Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Epics - CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA , KHARTOUM plus some bonus matte shots: part eight in an ongoing series

Up until now I've been mainly concentrating upon the American matte departments contributions to 'The Epics', though a great many were made by British studios, with a surprisingly large volume output by Spanish and Italian studios as well.  Naturally my recent post on Mervyn LeRoy's QUO VADIS was a fine example of British matte talent at it's very best - the legendary Peter Ellenshaw - who's work was extraordinary and among the most convincing of all Roman adventures.  Today I will cover several films, although principally it'll be the 1945 Rank picture CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, followed by a later UK epic with outstanding matte work, the 1965 Pinewood film KHARTOUM.   I'll endeavor to also add a section on the extraordinary matte painted effects largely unseen (by me at least) from a selection of  Italian and Spanish productions which may be unfamiliar to primarily English speaking film viewers.  
These latter mattes come courtesy of my good friend, 'the living, breathing encyclopaedia of Euro matte shots', Domingo Lizcano - who's website is not only heartily recommended but in fact mandatory reading (and that's an order!!)


The huge Rank film based on the George Bernard Shaw play was for me a major disappointment.  I loved PYGMALION, made by the same producers five or six years earlier - wonderfully witty and a total delight all the way.  I just can't get my head around Bernard Shaw meets Ben Hur.... it just didn't work, period.  Apparently a hugely expensive film with such bizarre cost over runs as bringing  a better looking and quality sand to Egypt (yes you read that right) "to ensure the right colour"!  The money however is up there on the screen with mighty sets and decor - so good in fact that I find it damned hard to distinguish the real from the matte in many situations, so some of these frames are really a best guess on my part.

The special photographic effects were carried out be the doyen of British painted mattes, Walter Percy Day, or 'Pop' Day to industry insiders.  Day was the originator of the matte process in England and France and stood, rightfully so, as the father of the matte shot process for decades.  As most people know Day was also the mentor (and hard taskmaster by all accounts) to a young fledgling matte artist named Peter Ellenshaw who himself would assume the mantle of matte master following day's retirement in the early fifties.

Day's mattes here are wonderful, that is of course if I've correctly identified the mattes and not huge sets.  It certainly looks as though the exteriors were considerable in scale, with a couple of shots possibly being miniatures for camera moves impossible on a painting.  So lets take a look back at some examples of Percy Day's amazing work....

Special Photographic Effects - Walter Percy Day
Special Effects Supervisor - Bill Warrington
Matte Photography Supervisor - Wally Veevers
Matte Camera Operator - Tom Day
Visual Effects Design - Arthur Day

Walter Percy Day - known in the industry as 'Pop' Day - stepfather and mentor to Peter Ellenshaw is shown here painting on Laurence Olivier's HENRY V in 1944 - the year before CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA
Percy Day's painted vista of the port of Alexandria (I vaguely recollect)

A series of frames pasted together by Domingo Lizcano to illustrate a severe tilt down on what I assume could be a miniature, or even an actual constructed set.  The shot is so good it's very hard to work out.  If it were a miniature then Bill Warrington would have had alot to do with this effect.

Probably a significant set construction with distant city being painted by Day (?)

A magnificent effects shot whereby I'm guessing the matte line runs along above the lion statues at left and across the frame at approximately that same level.  If so it is utterly superb in camerawork, painting and compositing.

I think it's the Alexandria Lighthouse for memory - possibly one of the wonders of the world and the Pop Day painting is beautifully integrated into the live action footage here by effects cameraman Wally Veevers.

One of the numerous shots possibly achieved for real with expensive sets, or maybe matte art??

Again, the light and perspective are so convincing I'd tend to go with a foreground miniature perhaps?
The same here - a jaw dropping visual effect that could possibly be a meticulously set up foreground miniature perfectly blended onto the outdoor set.  I really don't know, but the shot is so damned good, with even the fire perfectly scaled.  If it is a painted matte I can detect what looks like a soft split running midway along the brickwork of the wall, up and over the statue and across just above the heads of the furtherest away people.


KHARTOUM  (1966)

The Charlton Heston starred bio pic of General Gordon is quite good, and was Mrs Heston's favourite work that Chuck did.  A badly miscast Laurence Olivier, in leftover OTHELLO black face as an Indian was a bit farcical, not to mention racially insensitive, but was the done thing back then for reasons I never fully comprehended.

Now KHARTOUM is a good showcase for some of the best ever matte shots painted by Pinewood mainstay Cliff Cully - a painter who had been in the matte department at that studio since the mid forties working under Les Bowie and Joan Suttie, and presumably alongside a young Albert Whitlock.

Cliff, who's long retired, did alot of mattework for Pinewood over the years, particularly in the sixties and seventies before going out on his own to form Westbury Design and Optical, an effects house specialising in mattes, miniatures and optical effects with Cully's son Neil as effects cameraman and other up and coming effects people on staff such as Steve Begg, Terry Adlam, Steven Archer and Leigh Took.  One of the best matte shows the company produced were the terrific paintings for the Clive Barker horror film NIGHT BREED in the late eighties.

Cliff's mattework here is in my opinion his best, with the beautiful wide painted views of the city from atop the sand dunes simply wonderful.  Around that time Cliff employed an assistant painter, Charles Stoneham, (pictured at right painting on Richard Attenborough's GANDHI) who also would paint on numerous British films right up to THE DARK CRYSTAL and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL in the eighties.

Culley's long time associate Roy Field would have photographed the mattes and carried out the compositing.  Roy too was a real trooper in the British film industry for decades on other big matte shows such as CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG and culminating in an Oscar for the wonderful SUPERMAN - THE MOVIE in '79.
The picture at left, taken in 1967 in the Pinewood matte department shows Field manning the 65mm matte camera while Culley touches up one of his large glass paintings for CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.

With that brief summary out of the way I cheerfully present the matte shots from Basil Dearden's KHARTOUM

A magnificent Cliff Culley painted vista that beautifully sets the flavour of the times.

Culley's city with separate subtly blowing palm frond elements added in foreground.

The classic and erroneous cliched 'binocular' effect - though Cliff's River Nile is terrific.

A key battle sequence has several atmospheric skies added by Culley and Field.

Another angle on the battle matte.

A grand wide vantage point, superbly painted by Cliff, with on close moving examination what appears to be small slot gags in a few areas to suggest waving palm trees near the city wall.  I think KHARTOUM was a 70mm presentation and as Pinewood was set up for 65mm matte photography I'd assume the elements and paintings would have received the old Ultra Panavision  treatment.

A selection of matte painted scenes from Italy and Spain

THE MINOTAUR - matte painted composite by Joseph Natanson
Matte artist Joseph Natanson
Almost all of these frames are from films I've never heard of and are from the exhaustive collection of Domingo Lizcano who has spent years collating just such effects shots.  These frames are quite diverse and not all are strictly from the genre of epic covered in earlier blogs of this series, but the shots are terrific and I really want to give these matte artists some exposure.  I had no idea until I found Domingo's special effects site some years ago just how many films were produced over the years in Italy and Spain in particular with often considerable numbers of matte shots and trick photography.

Some of these films illustrated below fall into the 'sword and sandal' or 'peplum' genre - a genre I'll be the first to admit I just cannot personally abide.  However the beautiful matte paintings seen in many of these easily warrant coverage here (and beyond this mere blog  and in an official book on the topic of old school European visual effects in my mind).

Emilio Ruiz del Rio - 'the maestro' in my book!
I'll admit to knowing nothing about any of these films and knowing just a little on the visual effects wizards who produced these great shots, mostly gleaned from Domingo.  Three names figure prominently in the matte shots of most Euro period films made from the 1940's through to the 1980's - those being premier Spanish matte painter and visual effects designer, the truly great Emilio Ruiz, an innovator par excellance with a extensive career in matte work. Another key name being Joseph (Jozef) Natanson - a Polish born fine artist who trained in matte art under Walter Percy Day at Shepperton in the 1940's, painting on numerous British films including THE RED SHOES up to around 1954.  Both Ruiz and Natanson passed away within the same timeframe as I recall, just a few years ago.

The third name largely associated with trick shots and matte art was Italian cult director Mario Bava.  I was surprised to learn that Bava executed mattes and glass shots on a great number of his own films, such as the wonderful DANGER DIABOLIK and even on Dario Argento's INFERNO.  There are some dazzling examples that follow of some of Bava's glass shots from some Roman sword and sandal epics.


THE FURY OF ARCHILLES (1962) Joseph Natanson matte shot - It's quite possible that Natanson painted the similar mattes of a Greek fleet for HELEN OF TROY as he was involved on that Warner Bros release, though based at Cinecitta at the time as well.  Joseph also painted on the huge Fox film CLEOPATRA, with fellow artist Mary Bone, created one of the vast panoramas of ancient Alexandria.

Also from FURY OF ARCHILLES - painted by Joseph Natanson.

Natanson glass shot from FURY OF ARCHILLES.
A Joseph Natanson  matte shot from THE STORY OF JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN
A Natanson matte from the fifties historic bio pic film FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Another Joseph Natanson glass shot, this time from the film COLOSSUS AND THE AMAZON QUEEN
HEROD THE GREAT - city glass shot by Joseph Natanson
Emilio Ruiz practically invented the notion of using foreground flat two-dimensional panels of art applied more often that not to sheets of aluminium carefully positioned to merge reality and fantasy into hundreds (or thousands) of flawless trick shot composites throughout his very long and very distinguished film career. Among the notable genre films that feature Emilio's great trick work are Ray Harryhausen's wonderful GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974).

Emilio Ruiz foreground matte art from the 1958 film THE WARRIOR AND THE SLAVE GIRL

Another Ruiz masterpiece - THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII - a 1959 version I never knew about till now.

A story unlike any other I suspect, MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1962) Ruiz glass shot.

Another painted Ruiz effect, from the same film.

Emilio's painted city gates and walls from above titiled 1963 film.

In addition to these probable hundreds of Italian and Spanish films, Emillio worked stateside too on a number of films, often for producer Dino DeLaurentiis, whom I suspect he knew from Dino's European days.  Some of the films Ruiz painted on or created amazing foreground miniatures were DUNE, the two CONAN films, RED SONYA (with his miniature  of the skeleton bridge integrated with an Albert Whitlock matte painting of a foreboding sky) plus many shows for Enzo Castellari such as THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS and EAGLES OVER LONDON - Tarantino's favourite director.

I don't know how many trick shots Emilio did, but it must number the thousands, and as far as I know he was still working practically up till his death in 2008.
Another wonderful example of Emilio's eye for the visual effect - with these two shots from SHEHERAZADE

The Charlton Heston picture ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA - final effect on screen...

...and Emilio Ruiz' foreground painting awaiting alignment for the camera.

A wonderful demonstration of the skills that made Emilio Ruiz Spain's secret weapon and a leading visual effects artist.

A matte deceptively not belonging in the period under discussion, but included all the same as a great work in progress.
One of numerous matte shots created throughout the career of noted  Italian director and writer Mario Bava, with this shot from a film called THE GIANT OF MARATHON

Finally, three matte shots executed by director Mario Bava for the film NERO'S MISTRESS

I really only knew Bava by his Barbara Steele films and horror, so this aspect of Mario is quite a surprise to me.

The third of three glass shots Mario Bava did for NERO'S MISTRESS


  1. Many thanks for this extraordinary tribute to the fantastic - and often neglected - work of these artists!

  2. Thanks a ton for all the valuable information. These guys were truly the artists! Now I have started to hate all the more all these CGI work, not to say that I have anything against those guys who work on computers, but I choose matte paintings anytime over the work done on computers.

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  4. Wow - great to see these backdrops as paintings! I think of this everytime I see art work in movies. -- G

  5. Thanks to you, we know who did the matte shots for THE MINOTAUR (1960), but do you know who built the suit/animatronic Minotaur itself? I figure it had to be Carlo Rambaldi but no one has ever credited him for it.