Monday, 20 September 2010

The Epics - THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY matte shots. Part four in an ongoing series

The Epics... part four, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY (1965) was the story of Michelangelo and the Pope of the day, with a certain bit of interior decor being applied to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  As such, a particular Renaissance flavour was required by the studio, 20th Century Fox.

Head of the special photographic effects department at the time was Lenwood Ballard Abbott,  better known as L.B Abbott.  I've written on Abbott previously in my JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH blog.  Abbott was a visual effects cameraman and had at his disposal the remnants of a once great special effects unit - in fact one of the biggest and best in Hollywood, previously known as The Sersen Department, after it's founder, the legendary Fred Sersen.  The sixties had seen the systematic closure of departments in all studios as the squeeze was applied due to diminishing returns.  I'm not sure exactly when Fox downsized exactly as it was still churning out big effects films throughout the decade, such as FANTASTIC VOYAGE, the OUR MAN FLINT  films, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE and CLEOPATRA.  

The studio once had the biggest matte painting department with as many as a dozen top artists gainfully employed at any one time under the tyrannical rein of chief matte painter Emil Kosa jnr.  Kosa's father, Emil Kosa,snr had been a long term matte artist at MGM and 20th Century Fox. I have a pretty good list of Fox painters employed during their glory years, but this latter period is a mystery to me. For this film I'm assuming the matte department had probably already suffered the fate of 'downsizing' as many of the mattes on AGONY AND ECSTACY were painted by former Paramount matte artist Jan Domela.  Domela had left Paramount a few years earlier as that effects department was closed down.  Domela freelanced for his remaining film career until 1968, painting for Film Effects of Hollywood, Columbia, MGM and Fox.  From what I'm told, Kosa was an extremely unpleasant individual to work under and there are well founded stories of Kosa's inherent mean streak which he directed at the artists beneath him.  Kosa passed away in 1968 after completing his iconic Statue of Liberty matte work for the conclusion of PLANET OF THE APES.

The matte shots figure prominently in just two aspects of the story - the moment where Michelangelo is delivered the message to paint, and the several later matte painted progressions of the Sistine Chapel's stages of construction.   For a career length retrospective on matte painter Jan Domela, click here.

Special Photographic Effects - L.B Abbott, ASC
Matte Supervisor - Emil Kosa, jnr
Matte Artist - Jan Domela

Terrific old style one sheet - the likes of which we never see nowadays unfortunately.

An interesting effect, presumably an on set glass shot, hanging foreground miniature or maybe just a plain old painted backing whereby the Todd AO camera follows this actor across the rooftop with Renaissance Rome in the background.

Part of a lengthy sequence whereby Charlton Heston see's in the cloud formations the unique imagery upon which he will base his frescos on.  No doubt a hell of a tough notion to pull off for the effects department, but one I find quite beautiful.

Extensive use of full frame matte art used in a most unique storytelling fashionWe can already make out the figures.

Painted cloudscape with flock of birds overlayed.

More of the same ethereal 'cloud' sequence as beautifully painted by Emil Kosa jnr.

The construction of The Sistine Chapel - one of several extensive Jan Domela matte paintings.
Close detail of the above matte - from an old B/W frame enlargement from the Domela's collection.
Two more sequential views of the advancing construction of the Chapel by Jan Domela.
Although these frames are slightly out of sequence, some more painted construction is evident.

Another close detailed photograph of the above matte painting - from Jan Domela's effects shot collection


  1. One might also want to credit John DeCuir Sr. the Production Designer of the film who was nominated for an academy award for his work. In addition to being a renown Hall of Fame film designer, with three Academy Awards, John was a master matte artist working as a young man at the Universal Optical Matte department with Rus Lawsen and responsible for, among other sequences, painting Hitchcock's famous Statue of Liberty sequence in Saboteur, designed by the late great Robert Boyle. From an eye witness observer in Rome, I can assure you that all of the shots shown above were designed by John,a master glass matte artist in his own right. His brush strokes are all over the above pieces. Not to take anything away from the talented men who assisted him. - John DeCuir Jr.

  2. Hi John

    How wonderful to have your personal account on your father's work. I had info that he had painted with Lawsen on SABOTEUR (some of my all time favourite matte work), and I'd love to know more about his matte period if you'd care to share it. I believe John had a lot to do with the big sweeping glass shots in CLEOPATRA as well.

    I'm most interested in those AGONY AND THE ECSTACY matte shots. I know from the Jan Domela family collection that Jan did some of those St Peter's mattes, though I'd love to know about those glorious sky matte paintings.

    Thank you so much for the info and I do hope you will share more on this particular area of interest. I would be thrilled to see any imagery that may still exist.


  3. Oh one of my favorites. Rex and Chuck stole the show but the whole picture is a Masterpiece. These posts just get better and better. *thumbs up*