Thursday, 15 July 2010

Up in lights.... the dazzling world of MGM musical spectaculars and the work of the matte painter

There's no two ways about it - when it came to the musical, MGM were king of the jungle.  The sheer size of the studio and the talent pool under contract made sure of that fact.  Today I'm going to present a few examples of the work of MGM's matte and photographic effects unit from the Golden Era of big Hollywood musicals and for those already familiar with some of these films a trip down memory lane and for those of you new to this genre some wonderful samples of matte movie magic as only Metro Goldwyn Mayer could do.

For decades the matte department was under the control of the eccentric and ultra protective yet admittedly shrewd Warren Newcombe who arguably ran the tightest ship in town when it came to producing high class matte painted effects shots.  Newcombe ran the MGM matte dept from the late 1920's up until his early and misguided retirement in the late 1950's.  Key to Newcombes' success were matte cameraman Mark Davis and his operator Bob Roberts who created many an ingenious method to present what otherwise might have been a run-of-the-mill locked off composite with animated gags and camera moves.  

The MGM stable of talented matte painters included Norman O. Dawn in several 40's pictures such as "GREEN DOLPHIN STREET" and others. Dawn himself was a titan in the world of matte photography and painting and by all accounts the pioneer of the process. Other painters in the Newcombe studio were Rufus Harrington, Joe Duncan Gleason, Oscar Medlock, the father and son team of Anton and Edgar Kiechle, Stanley Poray, Jack Robson, Candelario Rivas, Ted Withers, Emil Kosa snr, Lee LeBlanc and later on Matthew Yuricich and Louis Litchtenfield to name but a few. The Metro matte and overall effects department was a force to be reckoned with and produced so many wonderful special effects for many great films and garnered many Oscars in the process.More detailed biographical info on many of these artists and cameraman may be found on my friend, Domingo Lizcano's site:

This wonderful group photograph, probably fromthe late 40's is from the essential Craig Barron-Mark Kotta Vaz treatise The Invisible Art - The Legends of Movie Matte absolute must for anyone reading this blog!

While Newcombe oversaw the matte department as his very own fiefdom other effects masters looked after their own respective areas of special effects.  The great A.Arnold (Buddy) Gillespie (who had the rare distinction of having worked on both 1926 and 1959 versions of "BEN HUR") was in charge of all mechanical effects, miniatures and process work while Irving G.Ries looked after the optical effects department and handled all of the travelling matte photography and compositing - some example of which I will demonstrate here today.

An aspect of the old time musical visual effects that has always appealed to me and is particularly evident  in the MGM shows were the utterly magnificent neon billboards and huge animated sign photographic effects shots that graced many a Metro extravaganza.    These of course were for the large part elaborate matte painted shots with complex animation effects to produce the rythmic neon announcements... pure magic, especially on the big cinemascope screen.  The animations themselves were sometimes produced as backlit slot gags behind the matte glass, sometimes with overlays or rotoscoped superimpositions.  In an interview with Matthew Yuricich in Starlog magazine in 1977  Yuricich spoke of his early days in visual effects at 20th Century Fox in the fifties as being primarily the rotoscope artist who with an equally 'green' Jim Fetherolf spent inordinate amounts of time meticulously hand animating theatre neon lights on marquees on matte paintings and producing the numerous gags therein.  Yuricich spoke of the amount of concentration and patience required for such a job.  Some studios such as Paramount had whole rotoscope units within the photographic effects department employing, usually, young women to carry out the work as it was believed at the time that this was 'fiddly work' akin to knitting or similar domestic chores more "suited to the temperament of a woman".

Anyway, on with the journey - a journey of rediscovery of the ancient art of matte painted grandeur and subtle effects animation...


left - matte cinematographer Mark Davis and right matte dept. head Warren Newcombe
MGM's matte camera room in 1949 with the new motion control mechanism named the Dupy Duplicator so named after inventor Olin Dupy (left) from MGM's sound department. Around this period a number of studios were coming up with motion repeater devices to aid in placing camera moves such as pans and tilts into otherwise static matte shots.  The painting being photographed is from "EASTER PARADE" (see below for final shot)..  From right; Bob Roberts matte cameraman, Warren Newcombe head of the matte dept, Mark Davis visual effects director of photography and Warren Spencer assistant head of MGM.

An excellent and extremely rare original MGM painting dating possibly from the 1946 Richard Whorf directed film "TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY".  These two photos beautifully demonstrate the coloured gel 'gags' employed behind cut out areas of board to produce the numerous flickering light bulb effects and neons seen so frequently in the films of the golden era.  No better is this effect illustrated than right here in this lower in verso photo.

A rare glimpse of a Golden Era MGM matte painting on masonite (hardboard) - this being from the 1946 Jimmy Durante-June Allyson picture "TWO SISTERS FROM BOSTON"

Close up detail from "TWO SISTERS FROM BOSTON" showing the small areas of the painting that have been purposely chipped away to allow backlit interfearence devices to simulate crowd movement among the painted audience, in this case the clapping of hands.  As crude as it may sound this gag was a tried and true device that was in use from the 1930's up until the final days of traditional painted mattes in the early 90's.

A wonderful Newcombe shot (as they were known at the studio) from the Esther Williams picture "MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID"

Beautiful full matte painting complete with animated flickering lights from "EASTER PARADE"

Extensive matte painted shot from the film "ANCHORS AWEIGH" where practically the entire scene is painted with just a small foreground area of live action.  Unusually for MGM no attempt was made to simulate water ripples, thus the shot remains static.

Another matte from "ANCHORS AWEIGH" with all of the scenery and a number of the 'people' painted in by one of  Newcombes' matte artists.
The show stopping number with Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse.  Now commonplace in films this was a trend setting tour de force sequence that even rival studio head Walt Disney was blown away by.  Incredibly good animation by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera's cartoon unit and meticulous roto work by studio optical effects maestro Irving G.Ries.  Star Kelly himself felt that this was one of his most difficult and exhausting dance numbers ever due to the 'shadow dancing' against an invisible partner that was required.  Note even Jerry's reflection is in perfect registration.  A few years ago the popular television series "FAMILY GUY" paid homage to this great sequence by integrating it into an episode with a newly animated character 'Stewie' flawlessly rotoscoped over the top of the Jerry character though still retaining Jerry's reflection which no one ever noticed.

Another gorgeous matte painted marquee and building facades from "THE BAND WAGON".  If one examines some of these big marquee shots from various MGM films it seems that the same painting may have been reused more than once though with new names on the billboards, perhaps as a separate glass plane with new lettering?
The opening shot from "TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME" starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.  This is a three part composite with real seafront split screened with studio mock up road and building frontage and this in turn composited with a matte painted upper architecture, sky and palm trees.  The palm on the left is given simulated movement in the breeze via some sort of gag device, most likely thin streaks of paint scraped away between some of the palm fronds and this area in turn given the effect of movement with a rotating wheel or similar device positioned behind the glass painting.
Another example from the same film - this being an invisible matte shot which extends the neighbourhood around the ball park via a matte painting.  Everything beyond the grass, including the roof and buildings in the distance is painted in later.

A truly wonderful example of the powers of a well designed and executed matte shot - also from "TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME" this is a terrific demonstration of a simulated crowd and bleachers of a baseball pavillion.  We are fortunate here in that the original painting still survives and may be examined in detail.  The orientation is slightly different suggesting that the plate was flopped in the optical printer to aid the narrative.

The grand, highly entertaining hit "SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS" with a number of painted mattes, some by Matthew Yuricich in one of his earliest painting jobs.

A spectacular matte composite from a Judy Garland musical - the title of which escapes me for the moment.
Another great illuminated marquee as only MGM seem to be able to pull off with such panache - from "EASTER PARADE"
The spectacular 5th Avenue closing shot from Irving Berlins' "EASTER PARADE" - the first application of the studio's custom built Dupy Duplicator which simulated a tilt upward from foreground crowd to this beautiful matte painted street.

Optical trickery -  a show stopping dance number with the great Fred Astaire performing with a room filled with 'dancing shoes' courtesy of travelling matte wizard Irving Ries - from the terrific "THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY" whereby a number of dancers clad in black leotards performed on a black draped set minus Astaire with Ries pulling mattes and compositing against Astaire dancing on the same set with black drape removed.  Additional hand animated cels were employed to patch up portions of the shoe performance where the black clad performers accidentally passed in front of one another, thus obscuring the shoes momentarily, and these are visible in the circle dance portion shown above.

Richard Whorf's "TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY" (1944) featuring the usual brilliant marquee painting and animation.

Fred Astaire at it again!  Complicated blue screen Astaire composited with two live action set ups and a matte painting to tie all together beautifully.  From "THE BELLE OF NEW YORK"
Gene Kelly's "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS" with the requisite Parisian architecture provided by the matte department to fill out a basic backlot set.
A Louis Litchtenfield matte painting with all above the first floor added in later, even Kelly himself who is represented by a still photograph. Again the motion repeater device was utilised to allow the tilt upwards.   Also from "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS"

The end of "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS" with a Louis Litchtenfield view of Paris painted on a curved piece of masonite to allow for camera tilt matted into a very basic set on the MGM lot consisting of nothing more than a set of stairs and some fake tree trunks.  The entire city view and even the tops of the trees were painted in.  The Dupy Duplicator camera tilt finished the shot and a remarkably convincing scene it is.

Marlon Brando's "GUYS AND DOLLS" with much animation of lights and such happening under the main titles

From "GUYS AND DOLLS" - a split screen with all scenery added by the Newcombe department.

The same view as seen in the daytime - all painted above the actors heads.

I love the old time movie main title cards almost as much as I love the old time matte shots - they just can't do it like this today.... an who could resist 'a thousand and one delights in Cinemascope'?

A sprawling Newcombe matte shot from the 1955 version of "KISMET" directed by Vincent Minnelli

One of my favourite 'neon light' effects shows from MGM.

Beautiful Newcombe shots from "LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME"

Some more lovely effects with magnificent simulated neon lights from the same film.

Two frames which demonstrate the 'flashing light' animation effect from the same film.

A movie studio created by the matte artist, also from "LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME"
The grand daddy of all MGM musicals and a wonderfully entertaining and hilarious film at that, the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen hit "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN".  The film has a number of elaborate optical effects during the last third but this is the only matte shot as such - and this one I am fairly sure was lifted straight out of Selznick's 1937 " STAR IS BORN"

One of numerous mattes from the 1952 remake of "THE MERRY WIDOW"

A spectacular interior painted ceiling from "THE MERRY WIDOW"

The Esther Williams water pageants of the late 40's and early 50's also had their share of elaborate visual effects and this example showing sequences from "PAGAN LOVE SONG" is notable.  Stunning art direction and awesome travelling matted Williams cavorting amongst the painted clouds and Newcombe scenery.  As with several of these shows it appears as though the actress was in fact under water presumably with a blue backing in the pool (?) and somehow Irving Ries and his team managed to pull clean mattes off of the performer and deliver lovely composites!!!
Another fine example of astonishing blue screen work - again the actress is underwater and somehow clean mattes are achieved from which she is dropped into a beautifully animated William Hanna-Joseph Barbera sequence.  I imagine the process to be fraught with hazards such as inescapable blue spill due to the refractive index of water not to mention the optical diffusion and distortion of said water.  It may have been shot 'dry for wet' but I doubt it due to Esthers' free flowing movement and action - it's just too good to be a wire rig job.  Optical effects man Spencer Gill suspects that these sequences may have been shot against a black backing as one way of avoiding some of the blue spill issues.
The MGM version of "SHOWBOAT" with one of several mattes shown above.  Most of the river, all the sky and distant scenery is added by the matte artist.

Another delightful matte painted scene extension from "SHOWBOAT" with dramatic sky and distant river added.
The MGM musical enters a new era - the 1960's.  Warren Newcombe had retired in the late 50's and the painting was overseen by Lee LeBlanc for a few years until the studio started decomissioning all departments and out sourcing all such work.  "THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN" starring Debbie Reynolds was a big production and contained alot of effects shots.  The overall effects supervision was under the control of long time designer Joseph MacMillan Johnson with Robert Hoag handling opticals and Clarence Slifer on matte camera duties.  Long time Paramount matte painter Jan Domela was brought on board for around 12 months to work on this film and several others for the studio. The significant number of mattes probably were split between Domela and Matthew Yuricich, with Domela painting all of the 'dancing through the landmarks of the world' matte shots and a few others.  For this segment all that actually existed was a bit of dirt road on the MGM lot with Domela adding everything else in the matte department.

Some more of the many mattes from "THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN"


  1. The shot of the theater interior with the large fountains is from the Ester Williams flick Million Dollar Mermaid.

  2. Hello - Wonderful site - I am now editing Buddy Gillespie's memoirs for publication next year and would like to know if it would be possible to use the picture(s) that you have of Warren Newcombe and maybe some of the matte shots of pictures where he worked with Buddy. You can reach me at
    Philip J Riley

    1. Greetings, I am the grandson of Warren Newcombe. My mother Hermine, Warren Newcombe's older daughter, lives with me. She is not 77 years old. If you have any questions about Warren Newcombe's life, we would be happy to help. We also have a huge collection of his personal photographs and are working on getting them scanned into digital format. I can be reached at

      Warm Regards,
      Christopher Kavanau, Ph.D.

    2. Hi Christopher

      How thrilling to receive this note from you. I have written to you on your grandfather and look forward to learning more on the amazing MGM matte department.


  3. Hi Philip,

    Yes I'm aware of the impending memoir on the legendary Buddy's career through his grandson and I simply cannot wait to hold this tome in my sweaty palms. If ever there were an effects veteran deserving of the full treatment it's Arnold!

  4. I came across your comment: "A spectacular matte composite from a Judy Garland musical - the title of which escapes me for the moment". That was NO JUDY GARLAND movie. That tremendous - but gorgeous scene on ship was none other than the finale of "HIT THE DECK" with Jane Powell/Vic Damone - Tony Martin/Ann Miller - and Debbie Reynolds/Russ Tamblyn.

    Wow! I remember it well. It never received the real merit it deserved !!!

  5. I came across your comment: "A spectacular matte composite from a Judy Garland musical - the title of which escapes me for the moment". That was NO JUDY GARLAND movie. That tremendous - but gorgeous scene on ship was none other than the finale of "HIT THE DECK" with Jane Powell/Vic Damone - Tony Martin/Ann Miller - and Debbie Reynolds/Russ Tamblyn.

    Wow! I remember it well. It never received the real merit it deserved !!!


    I believe that still is from the Reginald Owen version of A Christmas Carol.

    Love this blog!


  7. Thanks Pete, as always...
    I’ve been unsuccessfully in trying to attach a current photo of the MGM Dupy Duplicator Repeat Head and it’s separate Pan and Tilt Unit.
    However it still exists, and is in my collection.
    Best regards, Peter Anderson, ASC, VES

    1. Hi Peter

      I'd love to see that unit as it exists today. Can you send it to me at my email address.

      Thanks for taking notice of my blogs, and again, a big thank you for helping out with the last interview of the late Matt Yuricich some years ago. Much appreciated.


    2. Hello Peter, I am a HUGE fan of Special Effects in general and an even bigger fan of miracle workers Douglas Shearer, Warren Newcombe, Buddy Gillespie, etc. I wish I'd been born 50 years earlier so I could have stowed away in the bowels of the MGM Sound and effects departments and worked with these geniuses (Shearer in particular since I'm a production sound mixer....but the other guys...Oh man, it's a toss-up). Anyway, if you've been able to post the Dupy pictures I'd love to get a copy if I can somehow. Their technology and innovation are still a constant marvel to me! Please use . Thank you so much. (Actually...if you give tours I'd love to see what other wonders are in you collection).

    3. Hello Peter. I'm a HUGE fan of Special Effects cinematography in general (wanted to be an effects cameraman when I was a child) and an even bigger fan of Douglas Shearer, Warren Newcombe, and "Buddy" Gillespie.
      I wish I'd been born about 50 years earlier so I could have stowed away in the bowels of the MGM Sound Department...and the Effects and Opticals departments as well and then gone on to work with these geniuses...primarily with Doug Shearer (I am a production sound mixer and consider him a mentor, even though I never got to meet him).
      If you were able to publish your pictures of the Dupy units I'd love to get the link, or even copies, if that's at all possible. Actually, if you do tours, I'd LOVE to see the unit, and whatever other marvels you might happen to have, in person.
      Would love to hear back from you when you have a chance. My email is .
      Tony Smyles
      323 899 3982