Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Earthquake - it really was an event.

This one sheet was on my bedroom ceiling for years!
EARTHQUAKE, a film that back in it's day, 1974 totally blew my  impressionable teenaged mind, especially when exhibited on first release in 70mm six track stereo on the huge curved screen at the now sadly deceased Cinerama theatre in Auckland - and in the new multi-sensation shattering Sensurround. It really was "an event", just as the posters proclaimed.

EARTHQUAKE was the film for me (after KING KONG and maybe JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) back around the mid seventies, and one of the first that drew me into the netherworld that is (or at least used to be) matte paintings.  I was transfixed by this film - the reliable and square jawed Charlton Heston (whom I was lucky enough to meet in person some years later), cool mo-fo Richard Roundtree - 'Shaft' himself, ample bosomed Victoria Principal before she drove us all crazy doing these damned informercials and everybody's favourite Irish cop, George Kennedy...the dream cast.  Hell, even Walter Matthau fronted up unbilled as a drunk survivor.  I was hooked on Matthau, as the fantastic (original) TAKING OF PELHAM 123 was out around the same time - one of my all time favourites.   I was not disappointed - EARTHQUAKE was BIG.  I saw it on opening day and the queue went around the block.

The film of course grossed many times it's relatively small $7M budget with over $36M in US rentals alone.  Worldwide it did extremely well, which would have pleased Universal no end.  It's actually pretty amazing just how grand things look (and sound) on that small budget.  JAWS came out not long after and that cost $8M.  The similarly themed 1974 epic TOWERING INFERNO cost $14M.

Well looking back at the special effects I can see quite a few cracks in the work, no pun intended, but all things considered it still shapes up pretty darned well.  The picture moves along well (unless you're saddled with the abominable US network TV version with lots of sundry characters and bogus sub plots to pad out an extra 40 minutes.  The patented Sensurround ultra low signal sound system, effectively the 70's forerunner to the present day 'sub woofer' bass channel was brilliant!  The audiences never knew what hit them.  Fillings rattled out, contact lenses shattered, pacemakers shuddered to a halt and many a sphincter released, involunterily.  It really was a grand gimmick - sadly just used in four films - this one, MIDWAY, ROLLERCOASTER and one of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA films - I think it was CYLON ATTACK or CONQUEST OF THE EARTH.  The proposed Universal version of KING KONG that never got made was to have been in Sensurround as well.  How great that would have been,

Whitlock painting at home, in the matte camera room and on the EQ set
Effects wise EARTHQUAKE had a profound effect upon me at the time.  I loved the miniatures, which to me were astoundingly well shot, almost all in natural daylight with real LA scenery purposely lined up beyond the miniature to tie it all together.  Brilliant idea, and they still look great.

I'd been familiar with Albert Whitlock but only by way of his mysterious 'matte supervisor' credit on many sixties Universal films, most common of which happened to be my favourite film as a kid, MUNSTER GO HOME, which I'd seen around 30 times! That name Whitlock (as with Bud Westmore) on that film and others was one I always noticed - much as John Fulton, Ray   Harryhausen, Peter Ellenshaw and L.B Abbott who all fell into that same boat for this writer as utterly recognisable names up front in the credit roll..

Albert Whitlock was the key effects man on this show as we all know, with long time Universal effects cinematographer Clifford Stine handling all miniature photography and special processes such as the front projection sequences.  Whitlock's matte shots had me entranced.  The book on the making of this film made me aware of his work and the praise by the rest of the production on his talents.  The American Cinematographer issue for this show sealed the deal for me, with in depth interviews with, among others, Whitlock, Stine and I think Glen Robinson.
In the late 70's I saw some of these Whitlock glass paintings on the Universal Studios tour at the time, which naturally blew me away.

So, on with the show.... the special photographic and miniature effects of EARTHQUAKE

Special Photographic Effects  Albert Whitlock
Special Effects Cinematographer Clifford Stine, A.S.C
Matte Photography  Roswell A. Hoffman, A.S.C
Matte Camera Operator  Mike Moramarco
Rotoscope Artist  Millie Winebrenner
Key Grip  Larry Schuler
Miniatures Supervisor  Glen Robinson
Special Mechanical Effects  Frank Brendel and Jack McMasters
Special Camera Rigs  Louis Ami

The first matte shot of the film - the invisibly painted gash in the earth with foreground action on backlot set.

I'm 90% sure this is a Whitlock matte with all painted except a small area lower frame where the kid rides his bike.  The same view with destruction appears after the quake and is definitely Whitlock.

One of Albert's best ever matte shots - so perfect is Al's sense of 'light' and hue that this shot slipped by totally unnoticed for the majority of viewers.
The quake hits - with the outstanding Glen Robinson miniatures triggered to collapse by hidden piano wire gags.  What sells this and so many EQ miniature shots is the decision to shoot them out of doors in natural light, with real LA sky and as with this shot actual San Fernando valley scenery deliberately lined up by cinematographer Cliff Stine stretching into the distance.  The foreground right side is a stage set with falling stunt guys split screened by Ross Hoffman to marry up to the miniature shoot.

Yep, there were some dodgy effecys that made me cringe back then and make my toes curl still to this day... the phony optical TM of cartoon blood spatter in the elevator fall is one such effect that, along with the 'bending' skyscraper filmed off twisting mylar.... Oh, the humanity!  These are best forgotten, which is hard as they are both in the film!

Glen Robinson's miniature power pylons twisting.

A wonderful Whitlock photographic effect - matte painted Hollywood Blvd on left side of frame, backlot falling set on right side with painted damage at tops of those real buildings, the guy is exquisitely frame by frame rotoscoped by Millie Winebrenner to run right up to camera.  The one flaw is that some debris on the right falls out from behind some of Whitlock's painted sky and roof edging!!

When I saw this in the trailer I knew I just had to see this film.  Large scale Glen Robinson miniature set shot by Clifford Stine, it was a definite 'wow' back in '74I recently discovered veteran Universal model man Charlie Baker who had worked as far back as THE INVISIBLE MAN in the thirties with John Fulton may have been on the miniatures crew for EQ

Flawlessly shot miniature Spanish bell tower collapse that works due to 'real' sunlight and sky.

Another flawless Robinson/Stine model sequence.  Large scale stilt homes, again well cut into the live action with terrific results.  Had the decision been wrongly made to shoot on an effects stage I feel these miniatures would have looked pretty poor.  Incandescent lighting at the time wasn't easy to simulate the correct kelvin of  'daylight' and those sorts of model shots in general always stood out.  Things are better now with improved lighting and colour grading to get things much closer to reality.
Glen Robinson walking toward us, and his elaborate miniature outdoor set.

Although the model shots are quick cuts for the most part, it seemed sufficient for audiences of the day, unlike today where things are at such overkill I can barely get involved in the action.

A good demonstration of the scale and manufacture of the miniatures.
The centrepiece of EQ - the pause after the big shake as seen with this superb Al Whitlock glass painting.

The painting with up to seven layers of fire and smoke elements as it appears in the film.  The curious flare at the extreme right has always puzzled me, as there is such an obvious  straight edged 'cut off' - almost as if what we were seeing was a result of overscan (or stuff thought to be outside of the anamorphic ratio?) - it's always bugged me. However I was lucky enough to see this painting in person 30+ years ago and it blew me away - and still does!!  Curious trivia note - I've stayed at that wrecked main building, the Holiday Inn just off Hollywood Blvd three times and this painting always loomed big in my mind when reading the evacuation procedures on the hotel door!   :(

Close detail from the above glass shot demonstrates Whitlock's consumate skill in interpreting 'phenomena' - that is the haze, backlight, angle of the sun and all matters which so few fellow matte painters could equal.  Whitlock himself called his technique as being more closely alighned with the French Impressionists than that of academic painters.  In the golden era generally the matte artist was an illustrator, and usually an expert draughtsman.  Whitlock was what protege Syd Dutton termed a 'paint pusher' - someone who moved the paint around and eventually the viewpoint would come to the fore, often by accidental means.  Whitlock picked up this method while working under fellow Englishman and master matte painter Peter Ellenshaw while at Disney.  Whitlock acknowledged Ellenshaw as having done much to advance Al's technique and ability in this artform.

Whitlock art with smoke elements.
The infamous post quake backing.  Much has been written about this, and I want to add my two cents worth.  Many books claim it's Whitlock's art but it's not.  The backing was painted by Philippines born scenic artist and trick shot pioneer Benjamin Rosella (seen above at work on it) who from the mid sixties was one of the scenic artists at JC Backings in Hollywood.  Although Whitlock was a backing artist in the thirties and forties in England I'm sure he had little to do with this other than to do preparatory oil painted sketches or maybe highly finished 3'x5' art from which these skilled artists copied and transferred to a huge backing.  Rosella's art is superb  - and has all the hallmarks of Whitlock, but I just don't think Al would have had time to go near it.  Al had 22 paintings to complete within 12 weeks for this show, as well as supervise all photographic effects.  I asked Al's cameraman and long time friend Bill Taylor about this backing and he told me that Al definitely had nothing to do with it, and it was a sore point that it was always attributed to him.

Views of the erected backing in preparation for shooting.  To me the entire backing thing failed miserably.  As skilled as the thing was, the perspective didn't match that of the live action foreground, the incandescant lighting was a write off too.  Maybe if they had built the set and erected this outdoors, or even used forced perspective miniatures as the view the lengthy sequence may have worked far better.  Beautiful scenic art but not well utilised.

Some of Al's dramatic downview matte painted scene enhancements, complimented with the falling stunt people being carried over the matte demarkation by means of frame by frame hand drawn travelling mattes, done by long, long time Universal roto artist Millie Winebrenner.

More extreme painted set additions by Whitlock, with added haze and smoke.
A great behind the scenes view with Whitlock matte art and blackened areas for later insertion of live action elements.  The hanging guy is roto matted against the Whitlock art.

A later view using the same matte painting though with added fire element, which is oddly shot on the wrong perspective.

One of the 22 mattes Whitlock painted which would be used in some 40 odd cuts throughout the picture.

The aftermath - mostly matte art with numerous practical effect elements added.

Wilson Plaza - practically all matte art, again with several leyers of optical fire elements and so forth.  Whitlock was amazingly quick at painting all of these shots, often finishing a complete matte in five hours and turning out as many as three mattes a week when things were going smoothly.

Whitlock used the same painting and as a time saving measure just altered it for a dusk viewpoint.
More devastation, practically all painted with Richard Roundtree driving through.
Original Whitlock glass painting, now on display at Universal Theme Park in Florida.

The dry LA river bed, post the big shake.  All Whitlock glass art with the exception of just a small stretch of ground for Genevieve Bujold to run up to the road.  Fires etc added in optical printer later.

The second shock hits - a curious sequence which suffers from amazingly poor choice of not to roto the falling masonry which all passed behind the split screen near the bottom.  A great set up, well lined up and lit, but why leave that glaryingly obvious matte line that swallowed up the debris as if by magic??  The bottom left shot is of the miniature set minus the split screened addition of extras running away.

Top left, an example of blue screened masonry falling downward onto running extras.  The other two frames demonstrate the use of front screen projection, orchestrated by Clifford Stine.  I believe that former head of effects David Stanley Horsley was interested in running the effects on EQ, but due to his severe falling out with the studio it never came to fruition.

"This used to be a hell of a town" - Whitlock matte art split screened onto backlot street with flames added in the matte department by  matte cameraman Ross Hoffman.

And just when you thought it was safe to put your finger in the dyke...... KA-POW!  Large miniature dam on backlot breaks and floods entire valley in a sequence that benefitted by doing it day for night to conceal the scale of the water, not always an easy thing to do.

Completing and shooting the dam miniature.
Al's final matte - a wonderfully loose and free 'scribble' that once filmed and comped with practical effects looked a million dollars.  Whitlock and Hoffman were especially proud of the device they invented to give a reflective flicker on building facades from a fire burning nearby.  Magnificent, and as with most Whitlock shots, all original negative first generation.

Not from EQ, but one of my favourite photos of Albert Whitlock at work - this being one of the stunning mattes from THE STING, made at Universal the year before.  Photo by Ross Hoffman.


  1. NZ Pete:
    Another great walk down SPFX memory lane; thanks!
    BTW: According to a supplemental on the DVD for EQ, it was mentioned that the mylar/"bending skyscraper" shot was originally a test shot, specifically of The Black Tower, Universal's headquarters. Either the producers decided to leave it in as a gag, or because time and money were short and they needed filler.

  2. Great article Pete.

    Filming miniatures in natural light always helps. Derek Meddings did it a lot when he went into films after the Anderson years.

    That matte with the truck and the guy (Heston?) and the hills behind him is fantastic!

    I'm more used to seeing the Earthquake shots with Cylon Raiders comped in from the first episode of Galactica 1980!

    I hope you do some more stuff on Universal VFX. The Fulton piece was exceptional too.



  3. Pete, would you know what the "device" was that allowed Al to put the fire reflections into that last matte painting shot ?

  4. Hi Ivan,

    I didn't know there was a special edition of EQ on disc? I must learn more.


    I'm putting together a little photo tribute to Syd Dutton with quite a few of his Universal and Illusion Arts mattes. I'm afraid the blogger might fill up too fast and 'cut me off in my prime'.

    Anonymous - I'll call you 'John Doe' which pertains very closely to my former career - nuff said! I don't know about the actual gizmo for that effect. My amateur guess is that Al did some sort of separate pass with some sort of animation with coloured gels - but that's just a guess on my part. I do recall seeing some sort of gels or something on one of those paintings at Universal, but it's so long ago i can't recall/

  5. Peter,
    I'm nearly certain that the DVD sent to me by Netflix (is that service down in NZ?) had either a commentary or a supplemental feature with that info. (I don't think I'm making it up...)

    BTW, while the blood splatter is cheap and awful, as a kid in the theater that day, it was great!

    Keep up the great work!

  6. To my frequent 'anonymous' reader - RE Earthquake's gag device to add flickers to painted sections, well I asked Bill Taylor this and a zillion other questions and I'm pleased to say that Bill is extremely helpful and a genuinely nice guy. The technical info is extensive so for our purposes here in the comment reply I'll paste a little of Bill's explanantion:
    "The flicker effect used one of Al's favorite techniques, the cel overlay. When he needed to isolate or create a highlight on a painting, he would tape a big cel over the dry painting and then paint the highlights he wanted to control separately onto the cel. For example, if he wanted to show cloud shadows moving over hills, he would paint the hills in shadow on the main painting and then paint the highlights on the cel. Then he would transfer the cel in register, taped to a new, unpainted glass the same size as the original. (We would shoot a hand test of the overlay and the original painting on film and develop it quickly in the darkroom, then project that negative onto the new glass to position the cel.) Then the cel would be double-exposed onto the painting through a moving foreground glass with, say, cloud shadows painted on it. The illusion of moving shadows was remarkably convincing. You would swear the shadows wrapped around the hills in three dimensions, which of course they did not".

    Now you can't ask for much more than that.


  7. Re: reflective flicker gag - here's some more info I missed courtesy of Bill Taylor...
    ..."In the case of Earthquake, the foreground device that modulated the painted cel was a rotating wheel with a pattern painted on it. Any kind of rotating wheel would be photographed in several passes at different speeds, so that the patterns would change as they moved, and there would be no repeats".

  8. I was 10 when this movie came out. The Cinerama theater in my home town was just across the river. A kid's ticket was one dollar, and my friends and i went to see it about six or seven times! Some of the older kids made fun of me because i couldn't bring myself to laugh along with them when people were falling to their deaths.

    But i certainly got a laugh out of Marjoe Gortner's character. What a great role for him.

    On another note, I have a theory that most disaster movies were merely 50s style melodramas set against a great disaster. The melodrama had gone out of fashion at the box office, but it was able to have its last gasp in the catastrophe epic!!! (Earthquake director MARK ROBSON had indeed directed two such melodramas: Peyton Place, and Valley of the Dolls!)

  9. Hi Otto,

    Well I too saw this at the Cinerama theatre - though without question not the same one. I saw loved that CINERAMA logo on those theatres and the fact that the whole marketing, exhibition and viewing experience at the time really was a big event. Like you, i saw it several times (70mm + Sennsurround) and it really got me hooked on effects, and bringing to my attention one gentleman by the name of Albert Whitlock!

  10. This blog is intended primarily as a tribute to the inventiveness and ingenuity of the craft of the matte painter during Hollywood’s Golden Era. Earthquake really was an event.

  11. Fantastic. Thank you for this. I loved these scenes so much I started making my own versions and filmin them in super8. I even presented my own little version at my school. I Got to very high standard before hormones kicked in and found other things to play with. At 45, I plan to start again with my own earthquake special effects this coming year on video.

    Mark Joseph

  12. This is really priceless. This movie has always been one of my favourites since I was a child and I was eaten alive by curiosity to know all about its technical gimnicks. Love this topic and the way it reveals the making of process.

    Thank you very much indeed :-)

  13. Really great post. I had the experience of seeing a revival of this at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd in Sensurround. I was so cool, and a little unsettling to be watching the Hollywood Dam collapse on film knowing it was practically on top of the theater..

  14. I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving my Grandfather, Ben Resella, credit for the beautiful work he did on Earthquake. He was an amazingly creative individual who continues to inspire our entire family to this day. I happened to purchase a Special Effects book for my 9 year old son and last night he noticed "Grandpa's painting". Sadly, no mention of his name was made. I had no idea that he was not given credit for his work for so long and it appears as if you're the only one to ever bring this point up publicly online. He passed away while residing at the MPTV Retirement Home 5 years ago next week.

  15. Hi there and Kamusta Ka,

    I appreciate your note very much and if you would be happy to, I'd like to chat about your grandfather via email. I really only learned of Ben through a fellow special effects friend in Spain who is more of an expert than me in Ben's particular area of expertise - those big painted backdrops used to add so much expansion to movie sets. I know my colleague would also love to chat with you about whatever you can tell us about Ben. We strive to 'tell the story' on fellows like him, who worked so tirelessly for so long, often without credit, and often with nobody even knowing of their existence.

    O Sige Ingat


  16. Huge fan of Earthquake. Its a classic. It is the film I have to thank for igniting my appreciation for Visual Effects. I was only 8 when it came out in 74 but I immediately wanted to know how it was done. What I love so much about the FX shots is their organic-ness. Shot in real light outdoors and then cleverly combined with studio elements. The shot that always became my signature shot was the truck cartwheeling off the freeway and the over pass colapses. In 1974 nobody had seen anything like this in a movie theater. Albert Whitlocks Matte shots are amazing and give the film so much scope. I've seen the film countless times. Though it is a bit clunky in plot it is one the classics of the Disaster genre. I still quote lines from it today.