Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Warner Bros. Presents.... a salute to the versitility and ingenuity of Stage 5: Warner's golden era effects department

Close your eyes and imagine Max Steiner's fanfare right ... now!

For several years from the late seventies I was an employee of Warner Bros (as well as Columbia Pictures as a joint operation) here in the New Zealand distribution office whereby I managed print shipping to cinemas throughout NZ and a number of South Pacific territories such as Western Samoa, Fiji, Tokelau Islands and other picture postcard places that Northern Hemisphere readers would never have heard of I'm sure.  A lot of time was dedicated to restoring 35mm and 16mm prints of old Columbia and Warner titles which were amazingly viable box office entities in their own right even years after general release.  Eternally popular Warner titles like ENTER THE DRAGON, BLACK BELT JONES and even the old Burt Lancaster picture THE CRIMSON PIRATE were constantly out on the circuit and screening on double, triple and even "see 7 movies from midnight till midday" kind of deals (at decidedly seedy fleapits like The Astor, Dominion road and the no-man's zone which was The State in Upper Symonds street in Auckland (a little bit like downtown LA in which I had the unwelcomed and utterly terrifying experience of becoming lost in with my family one night about ten years ago - I still have cold sweats to this day thinking about that truly nightmarish experience).  Thankfully those bottom of the cinematic barrel cinemas are long gone, as, hopefully are the denizens who would inhabit them.

The job was cool, and as a confirmed film buff I could screen as many old prints of Warner, Columbia and United Artists (yep, we handled their catalogue as well) as my eyes could handle.  That and the collectibility of vintage one sheets and stills dating back a fair ways.  I still shudder at the memory of pristine 70mm prints such as John Wayne's THE COWBOYS and Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH being destroyed and sent to the dump as they were taking up valuable space.  Enough to make you cry - but that was the film distribution business.

I'm a fan of movie scores and title cards and you'd be hard pressed to beat the magnificent Max Steiner fanfare that accompanied the WB shield on hundreds of classic era Warner films.  (Steiner produced a similarly dynamic audio sting for David O'Selznick's logo too) Those trademark Steiner logo themes sure packed a punch with the full Warner scoring orchestra providing the punch.  What a joy it is to play a restored DVD with Steiner's fanfare in 5.1 surround!  Interestingly, as a former Warner employee I recall the fracar that surrounded the post production of the Mel Brooks classic BLAZING SADDLES.  Brooks wanted the original WB shield to open the show, and the original Steiner theme but the front office wouldn't hear of it!  Brooks apparently had to fight tooth and nail to secure this wonderful old school introduction to his comedy, and after much threats and so forth Brooks finally won the battle - and what a grand opening it was.
The Warner Bros lot, circa 1946

Which brings me to todays' blog - Warner Brothers special effects from the Golden Era.   Below you'll find a wide range of great effects shots, mostly matte shots and some miniatures and opticals too from the late twenties up until around the late fifties.  I have deliberately concentrated on the in-house visual effects from the studio - that is the famed 'Stage 5' effects facility as it was known for decades.  Although Warner films of the sixties such as THE GREAT RACE had tremendous matte work and trick shots I have excluded as these shows were made without any direct in-house Warner effects work and were subcontracted out to establishments such as Film Effects of Hollywood.  The same applies to many of their seventies pictures such as many of John Wayne's westerns with mattes - mostly done by Albert Whitlock over at Universal as a sub-contract.

The Warner effects facility was a proud one, though it's not a facility that is ever really discussed or given a 'pat on the back'.  It's really only when one studies the back catalogue and realises not just the pictures they worked on but the often amazing visual effects which were created for these acclaimed shows and on the lesser productions.  I wish I had frames from some of the old effects shots which I saw in the projection room or rewind bench back in the early eighties as many of these are long gone and aren't on DVD or are impossible to track down so we'll have to make do with my (partial) selection that I've uploaded here today as representative of the colossal Warner output..

UP PERISCOPE painted hills.
To a great extent Warners were manufacturers of quality, gritty dramas with no nonsense stars such as the great James Cagney (the more I review his films of Cagney the more I think of him as one of cinema's finest talents), Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis.  This isn't to suggest that these star vehicles weren't 'effects films' - quite the contrary, as many of their tough thrillers had beautiful matte paintings and extensive use of miniatures.  In fact I can't think of any studio with the exception of Republic who utilised miniatures for such seemingly mundane purposes as car stunts and vehicular pile ups as much as Warner - and to excellent effect.  Films like THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and HIGH SIERRA - both Bogart pictures - use extremely convincing miniatures for truck crashes and car rolls.

Some of the key figures in the origins of the Warner effects department  were the father and son team of Fred Jackman (snr and jnr) who were probably the foundation stones for an effects shop, as were to a slightly lesser though still vital extent effects cinematographers Hans Koenekamp and Byron Haskin.  Some of the films here are really pre-Warner and were made as First National Productions (prior to Jack Warner taking over First National) such as THE LOST WORLD and THE JAZZ SINGER but I'll include some matte shots anyway from these even though there wasn't really the Stage 5 department as yet to the best of my knowledge.

Fred Jackman (jnr or snr, I'm unsure)
From my understanding Fred Jackman snr really established the first effects department at Warners some time in the mid to late twenties, probably around 1925 - really as a studio within a studio and fitted out for all manner of special processes and trick work - which would really sell the illusion factor with confidence and skill for decades to come in hundreds of films.  It's been documented that Jackman snr wasn't so much the creative force but more the operational director and overseer of a large team of technicians, artists, cinematographers and model makers beneath him.  For a time it was named 'The Special Research Dept'.  For two years Vernon L.Walker was assistant to Jackman and eventually used the knowledge gleaned from this apprenticeship to establish a world class opticals unit at RKO with Lloyd Knechtel.

THE LOST WORLD - Ralph Hammeras glass art

Jackman supervised the split screen matte work for the original Willis O'Brien THE LOST WORLD, with the multi-talented Ralph Hammeras painting the glass shots with a whole truckload of specialists handling all of the other effects such as stop motion animation and so forth that was outside of the areas of expertise of any studio effects shop at the time. Ralph spent most of his career at 20th Century Fox having left Warners shortly after First National was bought out.  Ralph's younger brother Edwin also worked at the studio photographing glass shots and later organising process shots.

NOAH'S ARK - Paul Grimm glass shot

The acclaimed director Michael Curtiz will feature prominently in this tribute as most of his films were made for Jack Warner and a great number featured photographic special effects ranging from standard matte painted shots of towns in CAPTAIN BLOOD and CASABLANCA to jaw droppingly complicated effects showcases as the central visual effects sequence from YANKEE DOODLE DANDY which still to this day blows me away (see later in this posting).  There seemed to be no comprehension of the term "it can't be done" in the motto of the Stage 5 boys. Whereas other studios such as Universal, Columbia and Paramount were pretty 'middle of the road' in their effects design and execution - always erring on the side of simplicity and tried and true conservative methodology, Warner constantly broke the boundaries and went outside the square and so often put together amazingly complex effects composites that leave this fan/writer scratching his head in wonder.

Several key figures featured promenently in the old Stage 5 roster of names - Ellis 'Bud' Thackery who started at First National in 1923 working as a glass shot matte painter on films as varied as THE JAZZ SINGER and as matte assistant to Paul Grimm, possibly the studio's first matte artist, on NOAH'S ARK among other productions.  South African born Grimm was a pioneer in glass art in the silent era and moved away from the film world in the early thirties to concentrate on fine art, as did many other matte painters associated with Warners such as Paul Detlefsen and Chesley Bonestell in the 1950's.

SINNER'S HOLIDAY matte/miniature
Another key figure long associated with Warner films was Edwin DuPar.  DuPar had worked for Jackman on Mack Sennett comedies as camera operator and had a long career at Warner chiefly in miniatures photography. In what must be the first film in-joke at the expense of a special effects man, Michael Curtiz' brilliant YANKEE DOODLE DANDY features a prominently displayed  DuPar neon sign joke within an extremely complicated and dazzling tour de force effects sequence. (which is illustrated alter in this blog).  My guess is that Curtiz wanted to acknowledge the effects cinematographer in some way as the shot in question was and still is a landmark visual effect.  DuPar would move into a production first cameraman role on later films, as did fellow effects cameraman Robert Burks having joined Stage 5 at the age of nineteen and who would go on to production director of photography duties on several Hitchcock films following a period as head of Stage 5 photographic effects on films such as THE MIRACLE OF OUR LADY OF FATIMA.

Detlefsen (r) at RKO with Lin Dunn
Detlefsen later in life.
Among the matte painters on the books at Warner, most prominent would have to be Paul Detlefsen who painted at Warners for well over twenty years and totalled thirty plus years in matte work altogether. Detlefsen got into glass painting around 1923 training under pioneering silent film maker and a matte painter way ahead of his time, Ferdinand Pinney Earle whereby Paul was quite committed to working for free if neccessary to gain experience.  According to Detlefsens' own memoir he worked under Earle for $24 a week and by Paul's own account stated "I worked for him and learned more about art than in all my previous six years" - an account not dissimilar to that of British matte master Peter Ellenshaw and his relationship with Pop Day some ten years later on the other side of the Atlantic.  Like Day, Earle was a classically trained painter who studied at the Academie Julian in Paris under the great William Bouguereau, as did Paramount's resident matte artist Jan Domela.  Some of Paul's best work can be seen in the excellent MILDRED PIERCE (*see later in this post).

Before and after Paul Detlefsen shot from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD

CAPTAIN BLOOD - miniature tank effects
Mario Larrinaga came to Warners from RKO, having painted glass shots for Willis O'Brien on the two KONG movies as well as the amazing matte work on SHE among others.  Larrinaga became head of art effects at Warners. Larrinaga and Detlefsen would share painting duties on many productions such as THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS.
Chesley Bonestell was another name associated with several studios, chiefly Warner and RKO among others.  Like Detlefsen, Bonestell became disillusioned with the film industry in the fifties and retired to continue his astronomical fine art.  Hans Bartholowsky is one of the many uncredited and unsung matte heroes of Hollywood and was a man described once by head of effects Byron Haskin as ..."someone who could take a brush and in ten minutes you would have a hillside full of weeds, which is an artform, believe me".   Clyde Hill was another matte artist in residence on Stage 5 of whom I know nothing other than he worked also at 20th Century Fox at one point.

CAPTAIN BLOOD - glass shot
Among the matte painters employed at the studio were Jack Shaw who had worked extensively with Jack Cosgrove at Selznick and would paint on many Warner films as well as several freelance efforts up until his final film painting prehistoric landscapes for Irwin Allen's ANIMAL WORLD in 1956.  Louis Litchtenfield had moved from studio to studio throughout his early career and finally settled at Warners where he became head of the photographic effects unit on films such as the huge matte showcase HELEN OF TROY and LAND OF THE PHARAOHS.  Strangely Litchtenfield would earn an academy nomination for the (minimal) work on THE SPIRIT OF ST LOUIS a couple of years later, no doubt because of it's patriotic spirit as much as anything else (* an odd choice indeed for Oscar consideration particularly when one realises that not one but two Ray Harryhausen pictures had been submitted to the Academy for effects consideration around the same time and both were rejected outright by the committee!)

CAPTAIN BLOOD glass shot
Cliff Silsby was another long time veteran in the matte painting world who would work under Haskin and Butler and later in his career would paint extensively for Fox under Fred Sersen and Ray Kellogg, and later still work for Linwood Dunn at Film Effects of Hollywood in the sixties painting on latter Warner films such as THE GREAT RACE.

Matte cameraman John Crouse was also a vital cog in the wheel of Stage 5.  Friend and associate Paul Detlefsen said that he felt Crouse's quiet, no fuss approach and masterful compositing skills was what really made the matte artists work look so good up on the screen.  The pair were jointly nominated for best special effects Oscar for the 1944 THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAINWhat I must say as a keen observer is the remarkably clean compositing image quality of the Warner matte shots.  Often amazingly low on grain or contrast build up, whether they utilised latent image original negative comps or not I don't know, but so much of it looks beautiful on the screen.  I've examined many of their more complicated shots whereby miniatures, process and paintings are all combined in a single effect usually with a camera move of some sort, and the quality always astounds me still. 

Painted docks and cruiser rigging from BATTLE CRY

Cinematographer Byron Haskin had a long association with Warners right back to the early twenties on many silent pictures. Among his film credits was visual effects cameraman on THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and many, many more, Haskin assumed directorship of the effects unit in 1937, taking over the reins from Fred Jackman.  In an interview Haskin wrote that ..."almost every department in the studio had it's counterpart in the special effects unit.  We had our own designers, art directors, set building facilities and our own camera and electrical crews.  The department also had it's own film laboratory, cutting facilities, business office and even it's own writers".  Haskin would eventually have a very successful career as feature film director on big visual effects heavy productions such as WAR OF THE WORLDS, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS and the wonderful THE NAKED JUNGLE.

William McGann is another such name to appear in many credits for Warner shows.  McGann served as both head of the camera department and the effects department for quite a time mostly throughout the forties and fifties.  Willard van Enger also features in many film credits as a cameraman who did the reverse of Burks and DuPar - that is moved from first cameraman into effects camera duties on films such as CASABLANCA with then head of department Lawrence W. Butler. Larry's father William Butler was something of a leading exponent in optical effects having been one of the early experts in the field to work at the studio on films such as NOAH'S ARK, with Larry himself entering the field at the very young age of just fifteen..  Harry Barndollar was another of the seemingly limitless supply of special effects directors for a few years in the middle 1940's.

In the optical printer department there was Russell Collings - a name not widely known but something of the 'Linwood Dunn' of Warner Bros.  Collings oversaw the often complex optical effects on such under rated films as THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS with it's astonishing and totally convincing optical assembly of a disembodied hand playing the piano among other things.  Among the specialists in the optical department was Joseph Westheimer and a young Frank Van Der Veer who, ironically decades later in the 60's and 70's supply many of Warners' opticals from his own optical house.  A young Jack Rabin worked too in the optical unit for four years before moving on and eventually opening up an effects house of his own with Irving Block and Louis DeWitt.

If one can learn anything from studying trends in effects heads it's that Warner had an extraordinary turn over of heads of department at Stage 5 - a remarkable number of names have changed over the years with the forties being the most prolific.  Whether it was for political reasons or whatever I have no idea, but whereas studios like Fox had Fred Sersen, Paramount had Gordon Jennings, MGM had Warren Newcombe and Universal had John Fulton - each of these men held the post for decades whereas Warner heads seem to last a few films each!!

Warner backing artist painting for CONSPIRATORS

E.Roy Davidson an effects director at Columbia on big shows such as LOST HORIZON (*see my earlier post on the effects of this film) was yet another head of effects at Stage 5 in the early forties and worked on films such as the effects laden PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE with Jack Cosgrove.  Cosgrove himself was a legend, having burned Atlanta to the ground for Selznick's GONE WITH THE WIND and proven himself as an all round effects man with a particular talent in matte painting.  Jack too was one of the roster of 'heads of dept' for a time and his last Warners film was painting oil derricks stretching into the distance for GIANT with James Dean.  These names are often connected with the many WWII action pictures produced at the studio - more often than not with submarines and battleship miniatures such as DESTINATION TOKYO and the stunning images of the sixteen foot model submarine (pictured here) surfacing under the Golden Gate Bridge to the awe of the guys aup on the scaffolding.  Talk about a great patriotic moment - and why not, things were grim then.

DODGE CITY glass shot
Others in the effects unit included Rex Wimpy, Warren Lynch, Jack Holden and even a young Don Siegel.  Seigel's specialty area was in supervising and creating montage sequences - something that is totally lost on today's audiences.  More than simply an editor, the montage creator would design the entire sequence, supervise the main unit shoot, coordinate the optical requirements in conjunction with the model and matte work if needed  -and often it was. Siegel would work directly under Haskin with his very own cameraman and editor providing memorable and in the case of YANKEE DOODLE DANDY staggering montages.

From the 1930's period pieces like THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER with it's stunning painted vistas by moonlight, the big black and white adventures and westerns of Errol Flynn like THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (see left) to the early technicolour epics such as DODGE CITY (colour frames on right) with those beautiful glass shots of classic pioneer dime novel invoked skies and plains Stage 5 always delivered.  Errol Flynn's 1939 technicolour western DODGE CITY stands as a wonderful example of early colour effects work - both in it's lovely matte shots and exciting use of process projection for a thrilling cattle stampede and an edge of the seat climax involving a shootout aboard a fast running train that's on fire!  Exciting today, it would have no doubt left 1939 audiences breathless.  The mattes in DODGE CITY are really great - with clouds moving across the sky and matte lines that are next to impossible to detect.

THE SEA HAWK partial set- glass art
From this early pictorial from an old Popular Science magazine the rare treat of the creation of a matte shot is made available to the readership - and this is very uncommon as most studios protected their effects units with a steel glove, desperate to not let any trade secrets get out into the public domain, lest the common man might figure out they'd been had!  MGM and Paramount in particular were ultra protective of the work and the people behind the magic, so it's most interesting that Warners were okay with this amazingly revealing look inside.  The matte artist shown completing the painting is Chesley Bonestell.  The cameraman isn't known though it might be matte cinematographer John Crouse.  The film title is a mystery too, though elsewhere it's been tagged as ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS - a 1939 Columbia picture, though I doubt it as that was a jungle picture with no such scenes in it, though Bonestell was glass artist on that show.

It is intriguing though that they used the photo collage method in this example whereby a large photographic print was mounted and then altered considerably by the matte artist to produce an entirely new setting.

As with other studios, it wasn't out of the question for Warners to recycle matte shots and cut familiar shots into all manner of different movies.  Some of the ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD mattes turned up all over the place, with one particular painted castle (by Paul Detlefsen) showing up not less than four times by my count in other Warner films such as THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN in the late forties.  Often the matte cameraman would alter the shot in some way - with filters, reframing, colour correction or adding a new plate, but the painting was always the same old Detlefsen beauty.  Some beautiful DODGE CITY mattes turned up again five years later in another Errol Flynn western SAN ANTONIO.

The Oscar nominated effects in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX also turned up elsewhere, namely in that same DON JUAN picture - and some of DON JUAN'S mattes were 'borrowed' from an earlier Columbia picture titled THE BANDIT OF SHERWOOD FOREST to begin with! Is there no justice in the matte universe?  Special effects are so incestuous.
THE SEA HAWK - miniatures in tank

Of course pirate films were the bread and butter of Jack Warner, and the studio produced a number of these, all with great miniature work and matte shots.  Titles such as CAPTAIN BLOOD and THE SEA HAWK being the most poular - with the miniature sequences in the latter being 'borrowed' from a far earlier Warner maritime adventure according to American Cinematographer magazine.

CASABLANCA - the start of a complex tilt down from painting
Warner's big showcase pictures such as CASABLANCA had their fair share of special effects - from the matte painting/optical tilt shot at the opening to various miniature airplanes and painted backlot extensions to simulate the Morrocan city.  It's interesting to compare todays budget excesses with that of CASABLANCA.  Made in 1942 at a cost of some US$878'000.oo Lawrence Butler's special effects portion of this budget amounted to no more than US$7475.oo - food for thought.

Shown here are some rare behind the scenes shots of sets prior to the addition of the Detlefsen/Larrinaga glass paintings as well as the setting up of the miniature airplane sequence.
Painted sky-mountains DIVE BOMBER

Among the many wonderful effects produced at Stage 5 over the decades I found the incredible centrepiece of YANKEE DOODLE DANDY made in 1942 to be among the most awe inspiring.  As I've mentioned already Stage 5 were no slackers when it came to thinking outside of the square and creating effects on a scale that even MGM wouldn't have attempted.  Of all the types of effects cinematography there are, the art of merging miniatures, painted mattes, process projection and live action all into one continuous moving take was something Warners could be justly proud of.

Although mere still image screen grabs can in no way really illustrate such complex effects I have included a number here from this incredible sequence anyway.  The camera starts on a crowded times square jammed with all manner of flashing billboard signs etc and moves to the right up the fronts of buildings with illuminated neon signs and bilboards, down another building with much of the same hoardings, past a theatre lobby, down the sidewalk, up another building, back across the street (with a busy Times Square again visible), down another street and then back to that same theatre frontage seen a moment earlier though this time with new signs and neons indicating the passage of time - then up the building across the roof between rooftop structures and down the other side----- dissolve to a new scene!!!  Jesus!  The sequence lasts a full 93 seconds of (apparently) uninterrupted, continuous camera move integrating all of the elements I discussed earlier in one flawless tour de force bit of cinema.  If you look closely at the right set of frames you can see a neon sign promoting effects cameraman Edwin DuPar - possibly a special effect in-joke first!

DODGE CITY - moving painted clouds
Strangely there wasn't any effects credit on this film, though Don Siegel did get a credit for 'montages' - and I suspect he would have had a hand in this amazing piece of work.  This sort of shot wasn't unusual for Stage 5 and similar, though not quite as daring, shots are seen in THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN, THE FOUNTAINHEAD and YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN.
Now this studio was never really known as a horror or science fiction house - that was the domain of Universal and RKO primarily. They did however turn out one particular film which as well as being a great little picture has some of the most ingenious visual effects I've seen, and shots that still stand up to scrutiny today.  THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, made in 1946 and starring Peter Lorre and Alan Alda's father, Robert Alda.  There are excellent matte paintings by Mario Larrinaga and Paul Detlefsen of the mountain village as shown here, but what really sells the film, and could easily have put it into the effects nomination category are the truly amazing optical effects of the dismembered hand going about it's devilish deeds, including, the playing of a piano!
We've seen many a show, especially of the Amicus / Hammer variety with such a scenario, though by comparison these latter day horror shows are very weak in the effects department up against this 1946 Lorre film.  There are several brilliant sequences where the hand of the title encounters Lorre and by way of truly flawless travelling matte work 'does it's thing'.

Special effects supervisor was William McGann, with Hans Koenekamp as effects cameraman.  Years later Koenekamp was quoted as stating that the effects in BEAST were those he was most proud of - and rightly so.  The optical effects and compositing was carried out by Warner's in-house optical chief Russell Collings and as I've said, the work is magnificent.  One or two shots use a mechanical hand model, which is obvious.  One or two are probably of an actor hidden below the table, but most are just the hand tinkling the ivory keys much to Lorre's (and my) astonishment.  A must see for special effects fans.

Above are four matte shots from some worthwhile Warner films - top left and right are both from THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN with painting by Paul Detlefsen and matte camerawork by John Crouse; lower left from ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC with miniature tank set augmented with a glass shot by Jack Cosgrove; and lower right from YANKEE DOODLE DANDY with a beautiful painted cloudscape, so classical and timely of the 1940's.

A film I had not seen until just recently was THE FOUNTAINHEAD, starring Gary Cooper.  Not only was it a great film (with Cooper cast against type) but a hell for leather effects showcase at that!
I was blown away by, not just the quality, but also the quantity of special effects work in this film.  From start to finish we are treated to dozens of amazing matte painted shots, miniatures, terrific process work (often involving models, matte art and actors all in the same shot) andart direction.  As a story about architectures bold new world the slate is kind of left wide open for adventurous production design and in order to implement these designs, a resiliant effects department up to the task.

A role call of Warners' best effects people were involved with this show - William McGann, H.R Koenekamp, Chesley Bonestell, Mario Larrinaga, Jack Holden, John Crouse, Edwin DuPar, Harry Barndollar and Paul Detlefsen.  Among the few frames selected here for this tribute (out of dozens and dozens) are some wonderful examples of artistry at work. Great concepts (by effects art director Jack Holden) and perfect realisation by the Stage 5 crew.

miniature set/painted back
A number of these shots are miniatures, such as the aerial shot of the snow covered series of buildings with a moving (model) car approaching.  many of the shots are shown with elaborate push in camer moves and pans - and as I've stated earlier, with no discernable loss of image quality.

The night sequence shown above left is a wonderful example of miniature set, model car and painted background which switches to a real car and the actor getting out by means of clever cutting and an invisible merging of the fake to the real.  The following shots of Patricia Neal in the midst of an explosion is also indicative of the ingenuity of Stage 5 - actress foreground on limited set, process screen well hidden and with perfect contrast, background plate of miniature set and painted backing exploding.  Flawless and exciting.

As seen in many other films from this studio there is the big camera move visual effect.  Here it involves Neal ascending a mammoth skyscraper by outside construction elevator and as she gets nearer to the top we see a distant Cooper standing on the edge looking back at us (her).  In one complete shot we travel the height of what I assume to be a large miniature building and push right into Cooper's face which fills the screen.  Again the image quality is extraordinary with not the slightest suggestion of optical duping or other such processes.
Chesley Bonestell's original painting as used in the title sequence
I presume that Cooper is a rear projected element atop the model set and the entire thing may have been shot in camera.  This type of signature shot appeared in many Warner Bros films, yet I don't recall seeing it from other studios.

While on miniatures, mention must be made of PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE - one of the dozens of Michael Curtiz films made at the studio.  A great little film (which has the singular honour of having more flashbacks - and flashbacks within flashbacks - than any movie I've ever seen) with scores of models and matte shots throughout... in fact the number is staggering, as is the use of said models.

Extensive, fully mechanised model landscape
Jack Cosgrove was head of effects on this one and although he was primarily a matte artist he certainly earned his keep here in the miniatures racket.  Aside from the standard planes and ship model scenes, what sets MARSEILLE apart is the extensive use of pastoral miniature sets and the like.  As a result of wartime factors, shooting in France wouldn't have been practicable so Cosgrove had a number of large sets built of French farms and countryside - complete with mechanised farm animals, tractors and cars!!!   In a number of scenes Cosgrove's camera follows speeding cars up hill roads around bends and so forth.  The results are surprisingly effective - more so than you'd expect.  I would love to see any behind the scenes photos of these sets just to see how large they were.
RHAPSODY tilt down matte

One of the best films of 1944 was RHAPSODY IN BLUE - the story of the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira.  Not the sort of film one would anticipate seeing any effects work in you say?  Think again!
RHAPSODY has many excellent matte painted shots, several with camera moves and two long, complicated matte/optical composites that took my breath away.

There are a number of concert hall mattes with painted auditoria and people therein, but what grabbed me were the two enormous Gods' view styled pull outs which start in ultra close, such as on George's hands on the piano, and pull out, and out, and out right up through the concert hall, into the sky and through the clouds!!!!  Beat that ILM!  Staggering effects, which when matched to Gershwins' music of the title create a sublime, ethereal effect for the viewer.

As already stated, the compositing is absolutely flawless - as is the painting and camerawork in these matte shots, which I'm sure even these still frames will do justice to.
An excellent film, beautifully acted (again by  Robert Alda with Oscar Levant) complimented by the effects wizards rather than bludgeoning us over the head with incessant computerised nonsense.

 Probably more so than any other studio Warners invested alot into their World War II pictures - many directed by Raoul Walsh and featuring stars like Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart.  Among the long list of terrific films was one of my all time favourites, OBJECTIVE BURMA (even though it did slightly short change the British element in the campaign, but that's American Patriotism I suppose).  All of the films of this genre contained high levels of visual effects work with extensive use of miniatures in films like EDGE OF DARKNESS and ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC.

  Alot of matte work was integrated into these shows as most were shot on the lot and due to wartime restrictions much had to be created in the effects department.  The set of frames at upper left from UNCERTAIN GLORY show outstanding effects art direction and execution by Lawrence Butler with an entire bombing raid being wall to wall effects shots - from the miniature aircraft, what appears to be a painted aerial view of the target, optically added falling bombs, and likewise with the explosions from far above.  Beautiful work.   The set of frames on the upper right from the same film show typical high calibre Stage 5 effects with matte art and possibly a combo model bridge set and glass art in the big wide shot.

Director Raoul Walsh more than occasionally utilised the talents of Stage 5 - none more so than in his 1941 thriller HIGH SIERRA.  Along with a number of beautiful matte painted shots Walsh had need of the Stage 5 boys to create a car chase and subsequent crash and explosion entirely in miniature - something they were old hands at.
I'd love to know the actual scale of these models as they always have remarkable 'road holding' and weight bearing appearance especially when crashing, as was evident in HIGH SIERRA.
Again, I don't recall any other studio using models in such a fashion as Warner, with the exception of the Lydecker brothers over at Republic who were pretty much the kings of miniaturisation. (*I'll do an article on Howard and Theodore Lydecker when I find the time)

Another Curtiz movie, the outstanding film noir with Joan Crawford, MILDRED PIERCE is a striking example of mid forties matte design and effects work.
Matte artist Paul Detlefsen painted the glass shots on this picture - and a large number of them there were at that.  A few of them are shown here though the film has many more.  Detlefsen was a highly productive matte artist, and from my count of his partial filmography he painted on no less than fourteen shows at Warners in 1945 alone - and some of these were big effects shows, such as MILDRED PIERCE. Again Detlefsen credits his cameraman John Crouse for such shots "John was the great unsung hero of our department who loved every challenge and never failed to find a way of doing the impossible...a flawless technician and inventor, loved by all who knew him".

Detlefsen matte magic from MILDRED PIERCE

 Hitchcock called apon Hans Koenekamp when he was directing STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.  There was an early matte shot of the Capitol building (which was later recycled in another film whose name escapes me) and of course the wonderful optical of the murder reflected in the spectacles.  The biggest effect called for was the complicated carousel sequence at the end whereby the machine is spinning so fast it flies apart amongst the gathered crowd. Koenekamp engineered this as a miniature rig with a crowd of extras rear projected behind the model in the first instance.  Then Hans took this composite and in turn rear projected it behind a second group of extras on a process stage.  So effectively it was a sandwich effect - a miniature between two process screens - and it looked great. In an interview the director mentioned how successful this shot had been due to the ingenuity of the special effects man.

Above are some late forties early fifties Stage 5 effects; lower left a painted nightclub from RHAPSODY IN BLUE; upper right a Chesley Bonestell painting and composite from THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT;  upper left a set of four frames from the technicolour film THE MIRACLE OF OUR LADY OF FATIMA with painted skies and gathered crowds supervised by Robert Burks; lower right we see yet another of those mammoth and magnificent old style
Warner's signature huge pull out effects composites - this being of Kirk Douglas in YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN whereby the camera starts in close and pulls out extremely wide to reveal an entirely fabricated city scene put together in the matte department, and as always, the completed effect is flawless.

At left is one of, if not THE last matte paintings by the great Jack Cosgrove for Warner Bros - the James Dean picture GIANT - with this shot being a location with a few oil derricks, with the rest painted on glass by Cosgrove. 

Just recently I have discovered that legendary photographic effects man John P.Fulton was employed in Stage 5 by Lou Litchtenfield in the early fifties.  Fulton of course had headed Universal's effects unit for many years then went over to Goldwyn for a few years and then tried his hand as an independent effects man working with Jack Cosgrove on some Eagle-Lion productions such as JOAN OF ARC.

 Warner goes W I D E S C R E E N
With the advent of the anamorphic widescreen process at Fox it was quickly picked up by most other studios (with the exception of Paramount who opted for the purer optics of their own process VistaVision).
During the mid fifties several films lent themselves to this CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio such as the big biblical epics LAND OF THE PHAROAHS, THE SILVER CHALICE and HELEN OF TROY.  Here are some examples of the matte artists' craft from some CinemaScope films from this studio.

First up is HELEN OF TROY, the 1955 Robert Wise epic shot in Italy.  Louis Litchtenfield was in charge of the special photographic effects on this one, and it was a big one.  The mattes were large in number and large in grandeur, with many thrilling trick shots appearing on the screen.  The then assistant art director Ken Adam wrote of the huge fleet of ships as seen below and the fact that just one was ever built, with the rest of the armada painted on glass to Ken's delight.  As big a show as it was I'm sure other matte painters would have had a hand in it.  By now Paul Detlefsen ahd left the movie industry altogether to persue a career as a fine artist, and Chesley Bonestell was over at Paramount helping Jan Domela with astronomical art on the George Pal pictures.  Visual effects researcher Domingo Lizcano is of the opinion that Polish born artist Joseph Natanson, who happened to be based at Cinecitta in Rome would have had a hand in this film as many of the crew were European, and I tend to agree.  Jack Shaw probably painted on HELEN OF TROY, though he would die tragically a year later.

Regrettably Litchtenfield's quality assurance didn't stand up to much scrutiny in the utterly awful THE SILVER CHALICE - the film that Paul Newman disowns - and deservedly so.  The effects work by Litchtenfield and H.R Koenekamp is disasterous to say the least (see right panel of six frames). 
The normally reliable effects team really dropped the ball on this one and it shows.  As bad as the mattes are (and they ARE) I tend to feel that it's in all likelihood the fault of the director or more likely the art director on this film who would have specifically dictated the 'look' they were after.  Each of the mattes is flat, featureless and minimalist - as if some nouveau post cubist wanna-be had designed the look of the film - and it's not just the mattes, the entire film looks like this.  Bare, vacant sets, empty undecorated walls that look like a particularly bad high school play.  Bizarre to say the least - the mattes in this film serve only as a curio for how not to utilise the artform.

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS - Lou Litchtenfield matte shots.
At least LAND OF THE PHAROAHS delivers.  As much as it's deemed to be a 'bad film', it's not actually, and has spectacle by the truck load.  What's more, Howard Hawks directed it so it can't be all bad now can it?  Again Lou Litchtenfield supervised the photographic effects and delivered some lovely mattes, especially the two I have selected here which show the construction of the great pyramid at different times - gorgeous work indeed, and even more so with that great score mixed in 5.1 in the background.

 Many scope films came through the gates at Warners, and often with matte shots and optical work, such as THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, though none as adventurous as those hazy, crazy, creative 1940's had turned out.  The work now was pretty much a standardised 'let's get it done' type of output, with not many great effects shots to show for it.
Building the pyramid with matte art - LAND OF THE PHARAOHS

Studios were shutting down their effects departments by now and television was the real poison.  The frame at right is from the Doris Day comedy LUCKY ME, and although it WAS a CinemaScope film the DVD is inexcusably a pan and scan version - however the quality of the matte work at this period was nothing to write home about, with poor judgement on just about every front as evident in this glarying obvious frame.  There's no doubt about it in my mind, the 1940's were the peak for the Warner effects unit and the subsequent decades pailed by comparison sad to say.  By the fifties the individual special effects credits on films' title cards had begun to disappear too.

The rather good Raoul Walsh war film BATTLE CRY had a few good mattes in it, and for a Kiwi fella like me this matte painted view purporting to be good ole' New Zealand almost brought tears to the eyes - as did Max Steiners' powerhouse full orchestral score which segues into our National Anthem at one point when the boys are being shipped to NZ in readiness for the Pacific invasion.  No effects credit but probably Lou Litchtenfield or Jack Shaw as the matte artist.
BLOOD ALLEY matte painted set extension not used in the final film.

A good reason why I always view old trailers and promotional doco clips is to occasionally pick up shots such as this matte painting of China for John Wayne's BLOOD ALLEY  (above) which appeared only in the trailer and not in the feature.  Similar visual effects shots different or unused altogether can be found in trailers for CASABLANCA and ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD to name but two.

As we come to a close (tired fingers from two finger typing and bad eyesight to boot) I wish to include two lovely painted backings by Jack Shaw from the Irwin Allen-Willis O'Brien/Ray Harryhausen film ANIMAL WORLD which came out in 1956.  This was the final film for prolific, veteran matte painter Jack Shaw as he committed suicide during the production.  Jack had done wonders on films as varied as GONE WITH THE WIND, DUEL IN THE SUN, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, BLOOD ON THE SUN, SWISS MISS and SINCE YOU WENT AWAY to name but a few... so I dedicate this page to Jack.

Some of the dramatic shots from the effects laden finale of the 1938 DAWN PATROL - with, as I understand it, most of these mattes, process and miniatures were lifted from the 1930 version of the same film.  Still a great climax though.
Two mattes from the classic Michael Curtiz 1938 film ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (un-used glass shot)
Just a few of the dozens of mattes in SANTA FE TRAIL.
Before and after frames from BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936  (1935)

Stunning matte work supervised by Willard van Enger from the Errol Flynn Technicolor western SAN ANTONIO
Two pan and scan matte shots from the James Stewart  CinemaScope film THE FBI STORY  (1959)

Two dangerous looking plot locales for Bette Davis' NOW VOYAGER  (1942) - all courtesy of the matte artist of course.

Extensive use of miniature sets features prominently in this Errol Flynn war drama.
Errol Flynn and Paul Detlefsen go together like franks and beans - more great matte art from 1940.


HIGH SIERRA painted canyon.
The rather good Rosalind Russell comedy AUNTIE MAME (1958)

THE DOUGH GIRLS forced perspective miniatures.


THE FOUNTAINHEAD multi part composite.




Three fifties technicolor mattes, probably by Lou Litchtenfield, from THE FLAME AND THE ARROW.

Two mattes, one of the pioneer west and another of a young Chicago from the 1953 Doris Day film CALAMITY JANE

The matte painted opening scene from Doris Day's 1953 musical comedy  BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON.

More Doris Day movie matte work - this from the 1951 ON MOONLIGHT BAY, the forerunner to the above film.
John Ford's 1964 epic CHEYENNE AUTUMN featured this uncredited matte which added a canyon where there was none, with the resulting 'chopped off' dust trail behind the horse evident here.

The Warner lot as seen in 1947.

The scenic art department at Warner Bros.


  1. Great Post.

    See I do read your blog, I especially find the introduction with your personal anecdotes to be entertaining and I get a kick out of seeing the WB Shield logo's and title cards (The painting of Noah's Ark and the retro signage on painted buildings also stand out for me).

    I still think your posts should be split in half at the very least. Sure their epic lengths match the epic films they are paying tribute to but lets break it up a little more.

    And I mean that lovingly :D

  2. Loved this post. I love the way Warner Brothers recycles. In the 30s and 40s they kept remaking the same stories over and over just changing the settings and the cast. I can see that they also used matte paintings over and over. I spotted the use of the Auntie Mame staircase in at least 14 WB films and I posted it on YouTube. have a look...


  3. Just found this post. Amazing, priceless, THANK YOU!

  4. Loved this so much. Thanks for all the fabulous images and background. Three Warner films that I think had fabulous matte work were HUMORESQUE, DECEPTION and THE UNSUSPECTED. If you ever turn up any great stills showing matte work from these (and background info), I hope you might post them. thanks!

  5. Hi Pete. Just want to say how much I love your blog. I've been seeing these effects guys' names in credits for the past 65 years, but your work has turned them into much more than that. They've become real live human beings with amazing talents. Thank you!