Tuesday 27 December 2011

Jena Holman - matte art and the feminine touch.

Christmas Greetings to all and sundry who tune into my blog on occasion from all corners of the known (and unknown) Universe.

Before jumping into today's matte blog I'd like to make a moment to mention the long awaited and eagerly acquired memoir of visual effects artist Jim Danforth, DINOSAURS, DRAGONS AND DRAMA - THE ODYSSEY OF A TRICK FILM MAKER which has just been released.  I've waited years for this to come out and finally have it.

The good news is that it's chock filled with wonderful anecdotes, production details and fascinating stories from the earlier part of Jim's career from boyhood 8mm film experiments right through to the big time effects showcase that was When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1969).  Jim's talents as a matte painter were my primary reason for purchasing the memoir, though naturally I am also a big fan of his stop motion animation.  There are terrific chapters on Jim's involvement with Albert Whitlock and Peter Ellenshaw, as well as rare as hens teeth examples of many of Jim's own mattes and trick composites.

The bad news is that the memoir isn't a printed 'book' as one would dearly have preferred, rather it's actually all in CD-ROM format, no doubt to make publication so much cheaper.  For many this won't make any difference, especially those who are of the 'iPad', 'Kindle' generation (I don't even own a cell phone).  For me, I find this mode of reading incredibly cumbersome, awkward and downright annoying and prefer without question the old fashioned printed volume. In fact I've gone and printed off a number of chapters to facilitate a much more pleasing reading experience.

That said, the Danforth e-book is jam packed with illustrations and clocks in at around 800 'e-pages'..... and this is only Volume One, with a companion volume promised later, which I'll no doubt grit my teeth and buy as there's just no other way to acquire the content.

The publishers were also responsible for the titanic master-works MASTER OF THE MAJICKS on maestro Ray Harryhausen (on actual 100% genuine printed paper!!!) and utterly essential tomes.

For those who want to know more, contact Ernie Farino at www.archive-editions.com


Jena Holman - matte art and the feminine touch

Well here's another blog, although a fairly small one again, though on this topic it's really down to sheer lack of available material more than anything else.  Today I'm presenting a little tribute to one of the lesser known matte painters of the late 70's through to early 90's, Jena Holman - possibly the first female matte artist (at least the first I'm aware of) in the US until Michelle Moen and Caroleen Green came along in the 80's.

The little I have on Jena came to me largely from her frequent collaborator and visual effects cinematographer David Stipes who had nothing but kind words for Jena as both a skilled matte painter and as a person.  According to David, Jena was active in matte work from around 1977 or thereabouts through to her untimely death as a result of a brain tumour in the early 1990's.  David and Jena worked together at David's VFX house, David Stipes Productions, on a number of projects, many illustrated here, including the 1979 tv series BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR (1986) to name a few.

Among her other matte jobs were the Jeff Bridges courtroom drama JAGGED EDGE (1985), the unfinished David Allen stop motion adventure THE PRIMEVALS (1977), Phil Kauffman's THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), the controversial nuclear strike film THE DAY AFTER (1983) and John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) as well as various television commercials.

By all accounts Jena was a somewhat shy, quiet woman who kept a low profile.  David told me how tricky it was to snap a photo of Jena at the easal as she'd shield her face from the lens much of the time.

As I've said, there isn't much material on Jena so I'll try to make do with what I have as I'd particularly like to pay tribute to the lady...possibly the first time many of my readers would have even heard the name 'Jena Holman'.

Snapshots of Jena working on a matte for BUCK ROGERS and, at lower right, THE PRIMEVALS.

Jena's painted view of New Chicago for the 1979 series BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY.  The pilot episode was released theatrically in many countries with dazzling matte work by Syd Dutton (and I'm sure, Al Whitlock, uncredited).

Detail from Jena's matte painting.  For the television series the matte art duties were divided between Jena and Dan Curry who were based at the Universal Hartland effects facility along with cameraman David Stipes and a large fx crew.  David told me that on a few occasions Syd Dutton would visit the off-lot effects house and offer advice and words of encouragement to Jena.

A slightly different variation, flopped and with a near cloudless sky from BUCK ROGERS (1979-80)

The New Chicago matte painting still in progress at Universal Hartland.

Another BUCK ROGERS matte, presumably by Jena Holman.

Again, another BUCK ROGERS glass painting.

Before and after BUCK ROGERS matte shot painted by Jena and composited by David Stipes.

Matte cinematographer David Stipes with multi-plane glass painting set up - maybe BUCK ROGERS?.

Jena was one of three painters on John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK along with James Cameron (yes, the future AVATAR director) and Robert Skotak.  I don't know which individual matte shots were done by whom.

Another terrific ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK matte painting, possibly a combined effort.  John Carpenter's outstanding score adds so much to these shots (and the film in general) as I've written before, "the music maketh the matte".

Jim Cameron with a foreground glass shot from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Composite of the above glass shot.

The mediocre made for TV film THE DAY AFTER (1983) wasn't a patch on the utterly chilling British nuclear holocaust drama, THREADS (1984) - a film which lingered long in the psyche after viewing without any of the Hollywood histrionics of the American film.

Jena Holman's post nuke neighborhood in THE DAY AFTER.

Before and after.

Jason Robards in the matte painted rubble of Washington DC (I think?).

Robards surveys the devastation.  Jena Holman painting with Robbie Blalack overseeing photo effects.

Nice Holman matte suggests some Al Whitlock - THE DAY AFTER.

The bizarre reincarnation of Agent 86 Maxwell Smart, THE NUDE BOMB (1980) aka THE RETURN OF MAXWELL SMART featured this minimal set that would be expanded considerably by Jena and David.

Jena's painting and the final composite by David Stipes - THE NUDE BOMB.

Two matte augmented shots that Jena painted for JAGGED EDGE in 1985, with the house, hills and a moving sky added.

Jena.... caught at last by roving photographer!

Jena busy on a substantial painting for an unknown television commercial in the late 80's.

Another of Jena's multi plane paintings from possibly the very same commercial.  The set up shown here is for a dolly in perspective move.

Holman at work on one of the numerous lunar module POV's for Philip Kauffman's THE RIGHT STUFF (1983).

At work on the aborted David Allen stop motion sci fi show THE PRIMEVALS in 1978.

Close detail of Jena's mountain top fortress painting shown above.

Another beautiful painting which Jena completed for THE PRIMEVALS.

Close up detail showing Jena's brush style and choice of colour.

The 1985 kid fantasy FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR required a number of stunning stratospheric views such as this.
The eternally shy artist with stunning painting in progress - FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR.

FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR - Jena Holman POV painting.

Effects D.O.P David Stipes (top, with coffee cup in hand) sets up Jena's 'earthly' vision- FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR.

As part of a special promotional short produced for the then new 'Galactica Cylon attack' ride at Universal Studios around 1980, the Stipes-Holman duo shot this original negative matte shot.   I particularly like Jena's sky here.

Actual location plate or the movie CRASH ISLAND.

Plate photography with mask in place:  CRASH ISLAND.
Jena Holman's matte painting of the island, sky, sea and even most of the plane:  CRASH ISLAND

Final original negative composite by David Stipes:   CRASH ISLAND

An unknown Holman painting on the matte stand at David Stipes Productions.

Jena cleaning her brushes after a day 'on the matte'.

I don't believe it.... an entire blog article without a single 'log out'!!!!!! Is this the sign of better days ahead he asks??  Watch this space as I've got a giant of an ILM tribute sitting on the proverbial back burner, along with sundry other tidbits.......



Sunday 11 December 2011


I've been getting a tad irritable not being able to 'express my inner matte' with the blog lately, so I'm delivering a somewhat smaller article today and may do many more of similar scale for ease of preparation and less hair pulling - (although I must point out that the same blogger tech problems are still occurring and it seems that nothing has changed).

Anyone who frequents these pages will know how much I love classic Disney photographic effects work and today I celebrate a pair of films from the Mouse Factory which beautifully demonstrate the significant matte work carried out in two totally different pictures.

That classic of Americana, the timeless story of the Revolutionary War of 1773, JOHNNY TREMAIN was filmed in 1957, almost entirely on the Burbank studio lot and through the magic of the glass painting a great many vistas of period 18th Century Boston.

The other Disney picture I have selected for this retrospective is a pleasantly warm hearted family musical, SUMMER MAGIC made in 1963. Also a period picture set in Boston, though this time it's supposed to be 1912.  As well as a spirited cast and at least one great song by Burl Ives (The Ugly Bug Ball) SUMMER MAGIC has a number of  beautiful pastoral mattes of rural heartland America that are wonderful.

For no apparent reason other than a tall cold pitcher of Jack Daniels just having been consumed, I'll start off with the latter film....

The maestro, Peter Ellenshaw oversaw the many mattes here, with long time deputy Jim Fetherolf and most likely Constantine 'Deno' Ganakes also assisting with the artwork.

The glorious opening tilt down matte painted composite for Boston in 1912.  Virtually the entire shot is painted with just the first floor or so of the buildings on the left being an actual set, with everything else including all of the right side of the street being manufactured in the Disney matte department under Ellenshaw.

Multi plane moving clouds with sun burst.

Atmosphere according to Ellenshaw.

Disney were always gung ho when it came to bold painting.  Rarely were the mattes under the Ellenshaw regime a simple split screen affair, but more often than not the matte art would be worked around into the  foreground of a shot as well as the more traditional background or top ups such as shown here.  It wasn't unusual for the Ellenshaw unit to completely paint an entire frame leaving just a tiny slot for live action, such as in the DAVY CROCKETT films.

Soft blend, probably using the in house rear projection compositing methods.

If there's any one element that Peter was king at, it was the skies and cloudscapes in so many films.

You just don't find beautiful shots like this much outside of Disney.

Distant town flawlessly added.

Perennial studio favourite, Haley Mills seen here as one part of an Ub Iwerks sodium composite.

C'est Magnifique!   Virtually all painted with minimal live action plate.

I suspect Alan Maley may not yet have joined the Disney matte department.. but would soon do so.

The cloud work strongly suggests the hand of Ellenshaw.

Again, most of the frame appears to be painted, in particular the house and lawn at left.

A dramatic pull back with multi plane elements of foreground trees etc and most likely a process plate rear projected live action shot of the party in progress.


Now, the other of today's duo of Disney matte shows, JOHNNY TREMAIN (1957).  The matte work is pretty extensive and has always been a source of curiosity to this writer, mainly due to the fact that celebrated matte artist and photographic effects man Peter Ellenshaw has never, to my knowledge, taken credit personally for the many mattes in the show, instead, taking the credit as production designer.  Even the two autobiographical volumes Ellenshaw Under Glass and The Garden Within by Peter himself only mention his designer role.  I'm sure Ellenshaw would have been overseeing the work in the department, with Albert Whitlock having painted some of the mattes along with Jim Fetherolf.  In fact Whitlock would often mention the paintings to his Universal visual effects cameraman Bill Taylor, as to the very small sets augmented with vast matte art.

Both the above and below mattes interestingly utilise the exact same little piece of Disney backlot for the live action to take place - a curious example of rushed schedule would be my guess as it's also the case in other Disney fx shows such as DARBY O'GILL and THE LOVE BUG. 

Everything is painted except the small area with that same rain puddle as seen above.  As with many Disney matte shows the matte art extends all the way up to the immediate foreground as well as the grand background view.

Rooftops and tall ships...

This set appears to be the very same one used in the other matte shot shown below, and possibly the upper frame as well, with a few small alterations and new glass art added.

Incongruous indoor lighting tends to mar the composites.

An unusually brave split screen blend with matte line bisecting midframe through the treeline.  In later years Albert Whitlock would master such a bold shot many times.

I can't recall, but I think that tree has great significance to the events.

Ellenshaw would have been in his element with this show, as a highly skilled gallery artist of tall ships.

I believe JOHNNY TREMAIN was a fairly rushed, low budget affair, with the matte department expanding the director's vision.

I wonder how many, if any, of these vintage Disney mattes still survive?

In Jim Danforth's long awaited just released memoir he describes the time he visited the Disney matte department in 1959 as a young man and watched Peter and Albert and other artists at work on numerous films of the era such as POLLYANNA and the layout of the department.

I'm pretty sure only the bit of road and the small window with the guy are the only pieces of live action here!

As I've said before, I'd bet my left kidney that Whitlock's skies were a direct influence from his years with Ellenshaw.

Ellenshaw had mastered the art of 'only painting what the camera requires', and passed this onto his artists. This of course would become Whitlock's stock in trade for the remainder of his career.

A series of receding silhouettes with very little detail and just a keen sense of backlight and some flame elements laid in.

Walt with what might be the actual matte art, but is probably Peter's conceptual painting for the above final shot