Thursday, 22 July 2010

Creature Feature Special Visual Effects - Universal's 50's monster epics.

Flash back to a time when going to the movies (or as we'd have said here "to the pictures") was an event... counting that hard earned, scrimped and saved coinage - the result of delivering the evening paper (The Auckland Star - R.I.P) in all sorts of climatic conditions in a dedicated plan to buy as many Airfix model kits and see as many double features as the lean savings would permit - and at 25 cents a seat in the stalls, 30 cents upstairs in the circle at the Capitol Cinema in Balmoral this was a pretty good deal.  More classy cinemas such as the beautiful Mayfair in Sandringham, Auckland charged around 50 to 75 cents admission but it was worth the long bike ride to my Grandma's house nearby to see what The Mayfair had on offer.

This was an era when the movie house was just that, a stand alone old picture palace, usually dating from the 1930's and generally giving the impression that the date of construction was probably the first and last time a broom ever touched the worn out carpet!  Don't confuse the movie going of today with it's teflon coated architectural eyesores that claim themselves as cinemas!  My God, how depressing things are today - not just in what qualifies as filmed entertainment but also the global corporate entities than operate these cinemas without the slightest idea of showmanship or motion picture exhibition. A cinema lobby nowadays might just as well be a dentists' waiting room (smells the same) or an airline check in.... it's that bad. Hell, the last film I actually even saw in a 'cinema' was Peter Jackson's KING KONG.  I get a better show on DVD or BluRay on a top of the line 55 inch Samsung monitor at home.  The only plus factor at the new age of cinema are the great ice creams!

The lovely and talented Millicent Patrick
 Today I'm giving a discertation of sorts on the delirious world of the Universal Monster and Science Fiction shows made in the fifties and still showing on double bills in the next two decades.  Some of these were bottom of the barrel in most every respect (THE MOLE PEOPLE) while others were classics that still stand up today (INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) while others were just plain fun despite their flaws (THE MONOLITH MONSTERS).  So for those who recall such entertainments sit back and enjoy a look at the special visual effects that made these shows endearing, if not always exactly memorable.  AVATAR these aint, but I know which I'd rather watch.

For more on the extensive career on matte artist Russ Lawsen, click here

First up, and in no particular order,   THE LAND UNKNOWN   (1957)

Special Photography - Clifford Stine, ASC and Ray O.Binger
Optical Effects - Ross Hoffman, ASC
Matte Artist - Russell Lawson
Rotoscope Artist - Millie Winebrenner
Special Mechanical Effects - Fred Knoth and Orien Ernest
Miniatures - Charlie Cleo Baker
Creature Fabrication - Jack Kevan
Visual Effects Camera Operators - Jim King and Wes Thompson

Tremendous quad poster art by the legendary Reynold Brown promises far more than it delivers...but wasn't that always the case with genre movie posters? 
Universal initially intended to have Jack Arnold helm this show, in technicolour and with name stars, with Cary Grant's name being tossed around as a possible leading man for about five minutes.  The final production was somewhat less 'epic' with the budget slashed which eliminated colour and director Arnold being replaced with Virgil Vogel and superstar Grant being not surprisingly not present either.  They did at least shoot it in CinemaScope to make it look big. Effects cinematographer Ray O.Binger had a long career in special effects from the mid 1920's through to the late fifties, passing away in 1970.  Binger was heavily involved with the effects on many Samuel Goldwyn productions and shot the tremendous storm sequence for John Fords' HURRICANE (*more on this films effects later), did matte and miniature photography on many films such as PRIDE OF THE YANKEES with Jack Cosgrove, THE PRINCESS AND THE PIRATE with Clarence Slifer including the model war planes and mattes in THE NORTH STAR and was one of many effects camerammen involved with shooting the effects under John Fulton for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS among others.
All of the helicopter footage was either stock shot or as in the upper frame miniature matted into Antarctic background.  A mockup was built for the innumerable scenes on the jungle floor with the actors though frequently a miniature set was employed with actors blue screened in as with the lower frames.
The lost world of tropical jungles inexplicably found some thousands of feet below sea level in the Antarctic! I can't decide whether this is a Russ Lawson matte painting or a large miniature set with a Lawson painted cyclorama.  I like the shot though and there is sufficient steam and mist flowing to bring the effect to life.

Some of the creatures found in this oddball lost world.  The second frame is the old 'live fighting lizards' styled effect with a truly abysmal addition of the actors in the frame in what is surely the worst example of film composite registration ever as the live action element bounces all over the place.  That same effect was achieved far more successfully in 1925's THE LOST WORLD by Ralph Hammeras, Frank Williams and Willis O'Brien.  The other frames show a generally effective lizard intoduced into the set via travelling matte.
Now many criticisms have been levelled at the so-called dinosaurs in LAND UNKNOWN but I have to say I am still pretty impressed with them.  Sure the T-Rex is a stunt guy in a suit but he looks easily as good as Rick Baker in his KONG suit.  The close up mechanical effects of blinking eyelids and jaw movement I think was and still is pretty damned good.  Really nice attention to detail by mechanical effects chief Fred Knoth here who's experience ranged from the Hal Roach comedies up to the thrilling oil well infernos in John Waynes' HELLFIGHTERS.
A full miniature set with model chopper, guy in T-Rex suit and blue screened in actors.  I rather liked the production design but just wish they'd gone somewhere other than this particular little area of jungle.
Now this is really impressive.  If Universal had one claim to fabulous effects work it was that of long time rotoscoper Millie Winebrenner who worked at the studio in charge of roto for decades, right from the old John Fulton days up until EARTHQUAKE and beyond.  The T-Rex chases the blue screened in actor and steps over him at one point with lovely roto work of the actor hiding as the legs and tail sweep over him.  Great stuff for an economical movie.
Another nice Russ Lawson matte shot with a well integrated blend between the studio tank and the 'effects water'
Another (pretty much the only other) dinosaur is once again a beautifully designed beast and extremely well articulated in the studio tank.  The movements of head and flippers are extremely effective.  Apparently the creature ran along the bottom of the shallow tank on wheels and was articulated by Fred Knoth via hydraulics.  In the lower frame we can see the actress has been doubled into the overall miniature set.
The process work is pretty good as well with bright clean looking projected backgrounds.  The fiery climax where the burning torch is thrust into the creatures mouth, again with good mechanical effects for the close ups aside from an unfortunate kinking of the neck 'skin'.  Creature designer Jack Kevan designed and collaborated on many of Universal's most beloved monsters such as the Metaluna mutants from THIS ISLAND EARTH (see my separate posting on this film) and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and many others
Miniature chopper on wires in a very large miniature set built around a 300 foot long tank with actors matted into shot .

Behind the scenes on the effects stage in this very rare photo.

Long time Universal mechanical effects genius Fred Knoth seen here on the outdoor set of John Waynes' THE HELLFIGHTERS.  Knoth had an extensive career at Hal Roach Studios under Roy Seawright prior to several decades at Universal.

 Next up ... THE MOLE PEOPLE    (1956)

An almost entirely forgettable entry into the genre with crazier than you'd imagine possible scenario and bad acting.  The photographic effects work is pretty good with several nice sprawling matte painted shots by Russell Lawson at least giving the picture a bigger look than the small budget would suggest.

Special Photographic Effects  -Clifford Stine
Matte Artist - Russell Lawson
Matte Photography - Roswell A. Hoffman
Creature Make Up - Jack Kevan, Millicent Patrick and Bud Westmore

I'm not sure who painted this great poster art but it makes the show look better than it really is!
Ya gotta love these old trailer taglines...I know I do

The shot with 'Asia' title may have a painted addition to the mountain just above the title, but I'm not sure.  Likewise with the lower shot - this may be real as a hell of a lot of stock footage was used to pad out this sad little film, with much of it being actual doco footage of New Zealand's own iconic hero, Sir Edmond Hillary climbing to the top of Mount Everest!!  Whether the Hillary family recieved residuals is highly in doubt.
An excellent Russ Lawson matte painting of the entrance to the magical world of Moles and such.

Deep inside the bowels of the earth - or at least a Universal soundstage the film is expanded considerably with the aid of another rather nice Lawson matte shot. To the best of my knowledge Russell Lawson was the sole matte painter at the studio for most of the studio's existance right up until his retirement in 1961 whereby Albert Whitlock would assume the mantle of 'matte supervisor' as the job was known at the time.  In the early 30's Lawson painted with Jack Cosgrove on several 1930's shows such as FRANKENSTEIN and others.
Possibly a painted backing or more likely a good process shot of a Lawson painting.
A multi part composite with live action element at lower left, another group of people upper middle area, an actual water element and an extensive Lawson matte painting all tied together rather neatly by Ross Hoffman on the optical printer.

..."I can see the light"...  two tiny figures composited into a full matte painting of the shaft with light rays probably as an overlay or separate optical element.
The exquisite former beauty queen turned creature designer, Millicent Patrick, seen here fashioning the GillMan for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON - one of the best ever creature designs in my book.

 Moving on to....  THE DEADLY MANTIS      (1957)

Special Photography - Clifford Stine
Matte Artist - Russell Lawson
Matte Photography - Roswell A. Hoffman
Rotoscope Artist - Millie Winebrenner 
Miniatures - Charlie Baker
Mechanical Special Effects - Fred Knoth

Once again the one sheet is sensational and leaves today's ad art campaigns for dead.
Despite how it looks this isn't a bad film and has a lot going for it narratively speaking.
Top left - possibly painted distant view matted to real foreground snow and this in turn used as a blue screen backing. Upper right painted research centre.  Lower frames the puppeteered praying mantis of the title with optical overlays of flame throwers.
The mantis flies into Manhattan  - possibly a painted skyline with nice roto work of the creature flying behind buildings.
A Russell Lawson matte shot of the cityscape and details of the 'Manhattan Tunnel' with nice additional smoke elements.
Inside the tunnel - a Universal set with a Russ Lawson painted in ceiling added.

Just when you thought it was safe to go up to the monster.... an all miniature set with puppeteered mantis and blue screened in actors, augmented with additional 'claw' element added on our side of the actress by means of travelling matte
Full miniature set with realistic mantis model and blue screened in actors. Apparently the model mantis was some 20 inches in length and was operated (very well) by marionette and rod puppet means.  The creature was extremely well sculpted and designed, possibly by resident Universal creature creators Millicent Patrick and Jack Kevan.

 Moving along, we encounter ...  THE MONOLITH MONSTERS  (1957)

 Now this is actually a far better movie than the ad line would suggest, in fact I found it quite absorbing from start to finish with a good cast and good pacing.  The whole notion of ever expanding rock like formations advancing on the landscape worked pretty well and the effects were good too.

Special Photographic Effects - Clifford Stine
Matte Artist - Russell Lawson
Miniatures - Charlie Baker
Matte Photography - Roswell A. Hoffman

Cliff Stine had a long career as cinematographer, both as first cameraman and as special effects cameraman dating back to the first KING KONG.  Stine took over the Universal effects department around 1953 when then head of dept David Stanley Horsley had his contract terminated abruptly, supposedly due to political in fighting and blame for the cost of the effects on THIS ISLAND EARTH running way over budget.  Cliff handled the photographic effects on Kubrick's SPARTACUS and many other films. Cliff's brother Harold Stine was effects cameraman at RKO for years and shot the miniatures for the De Laurentiis version of KING KONG.

While the bigger prestige studios cornered the market in classy matte paintings and elaborate miniatures it was really just Universal that had the edge on space effects shots.  The effects shop at Universal really were first rate at creating multi plane syled starfields and amazingly smooth spacecraft motion on various films such as THIS ISLAND EARTH and others.  One just need look at MGM's prestige FORBIDDEN PLANET and the space travel shots to see how ill equipped they were at such non terrestrial effects shots compared with Universal's various shows.  This shot, aside from a way too clear deliniation of the continents and no real layer of atmosphere does work in spite of this due to beautiful meteor animation, probably by Frank Tipper and nice depth in the starfield.

The crashing meteor - I suspect the same effects prop that was used on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (in 3D) and other Universal shows was dusted off and re used here.  Aside from the faintly visible guide mechanism it's actually a hell of a good firey pyro effect.  Though no miniature credit exists here I suspect that Charlie Baker and Walter Hoffman may have been involved here.
Quintessential small town USA - the mainstay of all 50's horror and sci fi pictures, presented here as a partial real town with extensive Russ Lawson painted scenery.
I'm a sucker for hand made effects animation such as this lightning storm.  Lower shot is probably a miniature set with the car and guys matted into foreground.

Partial location with extensive matted in artwork and monoliths in motion.
The monoliths crush all in their path - a full miniature set with actor and car added via travelling matte by Ross Hoffman.
Russ Lawson's matte of the town, though now with animated monoliths approaching.
The dam above the town - a multi part composite with some live action at left, a substantial painted landscape with town and I suspect a separate water element filmed elsewhere and composited together.  The lower frame shows an additional element, that being the explosion optical as they blow the dam.
The water vs the monoliths - miniatures one and all.
"It wasn't the airplanes, nor beauty who killed this beast - it was water" - and looking at the shots they must have used pretty big miniatures as the scale of the water looks really impressive here.

 And the exterminator... it's  TARANTULA   (1955)

Now this is an excellent movie and it's filled with great visual effects and much travelling matted in arachnid mayhem that must have tied up the optical department for a year!

Special Photographic Effects -  David Stanley Horsley and Clifford Stine
Matte Photography - Roswell A.Hoffman
Miniatures - Charlie Baker, Tim Barr and Wah Chang
Rotoscope Artist - Millie Winebrenner
Special Creature Design and Make Up - Jack Kevan, Wah Chang, Millicent Patrick and Bud Westmore

Some reference sourses state that David Horsley was co effects supervisor though he didn't recieve a screen credit so I can't be sure.
Small town USA - with a split screen matted in desert which may be a painting though I think it's probably a real separate location.

The house with the strange experiments going on - a property that has been expanded with a Russell Lawson matte painting to add in the desert at left and I suspect much of the roof too.
Excellent rear screen process to show the giant critters; plus some of Ross Hoffman's excellent travelling matte shots of the giant spider going about it's dastardly business.
I don't know how they manipulated the spider - some shots I feel are reel live spider action probably on a blue painted enclosure for matting purposes and some I feel could be a puppeteered model to allow for precise action and safety. Some of the matte shots are a little translucent suggesting matte bleed or too light a matte density and occasionally the spiders' 'feet' don't touch the ground either.  At lower left..."do you feel lucky punk?" - Clint Eastwood about to go 'Dirty Harry' on that spiders' ass!
There's nothing quite like a happy ending...pest extermination on a grand scale.  Town set with split screened in desert and mechanised spider with much optical manipulation of the fireball.  Great shot.

Effects modeller and consultant Wah Ming Chang posing for a gag publicity picture with one of his Tarantula puppets.

 And in closing, "it's a small world after all"  ...THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN   (1957)

Special Photographic Effects - Clifford Stine
Optical Effects and Matte Photography - Roswell A.Hoffman and Everett A.Broussard
Rotoscope Artist - Millie Winebrenner
Blue Screen Consultant - Walter Beyer
Miniatures - Charlie Baker
Mechanical Effects - Fred Knoth and Ben 'Whitey' McMahon
Special Sets and Props - Jack Tait, Ed Keyes, Roy Neal, Russ Gausman and Floyd Farrington

A great story from Richard Matheson and well transformed into a tight little film, TISM is packed with optical effects and I've just included some of my favourite shots here as there are so many.  Lots of excellent outsized props and sets,  a huge number of travelling mattes and two probable matte paintings as well. Co-optical effects man Everett A.Broussard is a bit of a mystery to me and the only link I have is to Ed Broussard, a film editor at the same studio who was assistant editor to Dorothy Spencer on EARTHQUAKE.  Whether he's one and the same I don't know, but if not surely related.  Hoffman's brother Bud was an assistant or 2nd unit director there I think.  Recent information brought to my attention suggests that Broussard was indeed 'visual effects editor' on this film, thus leading me to surmise that he is the same Ed Broussard.
One of the dozens of blue backing matte shots in the picture.
Probably a process screen shot.

An elaborate and lengthy set piece where Grant Williams has to cross the abyss - all done with travelling mattes and just a minimum of large props.

Blue screen composite of Williams evading the spider.
I feel that this could be a matte shot with painted outside world, a shot repeated later at night. The lower frame is rear screen process projection.
A thrilling set piece where our diminutive hero is nearly drowned in a flood and stepped upon too.  Extremely well done sequence with outstanding opticals and top notch direction by Jack Arnold.
The flood sequence continued - again the outstanding use of travelling mattes and rotoscope work to splash an unseen Williams with a huge, near fatal wave.  One of Universal's best bits optical trickery in my book!
The spider sequence - combined use of process and rotoscoping in a thrilling duel to the death.  Note the painstaking rotoscope work by Millie Winebrenner  as the spider leg steps on and around Grant Williams.

The final moments where Williams is shrinking beyond the macroscopic world and into the sub-microscopic world.  I think this moody night sky is probably a Russ Lawson matte shot.

 And now I think I'll call it a day.  Enjoy

 **Coming Soon - a tribute album of Russell Lawson matte painted effects shots. a historic look at the famed Stage 5 Effects Unit at Warner Bros, A career profile on John P.Fulton.... and more!


  1. Bravo for your nostalgic and informative appreciation of these Universal classics (and some not-so-classics), especially my old favorite, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. I've seen this one umpteen times, and still feel that the effects hold up beautifully today, not just for their time but when stacked up against many subsequent films as well. There is, of course, talk of a second comedy remake (after THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN), but if it does get made, it will presumably be just another CGI-fest, losing all the charm of the original. If you're interested, check out my forthcoming book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN.

  2. FYI, RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN is tentatively due out in early October. Of course, you can always pre-order it. :-)

  3. Beautiful website and excellent overview of the matte art... thanks a lot! I know all these movies almost by heart, but never had the chance to compare all these wonderful scenes before.

    Greetings from Switzerland - where Jack Arnold also shot a movie*, although not one of his masterpieces... ;-)
    - Juan


  4. I'm pretty darned sure that they used density (luminance mattes in the digital world) mattes in all of the black and white films. The quality of matte work had improved immensely by the 1950s due to better film stocks, more experience, and possibly aided by then-new cheap, big sheets of acetate polorizers which would … when used on the lights and and on the camera lens) eliminate all reflections from the black velvet.

    The tarantula in TARANTULA was obviously shot on a white cloth and the image of the tarantula yielded the matte which was run with the background. The lighter portions of the tarantula also were thin parts of the silhouette matte and the "bleed-through" would read as highlights on the spider but if you single-framed through a Blu-ray copy you might be able to see part of the background "bleeding through" the lighter sections of the spider. we did a similar gag for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 but we did it on a whole bunch of spiders and did a second pass to put in some brown color on the spiders. Happily my boss Peter Kuran supervised the spider element … spiders … YUCK!.

    In another forum I speculated that in THE LAND UNKNOWN they might have used a beam-splitter camera (an old Technicolor three-strip camera) to shoot composites since they looked so good to me. However (a friend of mine reminded me of this) in order to have room for the prism (beam-splitter) between the rear end of the lens and the film the lenses would have to be retro focus and no 'scope lens is retro-focus. Ooops! I have looked at some of the frame grabs here and it may be a case simply designing the shots well and shooting them very well.

    Spencer Gill (

    1. Hi Spencer

      Good to hear from you after a long absence. Thank you for the more precise technical description for 'density matting'. I'm sure you are quite right. Universal was, I believe, well known for this practice - no doubt set in place by John Fulton as far back as THE INVISIBLE MAN and even earlier silent pictures where Fulton's mentor, Frank Williams was involved.

      On beam splitter cameras, I understand that Disney turned to blue screen on their rare anamorphic scope shows like THE BLACK HOLE for the exact reason you outlined here so well.

      Bleed through is always 'interesting' to see - though the optical guys like yourself no doubt cringe at that comment. The disaster epic THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK is ghastly in this regard, with poor old Spencer Tracy's silvery hair often turning translucent and bleeding bits of background through!!!

      All the best


  5. I'm glad that I found your blog. it's very interesting! you have a new fallower :-)