Sunday, 11 July 2010

MARY POPPINS - the supercalifragulous visual effects of a Disney favourite

Time for another of my all time favourite films, both in visual effects technique and in sheer timeless entertainment value.  "MARY POPPINS" as everyone in the known world will be aware was the sensational box office super hit that Walt Disney always knew it was going to be.  Everything falls into place with this ageless film - wonderful casting especially of a pretty much unknown Julie Andrews and the multi talented Dick Van Dyke (if we look past his 'Cockney dialect' which even he chuckles about to this day).  The pitch perfect score by Disney music maestros the Sherman brothers stands alone as one of the best of it's type and contributed so much to the films success over the decades with millions of people both young and old, it's hard to picture the film having half the popularity without the Sherman score.

I've always had fond memories of this picture, even from when I first saw it in the mid 60's when my dear old Grandad took me to see it (at the Starlight theatre in Papatoetoe) - though there was just one hinderence.  My Grandad had only one failing in his entire being, and sadly that was his propensity to walk out of movies before they had finished!!  It's not that he didn't like them, but he always felt that once he'd seen enough of the film, whatever it happened to be, he had gotten the general 'gist' of it, so why bother staying around!!  So MARY POPPINS was an unfinished symphony to this small boy I'm afraid.  It took years to catch the full movie for this writer, though it was worth the wait.
The large painting that starts the film - by matte artist Jim Fetherolf

This of course is a special effects blog and as such I am delighted to present the multitude of extraordinary photographic effects that won a well deserved Oscar in 1964.  From Peter Ellenshaws' dazzling mattes, Eustace Lycetts sodium travelling mattes, Hamilton Luskes' beautiful and extensive animation, Lee Dyers' jaw dropping effects animation and Bob Mattey's mechanical gags the film's a winner for me.  So lets take a journey back to 1964 and the soundstages in Burbank to one of the last centurys' most enduring classics.

Special photographic effects  Peter Ellenshaw and Eustace Lycett
Matte artists  Peter Ellenshaw, Jim Fetherolf, Constantine 'Deno' Ganakes and Alan Maley(?)
Optical cinematography Eustace Lycett, Art Cruickshank and Bob Broughton
Optical effects consultant  Ub Iwerks
Animation supervisor  Hamilton Luske
Key animators  Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnson, John Lounsberg, Hal Ambro, Frank Thomas, Ward Kimball, Eric Larsen, Cliff Nordberg, Jack Boyd and Joe Hale
Effects animation  Lee Dyer
Special mechanical effects  Robert A. Mattey, Danny Lee and Walter Stone
Special effects props Marcel Delgado

*Click on the pictures to see a large version.  Two clicks will produce an even bigger image.

London around the turn of the century as painted by Jim Fetherolf and shown as a long sweeping pan across the city. Bottom frame - Mary is a separate element rear projected into an Ellenshaw painting from which the camera pans downward and rests on a second rear projected element of Dick Van Dyke on a sidewalk.
Ellenshaw with Disney and seen painting the matte for the tilt down shot explained above.
If one can overlook my crude cut and; paste this is an invisible effects shot early on in the show where Bert waves up to the Colonel and we are treated to a tilt shot up an entirely painted building to a separate matted in section with the actor on the roof.
St Pauls dome has never looked as glorious as it does here from the brush of Peter Ellenshaw.  A magnificent matte that also is composited as a tilt down signature shot.  Almost the entire frame here is painted with only a small 'pocket' of live action and one shop window being real.

Before and after - the rooftop of the Colonel is all paint with only the tiniest of area being actual set.  Brilliant and invisible.

Mary drops on in!  Full frame Ellenshaw artwork with matted in Andrews.  The sky and cloud placement here is classic Ellenshaw and is so finely observed and may be found in many, many examples of Peters' matte and his gallery fine art over the decades.  Sublime!
Entering the bank - significant matte art ceiling, walls and tops of columns.

In the bank with father.  All paint except a limited area on the right side of the frame.  The shot cuts just before the actors walk through the matte line.

Our first encounter with 'The Bird Lady' (Jane Darwell) - a multi part composite - again a limited set with nothing much as dressing backed by a yellow screen upon which a matte painted St Pauls is added via Eustace Lycetts' sodium vapour travelling matte, and then a separate sodium matte of Matthew Garber added atop the existing composite.
One of my favourite effects sequences in the film, yet not a broad nor obvious one.  The two Banks' kids on the run through an entirely matte painted landscape of inner city London - simply magic and yet so bold to have so much of the frame(s) oil paint with next to no actual set.  The upper frame is ALL paint with the kids added by sodium matte as is the second frame - all paint.  Beautiful jaw dropping work.

One of two cameos by effects director Peter Ellensahw in this film - that's Peters' hand drawing on the pavement.  The jump into the Jolly Holiday segment is a Eustace Lycett reduction optical travelling matte.
The beauty of the sodium vapour travelling matte system is the ability to matte such fine objects as diaphanous material such as the veil on Marys' hat with perfect results and almost no annoying fringing.  Disney borrowed this technique from Rank Laboratories in England and it was to be a mainstay on almost all Disney features involving travelling mattes up until the late 70's often to exasperating levels where in some shows like "Herbie Rides Again" and "Island at the Top of the World" it is used in virtually hundreds of shots - often when it wasn't even really needed.  The bottom frame is Peter Ellenshaws' second cameo - this time as the voice of one of the penguin waiters.
The sodium vapour screen and set up - with one of the beautiful backgrounds by Al Dempster and Art Riley prior to the addition of Bert and Mary. For further wonderful examples of MARY POPPINS and other animated backgrounds go to

A schematic of Rank's sodium vapour process as used by Disney for MARY POPPINS

Another example of the sodium process, with Ellenshaws' loose and impressionistic painted London combined on the optical printer by Bob Broughton.

Peter with his painting of the spires and smokey old London and the final shot.

Multi part composite of the rooftop dancers - a matte painted street view, dancers in front of a sodium screen and the finished combination as seen on screen.
More from the chimney sweep dance routine 'Step in Time' (a definite show stopper in all regards) - minimal set against yellow backing and substantial enhancements by the matte artist.

Another angle from 'Step in Time' - sky backing this time but still supplemented with invisible matte painted chimneys.
A trio of matte shots from the 'Step in Time' set piece with painted chimney stacks, wrought iron handrailings and all of London! 
More matte madness from the 'Step in Time' musical number - painted city block and rooftops, dancers on soundstage against yellow backing and the flawless result.

Now, as you'll have realised if you've read other pages on my blog not only do I love matte paintings and old style movie title cards but I also love traditional effects animation used to enhance other effects and MARY POPPINS is literally 'poppin' with them.  Absolutely magnificent cell animated effects abound in this film and as with all Disney shows the effects animation is as good as it gets.  The elaborate and thrilling fireworks 'battle' is a sight to behold and is all created in the Disney animation studio supervised by Lee Dyer.

Lots of delicate roto work and painstakingly drawn cells make this sequence a joy for the eyes (and the ears too in the 5.1 remix)Lee Dyer had a long career with Disney and supervised the visual effects in "SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES" in 1983Other notable and recommended Disney films with exceptional, yet subtle in many case cell effects animation are "20'000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA" and "THE GNOME MOBILE"It's tragic that Disneys' effects animation went stale later on in the 70s' with such abysmal examples as "THE BLACK HOLE" which features some of the poorest effects cell animation in the studio's history.

Some of Ellenshaws' pre-production paintings for the rooftop sequence and a completed matte comp at lower right.

The 'Feed the Birds' centerpiece - and the part of the film that Walt most loved and was personally connected to.  The camera starts at the top of St Pauls Cathedral and slowly travels down the building to settle on and zoom into the Bird Lady Jane Darwell who performs (though vocally dubbed) an emotional and haunting lullaby.  The entire sequence is a series of elaborate photographic effects with each portion seemlessly blended with soft dissolves and interfearence such as matted in pigeons and mist.   St Pauls is a full painting and black pigeons were doubled in white birds by using their negative image.  Darwell is inserted by means of rear projection into the bottom of the painting.
The conclusion of the lullaby with more camera moves back up the front of St Pauls using a different painting and more of the negative 'white' pigeons doubled in flying through the frame - this coupled with optical distortion on Lycetts' optical printer produces a striking storybook effect that remains with the viewer for years .. well, this viewer anyway.

Mr Banks has second thoughts:  Another wonderful tilt down effect using substantial matte painted scenery - a revisit to an earlier identical shot, perhaps with the same painting touched up and printed darker or an entirely new painting.  Coupled with the Sherman brothers solemn, moving score this shot is narratively unforgettable as it is technically magnificent.
Mr Banks reflects...  one of several matte shots showing David Tomlinson on his lonely night time walk across London - all shot on minimal sets and completed using extensive and undetectable matte art.

A seemingly problematic matte line demarcation is in fact very hard to spot by even the most sophisticated viewer.

More from the same sequence - Mr Banks at the bank!

A trio of visual effects shots - top the 'Lets Go Fly a Kite' finale;  Mary departs - her job done; and another view from the earlier Chimney Sweep musical set piece - all featuring matte art and optical work.

The faces behind the visual effects - top left long time Disney matte painter Constantine Ganakes; top right optical cameraman Eustace Lycett; middle left matte artist Alan Maley (*I'm not 100% sure Maley was yet employed at Disney though he did start right around 1964); middle right is matte painter Jim Fetherolf and bottom is Peter Ellenshaw.  Maley died suddenly in 1995, Fetherolf in the early 70's, Lycett 2008 and Ellenshaw in 2007
above - two of Disneys' longest employees who added invaluably to the success of not just this film but practically all Disney productions both animated and live action - at left the colour photo is of Bob Broughton who ran the special optical effects unit under Eustace Lycett and who's tenure goes way back to "FANTASIA".  Bob was effects cameraman, matte cameraman and finally optical effects cameraman right up until "THE BLACK HOLE" in 1979.  The other gentleman seen in the b&w photo talking with Bob is veteran visionary effects man Ub Iwerks who's career with Disney goes back to the silent days. Broughton only passed away last year (2009) and Iwerks in 1971.

Preparing Mary for her grand entrance.

The inevitable and well deserved Academy Award for best special visual effects.  Peter and wife Bobbie at the Oscars;  actor Alain Delon passing the Oscars to Ellenshaw and Lycett; and a quiet moment on the set with Peter and Walt.

"chim chim cheree....a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be"


  1. Rumor has it that during pre-production for 2001, Stanley Kubrick screened Mary Poppins over a hundred times (taking notes all the while) to study the effects.
    (Sorry I've gotten to this entry so late)

  2. Love your site. I have been interested in visual effects for the last 55+ years, and would always point out to my brother when I saw matte lines in films - he said don't tell him, but he still asks how I knew.

  3. Great stuff. A blog about matte paintings! That being said, where is a photo of grossly under-appreciated effects man Bob Mattey?

  4. What a great blog! I have been dying to find out how some effects were achieved. Grand!

  5. Very extensive blog about the various artists involved in the creation of "Mary Poppins". I was surprised that you made no mention of the special effects art created for the film by Jack Boyd. He had a career filled with credits on Disney movies and "shorts". He spoke of his work on the scene with VanDyke dancing with the penguins.

  6. Hi,

    Regrettably Jack Boyd isn't a name I'm familiar with at all, though if you are able to provide me with further details by email I'd be happy to edit my MP blog and add info him and his work.
    I'm often altering my articles and adding facts and bits and pieces as well as correcting any errors. I hope to hear from you.


  7. Why is there no mention of the inventor of the sodium vapor process, Petro Vlahos?

    1. This blog is primarily aimed at 'matte painting' and it's practitioners and although I try to include as much photographic effects info as possible there are bound to be some omissions here and there. In saying that, I'm confident there isn't much else out there that covers this specialty topic in anywhere near the detail my blog does.


  8. The animation live action combination is far better in Song of the South, minus the multitude of shadows the actors cast on painted floors to match the later added animation backgrounds behind. Due to the need for the flat lighting required to obtain a perfect matte from the actors

  9. Song of the south has better live action animation combination than the sodium screen process that requires flat lighting, causing the actors to cast multiple shadows on the matching painted floors. In Song of the south Greg Toland lit the sets to match the animated backgrounds flat, minus the multiple shadows combined with what looks like large glass painted foreground elements all shot at the same time. The animated characters are the only ones requiring a matte, Mary Poppins and Bedknob and Broomsticks, both actors and animation require mattes.

  10. Absolutely magical. The pinnacle of a great man's career...several of them, in fact. Sodium vapor required an old Technicolor 3-strip camera. Also used for matting (not here) were infra-red and ultra-violet. Ub Iwerks probably saw it in operation at Rank and said, "Hey....!" It simplified travelling matte work enormously. Peter Ellenshaw was truly inspired when he did this. His work is sheer genius.

  11. A cynical way of seeing things could be that Mary Poppins was a blatent commercial for St Paul's Cathedral. As odd as it seems when I think of St Paul's Cathedral I actually think Oliver! more than anything (It's frequently shown near Fagin's hideout in particular during the Be Back Soon number). It would actually be interesting if there was some musical crossover all this time. Think about it

  12. What a wonderful blog you have!

    I saw a friend play "Mary Poppins" onstage recently, and realized just how much that show has meant to me over the years.

    I never did homework in school, I just sat in the back of the classroom for months, reading the World Book Encyclopedia, which had an excellent article on "Mary Poppins," so I was probably the only 10-year old expert in sodium vapor traveling mattes, and was therefore ruined for regular work.

    I ran the film in my movie theatre as long as Disney would let me rent it, just so I could see how the effects all went together, while I was making my first 35mm feature. That led to my working on "Ghostbusters," where I assisted Matt Yuricich, and photographed his fine matte paintings onto 65mm film.

    The first time I attended the Oscars, Dorothy Chandler pavilion 1982, I rode up in the elevator, chatting with Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards. Life is like that sometimes.

    1. Hi Sam

      What an interesting letter! I'd love to see or read any anecdotes you might have from the GHOSTBUSTERS matte department.


  13. Thank you Peter,

    I had spent many long hours, shooting Ko Hashiguchi and my matte paintings and artwork
    onto 35mm film, for my first feature movie, in Enumclaw WA. Then I worked for a year building cameras and motion control for a 35mm animated clay Mark Twain feature, in Portland OR.

    I met Richard Edlund of ILM in Seattle, and we became friends. When he formed his own company in Los Angeles, he hired me to work on "Ghostbusters" and "2010" and some others.

    Richard had me work for Gary Platek and Gene Whiteman and Gary Platek and put me to work assisting Matt Yuricich, preparing and painting matte glasses, and cleaning brushes, for Matt and Painters Michele Moen and Deno Ganakes.

    It was a happy crew, painting away in oil paint. Matt smoked a cigarette in a long holder, and told me Hollywood stories, and explained his tricks for compressing contrast ranges and getting colors to work. He liked me, so he called me "Samovich." (I was sad to hear recently, Matt has passed away up in Bellingham WA).

    When Matt said a painting was done, he brought out a little box, and with great ceremony, produced a swatch of silk fabric, a piece of Marlene Dietrich's stocking. Matt had bought it at auction. He had me put it over the lens, to produce "just enough" diffusion to make the painting seem "more real" on film. A fascinating little ritual, and it really worked!

    There were 40 matte paintings in "Ghostbusters," and Neil shot the three moving ones on a computerized system called COMPSY. He had moire gags and rear-projection, and all kinds of trickery going on them. Very intent and focused person, doing fine detailed work.

    I shot 37 static matte paintings, operating the 65mm bipack camera, shooting painting elements onto 65mm color negative. We pulled black and white separations and did many wedge tests, for color and exposure. Neill picked the ones he liked, and I composited them back onto color film. It was tedious and methodical work, demanding of one's concentration, and after a while I quite enjoyed it.

    Elsewhere on "Ghostbusters," I also shot clouds and lasers for Gary Platek, and built and operated a whole bunch of 65mm film gear. We basically had to build a whole 65/70mm film studio in under a year. Which we did, but it was an intense year.

    I love the magic of movie matte painting, and I love making movies. I am back to Producing, and making my own movies again.

    Thank you Peter,

    Sam Longoria

    1. Hi Sam

      Thank you for that extremely interesting slice of matte history. I do appreciate all such background info and often make use of such stories in my blogging. If you have any 'on the job' photos from those wonderful days I would LOVE to see them.

      All the best


  14. I've only watched Mary Poppins recently for the first time as an adult. What an incredible masterpiece of cinema it is. Thank you for this brilliant insight into the creative process. Matt painting is an incredible technique.

  15. Illuminating article. Thanks for sharing.

  16. I like this post, enjoyed this one thank you for putting

  17. I do remember I had Mary Poppins on video tape cassette as a 90's kid and it had trailers on it as Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too and Basil the Great Mouse Detective and Cinderella and the trailer for Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Pete's Dragon before the Buena Vista logo was shown and Mary Poppins started and then finished with The End and then that was it and the film was all over since it's been shown on channels lots of times.