Friday, 5 November 2010

Leigh Took: matte painter - a portrait of one of Cliff's boys

BLOG UPDATE:  My good lady wife complains that I spend far too much time on this matteshot project, and use up far too much bandwidth on "silly little movie things" (!)  Please forgive her, as she knows not what she says!  If it ends up in the divorce courts it'll be the world's first case where the "third party" is a sheet of glass covered in oil paint!  

Just before commencing this blog on British matte painter and visual effects designer Leigh Took I'll just take a moment to mention a few new add ons to other blogs here.  I've uploaded a wonderfully detailed view of one of Ray Caple's paintings of the ancient tower in the Scottish Highlands from the film HIGHLANDER.  I've also added several more interesting images to my (popular) War films blog, including the Ray Kellogg mattes from HEAVEN KNOWS MR ALLISON, some great miniatures by Dennis Lowe from THE AMERICAN WAY and a couple more Ivyl Burks-Farciot Edouart shots from SO PROUDLY WE HAIL.  There's also what purports to be the original Jack Cosgrove matte painting of the iconic mountain and desert from the opening scene of DUEL IN THE SUN in my blog on that film, though personally I don't think it is the matte, and more likely the final painted sketch for Cosgrove's proposed matte, as it's far too loose to be a matte from that period.  There's also an interesting before and after matte shot in the Warner Bros page from BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936.

I'm happy to have had a subscriber send me good quality DVD images of the mattes from Cosgrove's JOAN OF ARC, which as of this writing I've not uploaded, but will do so soon.  I'm always extremely interested in any matte shots that anyone out there might have and want's to see 'published' as even baring in mind my vast stockpile of shots, the pickings at this end of the earth are pretty slim when it comes to tracking down this sort of material, so I'll welcome contributions of matte art.  

There were other additions too, but I can't for the life of me recall what they were - probably due to the summer sun and the great news that THE HOBBIT will be made entirely here in NZ after all despite some  underhanded petty squabbles orchestrated by socialist, left wing, underarm bowling Australian  trade unionists determined to sabotage the production in this country at ALL costs.  So screw you Simon Whip and the horse you rode in on...... and three cheers to Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Richard Taylor.


LEIGH TOOK - matte painter
 I must express my deep gratitude to Dennis Lowe first and foremost, for taking it upon himself to document on HD video the careers of several key Brit special effects exponents, and for sharing  with me so many rare and utterly wonderful photographs documenting the careers of so many of these gentlemen, starting with Les Bowie, Kit West, Brian Johnson and many of Dennis' former effects associates connected with the ever terrific Ridley Scott picture ALIEN.  The following article is largely extrapolated from Dennis's interview with Leigh in October 2010 and to a smaller extent from my own files and screen grabs.  

I cannot recommend  Dennis' in depth documentaries enough, with the concise "tell it like it was" approach being, each a special effects tutorial in it's own right.  Honest, clear and sometimes utterly hilarious (especially his Bowie tribute which is a gem)  Fresh off the avid is the excellent 72 minute conversation with the subject of today's blog, Leigh Took.     So check it out!

It's always been something of an undeclared mission for me - to promote the long and proud history of the British special effects man.  maybe  that has something to do with New Zealand's long affinity with her former 'mother and sovereign' - England.  Well maybe that, but also I've felt that the British effects man has forever been hard done by - as too had the great British cinematographers, editors and art directors of days gone by.

  I can appreciate it to an extent as, much like us here in NZ, your average Englishman doesn't go all out trying to find the limelight.  It's more a matter of just rolling up your shirt sleeves and getting on with the job at hand. There's always been a sort of "well, let's give this a try and see if it works" type attitude, and this has shown itself often in the careers of visual effects exponents such as Les Bowie, Brian Johnson, Kit West and Cliff Culley.

I've been aware of Leigh Took for some years now , though he's always been one of those special effects enigmas who's work has been for the most part undocumented, and sin of sins, uncredited.  Leigh's life had always been one immersed in the arts.  From an early age Leigh was adept with the tools of the artist - pencils, paints, brushes and one of those enviable dispositions whereby complicated things such as perspective and spacial depth came naturally. 

Cliff Culley, now retired, was one of the UK film industry's foremost matte painters, having trained under Les Bowie in Joan Sutties' matte department with Albert Whitlock and Peter Melrose back in Rank's pre-Pinewood era of the late 1940's.  The David Lean 1947 masterpiece OLIVER TWIST was one such film where Bowie's talents shone, and I'm fairly sure that Cliff and Albert would have had a hand in the matte work too. An entire blog is really overdue for Cliff, although I have touched upon some of his grand work in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and KHARTOUM previously.

In 1978 a young lad by the name of Leigh Took was fortunate enough to be taken on as a sort of work experience lacky by Cliff, who was known for taking on young, keen prospective crew members in his busy Pinewood studio's matte department.  Around this era other luminaries in the effects field were also taken under Cliff's wing - future stop motion animator Steven Archer, trainee matte artist Terry Adlam, future effects supervisor Steve Begg among them.  Leigh, by his own admission, did his utmost to "impress the guv'nor" by demonstrating his artistic talents in the department.  It didn't take long for Culley to see and appreciate the potential in Leigh, whereby the youngster was gradually moved from drafting in simple lay ins and perspective lines on matte glasses and given painting assignments of his own.  

Motion control matte set up at Meddings Magic Camera Co.
The output from Cliff's shop was extensive, with a number of films coming through the doors at this period in the late seventies.  Among those films were the low budget  though thoroughly entertaining John Dark adventures with Doug McClure such as WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS (1978) with it's wonderfully fanciful undersea kingdom painted mattes and the stark landscapes painted for the Christopher Lee Thief of Baghdad show ARABIAN ADVENTURE.  Cliff and Leigh worked side by side on these and many other films providing not only glass shots but also miniatures - often integrating both into the one effects shot.  

Wonderfully flavoured fantasy matte art for WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS (1978)
The excellent Bob Clark Sherlock Holmes film, MURDER BY DECREE (1979) featured  turn of the century painted matte extensions to backlot sets adding St Pauls Cathedral and elaborate miniature set ups of The Houses of Parliament with small animated horse and carriage crossing the Westminster Bridge and an amazing opening multiplane pan across Victorian London rooftops which, based on the director's commentary, absolutely thrilled Bob Clark.

Square jawed leading man of 70's fantasy cinema, Doug McClure leading the group in WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS
Robert Powell clings on for dear life in the third incarnation of the same story, Don Sharp's THE 39 STEPS (1978)
Leigh's first fully fledged glass paintings were for a couple of shots of Big Ben for the thrilling climax in the terrific Robert Powell remake of the famous Hitchcock classic THE 39 STEPS (1978).  Under Culley's guidence Leigh's confidence grew and more and more projects came his way, from the big effects challenges of Ray Harryhausen's (superior) CLASH OF THE TITANS (1979) through to epic mini series such as THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII made sometime later at Cliff's own visual effects company Westbury Design and Optical.

Victorian London cut out and foreground miniature from Bob Clark's MURDER BY DECREE  (1979)
A matte painted St Pauls Cathedral graces the period set for MURDER BY DECREE
Much of the work through this era consisted of television miniseries, often contracted by American, German or other overseas production companies, many of which I have illustrated below.  In the mid eighties Leigh went solo and worked freelance for a time on several high profile pictures, with equally high profile visual effects supervisors such as the great Derek Meddings.  Tim Burton's 1989 BATMAN was an extensive matte show, with Leigh joining Meddings' Magic Camera Company (as it was then known) for a period as one of  four glass artists on the show.  British born, (though trained by Disney artist Harrison Ellenshaw) matte artist J.P Trevor painted some of the distant, expansive views of Gotham City while veterans Doug Ferris and Ray Caple handled several shots apiece, with Took having the responsibility of probably the biggest slice of the cake with renderings of The Bat Cave and the jaw dropping street view of Gotham City which in itself is a masterpiece.  Mark Gardiner handled matte camera duties along with Ray Caple who tended to photograph all his own glass shots.

As with most all UK effects practitioners, Derek Meddings was "the guv'nor" - and his influence spilled over into the careers and methods of so many technicians then, and probably still to this day, some 15 years after his untimely death (not to mention fans such as yours truly)Leigh would have the opportunity to work under his idol again a few years later on NEVER ENDING STORY 2  - a chance that would also bring another vital inspiration into Leigh's sphere - that being the legendary Albert Whitlock, whom Leigh had learned so much about from his days with Culley.  

Culley -Took painted landscape from ARABIAN ADVENTURE
Terry Gilliam is a name, for me at least, forever associated with MONTY PYTHON's big foot flattening some poor chap.  His films are very much an acquired taste, with BRAZIL being about the only digestible picture.  The epic, overblown, over the top, near disasterous ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN was another outlet for Leigh's talents - although if you've read the Cinefex double issue on the film you'll not find any mention of Leigh  - not unusual as the usually excellent digest did the same gross whitewash on RETURN TO OZ by stating that American Bob Scifo painted all the mattes in the USA when in fact English matte painter, and former Culley apprentice, Charles Stoneham painted many of them in Britain, yet never recieved a mention in the article... this demonstrates how Brit fx people get the short shrift... any how, I digress...

BARON MUNCHAUSEN had a number of mattes, with Bob Cuff, Doug Ferris, Leigh and long time matte cinematographer John Grant establishing an ad hock matte effects studio set up at Grant's house  at Walton-on-Thames, near London. I think for memory this film may have received an Oscar nomination in visual effects.

A period of freelance work followed with Leigh tackling numerous music videos, television commercials, tv series and feature film work.  One thing about Leigh's work that I find admirable is his sensibilities toward the old, basic glass painting methods where the shot is painted and photographed right there and then on set, latent image for optimal effect.  Leigh used this technique as often as he could, even up until relativeley recently on various shows.  The fact that his specialist company Mattes and Miniatures still has a dedicated matte room  next to the shooting stage with Bell and Howell camera, front projection beam splitter and matte stand still set up says alot about the man and his inate ability to revert to a solid, tried and true technique if the individual shot would benefit from it. 
For a time based at Shepperton Studios, Leigh would eventually establish his own effects company, Mattes and Miniatures at Bray.  From this base of operations projects such as LOST IN SPACE,  THE MUTANT CHRONICLES and the two DA VINCI CODE movies were part of the line up.  It seems there's no stopping Leigh Took.

Below is a collection of matte shots, glass paintings and miniature set ups from Leigh's career, both with Cliff Culley at Pinewood and later at Westbury Design and Optical through to Leigh's independent operations culminating in his own premises Mattes and Miniatures, situated at Bray.  So let's take a walk, or, if you like, a 'Took's Tour' (I thought that was pretty funny) through the world of glass, oils, models and photochemical magic...

The miniature set built by Cliff Culley's crew for Ray Harryhausen's CLASH OF THE TITANS (1980) with final comp involving blue screened in extras put together by Frank Van Der Veer seen at lower right.  The cameraman visible in upper right picture is Cliff's son Neil Culley who worked on matte and model shoots for years with his father. After spending days setting up this action shot and finally shooting it at high speed Cliff was dumbfounded at dailies the following morning to see a Twix wrapper (a chocolate bar) floating through the Roman pillars.  It turned out that the fellow who rigged the dump tanks would take a sleep up in the empty tank while  no one noticed, and left behind his snack wrappers and so forth.  The result being that no one saw this during the ferocity of the deluge during the take, with the upshot being a total rebuild of the set and reshoot days later!

One of the many Culley miniature-matte combination set ups for CLASH OF THE TITANS.

Harryhausen was never especially enthusiastic about using matte art and far preferred to utilise miniatures for his exotic landscapes whenever possible, as this wonderful frame demonstrates from CLASH OF THE TITANS

Culley and Took's miniature combined with matted in tidal wave element and fleeing extras.
Victorian London as seen via layered painted cut outs in MURDER BY DECREE (1979)

A great film from 1982, DAS BOOT (THE BOAT) which until now I never knew even had any matte work attached to it.  This beautiful sun and cloudscape by Leigh was matted atop the miniature submarine tank element and looks sensational.
Glass painted landscape from ARABIAN ADVENTURE

One of Leigh's earlier solo glass painting assignments was for the dismal Jack Palance show HAWK THE SLAYER (1980)
The youthful matte painter working on the HAWK THE SLAYER matte.
A miniature castle set built for HAWK THE SLAYER

HAWK THE SLAYER - By Leigh's own admission, all the production had pretty much was a doorway built out on the backlot, from which it was expected he and Cliff create the rest on glass. 

One of Leigh's glass paintings from HAWK THE SLAYER  (1980)

Among the many television series worked on by Leigh while with Cliff at Pinewood was the popular Sam Neill period espionage series REILLY, ACE OF SPIES  (1983) with what could be a painted Florence or Rome?

A great before and after glass shot from the same tv show, with a friend of mine now the proud owner of this matte glass.
Detail from the above REILLY matte painting.

One of several unusual assignments for Leigh - the 'Bollywood' film phenomena, with this from a film called STAR (1980)

Painted upper architecture and rooftops for THE TALE OF SWEENEY TODD (1997).
The final composites from THE TALE OF SWEENEY TODD  (1997)

Another unusual assignment - painting a huge futuristic city for a Canadian produced IMAX ultra hi-rez short film.

Now I love this.. an utterly sensational glass painting Leigh now has hanging in his home from the 1992 Kevin Connor picture SPIES.  Every bit as good as the very best that matte art has to offer, be it Whitlock or any other matte artist.

The big mid nineties miniseries remake of LAST DAYS OF POMPEII had many extraordinary matte shots, most of which were latent image in camera glass shots, no better illustrated than as shown above where we can see at upper left Cliff Culley manning the camera, and in the right photo Cliff is touching up the painted volcano on a huge sized sheet of glass.  The two lower pictures wonderfully demonstrate the 'line up' process for the live shoot.
Some more of the numerous LAST DAYS OF POMPEII matte shots.

An alternate master shot from LAST DAYS OF POMPEII consisting almost exclusively of painted glass by Took.

A young and seemingly tireless Leigh at work on one of his POMPEII glasses.  The in camera method was employed, with Took spending some 6 weeks in a small purpose built hut atop a 70 foot scaffold preparing this mammoth shot whilst the construction crew erected the limited set below, just next to the famed 007 Stage at Pinewood.

Close up detail of the paint in progress.

One of Cliff Culley's Westbury matte assignments with Leigh - the 1982 tv version of the timeless classic THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

Tim Burton's BATMAN  (1989) with this jaw dropping painting by Leigh of the cluttered Gotham City streets.
More of Leigh's considerable set extending matte art from BATMAN

Leigh's matte of the famous Bat Cave from BATMAN.  Painting duties on the film were shared with Ray Caple, J.P Trevor and Doug Ferris who painted several other shots to tie the action together in various key scenes.

A before and after of Leigh's cathedral matte as photographed by Mark Gardiner for BATMAN  (1989)
Leigh painting on an unidentified film.
I think this is one of Leigh's THE NEVER ENDING STORY 2 mattes, with the majority being painted by Syd Dutton and Albert Whitlock in the United States.

Another matte from THE NEVER ENDING STORY 2  (1990) which I think could be one of Leighs?

One of the thirty glass mattes from the big shot in Russia mini series PETER THE GREAT (1992) I've never seen the show though have been familiar with this particular matte painting for a few years and never tire of viewing it.
The excellent John Malkovich show RKO 281dramatising the production of Welle's CITIZEN KANE,  featured some of Leigh's facsimile CITIZEN KANE glass paintings in this scene set in Orson Welles' office.

While ensconsed at Meddings Magic Camera Company under maestro Derek Meddings, Leigh created this elaborate multi-plane matte shot with foreground cut out for CHICAGO JOE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1992)

Another photo of Took setting up the perspective layers for the shot.

Another American miniseries, ELLIS ISLAND made in the mid nineties demonstrates the artist at work.

Leigh seemed to be burdened with many remakes of other shows - with this being a nineties version of the classic Tyrone Power - Charles Laughton masterpiece, Billy Wilder's WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION.  Oddly I have seen this exact ceiling I'm sure in another Cliff Culley show WOMAN OF STRAW I think??

A beautiful matte painted dock and cityscape from the 1997 film AMY FOSTER

One of Leigh's surviving oil paintings from Terry Gilliam's misfire ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1989)
... and here's the painting as composited by matte cameraman John Grant.
Composite and original painting from BARON MUNCHAUSEN

Another of Leigh's mattes from BARON MUNCHAUSEN

Leigh in the matte room at his company Mattes and Miniatures demonstrating the still viable paint on glass combined with a beam splitter technique he often employed.

A relatively recent glass painting prepared for a UK tv commercial where Took had to simulate the destruction of a portion of a row of council houses via matte art, to the accompaniment of the tagline "it's a taste explosion".  The painting was traditional though the shot was comped digitally.

Leigh's epic wide view of Camelot from the Sean Connery picture FIRST KNIGHT  (1995) - a film with a myriad of matte artists working on various shots from near and far - from Doug Ferris to American Rocco Gioffre who was called in to furnish one last shot, the night view of Camelot to meet the deadline.  This beautiful painting now hangs in Dennis Lowe's office.

One of the many Europe based productions that Leigh was recruited to provide matte effects for - with this being LILI MARLENE from the early nineties.

At first I thought this might have been from the tv film ORPHANS (1992) though on reflection I feel it's probably not.

One of the many in camera latent image glass shots Leigh enjoyed so much - from an unknown production.
A sensational period matte painting, plus some detailed views, from yet another re-make, this one being the 1997 Richard Dreyfuss version of OLIVER TWIST, made by Britain's Sky TV.    Stunning and such inspirational artwork.

The 2000 miniseries THE 10th KINGDOM with this painted village added to a location plate. Storyboard artist Nicholas Pelham told me recently "I worked with Leigh on ' The 10th Kingdom ' , I was the storyboard artist on that production for about 9 months and got to know everyone. Leigh was a fab guy, always had time for a chat, he had a tiny office near the post production rooms ... and I mean real small !! which he shared with his two assistants, one guy called Alex, I'm sorry I can't remember the other fella's name. Alex was the assistant matte artist and he still painted on card then scanned them in ... I loved that .. actual physical paintings prepared".
Although I try to avoid the digital variations of matte art here I'll include this one matte shot Leigh did for the utterly abysmal movie incarnation of LOST IN SPACE (1995)


  1. I never realized that this is how they made these backgrounds!! This is very awesome.