Friday, 8 October 2010

MOBY DICK - mattes and miniatures from a grand old whale of a tale

Although I have a profound dislike of actor Gregory Peck for reasons I can't exactly pinpoint (he's always been just such a dull performer who seems to blend in with the wallpaper to my mind...or maybe it's that flat monotone voice?) - I'll have to make an exception for the 1956 John Huston film based upon the famous Herman Melville book, MOBY DICK.

The film actually stands up very well some 55 years or so after hitting the cinema screens, and to be honest I enjoyed it far more this time around - some 25 years since I last saw it on television.  What impressed me no end were the visual effects, which naturally is what my blog is all about.  They are tremendous.  While my blog is essentially a tribute to matte painting in film, I occasionally extend that framework to include other old school effects techniques such as cell animated visual effects, model shots and ingenious hand done opticals of days gone by (and I have so many of these I'll never have time to cover all of this stuff in my archives).

Director John Huston giving the cast a drenching.
While MOBY DICK does have matte art,  it's  limited to just three shots that I could count, and they are very nice shots at that, it's the superb miniature work that I wish to cover here today.  These shots really do stand the test of time and look sensational, even more so as they all involve water 'miniaturisation', and anyone familiar with tank effects will know how damned hard it is to produce convincing scaled down water effects, though the crew here have done a most impressive job in this respect - far better than one would anticipate for the era.

The picture was released by Warner Bros, though as far as I know they had nothing to do with the production.  The show was filmed in England by mostly British crew including cinematograper Oswald Morris and production designer Geoffrey Drake - himself a soon to be visual effects designer on many Carl Foreman pictures such as  MacKENNA'S GOLD and the two GUNS OF NAVARONE pictures. 

Unsurprisingly for the era the effects work went uncredited, though I can tell you that several names in special effects work were heavily involved.  British miniatures specialist George Blackwell, often associated with Pinewood productions, who had a long history of supervising model shots on films such as the excellent THE DAMBUSTERS and CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER.  American mechanical effects man Augie Lohman - himself a long time veteran of explosive effects work and mechanical rigs was also involved here.  
The credits published on imdb also make a mention of two other interesting names - make up man Charles Parker is credited for the whale model, along with Robert Clarke who is listed under whale consultant.   Parker was an early exponent of make up prosthetics as I recall, with a nasty little UK Donald Pleasance horror picture called THE MUTATIONS having some terrific creature effects.   Just how the beast was articulated - both in small scale form and for the large scaled sections of whale I have no idea, but it's teriffic. 

The shots are all superb and the matching between the scale footage and the ocean shot footage is terrific.  Whoever looked after the lighting camera duties on the miniatures deserves a pat on the back. I also spotted first assistant cameraman billed as Paul Wilson.  Wilson later became Derek Meddings visual effects cameraman on many films throughout the seventies and eighties.  As far as the three matte painted shots go I'd put money on these being executed in the UK - possibly by Tom Howard's department at MGM-Elstree, where several shows of the decade and beyond were supplied with opticals and matte shots.

A Warner release, not a Warner production.

A lovely painted view of the harbour and township, most probably the work of a UK based matte artist.

The whaling ships and part of the town as added by the matte artist.

The foreground lighthouse and buildings plus the sky are almost certainly represented as a nice glass shot.

One of the numerous travelling matte composites, which despite mismatched lighting and colour are surprisingly free of noticeable matte lines.

One of the excellent miniatures sequences where the whale is hauling the model boat along at great speed.

Another example of travelling matte compositing.  I'm intrigued as to whether the composite photography was blue screen or the yellow sodium backing?  The background plate of miniature whale articulation was exceptionally fluid and organic.

The whale effects are just so impressive - and can stand up against 'Bruce' the shark from JAWS in my opinion.  An astonishing range of movement with the massive tail flexing upward then crashing down onto the sea, or the sailors.

Now look at the scale of the waves and the wash from the model boat (with incredibly lifelike dolls), and the reflective quality of the ocean - I'm hard pressed to think of another film with such superb ocean miniaturisation, especially one from 1956.... and I've seen some shockers when it comes to this sort of thing.

The beast rears it's mighty head - much to the sadomasochistic joy of Captain Ahab I must say.

Ahab, trapped in the harpoon cables goes to that mythical place called 'Davy Jones Locker', wait a minute...wasn't Davy one of  'The Monkees'?.  The scenes in full motion look much better than mere screen grabs folks.

A rare pic of the actual miniature with meticulously crafted dolls of the principle characters.  I understand the scale to be significant - measuring in some 'feet' as opposed to 'inches'.  When I recall the size I'll edit this caption.

A pretty rare behind the scenes photo taken on the effects shoot of Gregory Peck caught up in the harpoon ropes on the mechanical full sized section of Moby, which, as I've said, really does the trick in this great film.


  1. All the tank work was done on what was a new water tank built at Associated British Pictures studio in Elstree. That tank had a 60' high painted sky backing. There were problems filming on it because of neighboring trees that blocked sunlight.

    That tank is still at what's left of the studio, only it's no longer used for filming water effects. The UK version of Big Brother is done there.

    Many years ago the sky backing with its metal scaffolding was removed.

  2. Many thanks for that insight into some outstanding tank work. I don't know what makes me more depressed - the fact that the tank isn't used any longer or the fact that 'Big Brother' is shot at a once proud establishment (or shot at all for that matter!)

  3. Fine article. I've wondered about the effects work on this film for many years, and sought in vain to find some behind the scenes of the miniatures, which were very impressive for their day - state of the art, at the time, in fact.

    On a completely different note, I wish you would do a major piece on Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. No one has ever done an article Only focusing on the effects work in that movie, which was extraordinary, to say the least. Ralph Hammeras, Peter Ellenshaw, Bob Mattey, Josh Meador, the Lydecker brothers... even Marcel Delgado. There were many greats on that one - please consider writing a webpage on this magnificent film, which has just gotten a new restoration.

  4. I have had a notion to do a tribute on 20'000 LEAGUES for some time. Watch this space as they say.


  5. There is a rather good article on Ralph Hammeras in Cinefex #15. It covers '20000 Leagues' quite a bit. There was also an excellent article in the old magazine 'Cinefantastique' on the making of the movie, which had a lot on the miniature work including some stills form the aborted arctic sequence. I love the VFX in that movie.

  6. I would just like to say thank you for pointing out one of the greatest special effects guys ever in my opinion.....Augie Lohman. I may be biased as he was my Great Grandfather. This last weekend I was going through some of his stuff and found quite a few pictures of some of the work on this set and decided I was going to watch it!

  7. I own the whaleboat model that you show in your article about the movie. It is approximately 6' long and is being shown in an exhibition (The Art of the Ship Model)at the New Bedford whaling museum. I think I contacted you once before regarding the Tara matte painting from Gone with the Wind which I also own.

    David Levy

    1. David, I am the son of the late Noel Purcell, 1900-1985, who played the ship's carpenter in the movie. He brought home that very model where it sat in his dressing room for many years. When I was leaving Dublin for Australia in the '70s, he asked me if I wanted it. I'd have loved it, but it was too delicate to take with me. I often wondered what happened to it. Can you please let me know how you obtained it? By the way, our model was more like 3 feet long. I don't remember it being 6', so maybe it's another one. Incredible figures and model construction.

    2. Hi Patrick

      Thanks for the note. All I really know about it is from some communications with the above collector. It's almost certain that they had models in different scales for various shots. All up, I still find it tremendous work, and 'wet' tank miniature work is so hard to pull off realistically, but MOBY DICK succeeded so well.



  8. Hi David

    Yes, I recall talking with you about that glorious Fitch Fulton Tara matte. I was ever so hopeful of obtaining a few crisp jpegs of that if at all possible. Incidentally, I was in communication with Fitch's grand-daughter (and daughter of John P.Fulton) just the other day and we were discussing that very painting, which she said they (sadly) sold off some years ago.
    Please email me if you are able to help with a hi-rez Tara - it would be wonderful.



  9. "Whoever looked after the lighting camera duties on the miniatures deserves a pat on the back."

    I realize I'm a little late with this, but as you may know the miniatures effects were photographed by Freddie Francis --- so they were certainly in good hands.

  10. Hi Brett

    Thanks for that.....and do stay CG free!! Let's hear it for old fashioned latex, puppets and glass shots my friend.


  11. Paul Blackwell3 April 2014 at 11:17

    Just did a search on my late Uncle George and happened upon this excellent site . George and his older brother Eddie(my Dad) and younger brother Jack were all superb modellers. All Manchester born and attended what was then known as the Manchester School of Art (now a Faculty of MMU). Once when on location in Scotland George ( a terrific practical joker) and colleagues got halfway to making a spoof Loch Ness Monster! Sadly never came to fruition.
    Paul Blackwell

    1. Hi Paul

      I'd be VERY keen to learn more about your amazingly talented uncle should you care to email me. You'll find George discussed in several of my blog postings. Definitely on of the great, unsung British effects technicians, and one I'd be enthusiastic in telling 'his story'. Fellows like George need to be celebrated and promoted - even decades down the track.

      Hope to hear from you.


  12. Are you talking about the same George Blackwell who did the awesome demon for NIGHT / CURSE OF THE DEMON?

  13. Great article, great blog. Finally managed to get this on blu-ray and it's beautiful. They did the color timing to match the original de-saturated look intended by Huston and Morris. (There's a real interesting, but short extra telling about how they accomplished the look and restoration on blu-ray.) When viewed as originally intended, the composite shots look great. There's virtually no color/lighting mismatch.

    Steve D