Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Epics - THE ROBE and DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS matte shots - part ten of an ongoing series

Twentieth Century Fox hit paydirt in September 1953 with the much ballyhooed exhibition of the first ever CinemaScope widescreen presentation THE ROBE.  The culmination of years of development by French scientist Professor Henri Chretien, Hollywood mogul Darryl F.Zanuck recognised a great gimmick when he saw it and wisely took an option on the process and applying the trade name 'CinemaScope'.
CinemaScope was a means of optically squeezing an image vertically in camera during the original photography by shooting through a specially engineered elongated anamorphic lens and presenting that same  processed and edited 'squeezed' footage later in cinemas by projecting that same squeezed footage back through, in essence the same lens, though this time orientated to horizontally unsqueeze the compressed image to a considerable width, generally two and a half times the width of standard 'flat' 35mm exhibition (2.35:1).

Though fraught with problems, notably related to distortion, excessive compression around the sides of the frame and focusing limitations - not to mention the sheer size of the actual Bausch and Lomb manufactured lens, which was an enormous hunk of glass, the process was a huge hit. The 'fine print' in this new sensation for exhibitors was the reality that tens of thousands of cinemas worldwide were required to spend considerable amounts in refitting new super sized screens - which given that the existing proscenium of the majority of cinemas built prior to 1953 were strictly intended to showcase a standard sized screen of approximately 1.66:1 ratio (at best) - and tiny little screens they were at that!  

I know of several instances of cinemas here in New Zealand where a cut price version of CinemaScope was adopted by cheapskate exhibitors whereby the new scope footage was indeed projected through the sparkling new anamorphic lenses onto the crummy old 'flat' screens, with some two thirds of the image deliberately cropped off in the projection window with cardboard.  I myself saw IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD and FREEBIE AND THE BEAN on a bizarre double feature at the long deceased Classic Cinema, Auckland (definitely a cheapskate outfit  whereby the cinema mensroom door was actually on the corner of the screen, so every time some guy went to the can this little rectangle at the left edge of the screen would open and a bizarrely illuminated patron visible for all to see, and scoff at!).  True story folks.

THE ROBE was an okay show I suppose - certainly yards better than the awful, utterly forgettable sequel  DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS that just screams out 'quick cash in' all the way to the box office..  THE ROBE was a tad overly theatrical for my tastes with Jay Robinson chewing the scenery like an out of control grizzly bear. I half expected to learn of a lion tamer popping in between takes with a chair and a whip to quell Robinson and throw him some some tasty treats!  As an effects show it's interesting, though I've yet to see a decent transfer of it.  Both this and it's diabolical sequel DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS are on shabby dvd transfers filled with grain and colour shift. The resulting matte composites look very messy indeed, as dupes to begin with you're dealing with the devil, so with poor transfers of duped effects shots, often duped again as part of the interminable lap dissolves that directors of this genre were fond of, you don't see the painted mattes at their best by any means.
The 20th Century Fox matte department around 1953 while still under the control of long time head Fred Sersen (seen at right).  The matte painters pictured here are, from left, Ray Kellogg, Lee LeBlanc, Cliff Silsby, Emil Kosa jr and lastly Max DeVega right down the far end.  A wonderfully revealing photograph of matte artists at work in one of the busiest effects departments in Hollywood.

Long time Fox matte artist and effects man Ray Kellogg supervised on both of these shows and the normal group of effects people were used - senior matte painter Emil Kosa jr, artists Matthew Yuricich and Menrad von Muldorfer, Cliff Silsby and maybe Lee LeBlanc in addition to visual effects cameramen Harry Dawes and L.B Abbott.  So without further ado, we'll take a look at the mattes from both of these pictures.

The mattes unfortunately suffer on the appalling Fox DVD release with excessive grain and bizarre colour shift, not helped at all by the fact that most of the painted effects occur during lap dissolves.  Anyone who's seen any number of fifties technicolour films can vouch for the utterly dreadful quality of the dissolve opticals where suddenly a few seconds preceeding the effect the film stock noticeably changes (for the worse) and all semblance of normal colour goes straight out of the window only to be 'spliced' back to the original print at the close of the optical transition. I pity the cinematographer and effects artist who saw their work reduced to this state time and time again.

I rather like this shot, though once again the colour grading is not befitting of the dvd format and resembles the sort of awful old muddy 16mm television transfers we used to have to put up with.

I'm surprised that this shot even made the final cut.  Again dreadful colour grading and matching of plate to artwork.

I'd be interested in checking out a Blu Ray of this title, even though I personally don't feel that high definition format is here to stay if the ad-hock marketing and piecemeal release calenders are any guideline.

This quite nice, expansive matte was probably painted by Matthew Yuricich.

One of several ROBE matte shots which are recycled for the very poor sequel DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS
Veteran matte artist Matthew Yuricich seen here recently (circa 2007) attending an exhibition of traditional matte art hosted by visual effects supervisor and former ILM matte cinematographer Craig Barron.  The painting seen behind Craig is one of Matthew's wonderful matte paintings from Hitchcock's terrific NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

As previously mentioned, this film has virtually nothing to reccommend it, with dismal performances (did Victor Mature ever present anything of himself other than dismal?) and an air of desperate cheapness that hangs over the entire film.

I have only included the few original mattes used in DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS.  Several of the other shots are just mattes from THE ROBE.  Again I presume Matthew Yuricich would have painted on this show.

An unusual composition for such a matte shot with unnecessary foreground pillars somewhat ruining the shot.


  1. Ever see a Fox movie called "Desiree" about 1954 with Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando as Napoleon? I think a lot of the phony marble sets from "The Robe" and "Demetrius and the Gladiators" were used in this film. I think the sets also appear in the film "Three Coins in the Fountain"

  2. Since my Father John DeCuir Sr. was designer for both the Robe and Three Coins in the Fountain most likely some portions those "phoney" marble sets were reused. Couldn't have been all that phony given the Robe won the Oscar for best Art Direction. ;-) He got a little better at marble making when he went to Rome and won the Oscar for Cleopatra ;-) I will have to dig out the pencils sketches dad made fort these matte shots on the Robe.