Thursday, 12 August 2010

Russell who? ... a photo tribute to Russell Lawson - career matte painter for Universal Studios

*I would like to acknowledge Domingo Lizcano, foremost matte historian, for helping me out with this photo tribute by supplying me with a significant number of rare frame grabs and images which supplemented my collection considerably.

 While assembling images and data for today's blog I was hard pressed to find very much info at all, despite the fact that Russ Lawson was one of Hollywood's busiest and most productive matte artists.  Not through lack of effort on my part, there just isn't much out there I'm afraid.  Universal has always been very poor at releasing back catalogue films on both DVD and even VHS.  The huge Universal and Universal-International catalogue still remains relatively untouched with so few titles actually available.  Twenty five years ago we'd be treated to many of these old classics on television on a fairly frequent basis, especially on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and a great afternoon's entertainment was certain - plenty of old pirate yarns and adventures, often loaded with matte shots and fun  in general.  The current abysmal state of television here in New Zealand has seen all of this old time movie slots vanish, with only recent multi-plex rubbish ever broadcast in movie schedules.
Throughout much of the history of Universal Studios, from the early thirties up until the early sixties, Lawson was very much a part of every picture released by that big studio with matte painting requirements - and as is usual for such backroom workers, never received a single film credit (to my knowledge) until his final film TARAS BULBA in 1962, and that film wasn't even a Universal film - rather a United Artists show, which says alot about his former lifelong employer.

Aside from several diversions into poverty row programmers in the thirties, Lawson was THE Universal matte department - a one man band, much as his counterpart Jan Domela was over at Paramount.  Throughout Russell's career several prominent photographic effects heads would oversee and of course receive screen credit on hundreds of Universal productions.  Most notable of these departmental heads was the legendary and extremely complex John Phipps Fulton - one of the genuine giants in the special effects arena.  Fulton's long time assistants Jerome Ash and David Stanley Horsley and finally toward the end of Lawson's career under Clifford Stine all directed the photographic effects unit, but with Fulton making the most profound statement in the role.

Early Universal films where matte painting was involved saw a teaming up of Lawson with veteran Jack Cosgrove on such films as THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  As readers of this blog will be aware Cosgrove himself would go on to senior roles in the latter part of the thirties establishing and running prestige boutique matte departments such as the highly regarded Selznick special photographic effects unit.

The bread and butter of Universal was to a significant extent gothic horror films - a genre in which the studio excelled.  Naturally enough Lawson's glass painting was evident in many of these and a certain style evolved, with many wonderful examples illustrated here.  Haunted houses, forboding mansions and castles sillouetted in moonlight accompanied with wolf howls and requisite thunder and lightning are classic images that many of us remember sometimes more than the actual picture the glass shot appeared in.

Universal turned out quality product within this genre and knew a successful trend when it saw one.  As such the studio was slow to adapt and embark on new fangled processes such as colour.  In fact it took the studio almost seven years after the established use of the process to finally shoot a film in technicolour - the 1942 extravaganza  ARABIAN NIGHTS - which itself was loosly based on THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD.  The Universal film in turn started it's own little trend with a number of quasi-sequels and follow ups.  Russell's matte work in ARABIAN NIGHTS is beautiful - not just the 'special effect' but also the crispness of the composite photography where brush work is evident in some shots, almost suggesting an original negative marry up the image is that clean.  For fine examples of Russ's mattes on this film see later in this blog.

From H.G Wells and Bela Lugosi to Abbott and Costello and Stanley Kubrick, Russ Lawson painted for 'em all and I hope this small collection of frames will represent the bredth of Lawson's career.

For those interested in the long career of special effects maestro John P.Fulton, click here.

The Universal matte department was probably established by Norman O.Dawn in the 1920's.  In an interview sometime before his death, retired Universal matte maestro Albert Whitlock stated that to the best of his knowledge the original easel he had painted glasses on for decades was handcrafted by Norman Dawn himself.  The success of the Universal mattes and composites  were as much the effects cinematographer as it were the head of department, with long time visual effects cameraman Roswell A.Hoffman photographing each and every Lawson painting and carrying out all necessary optical work where required.  Hoffman dedicated his entire working life to the studio - from the early thirties on such shows as FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN right up until the 1974 effects Oscar winner EARTHQUAKE.  Hoffman must have composited thousands of trick shots over this extraordinary career.  As I've written before it's a shame that the authors of The Invisible Art - the Legends of Matte Painting didn't interview Hoffman before he passed away in 2002 as the Universal history in the book is sadly lacking.

Of the final few films that Lawson painted on I've learnt some interesting things of late.  SPARTACUS was a sizable matte showcase, even though most publications state that there is just the one matte shot in the Kubrick epic - the great Ellenshaw view of Rome (which interestingly was started on glass by Albert Whitlock but for unknown reasons Peter Ellenshaw took over and completed the mighty shot).  The film has a number of ambitious matte shots showing armies stretching into the distance, Roman architecture, beautiful sunset soaked crowds - all painted by Russ, though not many people acknowledge, nor seem to be aware of these  (see below).

  Another of Lawson's last films, and the only one in which he received screen credit (to the best of my knowledge) TARAS BULBA is packed with spectacular, grand matte shots which really are good.  I've read recently that Whitlock also painted on TARAS BULBA which if correct is a curious crossover of the two talents - the outgoing and encumbent Universal matte men working on the same show.  If this is so I suspect that Whitlock painted as a sub contractor to Howard A.Anderson or Butler-Glouner who were the co effects providers.  I'd like to know the truth behind this interesting revelation.

According to author Rolf Giesen, Lawson came into a large inheritance in the early sixties and retired from a life long Universal career, with his parting words in handing over the keys to the matte department to the new arrival Whitlock ..."you can have it all".  I think Lawson passed away in the 1980's, though I'm not certain on this.


THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN glass shots by Lawson with Cosgrove.

Possibly the first prestige film to put Universal on the map.  Frank Booth was effects director in those early years.
DELUGE - a film I've only ever seen the main spectacular tidal wave segment from.  Lawson painted glass shots on this, possibly the very first disaster movie from 1932.
Bram Stoker's DRACULA (1931) with it's atmospheric mattes of Transylvania.  Photographic effects by Frank Booth with some reports suggesting that these mattes may have been painted by Conrad Tritschler who specialised in glass painting from the 1920's onward.
The H.G Wells story THE INVISIBLE MAN glass shots.
A rare shot break down from an even rarer film -James Whale's 1937 THE ROAD BACK - a film thought to be now lost. A complex optical jigsaw by John Fulton with actual location, miniature train and tunnel and Lawson glass matte.
Two classic mattes from the excellent WEREWOLF OF LONDON with a familiar location landmark rocky outcrop seen in dozens of westerns and serials visible in the shot at left.
A departure from gothic chills for both Lawson, Fulton as well as director James Whale - the original 1936 version of SHOWBOAT with Fulton's miniature riverboat and terrific Lawson set extensions.
The title structure from THE TOWER OF LONDON.  "You can check out any time you want but you may never leave", as the poet once said.
Some Lawsen mattes for effects director James Basevi, from the 1936 film THE BLOCKADE.

The 1936 comedy classic MY MAN GODFREY features an elaborate title sequence orchestrated by John P.Fulton where the camera pans all around NYC with glittering neon name credits appearing on various buildings (even Fulton).  This all appears to be a vast painted cityscape by Lawson with wonderful animation of the sparkling lights and added moving water of the Hudson River.  The sequence finally keys in on a garbage dump matted under the Brooklyn Bridge.
Two more effects shots from MY MAN GODFREY

Bela Lugosi's INVISIBLE RAY (I think?)
Evocative mattes from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN
Dazzling matte effects from the 1940 THE WOLFMAN with Lon Chaney, with the upper frame part of a tracking shot with foreground tree appearing to be a separate glass to allow correct perspective shift during the camera move.

One of Lawson's best - an invisible matte composite from GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN with a beautiful painted house and virtually imperceptible soft blend joining the plate to the painting.
A well earned break from the gothic horrors, Lawson worked with John P.Fulton in providing a number of terrific matte shots for some hilarious set pieces in this W.C Fields classic.  Fulton also executed some wonderful travelling mattes for some ingenious and wacky moments where Fields bourbon bottle falls out of an airplane window(!) and he does what any good bourbon drinker would do - he leaps out of the plane to chase after the errant beverage... and it just get's strange from there on in!
THE INVISIBLE AGENT - painted Luftwaffe airstrip

Universal goes Technicolour...and about time too!  It is 1942 after all.

Many wonderful glass shots are featured throughout this delightful take on the classic fables of the East, ARABIAN NIGHTS.  The clarity and crispness of the matte shots are so good that even brush work can be detected on at least two shots.  I don't know what compositing method was used at the studio but these mattes almost look original negative in quality.
An iconic Universal shot - from HOUSE OF DRACULA featuring a small stage set, separate plate of the ocean and an extensive Lawson painting of the castle, cliffs and a wonderful sky.
An obscure cash in on the Wolf cycle featuring a young June Lockhart - later to be starring in LOST IN SPACE.  This film should not be confused with ILSA SHE WOLF OF THE S.S.
Mattes from the same film.
One of my all time favourite films, and Hitchcock's finest hour in using visual effects, SABOTEUR is a non stop thrill a minute movie packed to the hilt with amazing matte painted shots and other visual effects supervised by John Fulton, who oddly went uncredited.  This superb film could so easily have snapped the 1942 special effects Oscar, but don't get me onto Oscar crimes!  The sheer number of mattes in this film suggest to me that Lawson must have had help. Some documents suggested that future art director John DeCuir may have had a hand in painting some of the mattes in this show. I can't see one artist knocking out so many (and these examples are but a few of the dozens in the film).  For more on SABOTEUR click here to see my blog dedicated exclusively to the effects in this great film.

Some mattes from the wacky Olson and Johnson farce HELLZAPOPPIN (1941) with the lower left shot being of particular note.  The actors pick up Lawsen's artwork place it against the wall whereby the 'live action' plate magically materialises thus becoming a full on Lawsen matte composite in motion, while the actors watch and comment on how it advances the plotline!!!  John Fulton supervised the effects in this film, and on his blog page you'll see more amazing optical gags.

A Lawson aerial view of London from the Sherlock Holmes drama DRESSED TO KILL
Further adventures of the Arabian Nights - with these mattes from ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES - another of the many Jon Hall/Maria Montez team ups that cashed in on the 1942 original.  Of trivia interest, star Jon Hall later moved into motion picture cameraman work and worked with Albert Whitlock and Ross Hoffman in shooting the endless plates of seagulls for inclusion into the famous Whitlock 'birds eye view' of Bodega Bay from THE BIRDS.
Memorable painted extensions to sets for HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, with the ice cavern being my favourite.
Universal takes on Technicolour again - this time with a tedious version of the timeless classic PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Again, the matte composites are remarkably clean.
Probable matte from the Robert Siodmak-Burt Lancaster film noir CRISS CROSS
Wonderful old school 3 strip Technicolour as it used to look in such ideally suited vehicles as COBRA WOMAN.
Perspective problems tend to plague these mattes from AGAINST ALL FLAGS
The first of many mattes and visual effects provided for the comedy team Abbott and Costello - with these frames from ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS
Typical cost saving matte application - these from ABBOTT AND COSTELLO IN THE NAVY
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER - featuring an incredible climax in a system of caves, some of which I suspect may be miniatures and some shots painted - with lots of optical work putting Lou Costello into numerous hazardous situations.  Great sequence.
For ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS Russ Lawson painted several nice shots, which in the comedy context and when combined with the many hilarious David Horsley optical gags of out of control rocket ships ducking and diving between NYC skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty etc are great fun.  I'll do a blog on all these old Horsley effects too when I find time as I have lots of great images.
A minor Universal-International spectacle THE GOLDEN BLADE
Without question these are the most identifiable matte shots associated with Universal.  Lawson's paintings are now icons of the fifties science fiction genre, and when viewed with all of the terrific pyro overlays and optical gags by Ross Hoffman they deserve the status.  THIS ISLAND EARTH was a contentious effects film with much aggravation between effects supervisor David Horsley and studio head Ed Muhl (who by all accounts was a colossal prick) with Muhl firing Horsley on the spot for delays and ordering him off the lot right there and then.  D.O.P Cliff Stine was called over to finish the effects work... though I digress.  For my effects retrospective on THIS ISLAND EARTH click here.
Probable painted oil derricks and maybe tall building for Rock Hudson's WRITTEN ON THE WIND.
Matted in ship from CITY BENEATH THE SEA, supervised by David Horsley.
Beautiful Lawson painted change of seasons from the Douglas Sirk picture ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS.
Yet another Sirk/Hudson pair up - this being BATTLE HYMN, in CinemaScope
Very nice Lawson matte effects from THE FLAME OF ARABY
Jack Arnold's TARANTULA with desert matted around the house.
The sci-fi boom of the fifties kept Lawson busy, with these mattes from the rather good THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. For more Lawsen mattes on this and other fifties creature features click here
The not at all good MOLE PEOPLE does in fact have very cool matte paintings.
Despite obvious perspective issues, Russ lends a sense of pagentry to this minor 1955 costumer.
The idylic woodland cabin in the mountains, from MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES with James Cagney.
A Lawsen matte painted extension of the Universal backlot town square for MA AND PA KETTLE DOWN ON THE FARM

Seattle during the Gold Rush as seen in the James Stewart western THE FAR COUNTRY  (1955)

Some more interesting mattes, these from ABBOTT AND COSTELLO LOST IN ALASKA (which I tried to include with the others in that series but the Blogger just doesn't seem to want to let me do that!)
Universal's 1953 film SOUTH COLUMN matte painted vista.

Manhatten skyline and tunnel ceiling painted in for THE DEADLY MANTIS.  For more on all of the mattes and opticals featured in these films see my separate blog dedicated expressly to them.
Although I'm not certain, I'd say that the ceiling and cave walls of Gill Man's lair are painted in by Russ.  The Gill Man, now there's a movie monster!
Frontier drama painted scenery as seen in CANYON PASSAGE

Douglas Sirk strikes again - THE SIGN OF THE PAGAN which was a CinemaScope picture though these frames are from a pan and scan television version unfortunately.

A beautiful matte shot from LOVER COME BACK (1961) which was made right around the time of Lawsen's departure and Whitlock's tenure.

Two mattes painted to show a change in the landscape over a period of time, from CHIEF CRAZY HORSE, with even the majority of the Indian teepee's painted into the frame on the right.

Many spectacular mattes from the Raoul Walsh adventure A WORLD IN HIS ARMS
Another variation on the Arabian Nights theme, THE GOLDEN HORDE.
They keep cranking them out - more oriental fantasy, this time in a comedy guise as THE DESERT HAWK
Not as bad as it looks - a quite entertaining late entry into the horror cycle with a Hindu temple that may be either a miniature or a glass painting.
Two Lawson shots from the CinemaScope prehistoric adventure THE LAND UNKNOWN.  For much more on this film see my earlier blog on 'Creature Feature Special FX' by clicking here.
The excruitiating Middle Ages saga THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH which despite all it's hype featured just one matte and some of the shoddiest art direction-set decoration outside of the atrocious Warner film THE SILVER CHALICE.
A highly dubious cheapie with a wonderful title font, THE LEECH WOMAN has the one matte shot with jungle added above the actors in what may be a recycled stock matte from another Universal film as this show is filled with stock shots... you know the sort, actors trekking through soundstage jungle and pointing every which way at non existant wildlife "hey look at that"- cut to grainy scratched old safari stock shots of every bloody critter imaginable!  Oh, Man!
Everyone knows this house...Hitchcock's PSYCHO which to features this particular shot which is a matte shot of the house with a different sky added.  Whether it was painted or a second unit shot of the moving clouds I don't know, but consultant Saul Bass took credit for this matte (as he did for the shower murder too).  The shot is at the end of an elaborate and quite brilliant effects sequence where a number of components are strung together by editing and rear projection.  The camera starts on the dead Janet Leigh's eye and pulls out across the bathroom and toward the door whereby a transition to a different set altogether accomplished via an invisible optical wipe and a totally seperate setup is resumed, that of the motel bedroom and the camera tracks toward the window, which is a rear process screen, whereby the above illustrated shot is projected.  A flawless combination of three different sets and an optical split screened sky!  Terrific!

Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS - or more correctly Dalton Trumbo's SPARTACUS as he wrote such a fine screenplay!  Popularly written about as the epic with the one matte shot (by Peter Ellenshaw) yet the truth of the matter is that the show has around 12 mattes by Russell Lawson, plus some split screens of marching armies by Clifford Stine.
Among the many mattes are these lovely painted crowds stretching far off into the painted sunset and numerous expansive shots of Roman encampments and the like.  I don't know how it was for Lawson but Craig Barron told me once that Ellenshaw used to get calls at 3am in the morning from Kubrick just to keep tabs on his epic matte painting, which drove Peter to distraction.
One of the last films that Russell would have painted on at Universal.
A sampling of the many terrific mattes from TARAS BULBA - probably Lawson's last film to paint on, and ironically his first to get screen credit on!  Some reports state that Al Whitlock also painted on this show, possibly as sub-contractor to Butler-Glouner who had used Whitlock several times on the AIP Poe films.

Well, that's about it (for now).  I'll add further Lawson shots as they come to hand.  Coming soon.... a tribute to the amazing career  of special effects legend John P.Fulton (among other projects waiting in the wings...)  ENJOY  :)


  1. Amazing tribute. This blog ist truly unbelivable.
    Thanks so much,

  2. I'm enjoying your blog Peter.

    There seemed to be more seat-of-the-pants artistry in classic FX work.



  3. Thanks guys - it's gratifying indeed to know that others out there appreciate the craftsmanship that created all those wonderful movie moments - a form of craftsmanship that is now all but lost.

    Peter C

  4. Hi Peter,

    Albert told me that he painted scenes for the horses jumping over a chasm for "Taras Bulba". As Howard A. Anderson, Butler-Glouner and Universal (Lawson) were involved in that show I cannot tell under which banner.

    Rolf Giesen