Saturday 26 June 2010

DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE - Disney's feast for the eyes in raising the bar for special visual effects.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to "DARBY" and his creators.  It's a film that is often neglected yet still stands the test of time.  In fact I would be hard pressed to nominate anything that Disney had done since, effects wise, that looks as damned good as "DARBY". One of my all time favourite visual effects films -  a film that was unjustly ignored by the holier than thou Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1959 - a fact that still irks me!   That year was the year of BIG visual effects films at the Academy - "BEN HUR" and "JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH" - both great films and great effects films (which I will cover here in upcoming posts), yet I still say that Disney's 'little' epic "DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE" could have had a good chance there.  The big MGM and big Fox films were no doubt largely in as they were epics in every sense of the word.  "BEN HUR" was a pre-ordained winner in all categories, largely based on the success of the picture itself, a fact that often swayed the voters in the day.  As good as both those films were and still are, when it comes down to visual effects that year I don't think they could surpass the quality and ingenuity of Disney's effort.

Special Photographic Effects by Peter Ellenshaw and Eustace Lycett
Matte Artists Peter Ellenshaw,  Albert Whitlock, Jim Featherolf  and Constantine Ganakes (probably)
Optical Effects Cameraman Bob Broughton and Art Cruickshank
Special Animation Effects  by Joshua Meador and John Hench
Above - The first exquisite split screen matte painting that opens the film with Peter Ellenshaws' preproduction oil sketch for the effects shot seen at the bottom.

A rare photograph of the visual effects team on "DARBY".

Some of the wonderful, evocative matte paintings that grace "DARBY" from start to finish.  The views above are typical Ellenshaw - extremely limited set or location and substantial enhancement by matte art which in these examples consists of practically the full frame. 

Above - a gag photo of photographic effects supervisor and fellow Englishman Eustace Lycett with Ellenshaw seemingly swamped in negative.
"DARBY" has an extraordinary volume of photographic effects that are beautifully utilised to give that idylic Disney feel to all of the exteriors, with here a classic Ellenshaw sky.
More matte magic from one of cinemas' true visionaries of the the application of the glass painting, Peter Ellenshaw. The matte department at Disney at that time (1959) also had Albert Whitlock and Jim Featherolf, and I think too the beginning career of Constantine 'Deno' Ganakes.  Featherolf began his film career as a part time actor back in the late 40's i believe and graduated into matte painting at 20th Century Fox in the 50's where he would work with a young Matthew Yuricich largely doing matte gags such as animation of neon lights for matte paintings and rotoscope work.  Ganakes had a long career with Disney and worked on "POLLYANNA" and "MARY POPPINS" (as did Featherolf) and worked up to their last big effects movie "THE BLACK HOLE" in 1979.  Ganakes also painted with Matthew Yuricich on "GHOSTBUSTERS"

A rare before and after shot again demonstrating Peters' inate sense of just what makes a scene work.
An excellent example of the Ellenshaw technique.  Why split the frame in an obvious manner when it's more feasible to simply paint practically everything in -foreground included.  Not many matte painters had this bold approach to achieving the final shot.
Not only does "DARBY" have many wonderful matte shots but also a number of lovely cell animation effects by long time career animation supervisors Joshua Meador and John Hench.

Another great before and after matte shot with classic Ellenshaw backlit scenery painting preference which is so identifiable in so many of Peters' decades of matte shots and in his personal fine art.

Atmospheric matte paintings with moving clouds and that wonderful Ellenshaw moonlight.  Just fantastic.
Presumably the composites were Disneys' in house rear projection method as the upper frame suggests a slightly washed out live action plate which is barely noticeable.  Practically all of the matte composites look terrific with little or no tell tale signs of process work or duping.  To my knowledge the only Disney films that used latent image original negative to any extent were "TEN WHO DARED" which Albert Whitlock also painted on, "SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON" and "20'000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA" which were largely in-camera glass shots.

Some frames from the eerie and quite frightening Grim Reaper sequence which I assume were optical solarisation tricks using real footage of a stunt player and executed beautifully by Eustace Lycett and Bob Broughton on an optical printer. 
Upper frame - Darby falls down the well into the land of the little people.  A full frame matte painting with actor  Albert Sharpe doubled in via travelling matte. Lower frame a sample of nice effects animation.
A breakdown of the matte process for King Brians' lair.
A wider view of the little kingdom with substantial addition of painted cavern.

Aside from excellent matte effects the film is notable for it's extraordinary use of forced perspective camera setups and actor placement.  Probably the finest example of this special technique ever up to Peter Jacksons' superb utilisation of the method in the "LORD OF THE RINGS"  trilogy.   Lower frame is Ellenshaws' pre-production oil sketch of  King Brians' lair.
Noteworthy is the use of the long defunct effects technique known as the Schufftan Shot - a versitile in camera 'matting' technique involving the precise orientation of a mirror within a set or miniature to reflect live action positioned  elswhere in real time.  Whether the whole mirror or just a partially scraped away mirror surface was employed depended on the need of the visual effect.  A very time consuming trick to set up but excellent first generation composites result providing the mirror and so forth are carefully aligned.  The technique was developed by the cinematographer Eugene Schufftan in the 1920's and was widely used in Europe and Britain in early cinema and is practically invisible to the eye of the viewer.  Precise registration of camera pin movement isn't a neccesity here as all compositing is achieved in camera in a single pass. 
Darby takes a walk among the little people -  a shot that would suggest optical manipulation yet like so many of the effects shots involving scale in the picture is all carried out in camera in one pass  Separate sets of differing scale are set up approx 25 feet apart, with  the foreground limited set consisting of nothing more than a bit of walkway and some puppeteered 'little people'.  The furtherest away set with all the actors is carefully aligned and it's floor is painted and dressed to blend specifically with the 'big' foreground floor.  Actor Albert Sharpe walks along a narrow raised platform amid carefully manipulated puppets and complete with a free camera pan the illusion is complete - and perfect. 
Big props!  "My, what big feet you have"
Upper frame - classic perspective trickery all done in camera.  Visual effects man Randall William Cook was so taken with "DARBY"s technical virtuosity that he used all of these techniques in the 1988 film "THE GATE" and later on worked closely with Peter Jackson to implement the same old school, low tech,  hands on film trickery for all three of the "LORD OF THE RINGS" pictures, to brilliant Oscar winning effect.  Lower frame is another Ellenshaw painted set extension.
The complicated and wholly convincing Schufftan shot whereby Darby takes a walk toward camera - an invisible special effect if ever there was one.

The little people leave their hidden kingdom .-  a series of animated cel  lightning bolts, matte paintings, miniature cave wall, split screens and more.... great stuff.

Upper frame - Albert Whitlocks' painted wagon wheel and set extension.  Whitlock whose painting style was largely influenced by the Ellenshaw impressionistic method called this film "...a tour-de-force for Peter Ellenshaw". The lower frame is almost entirely painted - with the sky, trees, barn and even most of the doorway added by the matte artist.

Magnificent pastoral scene all straight from the brush of Ellenshaw.

Exciting lightning phenomena adds so much to the matte shot.  Presumably a separate glass for the skies, which move subtley.

Pretty scary for a 'G' rated kids Disney film - quite dark in fact. An unforgettable (especially for the tots in the audience I suspect) visual effect set piece, again an actor solarised in some fashion by Eustace Lycette, Art Cruickshank and Bob Broughton.

Sean Connery in his early career - and a house that isn't actually there... just Connery, a bit of pathway and a door!

Part of Walts' cute ad campaign which suggested that all these little fellas' were real and agreed to perform in this film...

Arguably the most nighmarish imagery ever to appear in a Disney picture... the Grim Reaper and headless coachman come to take away Janet Munro - and he can't quit now as once the death carriage has left 'hell' it can't go back empty handed!  Jeez Walt!!

The stuff nightmares are made of.  I reckon Peter Jackson based his Lord of the Rings Ringwraiths on this vision.

Atmosphere so palpable one can almost cut it with a knife... fabulous matte art and lightning animation - as good as it gets folks.

And so ends out trip down memory lane to a time when Disney made fantastic adventures, effects were all done by hand and the Academy were swallowed up by the huge biblical epic!


  1. It was an amazing film back then and remains an astonishing film today - much more beautifully atmospheric then the dry 'always turquoise' blue CG matte coming out today in movies' night scenes. And the scenes of Darby with the leprechauns is better "large human with small humans" than any of the shots in all 3 Lord of the Ring films. You can't even put these side-by-side .... Ellenshaw did better work back then than Jackson did with all his computers.