Saturday 28 August 2010

The Wild and Wonderful World of John P.Fulton

A look back at the magical creations and unforgettable visual effects  of virtuoso special effects master John P. Fulton, A.S.C

In preparing this retrospective tribute I was first struck with just how much material I had at hand on John Fulton - seemingly a truckload, which is none surprising when you look at the extensive career of the man and the fact that unlike many Hollywood special effects artisans Fulton was frequently written about and his work covered by numerous periodicals, books and so forth - and much of this was long before the era of recent articles, DVD commentaries and featurettes mentioning the man's career

I should point out from the outset that there are several excellent reference sourses on Fulton out there, and where necessary I have used some images and some quotes as a means of 'filling some gaps'.  Notably I must wholly recommend Paul Mandell's outstanding coverage of the making of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in a 1983 issue of American Cinematographer as being essential reading.  I think Mandell re-printed this article later on in another magazine, possibly CineMagic or something similar.  Also of note is the warm and fascinating interview with Fulton's daughter Joanne Fulton Schaefer in the magazine Monsters From the Vault (issue 24) which is such a telling and personal look at the highly complicated man as seen through the eyes of one who knew him like no other (and if you know John Fulton, that's no mean achievement as his personality was complicated and cold at the best of times - even to his own family). Author and historian Tom Weaver reprinted this article as part of one of his many volumes of interviews with veteran horror and sci fi film people - though the actual volume I can't recall as he published so many.

I have many old clippings and bits and pieces gathering dust down in my basement that it's best to scan and 'publish' some of these things before they are lost, and many of the Fulton pictures here are pretty rare, and from old magazines and assorted journals.

Also of worth are the articles by John himself in American Cinematographer on the filming of THE INVISIBLE MAN, which thankfully was reprinted by George Turner in his essential compilation of such articles, the wonderful and utterly vital 1983 The ASC Treasury of Visual Effects.  Other factual material I have had the privilege of sourcing were my conversations with Johanna Domela Movassat, the daughter of career Paramount matte painter Jan Domela who revealed in old correspondence some very interesting stories about her meeting with Fulton as well as her father's constant battles with the visual effects virtuoso which drove him to despair.

For as long as I can remember I have been a huge fan or follower of John P.Fulton, and this retrospective is a sort of an adoring (for want of a better term) 'scrapbook' of his work.  His name was familiar to me so far back as it almost always received a screen credit on so many pictures. 

Please forgive the length of the blog - some suggest I do these as a website but the technology is way beyond me.  Sometimes there are so many pictures I'd like to include I really have to pare these things down even though my 'effects enthusiast' side is unrelenting I have a habit of getting overly wrapped up in some of these retro's - but hell, I just appreciate and enjoy the work carried out by these veterans I just want to talk about it as a fan.

So, I'll cut to the chase and get on with it....  Born in 1902 John Phipps Fulton, son of theatrical backing artist Fitch Fulton found his roots in the film industry from a fairly young age - even against the wishes of his father who pretty much forbade any kin of his from working in such an industry of despots and shysters.  Apparently while employed as a surveyor for the Californian Edison Company the young impressionable John witnessed the shooting of a D.W Griffith picture purely by chance and pretty much made his mind up right there and then that motion pictures were for him.  With a great deal of audacity Fulton approached the movie company and literally talked his way in.  By way of luck and wide eyed fascination this lead to an introduction from technical members of the Griffith company to what was probably Hollywood's first ever special effects house, the Frank Williams Studio in Los Angeles.   Williams himself is illustrated below left, and can also be seen in a rare on screen appearance as the camera operator in a Charlie Chaplin short film.

Silent films were on the rise and the need for trick shots to convey the unfilmable were a thriving niche market for the Williams Studio.  Williams himself was one of THE pioneers of composite photography long before the days of competent process screen set ups.  Williams invented the double matting technique around 1916 - the only means available of superimposing moving objects or actors against separately filmed backgrounds using hi contrast density mattes. 

The early incarnations involved white or black backing, though Williams later developed more versatile blue backing systems using variations on the basic principle.  These were effectively the forerunners to virtually all modern photo chemical travelling matte composite systems right up to the digital era - (with some improved methods being invented by the Rank Laboratories in London and a few others involving infra red or ultra violet process).

Under Williams tutoring and hands on apprenticeship Fulton picked up the requisite skills in the then fairly basic world of optical effects cinematography - skills which would stay with him the rest of his career as he frequently reverted back to many of those early Williams tricks on many of his films, particularly during his time working on the Universal gothic horror series.  At the time of the early Universal effects films (around 1930) Williams was the sole provider of special photographic effects, at least of the type now needed, in the industry. 

Many studios had functioning miniature and matte painting departments but I don't think any really had a specialised optical effects unit that could confidently pull off multi layered optical tricks that Frank Williams had pioneered and specialised in.  Certainly Vernon Walker and Lloyd Knechtel were putting together some novel opticals with a young Linwood Dunn over at RKO, but I think that shots such as the phenomenal (and lengthy) daylight lovers walk travelling matte composite that Frank Williams executed for Murnau's SUNRISE really was in a class of it's own in 1927.

Universal Studios under Carl Laemmle struck gold when they released DRACULA in 1930.  At that time the photographic effects work was being handled by Frank Booth who oversaw the glass shots and superimpositions required. The film was a hit and made Bela Lugosi an overnight sensation (and the best ever Dracula to boot).  With a number of similarly set and themed films on the roster to follow such as FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN it was deemed good insurance to get in a specialist akin to the complicated special optical effects that these films would require.  Williams recommended Fulton for the job.

Fulton really established the Universal special photographic effects department in 1931, just in time for the complicated and magnificent visual effects that come at the conclusion to FRANKENSTEIN.  The tremendous and utterly invisible blending of miniature burning windmill to the partially built studio set with extras, and the addition of Karloff and Clive into the miniature area of the composite via the Williams travelling matte method is iconic cinema and classic special effects achievement.

The H.G Wells property THE INVISIBLE MAN was the first real test for the skills of Fulton, and all he had learned from Frank Williams.  Here was a film many thought 'unfilmable' - a partially visible human figure cavorting with actors and interacting with props was a real technical head scratcher, and for 1933 a monumental achievement no matter which way one looks at it.  Even to this day I find the optical effects in this film astoundingly well pulled off, and had there been an Oscar category in 1933 It would have been most interesting to see who would have grabbed the gold guy - INVISIBLE MAN or KING KONG?   Fulton was assisted by Bill Heckler on photographic effects with recent arrival Ross Hoffman as optical cameraman - a role he would hold  this studio until 1974.  

Other key effects crew on THE INVISIBLE MAN were career miniatures man Charlie Baker who would strike up a life long friendship with Fulton and was reportedly "one of the few who ever 'got to know the real John".  Matte painters Russell Lawson (who I covered recently in my blog) and Jack Cosgrove (likewise covered extensively in several of my earlier blogs) would also work with Fulton extensively over the coming years, with Lawson being Universal matte painter for close to thirty years.  Rotoscope artist Millie Winebrenner also figured prominently in the history of Universal's optical trickery, working with Fulton and Horsley on probably hundreds of films from around 1940 up until shows such as THE HINDENBERG in the mid seventies with Albert Whitlock.

Cosgrove worked with Fulton on several thirties shows and after a long career at Selznick and Warner Bros Jack was re-united with Fulton again on the big Walter Wanger epic JOAN OF ARC in 1948.  Other members of the effects unit were Donald Jahraus who himself would become a leading miniaturist at MGM and an Oscar winner for the magnificent work on THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO in 1944.

Many films followed, with Fulton's expertise stretched to the limit - with the John Ford mini classic about the trials and tribulations of the early days of an aviation postal service being on the cards, this was the film for John!  Fulton has always shown a knack for miniatures, especially aircraft and maritime vessels - and AIRMAIL would be a showcase for John and his team.  Vast model landscape sets that almost filled a sound stage and carefully engineered devices and rigs to control the model air planes really were John's forte.  John's passion according to his daughter were flying and golf!!  When John Ford proposed the film AIRMAIL in 1932 Fulton was 'all ears'.  Here was a picture after his own heart - daring do high in the skies amid all sorts of climactic conditions. 

Among the clippings I have are a number from the making of this Ford classic, though I've never actually seen the film.  Here are some wonderful old photos from vintage magazines who did write ups on the film and included many great behind the scenes pictures of Fulton at work.

The excellent John Brosnan book Movie Magic describes in detail the set ups Fulton used for AIRMAIL according to old thirties interviews, with among other things the actual miniature shoot taking some five months to complete on a new purpose built effects stage at Universal.

The witty satire on society manners MY MAN GODFREY featured an amazing and complicated title sequence where the camera pans across a painted New York City and each building has a bold flashing neon sign depicting the individual cast and credits (Fulton included) complete with waves on the East River, with the camera finally moving in on live action under the Brooklyn Bridge.  Very adventurous for as far back as1936, but a wonderful and surely time consuming piece of movie title magic.

Fulton continued with a never ending workload of ingenious effects in all manner of pictures under the Universal banner, with the rarely seen, now thought lost James Whale war film THE ROAD BACK requiring among other things a complex shot of a non existent town, partial backlot set, miniature train speeding through tunnel, model buildings, glass painted hills and sky plus actors  - all separate elements shot and combined on Fulton's optical printer.

Fulton was reunited with Whale a forth time for the classic BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN which aside from the standard glass shots and miniatures included the still astounding optical set piece where Dr Pretorious reveals his six tiny 'homonculi' - or miniature people - in a sequence that stands the test of time in it's carefully planned optical wizardry.  Fulton's camerawork and compositing is amazing, with the shot where one is picked up by the collar and put into a glass jar just superb.

SHOWBOAT - perfect model composite
The Whale-Fulton association didn't end there.  In an odd departure from his standard bread and butter fare director James Whale embarked upon a most uncharacteristic film - a musical, SHOWBOAT (1936).  Fulton was required to provide numerous miniatures of the Mississippi Steamer of the title, often beautifully matted into live action scenes such as this wonderful shot shown here which is flawless.  The film also featured numerous glass shots executed by Fulton's matte painter Russell Lawson. (see Lawson's blog for more of these).  The film was in fact better than it's successor, the big, overblown MGM remake on the fifties and was  a really good rollicking show.  Interesting too for the title cards are all presented as huge banners being carried on screen by marching extras - Fulton's included.

Among the many films John worked on throughout the thirties were THE OLD DARK HOUSE - again with James Whale which required a miniature landslide onto model cars, the excellent Henry Hull show WEREWOLF OF LONDON with optical transformations into one of Jack Pierce's best ever make ups, and features several great Lawson matte paintings too, which may be seen on my Russ Lawson page.
Incidentally the photos shown here at right are of Fulton collaborator Ken Strickfaden - the man who could tame electricity and reshape it for those wonderful laboratories in so many of these films.

Fulton's miniatures for AIRMAIL
The inevitable sequels to the successful horror films - SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and SON OF DRACULA naturally followed and all had interesting special effects - with Fultons' multi stage lap dissolve transformations, miniatures and matte paintings.


Moving into the nineteen fortiesl Fulton was, according to his daughter, losing interest in special effects and really felt his true calling was in motion picture direction - a notion that his very own daughter dismissed as foolish. Fulton never seemed to take much pride in the technical wonders he created on screen, and always believed his destiny lay in feature film direction.   According to her wonderful article on her father in Monsters From The Vault, Fulton "simply had no feeling for the human condition - not one bit of empathy".  He was a curious individual - a man that was next to impossible to get close to.  That coupled with his volatile nature and refusal to compromise with fellow film workers made Fulton a tough act indeed.   John was forever at loggerheads with studio chiefs, cameramen, art directors and fellow technicians.  One report I saw mentioned a strike in the thirties by cameramen at Universal who simply couldn't or wouldn't work with Fulton!

Interestingly, as revealed by his daughter, Fulton disregarded almost all of his special effects achievements and had no emotional attachment whatsoever to any of the great feats he pulled off for the camera.  He kept no mementos, keepsakes or souvenirs of his many years in visual effects.  The few things his family have to this day were things they themselves had 'secured' or secreted away without John's knowledge.

Sensational opening inferno opticals from SABOTEUR
Fulton may have been getting restless, but you'd never have known it from a film audiences point of view as the work was still top calibre and the variety of effects shots he was pulling off were just getting better and better.  While Universal was never a huge effects shop like Fox or MGM they did some marvellous work - most notably evident for Alfred Hitchcock and his masterpiece of paranoia from 1942, SABOTEUR.

This terrific, pulse pounding thriller is loaded to the hilt with fabulous Russ Lawson glass shots and truly amazing Fulton visual effects.  The opening set piece whereby the 'fifth columnist' sabotages the aircraft factory and is vapourised in the raging inferno is an utterly jaw dropping piece of cinema, let alone immaculate optical rotoscope work which may have caused censorship issues in 1942 due to it's grisly nature.  The climax where our arch villain falls to his death from the Statue of Liberty is an icon of Americana and Hitchcock's association therein.
For this John pulled out a particular trick whereby the actor was fastened to a sort of office chair set up in front of a blue screen and manipulated backward and sideways as the camera pulled away, with the resulting plate being beautifully composited by Roswell Hoffman into one of the many terrific Russ Lawson painted views of the Liberty Lady as the actor drops to his death.  The trick was so successful that John recycled it several times over and did the same on W.C Fields for NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK and later again to James Stewart in both VERTIGO and REAR WINDOW - also for Hitchcock.
One of John's most impressive ever transformation sequences, of which he did many - with this jaw dropping optical effect from the 1940 film SON OF DRACULA where a character dissolves into a misty smoke and just 'glides' or blows away - utterly phenomenal effect that pre-dated similar I.L.M  shots on  POLTERGIEST shots by forty years. Brilliant!

Universal was somewhat conservative when it came to new fangled gadgets, and Technicolour was one of them.  It wasn't until around 1942 that the studio finally bit the bullet and paid the dough to Herbert and Natalie Kalmus and utilised their colour film monopoly.  The picture was the lighthearted middle eastern romp ARABIAN NIGHTS - a loose imitation of the Korda picture THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD made some two years earlier.  I suspect that long time assistant David Stanley Horsley probably had a hand in this and many of the other Universal films of the late thirties and early forties, with Horsley himself eventually assuming the mantle of head of photographic effects at Universal from the mid forties to the mid fifties.  For all of the wonderful matte shots from ARABIAN NIGHTS visit my Russell Lawsen page.

The Universal effort boasted magnificent matte paintings by Russ Lawsen, bountiful bevies of  buxom babes (sorely needed in the Korda film) and wonderfully garish technicolour that practically drips off the screen.  Along with the many, many mattes was an optical of a desert encampment going up in flames.  Oddly, for such a big effects film Fulton wasn't credited.

I'll interrupt for the purposes of adding some wonderful pictures I've got on the many Fulton effects, starting with that lovely hanging miniature seen at right, from an unknown Universal film, and at left a Fulton split screen matte shot, again sadly, from an unidentified film which I retrieved from an old 1940's magazine - I think it was LIFE magazine?
Also here, are some nice old photographs of John directing miniature maritime scenes in the studio tank - again from untitled films of the thirties and maybe early forties.

With the continued success of the horror franchise Fulton was still called upon to produce wonders for what he often complained to his wife and children was "lack of money invested in the effects".  In fact the frequent battles with John and the moguls were down to simple coin.  They wanted miracles but the cheap bastards didn't want to pay for them.  Probably the life story of many effects guys.  I know England's father of special effects Les Bowie complained most of his career of the miracles that they (the production companies) expected while still holding back on the money required to pull it off.  The pictures of large aircraft carrier miniatures at upper left are from the patriotic Universal WWII Naval show WE'VE NEVER BEEN LICKED with Fulton seen in the rowboat next to the quite sizable miniatures.  Apparently Fulton always used to like to shoot his miniature ships in the heavily saline Salton Sea to promote proper buoyancy.  Incidentally, I regard that other photo on the right, from LIFE magazine as the quintessential John P.Fulton portrait.  The film may be the 1941 picture THIS WOMAN IS MINE.

Among John's numerous forties horror pictures was THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (shown here lower left and at right) which featured elaborate miniatures, rotoscoping, matte paintings and pyrotechnics.  This film was among the last that Fulton would work on while at Universal as he had itchy feet to direct and on a handshake, mogul Samuel Goldwyn gave John the assurance that if he came across to the small Goldwyn Studio he would indeed have his dream come true, that is, to be a movie director.  Never rely on a handshake - especially one in the movie industry - a lesson learned the hard way for Fulton.

Although Goldwyn had been using Fulton all along to serve his own needs, all was not lost.  The first picture John worked on at the studio was nominated and actually won the coveted Oscar for special effects - that was WONDER MAN (1945) where Danny Kaye was required to interact with his doppleganger - his identical twin in some very complicated optical set ups.  Kaye interacts with himself with considerable freedom, far more so than the old standard split screen would ever have permitted.  There is great hand roto work as they move in front of one another and even take turns drinking from the same fountain - a highlight.  These effects really look great, even sixty years later.
Fulton had no desire nor interest in the Oscar process and refused to attend.  According to his daughter he was at home tinkering in his garage when the radio news of his absentee win came through, from which his wife Bernice rushed excitedly to John's garage and told him, breathlessly of the great news - to which John simply  responded "oh, that's nice" !!  And that was that!

The work is extraordinary and Kaye himself stated in several interviews that he wasn't the star of the film, that John Fulton was the real star.   Interestingly, as an aside, 30 years later George C.Scott said the exact same thing about Albert Whitlock when interviewed on the making of THE HINDENBURG in 1975.

For Goldwyn, John produced some interesting visual effects, with the rare pictures here below demonstrating his ingenious stop motion shots of airplanes moved frame by frame on glass above a matte painted cloudscape for the second of the two Danny Kaye pictures John worked on, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947).  Fulton also provided a great storm at sea with miniature three master.

Fulton was again feeling betrayed and restless.  The closest he had gotten to his dream of direction was some second unit work on WALTER MITTY.  Those big Swedish feet were getting itchy again.  For the latter part of the forties Fulton went solo, and for a time was out of work entirely.  He was hired by Walter Wanger to supervise visual effects on some Eagle-Lion projects around 1947.  The first of these assignments was the big Victor Fleming epic JOAN OF ARC starring Ingrid Bergman.  This was a sizable film, and two effects men were co-credited - Jack Cosgrove and John Fulton.

The film was primarily a matte painting show, with lots of firey pyrotechnic type action.  Presumably Cosgrove, being a veteran matte painter himself handled the matte requirements with Fulton shooting the plates and the presumably miniature bell tower with all those bells ringing at the start of the film.  Also on staff as matte painter was Louis McManus - a matte artist who had painted for Roy Seawright back on the Hal Roach comedies. 
McManus painted that stunning interior of the French cathedral at the start of the story shown in the sequential frames above.  (I will cover the rest of the JOAN OF ARC matte shots in a separate Cosgrove blog)
Some of the matte painted scenes from Oscar nominated TULSA

Effects wise, Fulton was faced now with a very exciting film with a great many miniature set ups and matte shots, TULSA made by Walter Wanger for Eagle-Lion in 1949 was a large job indeed.  The story of Texan oil derrick infernos it was a job tailor made for Fulton.  His mastery of miniatures, filmed out of doors for maximum effect and realism was an exciting time for the effects man.  The film is loaded with tremendous miniature infernos, and they look great indeed.

The miniatures were between 8 and 16 feet in height, with old coffee cans as oil tanks, and were shot in daylight (always a plus) with according to an old movie clipping I have here photographed remotely with a 35mm camera wrapped in asbestos and attached to the end of a long pole which would then be literally shoved as close to the flames as they could get it without wrecking the camera. 
The finished shots are spectacular indeed, especially in technicolour, and received another nomination - his sixth out of a total of eight - for John's effects.  Ironically, some of these shots were 'borrowed' and recycled in Paramount's George Pal show WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE a couple of years later.

The sequence of frames at upper left is a Fulton rotoscoped travelling matte to depict actor Ed Begley being crushed by part of an oil derrick blasted off from the pressure.

There are a number of painted mattes in TULSA too, though I can't be certain whom painted them as a number of matte artists worked on Eagle-Lion films in those few years - Chesley Bonestell painted on DESTINATION MOON,  Louis McManus on JOAN OF ARC and Jack Shaw on a couple of shows too, so it could have been any one of these guys.

The nomination of TULSA for an effects Oscar caused some ructions in the Fulton family according to John's daughter Joanne.  Even though John cared not one bit for the accolade as it turned out his father matte artist  Fitch Fulton was himself a part of an Oscar nominated effects film that very same year, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG with Willis O'Brien, Bert Willis and Harold Stine eventually receiving the statue for the latter.  Joanne Fulton Schaefer wrote that her father was "put out about his own father winning, to put it mildly" with her Grandfather's film winning and to quote her, "there was a little bit of a family thing over that, but it didn't last long"

Something about John that I only learned recently from author and visual effects historian Rolf Giesen's book Special Effects Artists was that for a few years post Eagle-Lion and Walter Wanger, John was in the employ of Warner Brothers Stage 5 effects unit. Apparently matte painter and head of department Lou Litchtenfield recruited Fulton as visual effects cameraman - a fact I was totally unaware of.  I assume Fulton had involvement with the declining number of pre-CinemaScope Warner effects shows around the early fifties, with the studio having had it's sensational heyday effects wise in the forties I can't think of many shows that Fulton would have really wanted to sink his teeth into during his tenure there.  

Curiously, when Fulton was finally accepted as a member of the esteemed American Society of Cinematographers, yet went to great lengths to sabotage from within any prospect of his own son, Johnny, from ever becoming a motion picture cameraman, which caused a division within his own family that took years to repair.  Fulton, like his father before him wanted no part of the entertainment industry for any member of his family.
Ironically, it was John himself who coaxed his father Fitch Fulton from vaudeville and into the film industry to begin with when former colleague and associate Jack Cosgrove was setting up his matte department for the mammoth GONE WITH THE WIND paint fest.  Fitch continued a full on career as matte artist at RKO for many years.

Above left and right are some examples of Fulton's wacky and ingenius photo effects work from the bizarrely hilarious 1941 Olson and Johnson farce HELLZAPOPPIN.  In the left panel is a great novelty gag where one character picks up what appears to be one of artist Russ Lawsen's actual matte paintings whereby the 'live action' element magically commences within the piece of artwork right in front of the actors, thus becoming a matte shot within a matte shot.  Brilliant, and a gag of the likes I've never seen elsewhere.  In the right hand panel are some frames from a lengthy and technically amazing example of optical photography wherein Olson and Johnson both manage to lose the upper and lower halves of their respective bodies and thus decide to join top and tail as one man!!!  The gag hit's paydirt when Johnson's legs are on backwards and the ensuing awkward walk off is a sight to behold.  Brilliant optical work and nearly flawless compositing by Ross Hoffman for such a low budget, minor film is quite unusual.  The film is loaded with bizarre gags and trick shots and is a great example of the talents and inventiveness of Fulton and his crew.

Fulton-Lerpae travelling matte from SON OF PALEFACE
 The Paramount years:   After being somewhat in the wilderness for a few years a strange thing occured that would probably make an episode of Ripley's Believe it or not?   According to Joanne Fulton Schaefer, the golf course behind their house was one of John's most popular haunts (when not flying or speedboat racing).  On one particular day in 1953 a golfer suddenly dropped to the grass, dead from a massive heart attack.  The panic amid the Fulton family was understandable as it was known to be John's number one sanctuary when not filming.
 Upon rushing across to the golf course expecting the worst, John's wife and two children discovered the deceased golfer to be, to their utmost relief not John but get this, turned out to be none other than Gordon Jennings - legendary head of special effects at Paramount Studios!!! (truth really is stranger than fiction)

Jennings, like his industry contemporary Fulton,  had been in charge of the effects unit since the early thirties and had made a name for himself for his easy going manner and Oscar winning visuals.  Cecil B.DeMille himself named Gordon Jennings "the finest special effects man he had ever had the privilege to work with" during his eulogy at Jennings funeral.

At the time Paramount was knee deep in big effects shows, with Mark Robson's THE BRIDGES AT TOKO RI already in effects pre-production under Jennings. DeMille was already putting together his mammoth TEN COMMANDMENTS personnel and working out feasibility studies as to the enormous visual effects requirements needed for that film.  The studio needed someone to fill Gordon's shoes pronto, and after a brief search and based upon the recommendations of Fulton's former Universal assistant, David Horsley as well as the thumbs up from Warner photographic effects head, Lou Litchtenfield, settled on Fulton as the most likely appointment to run the effects department. Whether Warner found John to be a thorn in their side, temperament wise could be speculated, but the move certainly benefitted John as by this time Paramount had the big projects that would challenge Fulton - and the man needed constant challenge. 

The Paramount technical effects department was an all encompassing one stop shop with several sub departments operating with considerable autonomy under their respective heads.  Paul Lerpae had for a long time controlled the optical printer effects section, likewise Jan Domela who took care of all matte painting needs from as far back as 1927 long time with associate Irmin Roberts as his cameraman.  Wallace Kelley was first visual effects cameraman, Ivyl Burks controlled the miniatures shop.  One of the key personalities of the Paramount trick department was Farciot Eduoart, who had run the unit from as far back as the mid twenties and moved into specialised process projection when Gordon Jennings was appointed in the early thirties.  Eduoart was the industry's foremost exponent in rear screen process, and really lead the field by a country mile in his developments and improvements therein.  The studio also boasted a large roto-animation unit who really came into their own during the complex Red Sea shots in DeMille's epic. (For a special tribute to matte painter Jan Domela, click here)

One of Fulton's first films as head of department at the new studio was the Elizabeth Taylor adventure ELEPHANT WALK.  This was no ordinary safari show, in fact the list of effects shots needed were quite unlike anything any of the effects personnel had been dealt before.  The notion of hordes of rampaging elephants destroying all in their path was an intriguing one indeed.  The script called for sweeping scenes of elephant carnage with the beasts storming through blazing homesteads amid panic stricken natives and big name stars.  Considerable split screen effects were employed, as were large scale blue screen shots, miniatures, mechanical elephant head and  hooves as well as a few matte paintings.

The shot above at  top left of the jungle is a multi part composite with the same group of elephants re-composited into different areas of the frame with matte painted foliage and tree trunks helping to conceal the trick.  Occasional moments of elephants moving through matte demarkation tended to give the game away, but it was a pretty brave trick al the same.  The sequence of frames depicting the rampage while Peter Finch and Liz Taylor run for their lives (above) are really intriguing.  What appears to be a large scale burning miniature ranch house is added behind the animals as a seperate element via blue screen, (with heavy matte lines visible throughout).

Very large scale miniatures for BRIDGES AT TOKO RI
Fulton really had to hit the ground running during that first year at Paramount, what with ELEPHANT WALK, BRIDGES AT TOKO RI, TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE NAKED JUNGLE all being effects heavy shows.  VistaVision was Paramount's new toy, and was a superior widescreen process over and above that of it's chief adversary CinemaScope.  The high fidelity optics of the spherical lenses and increased negative area were major pluses when compared to the idiosyncratic focus and distortion problems associated with the Bausch and Lomb anamorphic lenses used by the other major studios such as Twentieth Century Fox.

Among the VistaVision pictures under way at the studio THE BRIDGES AT TOKO RI was probably the first to utilise visual effects. TOKO RI was the story of a near suicidal air mission to blow some bridges during the Korean war.  The methods of achieving these effects were novel, and possibly never attempted previously - to construct extra large scale miniatures out doors and film the bombing run from an actual low flying aircraft - in this case a helicopter using special camera mounts.  Once again Fulton had his dream job - flying and filming.  The Ivyl Burks model set (pictured upper right) was enormous, with the actual bridges some 8 feet high and an entire valley, mountain chain and working model railroad constructed for the exciting set piece. In her article, Fulton's daughter expressed sheer delight at being on the set and "being able to walk between the bridge arches with ease" - and soaking up all of this wonderful world of miniaturisation, eventually leading on to a life long passion for the art of miniature making, of the non cinematic variety. Naturally Fulton himself acted as cinematographer for this sequence to achieve the best results.

The miniature jet fighters travelled along fine parallel wires with all manner of incendiary going off during the bombing run.  All up, a tremendously exciting sequence.  In addition to these spectacular action scenes were some less noticable visual effects in the film.  A fairly non-descript Naval dock scene featured the same US vessel twice in the same shot - basically a mirror image flopped in Paul Lerpae's printer and recomposited on the other side of the dock, and bridged with a Jan Domela matte painting.  All in all, a great example of an invisible special effect.  BRIDGES AT TOKO RI was good enough to win another Oscar for Fulton at the 1954 Academy Awards.

One of my all time favourite 'nature gone crazy' pictures, THE NAKED JUNGLE was next off the blocks, and a massive effects showcase it was at that.  I have documented in detail the visuals from this wonderful George Pal film elsewhere in my blogsite, so go and take a look at the fantastic matte paintings, miniatures and complex optical split screen set ups to depict zillions of pissed off ants on the rampage on a South American plantation.  Should have received the 1954 special effects Oscar.... but don't get me started on bloody Oscar injustices.  :(


THE TEN COMMANDMENTS,  DeMille's pet project would also prove to be his last.  The sheer scale of the effects demands for this mammoth undertaking were daunting.

A vast project that utilised all of Paramount's resourses - and then some.  Fulton was tasked with overseeing all aspects of the complex photographic effects, from the miniatures, mattes, process shots and the huge list of blue screen composites planned.  I have picked out some choice frames here, with the frame at lower right of Chuck Heston purveying the great city in progress.  An interesting, though flawed shot with a jigsaw puzzle of line up on the printer.  Heston's on a stage in front of a blue screen (with alot of spill) and beyond is one of the plates shot in Egypt by Wallace Kelly, but what's interesting here is that the gigantic statues being transported are in fact miniatures, themselves inserted into the Egypt 2nd unit footage via the blue screen process by Paul Lerpae.  What's more, they are slowly moving across the screen as pulled by slaves.  Bold optical for sure, and I'm sure a real son-of a-bitch to assemble.  The frame below left is one of DeMilles massive crowd shoots, augmented by a Jan Domela horizon matte.

Naturally the question on everybody's lips was "can Fulton part the Red Sea"?   Surely the most identifiable sequence in movie history, and the big payoff for DeMille's lengthy and measured build up had to come up trumps for DeMille to be able to save face.  Paul Mandell's in depth article on this effects sequence in American Cinematographer leaves no stone unturned in terms of technical detail so I'll cut to the chase here.

For the purposes of appreciating Fulton, Lerpae, Domela and the others on the vast effects crew I've used several photos from the aforementioned excellent Paul Mandell article to illustrate the Red Sea shoot on the Paramount backlot, which encroached across onto the adjacent RKO lot due to lack of space. 
 Above-  extremely rare excerpts from the still surviving tank shoot footage sowing succinctly some of the original elements created by Fulton's team in the huge backlot tank and the corresponding movie frames from the final comped shots.  The images at the right show the specially engineered water riffles at work, which when re-orientated in the vertical axis show the cascading pallisades of water which would form the basis of the 'water wall' elements.  Also seen is a  test split screen bringing the two sides of the 'water wall' together.  Effects footage courtesy of Steven Willhite.

Blue screen set up for the Red Sea set piece
As much as the blue screen work in this film stands out like a sore thumb , apparently in part due to negative shrinkage and in part the mad rush to meet release deadlines, the Red Sea sequence is still nonetheless a stunner.  The sheer amount of laborious hand animated soft roto mattes and element 'massaging' that was carried out by a team of roto artists, blending, manipulating and merging dozens of individual takes of water cascades and splash elements to create the actual walls of water and swirling tides was monumental.

  These carefully nurtured water palisades were then split screened into live action second unit Egyptian location footage of thousands of extras - with those extras themselves multiplied three fold on Paul Lerpae's optical printer - and then the sea floor (which really should have been muddy and wet to help sell the idea) was augmented with dozens of rocks painted by Jan Domela to hide the joins between the real and the manufactured.  Domela's daughter told me of the constant battles in the effects department with Fulton constantly arguing with Domela over the rock mattes and other issues.
Of course the Red Sea wasn't the only effects sequence in the film.  A number of spectacular Jan Domela matte paintings are seen, especially in the second half, as well as some bold use of cell animation (which would have benefited considerably if it were shot diffused rather than with sharp focus).  The pillars of fire around Charlton Heston, accompanied with DeMille's own voice as God no less, are spectacular, though are obvious in their cartoonish quality - oddly an artifact that was prevalent that year with Oscar running mate FORBIDDEN PLANET suffering from the very same cartoon quality.
Cell animation supervised by Joe Alves
Unfortunately, Fulton was pushed to breaking point with punishing deadlines to get it done as the film had a concrete premier date that could not be negotiated.  At below left is Jan Domela's beautiful matte painting of Mt Sinai, with a smoke and interactive light element and live action foreground composited.  The film unsurprisingly won the 1955 Oscar for Fulton's photographic effects work - the only Oscar to come to the film, with not even Elmer Bernstein's all time greatest score not even getting a nomination.  Bernstein was fairly unknown at the time and a bit of a gamble - a gamble which paid off in spades as a monumental score that perfectly sold the epic scale of DeMille's dream.
Jan Domela's sensational matte of Mount Sinai

Fulton re-unites with Danny Kaye for THE COURT JESTER
Among the line up for Fulton following the DeMille film was a welcomed re-match with Danny Kaye in the VistaVision comedy THE COURT JESTER which featured numerous painted mattes and split screens as shown here.  The studios were facing hard times due to falling off patronage and the monster that was television, and as such studio personnel were no longer secure and a great many were place on half salary, Fulton's unit included.  Matte painter Jan Domela found this era difficult indeed, not the least being on half salary, but constant run ins with the irrascible Fulton just added to the stress.  The mood within the Paramount effects unit was not a healthy, nor a happy one regrettably.

By now Alfred Hitchcock had a multiple film deal with Paramount and made a string of highly successful and well received films. It had been 25 years since Fulton had worked with Hitchcock on SABOTEUR and now the two were re-united, though on a significantly less demanding  expectation, effects wise.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH featured numerous interesting effects shots - several good Domela matte paintings, one of which, the night view of Marrakesh was lifted from another Domela-Fulton film OMAR KHAYAM a year or two earlier.  There was a split screen of James Stewart atop a church roof -  a studio set matted into a high angle street scene.  Fulton also orchestrated a wonderful multi part matte shot with a limited studio set behind a church, an extensive Domela matte painting of the church, street and town stretching into the distance with an added live action of Doris Day matted onto a (painted) street corner in the midground.
The finale at the Albert Hall has Fulton trickery too.  The several wide views of the auditorium have matted in crowd duplication and too is augmented with painted balcony patrons to fill out the audience numbers.

Fulton and crew were again called upon for REAR WINDOW for a few scenes - to matte in a helicopter above the extensive studio set and to repeat his old SABOTEUR trick of having an actor fall away from the camera to the ground below - in this case Jimmie Stewart slipping from the balcony at the end of the film, falling (blue screen) and breaking his (other) leg.

Hitchcock called upon Fulton and his department once again for VERTIGO.  Several matte paintings by Jan Domela, as well as some optical 'dream sequences' - and that perennial Fulton/Hitchcock essential, the blue screened actor falling away from camera to his death - not once but three times.  Of course the most notable special effect in VERTIGO, and one that rightfully Fulton has been applauded for, was the so called trombone effect.
The actual Vertigo visual effect as Stewart suffers from his fears with that amazing and much imitated truck in-zoom (my student film maker son calls it 'the contra zoom') out of the miniature of the interior tower stairwell.  A terrific effect that blew Hitchcock's  mind and had people such as Spielberg adapt it (very successfully I must say) in JAWS.  According to Johanna Domela Movassat, her father fought tooth and nail with Fulton over the tiles on the rooftop matte painting,(see above left) with Fulton convinced "no one would ever notice or care if they were well painted or not and to just get on with it"..
One of the reasons Domela moved his little matte painting studio to the far corner of a large Paramount soundstage was to try to distance himself from Fulton and his screaming outbursts.  It didn't seem to mater whether Jan had visitors or even family members in his little matte room, Fulton would sure enough come bursting in and start some tirade of one sort or another, regardless of those present.  People skills were as far from Fulton's persona as public relations were with Goebbels!

Shown here at left are some frames from another from the big VistaVision adventure OMAR KHAYAM made in 1957.  This, as with  most of the Fulton catalogue was primarily a matte painting and process show - nothing much to tax the ingenuity of the resident, mercurial genius.  Out of interest, when matte artist Jan Domela finally left the studio after nearly 40 years the painting at far left was his one and only souvenir after painting thousands of trick shots since the silent days.

The visual effects department at Paramount the day after the Oscar win.  Back row fifth from left is optical line up man Carl Lerpae, brother of optical effects supervisor Paul K.Lerpae; eighth from left is matte painter Jan Domela; and next to Domela is long time process genius Farciot Eduoart.  Middle row the only person I can identify is the young guy dead centre - Dewey Wrigley,jr also from Lerpae's optical unit and the son of pioneering Paramount visual effects cameraman Dewey Wrigley snr.  Front row, crouching at extreme left is Ivyl Burks who ran the miniatures shop for decades; seted next to him is effects cinematographer Wallace Kelly; next to Kelley is one of the roto animation ladies, possibly Carole Beers, though I can't be sure.  Behind the Oscar is Fulton; to the right of Fulton is optical effects supervisor Paul K.Lerpae.  Somewhere in this group is Irmin Roberts, the long time veteran matte cameraman who worked closely with Jan Domela, as well as Jack Caldwell, Frank Stanley and Aubrey Law - all optical printer line up men - but which faces they are I don't know.  Photo courtesy of Joanna Domela Movassat
The remaining years were largely uneventful, though a great many intriguing films by Fulton I've never seen such as some of the science fiction pictures I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, THE SPACE CHILDREN and CONQUEST OF SPACE which I'd really love to see some day.

Most of the remaining Paramount shows such as the Jerry Lewis / Dean Martin comedies and latter day Bob Hope films were stripped to the bone cost wise and effects were rushed.  From correspondence I've seen from Jan Domela the studio had these so called 'efficiency experts in suits out of New York' (head office) and their duty was to cut costs.  Departments were dismantled, employees placed on hiatus - Fulton included - and rehired on a film by film basis.  Fulton, like his associates, sought work elsewhere, and Europe beckoned.

One of John's many travelling mattes from CONQUEST OF SPACE
He was based for a short time at Pinewood Studios in London and worked on films such as THE HEROES OF TELEMARK and engaged in miniature photography on a Spanish film, THE SEA PIRATE.  It was while planning the complex effects for his big comeback movie THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN that John suffered at the hands of what we would now term as 'medical misadventure' - whereby the incorrect medication was administered during a brief stay at a hospital in Madrid - a highly dangerous medication which in some patients would cause the destruction of all of the red blood cells.  This catastrophic event was non reversible, and incurable.  From Joanne Fulton Schaefer's tribute to her dad, it was just a matter of time. There are only so many blood transfusions the weakening human body can tolerate.  John passed away in London on July 1st 1966 at the shockingly young age of just 63.

When one associates all that Fulton had achieved during this comparatively short life it was indeed impressive - with the upcoming BATTLE OF BRITAIN with all it's aerial dog fights and potentially amazing miniatures, I think John's sadly, un-realised career best was quite possibly yet to come.

*note - THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN of course was still produced, and in fact does feature tremendous special effects work throughout, certainly potentially Oscar worthy in my opinion, with Glen Robinson supervising miniature dog fights and air crashes, Cliff Richardson handling the many physical effects, Wally Veevers looking after composite photography, Ray Caple and Peter Melrose painting the matte shots and Martin Body photographing the mattes.


  1. Hey, I came across your blog by accident and haven't stopped reading it. Great work man. I love the original visual effects artist and the shear talent and ingenuity still amazes me to this day. Much more interesting than just reading about some guy sitting behind a computer pushing buttons in After Effects.

  2. Hi

    I couldn't agree more - hence this lifelong admiration to these guys (and most were 'guys') who achieved the impossible without the 'undo button'. It's funny showing example of this stuff to younger generations who simply cannot get their heads around a time BEFORE bloody computers. They just can't comprehend this old hand done stuff.


  3. I love your blog! One correction - It was Doris Day - not Debbie Reynolds - in 'The Man Who Knew Too Much!

    thanks Dsnyguy

  4. Great read! What cool pictures! Where did you find them?

  5. A reply for the first two comments. I find also funny when people claim or think that computers make stuff easy for Visual Effects or think they just "push buttons". So a photographer is no longer talented or deserves credit for using a digital camera instead o film, or a painter just because he paints directly on to a computer? VFX involves much more than a digital workstation. Guess what, technology evolves and so as Resolution which demands higher quality of work involving more hours and attention to detail. I say this because I work in the industry ( and worked several big feature films ) and let me tell ya guys FX not only involve explosions, spaceships, monsters..they also involve painting out cranes, camera guys, wires, replacing actors and many things that its mainly impossible to pick up and are also part of the game in order to achive a look of a shot. Long story short I can tell ya I have worked on shots that are less than 3 seconds long that wont denote anything that would point to an "Effect" and spent more than a month. Your kind of comment can apply to doctors, Engineers, etc.. anything linked to technology through their tools. Tools are just Tools, Talent and hard work is something no one cant buy to themselves. John P Fulton, true master in VFX, if still alive I bet ya he we would still be innovating and envisioning future possibilities in cinema to help tell stories.

  6. I saw THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on a re-release in the late '60's or early 70's, I forget which. I can vividly remember the glorious color, also the blue screen shots, which kind of hit the whole audience in the face. But it was the pioneering movie of blue screen shots, and of course had the complications of Vistavision and Technicolor. It wouldn't have been as jarring in the 50's. Our local paper, the DETROIT FREE PRESS, explained the water effects as being done with gelatin, as they had read somewhere that that's how it was done, never thinking about the fact that it was the silent version. Nobody knew anything then!

  7. Hey NZ Pete! Hope you are doing well. We used to correspond on the old site. I wondered, did Fulton treat all his staff Jan Domela or was Domela just Fulton's personal "whippin boy"? Do you know about what point it was that Fulton did THE BAMBOO SAUCER? The traveling mattes are so bad, they are actually hard to watch.

    1. Hi Mike

      As far as interpersonal relationships go, Fulton had a dreadful reputation unfortunately. Even his daughter told me how difficult the man was, with strained relationships with practically EVERYONE. She mentioned how laughable it was (in a sad sort of way) how her father so wanted to become a director, yet he had absolutely not a shred of 'empathy' for the human condition whatsoever. Domela's daughter told me numerous stories of Fulton and how fraught the atmosphere was at Paramount. Incidentally, Bill Taylor also mentioned to me, that while admiring Fulton's technical genius Taylor had, quote, "never met anyone who ever had a good word for John"... and Bill worked with Fulton's original rotoscope artist, Millie Winebrenner, in Universal's matte dept with Whitlock, among others.


    2. Well, I greatly admire James Cameron as a director but not sure I could survive working for him as he is also well-known for having little empathy for the human condition. But Fulton was one amazingly brilliant effects artist. It's too bad we never got to see what he'd have done with the effects for THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN. I'm sure they'd have been amazing.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. I have an original oil tall ship with seagulls signed: P. Fulton. Any idea as to the artist?

    1. I would guess that the 'P' may well be an 'F', which in that case would be John's father Fitch Fulton who was a well known artist and highly accomplished matte painter too.


    2. Thanks for publishing this informative blog. John Fulton’s middle name was Phipps, which was his grandmother Sarah’s middle name. Sarah was married to Dr. John Blythe Fulton, who was a doctor in the civil war. They were my great, great grandparents. The Fultons, who lived in Beatrice, Nebraska, had nine children, six boys and three girls. Fitch Fulton was their 8th child and Oliver, who was the oldest, was my great grandfather. The Fulton children were extremely artistic and formed an acting stock company which toured the Midwest in the early days of the 20th century. My grandmother, Vivian Fulton McKoane was Oliver’s daughter and her oldest child, James Fulton McKoane, was my father. My grandparents visited cousin John in L.A. after attending my parents’ wedding in San Luis Obispo in May of 1943. When years later their daughter Marianne and her cousin Joanie visited John, he took them to the studio and explained his process of parting the Red Sea. I never met John or Fitch, but I was fortunate to have inherited one of Fitch’s beautiful, California landscape oils from my aunt, Marianne McKoane, who had inherited it from her parents.
      Candace McKoane McLaughlin

  10. Thank you for publishing this informative blog. John Fulton’s middle name was Phipps, which was his mother Sarah’s middle name. She was married to Dr. John Blythe Fulton, who was a doctor in the civil war. They had nine children, six boys and three girls, all of whom were extremely artistic. Fitch Fulton was their 8th child and their oldest was my great grandfather Oliver. The Fulton brothers formed an acting stock company and traveled throughout the Midwest in the early days of the 20th century. Oliver’s daughter, Vivian Fulton McKoane was my paternal grandmother. My grandparents visited John P. Fulton after attending my parents’ wedding in San Luis Obispo in May of 1943. Years later their daughter Marianne, my aunt, visited John along with her cousin. John took them to the studio and explained he’s process for parting the Red Sea. I am fortunate to have inherited one of Fitch Fulton’s beautiful, California landscape oils.
    Candace MCKoane McLaughlin

    1. Hello Candace

      Thank you so very much for writing this note. I'm always so thrilled when my bloggings have some personal touch with families and kin folk of those I attempt to celebrate.
      I'm delighted you enjoyed this article.