Thursday 26 May 2011

The Tale of Two TITANICS: a retrospective look at the VFX from A NIGHT TO REMEMBER and TITANIC

To my knowledge there have been around a dozen films dealing with the tragedy of the luxury cruise liner TITANIC which as we all know struck at iceberg and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, nearly a century ago in 1912.  The earliest cinematic entry  on this maritime disaster surfaced, so to speak, in 1915 as an Italian made interpretation of the historic event.  The illustrious German film industry produced not one but three versions of the disaster starting in 1927, and again in 1929 and once more, quite elaborately in 1943.  A number of other versions and variations followed, with several made for TV movies in the late 70's and early 80's, culminating in the much hyped and overblown James Cameron audience pleaser of the late 90's. (which once it concentrates on the issues at hand is admittedly pretty darned exciting....finally!)  Todays blog will look at two of the versions made in the 1950's  - one being the 20th Century Fox soaper, TITANIC starring Clifton Webb, and the other film the vastly superior 1958 British drama, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, starring Kenneth More and David McCullum.

I have little background information on the making of either film other than some analysis on the effects shots as per my own observations.  There are a couple of behind the scenes frames here of the miniature ships used in both films and a little bit of on set process set ups.  The Fox film featured four matte paintings and alot of model work amid much Hollywood gloss and tedious subplots whereas the Pinewood film was strictly a gritty and believable no nonsense 'you are there' docu-drama with visual effects kept to a minimum - and the result is all the better for it.

By all accounts Darryl F.Zanuck spent alot of money on the '53 Fox version, though a more lacklustre execution of the events you'd be hard pressed to imagine, what with endless scenes of Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb theatrically pushing and shoving for the best key light and gauzey filters.  Long time Fox visual effects man and former matte painter Ray Kellogg had by this time taken over the effects department from the retired Fred Sersen though Sersen was still engaged as a consultant.

Ray Kellogg (center)
The effects work is generally very good with some nice matte paintings adding ceilings, engine room details and a haunting iceberg laden ocean.  Miniature work is competent and well photographed, presumably by fx cameramen L.B Abbott, James B.Gordon, Walter Castle and Harry Dawes.  Among the matte painters on staff in 1953 were Lee Le Blanc , Matthew Yuricich and Emil Kosa jr.  Insofar as the models go, I don't know whether miniaturist Gael Brown was with Fox as far back as '53.  Process projection would have been the domain of Sol Halprin, while the ingenious use of travelling matte composite photography for placement of actors into a wholly miniature set - a Fox specialty under Sersen's reign - is beautifully done by the optical boys, one of whom was a young Frank Van Der Veer.

Pinewood special effects chief, Bill Warrington.
A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958) on the other hand is a pitch perfect and frighteningly realistic piece of dramatic recreation of the events that doesn't waste a minute of it's 2 hour plus running time.  Director Roy Ward Baker scores bullseye with this film one of, if not his overall best film. The cast are uniformly excellent, with  many familiar faces from UK cinema headed by the superb Kenneth More - probably Britain's Jimmie Stewart in everyman qualities and consistent credibility.

An excellent no frills script, tight editing and a highly effective documentary style look courtesy of lighting cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth.  Long time head of Pinewood special effects department, Bill Warrington took the bull by the horns by keeping the special effects always at the service of the true life event.  Warrington  (pictured here with models for the QUATERMASS films for Hammer) was a true legend among British effects people having had an extensive career in SFX from the formative years where he specialised in the then state of the art compositing process, the Schufftan Process Shot and gradually showing a flair for model work and mechanical effects, for decades at J.Arthur Rank-Pinewood where he would work with figures such as Albert Whitlock, Les Bowie, Peter Melrose and Cliff Culley on many pictures before striking out on his own.  Miniatures proved to be a skill which would see Warrington recieve the visual effects Oscar in 1961 for THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.  Bill kept active right up until his death in 1981 as special effects consultant for Spielberg on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Although information is hard to come by I'm certain that Pinewood's in house process man Charles Staffell would have had a hand in things here, and possibly George Blackwell with miniature work, which included motorised lifeboats and occupants.  The travelling matte shots at the end would probably have been handled by well honed experts Vic Margutti, Bryan Langley or maybe a new talent, Roy Field.
I vaguely recollect that future Bond optical effects man and cinematographer Robin Browne may too have been involved in the effects photography both here and on SINK THE BISMARK shortly after.

For those interested in all of the myriad TITANIC films, I'd recommend this site for much detailed info on these as well as practically every disaster movie ever made. Well worth a visit.

The 1953 version of event - with more of an accent on hystrionics and endless padding than disaster, with the eventual 'incident' almost appearing to be an afterthought.

Entertaining...just, but a pale comparison with the unforgettable 1958 rendition.

Opening shot of the infamous iceberg surfacing is very effective and menacing fx shot.

Miniature rear projection comp by Sol Halprin.

The left frame is one of the most effective miniature shots in the film, shot in daylight with well scaled waves and wake, though looks as if it's been 'borrowed' from the 1943 version made in Nazi Germany.

One of four matte shots in TITANIC, with this being a painted ceiling set extension.

Misc model shots, probably shot by L.B Abbott, Harry Dawes, Paul Mohn and James B.Gordon who were but four of the numerous effects cinematographers employed by Fox in 1953.

The moment of truth: miniatures and process, plus an effective underwater view of the ripping open of the hull.

The second of four mattes.  Among the artists in Kellogg's matte department in 1953 were Matthew Yuricich,  Lee Le Blanc,  Menrad von Muldofer,  Max de Vega,  Cliff Silsby and Emil Kosa jnr.

Now this is a classic old time Sersen trick, and one in which the department snapped up the effects Oscar for a decade earlier on CRASH DIVE - the skillfully composite whereby actors filmed on a vacant blue screen stage are travelling matted into an entirely convincing miniature set.  The Fox guys did this trick many times over the years in THE RAINS CAME, THE BLACK SWAN and others years before George Lucas decided he could make entire franchises with just a green screen and a couple of actors..

A complex split screen matte shot of the live action lifeboats added to a probable painted ship.  Thanks to Jim at  for this frame which I missed.

Effective process work.

And down she goes with what appears to be a large miniature Titanic and motorised row boats.

The closing shot features a matte painted composite.

A few behind the scenes pictures from TITANIC where we can appreciate the process screen set ups and a partially obscured glimpse of the large (approx 12 foot) model ship in the Fox tank.

Several miniature shots in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER  were actually re-used scenes originally featured in the 1943 German version, overseen by the Nazi regime.  The shots were often optically flopped to appear new., with this shot appearing in the 1951 Fox version as well!!  Many thanks to my pal Roger Todd for bringing all of these to my attention - the man's a genius when it comes to maritime miniatures in films.

Bill Warrington's model work from A NIGHT TO REMEMBER.  I read that the effects budget amounted to a mere 90'000 pounds on this show.

Unlike the Fox film, the Pinewood production doesn't muck around with subplot and extraneous padding and gets straight to the point, and stays there.  Here is an almost identical model-process shot to the 1953 film where the iceberg shatters across the deck.
Side by side frame comparison of the engine room flooding miniature sequence shows that several effects cuts from the 1943 German version of the tragedy were in fact reused for the 1958 British version, usually flopped in the optical printer.

The effects techniques applied appear to be the same for both films, with what appears to be motorised model lifeboats perfectly integrated with the larger sinking cruise liner.

Miniature Titanic interiors are flooded and then rear screen projected by Rank's resident process expert Charles Staffel.

Rare shots of the miniature tank shoot at Pinewood.  many thanks to my pal Roger Todd for being so helpful with these and other great behind the scenes imagery.

The pictures here would suggest that the model is around 30 feet in length.

More wonderful photographs of the miniature Titanic set up with technicians giving a good sense of scale here.

Miniature tank at Pinewood with what appears to be a completely cut away right hand side of the ship to facilitate electrical wiring and internal lighting requirements.

"The unsinkable Titanic.... well, you, er"

And down she goes to the icy, pitch blackness some 2 miles below.  The lower left frame is probably a travelling matte composite by either Vic Margutti or Bryan Langley, both key exponents of the blue screen process in Britain.

Although there is a one hour behind the scenes documentary on A NIGHT TO REMEMBER  I've sadly never managed to see it, with this one off frame from some on set fx footage all I have to show the miniatures and technician.

Monday 16 May 2011

Ellenshaw sets sail - Treasure Island, Horatio Hornblower and Swiss Family Robinson matte shots

Blog update:  I've added several new pictures and made some corrections to a few captions from the past.  Of note are some wonderful John P.Fulton effects shots from the totally insane Olson and Johnson 1941 farce HELLZAPOPPIN.  Among the many gags are a unique bit where the boys come across a Russell Lawsen painting (as an actual piece of art), pick it up and gawk at it while the live action element materialises within the painting and helps to explain the plot!!!  The bizarre, indescribable nature of this film - arguably years ahead of it's time - makes such a joke seem quite at home.  Also from HELLZAPOPPIN I've posted a number of terrific Fulton frames from another off the wall set piece whereby our heroes lose the upper and lower halves of their respective bodies and decide to join forces by reforming as 'one' man - though with the lower half being the wrong way around(!!!)  Virtuoso optical work in a lengthy and absolutely brilliant SFX sequence where huge amounts of work would undoubtedly have been required by Universal's resident optical maestros Ross Hoffman and Millie Winebrenner to pull these scenes off.  There are also some new pics of John with miniature airplanes and an amazingly rare original Technicolor lab order requisition for WONDER MAN effects elements signed by Fulton himself.  From all reports Fulton was impossible to work with, but my admiration for his incredible achievements just goes on and on.  To see those shots, click here.
Additionally I've added some rare pics of the actual miniature rowboat complete with puppets of Gregory Peck and crew from MOBY DICK - still a great film with equally great effects work. Click here for this.
My recent Illusion Arts blog has had several 'lost' pictures reinstated too which nicely illustrate the working methods of Robert Stromberg and Syd Dutton.  
My popular War Films Effects blog has a few additions too.  Several wonderful mattes and miniatures from the Pinewood effects unit headed by Bill Warrington and Bryan Langley for the heroic Douglas Bader true story REACH FOR THE SKY (1956).  The multiplane matte of Colditz castle may have been done by either Cliff Culley or perhaps Les Bowie who may possibly have still been on staff.  Click here for this blog article.  Lastly, I have two nice before and after mattes by Leigh Took from the 1991 Disney tv film SPIES and the television series REILLY ACE OF SPIES.  Those are here on Leigh's page.


The mattes from Treasure Island,  Captain Horatio Hornblower and Swiss Family Robinson.

Anyone familiar with my blog will know how much I admire the cinematic career and fine art of Peter Ellenshaw.  For a good background on Peter I have previously penned several articles on some of his best matte shows, which may be read here, here, here and here with even more in the works which will appear soon.
Today's blog is one with a maritime theme, which is quite befitting a fine artist whose body of gallery work has included several dozen marine paintings of angry seascapes and elegant tall ships on the high seas.

Denham Studios matte department.
I've got three of Peter's matte shows here today - the first being the 1950 Byron Haskin version of TREASURE ISLAND which was Peter's first voyage into the welcoming creative world of master visionary Walt Disney, in a move which would see Ellenshaw establish a comfortable and rewarding career in matte art and art direction for the remainder of his working life.

Peter and daughter Lynda with seascape
Walt with Peter at Denham studios.
TREASURE ISLAND was the opportunity of a lifetime for Peter, for once Walt saw what this formally unknown and quietly unassuming English painter could conjure up with mere brushes and oil paint Disney saw immediate gains that could be made by the art of the glass shot in not only telling classic stories on film, but in opening them up to previously unavailable scale.  I'm pretty sure TREASURE ISLAND was the first Disney picture to include matte art of any sort, though not the first to utilise photographic effects.  Several earlier productions such as SONG OF THE SOUTH were ahead of their time with cartoon-live action combination opticals, supervised by the legendary Ub Iwerks with back up by long time Disney optical men Bob Broughton and Art Cruikshank.  To the best of my knowledge all of the TREASURE ISLAND mattes were painted at the Denham Film Studios outside of London, in what used to be the old Pop Day matte department where Peter had worked alongside his mentor from the late thirties up until WWII.  By the time of this Disney picture Day had relocated to Shepperton Studios with Wally Veevers, Albert Julion, Joseph Natanson and Judy Jordan.  It's quite likely that future DOP Wilkie Cooper may have photographed Peter's mattes as he was at Denham in that capacity around that time.

CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER (1950) and SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1959) are also great examples of Peter's maritime work and are here for your enjoyment, with some nice on set before photos of Ellenshaw painting SFR glass shots.     HORNBLOWER was a US/UK joint production released by Warner Bros with a mostly British crew and a near half and half effects unit with all of the miniatures and mattes being  shot at Denham Studios, United Kingdom.                                      Enjoy.   :)

Peter Ellenshaw painting on glass directly on the set for a high quality in camera matte effect.

Disney's first live action feature film, and largely a big gamble as animation was their stock in trade.

The opening shot - and one I'm sure is largely Peter's handiwork.

The matte which sold Walt on the magic of the Ellenshaw paintbrush, and one which would start a trend in period adventures - a whole series of which would be made in Britain by the UK arm of Disney over the next five years.

Before and after matte work by Peter which adds significantly to the inner harbour and adds flawlessly many tall ships.

Two Ellenshaw matte shots adding both foreground (a PE specialty) and background detail.

More Ellenshaw than actual setting.

Classic example of before and after shots from TREASURE ISLAND.  In later years Peter cringed when pointing out "that strange looking tree on the left"

Ellenshaw's first love, artistically speaking at that period was the sea and maritime vessels and I personally find his Irish seascapes to be so inspirational.  Above frame is all paint except the water.

I'm not certain whether Peter did this show or QUO VADIS first.  Both films were made around the same time though I suspect the big MGM epic came first, and boy was that a showcase of Peter's talents (see elsewhere on my blog for QV)

Again, a beautiful matte which I think is a full painting, probably photographed by Wilkie Cooper.

Before and after Ellenshaw matte with invisible result.
Three painted skies and some additional land mass from three shots at end of the film. With the completion of TREASURE ISLAND Peter never looked back and was welcomed into the Disney family.

The 1950 British made swashbuckler epic directed by Raoul Walsh again utilised the uncredited services of Ellenshaw.

The glorious opening shot by Peter Ellenshaw.  Interestingly, Byron Haskin who had directed TREASURE ISLAND had been head of special effects at Warner Bros for years prior to taking on prestige jobs, and was uncredited visual effects consultant here, which leads me to presume Haskin was responsible for bringing Ellenshaw on board, so to speak.

The classic 'top up' matte so prevalent throughout the golden era to finish off sets.

If there were ever a single phenomena which sells an Ellenshaw shot and is always identifiable it would have to be Peter's wonderful cloud filled skies in backlight.  So many of his mattes have the 'signature' skies, from DAVY CROCKETT,  SUMMER MAGIC to ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR all of which will be covered here sometime soon.

Again, just one real ship and all the rest pure Ellenshaw.

A curious shot this one, with either all or most of the ship painted in and a clear demarkation on the deck area where the actors have been matted in. It looks like a partial set on a stage with the majority added by Ellenshaw and this in turn matted onto an ocean plate.   Quite a bold trick shot.

What appears to be a full matte painting with the only live action element being the fluttering flag.

Possibly a genuine location, though I'll include it here as there may be some Ellenshaw augmentation to the tower?

The conclusion of the film has this shot with a painted in foreground wharf and possibly two of the ships as well.
As I love old time miniatures I'll include this as well as the film does have excellent model action supervised by Warner fx veteran Harry Barndollar in conjunction with British model specialist George Blackwell.  All of the miniatures were shot in a purpose built 300x200 foot tank constructed at Denham Studios, and according to effects man Cliff Richardson the model ships were around 30 feet in length and motorised each with it's own three man crew below decks and out of camera range.  Excellent work here.

Yep, a screen credit for Peter!

Peter's on location glass shot set up in use as he paints in additional sailing ship to complete a shot.

In addition to subtle matte work Ellenshaw supervised the excellent miniatures for the opening stormy sea voyage.

Very convincing model sequence before the cameras in the effects tankBritish effects veterans Bill Warrington and Les Bowie also worked on SFR in what was a not entirely harmonious Anglo/US blended crew.

Frames from the final sequence.

A close up of Peter carefully painting the pirate ship onto a large sheet of glass for in camera compositing as evident in the first generation final effect seen below.

All of the SWISS FAMILY mattes were executed as in camera glass shots and were painted on location in Jamaica.

A second glass shot of the pirate junk and nice detail of Ellenshaw's handiwork.

The foreground junk is real but the distant British gunship as well as the two islands are Peter's artwork.

The final glass shot with the British ship at anchor off the headland.