Thursday, 6 August 2020

MATTE PAINTING REVIEW: A Selection of Overlooked Films - Part Eleven


Hello there my fellow trick shot enthusiasts, and welcome back to another retrospective study of those wonderful 'old school' special photographic effects, matte paintings and miniatures that thrilled, dazzled and amazed us, and more often than not fooled us completely that seeing was indeed believing.
This edition of NZ Pete's Matte Shot covers a broad and utterly fascinating cross section of films, genres, era's and technical artists, with the certainty on my part that there will be at least a couple of film titles that many serious film fans may never have heard of, and so far as young-ish readers go, probably the entire selection discussed below being a complete and utter mystery and not in any way, shape or form on their collective 'radar'!  So sad, but true!  :(

What with much of the world going through all manner of pandemic lockdowns, restricted movements and movie houses in many countries off limits, with the latest Hollywood releases delayed till next year in all probability, now is a good time to seek out some of these 'old' pictures that I write about here (and those in the 'about me' movie recommendations at the side panel of this blog) and watch so much cinematic greatness.  You might be pleasantly surprised!

Among the films celebrated here today are an exciting Errol Flynn historic classic adventure from Warner Bros with many splendidly realised matte shots; A rip-snorting 'maritime western' from Paramount which not only is loaded with Oscar winning mattes and model work, but also features one of the silver screen's most vivacious visual treats, my long time favourite, the exquisite Dorothy Lamour!  What more could one ask?  No, seriously folks ..... what more???  Humour me!



Also on the roster today is a terrific hard-boiled private eye film noir flick from RKO studios with mattes and decidedly out-of-kilter hallucinatory opticals. There's also a lightweight and leisurely Spencer Tracy-Hedy Lamarr (another Golden Era doll, though I digress...) drama from MGM that's loaded with high quality Newcombe matte shots.
There's also an action packed Zorro picture with Tyrone Power swashing his buckle from 20th Century Fox that has some intricate optical jigsaw puzzle trickery in addition to first rate matte shots from Fred Sersen's people that's of extraordinary standard.



But wait.... there's more!!  The great Alfred Hitchcock has one of his early British pictures profiled too, with elaborate and boldly eye-poppingly complex and lengthy miniature set pieces very much neglected and overdue for retrospective examination.  Lastly on the bill today is a forgettable teen comedy from the mid eighties - when all they ever seemed to produce were in fact forgettable bloody teen comedies - though this one features absolutely photo-real jaw-on-the-floor matte painted expertise from the amazing Ken Marschall that nobody ever noticed nor suspected - me included when I saw the dreadful film on a double bill!  Surely enough here to satisfy even the most jaded tech fans of trick shot wizardry.


I was going to include a Blast From The Past piece on the legendary maestro, Emilio Ruiz one of my absolute fave trick shot exponents, and in a class of his own, but may include that next 'issue'.  Likewise several other 'special editions' such as one on every single traditional era matte produced by Industrial Light & Magic as well as a few other fascinating articles.  Just gotta be in the right mood.

So, sit back and enjoy this collection, and please make the effort to view on something bigger than a damned cell phone/smart phone or whatever the hell those godawful things are called.  These wonderful visual collections I publish are meant to be viewed and appreciated on a decent sized screen, with more and more entries being of high definition and remastered origin whenever I can find them, which ain't always easy .


Enjoy and stay safe from the dreaded 'bug' wherever you happen to be.

Pete



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The 1936 Warner Bros epic, CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE was one in a long line of very popular and highly successful pictures directed for the studio by the very versatile Hungarian born Michael Curtiz, who could work across a number of genres with ease and had a remarkable success rate, especially when he worked with star Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart.

Warner Bros were at the top of their game during the thirties and into the forties as far as special effects went, with their famous and sizable 'Stage 5' special photographic effects department being the envy of the industry.  Fred Woodruff Jackman was already a long time cinematographer in the business, and was in fact a founding member of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) in the early 1920's.  Jackman was instrumental in the visual effects photography of Willis O'Brien's 1924 silent adventure THE LOST WORLD (to be featured in this blog very soon), and a few years later, along with fellow effects cameraman Hans Koenekamp, set up the large special effects department at Warners-First National.  Described as "a studio within a studio", Stage 5 was a vast trick shot factory with everything self contained.  They had their own designers and draftsmen, cameramen, editors, matte artists, miniature specialists, process experts and optical compositors.  They also had their own 'insert unit' which was a mainstay of motion picture production for decades throughout Hollywood, where montages and special bridging sequences were common place and a part of almost every film.  Many famous directors got their start as Montage Directors at Warners such as Don Siegel, who would design and oversee some incredible trick sequences for memorable pictures such as YANKEE DOODLE DANDY to name a particular favourite of mine.  Siegel of course went on to direct some of the best Clint Eastwood pictures, with DIRTY HARRY being an all out classic for me.

A fascinating behind the scenes photo of Fred Jackman and crew members with what appears to be a two camera bi-pack set up for what I assume to be a complex travelling matte sequence.  Not sure what the film is, but wonder if it might possibly be the incredible THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941) which was a massive effects show for Warner Bros and featured astonishing, extended outdoor moving action shots with forboding painted skies 'doubled in' over motion camera moves and furious action with such consummate skill I can never recall ever seeing anything quite like it, though I digress...

Of note as the leading lady, the great Olivia DeHavilland, died just last week aged some 104.  Interestingly, she outlived her leading man by some 63 years, with Errol Flynn dying at the ripe young age of 50 (!)  That's what legendary (and I do mean legendary) volumes of womanising, boozing and hard living does to a fella! 

The opening matte shot is a classic of the romantic era of old school establishing vista's.  Matte painters on the film would surely have included Paul Detlefsen, Hans Barthowlowsky, Mario Larrinaga and others.

The film is partly set in the North West Frontier of India, and later takes place very far away in The Crimea, with much matte art required to furnish the exotic locales.


I've always had high regard for matte work from the thirties, which I personally feel was the Renaissance period of the artform.  I love the design and 'romance' of the brush work and the manner in which directors and production designers of the period utilised the technique.  Here the sky has been painted and matted in.  Matte cameramen at Warners included Edwin DuPar, John Crouse, Fred Jackman jnr and Hans Koenekamp.

The film relies a great deal upon mood and many wonderful painted skies, often with drifting clouds and peeking moonlight.

Ground level all actual set, with evening sky painted in.

Clouds drift across the full moon allowing a brief window of opportunity for sabotage at the fort.

Day for night action with painted in sky.

Multi element matte shot with full moon amid layers of drifting cloud.  Looks great on screen.

Foreground exterior set with painted clouds and quite possibly painted in background scenery too.

Live action battlements with painted sky carefully soft matted around the actor.  Probably all original negative.


According to historian and author Rolf Giesen, "Fred Jackman didn't do creative work and just collected the money to keep the Stage 5 operation going, with effects directors like William McGann, and cinematographers Koenekamp, Byron Haskin, Ed DuPar and son Fred Jackman jnr."

The Crimea, with war on the horizon.

Same place seen later on though with a different, closer matte painting with changes for mood with sky and foliage as the troops set off to battle.

Again, same setting, though the mood has been deliberately lowered with dark clouds coming in.  Nicely done.

It's all about to 'kick off'.

Into the valley rode the six hundred...


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This 1985 release from the dire Police Academy school of teen comedy was barely memorable, with two up and coming stars featured - a very young Don Cheadle (so great in Boogie Nights many years later), and a fresh faced Jennifer Tilly.  Other than that it only had the amazing, yet totally invisible matte shots by Ken Marschall and Bruce Block to recommend it.

The super talented illustrator, fine artist, matte painter and Titanic historian, Ken Marschall, is pictured here while an employee at the small visual effects firm Graphic Films circa 1982, with Ken's massive Earth painting set up for TOMORROW IN SPACE.  Ken and fellow Graphic Films staffer, cinematographer Bruce Block both wanted to specialise in matte painting, though Graphic Films were quite content in keeping to their own agenda, resulting in the pair quietly experimenting on their own time with creating original negative matte shots purely out of fascination with the limitless potential of the medium.  The duo soon had a demo reel of a whole range of matte painted shots, from completely invisible 'patch' jobs and subtle 'alterations' to actual settings, all the way through to elaborate and spectacular, imaginary futuristic vista's - none of which were made for any actual feature film projects, simply prepared to show what they could do and to serve with confidence as their demo reel for potential clients.  

The film is a sort of a non-descript car crash comedy, and not at all one where visual effects trickery would be suspected.  Think again friends!  It probably helped as one half of the Matte Effects company duo, Bruce Block, was also the producer of said film, thus ensuring work for them where otherwise mattes might not have been figured.  This frame is the original plate photography of the big control room set.  The set would be massively enhanced by not only Ken's matte painted extension, but also a myriad of big screen graphics.

Ken's painting of the control room set extension, complete with painted in technicians and vast bodies of mainframe computers.  The huge screens have been left blank for additional hand made graphics elements.
A closer look.

One of the notations made regarding requirements for the graphics elements for optimum quality.  The notes in red are Ken's directives to the company which would prepare the transparencies.

Detail of the separately prepared matte art representing the on-screen graphics.  These would be filmed backlit, in two separate double exposed passes over the main matte painted environment.

Additional backlit graphics artwork which will be doubled into the main shot.  The original graphics artwork was made into high contrast film negatives at the exact same scale of the painting by a facility called Star Graphics in Studio City, California.

The reverse side of the opaque black graphics matte card showing the various film negatives carefully cut out and taped into the precise position to conform with the blank 'screens' on Ken's original painting.  Various coloured gels are seen here taped in position behind corresponding 'slots'.  On a second pass, contrasting colours were employed.

The final completed composite as seen in the original Academy ratio 35mm print.

The same shot as shown in the BluRay presentation with more vibrant colour and contrast.  Wonderful work!


Several shots were needed to show the fictional Dana's Nursery - one for daytime and the other for night.  Here is Ken's preliminary sketch for not only the nursery (at lower centre), but also for an entirely different urban landscape!  Ken told me in the very extensive career interview I conducted with him back in 2015 that such sketches were usually done quickly, in black and white, with the matte concepts usually approved - sometimes with some changes - from very simple renderings just like this.
The original location plate photography by Bruce Block, and the masked off portion.



Ken's phenomenal finished painting offers an entirely fresh cityscape in addition to the featured nursery. 

Staggeringly fine work as shown here in this close up.  Ken always paints in acrylics, and more often than not renders these remarkable pieces at his home near the beach, on his kitchen table!  The artwork is always applied onto special imported high quality art card stock with a very opaque black surface.  Ken always loved to paint with tiny brushes and had an absolute mastery of light, shadow and tone.  He told me he was 'bitten by the matte bug' so to speak when he and Bruce attended a couple of Albert Whitlock's day long VFX seminars in the mid 1970's and he mentioned holding Whitlock's ability in very high regard.

The final composite, made as per the preferred Matte Effects method, directly onto the original negative.

A sketch for the same shot for the night time view, with various notes and changes mentioned such as 'remove this roof' and 'angle this more toward the camera' and remarks about just how visible distant buildings should be (!) etc

Plate photography and mask in place.

Ken's finished painting.

The final composite that nobody ever noticed.

Once again, some backlit signage was employed.  Ken told me the artwork had additional details scraped into black Cel-Vinyl and gelled from behind.

The reverse side of the backlight elements.  The sign artwork and other night time street light burn in elements have been fixed in place with coloured gels taped on.  Ken said:  "Since the card stock we used wasn't opaque enough, for double exposed backlight passes like this I always added a layer of Exeter paper, which is extremely lightproof, and filled in other areas with camera tape."
There were two more invisible matte shots in MOVING VIOLATIONS that nobody ever suspected (me included!).  Both are in the parade sequence where the director wanted the skyline changed as well as several hundred more 'extras' added in to what was called the 'passing the crowd' sequence.  This is the original plate, photographed in Long Beach, California.


Bruce Block has masked off the plate to eliminate any unwanted material (which it seems is pretty much everything!)

The master does it yet again.... and superlatives escape me.  Breathtaking....have I used that one yet??

Revealing detail in Marschall's rendering, which as his hand demonstrates, was pretty small when compared with other matte exponents of the day who would often paint at 3 times the size.  Ken liked to paint small and liked to keep it all 'manageable' and easily transported in a carry bag and able to be filed away for safe keeping after the fact.

Now, the shot wasn't just a bog standard painted matte, but also required 'crowd movement'.  Slot gags such as moving crowds, tree leaves, water and such like have been a common trick dating way back to the early thirties at least.  Often glass paintings would have tiny areas carefully scratched away to allow flicker devices of one sort or another to be set up behind the artwork to lend the illusion of 'movement' where in fact there was none.  As Ken didn't paint on glass, any 'gags' had to be introduced as a separate pass or exposure.  Such was the case with this subtle trick which Ken explained to me in 2015:  "The moire gag shown here, would be double exposed over the finished painting in a separate pass through the matte camera.  The animated 'people' are just a bunch of holes in an opaque black card with coloured gels tape behind, and made to undulate in brightness through the use of a moire behind that card.  The 'holes' were made by painting black Cel-Vinyl onto Mylar, then scraping away the spots with a pointed instrument."
Samples of some of the specially designed moire rigs made by Bruce Block and used at Matte Effects for things such as crowd movement (upper left) and sparkling water gags (bottom right) etc.


For demonstration purposes this image shows an overlay of the area of the shot where the 'crowd' animation will be doubled in.
The reverse side of the separate animation card showing the small pieces of coloured gel taped into place.

The completely convincing finished shot with a seemingly animated 'crowd'.  When asked once whether anyone ever noticed his subtle moving clouds in his meticulous matte shots, Al Whitlock responded that people may not notice them moving, but they do tend to notice if they are NOT moving.  Couldn't have put it better myself.

The final matte in MOVING VIOLATIONS is another in the epic parade sequence, where a new urban setting as well as a massive crowd were required.  Here is the initial location as shot by Bruce Block.

Ken Marschall's beautifully rendered acrylic painting that so accurately captures the light, time of day and hues of the original location plate.

A close look.

An even closer look...

It doesn't get much closer than this!   THIS is precisely why I implore you all to view the blog on a decent sized screen!!!!

And here it is....  WOW.  All remarkable shots, from a completely unremarkable movie.


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I have a definite penchant for the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and especially like his older ones such as THE LADY VANISHES, REBECCA, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT and my favourite SABOTEUR. This film, celebrated here, tends to be largely overlooked sadly, though it is a corker of a flick with all of the Hitchcock elements - innocent man on the run, a great chase and some incredible trick shots and a wickedly ingenious final reveal.  The film is YOUNG AND INNOCENT, made in 1937 by Gaumont, in the UK.  In the USA it was called THE GIRL WAS YOUNG for reasons which escape me(!)  Nonetheless, it's a whole lot of fun

Annoyingly, no effects credits, which is a shame as the film has extensive miniature and glass shot work.  I do know that a very young Albert Whitlock was on the crew, likely as a scenic artist and possibly helped the miniatures crew - both jobs he found himself involved in during his days at Gaumont.  I do wonder whether Filippo Guidobaldi may have possibly been involved too, as he was at Gaumont around then and specialised in miniatures?  

Most likely a matte or glass shot where the lighthouse, foreground cliff and homestead appear to have been added.  The sky is real.

Several shots in YOUNG AND INNOCENT appear to be in camera glass shots made directly on location.  The glass painted sky is a bit out of focus and is clearly painted around the edges of the roof and Tom's Hat signage, which I would imagine to be problematic, especially as the glass seems to have been set up too near to the camera.

Painted in distant countryside and sky.

Another effects shot that's either a glass shot or an in camera matte shot with a miniature dwelling and painted surroundings.  A soft matte line is detectable running across the setting just above the heads of the actors.

A later closer view, possibly all miniature?

English countryside in miniature, allows ease of lighting for night shots.

One of the elaborately set up and photographed miniature sequences.

Part of the extensive miniature village, railway and network of avenues that will feature in a pair of dynamic action sequences that really are well orchestrated, shot and cut together.  Kudo's to all involved.

For this sequence, the camera begins on the train station and slowly moves in, following a passing steam engine and finally closing in on some people in the railyard amid the wagons.  Impressive for 1937.

I was very impressed with the deep depth of field during the camera move, which for it's day would have been difficult.
The latter part where we close in on the people, which were small figurines.  The editing was good as we cut to the actual actors before we have too much of a chance to think about it.
Another great sequence that impressed me no end was this foot chase where almost all of it is back projected miniature train yard and surrounds, with the actors running in place on a treadmill.  What's great about it is the process plate isn't static - the fx cameraman tracks through the model setting with great mobility.

Same sequence, with even the process screen looking remarkably crisp and evenly balanced projection arc illumination.  Again, very impressive for 1937, and better than many later shows I've seen from big studios.

Same sequence, with the guys in a speeding car - all done in miniature!

Same, with an absolutely amazing shot from this angle with everything visible here being model work!!  I was blown away by it years ago on tv and figured this shot to be a live action one, but looking closely at the HD print I have it's really all miniature, yet so well photographed and engineered.  The one small giveaway is a barely visible focus pull which follows the vehicles as they approach the camera, which of course wouldn't be the case if the set up was actual sized.  Brilliant bit of undocumented, uncelebrated and shamelessly overlooked British technical expertise.  Bravo boys!
In a rush, they try to outrun a fast approaching train!  All models naturally, in fact every cut in this extended chase was a model shot or process combination shot, all brilliantly edited as one exciting set piece.

They dash across the rail lines just in time... 



I can't detect any form of apparatus to propel the vehicle.  Often an invisible slit in the 'roadway' connected to the chassis would be the method, especially for American practitioners, but here I just don't know.

Shooting out of doors in actual sunlight added hugely to the success of this marvellous sequence.
I'd love to know more about the team behind this.  If anyone has any info, send it to me.

It's wall to wall model work, for several minutes.  Very impressive.


The car and train both have 'weight' which lends much realism to the fast action.

More matte painted sky.

Still part of the same sequence, and it's all in miniature once again.


Nearing its climax, the action moves to the Grand Hotel, which is another model.

Not an effects shot, but a memorable Hitchcock shot indeed, where the killer is revealed by way of a long tracking shot (on a camera boom) which makes its way through the ballroom of The Grand Hotel and moves right into the twitching eye of the bad guy.  Executed with style and great follow focus, this shot stayed with me for years after first seeing the film decades ago.


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A solid outdoors action adventure/drama all set up in Alaska, SPAWN OF THE NORTH (1938) was a sort of water western, where instead of cowboys rustling cattle from the ranch, this show centred around competing fishermen rustling salmon and pulling all sorts of underhanded shenanigans amid the dangerous icebergs.

SPAWN OF THE NORTH was the first film to win a special Academy Award for it's special visual and sound effects in 1938 - a year before the actual best effects Oscar category was to be established.  Chief of special effects at Paramount was Gordon Jennings (top left); matte cinematographer Irmin Roberts (centre right); matte painter Jan Domela (far right).  Bottom pics show the Paramount matte department with the Roberts' brothers, Irmin and Oren manning the camera.  Gordon's brother, miniatures cameraman Devereaux Jennings, is shown at bottom right.

An industry trade magazine from 1938 congratulates the Paramount effects crew for their Oscar win - the first given out for special effects work as a one off 'special achievement' consideration.

Art Smith's miniatures crew at work in the Paramount tank, though this photo is of another production made around the same time at the studio.

Did I mention that the eternally effervescent Dorothy Lamour was in this movie?  What... I didn't?  

Henry Hathaway directed a lions share of great movies throughout his career.  My fave was TRUE GRIT (1969), with the great John Wayne in his Oscar winning role... though I digress...

It's all about 'fish piracy' and gun totin' vigilantes on the high seas....  A mega cast with top line talent such as Henry Fonda, George Raft, John Barrymore and the always wonderful Akim Tamiroff as the perennial bad guy, oh, and did I mention Miss Dorothy Lamour is here too as the gal caught in the middle.

The first of a number of matte shots by Jan Domela.  Dutch born 'Johan' Domela was a mainstay at Paramount for over 40 years, with a career that started in 1927 and ran through to 1968 when he bowed out of the film industry to pursue a career in fine art.  Among his many credits are the original silent THE FOUR FEATHERS, DR CYCLOPS, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and later at MGM for THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN, THE MAN FROM UNCLE tv series and THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD to name but a few.

Another of Domela's paintings seen here prior to compositing by matte cameraman Irmin Roberts.

The composite shot.  *These rare before and after photos and many stories were kindly supplied to me over a decade ago by Jan's daughter, Johanna, to whom I am most grateful.

A close view of the painting detail.

A second later matte with night time action.
Another before and after establishing shot of the Alaskan fishing town.

Domela's matte art.

The location live action plate.

Final composite.
Another SPAWN matte shot in progress, with miniature fishing boats.

The final shot with extensive matte art flawlessly blended with Art Smith's miniatures.

Amid the icebergs.  Effective combination of foreground soundstage 'wet' set and miniature background blended via Farciot Edouart's process projection.  The bottom edge of the process screen is concealed by prop ice flow.

Entirely miniature scene here, including the people.

That collapsing iceberg is a little too close for comfort...

Our fishermen are in grave danger as the boat is drawn into the path of cascading ice.

The small figure 'moves about' as the model boat collides with the iceflow.


Well cut sequence where models, process and live action are all intercut and at times combined as one.

Good scale miniatures with moving 'crew' figures visible in some shots.



It all looks pretty effective, even now some 80 odd years later and must have made quite an impact back in 1938.


Miniature construction by Art Smith and Harry Reynolds.

Good process work by Farciot Edouart and process cameraman Loyal Griggs.


It's mayhem on the Alaskan high seas.  The film won Oscars for both visual and sound effects which for many years was standard AMPAS Oscar procedure, regardless of the complete disconnect between the two sciences.

More before and after frames demonstrating miniature and matte painted composite.



Art Smith's miniatures in the tank at Paramount.

Highly effective, though ultimately unused final shot with Domela's painting doubled in.

An alternate take with different matte art as seen in the release print.

The final showdown on the icy ocean, all executed in miniature under Gordon Jennings' supervision.



The adversaries square off against one another.  A sort of 'Fish out at the O.K Corral'. 

Excellent tank shot suggests models must have been of a reasonably large scale.

The badly wounded George Raft forces the less than honourable Akim Tamiroff to drive head first into a massive, yet unstable iceberg in a suicide mission.

The end is near....

No longer a seaworthy vessel I suspect.
The Captain always goes down with his ship, as the legend goes.


The township is kind of quiet after the maritime square off.
Dorothy Lamour - Paramount's Princess.  Say no more!  


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A leisurely John Steinbeck story, TORTILLA FLAT (1942) is also set, by sheer coincidence, in a fishing community, with a strong cast including Spencer Tracy - oddly cast as a Hispanic, though he did win an Oscar a few years previous for playing another Hispanic fisherman(!) in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS so, go figure!  The great John Garfield plays second fiddle - an actor who passed far too early - while the exquisite Hedy Lamarr provides the love interest.

MGM's visual effects cinematographer Mark Davis shown here with matte supervisor Warren Newcombe.

I've never really managed to 'get into' the John Steinbeck world, and find film adaptations of his stories a real endurance test.

The setting for the film is made up almost entirely of MGM soundstages, backlot sets and much matte art.

A nice opening shot is almost all painted, complete with a layer of drifting clouds, which is something not often seen in matte shots produced by the Warren Newcombe department.

Soundstage set augmented with painted top up and an optical element of smoke rising.

More significant painted in scenery and sky expands a stage set.  The clouds drift here too.

This may be a scenic backing, as MGM had a first rate backing department run by George Gibson. I tend to think it's likely a soft blended matte painting.  Newcombe and Davis were among the best when it came to concealing matte blends through their pastel matte paintings, with matte joins very hard to detect, and the elements extremely steady.



The interior of the local church with dogs running amuck.  The top half of the frame has been painted in.

Not in the least pertaining to the artform of visual effects, but indeed something of a visual effect herself, the wonderfully talented Hedy Lamarr (who as well as being a first rate actress was also a patent holding inventor!) who I read somewhere tried to sue Mel Brooks for using a jokey likeness of her highly recognisable name for the chief villain in BLAZING SADDLES (Hedley Lamarr) as played by Harvey Korman, who at one stage quips to the legendary Slim Pickens "This is 1877 my friend... we'll be able to sue her!"

A masterfully blended matte shot with the join running across the frame just above Spencer Tracy's head.  The blend in of the tree trunks is superb.

A key set piece occurs in the Redwood forest, which was entirely fabricated by Newcombes artists and a very limited soundstage set.

And yes, the troup of dogs do play a major part in the TORTILLA FLAT proceedings.

A rare photograph of the original, meticulously drawn pastel artwork which still survives to this day.  Note the absence of sun rays which will be superimposed by Mark Davis as a separate painted element to complete the effect.

The sun rays break on through and shed new light onto everybody's problems.

A magnificent extreme up-view with terrific perspective in play.

The sun's God Rays break on through and illuminate the dogs and the old man.

The exterior of the town church is an almost entirely painted shot, with only a small area of live action around the door.

A reverse angle of the interior where Newcombe's artists have contributed much architecture.

All's well that ends well.  Probably a matte painted view used as a process plate which was common at MGM.


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I've a soft spot for the old 1940's private eye mystery flicks, and the RKO picture MURDER MY SWEET (1944) is as dark, tough, two fisted and as sharp tongued as the best of the film noir genre had to offer. Highly recommended for fans of the Raymond Chandler-Philip Marlowe school.

RKO's chief of special photographic effects for many years and more than 100 films was Vernon L. Walker.  Walker started off in the industry as one of Mack Sennett's cameramen on scores of silent two-reelers and then worked for a time at Fox before transferring across to Warner Bros-First National where he was assistant to Fred Jackman on the seminal THE LOST WORLD (1924).  After a few years with the studio, Vernon did a stint at Columbia and finally found his home at RKO, as assistant to photographic effects supervisor. Lloyd Knechtel.  Eventually Walker became head of the effects department at RKO and contributed to many memorable films, the most noteworthy being the original KING KONG, BRINGING UP BABY, CITIZEN KANE and BOMBARDIER - all big trick shot enterprises.  Walker died suddenly in 1948, with his long time assistant, Russell Cully assuming headship of the department for several years before handing over the reigns to Linwood Dunn.

A key member of the Vern Walker (right) RKO photographic effects department for decades was Linwood Dunn, seen here at left with his pride and joy, the Acme-Dunn optical printer.  Dunn was something of an optical jigsaw genius, and his creative stamp was evident (though more often than not, invisible) on hundreds of films - both for this studio and later on from his own effects house Film Effects of Hollywood.

Based upon Raymond Chandler's novel FAREWELL MY LOVELY - which itself was filmed several times - MURDER MY SWEET ranks up there with the best of the Bogart pictures, with leading man, Dick Powell excellent in the Marlowe role as the quintessential cynical, trust nobody - especially a dame - anti-hero.  Terrific performance underscored by some cracking dialogue, moody cinematography and some genuinely nightmarish situations.

Not a big effects film, but several effective mattes as well as a brilliantly conceived and assembled 'dream sequence' later in the proceedings all contributed much to the outcome.  This opening shot appears to be a matte painted street with animated neon lights and with doubled in traffic, and used as a rear projection plate at a window for a slow dolly in.

A blink and you'd miss it matte shot where I'm fairly certain the only real element is the car and the bit of road.  I'm sure all else has been painted.

Our anti-hero arrives at the house to quiz a questionable dame about some nasty business.  Matte painted shot here.

The interior of said homestead, an RKO set nicely augmented with painted upper half of frame.

Process shot with what looks like a matte shot used as the background plate.  Real ocean and painted city and sky in the distance would be my guess.

The initial frame from a big tilt down matte effect likely assembled by Linwood Dunn on his optical printer.  See below.

Highrise penthouse is all matte painted down as far as the top of the driveway wall.  Matte artists working at RKO around this time included Fitch Fulton, Chesley Bonestell, Juan Larrinaga and others unknown.

Closer view of the lower part of the big tilt down, with the demarcation line clearly in evidence.  The washed out live action portion could suggest rear projection compositing?

Probably the most memorable point in MURDER MY SWEET comes later on where Marlowe, our likeable anti-hero has his drink spiked and goes on the most nightmarish 'trip' and a near death experience.  The montage sequence was designed and overseen by Douglas Travers, and a ripper of a sequence it is too, beginning with Dick Powell in free fall tumbling through a bizarre 'Twilight Zone' type space.

The montage is wall to wall opticals, process tricks and mind-bending manipulation, all composited by Linwood Dunn and Cecil Love, under Doug Travers' creative direction in RKO's optical room.

I'd say the sequence must have shaken audiences up somewhat back in 1944.

Shades of Dali, Escher and German Expressionist cinema seem evident.

Run, run, as fast as you can .... I'm coming straight for you!  Very effective in every respect.

Director of Photography Harry Wild was, I believe, a visual effects cameraman prior to this assignment, and worked under Jack Cosgrove on things like PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.

Montage, as I mentioned earlier in this blog, was really an artform in a world of it's own, especially throughout the 1940's where it was extremely popular and occasionally superbly applied, possibly few more effective than here.  It lost favour in the fifties and onward, so it can be a real treat to see some old school creativity once in a while.

When will this nightmare end?  To think, all this fuss over a simple flu jab.... I dunno!

The complicated wrap up occurs in this very noir-ish residence above the crashing surf.  All painted of course, with just the water being real.  Note, the highly visible 'speckles' of paint evident in various areas of the painting.  These are most likely tiny points or ridges of paint that were never smoothed over sufficiently and are catching glints of light from the tungsten lamps during composite photography on the matte stand.  RKO seemed forever plagued by this artifact on so many productions.  CITIZEN KANE was littered with them as were many other mattes in a variety of films.  Incidentally, later artists such as Albert Whitlock would always paint extremely 'flat' to avoid this problem, and during a period of apprenticeship under Whitlock in the mid-1960's, Jim Danforth's first job was to gently run a razor blade across areas of loaded paint on some of Albert's Universal mattes to eliminate unintended 'speckles and glints' - a task the fledgling effects man found nerve-wracking until he became assured it all worked out harmlessly.


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There have been so many incarnations of the storied masked hero Zorro, with this Tyrone Power outing THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) being memorable, not the least for the grab-bag of visual effects wizardry from Fred Sersen and his industrious SFX department at 20th Century Fox.


A superstar from days long gone, and by my reckoning has probably starred in more huge VFX movies than possibly any other actor!  All for Fox, think SUEZ, IN OLD CHICAGO, THE RAINS CAME, UNTAMED, THE BLACK ROSE and THE YANK IN THE R.A.F to name just a handful.

Surprisingly the film had no special effects credit, despite the volume of mattes and optical gags.  Fred Sersen would have been in charge, with his long time right hand man and fellow effects artist, Ray Kellogg at his side.

Fox were always reliable when it came to visual effects, and so had a very large matte department which included, at various times around this period Emil Kosa snr and his son Emil jnr; Joseph Serbaroli, Max DeVega, Lee LeBlanc, Cliff Silsby, Barbara Webster, Ray Kellogg, Gilbert Riswold, Menrad von Muldorfer, Christian von Scheider, Irving Block, Jack Rabin and Fitch Fulton.

More matte art from the opening sequence which is littered with such splendid shots.

It was a common gag at Fox to bi-pack a tree with gently moving leaves etc over a matte shot so as to break the static quality common to painted views.  Sersen would implement this trick countless times in many movies over the years.

In addition to the matte shots, THE MARK OF ZORRO had a number of invisible opticals and patch up shots that are near impossible to detect. One such shot was this seemingly simple bit where Tyrone hurls his sword straight upward whereby it imbeds itself into the wooden beamed ceiling.  I don't know the breakdown other than it was indeed a 'trick shot'.  ???

Matte shot that looks extensively painted, with just a bit of dirt road and water being real.  The water may be a different live action plate altogether and tied in very convincingly with the artwork and foreground action.

Another interesting scene that I'm convinced was a complicated optical/matte set up to enable Zorro to ride at full gallop across a tiny, narrow footbridge to escape the pursuing soldiers.  I've studied this sequence frame by frame and in slow-mo several times and it's a real head-scratcher.  I'm under the impression that the 'tiny' narrow bridge was probably much more substantial in width and strength, and possibly Sersen 'narrowed' it with mattes and maybe painted in gorge?  

Another possible explanation could be the horse with rider being filmed galloping across a plain white or grey surface (in natural light), with mattes being extracted to allow the horse footage to be dropped into the main exterior live action plate?  It's always been a mystery and I'd love to know the background here.  I'm 99% convinced it was an elaborate visual effect, and given Fox's photographic effects capabilities it would come of no surprise to me that Sersen's optical guys, headed by James B. Gordon, could pull this off with utter realism.  They did incredible work like this on other films like THE RAINS CAME and IN OLD CHICAGO which still stand head and shoulders above most others.

Of interest as this shot appears a few times, and each with a different matte painting added in beyond the bridge.

Here it is again, with painted in Hacienda and landscape...

...and yet again with painted in boulders and brush.

Here is another ace photographic effect that I'd love to get the full lowdown on.  Famous optical pioneer, Linwood Dunn, once stated "The Mark of Zorro had more optical tricks than you could shake a stick at" - or words close to that effect.  This sequence has Zorro cornered on a bridge across a fast flowing river, leaving him no choice than to take the plunge - horse and all.  This was the most complex optical/matte scene in the film, and once again, even repeat viewings make it hard to figure out, but I'll give it a go.  I'm sure the lower bridge pilings, river bank and rushing water are all in miniature, matted perfectly with the live action up top - with some of that in the background being possibly painted(?)

Our masked hero and his trusty stallion take the leap of faith...

I don't really know, but suggest the falling horse and rider might have been rotoscoped into the already multi-element scene.

The big splash theory (wasn't that a sit-com?) ... I think this is yet another element generated elsewhere as a practical effect, and doubled in optically just as the roto'd horse and rider hit the (miniature) river??  It's an incredible, though brief scene, but has had me fascinated for years.  I know it's all a supreme example of sleight-of-hand, but just how it was done, I'm just putting forth my opinion. I've discussed this scene in the past with premier effects artists Mark Sullivan, Jim Danforth and Rocco Gioffre and I recall they too were just as curious and seeking the truth.  If anyone has any info, do tell Pete.

Final ZORRO shot could in truth be an actual church interior, I don't know.  But here it is for the sake of discussion.

Oh, and perennial screen vilain, the legendary Basil Rathbone, is splendid in this film - as he always was.

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant stuff as ever, and really cheered me up today. Thanks so much for this blog!

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    Replies
    1. Well, thank you for saying that. I do appreciate it.

      Pete

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  2. Great examples of signage and railways.

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