Thursday 17 June 2010

Jack Cosgrove - the burning of Atlanta from "Gone With The Wind"

Despite layout issues with my earlier posts I'm slowly getting the hang of this technology.

Here are pretty much the remaining Cosgrove shots from "GONE WITH THE WIND" - at least the ones I've ever been able to find. In the 1982 American Cinematographer article Clarence Slifer stated that there were over 100 mattes in "GWTW", though with many viewings over the years I can't find anywhere near that number. I sometimes wonder if that number refers to individual elements making up the tally of mattes, miniatures, process and opticals.

above - some examples of the somewhat limited set construction at Selznick studios for "GWTW". Selznick was by no means a big studio - quite small in comparison with the other majors of the day Paramount, MGM, Warner and so forth.
above - just a few of the people behind the stunning visual effects. I've never been able to locate any photos of other matte artists Al Simpson or Fitch Fulton. Both went on to careers with RKO and other studios, with Simpson being president of the matte artists and illustrators union for a period. Simpson worked extensively with optical effects legend Linwood Dunn both at RKO and later at Dunn's Film Effects of Hollywood through to the mid 60's.

Matte painter Jack Shaw did glass shots for Willis O'Brien on the Oscar winning "Mighty Joe Young" had a long career with Warner Bros though sadly committed suicide upon completion of Irwin Allens' "Animal World" in 1956.

Painter Byron Crabbe worked closely with O'Brien was largely responsible for the unique conceptual look of the locales and major set pieces in "King Kong" where he and Mario Larrinaga shared glass painting duties along with several other matte artists such as Juan Larrinaga, Zachary Hoag and Henry Hillinick. Regrettably Crabbe died suddenly during production of GWTW and his post was filled by Jack Shaw.

Fitch Fulton was the father of legendary Universal effects head John P.Fulton having started off as a scene painter eventually fell into matte painting and contributed effects shots to many films at RKO, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.

Some of the many wonderful matte composites seen in "Gone With The Wind" (1939)
Above - a much talked about shot that Selznick wasn't entirely happy with. The live action plate takes on a peculiar ghost like superimposition quality as it passes along the roadway. Due to enormous time constraints the shot was okayed as-is and stayed in the final film.

Above - an example of the invisible effect and a shot not being what one percieves it as being.
The house (Tara) and plantation is a miniature, the sky and foreground trees a matte painting.
The horses and wagon were models photographed seperately and matted into the final shot.

The rooftops, sky and most of the tree are added by matte painting. A not uncommon effect throughout the 30s and 40's to achieve the desired pictorial quality desired by the director.
A typical matte shot breakdown for a simple split screen of rider and homestead.
More of the same invisible effect to extend beyond the existing set and give the scene a more full and broad viewpoint based upon the production sketches of William Cameron Menzies dept.

The bazaar sequence with several matte paintings including this street and banner.

Inside at the bazaar - several angles with painted in ceilings, walls and decorations - probably painted by Jack Shaw as it resembles his work in other films after the fact.
The sequence in the town square consisting of two seperate exposures of the same 'crowd' with a split screen running diagonally across behind the bales. The two exposures were combined and a matte painting added to top off the train station in the background."It's war" - a memorable sequence with an almost exclusively painted Atlanta and the only piece of live action being the small strip of dirt road. Matte cameraman Clarence Slifer has written extensively about these shots and that most were held take original negative comps.

Subtle fire effects added to matte painted street and town extensions. Apparently many of these flame effects were rear projected into paintings. The images are beautiful, clean composites.
The money shot - Atlanta burning to the ground. Multi component matte composites with projected fire elements - all first generation and it looks it.  Of note is the recycling of many of the flame elements from Slifers' effects footage to use in matte/miniature combo setups in a subsequent Selznick picture "REBECCA" for the burning of Mandalay.  (more about the effects in that film on a future post).
Simple split screen above very limited indoor set and extensive painted additions and fire elements.Mostly painted scenes of destruction with smoke and ember elements optically added.

Some claim that these shots were split screen mattes, though I don't believe so due to camera moves etc. These were among the first scenes ever shot for GWTW - long before any actors had been engaged on the project. Stunt doubles tackle admittedly dangerous high jinks in front of real fire. The sequence had the added element of danger with Slifer adding burning hot embers and ash falling in the foreground and blowing across the stunt players..... otherwise it's all real.Rare photos of special mechanical effects supervisor Lee Zavitz setting up his fuel system to simulate on a very large and frightening scale the raging inferno that was the buring of Atlanta.
Quite possibly THE quintessential GWTW image - that of the horse drawn buggy passing in front of the inferno. Admittedly a phenomenal image and visual effect. The fire is huge and real - with the old 'Skull Island' wall from the set of "King Kong" being incinerated filmed at high speed with some 9 cameras. The people and horses were optically added later via very simple bi-pack by Clarence Slifer in the matte department. A dazzling, terrifying effect that is worth the price of admission.

Scarlett among the dead and wounded - matte painted set extensions and sun rays to the makeshift hospital.

Inside the hospital - a limited set with extensive painted elements to show ceiling, upper level, bannisters, upper window etc. A wonderful example of the matte artists' expertise.Amid the ruins - more fairly straight forward split screen in camera mattes to allow Cosgroves' crew to extend the damage beyond what was economical and feasible.
The matte paintings themselves were in the large part painted in oils on masonite (hardboard) measuring about 30"x40", though some were painted on glass. Special efforts were made to ensure accuracy of the pin movement on the technicolour cameras and registration of the image to prevent image drift or jitter. Having seen this film many times in all formats I can honestly say that the matte comps are about as steady as I've ever seen with no discernable drift noticable.

Economy at work - mostly paint with just a few extras in battle fatigues.  If you look closely at the above matte shot you can see that the matte extends even as near as the equipment with at least half the cannon and sundries painted in too!

The epic reveal of the dead and injured - practically all painted - people, buildings, sky, trees - with just a limited area of live action extending about a third of the way in.  One of the few shots that has a dupe look about it.

Standard split screen with added hilltops taking on an odd hue for some reason?More totally invisible matted in set alterations - in this case the whole upper two thirds of the frame!!

Post war refugees - possibly painted by Fitch Fulton who seemed to love these spindly looking leafless branches in this and many other pictures.
Possibly a part miniature / part painted scene - or may be real foreground?

According to the exhaustive bible of Selznick films 'David O'Selznicks' Hollywood' this above scene comprised of three seperate shots - the burned out building was a painting as was the sky and some of the foreground; the water and the wagon were real, photographed seperately and added in later
One of the most amazing trick shots featured in the film - again quoting the above book - this comprised of 5 seperate pieces of film, one being the wagon and people as one take, the rising black smoke was another element, the foreground and left side of the frame with the dead soldiers was a Jack Cosgrove painting, the overturned wagon was a miniature and the sky another matte painting again. Upon examination of this hi-rez bluray grab I conclude that many of the soldiers might be toy soldiers as well!!  Click on this and then click again to see incredible detail in the visual effect.    Oh Boy!!

Again quoting the above book - a multi part matte shot; the wagon and occupants shot on the backlot, the surrounding countryside and clouds a matte painting and the rainbow a rear projection element (that supposedly jiggled a bit, though I've never noticed it).The components that make up a matte - arrival back at Tara. Frame at left is actually Selznick Studios' front office which in itself was used in some close ups due to it's distinctly 'southern characteristics'.

Most of the shot is painted with just the door, part of the stairs and Scarlett being real.  The curved soft matte line is visible arching across the frame with a slight colour change between the real and the painted.

above - a great example of the use of forced perspective miniature. The whole staircase is just that - a model suspended in front of the partial indoor set. Totally convincing. Effect devised by Joseph MacMillan Johnson, who himself would go on to become a visual effects supervisor and designer winning an oscar for his effects (with Clarence Slifer) on "PORTRAIT OF JENNIE" IN 1947 -also a David O'Selznick picture.

Probable split screen soft edged matte (as I think most were on this show).
One of the few matte shots to feature in the second half. The show is matte heavy right up until intermission then rather slim on effects for the remaining hour and a half.... maybe they'd blown the effects budget by then?? Incidentally the special photographic effects budget was to blow out at some US$86'000 - that's $55'000 over the allocated budget. Selznick didn't seem to mind as he thought Cosgrove could walk on water with all he could magically achieve on the picture.

The famous closing image - pretty much a repeat of an earlier identical effect just before intermission. An incredible example of optical printer virtuosity and expertise by Slifer and his optical crew as we are treated to an extensive pullback from Tara to the figures on the hilltop... Real skies photographed by Slifer right after a massive rainstorm in LA combined with a painted Tara and landscape, this combined with real figures shot hi contrast against a white backing and finally a tree which some sourses say is painted though I think is a miniature due to very subtle branch movement. All of these elements were combined on Slifer's new aerial image optical printer with the finished effect being sublime.

A hi-rez image from the same pullback, this from a bluray disc showing extensive detail of the painted element.  Colour scheme differs as different re-master for bluray edition.

In one of my earlier Cosgrove "GWTW" posts I reproduced a copy of Cosgroves' own (incomplete) list of matte shots in progress.  There are a great number of shots detailed on this memo which I can't find in the film.  Some I know hit the cutting room floor such as a miniature/painting composite of a riverboat as they just couldn't get the shot to work out convincingly.  The list details far more mattes for the bazaar sequence and the fire sequence with an intriguing 'Dantes Inferno' matte shot which I have yet to discover.  Several shots mentioned are process plates for live action stage process and some for miniature process combined with glass paintings particularly in the fire sequences.

I must also point out that "GWTW" was one of seven pictures nominated in 1939 in the visual effects and sound effects category (combined as one overall 'special effect' category) and as good as the work was the Oscar went (fittingly I feel) to the great Fred Sersen at 20th Century Fox for his phenomenal work in the deluge epic "THE RAINS' CAME" - more about which I will blog extensively later as it remains one of the finest visual effect films of all time.

Cosgrove went on to supervise matte and miniature shots in several more Selznick pictures and eventually moved to Warner Bros to head their effects dept for films such as "PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES"  which has many, many superb matte paintings and some extraordinary wide use of miniatures even extending as far as whole model farms, tractors, speeding cars, mechanised model cows (!) in addition to the usual bombers and ships required by director Michael Curtiz.  Cosgrove contributed effects to numerous other pictures such as "GIANT",  "ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC", "THE GREAT DICTATOR", FLIGHT TO MARS"  and many more.

Slifer had a long and fruitful career mostly at Goldwyn, Fox and MGM as head of the photographic effects camera dept and contributed enormously to the photographic effects in such films as "THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD"  with his aerial image matte composite photography that is simply sublime  (more about the mattes in this film too later).


  1. That was very insightful! Thanks alot

  2. There are many, many more that are not here (for example, the crowd gathered in front of the Examiner office waiting for the Casualty list; and then a bit later when the crowd surges foward to get a copy of the List); The shot of Scarlett running towards her father; and the very following shot which is taken across from the creek. Also Melanie running over the hill to meet Ashley; and then her running towards him in the Long shot; etc. etc. Of course, sometimes we don't even know that it's a matte shot: for example, the ceiling in that hallway just before Scarlett lures Ashley into the Library room; and the actual ceiling INSIDE the library room which we see when she flings the vase across the room at the fireplace: the ceilings are all matted in! ;-) And there are more.

  3. A couple of those I mentioned you actually DID include. Sorry about that! And there are many many more but you probably know that.

  4. I really enjoyed this posting and appreciate the time it must have taken to compose (pun intended). Despite my ongoing romance with Photoshop (not with Adobe), give me an oil painted matte to appreciate this art form.