio.

Albert was so good at producing photographic effects that never drew attention to themselves and were there just to serve the narrative.  Just such a shot, and one you'd never know about unless it were unveiled to you was this sequence on a bridge in a raging blizzard where one of our characters falls to his death in a partially frozen river.  It's a real setting but there wasn't any actual river.  Whitlock painted in a river and added lots more snow and ice, which also served to conceal the airbag for the stunt fall.

A pair of before and after frames that clearly demonstrate the GHOST STORY matte art fixes.

Another view of the locale with Whitlock's painted in river and ice.

The town at daybreak.  Things always look brighter in the morning.

While GHOST STORY had a few terrific make up effects courtesy of my all time favourite prosthetics man, the legendary Dick Smith, this wasn't one of them.  Instead it's a neat little low key optical effect, borrowed for sure from Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) where in that classic, our final view of Norman Bates' face has the most subtle, near subliminal superimposition of a human skull just barely visible.  John Irvin obviously liked that gag so he had Albert and Taylor resurrect the trick for his film, using a prop skull that was left over from CAT PEOPLE's fx crew.  Very effective as seen POV through the windscreen of a fast approaching car.


Director Tibor Takacs made an imaginative little fantasy/horror picture called THE GATE (1987) that was packed with old school visuals from a number of fx experts.  Randall William Cook oversaw the trickery which included a lot of groovy in-camera perspective gags, some borrowed straight out of DARBY O'GILL.  In addition to all of the stop motion and other material was a super ending where the gloomy sky of a very bad night indeed, transforms into a wonderful new day.  A sensational continuous shot with matte artist Mark Whitlock responsible for a large part, though when he had difficulty in achieving the ideal sky they wanted, his father, Albert took over the brushes and basically whipped out a splendid sky in an hour or so.  Bill Taylor engineered a soft, irregular optical wipe which replaced one painted sky with a second painted sky.

All painted, except the matted in boy, with Mark Whitlock's painted neighbourhood and trees, and Albert's soft sky above.  Bill added a nice touch as the kid walks in front of the (light bulb) sun, where the light briefly 'wraps around' the boy for a few frames instead of appearing as a hard cut-out that travelling mattes tend to do at times.

Effects cameraman on the film, Jim Aupperle, told me how pretty much everyone in the fx shop stopped work when Albert came in:  "The matte shot I was lucky enough to watch Albert working on was for THE GATE.  Most of the painting had been done by Mark Whitlock, Albert's son, but he was having trouble finishing the sky so Albert came in to lend a helping brush.   I wasn't the only one there that afternoon who stopped what he was doing to watch the master at work.  Albert seemed to enjoy the attention as several of us gathered around him.  He made it appear so incredibly easy as the sky and clouds revealed themselves wherever his brush moved.  Someone came by - I think it was fx supervisor Randy Cook - and told us all to get back to work, otherwise I might have been tempted to keep watching, though at the rate he was going, I think Albert must have finished it quickly."

The lukewarm Cold War drama THE GIRL FROM PETROVKA (1974) starring Hal Holbrook and Goldie Hawn had some very impressive matte work in it, some of which I'd never spotted until I acquired a high def 1080 print of the film.  Set in Moscow though filmed elsewhere, possibly Budapest or Vienna, I forget which, Whitlock crafted several realistic Soviet based streets, squares, cities and assorted fixes to hide the real location such as this title shot.

Foreboding Soviet architecture, for the most part created by Albert's brush.  Click on this frame and the large image will reveal an unusual matte line and join.  The tops of the buildings in the foreground as well as all of the mid section and statue are matte painted.

I never spotted this matte shot until I saw it in high definition.  Beautifully handled backlight and winter 'temperature' to all of the painted portion, which was much of the frame.  The only actual setting was the area with the car and the actors and a bit of fence, with so much else added in later and matched to perfection.

Whitlock's GIRL FROM PETROVKA wintery Moscow city mattes.

I was aware of this being a Whitlock shot but the trick aspect was not apparent until I saw this version where we can now see a rotoscoped outline around Hal Holbrook's upper body as he walks toward camera in a snow filled Moscow square, thus allowing the actor to walk right into the painted area, which represented around 70% of the Panavision frame.

Albert's magnificent wide city view in an all painted vista with doubled in snow falling and a tilt down.


The actual painting as it is today.  Beautifully preserved and cared for, as well it should be.  A masterpiece.

Close up detail from the same matte art.  Generally speaking, Albert didn't like to draw out a matte shot and instead preferred to apply the paint directly, starting with block ins of sky, land and sea (if that were the shot), and then progressively working up the detail - or just enough detail as would be required to 'sell' a matte shot to the audience.  By applying accurate highlights, which were often little more than a series of dots and dashes, the eye was tricked into believing the shot to be far more realistic than it actually was.  A true master.

There is simply no better way to appreciate the value of Whitlock's skill than to examine this work up close.  That amazingly free and loose style was really the key to Al's success.  Never overworked.  Broad brushstrokes using a big brush, then smaller brush for certain areas and above all an inherent feel for the piece by knowing instantly how much detail is really required, and importantly, just where to put it.

The final matte in THE GIRL FROM PETROVKA (1974)

Some of the old films I've included are assumptions on my part, but this British film definitely was one of Alberts. GIVE US THIS DAY (1949) - aka CHRIST IN CONCRETE and also titled as SALT TO THE DEVIL for US distribution.  A very interesting and unusual film with some imaginative matte work by Albert, though he wasn't screen credited.

I only saw this film because Al got his name on the one-sheet movie poster,  Stephen King's GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990) was a dreadful film (why are so many of King's movies so bad I wonder?)  The film had a few mattes such as this mysterious underground cavern, though I forget what the cavern was all about.... something silly as I recall.

A rather impressive tilt upwards to the top of the cavern where a house of some horrific repute is situated looked pretty good.  

GRAVEYARD SHIFT matte with interactive lightning storm.  Al was credited on the film (and the advertising) as 'Visual Effects Consultant') so it's likely Syd Dutton did the chores here.

A good, solid, well made western with an extraordinarily tongue-twisting title, THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (1972), directed by an up and coming Philip Kaufman who would go on to do things like THE RIGHT STUFF (1984) and one of my favourite coming of age movies ever, the fabulous THE WANDERERS (1979) with Karen Allen.  Anyway, this matte is the only shot I could spot in the western and the movie opens with it.  Nice painted valley, tree line and moving clouds, all done on original negative.

One of many films Albert worked on at Disney was THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE (1956) which was quite good actually.  Al was screen billed as 'First Assistant' to matte artist Peter Ellenshaw and no doubt painted several shots, some of which were old school in-camera glass shots set up right there on the location in front of the camera.  I don't know what Al did so here is a representative matte shot (which still survives at Disney by the way).

Joe Dante's fun but admittedly out of control GREMLINS 2 - A NEW BATCH (1990) was a total free-for-all as far as mayhem, noise, gags and visual effects, but it was a kick, with even the future 'leader of the free world', Trump getting satirised. While the half dozen main mattes were supplied by Craig Barron's company Matte World, this particular shot, for some reason, was handed to Albert and Bill to do.  The requirement was to extend the set with painting and also to do several hidden split screens to multiply the number of rampaging Gremlins.

Rolf Giesen told me that out of all the Disney projects that Al worked on, GREYFRIAR'S BOBBY (1961) was his own personal favourite.  Al had a solo gig with this film, without interference apparently, which may be why he liked the experience so much.

A delightful Whitlock full painting that included a small animated gag with cannon fire.  This matte would later be recycled by Disney and cut into the British made PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1962)

Whitlock art from GREYFRIAR'S BOBBY.  The shot at left is a full painting with just a small section of live action.

GREYFRIAR'S BOBBY (1961)

One of Albert's last big projects was the beautifully made and told Edgar Rice Burroughs saga, GREYSTOKE, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984).  The film itself is a treat from start to finish, with a wonderful cast (especially the great Ian Holm and Ralph Richardson; two British actors I particularly admire).  Whitlock and team were busy on this epic creating stunning African environments and other visual effects.  Although the theatrical release had many mattes, the subsequent DVD and BluRay releases contained some additional matte shots that were never in the original cut, as well as a re-edit where certain shots such as this, which originally occurred only at the very end, now is seen at both the very start of the film as well as the end.

That phenomenal shot was entirely manufactured in the matte department at Universal Studios, with no 'live' component whatsoever.  Interviewer Tom Higginson recently spoke with Taylor about Al's moving clouds:  "It was Al's invention, from his early days at Disney, that produces painted skies that could move.  Later on, we discovered that the same technique worked even when you were zooming in on the painting.  We could actually make it look like the clouds were coming from overhead as they were moving from right to left.  We really milked that invention of Al's for everything that it was worth."
Although Albert came onto his drifting cloud technique while at Disney, it was barely ever used there as the Ellenshaw department stressed pure painting, while Albert was wanting to bring his mattes to life with various gags.  The moving cloud gag really came together once Al had started at Universal where he had the freedom and the cameraman to finesse it.  Basically, the method involves photographing the static painted clouds of a given matte painting, though instead of shooting the entire thing in one shot, the cameraman would break the painting down into 'bands' and insert soft mattes into the camera which would mask off everything other than the particular 'band' of cloud that was to move.  The upper-most 'band' would be photographed with a soft split, and as this was being filmed the actual painting would be hand cranked frame by frame across the matte stand at a given speed.  Then, in a separate pass upon the same 35mm film, the soft split would be repositioned in the camera's matte box to expose a second 'middle' band of cloud only - with all else blacked out.  This middle-band of painted cloud would again be cranked one frame at a time across the matte stand while being photographed, though in this case the movement would be somewhat slower than the previous pass of the upper most cloud.  Finally, the soft split matte would be repositioned to expose only the most distant, horizon level cloud and in fact the remainder of the overall painting which of course would not be moved at all.  The resulting composite, all on original negative, would see an incredibly realistic sky where the cloud movement was completely motionless in the distant horizon, and progressively 'faster' in relative terms, the nearer the cloud was to the audience's POV, at the top of the painting, just as it would be in real life.

And here it is.... Albert's original GREYSTOKE jungle vista painting, and beautifully cared for in a private collection.

Detail from the painting.  

Sky detail from the same matte art.  Taylor would tell author Tom Higginson:  "Al never had the slightest hesitation explaining to a director how he did his moving clouds technique.  He never worried that some other studio would copy the process, because, at first, you have to be able to paint the clouds.  There were only a handful of people who could paint clouds to Al's level.  Not only did Syd Dutton learn this technique from Al, but he also learned how to paint clouds gracefully so they fit into those 'splits'.  As well, our optical cameraman, Dennis Glouner, also came up with a seamless way of doing splits by leaving a 1/16th gap between them.  In between passes, we also would go in and make minor variations to the painting in the areas between the splits.  As soon as we started doing 'motion control', we realized that we could do cloud movements in depth.  That was amazing.  The Whitlock technique paid off again and again."


This matte, with interactive lightning cel effects, was never in the theatrical release of GREYSTOKE.  Bill tells me that there were several more shots that never appeared in the film, and commented:  "Director Hugh Hudson was very complimentary about the mattes that were used in the film in his DVD commentary, though rather gratifyingly, he identifies my blue screen shots of Rick Baker's apes in the trees [not pictured here] as being real location photography!  Thanks to Al's influence I shot the blue screen live action  and did the comps myself.  I lit the Baker apes on stage in England and composited them with my trick variant of the Vlahos Colour Difference System.  I may be the last guy ever to do shots like this end-to-end."

More Whitlock matte work, with added storm clouds rolling in and lightning animation.

Also fresh for the DVD and BluRay versions was this shot which I recall did appear in the 1984 trailer but not the film itself.

The shipwreck scene was a Whitlock trick too.  Al rendered a painted (moving) sky while Lynn Ledgerwood rigged a miniature sailing ship with sails fluttering in the breeze, with Bill Taylor shooting this against a blue screen.  The sea and foreground are real.

A nice painted vista with spewing volcano, though I've always been surprised this one made the final cut as the matte line is so obvious during the tilt down.  Taylor said that nothing ever left the department without Al's approval, so maybe time was really against them with this composite?


A variation upon an earlier GREYSTOKE matte with different sky and light this time.

Frame #1  As with some other examples in this article, I've grouped five sequential frames from the final shot in GREYSTOKE in order that the reader may click and toggle through the set to appreciate some of the animation which breaths so much life into an entirely fabricated shot.

Frame #2

Frame #3

Frame #4

Frame #5

Here is a rare photograph from a private collection of one of the unused GREYSTOKE matte paintings.

Detail

HEARTBEEPS (1982) was a curious little misfire.  The story of a pair of AI robots played by Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters who decide to escape the pergatory of some colossal robot storage facility and try to make it in the real world.  Not as good as it sounds by a long shot though I believe the original non-studio approved version is quite another story and stands up much better.

HEARTBEEPS is a joy to behold as far as the matte shots go.  There are a number of exquisite Whitlock and Dutton shots throughout the film.  This extreme pan across the exterior of the robot factory is a definite winner.  Al's cameraman Bill Taylor outlined the making of this great shot for me:  "That shot is one of the few we made with our 'Super Lens', originally created for the movie DUNE but never used on it.  The Super Lens let us put a 2:1 squeeze on the long dimension of the VistaVision frame (3 to 1 aspect ratio) to give us more real estate for optical pans.  The optical quality of the lens was OK at small apertures; it was a prototype and could have used another iteration in the design.  The spinning whirligig thing at right was the only miniature element.  The 'heatwaves' were built into the O/Neg shot, though too broadly I think. The foreground chap who passes right over the painting was Mark Whitlock, shot against a blue screen."

The left side of that very wide pan shows much painted scenery and Al's son, Mark matted in.

The right side of the same pan shot as shown here in excellent HD from a rare 1080 transfer.  The big rotating machine was a miniature.

A rare photograph taken of that same detailed section of Al's original matte painting.

Most of the HEARTBEEPS mattes occur within the first ten to fifteen minutes, which is really wall to wall Whitlock.

Two great character actors and a Whitlock matte painting... what could be better?  Randy Quaid and Kenneth McMillan both have had sterling careers, with Randy's THE LAST DETAIL and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS being highlights, and Kenneth's THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (the original version naturally) being faves of NZPete, though I digress.

Albert's original matte art.

Most of the factory interior shots are augmented by matte paintings.

A beautifully rendered Whitlock storm, with moving clouds and bursts of lightning.  All created by Albert.

Our two sad robots wonder what lies beyond the confines of the factory...

Full matte painted sunrise with the classic cel overlay interactive sunlight creeping across the landscape.  The film was submitted to AMPAS for consideration in the visual effects category for the 1982 Academy Awards but it never made the final selection.

I should note that the film, while a very, very long way from being even halfway good, does benefit from excellent make up for the lead robot characters designed by the late Stan Winstone.  Also, being directed by Allan Arkush - one of Roger Corman's proteges - who, along with Joe Dante had a fun and most enlightening early career creating those insanely over the top drive in trailers for Roger's New World exploitation 'B' flicks like CAGED HEAT and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA and many more.  If you are an old trailer buff like me, you'll recognise the unmistakable deeper than deep baritone vocal tones of none other than Ron Gans as one of the robots.  Ron voiced many of those garish T&A New World trailers for years, and did those hilarious fake trailers for John Landis' KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE.  A long lost artform in itself! Yeah, I know...nothing to do with mattes or Whitlock, and of no real interest to anyone but me, but whatcha' gonna' do???

The 'real' world isn't as great as the two 'Bots figured it could be.  A split screen with junk as far as the eye can see.  This must have had some roto work as the actors walk very smoothly right through the painted in area without any 'cut off'.

HEARTBEEPS - The robots head back home.  A mostly painted view with excellent blend.  As somebody who is fascinated with the actual 'blending' of matte shots I was keen to ask Bill about this aspect, especially given how god Al's were:  "I must say that the cameraman had very little to do with blending or indeed with any aspect of the painting.  One of the reasons Al was able to achieve what he did is that he ran the show, while most other departments were run by cameramen.  O/Neg shots required great care and attention on the part of the cameraman, both on-set and in the studio, but the creative force was Albert.  I brought some technical expertise into the department because I understood blue screen compositing and I think Al thought I had a good eye.  Mostly, I was keen.  Of course my eye got a lot better, quickly, by hanging around Al and later on, Syd.  As far as soft blends go, when we set the mattes we made them just slightly soft, or out of focus, to extend buildings for example, and made them quite soft if they went through something that might move, like trees.  Occasionally, we needed a hard matte at a wide f-stop and then the matte frame got pretty big, with it being almost 7 feet wide for the B-1 bomber shot in the film REAL GENIUS (1985).  Al made his soft blends in the painting.  He blended in to the original photography with fine cross-hatching, whereas his former Disney colleague, Peter Ellenshaw used 'stipple'.  Al kept track of where he was in the blend with a widely spaced line of  dots of chalk or white paint.  He could judge the blend quite well from a hand developed negative trim, so he could make a lot of progress in a day.  Then he'd touch 'out' the dots when the painting was ready to go."

Matte shots from the Richard Boone tv series HEC RAMSEY made in the early seventies.  The shot with the 'Psycho' house would also be re-used a few years later in THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS miniseries.

Albert was always a favourite contributor to the films of director Andrew V. McLaglen.  This film was the John Wayne action bio-pic on famous fire fighter Red Adair, THE HELLFIGHTERS (1968) and includes a tilt up.  As an aside, the film's gargantuan mechanical & physical effects by Fred Knoth and Herman Townsley were terrifying.

Mel Brooks' tribute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, HIGH ANXIETY (1978) had not only some Whitlock matte shots but also featured Whitlock the thespian in a small, yet pivotal role in the film. 

Here are those trademark Whitlock 'Donut Clouds' once again, and this time moving.  The tower may be a miniature?

The finale of HIGH ANXIETY features a giant pull-back from the Honeymoon City Motel (no vacancy).

The full extent of the final pull-back as realised by Al.

Whitlock the thespian, as he appears in HIGH ANXIETY.  Al had started off as a youth doing bit parts in old Gaumont pictures and would act again  around 40 years later on this film, again as a used chariot salesman in Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD and as a butler in John Landis' BEVERLY HILLS COP III, which unfortunately never made the final cut.

I've always liked THE HINDENBURG (1975) and feel it's been unjustly maligned in some quarters.  A good solid cast, taut direction and screenplay, and a most thought provoking premise as to just what may have happened.  Whitlock's team went to great lengths to ensure that paintings were never duped, to the point that the entire main titles for this film were shot on original negative.  Bill Taylor ran the title mattes bi-pack in the matte shot camera as the paintings were being photographed.

From top left:  Terrific ad art from 1975; Albert studies a small scale model of the famous airship; a hand retouched photograph glued to glass which proved invaluable in adding the zeppelin to matte painted scenes; and finally, Albert in his Santa Barbara home with his two Oscars visible in the background.

Before he would even consider signing on, director Robert Wise felt it vital to consult with Albert and just see whether this gargantuan project was going to be viable, from a technical standpoint.

Some of the airship shots involved a large 25 foot miniature built by Glen Robinson and Andrew Beck, with veteran fx cameraman Clifford Stine photographing the model work, some of which would be integrated with Whitlock's matte art.

The vast interior of the still under construction German airship is 90% painted, with just a small slot of live action.

A multi-layered trick shot, with live action truck passing in front of an entirely painted background with the airship and buildings.  The truck was rotoscoped frame by frame by roto artist Millie Winebrenner so as to cleanly pass by.

A larger frame of the roto matte shot

Before and after epic shot with the zeppelin being a retouched photo cut-out and the airfield a painted matte .

A wonderful close up photo of that same matte painting which allows detailed examination of Al's brushwork and also one can see the edges of Syd's hand coloured photo cut-out at left.

There were over 70 separate matte shots and assorted optical combinations.

The film's D.O.P, Robert Surtees remarked that in addition to creating the epic scenes, Whitlock also contributed to some of Surtees' own production shots by reinstating subtle detail that was lost during live filming due to problems with exposure.

Two minor mattes, with the lower frame being a 'patch' job.  Whitlock had to paint a series of patches to match the original architecture in order to cover up modern signage, phone boxes, lamp posts and other non period 'junk'.  Bill hates the shot, as he elaborated:   "Only the  building has been worked on, I think it's somewhere in Washington DC, to eliminate non-period signage, street lights, etc. The patches are badly mis-matched, one of several shots I would have given good money to go back on.  Another is the iceberg shot with the giant matte line!  We must have been in a great hurry".

Two mattes depicting the vast underbelly of the airship, with Whitlock painting in the underside, with a practical set of steps being operated on the location set to match.

The mighty airship is ready for it's fatal voyage.  I asked Bill about the set-up of the Universal matte department:  "We did most of our matte paintings on original negative, and had four camera rooms, each with a different camera set up depending on the film format.  Typically we had 4-perf anamorphic, Techniscope, 4-perf flat 1.85:1, and VistaVision going simultaneously.  We had various satellite operations around the lot when a particular film needed more space.  We had a very old lathe-bed optical printer made at Universal, and an unusual Acme 2-head printer which was later supplemented with a VistaVision aerial image printer built for us by George Randle.  The studio had a very large optical department but we were independent of it.  By the time I got there, there were no old paintings left over from days previous to Al.  The department was extensively remodelled to Al's specifications to accommodate the four fixed camera stands, plus a large, open area for temporary set-ups, as well as a large, bright painting studio - with Al getting the only windows in the building - plus a small office."

Before and after that we would never suspect.

THE HINDENBURG in flight and making good time.  It wasn't all 'peaches and cream' at the effects camera side of things as I found out from Bill Taylor on the subject:  "I was determined to shoot the miniature airship in sunlight; no phoney stage lighting for me!  I experimented with an odd scheme for matting the miniature that I thought would work in daylight that in retrospect sounds 'Fulton-esque'.  (In those days a day-lit blue screen was not saturated enough to give a good result.)  I shot the model airship against black velvet, with the sun as the key light.  I filled in the with a row of arc lights with deep blue filters, balanced so that viewed through a blue filter the ship appeared to be flat lit. Black detail like the swastica was painted blue."

"My intent was to print a silhouette matte from a  blue positive separation,  which I hoped would have uniform density throughout. Then the foreground detail would go on with the green separation used twice, through blue and green filters, and with the red separation. This of course was a sort of simplified Vlahos colour-difference dupe. The highlights and shadows and the red patch around the swastica reproduced normally on the green and red separations.  Don't think anything like this had been tried in colour."
 

'Clever scheme, eh?  In practice, a disaster!   The grey airship just soaked up the blue light, and even with arc lamps cheek by jowl, it proved to be impossible to light the shadow side uniformly enough so there were not translucent areas in the matte.  To try to get the sun intensity in balance with the arcs. I had the grips hang a net over the airship.  If there was more than one layer of net, there were beautiful moire patterns cast on the ship.  There was a little wind on the back lot on one day, which ripped the net, and down it came, where the arc lights burned holes in it.
 
 It was thanks to Al Whitlock's enormous clout at the studio that I got to try this in the first place, and did not get fired as a result!"

"I began to re-think shooting the miniature against blue screen on the sound stage, which we finally did.  On Universal's biggest stage,stage 12, which was right outside our door, I could back the single key light 200 feet away to get really hard, parallel shadows.  (I loved those old arc lights, which were close to being point sources of light.)   A great big wrap-around diffuser produced shadowless fill and a ground cloth produced the appropriate bounce from land, water or lower clouds.  We dollied the camera on rails which rested on a carefully screeded sand bed, so the camera move was dead smooth"
 .

Al's new young assistant, Syd Dutton, has only just joined the matte department as HINDENBURG was getting rolling.  Syd was initially hired purely as a general assistant and not much more, though that role changed as a result of this particular shot.  Al had been experimenting with a problematic scene where the giant airship passes over the city of Amsterdam at night.  Initially the idea was to paint the city lights onto a large glass and move it past the camera.  Dutton however, came upon an idea which would prove to be the perfect solution.  Syd purchased a quantity of confectioner's sugar based decorations which were then laid out onto a large black velvet covered table top and then carefully arranged in straight rows with the edge of a metal ruler.  When this Rube-Goldberg configuration was properly lit from the appropriate angle the effect was stunning.  Albert was very impressed, although he was never one to hand out compliments casually.  The artfully designed night cityscape was photographed as it was slowly winched past the camera.  An additional couple of passes were made of cloud elements floating by, and to complete the shot Dutton was also tasked with painting the actual interior of the airship's window frame.  Years later Albert would state: "I could make jokes about having to whip him into shape, but Syd showed promise, right from the start." 

A closer look at the result of Syd's highly effective burst of creativity. A million dollar shot made with sugar, black velvet and some paint.  Syd mentioned to me:  "What set Al apart, other than his extraordinary painting skills, was problem solving. When I came up with using the candy decoration for the city lights, I was thinking how would Al solve this problem? Plus the idea of painting hundreds of tiny dots on a long piece of cell material made me break out in a rash." 

One of the best effects shots in the film... and check out those clouds.  Perfection.

The BluRay release suffers from an excessive magenta hue that wasn't the case with early video transfers nor the original theatrical release as I recall seeing it.  

I tried to correct this frame just for comparison as it was originally so far off the mark it wasn't funny.
Cloud layers at play to great effect, as taken from the standard old DVD.

Painted icebergs and cloud layers floating toward the viewer.

A tense situation develops when the fabric of one of the fins rips in a storm and needs quick in-flight repair work.  Several mattes are used showing the action from various vantage points, with painted airship and icebergs below, plus wispy layers of cloud.  The lower left frame is notable as Albert has animated a shadow passing across the airship to correllate with the passing cloud.  I'd like to point out too just how good character actor William Atherton was in this, and anything else he does.  A terrific, under-valued actor.

For certain shots specially filmed 'vapour clouds' were created by the physical effects men and shot against black velvet which would serve as the very light, wispy type of cloud that is seen often in the flying scenes, sometimes combined with the more traditional soft split 'painted' cloud gags in order to lend depth to the cloud banks.

Atherton clings on for his life as a crewmember hauls him in.  Very effective icebergs here and a terrific shadow that slowly sweeps along the Hindenburg, carefully animated to conform to the curve and ribbing of the superstructure.  
Whitlock's 'passing shadow' animation gag, which I thought was probably the best shot in the film.  Incidentally, these frames are from the DVD and show a far better colour balance than the fiddled with BluRay, at least to my eyes.

One of the few flawed shots shows painted ice flows with ocean that simply passes underneath them rather than break on the icebergs.  FX cameraman Bill Taylor said he wished he could go back and re-do these shots with matte lines visible around the icebergs.

Great care was taken by the matte crew to not only have moving clouds, but to have some clouds clearly behind the airship and some in front.  It wasn't as easy as it looked.  The cloud elements were bi-packed through the matte camera, or in some cases, even tri-packed (ie: running 3 films at the exact same time through the camera gate).  In an article in 1975, Albert discussed this work:  "Producing white clouds against black velvet was simple enough, but if such a scene were used simply as a 'burn-in' it would produce only a 'ghost' like image of clouds - not really sufficiently opaque to the eye.  In order to do this we would make a colour reversal wedge of the white clouds on the black background  - in other words, dark clouds against a completely clear background.  Running this footage in bi-pack through the matte camera while we were shooting our scenes, the 'black' cloud would obscure the ship in certain areas, and then by burning in after this, we got the realistic illusion of opaque white clouds."

To make Whitlock's already considerable workload a little easier, a special stills photographer was engaged to photograph high quality views of the large 25 foot miniature from as many angles as possible.  These were then printed up onto photographic paper and handed to Syd Dutton who carefully cut out the required pictures then hand painted whatever corrections were needed onto each cut out.  The hand coloured cut outs were pasted onto sheets of glass and for the particular vantage point needed for any given shots such as the above scene. This method proved a mighty time saver for Albert who already had many mattes to paint and didn't fancy having to: "draw and paint the damned thing over and over from every angle."

A magnificent effects shot that is marred by the awful colour evident in the BluRay's remastering process.  The shot was originally strong with a golden hue of the rising sun in all previous versions.  On the plus side, the effects work here is superb, and I especially liked the way Bill Taylor has made the sunlight 'wrap' around the ship as it passes the sunrise, with no hint of it being a mere cut out.
Just for comparisons sake, here's the same scene as taken from the less than ideal DVD a few years back.

Waiting for the arrival at Lakehurst, New Jersey.  Real exterior with painted sky and distant structures.

This may be the miniature airship blue screened against the Whitlock background?

Sky and rainbow matte as seen in a tilt down shot.

Live action lower foreground and everything else painted.

The grand airship arrives over Manhattan.  Airship is a retouched photograph on glass while the city is a separate painting (possibly also a heavily revised photo blow up painted over?)


Live action people and hanger, painted sky and photo cut out Hindenburg.


Miniature airship matted into a Whitlock sky, and a blue screen shot of ground crew preparing for landing.

The landing field at Lakehurst - all painted except for the group of ground crew members.

Upper frame- matte shot with airship hangar, sky and even some of the foreground steel bracing painted in. Lower frame- Miniature zeppelin with landing lines and ballast dropping, blue screened against a painted sky.

Al had a phrase that he often used:  "If in doubt, black it out", which in effect meant that if there were any degree of uncertainty when setting the matte (or masking) at the time of the original plate photography, the best option was to simply 'black out' a significant portion of the live plate, knowing full well that if need be, that blacked out area could just as well be recovered by painted it back in.

Probably a good time to mention the cast, with the key players being very well cast.  I'd watch George C. Scott in anything (so damned good in THE HUSTLER and later DR STRANGELOVE) who lends considerable depth and texture to his character, as does the previously mentioned William Atherton - a brilliant character actor.  The scenes where these two class actors face off against one another are electric.

Matte painted sky with moving clouds, miniature zeppelin, and blue screened actors.

It's all about to turn to custard...

George C. Scott's 'Oh Shit' moment!  Was it an accident, or was it deliberate?  In the context of the Nelson Gidding screenplay, I'd go with the latter.  A mindblowing (no pun intended) scene where all hell breaks loose.  I've always admired this shot from THE HINDENBURG where G. C. Scott is blown to kingdom come - be it by accident or his own choice we never discover.  I spoke to Bill Taylor about how he achieved this unforgettable shot:  "George Scott did not want to be hung from wires against a blue screen, and I can't say I blamed him.  So we put him on a bicycle seat, leaning against a tilting rig covered in black velvet.  He  could lean back in some comfort, move his arms and legs freely, and so on.  We lit his highlight side with a white key light, the shadow side with blue light, gave him a blue necktie, blue socks and painted his black shoes blue.  He found this all exceedingly mysterious.  "I don't know what they're doing," he told a visitor, "but it's got something to do with the blue tie and the blue shoes." We zoomed him back with a 20-1 zoom lens.  The background consisted of artwork, pyro elements and a fire extinguisher discharged at the camera.   I knew there would be holes in the matte in the shadows of his jacket and so on, but the thought was to fill in the holes with roto. Everyone liked the quick pre-roto test where the holes in the matte gave more definition to the silhouette.  So we declared victory and moved on to the next shot".

I think the effect is genius myself.

Frame #1  I have included four frames from the explosion sequence which are useful to click on and toggle through to appreciate the clever animation Albert executed that collapses the hydrogen filled airship envelope. The Hindenburg's explosion, which according to Whitlock's own article published in American Cinematographer in 1975: "The explosion was shot in the high reaches of the Universal backlot against a night sky, which served the same purpose as a black velvet backing.  The special effects man made up a bag of explosives which had everything in it, including gasoline.  The problem lay in the fact that you were trying to reproduce an effect on an enormous scale from an explosion that was not more than ten feet across". Whitlock went on to say:.."The scene was shot at five times the normal speed, which is about as far as you can push a camera without risk of a camera jam that would ruin the whole thing [...] so it was necessary to put the scene into an optical printer afterwards and make a three times extension, in other words, each frame printed three times in order to extend the scene and slow down the action by a factor of three".

Frame #2   I asked matte cameraman Bill Taylor about the shot which had perplexed me for decades, and here is what he said;  "The  miniature explosion was shot at 120 FPS, then the highest rate that could be had from a reliably pin-registered camera owned by Universal. Photosonics 4E cameras were available for outside rental that could have gone 360 FPS,  but they were very expensive to rent and somewhat temperamental.  The explosion that Glen Robinson and Frank Brendel created for us was gigantic, and we were convinced that 120 would be fast enough.  It wasn't.   The slow-down was created by a primitive form of frame blending, a staggered triple exposed series of dissolves from one frame to the next.  There was no need for a roto matte; a luminance mask was easy to get off the explosion.  Of course these days we could interpolate the extra frames digitally.  We also shot a big black cloud explosion in daylight to back up the night explosion, but I don't think the shot ever got far enough for the black smoke to show.

Frame #3    Bill continues:  "The other elements are: live action foreground with the actors shot on marks in overcast and in backlight to give the illusion that they are lit by the explosion, painted sky and upper portion of the mooring mast, and a retouched still of the miniature mounted on an oversize foreground glass.  The oversize glass was eccentrically pivoted so that the airship would seem to fall from a point within its own mass.  The pivoting action was driven by a lead screw maybe 24" long, which had a pointer attached to the traveller and a scale on the body.  The lead screw was driven in stop motion by a hand crank from a calculated move on a count sheet, a certain number of turns per frame.  By counting turns accurately to reset the pointer, we could repeat the move perfectly."

Frame #4   Bill Taylor:  "Attached to the pivoting glass was an animation peg bar.  I can't now remember whether the peg bar was simply out of frame or behind the mattes on the matte camera that were used to make the sky move (also in stop motion).  There were cell overlays on the peg bar (I think there were three overlays) on which Al painted the progressive damage to the envelope.  As the airship fell, we dissolved on the overlays one after another (thus the importance of a repeat move)". 

For quite some time I had assumed this shot to be a piece of newsreel footage, but then Syd Dutton mentioned a particular HINDENBURG fx shot that always made a lasting impression:   "One of my favorite Al shots in the film wasn’t a painting at all, and I was referring to the men on the guide line shot at magic hour and then in sunlight to simulate the explosion. Pure genius."  Syd then asked Bill to write me his recollections of the particular shot, which now puts a whole new spin on the brief cut for me:   "Syd is referring to the shot in which the men holding the mooring lines are suddenly lit by the explosion of the airship above them.  Our camera was on one of the big corner pylons of the airship hanger in  Santa Ana.  The same men were shot twice in exactly the same positions, their feet carefully marked and each man taking note of his body position.  In one shot they were in full sun from above, casting strong shadows.  On cue, they dropped the lines and ran away.  In the second shot, made later the same day when the sun was low enough to be off them (Magic Hour), we shot them in the same spots, looking upward at the airship.  I had shot a Polaroid of the guys in the first shot and we used it to cue them into matching poses."
"The shot in the film starts with the Magic Hour shot.  With a very soft-edge wipe we transitioned to the brightly-lit men color timed to appear as though they are lit by the exploding airship.  Their shadows provide exclamation marks as each man runs for his life.  Because the scope of the shot is so wide, it would have been impossible to achieve the effect with any lighting instrument and of course any real pyrotechnic effect would have been very dangerous.  As Syd said, a brilliant idea.  Al did not get hung up on whether the effect was physically 'authentic'; he knew that for the few seconds that were needed it would play perfectly."

The aftermath.

Universal backlot with actors, split screened with a Whitlock painting.

The film ends on a somber note with 'memory' of the once proud lady of the skies drifting off in a ghost-like fashion into the clouds.

Some of the original HINDENBURG paintings in storage at Illusion Arts,  years after the fact, being demonstrated by Robert Stromberg, a talented matte artist and protege of Syd Dutton.

Albert receives his second Oscar in a row for best special visual effects, shown here accepting his statuette from actor Robert Blake, with co-winner Glen Robinson and also a special Oscar for the film's sound effects cutter, Peter Berkos who is standing behind Albert.  It's worth noting that Al did not take all of the glory for himself on the night, and made sure that he personally named each and every member of his vital matte crew.
Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART ONE (1981) - a film that only ever was a 'One-Parter' by the way, was not especially funny nor memorable, particularly when held up against Mel's other films like BLAZING SADDLES (1973) and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), though there were a few chuckles here and there.

The film is, however, well worth a visit purely for the magnificent matte work that is on display throughout.  The pictures show Al and his crew setting up an original negative matte shot on the Universal back lot. Syd Dutton configures the matte line demarcation while Al's son Mark loads the camera.  The lower right photo shows a dual camera set up, with the regular production camera crew on the right, while Whitlock's crew and matte camera are just visible underneath a large purpose built black 'tent', to avoid unwanted light bouncing onto the carefully set masking.
Al discusses one of the HISTORY OF THE WORLD mattes with director Mel Brooks as documentary makers Walter Dornish and Mark Horowitz shoot a television special on Whitlock's career and the effects work in Brooks' new film.    *photo by Walter Dornish

Al's spectacular vista of Rome painted for HISTORY OF THE WORLD.  Interestingly, Al also did the initial work on another famous view of Rome while still at Disney, for Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS (1960), though I believe his participation was limited and Al's then boss, Peter Ellenshaw took over and painted that now exceedingly famous establishing shot and remains one of the greatest glass paintings of all time, and unquestionably 'Ellenshaw' through and through.

The final tilt down comp of Al's wonderful HISTORY OF THE WORLD vista.  Don't you just love the backlight and haze, which were phenomena Whitlock was a genius with.

Aspects of the making of that matte, with Al at work in the Universal matte department.  Note his use of a large mirror as a means to constantly reference his progress from a fresh 'flopped' view where errors that may not be immediately evident with the painting directly in front of the artist may be picked up when glanced at in reverse.  Al probably acquired this method from observing Peter Ellenshaw who also was a strong advocate of this. (*As an amateur painter myself, I've always relied heavily on the mirror constantly during my own painting process: Pete).  Also shown above are a few of the dozen or so tests where hues and blends aren't yet properly matched.  At bottom right is longtime Whitlock assistant cameraman Mike Moramarco loading the camera for a take in one of the four camera rooms.  Mike's career with Albert went way back to the early sixties and included THE BIRDS, SHIP OF FOOLS and all of those Hitchcock pictures.

All done on location before the camera rolled, Syd Dutton hand lettered the 'Caesars Palace' signage directly onto a sheet of glass, which was then filmed on the spot as an old fashioned in-camera glass shot.

One of the best matte shots in the film, seen only in a quick cut as the cast escape Rome.

The protagonists arrive at the Port of Ostia - a jaw droppingly beautiful matte painting if ever I saw one.  Words fail me (which is a serious worry!).
Before and after.

A closer view of that staggering shot and a revealing look at the brushwork and 'dabs' for highlights.  I'm trying to remember what Bill once told me about the fluttering 'El-Al' sail on the galley - whether it was a miniature sail, isolated and bi-packed in, or a superb piece of cel overlay painted animation, I forget which.

At least this BluRay is perfect in every respect, with excellent colour and contrast, allowing for pretty good blow-ups of mattes such as this for your viewing pleasure.

They just keep getting better and better these HISTORY OF THE WORLD shots.  Practically all painted here except for a small section of foreground wall and bushes where the horse and wagon roll up.  Astonishingly convincing light.
Before and after.

Superb detailed look at the matte art.

Several of the HISTORY OF THE WORLD mattes are tilt down composites, made in VistaVision.  Here we experience the Spanish Inquisition  ("What a show...")

Al and Syd went all out with their matte expertise on this film, with such a roster of unforgettable shots that were, sadly, in a fairly forgettable movie.  This shot is another big tilt down from extensive matte art down to the Universal Lake on the studio back lot.  The composites in this film are remarkably crisp and grain free, even those with camera moves introduced.

This matte of Notre Dame during the French Revolution is both a painting zoom out, tilt down and zoom back in on the live action!  Bill Taylor commented on this:  "The idea in all of these panning/tilting VistaVision shots was to do an O/Neg in 8-perf, and do the pan in a dupe on the optical printer.  Since the dupe was usually a reduction from 8-perf, it was pretty good quality.  On HISTORY OF THE WORLD, I made a set of dupe negatives to splice into each of the four release print dupe negatives, so even the dupe matte shots were the same generation as the rest of the film.  If the painting only occupied half the frame, the original taking camera could pan, tilt or zoom, finally locking down in register with the matte.  Of course the optical printer only 'saw' the part of the frame with the matte after the original camera 'locked off'."

A closer view.

An actual location in Vienna(?) has been modified by Al (see below), along with the sky, which has a very noticeable matte line that is only evident in the BluRay format.

A selection of before and afters.

Paris, at the time of the French Revolution.  A superb effects shot.

Before and after.

The vast crowd and surrounds were largely matte art and carefully arranged soft split screens to 'multiply' the number of available extras on set.

An excellent close up of the painted crowd and French architecture.  Marvellous!

What better way to end a film than with a monumental matte painted 'The End'.  Albert animated the effect of the sun coming out and gradually shining across the granite rock face.  Practically all matte painted here, with just a narrow slot of live action where the horse and riders gallop into the distance.

Detail.

Two shots from the Peter Ustinov film HOTEL SAHARA (1951) which Albert painted mattes for while at Rank-Pinewood.

Al painted on many made for tv movies over the years and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1971) was one of them.  Several very nice mattes that are entirely in keeping with the flavour of the much loved Conan-Doyle tale.  Note, the two mattes shown at lower left & right both use the exact same live action plate, though the painted scenery beyond represent quite different places.

Two panning shots, with the night view being an absolute, atmospheric winner for this viewer.
An extremely rare original Whitlock BASKERVILLES matte painting, dated 1970 and signed by Al, that's still in perfect condition and has been cared for by the family of Al's long time key grip, Larry Shuler. * A big thank you to Chris Shuler and Pam Carpenter for sending me this and other mattes.

Beautiful brushwork and light as evident from this close detailed photograph.

Close detail

Further detail from HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES matte art.

The Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (1952) had this matte shot, and as Whitlock was painting at Pinewood at that time there's a strong possibility that it's his work.  The matte line extends just along the upper edge of the front door and nearby window, with the rest of the house and foreground garden being painted.

A final matte here for this gargantuan blog, which as you'll recall, is only the first part of probably 3(!!)  This matte is from the Michael Caine pirate yarn, THE ISLAND (1980) - a film I hated at the time but now, in my old age, find it rather fun.
Well matte fans, that's about it for what has got to be my biggest single blogpost.  I do hope this has proved enlightening and informative, and I hope it's been read/viewed on a genuine computer or laptop, and not some ludicrous palm sized toy.  Oh, the horror!

I'll be back in the near future with episode two.  Stay tuned...


15 comments:

  1. Saw "Airport '77" for the first time about a month ago and I enjoyed it. Not as great as "The Poseidon Adventure" but for its own movie I liked it. Good cast, great production design, and impressive special effects considering this was the same year as "Star Wars".

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  2. The recycled Earthquake shot with the Cylon Raiders is actually from the third Battlestar Galactica 'film', Conquest of the Earth, not Mission Galactica.

    As always, love the blog and the hard work that goes into it.

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    1. Actually it was from the first episode of GALACTICA 1980, which aired on ABC that year. The disastrous & zero budget revival didn't last long (a whole 6 episodes). "Conquest of Earth" was Universal recutting the show and showing it overseas as a film.

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  3. It's been so long, though those ripped off EQ shots stayed in my memory.

    Apologies for some odd 'formatting' issues with parts of this blog's layout. It was beyond my control as the 'Blogger' platform sometimes does strange things and screws with the content that I've carefully arranged. It's always a 'cross my fingers and hope for the best' kind of a deal when I hit the final 'Publish Blog' button.
    A couple of HINDENBURG errors will be corrected in Part 2.

    Pete

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  4. Another spectacular achievement!! Can't wait for Part II!!

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  5. Great! Great! Great!

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  6. Fantastic Entry as always. Albert Whitlock is a favourite of mine, too. Great job on the scroll through demonstrations of Greystoke and Colossus!

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    1. Of course, if I find out that you read it on a damned 'i phone' or similar tiny 'gadget', I shall be forced to horsewhip you!

      Glad you liked it Marlon

      Pete

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  7. Hi Peter. Kotau to this amazing new blog entry. So many memorable matte moments. Thank you my friend. Have I ever send you an image of my personal Whitlock? According to Syd Dutton an Bill Taylor's expertise it must have been painted shortly after Al's arrival in the United States. https://www.thiemeyer.de/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Whitlock_Mountain-1.jpg

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    1. Hi there Thomas,

      It's been so long since we chatted, I thought you'd lost interest in this crazy 'matte hobby' my friend.
      Yes, I well remember the painting and have excellent photos that you sent me. It's all set for Part 2 as I was so overloaded with images already.

      All the best

      Pete

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    2. Yes, far too long. It's been a busy time for me and matte painting has been a little out of focus.
      Have you seen the two matte painting on the actual Profiles in History auction? Here ist one of them. The other one is from STTMP. http://www.icollector.com/Cliffhanger-matte-painting_i31872066

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  8. Wonderful article! This is the type of info that are meant
    to be shared across the web. Shame on Google for not
    positioning this post upper! Come on over and visit my
    web site . Thank you =)

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  9. Hi NZPete, my name is Arturo Sinclair, since you like to keep your list comprehensive I can add my little grain of...acrylic! I am a SFX Cinematographer and although I have done plenty of matte paintings for my own films or tv commercials I was the matte painter for "SPACED Invaders" a film spoof made by ILM employees on their own time. The VFX was led by Pete Kozachik and a young John Knoll as VFX Supervisor. Unfortunately I do not have any original art from that film. Here is the IMDB link https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100666/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast

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    1. Hi Arturo

      That's most interesting. I'd like to see images of that little epic. If you have any photos, do share them with me.

      All the best

      Peter

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