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





  1. Wonderful article! I had no idea there were so many mattes in Summer Magic - which incidentaly was a remake of a film from the 1940's!
    The Liberty Tree was a symbol of the forthcoming revolution, a rallying point.
    At a retrospective for Mr. Ellenshaw in 1979(co-inciding with the release of the Black Hole) many of the mattes from Johnny Tremain were shown, and it was mentioned that this had been done as a film for the Disney TV Show, but Walt released it Theatrically. The man in the upper window, was actually staning on a ladder, and the matte painted around him. thanks

  2. love love love this.......


  3. Thanks guys.... I must ask Harrison Ellenshaw about those old mattes. If they still were in existance in 1979 they must surely be in the care of the Disney archive. Beautiful work!

    Blogger issues permitting, I'll be presenting a load of Disney mattes (as big as Texas) which will cover the British films through to the less than sensational BLACK HOLE - though in similar smaller sized blogs.... I've got tons of great Disney material.

  4. Just had a bad day painting in a matte for a destroyed city, a somewhat cliche painting for a young matte artist. However the script calls for a ruined city so I shall deliver.

    Then I read this post and my spirits lifted, such beautiful and romantic work. I remember seeing reruns of these films on Sunday afternoon telly totally bored out of my mind. I wanted giant robots and cities coming out of armageddon, things have come full circle I want to paint things such as these, not giant robots and the fall of the human race.

    Please Pete, do what I do write your blog in word then import in its far easier and less excuse to reach for the John Daniels,

    Fantastic, fantastic post,

    Learning loads,


    Matte Artist in training

  5. I received several interesting emails from Peter's son, Harrison (who loves my blog BTW) and among other things he pointed out that among his various screen credit descriptions over the years he was still responsible for ALL the matte shots produced at the studio, even when he was credited as Production Designer.

    Occasionally Peter would give credit title to either Albert or Jim but as Harrison pointed out he doesn't recall one matte from the department which did not have some form of input from Ellenshaw to 'finish' or 'correct' in some way or other.

    Harrison told me that yes, Disney still have some mattes in their archives but said that he doesn't think that there's anybody still at the studio who, quote "knows what the hell they are".

    One other thing of interest, Harrison is still gobsmacked as to the sheer quantity of work his Dad did - painting mattes (often dozens per show), designing, 2nd unit directing, photo fx direction, creative consultant to Walt - not to mention painting 35 to 40 of his own fine art gallery pieces per year AND raising a family!!!

    Hope this is of interest.


  6. Wonderful stuff as ever, Peter! And please don't be discouraged by your blogger problems - take a leaf from Rockhopper's book and try writing it all up first in MS Word (or even Notepad, which eliminates formatting problems when copying and pasting text).

    If necessary, split big articles up into smaller instalments, anything so you don't get discouraged and cease posting such magnificent articles!

  7. I could be wrong, but a lot of these "Tremain" mattes look like they may have been lifted from the earlier "Treasure Island" Could this be the case, or does one masked mast matte just look pretty much like another?

    Love your site. Love it.

  8. No, I've never been able to correlate any of the JT mattes with Treasure Island, and I'd find it very surprising as Ellenshaw painted all the T.I glasses in England whereas JT was a California production with Peter firmly ensconced in Disney's studio stateside. Besides, Peter was an amazingly fast painter, with sailing ships being one of his areas of expertise in his fine gallery art as well.
    Thanks for the 'thumbs up' of the blog though - it's always appreciated.


  9. Doing a page for Facebook on this Independence Day, 2012 and googled across your wonderful blog. J.T. and T.I. were both childhood favorites, and Hayley was my girl and mine alone! Thanks so much for the hard work and perpetuation of the mattemasters' memories!
    William Paul Beau Gruendler