Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Epics...QUO VADIS matte shots - part two in an ongoing series

Certainly one of the better giant studio epics, Mervyn Leroy's 1950 QUO VADIS is an enduring showcase of near biblical proportions.  A good cast, screenplay and a masterful Miklos Rozsa score that still stands the test of time for us film score enthusiasts.
Naturally, being a matte shot fan I have to state from the outset that QV is one of the best Hollywood effects shows of the genre, although the photographic effects aspect was, oddly, entirely British.  The physical effects were under the control of MGM's chief special effects man A.Arnold Gillespie with ace miniatures expert Donald Jahraus - both Oscar winners a few years before for the excellent and utterly deserving THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO.  Unusually, MGM's matte department had no involvement  in QV, with all matte and optical work under the control of another long time UK visual effects specialist Tom Howard who for many years ran the effects unit at the British MGM-Elstree.
Howard's expertise  largely in optical effects and blue screen work went back to the late thirties with solid credits on such films as THIEF OF BAGHDAD.  For a film as grand as QV Howard needed the services of an experienced matte artist, one able to tackle the many and varied composition and design issues on such a film.  Enter one Peter Ellenshaw.

Legendary Brit matte artist Peter Ellenshaw had spent virtually all of his professional career up until the late 40's working under the auspices of another great in English matte artistry, Walter Percy Day at Denham Studios.  After Peter's return to civilian life following the war years spent in the air force the opportunity arose to set up a matte painting department at Elstree studios under effects head Tom Howard - an opportunity which Ellenshaw seized, after years of playing second fiddle  at Denham, all the while under Pop Day's steely gaze.

A curious set of events took place which Peter covered in his essential biography Ellenshaw Under Glass sufficed to say, the Ellenshaw matte shop was eventually up and running.  Les Ostinelli was matte cameraman and compositor, with Peter doing all of the painting.  The draftsmanship of Peter's QV matte shots is extraordinary and I'd go so far to say that his money shot - the grand parade with Rome stretching out around the gathered throngs is the best matte of ancient Rome ever committed to celluloid!  Totally inspirational and beautifully crafted, and even better than his later variation upon the same theme for the 1960 SPARTACUS.  So with that in mind, sit back and enjoy the work of one of cinema's finest artisans... Peter Ellenshaw.

Special Effects - A.Arnold Gillespie
Miniatures - Donald Jahraus
Visual Effects Cinematographer - Mark Davis
Matte Artist  -Peter Ellenshaw
Matte Cinematography - Les Ostinelli
Optical Effects - Tom Howard

Although not from QUO VADIS, this untitled Ellenshaw matte carried out while at Metro was perfect practice for the precision blending and eye for perspective that would be essential for Peter's biggest challenge to date.
Peter was assured by Tom Howard of an on screen credit... which never eventuated unfortunately.

Peter's initial establishing view of Rome - an extensive, almost full painting complete with bird in flight to sell the shot.
The Appian way - with added Ellenshaw Roman aquaduct and horizon.

Peter was proud of his matte work, and rightly so.  The marry ups are all exceptional and the blending flawless.
Original Cinecetta set with Peter's magnificent extension that blends with perfection, largely thanks to Les Ostinelli.

I can't be certain, but the whole left frame looks painted to me, and the right may have Peter's clouds added?

The Ellenshaw sense of light and hue was unsurpassed.
The money shot - the all time greatest matte shot of ancient Rome in my book.  Most of the crowd and virtually all of the buildings are pure Ellenshaw.  What a majestic moment with the fine Miklos Rosza fanfare belting out.  Of note too for how long this matte stays on screen.  Generally painted trick shots were kept to a minimum, but all of the QV mattes have a decent screen time with this one on screen for a considerable time and shown some five separate times by the film editor

There are more mattes than these shown here with more closer views and angles of the same scenes.
The chariot battle - all shot on a stage in front of a fairly obvious blue screen and composited by Tom Howard with the sort of result the technique was always plagued with in colour films of the day.  At one point Robert Taylor's forearm disapears altogether presumably due to blue spill or matting density issues.

Now why did I put frames here of QV's exquisite maidens?...... Because I can, so sue me!!

Ellenshaw scenery extended above limited soundstage set.

An invisible trick shot if ever there were one.  Upper half entirely Ellenshaw's oils on glass.

Rome this the end for Nero?  Ellenshaw's contribution to the exciting inferno set piece with much Don Jahraus miniature work and excellent Tom Howard composites to tie the extras into the danger.

Rome burns!  Great Don Jahraus miniatures (though I think Fred Sersen at the opposition studio Fox really held all the cards when it came to this sort of epic effects sequence as seen in IN OLD CHICAGO and THE RAINS CAME, both of which will be featured right here on this very blog soon.....).

Excellent blue screen comp of miniature photography here.

Peter Ustinov's 'Nero' fiddling while Rome seriously deluded and misunderstood bastard!

There are more angles for the arena sequence and also some interesting split screens to pit hungry lions in the same space as the tired, sinewy Christians.  All top calibre work.
Before and after Peter's painted crowded forum.
A Tom Howard split screen with lions and actors filmed separately, plus Ellenshaw upper artwork.

Ellenshaw crowd art plus blue screened close ups with charging bull.

The final shot - a standard Heavenly optical ray.

A view of the set built at Cinecetta Studios in Rome prior to the addition of Ellenshaw's majestic, sprawling painting.
Two examples of Ellenshaw's flawless artistry and superb blends of live action set to matte art.

All up I've always felt that QUO VADIS had more than enough in it's favour to be a potential Oscar nominee, if not winner in the 1950 special visual effects category ... but the Academy worketh in strange ways.
The Warner DVD is exceptionally well timed and transferred and it's on Blu Ray too.  I have some Blu Ray mattes which look sensational.

Tune in again in a day or so for magnificent matte work from THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.



  1. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Brilliant! I first saw QV in early 50's and was immediately turned on to Roman stuff and Miklos Rozsa's music.

  3. I would have to agree that Ellenshaw's "Money Shot" of Rome in Quo Vadis is the most impressive matte shot of Rome out there. An absolute tour de force of matte painting! Though, in terms of overall composition and cinematic appeal, I still have to go with his painting from Spartacus.

    Again, thanks for posting!!!!!

  4. Pure beauty!!! No amount of CG can ever match up with this kind of magisterial work! Wish they start dumping those computers and work again on glasses.

  5. Thank You for this! I loved seeing it. My Uncle was Donald Jahraus. He did the miniatures for this film and many more.

    1. I would love to know if he did any miniatures that weren't used in the film. His work was magnificent.

  6. Hi there

    Thanks for the positive feedback - I appreciate it so much when I hear from family members of the very magicians I try to do justice to with this blog. I'd love to hear from you at some stage if you have any more info on your uncle you might be able to share.


  7. I've managed to get hold of a copy of 'Idol of Paris'

    The "untitled Ellenshaw matte carried out while at Metro" was once attributed to 'Idol of Paris' so I can confirm this matte does not appear in the film.

    I've got all the British Metro films from this period other than 'Which Will Ye Have?' (1949) - made at the Gate Studios Elstree, but effects by Tom Howard's team at Metro.

    This matt could possibly be Pontius Pilate's palace - but without access to the film, who knows.

    I'm trying to get a copy of 'Ellenshaw Under Glass' without mortgaging the house - but in the mean time, are you able to expand on Ellenshaw's time at Metro.

    From what I can gather, he was employed on one film as a trial and then his contract was extended.

    I'm particularly interested in how he came to leave Metro for Disney.

    Les Ostinelli says that the 'Hornblower RN' matts were put together by Tom Howard at Metro from material filmed at Denham. Did the same apply to 'Treasure Island'?

    Thanks for making all this material available - I come back to this site again and again.

    1. Thanks firstly for the kind comments.

      I can't really expand much on Peter's MGM tenure. In the book (well worth having on your shelf BTW) he includes info and images of IDOL OF PARIS and QV, as well as that mystery matte of the fluted columns (terrific job incidentally). I'd love to see IDOL but have never found it anywhere. I think you are correct with Peter hired for QV and then staying on with a contract extension.

      I don't know anything about the HORNBLOWER mattes, but always assumed they were assembled at Denham - as were all of the TREASURE ISLAND shots. The same ship mock up was used for both films. Tom Morahan was production designer on both films and Peter mentioned him as being instrumental in his getting the HORNBLOWER gig.
      Where did you read the Ostinelli info? Most interesting.

      I know that Peter was lured to MGM with the promise of a salary increase AND screen credit for QUO VADIS (never happened, despite Peter's fantastic work)


    2. Re-reading the Les Ostinelli interview - he may only be talking about 'QV' being put together at Borehamwood - not 'Hornblower'

      The interview is here:

  8. You talk about ET winning over Blade Runner. But how about Alien, with mediocre miniature effects (the art direction, namely the Alien and its ship design were what should have won) winning over the brilliant miniature effects of Star Trek TMP? THAT WAS THE ACADEMY PLAYING FAVORITES FOR SURE!

    1. 1979 was a tough call for FX oscar. While ALIEN was by far the best overall film (and should have taken art dir, cinematography, sound editing and actress) I would probably have given the FX gong to 1941.

      TREK was a great film and I liked the fx work, though where it differed from ALIEN was that Ridley used his fx very sparingly, and only to advance the narrative, and not a moment longer, with no tiresome, lengthy overtures of technique simply for the sake of it, where, in the case of Bob Wise's ST-TMP film, things were somewhat overplayed just because 'they could'.
      Don't get me wrong... I like both films, and savoured them both on the big screen back in the day.


    2. Well said. I understand your point. I was just going by the pure quality. And yes, 1941 was overall very good miniature work. I still can't look at Alien, or any of Brian Johnson's work and see anything but average to below average miniature work. Too shallow depth of field. ILM was the best at maintaining sharp depth of field, even when angles change.