Thursday 29 July 2010

..."this never happened to that other fella" - the special visual effects of ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE

One of the most under rated of all the James Bond movies, OHMSS is one of the best and has a firm fan following to prove it.  With Connery's temporary departure from the 'franchise' (Jesus I hate that term) - and not a moment too soon as he was a constant thorn in the side of the producers and as everyone knows despised the fame that Broccoli and Saltzman had created for him.  The radical casting of Aussie model George Lazenby was a brave move, and I think, a good one.  Lazenby, despite his lack of experience and a certain degree of overnight star arrogance was actually a pretty darned good 007.  He had great screen presence and carried himself extremely well in the many violent action sequences - far more so than Sean or Roger and their respective stunt doubles ever did.  Don't get me wrong, I liked Connery in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and thought Moore was great in LIVE AND LET DIE and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.  Dalton was a good Bond but had two extremely weak films in the series.  Brosnan was pretty good especially in GOLDENEYE, though as far as Daniel Craig goes... you can keep him!  The worst of the Bonds by a country mile in my book.  Even Peter Sellers was better in the old spoof CASINO ROYALE!! Craig far too much resembles a camp commandant in a 'Colditz' story to ever be convincing as the popular British Ian Fleming creation.

OHMSS was a big disappointment for United Artists, though not for any fault of the film or it's makers.  The populace just weren't ready for a new Bond.  The film is a solid, well directed action packed roller coaster ride, with the only real faults being the interminable entire first reel of totally unnecessary 'shoe leather' exposition that in all truthfulness should have been dropped entirely.  Just get to the Piz Gloria and get on with the central plot guys!

Peter Hunt was a superb cutter, with decades of experience in the editing room.  He was, as many state, the key employee who made the 007 films what they were with an editing style and quick cutting never seen before.  Hunt knew his stuff and put together a rip roaring movie.  Hunt's former assistant John Glen edited OHMSS with style and panache and would go on to direct some five 007 shows in the eighties.  It's a mystery as to why Hunt wasn't given any further Bond projects to direct as he was one of the strongest helmsmen.

OHMSS is a complete package - wonderful John Barry score, possibly his very finest Bond score, with the 'Flight to Blofelds hideout'  track being as near to sublime perfection as a movie score could ever be.  The Willy Bogner ski acrobatics are worth the price of admission alone, and when one sees the out takes on the special edition dvd of these you can see why.  Diana Rigg made a great Tracy and Telly Savalas made a terrific Blofeld - infinitely more frightening than the laughable Gert Frobe, Charles Gray and Adolfo Celi master villains.  Not to forget the shock ending - virtually unthinkable in popularist escapism but Hunt pulled it off...... beautifully.

The special effects of OHMSS are among the best of the era - certainly a vast improvement over the feeble visual effects of THUNDERBALL and even worse still YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and feature outstanding front projection by Charles Staffell for the incredible bobsled chase set pieces, dynamite physical effects by John Stears form the epic assault sequences, largely invisible matte shots by Cliff Culley and flawless miniatures for the avalanche.

So let's take a look back at ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.....

Special Effects Supervisor - John Stears
Matte Artist and Optical effects - Cliff Culley
Optical and Matte Cameraman - Roy Field
Visual Effects Unit Cameramen - Robin Browne and Martin Shorthall
Special Effects Fabricator - Bert Luxford
Front Projection - Charles Staffell

The first matte shot in the film, and a most peculiar one at that.  Very strange perspective that just doesn't work.
A Cliff Culley optical effect that nobody ever notices - the painted hotel front and it's 'casino' neon sign reflected in the hotel pool is flawless.

An entire action sequence with Lazenby crawling about in the winch gear of the cable car is all wall to wall matte painting.

More of the same - I really like the sequence as directed by Hunt and the matte paintings by Cliff Cully are wonderful.

I don't think an actual set was ever built for this sequence as every cut is a painted matte or optical.
Some of Cully's best work in my opinion.

The thrilling ski chase sequence with one of two quick cuts of 007 hanging on the edge of the cliff and a painted village way down below.  The safety wire is clearly visible on Lazenby in this shot.

An ambitious yet curiously unconvincing composite with Campbell hanging outside window.  The Culley painting is fine but the dupe or rear projection plate of Campbell simply doesn't blend well at all and stands out like a sore thumb.

A second closer matte comp of the same scene.

Cliff Culley's rather nice original matte painting which appears to have been painted squeezed for later optical conversion to anamorphic for some odd reason.  I thought that method had gone out of fashion in the late fifties at Fox and MGM? This glass painting is one of just four of Culley's Bond mattes known to still exist and hangs in the offices of Eon Productions, London.
The avalanche... one of the best scenes in the picture and a sequence that United Artists really loved.  According to Culley..."it was a very small set up, the trees weren't that much more than a foot and a half tall and the snow was bags of salt".  The miniature is totally convincing thanks to the superb optical addition of the fleeing Lazenby and Rigg on skis while the raging torrent of snow nearly envelopes them.  The shot was made on the small matte stage at Pinewood, a stage that was to become Cliff's base of operations later when he established his own effects company Westbury Optical and Design in the late seventies.  Roy Field a long time cameraman and partner with Culley at Pinewood shot the avalanche with Robin Browne who himself would contribute optical effects to other Bond pictures such as YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE title sequence, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME mattes and composites and MOONRAKER's extensive first generation opticals and multiple superimpositions in all of the space sequences.

Another view of the avalanche with a moving split screen bringing the miniature wall of snow almost on top of the two stars represented here by animation.  The background mountains are a real location plate.

Matte painter and optical effects man Cliff Culley being interviewed with his glass painting visible in the background.  Culley started out in the Pinewood matte department in 1946 and worked under the headship of esteemed British special effects veteran Bill Warrington.  Culley would work along side Les Bowie and a young Albert Whitlock on many Rank films such as SO LONG AT THE FAIR, THE CARD,  ROMEO AND JULIET and many more.  Culley trained several young matte artists over the years such as Charles Stoneham in the 1960's on films such as KHARTOUM and THE INTELLIGENCE MEN and later Steven Archer in the mid seventies on films such as THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN.  Archer would move on to work in stop motion animation with Ray Harryhausen in CLASH OF THE TITANS and animated again for Derek Meddings on KRULL.   Also trained under Culley were Leigh Took on WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS and the television version of THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII in the eighties and Steve Begg on HARDWARE and THE STRAUSS DYNASTY.  Ironically it is Begg who has assumed the mantle of miniatures special effects supervisor on some of the later Bond films such as CASINO ROYALE.

Veteran British effects cameraman and 2nd Unit cinematographer Robin Browne who started as a clapper-loader on SINK THE BISMARK and worked his way up to first cameraman on and many other shows.  His specialty is optical effects, aerial cinematography and miniature photography on films as diverse as CATCH 22, KING KONG LIVES and THE SECRET GARDEN.

In this happy group portrait of Oscar and Bafta winning Pinewood effects men there are four Bond effects veterans standing in centre frame  - John Stears, Charles Staffell, Roy Field and Derek Meddings The other faces are (back row) Kit West and Brian Johnson - (front row) George Gibbs and Richard Conway
Two time Oscar winner John Stears and one of just a few ever to win on a Bond picture (THUNDERBALL - totally undeserved btw)Stears would often work with matte artist Cliff Culley on a number of films such as CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.  Stears himself started out as a matte painter in the British film industry though mainly concentrated on mechanical effects, explosions and models for the most part of his careerStears was reputedly the highest paid special effects consultant in the British film industry in the latter part of his career.

Sunday 25 July 2010

SHE.... a tribute to the special photographic effects of the landmark Merian C.Cooper classic plus an effects comparison with the Hammer re-make

H.Rider Haggards' epic story was one ripe for the picking by adventurous Hollywood producers and film makers - so ripe in fact that it was adapted for the film medium (I believe) no less than five times in it's true to the book form and probably numerous other times in variations upon the same theme from old serials of the 30's and 40's and even a few of the TARZAN films used elements from this timeless classic a few times that I can recollect.  No doubt about it, Haggards' story is a wonderful boys own adventure yarn that set the imaginations and sweaty palms of many an adolescent boy (mainly) into top gear back in the day.

The film adaptations included (as far as I know) a couple of silent versions in the twenties, of which I know nothing about, prior to RKO acquiring the rights around 1933 at which period the great Merian C.Cooper was immersed in KING KONG and it's ill advised follow up SON OF KONG.  Given Cooper's proven track record of motion picture thematic interests I am sure the SHE outline set him on fire!  Here was a story with all the ingredients for a ripping good adventure yarn, with excitement at every turn and large lashings of sex and violence in the mix.

RKO was the perfect studio to embark upon this epic - a studio that stepped outside of the square when it came to the type of wild ride adventures such as the two KONG's, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and others where visual flair and technical experimentation would be a prerequisite.  The majors such as MGM, Paramount and Warner would have been so out of their depth with these pictures.  Theirs was a world of regular storytelling with box office super stars and such.  RKO was the studio for SHE.

The inhouse special effects department at RKO was a superb set up by all accounts - run by Vernon L.Walker, a noted cinematographer from the early nineteen twenties on dozens of silent pictures and moving into special camera effects around 1930, Walker helmed the effects department at RKO from around 1931 until his death in 1948 at which time his long time assistant and key creative technician Linwood Gale Dunn took over the camera effects department with Dunn proving to be a titan in the optical effects world and active up until his death in 1998.  *(I'll be doing a tribute on some of Dunn's work such as the amazing SWING TIME effects here in the near future).

The RKO effects unit was a strong one under Walker, with Linwood Dunn as key optical composites man and in the early days matte cameraman,  visionary artists Mario Larrinaga and Byron L.Crabbe not only matte artists but key creative personel on many pictures.  Numerous matte painters were in the employ of RKO over the years such as Fitch Fulton, Albert Maxwell Simpson and Paul Detlefsen  -with Detlefsen co-designing and painting the revised world turning RKO logo and Simpson being long associated with Linwood Dunn right throughout the studio's relatively short history and on through Dunn's independent Film Effects of Hollywood era in the sixties.  Harry Redmond and his son Harry Redmond jnr were mechanical effects experts and worked on many RKO shows such as KONG.  Later on people such as Russell Cully came on board as matte and effects cameraman contributing much to shows such as CITIZEN KANE.  Of course KONG was a story in itself and need not be elaborated upon just now *(I'll do the mattes from both the RKO KONG's later on)

So, it is with great pleasure that I present the amazing visual effects from the original 1935 RKO production of SHE, and as an added comparison also the matte work from the interesting, though not nearly as spectacular 1966 Hammer production.  Forget about the abysmal 1985 version - utter crap!

So now, on with the show....

Special photographic effects - Vernon L.Walker, ASC
Optical cinematography - Linwood G.Dunn
Matte artist - Mario Larrinaga (and I suspect Byron L.Crabbe and maybe Albert Maxwell Simpson)
Matte photography - Guy Newhard
Special effects - Harry Redmond snr and Harry Redmond jnr
Sabre Tooth Tiger Model - Marcel Delgado and Victor Delgado

Right from word 'go' Max Steiners' wonderful score echoes out, as it did in KONG and countless others
Unlike the book and the 1966 version, this film moves action to the North Pole instead of African locales.
One of the wonderful matte painted vistas of the polar ice cap.
The film is laden with superb matte art and other visual effects such as roto and miniatures.
Probably a large miniature comp due to requirements in script for mountain to collapse dramatically.
Atop the glacier and the group find the Sabre Toothed Tiger encased in ice This was a full sized model built by the Delgado brothers Marcel and Victor, both of whom had a solid relationship with the RKO special effects and miniatures department over the years.
Superbly blended matte art and soundstage action.
The death fall - travelling mattes against miniature set backgrounds and most effective feeling of gravityI presume Frank Williams was on the payroll for travelling mattes.
The avalanche - a large scaled miniature set possibly shot in daylight for such convincing light
A soft split screen matte running midway across frame with painted cave and ice details above actors heads.
In the cave - possibly a large miniature set projected on a process screen.
One of the views inside the system of caves - again a soft split with extensively painted set and areas of live action in upper part of matte to show cave people climbing down ropes etc. 
Our hero and heroine - a lacklustre Randolph Scott (I think Gary Cooper would have been better) and a lovely Helen Mack - previously seen in SON OF KONG and a sensuous screen presence in SHE.
Another view of the caves - again a lovely glass painting has been used here.
Inasmuch as matte art went the 1935 version is far more bold and adventurous than the 1966 version with the technique utilised at every turn and to absolutely wonderful effect.
The arrival.  dazzling matte art with details such as flocks of birds flying through the shot in the distance, a specialty effect that RKO had mastered in the Willis O'Brien pictures.  I presume the birds to be stop motion, though the movement is very realistic.  The matte and animation of course are rear projected in cave entrance.
I'll bet my left kidney that this is the Skull Island gateway.  Whether the background is a painted backing or possibly a Williams process matte I can't be certain.  KONG utilised the same basic shot as a Frank Williams travelling matte.
And it's about time.... the SHE of the title, played by Helen Gahagan.  She's reasonably effective though not as good as Ursula Andress in the 66 version and for my money the comely heroine Helen Mack leaves this chick for dead!

Exquisite matte composite that sure fires up the imagination for this genre and the hundreds of similar matte shots over the years from everything from THE RAZORS EDGE, BLACK NARCISSUS up to ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD even.  This is what matte painting is all about friends.
For no other reason other than my own personal delight, here is another frame of comely heroine Helen Mack.
One of many matte comps for the great hall sequence where enormous statues surround the room.  I think they may be miniatures, at least some views certainly are.
A terrific example of what i presume to be postage stamp projection, or miniature projection  - a technique pioneered at RKO on KONG and used very heavily in it's sequel.  The camera starts on the guy and pans up statue (miniature) and then moves across and all around the room and then down the last statue to the gathered throngs.  Beautiful!
The great hall - side view with probable model set matted above heads of actors.
Just when that shot dazzled you, a guy on a rope swings across the shot and lands on the foot of a statue, lights the flaming urn, then swings back again!!  Flawless roto work of actor in motion.   Really impressive effect.

Ceiling visual effect - probably a model.
Now, this is a doozy.  Randolph Scott upturns an urn filled with burning oil onto a guy coming up the stairs!  It appears to be largely a frighteningly well executed stunt with guy in asbestos suit and may be augmented by rotocoped flame elements as well as the darned thing looks so dangerous.  Of course I may be wrong and it might all be a Linwood Dunn optical.  Whatever the method it is a terrifying gag.

The escape - a memorable sequence for a number of reasons - one it's an obvious tribute to Merian Cooper's previous films MOST DANGEROUS GAME and KING KONG as they both had 'the log crossing set piece' - in fact those two used the exact same log, set, backing and maybe actor as they were shot back to back.  Here it's slightly varied as a jump the chasm set piece, and it's superb.  I love the design here.
Bad guys fall to their death - real KONG stuff here as the identical Murray Spivack sound foley is reused from the KONG log falls - those screaming sailor yelps as they fall into the spider pit.  I know the sound fx by heart as I recorded KONG off tv onto reel to reel tape back around 1970 before even cassettes were invented and used to re-play KONG over and over.  The falling guy is superb here - it appears as though the stunt guy fell as far as the matte line and then I suspect that Dunn's roto girls hand animated and rotoscoped the falling, flailing figures the rest of the way.
"what'll we do now"

As if the guys falling to their death wasn't enough, Vernon Walker orchestrated a brilliant bit of effects business where Scott pushes a huge boulder over the edge onto these fellows.  Again rotoscope animation appears to have been utilised for the very convincing falling rock.

", we meet again"
Extensive glass art of the cavernGiven the huge number of glass shots in this show I'd be inclined to think that Byron Crabbe and maybe others worked with Larrinaga on these.
Now I hadn't mentioned it till now but SHE has some dazzling, eye popping optical effects as well.  For 1935 this sequence is phenomenal - this fluid-like flame effect that roars into life is magnificent and leaves the 1966 climax dead in the water I'm afraid.  I assume Dunn planned this beautiful animation and composite.
Another view of the cavern complimented with a Mario Larrinaga glass painting.
The demise of the lady of the title - again dazzling optical work and what's more it's so much more aesthically pleasing than the constant MTV styled in-your-face CG stuff we are battered to death with nowadays.  This one works!
Robert Schiffer and Howard Smit effects make up transform the lovely into the loathsome.

Although I utterly detest computer colourisation (take a look at the old Fox HEIDI for the worst ever tampering), I picked up this frame from the net showing the key effects scene in colour format - and it doesn't look too bad I suppose.

 Hammer Films 1966 version of SHE

Being a Hammer film a certain degree of economy is expected.  Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy Hammer films and many are still good even today, though I can't help but feel that to embark upon something as grand as SHE the little studio may have bitten off more than it could chew.  On the plus side is the casting of Ursula Andress, not an actress I particularly care for but I must admit she was perfect for this role and is miles better than the 1935 variant.  Peter Cushing is always good no matter what as is Christopher Lee in the requisite evil role.

Production wise SHE is hampered by the budget constraints, and it shows.  They make do with very basic and often poor sets on what is obviously a very tiny Elstree soundstage.  Even given those constraints I feel that the production could easily have 'opened up' by including more matte art to at least give the tiny and claustrophobic interiors a bit more breathing space.  The production had the services of three good matte painters - Les Bowie, Bob Cuff and Ray Caple, though by this time in his career Bowie was no longer painting rather farming it all out to his former apprentice Ray Caple and long time matte artist Bob Cuff.  The matte shots which are in the film are in some cases very good (the lost city) and in most cases functional though quite dull and uncreative.  Mind you, the film was shot in HammerScope 2.35:1 and regrettably the region 2 DVD is cropped at 1.85:1 thus losing edges of the frame - and a ghastly 'Hammer Collection' transfer it is too.

Missing too is a score even remotely near the heights of Max Steiner's original though what there is here is serviceable enough.   Still, all up a reasonably entertaining film though give me the RKO one any day...

Special effects - George Blackwell, Kit West and Ian Schoones
Effects cameraman - Kit West
Special processes - Les Bowie (Bowie Films)
Matte artists - Ray Caple and Bob Cuff
Matte photography Ray Caple and Leslie Dear
Model maker - Joy Cuff
Special make up effects - Roy Ashton

Whether or not this is a matte shot I don't know (probably is) .  What I do know is that it's an awful grainy dupe covered with scars and marks and could have been cleaned up before being cut into the film.
Palestinian city as a matte painting by Bob Cuff or Ray Caple.
An effective matte of the path along the side of the valley, though we are missing some of it due to the poor transfer and incorrect ratio of the dvd.
A nice miniature with live action composite.  The model was built by matte artist Bob Cuff's daughter in law Joy Seddon who married Cuff's son.  The people may be miniature projection elements?
Matte art of the cliff top cave entrance
The caravan in the desert - probable painted city in the distance.
A Caple / Cuff painted forbidden city - really nice shot.
Bernard Cribbons the comic relief - and Peter Cushing - deadly serious.  The lower frame is a miniature pit of lava with model slave tumbling in.
And it's about time too...SHE appears... and perfectly cast she is at that!  Practically a work of art.
Two frame captures from a more accurate anamorphic scope transfer for comparison.

A pan across the lost city matte painting supervised by Les Bowie.
Close views of the same matte as a night shot.
More of the same painting.
Apparent miniature cave with practical effect fireball.
Oddly the censor obsessed Brits rated this film and DVD a 'U' (universal audiences) which is so odd given the amount of violence and barely covered nudity...and how about that strip joint at the start??
Nice optical but doesn't come near the RKO production in terms of overall aesthetic quality in the art ditrection, camera placement and optical effect I'm afraid.
The confrontation with Christopher Lee has some nice roto work as he rushes across in front of the optical effect, though again the confined space of the sets is a major drawback and some wide master shots with the aid of matte art could have really have helped this production.
The eternal beauty of SHE appears to have been a thing of the past.  Special make up by long time Hammer verteran Roy Ashton works quite well here against the firery blue flames, though again not as well as the RKO version.

So, on with the show.....