Saturday 23 March 2013

Harrison Ellenshaw reveals all....(almost!)


Harrison works on one of the many mattes for THE BLACK HOLE (1979) commented "I've got no idea just what the hell I'm doing" in respect to this snapshot.

Father and son: Peter & Harrison
One of the joys of running this website, aside from sharing my passion for traditional hand made matte magic with so many likeminded folk across the globe, is to be fortunate enough to develop relationships with some of the very individuals who have entertained, thrilled and dazzled us in the medium over the years.  One such practitioner who really needs very little in the way of an introduction  is Harrison Ellenshaw.  As all who take an interest in my ramblings should know (you really should!!!), Harrison is but a part of a cinematic and artistic legacy that stretches back to the early 1920’s in Britain and France and continued unabated through the large part of the 20th Century and beyond, to this very day.  Not too many families can boast such an illustrious lineage. 

Finishing touches on an EMPIRE STRIKES BACK matte
I’ve had many discussions and conversations with Harrison over the past two years on numerous matters of movie magic, with often our communiques becoming lively and amusing (and some best kept out of the public domain) and more often than not, completely off topic altogether.  I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude and thanks to Harrison for his continued (and speedy) correspondence, no matter how inane my queries, or the bizarrely unfathomable time differences between LA and Auckland, NZ - nor how pathetically down on bended knees I might have seemed when tentatively asking if he had a few old matte film clips or photos to possibly share with me.  The man is generous. Not just with his time, but as much so with his willingness to drag out mountains of rare, never before seen photographs, matte clips, before and after tests and even scores of his father, Peter Ellenshaw’s own before and after matte painted shots on showreels revealing many shots even I had never known were mattes from the British Disney features. Nothing is too much trouble for the man it seems, and he’s been unquestionably good humoured and laid back all the way.   It’s been nothing less than a pleasure working with Harrison and I can say I’ve enjoyed every minute.  I thank you sir.

Harrison was but one of a gaggle of matte artists engaged to complete the epic scale matte shots for DICK TRACY (1990)


Q:        Before we get into your family background and your work in traditional visual effects, let me ask you about a hot topic these days: digital film effects.  So, Harrison, you were right at the coalface as it were, around 1982 when some of the first computer generated backgrounds and simulated sets were attempted, for the movie TRON.  Would the term ‘CGI’ be applicable at that very early, formative era?

A: It is my recollection that we didn’t use the term ‘CGI’ (Computer Generated Imagery) until right after TRON. I remember that term is included in the Cinefex article on the film.

Q:        Why is it so many people just don’t like the sterile-too-clean look of CGI  instead of the “old fashioned” paint and brush techniques?  

A:  Part of the problem of digital is that it is too easy... too easy to make changes.
CG meets traditional:  John Knoll with Harrison at a matte art evening.

Q:        But that seems like it would be a good thing.

A: It can be a double edged sword. Yes, it is easy to change, but it is NOT easy to make it excellent. Just because we now have word processing, does not necessarily mean we have good writers.  In fact, most would probably agree there is more bad writing in our world than ever before. Technology makes us lazy... why look it up in the dictionary when you can just have spellcheck take care of it? It’s the dumbing down of our culture.

Q:        But what does that have to do with CGI?

A: The human brain is amazing. Our sight allows us to do some very basic things, such as the ability to walk around objects and not run into walls. Sounds obvious enough, but as we view our surroundings, there is another, almost primal function that occurs, it is what I call “discriminatory recognition”.  Let me give you an example: say you are at a sports event with a large crowd, you look into the grandstands and from hundreds of feet away someone catches your eye... you see an old friend from school. Well, how did you isolate that one person from the surrounding sea of humanity? Your brain processed what you were seeing and recognized that person. It wasn’t just their face or the color of their hair, it was how they move; the little subtleties of the way they turn, stand up or sit down. So each of us has this intuitive process that makes us able to discriminate, especially with moving imagery, what is familiar and what is unfamiliar.
Q:        You mean we can also tell what is fake and what is real?

A: Exactly. Today’s digital image manipulation and image creation has to look perfect for the audience to accept it. There are some wonderful digital shots, but often there are subtle mismatches of color, lighting, perspective and scale. Just one of these can occur in a digital matte painting or comp and the whole thing looks wrong.

Craig Barron is regaled with stories at STAR WARS night.

Q:        So, are you implying that the “old fashioned” ways of painting matte shots will always be better?

A: Not necessarily. The way movies are made has changed drastically in the last dozen years. Film has almost disappeared completely replaced by digital cameras and digital processing.  Eventually the creative process will catch up.  I love the pre-digital days, but I have a great appreciation for new technology.  Personally I have taken literally hundreds of thousands of still photographs on film.  I was a much better photographer then; I only had a limited number of exposures on each roll of film and then would have to wait until the film was developed to see what I got. Although now I have a very user-friendly digital Canon EOS-40, I get lazy and just snap pictures without thinking about it. I am seduced by the fact I can always delete the bad pictures or fix them in Photoshop. Unfortunately Photoshop still lacks a slider that is labeled “good photo/bad photo” or “elegant photo/not elegant photo”. 
Harrison at age 4 begins his en plein air painting career in England.


Bobbie & Peter on location in Norway 1973
Q:        Let’s go back to the beginning, were you born in England or in the United States?

A: I was born Peter Samuel Ellenshaw in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1945.  I should probably add that I only changed my name to Harrison over 30 years later to avoid confusion with my father.  My father was known as Peter Ellenshaw, even though he was named William Samuel Ellenshaw at birth. My mother took me, when I was just three months old, to England to join my father, Peter Ellenshaw who had been demobilized from the R.A.F. (Royal Air Force) after the war. 

Q:        Did your father and mother meet during WWII?  I understand Peter was a pilot during the war.

A:  In 1941, my father, who grew up in England, was training to be an R.A.F. pilot in the United States, when he became ill and had to go to go into hospital. It was there, at Lawson General Army hospital in Georgia that he met a nurse, Bobbie Palmer from Pennsylvania.  After he recovered they were married in Atlanta on June 1, 1941.

Peter with step-dad Walter Percy 'Pop' Day
Q:        For the benefit of any readers here who aren’t aware of the illustrious lineage that laid the path for your own future career, tell us of the link between your father and one of the genuine pioneers of trick cinematography, Walter Percy “Pop” Day.

A:  My father had always wanted to paint and to draw. He left school in England at 14 years of age and went to work in a garage, but continued to teach himself to paint in his spare time. However he could not afford any formal training. When he was in his early twenties, an artist by the name of Walter Percy Day moved into the same village where my father lived.  Peter rushed over and showed Mr. Day some paintings. Mr. Day’s only comment was a rather dismissive, “Keep painting”.  But through a little persistence my father became an apprentice to Mr. Day, who had become a highly regarded visual effects artist in the British film industry. Eventually he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E) in recognition of his illustrious career.
Walter Percy Day before and after matte clips from CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1946)

Q:        By all accounts Peter was a born artist, with ‘linseed oil’ running through his veins right from the word go.

A: He told me he always loved art and when he was small boy at 3 years old, his mother would give him a pencil and paper so he could draw while sitting under a table during Zeppelin raids over London in the First World War.

Percy Day matte shot from BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE (1947)
Q:        Would you say that even with his instinctive ‘born’ talent and artistic eye, Peter really mastered his technique and matured as an artist, so to speak, as a result of his years with Pop Day? 

A: Yes.  I think for all great artists it is a combination of things. You have to have the natural talent as well as the determination.  But you also need a teacher to show you what to do and what not to do; Peter was very fortunate to have a mentor who was a genius and a great teacher.

Q:        Day’s own grand daughter, Susan Day described him as very much “A Victorian man” and “very set in his ways”.  

One of Day's many glass shots made during his French period, with this being from the 1924 film MICHEL STROGOFF
A: He was quite a character, an eccentric and a bit of a curmudgeon. As a small boy I was rather intimidated by him. I remember having to sit for a portrait by “Grandpa” when I was about 6 or 7. But so did my cousin, Sonia, who was one year older, she was much too “fidgety” for Grandpa. Since I was so scared of him, I sat very still and, thought of that as being far more well-behaved.  But I didn’t like the portrait when he finished it.  Which is typical, it is the curse of the portraitist, if you paint the subject realistically, warts and all, the person says, “I don’t look like that!” and is offended.  But if you embellish the portrait, everyone else thinks, “Really? That doesn’t look anything like them!”
Peter's oil portrait of his 3 year old son-1948

Q:       So, Harrison do you paint portraits?

A:  No, I can’t do it. Even if I studied and practiced every day, it is a thankless task.  Probably the greatest artist to ever do it was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), maybe better even than the great Rembrandt.  Critics might disagree, but anyone who paints well, loves Sargent. 

Q:     I’d certainly agree with you on Sargent.  I’m spellbound by his seemingly rapid, though absolute brush work with wonderful facial expression and hands. What do you think about such (inexplicably) ‘popular’ contemporary artists like David Hockney, Lucien Freud, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons?

A. I am not a big fan of their work, but works attributed to them command huge sums of money.  At a certain price it’s no longer “art” it becomes a commodity.  By the way, Warhol was/is a celebrity, not an artist, same goes for Koons and Hockney; just my opinion.
Q:        They’re not my cup of tea for sure.  I love the 19th Century French Academic painter William Bougeureau, who was light years away from those guys and was a supreme draftsman of the human form.  Your father once said that Day would never do things the easy way.  If a three foot square matte painting would be sufficient to make a shot work, Pop would make his mattes as giant six foot paintings, quite laboriously drawn out and needlessly detailed, sometimes involving months of work on a single matte.

Walter Percy Day - Self Portrait in Mirror.
A: Pop Day was a very patient man, almost to a fault. Nothing was worth rushing. For example, he would drive very slowly on the narrow English roads, infuriating the drivers behind him.  They would honk and then curse him as they would finally get past, but Grandpa didn’t notice and he didn’t care. 

Q:        Albert Whitlock once said that Pop Day was a better artist than any of us, but his mattes were overly worked, often drawing attention to themselves.  I’m not sure I’d agree completely as his work in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) is magnificent.

A:  BLACK NARCISSUS is probably one of his best films. 

Q:        It’s interesting to study your father’s work across the decades and see how far he would evolve away from the Day style into a much looser, spontaneous almost impressionistic technique which would achieve the desired effect seemingly from so little.  Would you agree with my observation?

A:  My father had to adapt to shorter schedules and doing more and more matte shots. He didn’t have the luxury of time to make them highly detailed.  But that was probably a blessing in disguise. Sometimes if you work too long on a shot it loses spontaneity, and becomes dead and unreal.
Percy Day matte from the excellent Noel Coward-David Lean wartime picture IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942)
Q:        I am a huge fan of Pop Day’s work in film, with some of his best work done very early on in the silent era of cinema, mostly in France.  Thankfully Day’s grand daughter Susan has meticulously archived and catalogued all of his matte shots.  Day was a master of perspective and among his hundreds of trick shots are a considerable number of painted ceilings and interior set extensions, most of which are totally invisible even to the trained eye.

A: It was probably Day’s formal training at the Royal Academy that gave him such a great understanding of perspective and tone values. His drawings from the time are magnificent.

Q:        In Craig Barron’s utterly essential tome ‘The Invisible Art – The Legends of Movie Matte Painting’, Peter’s comments on his time with Pop Day are among my favourite passages in the book.  I think he lovingly described the Day group as “a ragtag bunch”.  Tell us about these unheralded camera effects technicians.

A:  The only camera technicians I know about were Pop Day’s sons, Tom and Arthur.  My father and Tom were best friends. From the stories my father tells, a lot of the miniatures were shot in Pop Day’s back yard. Back then you had to be very clever and inventive to make a miniature or matte painting effective.  Nothing came easy.  We forget that it was basic filmmaking -- they had slow film and lenses, no reflex viewing, primitive light meters, much less video playback.

Q:        Similarly, in Peter’s very own memoir ‘Ellenshaw Under Glass’, your father doesn’t mince words when describing the difficulties and pressures of working under Pop who it’s clear was a hard taskmaster and somewhat of a tyrant.

A:  I think “tyrant” might be a little strong, but he was definitely demanding and expected perfection. Still Day was a very compassionate man on the inside. He was always supportive of his crew even the ones who weren’t very good.  He hated to fire anybody; I don’t think he ever did.  And like my father, was his own toughest critic.

Percy Day before and after glass shot interior from the French film AUTOUR DE LA FIN DU MONDE (1930)
 Q:       I’m most interested in your own personal memories of Pop Day, as you knew the man.

A:  It was ironic that my father’s first boss, Day, in the film business ended up marrying my father’s mother. So then his boss became his step-father. Bit confusing I admit.  But he was always just “Grandpa” to me.  For awhile he and my grandmother lived in a house at Shepperton Studios until about 1950 and I remember going there almost every Sunday for dinner, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, of course. Then in the early 50s they moved to Kent and lived in, what seemed to me, a series of very grand country manor houses. However by then we had moved to California, but I always looked forward to trips back to the UK to see my grandparents.  Grandpa was still very serious but my grandmother was good fun, very loving and caring.

 A wonderful sense of humor.

Q:        Did The Master live to see his Disciple collect the Oscar for MARY POPPINS by any chance?

A: Yes, he did. In fact he said to Peter, “Don’t get too used to it, my boy.” A very Victorian remark.
Percy Day and Peter Ellenshaw would both paint numerous glass shots for the classic THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1941)


Three Ellenshaws and one Mickey: Harrison,Peter & Michael paint onto statue for Mickey Mouse's 75th birthday 2003
Q:        Are there any other artists or creative types in your family?

A: I have cousins who are artists, one is Susan Day who has also published a number of art books as well as having worked at the Louvre. There is also her sister Sonia who lives in Canada. Peter’s sister (my aunt Lu) was also an excellent artist, her daughter Jeananne also paints. My son, Michael used to paint alongside his grandfather. They collaborated on a number of paintings. And, my daughter Hilary has her Master’s degree in Art History.

The Road to Coomcallee - Peter Ellenshaw fine art
Q:        Gee, it’s never ending – kind of like The Corleone Family of artistic expression.  ‘They’ll make you a painting you just can’t refuse’.  Just before moving on to the Disney era I feel I must make mention of your father’s superb work in QUO VADIS (1951) which I’d rank as one of the best effects films of all time, not just for mattes – which were remarkably clean and crisp - but also miniatures and opticals as well.

A:  A lot of the tricks of the trade used on QUO VADIS my father had learned from Pop Day. 

Q:        Oddly, the mattes and optical effects were done in England and all of the miniatures were done in California – and beautifully done they were.

A:  I agree. Masterful stuff. 

Q:        Those effects were unjustly overlooked by the all powerful and incestuous Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.  Any comment?

A:  Awards shows are inherently flawed.  It’s the nature of the beast and besides nobody ever said it would be fair.  I’m trying to be diplomatic here, by the way.

QUO VADIS - visual effects perfection
Q:        I believe Peter took the QUO VADIS gig with the understanding of receiving an on screen credit – which was agreed upon but not delivered!  How did that sit with your Dad, or was it par for the course for a ‘mere’ matte painter.

A:  Of course, I have only heard my father’s side of it, but from what I understand Tom Howard, who ran the British MGM studio’s photographic effects department took credit for the matte paintings, even though he didn’t even know how to paint. Peter was, to say the least, not happy.

Q:        I can think of very few instances where the ‘matte artist’ actually received screen credit in those days, with quite possibly Peter’s credit on TREASURE ISLAND being the first(?)

A:  Up until the late 1970s, for major studios only HODs (Heads of Departments) received screen credit. Peter was fortunate that on most Disney films he did receive credit as either “matte artist” or “special photographic effects”. Earlier Pop Day received numerous different credits. For example on THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940) his credit reads “scenic backgrounds”; then on BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) it reads “process shots”.

Q:        I’m of the belief that a successful matte shot is in no small part due to the cameraman shooting and marrying the elements.  Les Ostinelli did exceptional work on Peter’s mattes in QUO VADIS.

A:  Absolutely. Incredibly difficult work considering that the film was shot in three-strip Technicolor.

Q:        There just has to be a close symbiotic relationship between the artist and the effects cinematographer to bring out the best in matte shots, don’t you think?   Look at the work Clarence Slifer did for Jack Cosgrove and others on all those classics.  Ross Hoffman at Universal was another incredible cameraman who made so many great comps over 44 odd years.

For BLACK NARCISSUS Peter would provide a dozen title paintings
A:  It can sometimes be difficult partnership. But when it does work it makes for the best shots

Q:        Would Peter have been on location for those plates back then or were they merely delivered as a bunch of film cans to his matte department?

A: Peter always insisted on being on location to shoot the plates. For QUO VADIS he had a nice trip to Rome.

Q:        It seems that QUO VADIS is a film where no one can see where the painting starts and the live action ends.

Percy Day matte shot - THIS HAPPY BREED (1944)
A: Pete, you are one of the few people who understand that a successful matte painting is a lot about hiding the join. But it takes a very good artist to pull it off; for example in one of the shots, there are large statues on the set, but my father chose to actually paint over the statues to make the join better.
A rare unused Pop Day matte shot from BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)


Q:        Your father had a long association with Walt Disney of course.  Tell us how this first came about.

A: Peter was doing the backgrounds for the main title sequence on BLACK NARCISSUS when Tom Morahan, an English art director saw the work.  A couple of years later in 1948 Morahan called my father and said he was the art director for a new Disney picture, TREASURE ISLAND and would Peter be interested in doing a few matte shots for it. My father jumped at the chance and that became the start of a long relationship with Walt Disney that lasted until Walt’s death in 1966.
Movie making ingenuity.  At the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, Peter Ellenshaw (in swim trunks) shows cameraman Jack Whitman (on right) where the Circarama camera (Un Iwerks designed 'circlevision') will go.  Note the dolly grip on the left who will have to single handedly push the entire rig for about 60 feet around the hotel's pool.  Of note, there was the added complication that the crew had to completely hide from the cameras while the shot took place.  With a 360 degree view and no video tap or camera operators looking through viewfinders, they were literally 'flying blind'.

Q:        The work in all four of those early British Disney pictures (TREASURE ISLAND; THE SWORD AND THE ROSE; THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN and ROB ROY, THE HIGHLAND ROGUE) was superb, with record numbers of mattes.  I was surprised to discover even more mattes than I’d ever realised in ROBIN HOOD when I had the privilege recently of seeing some of Peter’s before and after reels. Some very clever and invisible spit screens and matted add on’s where I’d never noticed them.

A: It is more proof that good matte paintings are invisible. I was told by a director once that he would never use matte paintings in a movie as they always looked like paintings.  I said, “No, the bad matte paintings are the ones you recognize, you don’t recognize the good ones, since they look real, not like paintings.”  He just stared at me. Poor guy had no idea what the hell I was talking about.

Q:        Probably worse today when trying to explain the ramifications of ‘35mm film’, ‘latent image’, ‘perforations’ and ‘interpositive prints’.  People nowadays sadly just have no idea.  I believe SWORD AND THE ROSE set some sort of a record in 1954 for painted mattes – around sixty shots.  Interestingly, the record prior to that I understand was set by Pop Day for 38 mattes in BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE six years prior – though in both cases I’ve never been able to count that many.

A:  Those numbers seem correct to me.  So many matte shots are undetectable that no one notices; the title of Craig Barron’s book says it all, ‘The Invisible Art’.

Q:        The numbers of matte shots I think tend to get a little exaggerated in the mists of time.  GONE WITH THE WIND is an all time favourite matte show for me and I’m damned sure there are nowhere near the claimed 100 mattes.  Closer to half that number.  Unless they count shots dropped during editing as GWTW lost a number of shots during post production.

A:  Maybe they just rounded up to the nearest hundred. (laughs)

More ROBIN HOOD magic
Q:        Walt Disney was without a doubt one of the true visionaries of the 20th Century and an honest to goodness icon of Americana.  I get the impression that although they had little in common, Walt and Peter struck it off right from the word ‘go’ and found a most fruitful and symbiotic relationship.

A: Peter had to earn Walt’s trust. The one thing that they did have in common was a tremendous work ethic and ambition. They both were not afraid to take chances and had great deal of curiosity and discipline.

Q:        I’m fascinated with the non-public personality of Walt.  According to Peter in his memoir, ‘Ellenshaw Under Glass’ Walt could be equal parts giving and kind – while without warning as ferocious a storm one could get caught up in.  Albert felt the wrath of Walt when he got carried away with way too much unneeded detail in a painting of a canyon for TEN WHO DARED apparently and stated in an interview “Walt was so down on me for that awful painting”.

A:  In the twenty years Peter knew Walt, Walt only showed his slight displeasure a couple of times. Still, Walt was not one to dish out a lot of praise; excellence was expected, that is why you had a job there, because you were good at what you did.

 Q:       We know that Walt was a big time model train buff, so slightly off subject here, Mark Sullivan told me recently that at one point you went with your father to the home of veteran matte painter Paul Detlefsen – another train ‘nut’- and had a tour of his pride and joy locomotive set up complete with detailed multi plane painted backdrops and scenery.  Do you remember that?

Veteran matte artist Paul Detlefsen's amazing model railway which utilised many of the multiplane gags and perspective tricks Detlefsen had learned over the years at Warner Bros and RKO.
Peter Ellenshaw matte concept: WESTWARD HO, THE WAGONS
A:  I do remember visiting Paul Detlefsen’s custom model train layout when I was about 9 or 10. It was really a wonderful train set. I haven’t seen anything as magnificent since. As I recall it was housed in a separate building next to his home. My father and I spent about four or five hours with Paul, it turned me into a big time model train ‘nut’ right away.

Q:        Paul was a real talent.  He started off on the silent epics having been trained in mattes by the pioneer Ferdinand Pinney Earle, who was as hard a taskmaster as Percy Day from what I’ve learnt.  Interestingly, Earle’s son, Eyvind would become a noted Disney artist, I think he did backgrounds for the best feature length cartoons of the 40’s and 50’s such as CINDERELLA.  Did you know of him?

A: Yes, he was an amazing artist with a very unique style. The Disney film SLEEPING BEAUTY for which Earle received credit as color stylist is, perhaps, his most celebrated achievement.

Peter's conceptual painting that changed it all for 20'000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954)

Q:        For 20’000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA Peter would be one of a number of top shelf effects men assigned to the show, with veteran glass artist and cameraman Ralph Hammeras overseeing the effects.   Your father’s conceptual art would elevate him above his standard matte art duties here.

A: Walt Disney had brought the renowned effects man Ralph Hammeras from Fox to supervise the model work on 20,000 LEAGUES. My father wasn’t involved in the miniature unit. But during a dailies session viewing the miniature photography of the submarine Nautilus, Walt complained out loud that it looked like a miniature. My father had also noticed that the photography for a number weeks had been flat and dull.  So without fanfare Peter went back to his room and began to do sketches of what the scenes should look like. A few days later Walt was wandering through the studio and saw the sketches; he liked them and said, “Now that’s what it should look like”.  He told my father to go down to the stage with the sketches and tell Hammeras how to light the miniatures. Needless to say Hammeras was not at all pleased to be told how to light his miniatures by this short, upstart Englishman, but Peter remained with the effects unit through the remainder of the film.  In an ironic twist the effects won an Oscar for the studio.  Of course, I think the giant squid sequence certainly helped.

A pair of original mattes share pride & place with Nautilus
Q:        I saw some of those unused Hammeras Nautilus takes and without question Peter’s approach helped immeasurably.  It’s still a terrific film – one of Disney’s best (probably the best in fact!) live action shows where every aspect fits neatly into place – from the cast and story through to the beautifully subtle effects animation , glass shots and excellent model work.

A: It’s interesting that Disney’s first foray into epic live action adventure at the Burbank studios was easily his best. 

Q What about MARY POPPINS?

A. Good point.  It is hard to compare the two, they are both excellent films, in different ways.

Q:        I heard that the studio didn’t even have a dedicated matte department in the early 50s, so your father was forced to paint his glass shots in a corridor and some others on large sheets of board over at the Fox backlot where the miniature tank shots were being made.

20'000 LEAGUES Nautilus miniature recently put on display
A: All the matte shots were done “in camera” since 20,000 LEAGUES was using the new Cinemascope lenses which had a very limited depth of field.

Q:        Those original Bausch & Lomb lenses were gigantic behemoths.  No hand held camera operating with those!  I loved the comment from star James Mason who, while admiring a large Masonite matte in progress,  said to Peter  “I wish I could do what you do”, with your father silently thinking that he wished he could do what Mason does!

A: Sort of reminds me of how so many people say, “I wish I could play the piano”. Well, if you really want to play the piano, learn to play the piano, which will involve a lot of practice.  It’s the same with painting, no one decides one day to paint and can do a good painting right off the bat.  With very rare exception it takes years of practice to learn how to paint well, or do anything well.

Peter's birds-eye view matte into the volcano.
Q:        I’m still highly impressed with the squid attack set piece which works a treat.  Screw CGI - that puppeteering and pneumatics by Bob Mattey was genius and genuinely threatening.

A: Most of us know that the sequence was originally shot in a non-stormy sunset/dusk environment. When Walt saw it the sequence didn’t work, you could see the wires, but more important, there was no drama, no real threat.  Re-shooting the sequence in a raging storm makes the risk to life and limb all the greater.  Visually it is a classic sequence in film.

Q:        A great show – very exciting and quite adult for a Disney picture.  Even Kirk Douglas’ vocals for ‘A Whale of a Tale’ are memorable, and sit amongst the best Disney songs.  I take it that 20’000 was a huge gamble for Walt, whose studio was primarily an animation house, with all previous live action shows being entirely British made.

A: Walt had a great sense of story, almost uncanny.  Yes, he had his share of failures, but his ability to make animation, live action or theme park rides relatable and touch our emotions was remarkable. 
Q:        Noteworthy as a well deserved Oscar winner of those photographic and miniature effects too, though in those days I’m not sure the individual technicians received a statuette.

Robert Mattey's mechanical fx crew puppeteer the giant squid.
A: In those days the effects Oscar only went to the producer on the film. Walt sent my father a nice thank you note after getting the Oscar. In the note he also told my father he could come to the boss’s office anytime and touch the Oscar. A bit of a dig at my dad. But Peter had his revenge, he got the nomination certificate somehow. I wish I’d asked if he took it off the wall or Walt gave it to him. Never really thought about it until now.

Q:        Tell us about the great Harper Goff, art director on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, who designed the submarine Nautilus.

Production designer Harper Goff
A: He was a real character. Bigger than life. I remember soon after my parents and I arrived in Southern California, Harper took my dad and me for an evening ride in his bright RED Buick Roadmaster convertible. It was a 1953 model, and, to an eight year old English lad it was the most dazzling machine I had ever seen.  With the top down and Harper driving, myself scrunched into the middle front seat and my father on the right, we drove up a very windy road just outside of Hollywood. Harper thrashed this beast around and my dad and I loved it.  I had never ridden in a convertible, they were unheard of in England and this huge piece of Detroit iron screeching around corners was thrilling. The car even had a radio, again something the Brits did not have in their little black-only autos.  So Harper turned on the radio, a bit scary since he was already flailing around as he muscled the steering wheel from side to side.  Over the sound of the wind and the radio, he turns to me and asks, "What do you think?" "Great!" I replied. "How about  this station? Ya like this music?" "Yes," I mumbled.  "Well let's change the station anyway." And suddenly he just points to the radio and magically the station changes. He points again, the station changes again. "Go ahead, you try." I point at the radio, nothing happens. "You're not doing it right, do it like this." He shows me with another grand gesture. I copy him and, voila, the station changes. It took a few years for me to figure out that Buick Roadmasters had a button on the driver's floor to press with your foot to change the station.

Q:    It sounds like, “Welcome to America”, Harrison.

A:   After that ride, I never wanted to go back to England again and all that drizzle.

Harrison and his Mum, Bobbie Ellenshaw at Disneyland on opening day, July 17th 1955.  "The reason it looks so deserted behind us is that this is the area roped off for the late afternoon live television presentation on ABC".
Q:        One of Peter’s old assistants from his England matte shot days, Albert Whitlock, was to join the US Disney studio on 20’000, this time as title artist, which was Albert’s specialty back in the early 40’s in the UK.  You were telling me recently remembering going with Peter to the Burbank airport as a young fellow to pick up Albert and his family.

A: On their way from England, they had stopped by San Francisco to visit relatives and then flown to Burbank. At that time, I just figured you had to be from England to paint mattes.

Q:        I heard ‘The Ellenshaws’ had a dandy of a mailbox out front.

Lynda Ellenshaw with Mum and her grandparents go Disney.
A: To help Albert with expenses, in addition to his Disney job, my father hired Albert to paint “Ellenshaw” on our mailbox. Needless to say, being done by such a professional, it was the best looking mailbox in Los Angeles.

Q:        I gather Peter and Albert made a formidable matte unit for Walt, though it seems the halcyon days wouldn’t last and after a few years some friction developed, which is regrettable.  What do you think was behind this ‘falling out’?

A:  I don’t think there was any friction and it has been overplayed as such.  It was really simple, there was an opening at Universal for the head of their matte department and Albert took the job. The thing that rankled my father after Albert left was that he had done so without telling my father. My father felt somewhat betrayed. But then, better to ask forgiveness than permission, as the saying goes. I know my father would have never tried to talk Albert out of leaving, that was not his style.
One of the many magnificent mattes created by Peter for Walt's live action films, with this being from the feature length theatrical version of DAVY CROCKET AND THE RIVER PIRATES (1956)

Q:        Was it a parallel of the old Pop Day rivalry with Peter which lead to your father moving on to greener pastures?  “This matte department ain’t big enough for the two of us”.

A:  No, that was different for my father. After WWII he felt it was time for him to move on from Pop’s tutelage, but he went to his stepfather and asked his permission, which Pop granted happily. My father was always grateful for Day’s years of support and instruction.

Q:        Just before we move on, you told me recently that even though Peter and Albert lived on the exact same street throughout their retirement they sadly never ‘made up’.  However, I was moved by your account of a panel discussion at the Academy which featured Peter, Albert and yourself on a discussion panel.  Would you share that priceless moment with us?

A: It was in the early 90s that the Academy of Motion Pictures held an evening of visual effects, there were several panels including one on matte painting.   I’m pretty sure Matt Yuricich was also on the panel.  The first question was directed to Albert, something about his Academy Awards and he looked at my father and said, “Before we go any further, I want to thank this man for giving me the opportunity to learn the craft of painting mattes, without him I wouldn’t be here today.”  The packed house applauded and I almost cried. My father was very touched.

Q:        Speaking of Albert and the art of title lettering,  I’m an enormous fan of the old school hand lettered titles from days gone by – the sort of thing which has long since vanished and is to all intents extinct.  The delicate hand painted lettering on glass from the 40’s and 50’s I still love and consider it a lost art-form.  MGM and Warner Bros were magical in this area, especially with musicals and westerns and I’d love to see a coffee table book on it someday.  Nothing today comes close.

A: I would also love to see a book, it’s a lost art form.
Two of the many dramatic mattes supervised by Peter Ellenshaw for THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN (1959) - a film which also utilised Peter's assistants Albert Whitlock and Jim Fetherolf.  I forgot to include the above left shot in my previous 'Sky' blog.... well, 500+ pics was probably more than enough!

Q:        Of the many personalities your father would work with at Disney, one name crops up often – that of Don DaGradi.  Tell us about Don and his relationship with Peter.

A: Don Da Gradi was a very talented artist as well as a great writer. He was at Disney for many years, working on both animation and live action. He did everything: storyboard artist, writer, conceptualist... very much a Renaissance Man. Without Don and producer/co-writer Bill Walsh MARY POPPINS would never have been such a success. They all had a great mutual respect for each other. 
Peter works with Don DaGradi on the set of DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959) applying gold leaf to the floor.  Art Director Caroll Clark (standing) looks on.  Talented men who could do so many jobs well.

Q:        We simply cannot talk about Peter and Don without bringing up the wonderful DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE which still ranks as one of the finest visual effects films ever conceived and executed.  I just can’t speak highly enough of the technical work in this show.

A: Typical of Walt Disney, to trust that he had craftsman at his studio who could pull off such an ambitious project. Even with today’s digital technology you couldn’t do better than what was accomplished in 1958 on DARBY.

Q:        The fact that this show wasn’t so much as even nominated for a VFX Oscar is criminal!  Shame be reaped upon the Academy and those officials who resideth therein!

A: It wasn’t the first snub by the Academy and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. I’ll discuss that later, even if you don’t ask.

Q:        I look forward to getting wound up over Oscar injustices – a pet peeve of mine.  The sheer variety of ‘sleight of hand’ utilised so brilliantly for DARBY is breathtaking, with much of the credit due to Peter.  I’m forever staggered at the precision of those perspective shots, the likes of which I had not seen again until Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.

A:  DARBY always amazes me every time I see it.  It is sheer perfection on every shot.  Few people realize how difficult split scale (forced perspective) is to accomplish. We used it for some shots in HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID (1993), nowhere near the number of shots or complexity of DARBY but it gave me a real appreciation of what my father and others had accomplished years before.

Part of the staggering in camera perspective photography so brilliantly utilised for DARBY O'GILL with the only optical here being Peter's painted cave roof and surrounds in the bottom right frame - all else is real time fx cinematography.
Q:        Am I correct here, in a Cinefex article on HONEY the pair of you sat down together and ‘dissected’ DARBY’s trick shots and some even baffled your Dad as to how the hell he’d pulled off such and such a shot? 

A: I was very proud that I had figured out two shots and how they were accomplished. I told my father in detail. He let me finish my long description and then said, “No, that’s not how we did it?”  “So, then how did you do it?” I asked. He just shrugged and said, “I don’t know how we did it? But not that way.”
Peter with one of his MARY POPPINS matte paintings.

 Q:       Jim Danforth told me that although the mattes were mostly VistaVision RP set ups, there were one or two original negative mattes in DARBY, notably the shot where Sean Connery and Janet Munro run down the grassy hillside.

A:  I am pretty sure ALL the matte shots on DARBY were original negative. None were RP.

Q:        I loved the effects animation too – those ghostly coachman apparition opticals are pretty frightening for a Disney show and must have made more than a few kids wet themselves!

A: That was very effective stuff. An old still photographic trick which was called “solarization”, I believe.

Q:        Tell us a little about Eustace Lycette – another British ex-pat at Disney.

A: Eustace graduated from Cal Tech and came to Disney in the 1950s. He was in charge of the optical department and in the 1980s transferred to WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering).

A beautiful matte from the 1967 comedy THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE
Q:        I heard there was some bad blood between Eustace and Ub Iwerks when the former was more or less shifted in to replace the latter.

A: Honestly, I don’t know. By the time I got to Disney, Ub was a year away from retirement doing special projects. I have no idea if there was bad blood due to Eustace taking over Ub’s old job.  I was a lowly apprentice then and not privy to any of the politics.

Q:        So, in those early days at Disney, your father would have had several assistants in the matte department – Albert Whitlock and Jim Fetherolf – with Constantine ‘Deno’  Ganakes a little later on.  Not much is known about Deno.  Can you fill us in?

A: Deno was hired in the matte department in the 1960s and left Disney in the 1980s. He was very diligent and eventually became a vice president of the matte artist’s union.

Q:        Jim Fetherolf was a former actor and he got into matte work at 20th Century Fox, starting the same day as Matthew Yuricich I believe.  Matthew had a long friendship with Jim and spoke very highly of him.  

A: Jim was a good guy. He had a great sense of humor.

A Jim Fetherolf full painting (with cat added later) from THAT DARN CAT
Q:        Apparently Albert also was very friendly with Jim and they liked each other.  Didn’t Jim pass away quite prematurely?

A:  Jim passed away in 1994 at the age of 69. I’d call that premature. 

Q:        Oh, I thought he was much younger.  I’ve seen a lot of Jim’s fine art and it’s magnificent.  Are you familiar with his gallery work?

A: Yes, he was an excellent artist. He had a very successful fine art career outside of mattes. Did wonderful clouds and landscapes.

Q:        So when did Alan Maley come along?  Did he replace Albert when he moved to Universal.

A: Yes, in a sense Alan became second in command.  It wasn’t that Jim Fetherolf was not a good artist, it was more that Alan had a stronger sense of how matte paintings needed to tell the story, he was a very confident artist.

Q:        Now, while Albert had worked alongside Peter in England, had Alan done likewise?
Peter Ellenshaw matte: THE ADVENTURES OF BULLWHIP GRIFFIN (1968)

A: Alan impressed my father when he worked on IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS at Pinewood Studios in England by his willingness to work hard.  He painted large backings and that can be valuable experience for painting mattes.

Q:        It’s interesting to me how so many of these matte guys are sort of ‘six degrees of separation’ with their paths crossing back and forth over the years.  Alan worked for Wally Veevers in Britain, Veevers worked for Percy Day, Peter was Day’s apprentice, Albert refined his technique under Peter (some reports claim Albert worked for Day at one stage), Jim started with Matthew at Fox, Matt would work for Alan briefly at Disney and Deno would work under Matt at EEG!  The DNA is all there, Harrison.

A: It was much smaller group of men (and only one or two women) who understood the mystery and magic of trick photography and painted mattes than today. The business has changed entirely. New technology is supposed to make things better and maybe it does, but it doesn’t necessarily make it simpler.  Today digital requires literally thousands of people.

Q:        Back in your Dad’s day it was such that the matte artist was all powerful and had complete artistic authority over every component of the matte shot – even directing the action.  I think it was un-dreamt of for some smart ass producer to hand Peter or Albert a can of film and say “put a castle on this”. 

A: Oh, I think that happened more often than you’d think. I had a director come to me once, and this was after THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, so I had a pretty solid reputation; he looked me in the eye and said, “I only have twenty minutes, but tell me everything I need to know about shooting matte shots”. I replied that I could never give him a few minutes of information gained over a career. I suggested if he wanted good matte shots, he should hire me. “I can’t afford to,” he said. “You can’t afford NOT to,” I replied. He still didn’t hire me.
The only matte painting known to survive of the several dozen painted for IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962) was recently photographed and sent to me by it's current owner, John Chipperfield - the son of Jimmie Chipperfield who trained the animals on CASTAWAYS and many other films.  Peter painted in the formally 'black' area around the hut and then gave the piece to Chipperfield some 50 years ago.  It's still in great condition and framed on John's office wall in the UK I'm glad to say.
Q:        Do you have any info on who else was in the Disney matte department at that time, such as the cameramen? 

A: At Disney, the matte cameramen were Bob Wilson, Bill Kilduff and Ed Sekac.  They were part of the optical department and would come to the matte room as needed to shoot the composites with the matte paintings. I really enjoyed working with those guys.  All of them were older than I was, I learned a lot from each of them.  Bill Kilduff was also my matte cameraman on STAR WARS.

Q:        Jim Danforth mentioned to me his meeting Peter at the studio in the early 60’s where he was introduced to the matte department’s process projectionist, who was one of the original KING KONG effects men.  Jim can’t recall the name – any idea Harrison?

A: All I remember is that his first name was Earl. I think he retired sometime in the late 60s.
A full painting by Peter from ROB ROY-THE HIGHLAND ROGUE (1954)

Q:        Bill Taylor said to me how much he and Albert were impressed by Peter’s ability to do the unthinkable – to move from a lifetime of oils straight into acrylics, seemingly without missing a beat.

A: Peter much preferred acrylics to oils. They are more stable. My father knew Mrs. Grumbacher who was the widow of the founder of the Grumbacher art company. In the early 70s, she introduced Peter to a new type of paints, acrylics. It only took my father a few months before he threw away all his oil paints. 

Q:        It sounds like that much censored passage from SPARTACUS between Olivier and Curtis, but I have to ask you Harrison, ‘are you an oil man or an acrylic man’?

A:  Acrylics. When Alan Maley taught me to paint he insisted that I start with acrylics. Acrylics dry faster than oil and a lot of artists don’t like that. It can make it more difficult to get a smooth blend. But acrylics do not change color over time like oil does. Acrylics dry a tiny bit darker, but you can get used to that. With oil on matte paintings you can have a perfectly matched join on one day and the next day it no longer matches.
A breathtakingly gorgeous matte that has all the hallmarks of Peter Ellenshaw's misty, ethereal night scenes - with this matte shot from the Dick Van Dyke movie NEVER A DULL MOMENT (1968)


Q:        Now, at what stage did you show an interest in following in your father’s footsteps? If in fact you planned to.

Harrison as park ride operator on Snow White Ride, 1964
A: I never wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. Those were big shoes to fill. An R.A.F. pilot, an Oscar winner, a fine artist who sold everything he painted; he was a genius. A hugely successful marriage; people adored him. I could never hope to come even close to all that.

Q:        Prior to entering the film industry, what were your aspirations, career wise?

A: I have to admit that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I went to college for four years, majoring in psychology. I spent three years in the Navy as a junior officer and when I got out, there was a recession and I couldn’t find a job.

Q:        Would you consider yourself a film buff Harrison, and if so what are your favourite movies?

A:  I love movies, but I don’t know if I’m a true film buff.  There are a lot of people who know much more about movies than I ever will. Some of my favourite films are: (in no particular order) DR. STRANGELOVE, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, TWO FOR THE ROAD, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, BRAZIL, RUN LOLA RUN, DAY FOR NIGHT, BREAKING THE WAVES, MASTER AND COMMANDER, FARGO, LOCAL HERO, BARRY LYNDON, A MAN AND A WOMAN, GOOD FELLAS, MON ONCLE, THE IPCRESS FILE, 8 1/2, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, MANHATTAN, CASABLANCA, PATTON, SOME LIKE IT HOT and about a thousand others.

Q:        So many great titles there Harrison, and many that I’d agree with.  Did you have an interest in special effects – from an audience’s point of view, and if so, what films caught your imagination and fueled your interest?

Peter Ellenshaw matte shot: LT ROBINSON CRUSOE USN (1966)
A: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, probably because my dad worked on it.  But I really wasn’t that much into effects movies.  When I grew up, there was no VHS, DVDs or internet; and not everyone had television, if you did it was black and white. So going to the movies was very special. The ‘cinema’ was big opulent movie palaces. I saw AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS at the Carthay Circle in Los Angeles. Movies were an event. THE KING AND I, OKLAHOMA, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, CINDERELLA; films on a huge screen in brilliant color -- those were MOVIES!!!  I hate to say it, but I really didn’t like science-fiction. I wasn’t that interested in somebody else’s imagination, I had my own.

Q:        You must have admired the matte paintings on Disney movies though.

A:   I admired matte shots in general and probably had more of a discerning eye for them than most kids growing up. But since my father worked at Disney, he would bring 16mm prints of Disney films to view at home. That was a really big deal. We would invite the neighbors over to see films like PETER PAN or CINDERELLA or 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA  (there was an anamorphic attachment for the 16mm projector). Often we would even have a cartoon or live action short to run first.  When I was old enough I was given the task of threading up the projector, I thought that was pretty neat. 
Q:        As a kid or young man which of the ‘special effect’ type movies enthralled you?

A:  There are a lot of old effects films, pre-1950 that still work today: METROPOLIS (1927), THINGS TO COME (1936), GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), CITIZEN KANE (1941) and, of course, BLACK NARCISSUS (1948).

Almost There - the art of Harrison
Q:        I’m still dazzled by some of those old effects shows such as IN OLD CHICAGO and THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO to name two.  Still a joy to watch and appreciate the boldness of the technical effects.

A: It is amazing how quickly filmmaking advanced over such a relatively short period of time. It is still a very young art form.

 Q: You didn’t mention THE WIZARD OF OZ.

A: I know, heresy, right?  But it wasn’t one of my favorites. Besides many of your readers will disagree with my favorites and my omissions, but we want to keep your blog a bit controversial, after all. And to quibble about what is on the list and what is NOT is kind of silly.  But then it does remind me of a story.  Director Vince McEveety, producer Tom Leetch and myself were having dinner during the reshoots at Pinewood for WATCHER IN THE WOODS in the early 80s.  And, of course, the subject turned to favorite movies. Someone would suggest a film, one of us would agree - great movie! and one would disagree - piece of crap!  We could not find a film that all three of us agreed on as a great movie.  The discussion went on for many minutes and it became quite funny. Finally I knew I had the film on which we could all agree. "OK, you guys I'm going to tell you what is probably one of the greatest, if not THE greatest movie ever...  “Lawrence of Arabia”.  Tom immediately agreed, "Oh absolutely, amazing film".  He turned to Vince and said, "Now you HAVE to agree with us on this classic."  Vince put down his drink and exclaimed, "Lawrence of Arabia?! Are you kidding me? F**K HIM and THE CAMEL HE RODE IN ON!!!"  I'm still laughing.

Disney matte art from THOSE CALLOWAYS (1965)
Q:        Did you had a keen interest in art prior to becoming a matte painter, and if so, did your father encourage you in this area?

A:  I wasn’t that interested in art, I was more interested in cars, girls and getting poor grades in school. 

Q:        Am I right here? I think your father was a lover of classical iconic British painter Turner.  Is there a particular classicist whose work you admire?

A: John Singer Sargent, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Botticelli, Raphael and, of course, Titian, da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Q:        Michelle Moen also mentioned her love of John Singer Sargent and the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla.  Whitlock loved John Constable and Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River School apparently.

Walter Percy Day original painting
A:  I also love the Hudson River School as well as the Orientalists. On a related note, not exactly a classicist, but one of my favorite artists is Alfred Sisley (1939-1899). There are so many good artists and I keep discovering new ones.

Q:        Orientalism – oh, yes I do love it.  Edwin Long, Edwin Lord Weeks, Gerome, Belly…so many.  Even your step-grandfather was a renowned orientalist.

A: He lived in Tunisia for some time and did a number of paintings there. Regretably I only have one small watercolor.

An original Day watercolour in collection of Harrison

Q:        Correct me if I’m wrong, but was there a certain amount of trepidation on your part when it was suggested you enter the arena of matte art?

A: That’s an understatement to be sure. There was a huge amount of trepidation. I knew that without any formal art training it would be very much in doubt that I could learn anything at all and become a competent professional.

Q:        What was it like having a master such as your Dad peering over your shoulder, or were you pretty much left to Alan Maley’s guidance?

A:  Alan actually banned my father from the matte department for a few months; Alan was very protective of me and didn’t want my father to interfere. We laughed about it later.

Q:        Alan was an under rated FX artist.  Tell us more about him if you can.

A: Alan was a great teacher as well as a great artist. He loved films, he would see everything that came out and loved to discuss all aspects of movies. I remember he went to see SUMMER OF ’42 (1971) and was so impressed with the main title sequence, he had the studio order a loaner print from Warner Brothers. We watched the main title sequence as Alan pointed out why it worked so well.  Of course, the score by Michel Legrand helped that movie a lot too.

Alan Maley
Q:        I think it was Derek Meddings who said in an interview on the making of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) that Alan felt very creatively stifled while at Disney, where only the conventional RP compositing method was generally sanctioned, whereas Maley wanted to try new and improved methods such as front projection and even the high resolution original negative procedures, but was prevented from doing so.

A: When you work for a studio, it is like most companies.  If you want to buy new tools or equipment, it costs money.  Most studios never want to spend extra money on things like R&D, especially for visual effects. I was very fortunate when I took over from Alan in 1974, I was approached by Don Iwerks (Ub Iwerks’ son) who ran the Disney machine shop. He proposed to me a method of shooting matte shots using a thing called motion control, to put some movement into our shots and make them less static.  But I had to go to the studio heads and make a case for spending the money to build the system.  It took a lot of convincing, after all, in their view, it was a case of “if it’s not broken, why fix it?”  They eventually relented and we got our motion control rig which we called MatteSCAN.

Q: You’d use that on BLACK HOLE and maybe RETURN TO WITCH MOUNTAIN?  It was made by the machine shop on the Disney Burbank lot?

 A: Yes, if you consider that the term “the machine shop” doesn’t sound like a very important department, it really was one of the most valuable assets of the Disney company. They made camera rigs, they built all the diverse projectors and related accessories for all the theme parks. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) which is the part of the Disney company, located in Glendale, that designs and builds all the theme parks could never have existed today without the machine shop at the Disney lot in Burbank in the 50s. Under the direction of Roger Broggie the machine shop built Walt’s scale model steam engine for his back yard estate. Both Roger and Walt worked hands on as well.
'Northumberland Trail' - acrylic on canvas by Harrison.

Q:        Alan finally got to experiment with and successfully utilise complex front projected elements in his mattes for the Bond picture.

A: Alan was more than an artist, he was a superb technician, a great photographer and filmmaker.  He not only taught me about painting, he taught me about how to be a visual storyteller.  Alan pushed me to analyze reference photos and learn about architecture and nature; all sorts of things. To Alan, if you are going to paint a London street in the 17th-century you better know all about the details of the architecture and why buildings were built the way they were. You had to know why a spandrel is shaped the way it is. If you don’t, you won’t paint it correctly, and it will look wrong.

Q:        Sadly, Alan would pass away at a relatively young age as well.   
A: He died at the age of 64 in 1995, I miss him terribly. He was a mentor and a very good friend.
One of Harrison's interpretive art renderings, this one based upon Disney's CINDERELLA

Q:        I’m told Disney’s reluctance to ‘break out’ and explore alternatives in matte assembly was one of the reasons that Albert left for Universal where he was itching to get back to the bare fundamentals of trick work, of rewind and re-expose on original negative while at the same time developing intricate, though risky gags to obtain a crisp final married image. 

A:  It was very simple. Albert was offered a good job and saw it as an opportunity to make his own choices and be the boss. Having the chance to make some choices of compositing methods certainly had an appeal, but I disagree that Disney was reluctant to ‘break out’ and explore alternatives. The Disney studio was always pushing the technology envelope, but, as I indicated, you had to be willing to fight for getting the studio to make the capital expenditure that new technology always demands.

Interpretive art from CINDERELLA and 20'000 LEAGUES
Q:        I’m interested in your individual matte art style Harrison.  Would you consider yourself a ‘paint pusher’ – someone who jumps straight in, boots and all and moves the paint around into some semblance of reality, or more a traditionalist painter who might carefully ‘draw’ out the intended shot and fill in the blanks?

A: ‘Paint pusher’ for sure.  As my father and Alan Maley would say, “Big brush, use the big brush.”  I learned to paint mattes literally with wide brushes and even sometimes with rags and waded up paper. 

Q:        Your father would surely have been the former – a painter who would nearly attack his canvas (or glass) with broad swathes of colour and tone.

A: It was like watching a fighter.  I remember when I was an intern in 1964 in the matte department and my father would come in and see what Jim Fetherolf was doing, painting the detail with a tiny sable brush. Jim would step back and wait for the master to give his opinion. My father would just look and then say, “Give me the brush.” Jim would hand him the sable and Peter would say, “No, not that, give me the brush... the big brush.”  Jim would rifle through his brushes as my father kept saying, “No, bigger. Give me a BIG brush.”  Finally there he was attacking the painting, making even the smallest detail come alive, dabbing and painting with a 3 inch house painters brush.  It was magic.

Q:        That approach is not something Pop Day would have allowed I’m guessing.

A: I think Pop Day would have appreciated that approach though.  The few times I saw him paint he would dab and blend and create his own type of magic.

Disney's matte room during the post production on THE BLACK HOLE (1979).  Artist David Mattingly is shown at work on a shot and a number of other paintings are visible in various stages of progress.


Q:        So, run me through the Harrison Ellenshaw process for making a typical matte.

A:  Line it up by moving the plate around and then block in the missing bits and do an early test to see if the whole concept is going to work. Each individual shot has to move the story forward and keep to the rhythm of the film.  If the audience is distracted by a bad shot; whether it is a poor blend, an awkward composition or whatever... you lose them... they will no longer be “willing to suspend their disbelief”.  Audiences want to believe what they see on a movie screen is the truth. If it is a bad shot, then it becomes a lie.

HE, matte artist Paul Lasaine & cameraman Eric Petersen: BEETHOVEN'S 2ND
Q:        I’ve written often in my blogs about the art-form of blending – the join between fact and fiction I call it.  The Golden Era of movie magic had specialists in this area who were masters at meticulous blends – guys like Paul Detlefsen and Albert Maxwell Simpson really knew their stuff.  Describe the methods you employed to tie together the plates and painting.

A: I look back at some of my work, I see the blends and a lot of them are not very good. They looked OK at the time, because the theatrical prints were softer overall having gone through at least three generations with film stock that was pretty grainy.  Now with high resolution Blu-ray you can see all the flaws... painful.

Harrison's effective set extension: NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN
Q:        Did you use the razor blade method to scrape and softly feather away areas of paint?

A: We had the philosophy of trying to hide the join with a fence post or a rock or something with a hard line. Never join through the same texture, for example green grass or, worst of all, a sky.  Soft blends were avoided at all costs. There was also another downside to soft blends and that is it is very difficult to control the exposure on the soft blend, it could change from take to take... very unpredictable.

Harrison operating VistaVision on SUPERMAN IV
Q:        I’m very surprised that you avoided soft blends.  They seem to work best from my observations. I’m always in awe of the ‘ballsy’ blends – you know the sort where a bloody great soft split would run right across the screen, not following obvious lines of demarcation such as walls or rooftops - straight through trees and posts, yet the matte artist could still tie it all together, somehow into a seamless final shot.  Your father did that often and so did Jack Cosgrove on all those Selznick classics and Whitlock as well on many of his shows.  Shows an incredible skill to me, and an almost “Not a problem, I can work it” attitude that not all matte artists would, or could pull off.   Blows me away every time I discover one of these shots.

A: I still discover shots that I never knew were matte paintings. Your latest two blogs have revealed to me even more treasures.

Q:        Did you find yourself ‘hamstrung’ by the official Disney company doctrine?

A:  No, not really.  For THE BLACK HOLE, the studio made a huge investment in a motion control rig for shooting miniatures.  It was called ACES and at the time it was state of the art. I left after THE BLACK HOLE and then when I came back for TRON, Disney again took a huge leap of faith and invested a lot of money in an another untried technology: computer graphics. No other studio in Hollywood would have done the same. Only Lucasfilm did. George Lucas, at some significant expense, pursued digital technology and kept the flame alive during the 80s. I encouraged Disney to team up with Lucasfilm to take advantage of their R&D work with digital.  The Disney execs would have none of it.  That was very frustrating. George probably would have sold Pixar to Disney for $10 million, instead he sold it to Steve Jobs. Then many years later Disney bought it from Mr. Jobs for $4.7 BILLION!!!!!  Still, finally George got his revenge and sold the rights to all the Star Wars characters to Disney for $4 billion. 
A Harrison Ellenshaw glass painting for WILDER NAPALM (1993)

Q:        Disney put out a lot of shows during your tenure, with probably most of them requiring matte and other FX work.  We’ve already discussed the mammoth ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD (1974) project in detail.  Give us a rundown, if you can, of some of the other titles you worked on.

Disney's summer movie of 1976, GUS.
A: From the time I took over the matte department at Disney in 1974 until THE BLACK HOLE (1979), I worked on dozens of films and television.  Sometimes just one or two matte shots for a show usually without credit. Some of the shows I did get credit on were NO DEPOSIT NO RETURN (1976), GUS (1976), THE SHAGGY D.A. (1976) and HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO (1977), mostly establishing shots in typical Disney fare. I also worked on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1975), a non-Disney film that starred David Bowie.

Q:        You work on FREAKY FRIDAY (1976).  There you met director Gary Nelson, who would two years later direct THE BLACK HOLE.  Tell us about FREAKY FRIDAY.

A:  I didn’t have many shots on that show. But since we were using VistaVision rear projection it gave us the advantage of being able to combine two plates shot in different places. But I have to say, these were tougher to do than they look.  Matching horizons, color balance, time of day, lens choice...etc. etc.  Sometime I wonder if any of the effects people today would know the hell what I'm talking about.  I must be getting old!  But I was supremely fortunate to have a great mentor in Alan Maley who taught me how to pull off this kind of thing.

Q:        Who were some of the people who first helped you when you started learning about film?

A: When I first started as a brat apprentice matte artist.  One of the most helpful people were the projectionists. There were about half dozen Disney studio projectionists who also would work at the Beverly Hill's mogul's screening room circuit.  I immediately took to these guys as they would try to help me to understand the confusing world of Goldberg reels, split reels, "flat or 'scope?", hard mattes, full-ap, changeovers, etc., etc.  Not to mention the stories of projecting for the Hollywood elite in their studio-paid-for screening rooms at their mansions.

Two mattes from the unmemorable CAT FROM OUTER SPACE (1978).  Very nice hangars and base all painted!
Even when I became a sort of big shot exec, I would sometimes take the dailies or work print into the booth myself, just to say hello.  At Disney when you'd open the door to the booth, more times than not, the projectionist would be reading the paper in a Kem Webber chair and greet me with a smile, because they knew that I was never the type to yell at them if they missed a changeover or took more than half a second to get it in focus.  I heard way too many studio execs yell, "What the fuck am I looking at? Does that asshole up there know what the hell he's doing?" I can imagine being a projectionist, is a pretty thankless job.

Harrison painting a key matte on NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN (1975)


Q:        A very, very non-Disney film,  THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is one of my favourite films;  a one of a kind film directed by Nicholas Roeg  – a superbly photographed piece with perfectly cast David Bowie and Rip Torn, and an amazing score by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashita.  Not a family film, but you managed to get the gig, which was unusual for The Mouse Factory, I guess.  I’m most interested in how this came about and what your thoughts are on the film.

A: I had only been at Disney for a few years working on things like LOVE BUG sequels, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG... safe family comedies -- pretty boring stuff. I got a call one day from an independent film company to see if they could use the Disney matte department to do some shots for a sci-fi film set to star David Bowie. So, with the studio’s permission, I went to a meeting with the producers in Beverly Hills.  They had rented a big mansion with a huge pool; this was the production office!  I met Nicholas Roeg and we talked for about an hour, with a few interruptions by the costume designer and Candy Clark (Oscar nominated actress from AMERICAN GRAFFITI) having a costume fitting, rather sexy, I might add. It all seemed very Hollywood and very un-Disney. I was given a script, I left saying I would report back in a few days.

Q: Candy was sexy, in that film.  Did you like the script?

A:  Not really. It made no sense. I had no clue as what shots would be effects shots or not. So I re-read thinking I’d missed something. It was more confusing the second time. But I still wanted to work on the film, I knew it would be an adventure….which it certainly was. 

Q.   Was the film shot in England or the U.S.?

The launchpad matte, with backlit 'people' slot gags as per Peter's QUO VADIS
A:    The film was shot in New Mexico and I would fly out to the location on an “as needed” basis.  I was appalled at the waste of money on the show. The crew was mostly British, each of them had a rental car, even though there was a requirement to hire American union Teamster drivers, most of whom then had nothing to do. One day we all gathered early in the morning at the location at the White Sands of Alamogordo, breakfast was served for the crew and the call time for the director and the stars came and went. Lunch was served, and still no director or stars. One of the producers was at the location and I was surprised when he didn’t seem too concerned.  Eventually late in the day the word came that David, Candy and Nick were still recovering from hangovers, they wouldn’t be showing up at all and it was a wrap for the day. As shocking as that seemed, I was to learn that in the movie business, a lot of people feel it is their right to get paid a lot of money and still be hugely irresponsible.

David Bowie as you've never seen him before.  Perfect casting!
Q:        I’m sure that’s par for the course in the business.  Remember the debacle that was HEAVEN’S GATE?  I loved the design of that central Bowie flashback matte shot with that beautiful impasto impressionistic texture which dissolves into the eventual matte.  How was this achieved?

A: I did a series of about five or six paintings and each one was a slight transition to go from the green meadow to the desert. There were two live action plates: one with the actors in the meadow and the other with them on the sand. I loved working on that shot, though I think it could have been a lot better.
Matte sequence from MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

Q:        Now I hate to nitpick, but why did you use a hard edged matte there whereas a soft, irregular blend may well have been less visible?

A:  Yes, I have no idea why I didn’t use soft edges for the blend at the beginning of the shot. Seems like a no-brainer now.

Q:        I’ve often written  “music maketh the matte” and this sequence is an excellent example.  ‘Time to Remember’ sung by The Kingston Trio lends a haunting almost ethereal quality to the scene and lingers long after viewing.  Sometimes we underrate the importance of music in film.

A:  I also liked the use of Artie Shaw’s ‘Stardust’ over the end credits.  I agree, sometimes we underrate the importance of music in film. There are tunes, which when we hear them we immediately think of the associated film. Great example is Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Taking’ for MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969).

Q:        You painted those spacecraft on launchpad shots too.  Did you do any other work on the film?  Several of the skies are very dramatic, I think in New Mexico – were they real or painted?

A: The locations in New Mexico were beautiful.  All the skies in the film were real. It was summer and everyday in the afternoon there would be thunderstorms coming up; the clouds were spectacular. I didn’t do many shots on the film, probably no more than ten.
Q:        When I asked you recently about Nick Roeg,  whose films I really like, I was quite surprised at your less than glowing  response.  Would you care to elaborate on that? 
A:  Let me sum it up this way. About ten years after THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH was released, I was having lunch at Pinewood Studios with the director of SUPERMAN IV (1987), Sidney Furie, and Nick comes over to our table, looks at Sidney and says, “We’re still fooling them, eh Sidney?”  Nick was certainly all about style and not much about substance. I was never all that impressed by WALKABOUT (1971), which was a darling of the critics. Sorry Nick.

Q:        After all it was the 70s, a rather self centered decade.  But hey, Jenny Agutter was a significant crush for NZPete in the 70’s with LOGAN’S RUN, WALKABOUT, AMERICAN WEREWOLF and EQUUS…though as usual, I digress.
A: Yep, it was definitely sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. David Bowie has related since that time he doesn’t even remember working on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, and what galls me a bit is that he’s not even embarrassed about it.
The matte department at Disney as seen around 1990 when it was rebranded as Buena Vista Visual Effects Group. Note the various old Disney matte paintings lining the walls including what looks like an original DARBY O'GILL matte in upper right corner.  For more revealing insight into this illustrious trick shot department look no further than this very article as I'll reveal all....


Opening matte painted town and scenery from Disney's THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG (1975).  I like Harrison's foreground trees.  It's worth noting that Disney did, in general, an abysmal job in mastering their films for home video, with many good matte shots often taking on peculiar lavender hues and bizarre mismatched colours - flaws which were not normally visible in the original theatrical prints.  It's a constant headache for guys like Harrison to see their work look less than pristine due to sloppy grading and timing. 

Q:        Back to the Disney films, I liked the long shot of the town and countryside from THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG (above). 

A: I went to the location in Bend, Oregon to shoot the plate for that shot. Since we used a VistaVision camera (to shoot plates) which could easily be loaded incorrectly, I sought out the camera assistant and, as diplomatically as possible, reminded him to be careful loading this tricky camera.  I could have easily done it myself but that would be crossing union lines.  A few hours later we shot the plate and I went back to the hotel. My flight left the next day and when I got back to the studio, they told me Technicolor had called and said the print was all RED!!!  “Damn,” I thought. The camera assistant HAD loaded it incorrectly after all; he had twisted the film the wrong way so the cell side was toward the lens, NOT the emulsion side. Of course I got the blame. He was still in Oregon, somewhat oblivious. I started to make arrangements to get back on a plane when the location called and said it’s OK we just reshot the same shot from the same camera position. If it had been up to me I would have fired the assistant, but he was the son of the DP. Ah, nepotism, ya gotta love it!

Q:        How about PETE’S DRAGON?

A: PETE’S DRAGON (1977) was an attempt to make an old fashioned musical with the main character, an orphan who has an imaginary flying green dragon. Kind of a OLIVER WITH HIS CARTOON DRAGON GOES TO A LITTLE TOWN IN NEW ENGLAND AND SINGS AND DANCES WITH HELEN REDDY vibe.  I think I was the youngest person on the crew. It was certainly old time movie making, but that didn’t necessarily make it good.  I did a lot of matte shots for the show and I thought it might even get some Academy visual effects love... it did not.  

Q:        With Disney being somewhat conservative in all aspects of it’s existence, I’m guessing that you may have felt a little hemmed in by pedestrian films and lightweight expectations.  Did you have a desire to break out and make mattes on ‘real films’ with a bit more bite, so to speak?

One of the many mattes Harrison painted for PETE'S DRAGON (1978).  Foreground houses, roof, tree and mid shot row of trees all painted.

Detail from Harrison's matte art.

One of the few PETE'S DRAGON mattes that are graded well for DVD!
A: Don’t forget that up until the 80s Disney was very protective of it’s ‘family films’ reputation, and it was not known as a major Hollywood studio. So I was pretty pleased when I worked on a film for Twentieth Century Fox -- STAR WARS.

Q:        Oh…I think I’ve heard of that one.  You mean that film by that fellow George Lucas? Didn’t he come pay you a visit?

A:  It wasn’t George himself but I did get a call from the associate producer, Jim Nelson working on a film called THE STAR WARS (the name would later be changed to just STAR WARS). He heard that I had worked outside the Disney studios on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and wanted to see if I would be interested in doing some matte shots for a sci-fi film being shot by the guy who directed AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973). I wasn’t crazy about science fiction, but I loved AMERICAN GRAFFITI and I was intrigued.

Q:        I read somewhere that your first impressions of what would become the phenomenon known as STAR WARS were “Well, it’ll make a nice little B movie for the sci-fi crowd I guess”.  Is that about right?

A:        Yes, but I never imagined what would happen when the film was released in theaters... no one did.

Q:        No idea just what a landmark picture you were getting involved with, huh?

A: Well, I don’t even think George Lucas or the producer Gary Kurtz, much less Fox, had any idea what a phenomena STAR WARS would be. George’s biggest hope was that the movie would do James Bond film like business.

Q:        I remember seeing Ralph McQuarrie’s exquisite concept art way back in the day and being blown away by it at the time when space pictures were as rare as hens teeth.  You felt the same way?

Dennis Muren takes a reading from painted Death Star.
A: Ralph McQuarrie was a genius, a great artist, a kind man and he became a good friend. There would be no multi-billion dollar STAR WARS franchise without Ralph.

Q:        The impression I get on STAR WARS is that really only Lucas had any inkling as to what the final product would amount to, with all others just doing their part as best they can, not really comprehending what it would all amount to.

A: I don’t think anyone while working on a film ever knows if the film will succeed or fail.  You just do the best you can do and hope for the best. Certainly George had a wonderful vision and was fortunate enough to hire the right people to get that vision to the screen.
Looks pretty simple, huh?  That's a young H.E at left.  The shot was originally composited at Disney with two live action elements.  Eventually Joe Johnston painted in the entire Millenium Falcon and it was comp'd at ILM.

Q:        Now, were some of the paintings you made done at Disney and some at ILM?

Initial block in, final matte art and comp: STAR WARS
A: It was about half and half.  We only had a bi-pack camera at ILM which though it produces very high quality composites has severe limitations for resizing and repositioning the live action plate.  At Disney we were using RP (rear projection) which allowed a great deal more flexibility especially in terms of composition.

Q:        Of course the ILM of the day was a far cry from the vast corporation of more recent times – pretty much a tin warehouse wasn’t it in a regular neighbourhood?  A bit of a hippie hangout where many of the bearded staffers looked not unlike Charles Manson – a look that didn’t endear them to ‘The Suits’ from 20th Century Fox.

A: Yes, times have changed. The craft has changed. The original ILM was put together in an empty warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, there was no other real option to put together so many effects shots.

Q:        Lucas was pretty unhappy with ILM I’m told, at least for the first 10 months or so, where very little was coming forth and even that was rejected.  Didn’t George want to fire Dykstra and close up the whole shop at one point?

A: George was extremely frustrated. He felt the decision to create his own effects facility had been a mistake.  But he had no other choice, all the major studios had shut down their in-house effects departments and the only people doing effects were small houses working on commercials, fades/dissolves and title work.  I think he and Gary Kurtz had basically sold the studio on the idea that they could do this little science fiction film on the cheap and part of that was doing the effects on their own.  But nobody really had any clue how difficult it would be to build optical printers from scratch, to invent computer driven motion control and hire a relatively  inexperienced crew to do the most ambitious effects shots ever conceived.  It was nuts.

Q:        Jim Danforth was approached on the sly to see if he’d take over, and maybe Bill Taylor as well, though I’m not sure.  Jim declined to be involved in someone else’s effects.

A:  Interesting, since it’s always “someone else’s effects”.  I don’t know of a director or producer who actually ever did their own effects. But Jim is a fiercely independent person, to his great credit.
This photo was taken at the LucasFilm archives around a year ago.  The cabinets behind Harrison hold many matte paintings done over the years for LucasFilm productions.

Q:        Did you use your own Disney camera guys on the mattes or ILM’s people?

A: I had a cameraman who came over each night from Disney: Bill Kilduff. Great guy, I think I paid him about $100 for each shot he worked on. I still owe him a lot more, that’s for sure, but then I got paid about the same back then.
A frightfully pained looking publicity pose seen everywhere!

Q:        Tell us about the problems of shooting the mattes upstairs at ILM. 
A: The second floor was not the ideal place to have a compositing camera. The camera would vibrate whenever somebody walked up the stairs. Not a good thing. We had signs all over about how to walk softly, but like any sign after a few days nobody reads them.

Q:        You had, what was it, 17 shots I think on STAR WARS.  

A: Yes, 13 paintings used for 17 cuts.

Q:        Ralph came on board to handle planets and things like that while you did the serious mattes.

A: Since Ralph had been there from the very start, George and Gary Kurtz were happy to continue to keep him on the production.  Ralph started a number of matte paintings before I came on board and did all the planet surfaces.
Harrison's glass painting for one of (if not THE) most iconic effects shots of the seventies - the Tractor Beam shaft from STAR WARS.  I've always been perplexed by the various inscriptions found on the outer edge and wooden frames of matte paintings.  When I asked Harrison to clarify, he told me it's more often than not a reminder to buy milk or pick up the dry cleaning on the way home.  Hey, who am I to argue?

Q:        The fantastic closing shot of The Grand Hall I believe was initially attempted without mattes.  The ILM boys were reportedly blown away by your painting and how well it tied together.

A: That was one of the first shots I showed to George and Gary Kurtz at ILM. It’s a pretty dramatic shot and that helped make it impressive. When we first ran the shot it was still early in postproduction and ILM was having a very hard time getting any finished shots in the can.  So for the moment you could feel the relief that George and the others had that maybe the film would get finished on time after all.
That grand final scene that all of us remember.  I saw it in 70mm 6 track stereo at our now deceased Cinerama theatre here in Auckland, New Zealand on opening day, Christmas 1977.... and saw it another 6 times.  How about you??

Q:        Did trainee Disney matte artist J.P. Trevor work with you on some of the STAR WARS shots?

A: He might have worked on a few of the shots at Disney, but honestly I can’t remember. Star Wars only took up a small portion of the Disney matte department’s time.  We had PETE’S DRAGON to worry about, a real movie. (laughs)

Q:        At what point did you and the other technicians realise just what impact your collective work would have on audiences and box office takings?

Harrison's recent interpretive art based upon SW's Sandcrawler.
A: I never looked at it that way. The success of STAR WARS especially at the start often gave too much credit to the visual effects. But we now know that was not really the case, rather, every part of the film worked well. The score by John Williams was genius, the characters fascinating, the performances compelling and of course, the story. But it was much more than just the sum of the parts. I have never felt that effects make or break a movie.  That would be naive.

Q:      But still, the jump into hyper space by the Millenium Falcon always elicits a cheer from the audience.

A: One of the simplest visual effects in the movie.  I once asked George why he thought it worked so well. He said it wasn’t the effect but it was the emotion of the shot that worked.  He illustrated it with a story -- imagine the hero and his cute blonde girlfriend are cruising along the highway in a beat-up Volkswagen, but though you’d never know it, it has a Porsche engine it. Then suddenly rushing up from behind is a black customized truck driven by the villian.  The truck gets right on the tail of the VW, about to ram it and push it off the road, when suddenly the good guy down shifts and floors the accelerator and leaves two long strips of smoking rubber and disappears into the distance.  Everyone cheers.
At work on the SW Rebel base exterior painting at Disney.

Q:        The inevitable Oscar win reinforced box office revenue, and if I’m correct a few egos.  Someone in the FX biz told me that VFX supervisor John Dykstra felt somewhat self elevated after the fact whereby he upped his fee to around a million dollars a show.  A bit grandiose perhaps for someone who’d only been on 1 or 2 shows before the Lucas epic don’t you think?

A: After STAR WARS, George Lucas couldn’t wait to leave LA and move back up to Northern California. With the success of SW it was only logical to immediately start on the sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. George was determined to do this next one on his own terms with his own money. He would establish the next ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) in San Rafael and hire employees as needed from the first film. The original ILM in Southern California became Apogee and they began working on a television show called GALACTICA. John Dykstra was the visual effects supervisor and I have no idea if he got a million dollar fee then, but he had a lot of added credibility, lots of publicity and an Oscar.  

Q:        But I think John may have priced himself right out of the market for a while as he pretty much disappeared after GALACTICA and STAR TREK only to re-emerge in the digital era.  His Apogee FX house was one of the first to sink.

A: As they say, “You have to make hay while the sun shines”. As for me, right after STAR WARS, I went back to Disney and worked on CAT FROM OUTER SPACE at my same old rate.  Oh dear.  But then came THE BLACK HOLE and then THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I’m not complaining.
Harrison's matte comp for the STAR WARS Sandcrawler shot

Q:        What are your thoughts Harrison on the post-release digital tinkering with the special effects shots on STAR WARS and other films?  Call me a VFX purist but to my mind George should be burned at the stake for such heresy.

A: I’m not as upset by George’s ‘Special Editions’ as they are called, as many fans are.  It’s his money and he can do whatever he likes.  We can always drag out the laser disc player and look at the original shows with the dreadful color timing and without the digital enhancements.

Q:        Didn’t some of your own painted shots suffer from some form of digital re-imagining some 20 years after the fact?  

A: Actually a lot of my shots benefited from the digital re-imagining, better joins mainly.  Where I have a problem is that George got “CGI-happy”, if two buildings were good enough for the original, then let’s add twenty buildings and a bunch of creatures and CG flying buzzing bugs. The ‘more is better’ philosophy tends to take the audience out of the picture, because there is so much going on in every shot, you don’t know where to look.

Q: Can you give us an example?
Top frame is from the original theatrical and home video releases of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).  The bottom frame shows what was done for the 'special edition' of ESB.  It really doesn't work as well as the original for a number of reasons - namely there's too much going on for the brain to process all that is happening... a recurring problem with today's headache inducing CG 'barrages'.

Q:   Let’s go back a bit, after STAR WARS you were starting to receive a few inquiries from other film makers as well, such as John Milius.  Talk us through the surfer dude movie BIG WEDNESDAY (1978).
Ellenshaw in plywood wind shelter with VistaVision matte camera.

A: BIG WEDNESDAY was a film that had a lot of potential. Unfortunately when it was released it was a flop. Probably because it tried to be too many things to too many people -- surf film, anti-Vietnam war film, buddy picture -- it just didn’t have a distinct narrative.  Marketing the film as a surfing film didn’t help either.  But nonetheless I had a blast working on it.  There was about month on location at Sunset Beach in Hawaii while we waited for big waves.  The production had provided me with a 3 bedroom condo on a golf course at a resort.  All I had to do each day was call the production office and see if there was going to be enough surf to shoot that day. Literally weeks passed with no big surf. The studio wasn’t too happy, but I was thrilled.  My wife stayed with me and we even had friends from California visit. I was getting paid to sit on the beach doing nothing but drink Mai Tais. The difficult world of visual effects, eh?

BIG WEDNESDAY final comp with foreground action with Jan Michael Vincent, VistaVision plate of big surf shot in Hawaii and some connecting matte art to tie the elements together.
Q: My heart bleeds for you and how you suffered for your art!!! What were the matte shots in that film?

A: I had to add the big waves, shot in Hawaii to live action shots in Malibu joined together with matte paintings. There were only a few of those shots. The art director on the show was Dean Mitzner, who would work later on TRON... small world.

Oscar winning VFX cinematographer Art Cruickshank with Disney's ACES camera system and the large miniature designed by Peter Ellenshaw of the Cygnus spaceship for the  big budget THE BLACK HOLE (1979)


Q:        Given the success of STAR WARS, which no studio really wanted to make – now every studio wanted their very own space opera and several were rushed into production, with your old ‘neighbourhood’ Disney prepping one of their biggest effects shows, THE BLACK HOLE.

Harrison tinkers with the large Cygnus miniature for publicity.
A: THE BLACK HOLE had been in preproduction for many years before STAR WARS was released.  It was originally called SPACE PROBE ONE. The success of STAR WARS motivated the studio to finally go ahead with the project even though the script still had massive problems.

Q:        It seems as though Disney got everybody available to work on this show, with Peter handling production design and oddly, miniatures.  How did he end up with the miniatures side of things?

A: The head of the studio at the time, Ron Miller, still considered Peter the “go-to” guy who could be the important creative force behind the film. He brought Peter in to be both the production designer and the visual effects supervisor. Shooting miniatures is not unlike doing matte shots, the same basics apply.

Miniature Effects Supervisor Peter Ellenshaw and Supervising Matte Artist Harrison Ellenshaw pose in front of Harrison's magnificent Observatory matte painting - probably the best in the entire show.
Technirama matte shot camera
Q:        You headed up the matte department there, with Deno Ganakes assisting as usual, and noted science fiction cover artist David Mattingly coming on board to tackle many of the shots.  How did you come by David, who had no matte or film background?

A: David called Disney one day, out of the blue and asked the operator if he could speak to someone about getting a job in the matte department.  The operator put his call through to me.  I answered the phone and there was silence on the other end.  David later told me he was speechless because it was so easy to be put through. I told him to come in for an interview. He did and brought a about 30 production illustrations from FLESH GORDON.


A: No, I mean FLESH GORDON, the X-rated take off on FLASH GORDON. pretty funny  to see paintings of penis shaped spaceships and such. I really liked David; he was (and still is) very enthusiastic... a special artist. 
David Mattingly at work. Note rack of matte paintings at rear.

Q:        David seemed a natural and from what I’ve seen, picked up the fundamentals quickly, and with stunning results.

A:  David trained as an illustrator, he was doing album covers for a while. He would work on a matte shot in a much different way than how I was taught, but by the time it was finished it was stunning.

Q:        Given the scope of the show, what sort of timeframe was involved in making all those mattes for THE BLACK HOLE?

A: The film went into production in fall of 1978 and we started working on the matte shots then for about a year before its release in late 1979.

Q:        THE BLACK HOLE was a CinemaScope (or Panavision) show, with Disney generally staying with ‘flat’ non-anamorphic films – I think the last was THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE way back in the 50’s – was this wide screen format a problem for making mattes?

Matte art for observatory shot.  Black areas reserved for live action plates.
A: Technically TBH was neither CinemaScope nor Panavision, it was shot using Technovision cameras and lenses.  All three are the same format, that being 35mm with a two times anamorphic squeeze (aspect ratio 2.40 to 1).  It was not a problem for us in the matte department since we shot the plates in the flat VistaVision (unsqueezed) format which uses a large negative. We then used a print of the live action rear projected onto a matte painting, with the taking composite camera using a Bausch and Lomb Cinemascope anamorphic lens.  All that means is that we could paint flat (without the 2 to 1 squeeze) and know that the final shot/composite had the squeeze incorporated into it.

Q:        Optical cameraman Bob Broughton said in an interview that the scope process was a nightmare for optical, as it was like trying to squeeze an image through a soda bottle and out the other side.
Close view of Harrison's giant observatory matte with 4 live action plates rear projected in to add the characters atop the platforms.  Separate passes for light flares.  Matte cameraman was longtime Disney veteran Ed Sekac.

A: True. It is what I call ‘the chain of resolution’ - the end result is only as good as the weakest link in the chain. There may be only one weak link but then your end resolution is only as good as that one weak link.  It can be a soft optical lens, diffusion on the camera, grainy film stock, underexposure, lousy depth of field, unsteady camera movement; literally dozens of things -- and I think I’ve experienced each of them at one time or another.

Q:        Of course your own shots you made for Lucas, Roeg and Milius the year or so before were all anamorphic.

A: Seems like ages ago.  Oh, now that I think about it... it was ages ago!

Q:        The paintings on THE BLACK HOLE were mostly sensational, though I had problems with a number of the composites, especially those where dark plates were matched up with dark hued paintings, with the result being a murky washed out RP plate with ‘blacks’ that didn’t hold up.

Final comp with tilt down & push in.
A: Very true. It was a downside to RP, making the blacks black enough. Interesting though that ten years later we used RP for DICK TRACY and by then, thanks mainly to many very talented and dedicated people including Peter Montgomery and his compatriots, things had improved considerably.

Q:        The comps of DICK TRACY were flawless.  I take it that original negative matte shots were not considered for BLACK HOLE?

A: No. Since many of the matte shots utilized more than one live action plate and a number of shots had moves incorporated into them, original negative would not have worked.

Q:        Did the washed out looking ‘blacks’ come as a result of Technicolor labs chemistry?  Having worked in film distribution I’m aware of the huge variations that can come about when prints are struck.  You once told me to ask you about dealing with that ‘one stop shop’.

A: I can blame Technicolor for lots of things, but not really that.  I should have been smart enough to print matte shots at different lights to check for consistency. But it would have been impractical. Technicolor was always trying to cut corners and save money, you really had to stay on their ass to keep them somewhat honest. They really didn’t like me and after a few years stopped sending me Christmas gift baskets. Darn.

Matte painting by Deno Ganakes not used in final cut.

Q:        Harrison, I’ve noticed a difference in quality in some of the images of painting set-ups you have kindly supplied.  Why is this?

Projectionist Don Henry with VistaVision matte process projector.
A: I always loved to take photos and I tried to use Kodachrome whenever possible - those are the ones that look good.  Sadly I used to scrimp sometimes by using short ends of motion picture film and then making 35mm slides.  Today those slides are so dreadful I can barely stand it.

Q:        Why was Kodachrome so good?

A:  Kodachrome was probably one of the best inventions of the last century.  Great color rendition and never fades.  Tough to scratch too, which is what made it so good for home movies. As a color reversal film, Kodak had to make it physically durable for home movie 8mm and 16mm projectors with tons of mishandling.  The other clever thing was that Kodak was the only place that could develop Kodachrome.  Movies, as you know, have to have a negative and that's it's own set of issues with generational loss, and even with prints made directly off of motion picture film negative they never even come close to Kodachrome.  

Q:        There are some phenomenal camera moves with a couple of BLACK HOLE mattes, with that beautiful observatory shot being the best shot in the whole show.

A:        Thank you. I am especially proud of that shot. Pretty tricky.  
Q:        How many shots did you finally tally up from the matte department?

A: About 150.
Two Ellenshaws in one publicity photo.
Before and after on the Greenhouse shot.
Q:        How many did you tackle?

A:  David did about 60% of the shots. Excellent artist, that David. I did the rest.

Q:        Do many of those mattes still survive?  
A: A good number should still be in the Disney archives, unless someone has raided the place. One day I hope they will end up at the Academy Museum that will open in two years in Los Angeles. We’ll see.

Q:        One area that was truly disappointing in BLACK HOLE was the surprisingly poor effects animation overseen by Joe Hale.  I couldn’t believe that a studio which had given us equal part dazzling and subtle effects animation in the past on such shows as 20’000 LEAGUES, MARY POPPINS and THE GNOME MOBILE could be responsible for the feeble cel animation here.

I do like this matte shot...mostly paint in fact.
A: Perhaps, though the start-up of the Cygnus engines as well as the Palomino’s thrust animation is excellent.

Q:        The laser beams were just plain awful!

A: We were trying not to copy too closely the laser beams in STAR WARS. So for THE BLACK HOLE they were a continuous beam out of a two barreled laser gun, yes they looked lousy.  It was the concept that didn’t work, not the animation.

Q:        THE BLACK HOLE was one of 5 nominees for best visual effects for 1979, with the others being MOONRAKER, STAR TREK, 1941 and the winning film ALIEN.  Do you think your show should have taken home the award?

Early block in by David Mattingly of elevator matte.
A: No, I always thought we were a long shot. At the Oscar ceremony we sat behind the STAR TREK nominees and in front of the ALIEN nominees.  The STAR TREK guys thought they were a lock, so when the winner was announced, they just sat there stunned. I don’t even think they applauded while the ALIEN folks went crazy; they hadn’t expected to win. It was great fun. That’s the Oscars, when you think you know, you don’t know.

Q:        It was a pretty serious competition going on that year.  I absolutely loved ALIEN in every respect – perfect film making, though I was kind of hoping Spielberg’s 1941 might have picked up that Oscar for the dazzling, Lydecker inspired miniature battles and dogfights.

David's finished elevator painting prior to RP plates.
A: I must admit I did like 1941, especially the effects. But unfortunately filmgoers just didn’t take to it.

Q:        Personally I found BLACK HOLE to be a major let down – entertainment wise.  The trailer had me expecting something quite special, but it was pure, juvenile Disney with nothing to recommend it aside from the visuals.  Those bloody robots made me want to slit my wrists!

A: You mean Old Bob and V.I.N.C.E.N.T?  How can you say that? (laughs)   But I agree, not very good; too big and the wires were visible much too often.  I also thought the soldier robots were awful.  My father designed those... sorry dad.  In addition Peter had a hell of a time trying to design Old Bob and V.I.N.C.E.N.T.  He finally ran out of patience when he did a design and asked me what I thought, I said it looked like the Michelin man. He threw up his hands in disgust and said, “You’re right, let’s get someone else to do it, I don’t have time for this”.  Someone at WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering) ended up designing them. I think the design was okay, but the scale was off - they should have been half the size. They also didn’t look like they were made out of futuristic material - they looked painted, which they were.  Finally, the thing that really killed them were the eyes, they were supposed to be electronic CRTs, but the production ran out of time and money. No excuses though. 
MatteSCAN in action on THE BLACK HOLE.  This is a pretty clever and complicated shot (which was ultimately dropped from the film).  The background starfield had to stay at infinity to look right, so we rigged it to the MatteSCAN rails and as the camera would move in to the glass painted tower of the Cygnus, the rig would push the starfield and keep it at the same distance, maintaining a truer perspective.
One of Harrison's paintings with the MatteSCAN camera system in foreground.  Say's Ellenshaw "I loved that rig!"

Disney's MatteSCAN and operator, cameraman Ed Sekac at control panel.
The star field here is both front and backlit.  The ACES camera is on the track at left, built into the stage floor.  The track in the centre has the motion model mover.  Stephen McEveety (plaid shirt) a then, very young model unit manager who went onto the big time as producer for Mel Gibson's company as executive producer on BRAVEHEART.

Another view of the MatteSCAN and the Cygnus tower painting and second starfield background painting for a matte shot which would ultimately wind up on the cutting room floor.
A close up of part of the Cygnus miniature against a star backing.  The star backing has holes in it that allow for very bright stars.  The black area in the backing is where the black hole would be added later as a burn in.  The final black hole element was made by the matte department.  The model was never shot against a blue screen because the fine filigree cross bars would be too difficult to matte.  Note that the observation tower is missing from the model as it was a very delicate piece and would be taken off the miniature when not seen in the shot.
Two of the five BLACK HOLE Oscar nominees in parking garage at the Dorothy Chandler Centre for the 1980 Academy Awards.  No valet parking for VFX guys apparently. Looking at Harrison here I'd say he knew it to be a tough call.


Q:        ILM would come calling again about now with a sizable assignment, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  Tell us about the project and how much persuasion was needed to steal you away from Disney.

A:  I was on the set of THE BLACK HOLE and I got a call from Gary Kurtz, the producer who was in England working on the set of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. He asked if I would be interested in returning to do the mattes again after I finished with TBH.  Naturally I said yes.
The ILM matte department as established in 1979 for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  From left to right:  Assistant Matte Artist Michael Pangrazio, Matte Camera Assistant Craig Barron, Head of Department Harrison Ellenshaw, Matte and Conceptual Artist Ralph McQuarrie and Matte Cameraman Neil Krepela.  Harrison commented to me: "This is one of my favourite photos of all time.  I'm so proud of these guys.  A huge amount of talent there, I'd say".

Hoth battle matte - painted for background of AT-AT cockpit
Q:        Of course this was quite a different ILM than the somewhat experimental operation (in Los Angeles) that Lucas had established for the first STAR WARS film.

A:  In many ways the new ILM in the San Francisco area was similar to the first ILM in Los Angeles. It too was created almost from scratch in an empty warehouse.

Q:        So, in as much as matte composites go, would you use the same methodology on EMPIRE as you had on SW, or had there been significant innovations or improvements to things such as film stock, RP processes, plate photography or even painting size etc.?
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK matte painting.

Studio partial set and Ellenshaw's matte painting.
A: I had a meeting with Richard Edlund (co-visual effects supervisor on ESB) before I went to work at ILM in their new location and he said he thought that front projection was the new way to go. I couldn’t really disagree, but I was more worried about the large number of matte paintings we would have to do.

Q:        Whereas SW had a small quota of painted mattes, EMPIRE required 3 or 4 times the number, over 80, I believe.  Was the prospect daunting?

A:  The scary part was that when I showed up at ILM in November of 1979, they were still installing equipment in the matte department.

Q:        You managed to secure Ralph McQuarrie once again as matte painter, which must have been a godsend given his thorough ‘feeling’ for the George Lucas universe. 

A: Ralph definitely was a godsend.  I could concentrate on helping get tests done and organizing and leave Ralph to do most of the important painting.

Q:        I heard that Ralph preferred to paint at home and bring the glasses into ILM for photography.  Is that true?

A:  Ralph did that on STAR WARS, but for ESB he would come in every day. We worked in the same room for about six months and he was such a pleasure to be around. I will always treasure those times with Ralph.
A wonderful matte painting by Ralph McQuarrie of the Hoth hangar, to be used as a bluescreen background (below).

Director Irving Kershner confers with producers George Lucas and Gary Kurtz over calibre of acting talent available for bluescreen shoot. Talk about 'method acting'!

As with tried and true tradition amongst the very finest theatrical companies around the world - when all else fails throw costumes on matte painters and have them act out in front of the camera for once!

Ellenshaw, McQuarrie and Pangrazio...thespians all!
Q:        You were extremely fortunate in obtaining the assistance of an up and coming matte painter who would become one of the industry’s finest matte men in a few short years, Michael Pangrazio.

A: Michael’s first job in the film business was working on ESB and he had been hired before I got to ILM, which really didn’t please me too much.  I was used to hiring my own crew.  But then it would have been impractical to wait for me to show up to begin finding people. Turned out they were an incredible group. Superstars. Now that I look back at the effects artists and technicians at ILM in San Rafael who worked on ESB, it was a “dream team”.  Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, Jim Bloom, Richard Edlund, Peter Kuran, Phil Tippett, Lorne Peterson, Steve Gawley, Jon Berg, Conrad Buff, Sam Comstock, Joe Johnston, Nilo Rodis-Jamero, Doug Beswick, Tom St. Amand, Jerry Jeffress, Bruce Nicholson, Gene Whiteman, Brian Johnson plus so many others. There’s literally dozens of Oscars between the effects crew. I don’t think there will ever be so much talent on one effects picture again, at least not in my lifetime.

Close up detail of Ralph's marvellous painting for the aforementioned bluescreen scene.
The man who gave George his 'look' for STAR WARS, Ralph McQuarrie.
Q:        Mike’s work in subsequent films staggers me – and it just kept getting better and better with his finest hour being with Craig Barron at Matte World.

A: A great artist. He now lives and works in New Zealand where you live Pete.

Q:        Speaking of Craig, he too joined your small matte team as assistant cameraman to Neil Krepela.  Tell us a little about Neil and Craig - both of whom would go on to be essential visual effects supervisors in their own right.

A:  Love them both. I think Neil sometimes got a little frustrated with me, because I wouldn’t experiment enough; we just didn’t have time -- a ridiculously short schedule on ESB. Neil later went with Richard Edlund to Boss Film and then became visual effects supervisor on Disney’s DINOSAUR (2000). In the final week of working at ILM on ESB, Neil got appendicitis and was in the hospital. We had to scramble to get the last shots done. It was then I realized how valuable Neil was.
Harrison's Bespin shaft matte painting for Luke's fall.  Ellenshaw told me he thought he'd never finish this painting, and added his initials into the detail, hoping George wouldn't notice.  Not at all uncommon.  Matthew Yuricich put the names of his ex wife, her attorney and so forth all around the base of the Mother Ship in CE3K, and Howard Fisher painted dogs humping into some of his, such as GREEN DOLPHIN STREET - as did Lee LeBlanc with an ornate ceiling for VIVA ZAPATA,  Gosh, these matte artists!!!
Q:        I have enormous respect for Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren as VFX visionaries.

A: Absolutely, a dozen or more Oscars between them.

Q:        Was Craig Barron there for the last minute “scramble”?

A: Yes, he was. Craig was so enthusiastic. He absolutely loved movies. He would see  every film that came out. He was still a teenager then and would often tell me that one day he would write the definitive book on matte painting. I’d give him a hard time and tell him he would never get it done; too big a subject matter and all that. I am thrilled that he proved me wrong, when “The Invisible Art” was published. Craig is now a member of the Academy Board of Governors as well as an Oscar winner for effects on THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008). He owned and ran Matte World Digital for 24 years. He is still an inspiration to the new kids who want to work in film. It is also notable that my father had a matte camera assistant in England at Denham studios in the late 40s by the name of Alan Hume, who went on to to be an A-list DP who worked on many feature films including RETURN OF THE JEDI. Good people make good.
Ellenshaw's matte here consists of  a foreground matte painting (on a colour print cut out) and a background of a painted sky.  This isn't the final comp which was an optical done by Greg Van der Veer at Van der Veer Photo Effects who added the characters taking the frozen Han Solo on board Boba Fett's Slave 1 spaceship.

Harrison's own interpretive art done some years later.
Q:        Were there only the five of you in the matte department?

A: No, for the last few months we were lucky to have cameraman Michael Lawler and his assistant Robert Elswit come and help out.  Of note, Elswit is another ILM grad to win an Oscar, in this case for Best Achievement in Cinematography for THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007). Yet another superstar.

Q:        I knew the name Robert Elswit was familiar somewhere… he also shot one of my favourite movies, BOOGIE NIGHTS and in fact most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s pictures I believe.  It’s interesting how many regular directors and cinematographers started off shooting or painting effects shots.  David Fincher and James Cameron both started in VFX, with Fincher shooting mattes at ILM and Cameron painting glass shots for the Skotak brothers.  Back in the old days noted lighting cameraman Wilkie Cooper used to shoot some of Albert Whitlock’s mattes in England apparently.
Harrison's evocative swamp matte

A: Working in a matte department can be a wonderful education for a filmmaker. It involves almost every aspect of film: breakdown/budgeting, editing, cinematography, production, art direction, not to mention organizational and people skills.

The final shot
Plate photography for Star Destroyer bridge matte (below)
Q:        I think that without Ralph’s conceptual art, the whole notion of STAR WARS would never have been as successful.  His mattes tend to have an overly smooth, slick quality about them, was that due to his reliance on airbrush methods.

A: Ralph used airbrush a lot and it helped create the “look” for the STAR WARS franchise. I wouldn’t say his mattes were “overly smooth”; a good blend is a good blend. Personally I never had much patience with airbrush, damn things clog and splatter -- don’t like them.
Star Destroyer bridge matte painting by either Ralph or Harrison.  The production only built half a minimal set (upper pic) so Ellenshaw would flop different action to use in the left side of the matte.

Q:        What were the most demanding paintings on ESB and what sort of a time frame was involved? 
Lucas, Kershner and Ellenshaw discuss matte work load.

A:  The most demanding ones were the ones I gave to Ralph to paint.  There were 85 mattes total done over a seven month period. But we never worked on one matte at a time from start to finish. First we would try to finish as many as possible for the optical department and leave our pure matte comps to the last few months. It was pretty tense going.

Q:        So as matte supervisor a great deal of your time on TBH and ESB was taken up with viewing tests and temps, on average how many tests were required for the average matte shot before all the pieces fell into place and the shot was ‘good to go’?

A:  Wedge (exposure) tests would probably be a dozen and another dozen takes before you got a ‘final’. A huge workload.
Hoth hangar matte painting by Harrison

Q:        Even though George was not directing on ESB, was he a ‘shadow director’ as Spielberg seemed to have been on Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGIEST, with Steven really pulling the strings and overseeing everything Tobe did by all accounts?

A: There are a lot of stories of how Steven would literally direct POLTERGEIST with Tobe standing in the background having nothing to do. I wasn’t there so I don’t know what was the reality.  In the case of George on ESB, during pre-production and production, he let Kershner do his job. But then in post, I saw Kershner only once or twice -something that I pointed out in a US magazine article, which did not endear me to Mr. Kershner at all.

Q:        How decisive were Irving Kershner and George Lucas as to the mattes and what they wanted?  I ask because of the difficulties you later experienced with Warren Beatty’s legendary indecisiveness on DICK TRACY were a nightmare for the matte crew.

Mike Pangrazio works on a planet matte painting.
A: George always knew what he wanted. The opposite of Warren Beatty. George Lucas loves post production, it is where he felt most comfortable. He would come to see our dailies at ILM every day and it was solely up to George to approve the final shots. The department heads could give input and suggestions, but it was considered bad form if you criticized another department’s shot. Doing effects shots can get very personal. On occasion someone would cross the line and there was a definite pecking order and some politics, but after all we were all trying to gain George’s approval and hope to be part of getting some credit for what we did.
Another of Harrison's EMPIRE paintings.  Some 80 odd paintings were prepared for the show by the three artists.

Harrison, George Lucas and Ralph McQuarrie
Q:        Richard Edlund is someone who has always impressed me as a remarkable technician with a broad understanding of all aspects of special visual effects.  Was there much interaction between yourself and Richard?

A: Richard, along with Brian Johnson were the special visual effects supervisors on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, I will always appreciate that Richard and Brian left me alone in the matte department to do my job without any interference. They were very supportive, willing to help out in any way.

Q:        The film was a massive success, and the LucasFilm organisation and Industrial Light & Magic were on a roll with subsequent STAR WARS entries and other effects driven shows, so what made you choose to leave ILM and go back down south to Disney when all those opportunities lay before you.

A: I think I was the only person at ILM on ESB who was an independent contractor. Gary Kurtz was the producer who hired me for ESB.  And unbeknownst to any of us he was basically laid off before the end of post production.  The new administration took one look at my deal, which at the time made me one of the highest paid department head at ILM, and then they sent me packing as soon as I was done with ESB. I can’t blame them and besides I had only signed on for one picture.
The matte painting studio at ILM for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1979 is deceptively lacking in panic.

Q:        If I’m correct, your old Disney mentor, Alan Maley would replace you at ILM as head of the matte department.  Isn’t it funny how these things come around?  It’s all very incestuous this matte biz.

A: Alan came out of retirement to work at ILM, he missed painting mattes and it was a convenient gig as he was living only minutes away from ILM.  I really didn’t mind since I was looking forward to not “just being a matte painter” anymore.
Ralph McQuarrie's iconic EMPIRE matte painting.

Neil Krepela sets up front projection system for photographing and compositing of Ralph's matte art

On location in the UK for WATCHER IN THE WOODS reshoots.  Left to right: Godfrey Godar, Lighting Cameraman; Jim Bawden, Camera Operator; HE (with his trusty Canon F1) and director Vince McEveety.  Harrison commented: "I don't know why I'm looking so intense...I probably know that the film is doomed in spite of my new ending".


Q:        I’ve never seen WATCHER IN THE WOODS but I understand some last minute effects work was done to add something to the film.  What was needed?
Harrison: "stand alone they are kinda cool pictures..."  
A:  I had left ILM and I was on vacation in New Orleans, staying at a tiny guest house in the French Quarter (according to legend it was where Tennessee Williams wrote  A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE) and I got a call from an old friend, producer Tom Leetch at Disney, who asked if I could come in and take a look at a unique situation: a film, pulled from distribution starring the legendary Bette Davis, called THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS needed a new ending.
Q:        Run me through your new role at The Mouse Factory, as I call it.
..."BUT, nice imagery does not necessarily tell a GOOD story"
A: I went and watched a screening of the film at Disney. It was OK up to a point and then it just started to fall apart and by the end it was incomprehensible and just plain dumb. I made some suggestions: a few editing choices, but especially a whole new ending. Tom told me to write out the new ending. I did and the studio approved it and asked me to help reshoot it.  The original director, Brit John Hough was not available so we asked American director Vincent McEveety to come to England and shoot the new ending.  They re-released the movie with the new changes and it still bombed! (sigh)
Harrison with his one and only matte painting executed for TRON (1982).  A magnificent exercise in perspective and draftsmanship that for some unthinkable reason was only half used on screen, with the entire left side of the painting cropped out altogether.  You may see this one again in my 'next' blog...A Matter of Perspective.. a collection of mighty matte painted shots with extreme perspective lines and so forth... though as usual, I digress and shamelessly self promote at the same time.  Moguls call that 'product placement' I believe.


Q:        This brings me to TRON.  An incredibly complex film, technically, with spectacular visuals that looked great then and still hold up extremely well today some 30 years later.
A: If I hadn’t been finishing up on WATCHER working in an office at Disney, then I never would have met Steven Lisberger and Donald Kushner who had just pitched TRON to Tom Wilhite, head of production for the studio. Tom brought the two of them in to my office and introduced me as someone who had worked on STAR WARS. They offered me the job as visual effects supervisor for TRON on the spot.
That dynamic matte which Harrison obviously spent a fair amount of time perfecting, as seen in it's eventual on screen incarnation.  It would have been such a statement had it been fully utilised, especially in 70mm presentations.

Jeff Bridges all lit up like a Christmas tree. 
Q:        Would I be right in suggesting TRON was the most taxing assignment you’d ever undertaken?
A:  It was a tough going for sure but it was certainly a case of being in the right place at the right time. I was very lucky. Don’t get me wrong, the immodest side of me thinks that without my contribution we’d still be trying to get the damn movie finished.
Q: What was your title on TRON?
A: I was associate producer and co-visual effects supervisor with Richard Winn Taylor II.
Q: Well the credits on TRON were quite unique, even including some that were in Chinese.
A:  We tried to include everybody who worked on the film in the credit roll (even the ink and painters from Taiwan). The difficulty was trying to define what each person did, because many of the jobs were created just for the film. Richard did so much that we had to give him at least two different credits. We also had a hard time figuring out what to give John Scheele as a credit. He did so many thing to contribute, I think we finally gave him the title: effects technical supervisor.
Q:        I read the breakdown of the visual effects in American Cinematographer and it was mind boggling to say the least.  Could you simplify the Kodalith process for us?
Five fx elements of David Warner result in never before attempted visuals
A: It is very hard to simplify, because it is not simple. But I’ll try. For TRON, we photographed about 40 minutes of the  “electronic world” in black and white and then made both positive and negative images of each frame (76,000 frames times two) - 1200 separate scenes to which were added the colour by isolating different areas, by hand, frame by frame for an additional 250,000 drawings. Then each colour had to photographed separately onto film, again for each of the 1200 scenes. Most scenes had 8 to 12 exposures per frame!  See?   I told you it was impossible to simplify.
Q:        Just keeping track of and maintaining a semblance of order of all of those cels must have been a nightmare.
A:  Well, I’m kind of an obsessive compulsive organizer, which can be a huge plus for a film with all those elements/drawings and effects animation, you’re looking at over half a million 16 x 20” cels.
The film wasn't the greatest, but the visual effects imagery was truly state of the art and looked (and still looks) sensational.  It really should have at least had a nomination for VFX by that AMPAS... though really BLADERUNNER was the true deserving picture that year... but try telling that to that bug eyed little bastard, ET. 
Q:        Is that why you used CGI, or would it have been labeled differently back then – maybe as ‘digitised background simulation’ or something?
A: No, that was a completely different technique for another 15 minutes that had to integrate seamlessly with the Kodalith process for about an hour total of the “electronic world”.
Q:        Aside from the hundreds of effects shots, there was just the one old fashioned matte painting, wasn’t there?
A:  Yes, I did one matte painting for the film.  What I call my matte painting cameo. It was difficult to find the time to squeeze it into my daily schedule.  We also had another big challenge of creating a touch screen desk for the character Dillinger, CEO of ENCOM. This was years before the technology of touch screens existed. Just building and shooting that desk was a huge challenge. All the screens on the desk were rear projected and the actor, David Warner had to time his button push with the images. The cinematographer, Bruce Logan and the 2nd unit cinematographer, Peter Anderson did an amazing job making it all work with the added difficulty of shooting in 65mm with limited depth of field.
Donald Kushner, Producer of TRON with Harrison Ellenshaw and Richard Winn Taylor II - both co-supervisors of special visual effects for the film.  This photo was taken at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California where they make Nuclear weapons (shame on 'em).  TRON was the only, and remains the only movie production ever to be granted permission to film there.
Walter Cronkite prepares to get TRONKITED by Harrison
Q:        There was a great deal of hype surrounding TRON when it was released. Did you think it would do well?
A: Disney was undergoing a lot of changes then and TRON was viewed as being a film that could compete with the big studios. The publicity department worked overtime. We had feature articles in Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and every major newspaper on the planet. I thought the film would be huge. We even made arrangements to have Walter Cronkite do a short piece about TRON for his CBS television series ‘Universe’.
Q:        He was put into the “electronic world”, I believe.
A: He was good sport about it. We directed him on a black stage. He was a natural and did a soft-shoe dance routine. We called the piece TRONKITE.
HE directs the miniatures unit on SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
Q:        Was TRON ever considered for a best visual effects Oscar?
Disney matte artist Jesse Silver on SOMETHING WICKED
A: Nope.  But then neither was DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE back in 1959. Strange stuff. In some ways it was not surprising regarding TRON, considering the other effects films with big box office receipts in release that year (1982), were BLADE RUNNER, ET and POLTERGEIST. Those three all got nominated. But before the nominations I had sent a memo to the Disney publicity department warning them that TRON could easily get overlooked by the Academy because it was so different. So, to their credit, they mounted a very intense campaign to get TRON some recognition. TRON did get nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Sound.  I always thought BLADE RUNNER should have won (ET won by the way). But for TRON to not even get nominated for a visual effects Oscar, well, that’s crazy and is an insult to all the artists and technicians who worked on it. 
Michael Lloyd matte painting

Q:        I totally agree on BLADERUNNER – it really should have taken home the statuette that year, no question.  One of your projects was the long announced SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES  - a terrific story by Ray Bradbury that sadly didn’t really translate well on screen.  Now this time you were running the miniatures unit, why was that?  Sick of the smell of turpentine and linseed oil?

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES opening shot is an extensive painted matte by Jesse Silver

Don Henry, Jesse Silver and Dick Kendall set up a shot, ultimately not used

A: SOMETHING WICKED came right after TRON, however I wasn’t going to work on it since I was pretty exhausted and so I took a sabattical. Then I got a call from Tom Wilhite, the head of production at Disney, and he asked if I would come help out with shooting the miniatures on SOMETHING WICKED. I always loved shooting miniatures, it can be great fun.  Not that it is easy, mind you, but nonetheless it can be a huge challenge... and especially satisfying if you get it right.  I am very proud of how the miniatures turned out on SOMETHING WICKED even though the film was hugely flawed.  I even shot the main title.  Take a look sometime, it’s pretty cool -- more trick photography by many clever people. 
Matte by Jesse Silver & Michael Lloyd for SOMETHING WICKED's finale.  Virtually all painted except the left triangular portion with the actors.  Initially painted by Silver and then retouched later by matte supervisor Lloyd when the director decide to change the lighting scheme of the sequence.
"Opportunity missed... I told you so you fucking idiots".

Q:        CAPTAIN EO was a major project for you, yet it’s one I know absolutely nothing about.
A: It was a 15 minute 3D dual 70mm film that was exhibited at Disneyland in Anaheim and Tokyo Disneyland starring Michael Jackson, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas. That was an experience.
Q: The cinematographer was Oscar winner Vittorio Storarro, am I correct?
Ellenshaw lines up on CAPTAIN EO miniature
A: Yes. What a character! He and I butted heads a few times. Being the effects guy it is sometimes difficult to get your plates shot in the best way to get a good composite later in post-production. One day we had to shoot a background plate and Vittorio wanted to shoot it out of focus because that’s how he felt it should look in the final composite.  I argued we needed to shoot it in-focus and then we could vary the amount it would be out of focus on the optical printer. So Vittorio and I start to get into an argument in front of the crew. Everybody started to feel a little awkward as Harrison, the nerdy visual effects supervisor, is taking on the great Vittorio Storaro, winner of three Oscars, whose judgment should never be questioned.  Even the director, Francis Coppola was a little embarrassed. Finally the producer, Mr. George Lucas comes over and asks what is the hold up. I explain, and George just looks at us both and says, “Shoot it both ways”.  Of course! I knew that! But I was being a little competitive bitch and then suddenly I felt like a bad kindergartner caught fighting in the sandbox.

'Cahuenga Tree' - 20"x24" oil on canvas

The late, great Chris Reeve in the role he was born for.
Q:        As something of an unexpected departure, you took on a huge effects enterprise with the notoriously cheapskate Golan-Globus Cannon Films outfit who, misguidedly, took on SUPERMAN IV-THE QUEST FOR PEACE – which was akin to asking Roger Corman to produce LORD OF THE RINGS or Jess Franco to make BEN HUR!  
A: What a effin’ disaster SUPERMAN IV was! Not my fault. The whole Cannon Films (Golan-Globus) business model couldn’t help but make bad movies. The less said the better.

Harrison with VistaVision camera on plate shoot in NYC
Q:        I regard the first SUPERMAN as one of my all time favourite films, with the back to back sequel one hell of a ride and loads of fun.  The third was a largely regrettable effort with the fourth entry SUPERMAN IV-QUEST FOR PEACE an unmitigated disaster in my book that shouldn’t have so much as seen the light of day.  Incidentally, I’d place the dreadful John Carpenter picture ESCAPE FROM L.A in that same basket… bottom of the barrel, though as usual I digress.
A: Interesting, I worked on both SM4 and ESCAPE FROM L.A.  So maybe I am not so talented, perhaps I’m a jinx after all. 
Peter Ellenshaw and Fortress of Solitude matte art
Q:        The producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ expertise lay in quickie Charlie Bronson rape-revenge flicks and endless, abysmal Israeli teen sex comedies I know only too well as I worked for the company which had theatrical rights to the whole catalogue back in the 80’s.  Were the tight fisted producers to a large extent to blame for the multitude of failings with the SUPERMAN movie?
A: OK, here is what I will say, the production on SM4 was somewhat chaotic to say the least. Golan-Globus’ English based London Cannon Films wanted to do the film for very little money, but really they were way in over their rather uncreative heads.
Q:        You were effects supervisor and you brought your father in to look after the matte paintings, which were all executed at Elstree, possibly in the old QUO VADIS effects department  weren’t they?
Director Sidney J.Furie with the late Christopher Reeve in between set ups on location for SUPERMAN IV-THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987).  Harrison took this photo because he thought it said a great deal about film making, and about Chris.  Sidney told the producers that he would not have a personal trailer as a show of faith to do the film on a small budget.  When Chris found out he told the producers that he would do the same.  So he would just change in the wardrobe trailer along with the extras. Say's Harrison: "I have never in my 30 plus years known a person like Chris...a really REALLY good guy".
Peter and assistant matte artist Martin Asbury at work on S4 shots
A: My guess is that the QUO VADIS mattes were done at the MGM Boreham Wood Studios that was located about half a mile from the Elstree lot where we did SUPERMAN IV. By the early 80s the Boreham Wood Studios had been entirely razed and the only thing left was the abandoned administration building that they sadly demolished in 1984.
Q:        I’m told you were keen at one stage to get Ray Caple involved on the mattes, with Ray having painted the majority of the matte shots for the first two films.
A: Initially I figured I would do all the matte shots myself.  Pretty stupid of me to think I could take on so much work.  It has taken me a long time to learn that I can not do it all. I should have known better because the effects crew I had on SUPERMAN IV was amazing.  We created an effects facility in California and named it ‘Olsen, Lane and White’.
Q:        Clever. Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and Perry White -- I get it.  How many employees were there?
A: About twenty, mostly effects animators. I loved that crew! No matte artists though, most were done in the U.K. But the budget issues were just brutal and sadly the effects overall did not turn out very well. 
Q:        The new Fortress of Solitude looked awfully cheap - like a Xmas decoration - but there were a few nice mattes though, with one in particular of a busy Metropolis City street at rush hour, which was 90% paint – an amazingly bold concept and execution by Peter Ellenshaw, with even the traffic, trash cans and many of the people painted in addition to the buildings.  One great shot!
One of my favourite mattes - and an amazingly bold one at that.  Peter Ellenshaw painted almost the entire view here with just a narrow slot of live action toward the right.  Most of the cars, taxis and the delivery van are pure Ellenshaw - as are the buildings, puddles of water and foreground edge of building at extreme right.  Peter would be one of the few brave enough to paint the whole damn thing like this and know it will work - and most people never even spot it as a trick.

A:  I agree, most people never notice that this is a matte shot, which is an indication of why it is so good.  And when you look at the shot, the painting is really rough, but it works because the audience is only seeing Nuclear Man landing on the street.  An added plus is the matte painting obscures the wires. Peter probably painted this matte in less than a day.
Nice work here with miniature and painted Earth.
Q:        I had particular problems with the roto work throughout SUPER IVwhich shimmered and flickered all over the place in wire removal shots and so forth.  Where were those opticals done?
Assistant matte artist Martin Asbury with deleted shot.

A: All the opticals were done in LA. Some were good, some were not so good. My fault, no excuses.  The critics generally trashed both the effects and, of course, the movie. But I did get one back-handed compliment when one critic said, “I can’t believe that, of all people, Harrison Ellenshaw would allow so many bad effects into this movie”.
Q:        Did you use the Zoptic system on SUPERMAN IV?  I didn't spot any flying scenes that looked front process. 

Lynda Ellenshaw Thompson
A: Nope, didn't use it, much too time consuming and on the first SUPERMAN movies they were lucky to get one shot in a day and often it took two days for one shot.  On SM4 we had more opticals than the first three movies combined.  

Q:        Your sister Lynda was a visual effects coordinator on SUPERMAN IV, was this her first foray into the effects business?
A: No, her first film was TRON. She worked as an assistant scene coordinator. These days she is a top flight visual effects producer, last year she worked on SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN which received a visual effects nomination from the Academy.
Peter Ellenshaw and his wonderful painting of Moscow's Red Square, which sadly never made the final cut.
Q:        Some really good painted mattes in SUPERMAN IV never made the finished film, though they may be seen as out takes on the DVD.  Peter’s painting of Red Square in Moscow is sensational.  Did you manage to take that one home as a memento?
Another view of the UK miniature unit in action
A:  The Red Square matte shot is an amazing piece of art work. I hope it found a home somewhere in the U.K.  I wish I had that one.
Q:        You mentioned to me once about the difficulties in finding an optical effects provider in England at that time who were competent in pulling and assembling travelling mattes.
A:  We couldn’t find anyone in the U.K. who even wanted to take a shot at doing any opticals.  So we started with about a dozen optical houses in the U.S.  Gave each one five shots and told them that they would get more based on how well they did on the first five.  Keep in mind these were all reputable places, some even having worked on the STAR WARS films.  We ended up with only three places.  You wouldn’t believe how dreadful some of the opticals were from the places we didn’t use. Shocking.
The Great Wall of China - a full matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw for SUPERMAN IV


Q:        The hit summer movie GHOST later utilised your services, along with ILM and some smaller effects houses.  What role did you play in that picture?
A: I was the visual effects supervisor, until I got fired half way through production. It was a very frustrating experience. It was very political. A lot of nasty people. Things got so bad I even tried to quit and I was told, “You can’t get off that easy.” It became a surreal torture. When they fired me, I was thrilled.  Within a month I was working on DICK TRACY.
"I made four paintings to show the end sequence for GHOST and the director loved this, so I was fired in less than two weeks.  What a mess that show was, but upon release it was the largest opening movie ever... shows what I know".
 Q:    What were your responsibilities on GHOST?

A: I was hired to help conceptualize the effects and find a way to do them independent of the big effects houses; in a more cost efficient way. The studio pressured the producers to stay within a very limited budget. But they would never confront the director about falling behind schedule due to unreasonable demands by one of the stars, Demi Moore. It became ridiculous as Demi would insist on clearing the whole crew from the set except for the director and the cinematographer for the entire morning as she would discuss the intricacies of her performance and the script. She insisted on having control over every little detail, even her underwear; she was very proud of her newly enhanced breasts and wanted to be sure they were noticed.  A crew never really cares about delays, since they get paid overtime anyway. The studio execs, however, were going nuts and so they started hiring more producers and started throwing more and more money at the production. The director saw his chance and then insisted that he get ILM and Boss Film to do the effects. It was ironic that a week before I was fired, I produced a series of four paintings showing the “tunnel of light to Heaven”.  After several earlier failed attempts by various other artists, I finally gave the director, even though it wasn’t my job, what he wanted. I thought I was then assured of being kept on in spite of the chaos, at the very least to do visual effects design. Nope. Boss Film eventually did their version of  “tunnel” effect... it sounds self serving, but I thought my version would have looked much better. Sour grapes, I know.


Michele Moen gets some elbow room for once on one of the giant DICK TRACY panoramic matte paintings.  More often than not as many as seven artists would paint side by side on this key shot.
Q:        Which brings us to what I regard as your own magnum opus – DICK TRACY.  I really liked the movie and found the extensive matte painted work to be utterly magical.
Stephen Brooks & Peter Montgomery struggle with a Michael Lloyd matte
A: Thank you, we had some hugely talented people who did that work.
Q:        I know it was a stressful experience, with so much trick work and an indecisive star/director in Warren Beatty.  Walk us through this mammoth production will you.
A:  I came on board during post production when there seemed to be some disorganization with the budget and costs.  I always used to say, if you come in when things look bad and you fix it, you are a hero; if you don’t fix it then you say, “Well it was so screwed up even I couldn’t fix it”.  No one was particularly to blame for the problems. There were just to many people on the studio side and production side trying to blame the effects people for the perceived runaway costs.

Q:        You shared supervisory roles with Michael Lloyd, didn’t you?
"I'm having a laugh here at Michael Lloyd having to stand on an apple box to be my height.  I was always giving him a hard time about how I was much taller than he.  We had a lot of good times on that crazy show".

A: Michael was the original visual effects supervisor for DT; he did an amazing job conceptualizing all the visual effects shots, as well as supervising all the live action plate photography during production.  There were a lot of really good people working there long before I arrived; Carolyn Soper, my sister Lynda and dozens of talented people. But in post-production when the effects seemed to be going significantly over budget, the studio wanted to fire Michael, however Warren wouldn’t let them. I was asked to come in and try to bring things under control. I don’t think Michael was too thrilled that I was given so much responsibility, but at the same time I thing he was relieved. In the end we shared credit as visual effects producers. We were really the visual effects supervisors, but Warren wouldn’t sign a Directors Guild of America (DGA) waiver (long story), so we had to compromise. Michael and I took the title of “visual effects producer” at the head end of the credit crawl at the end of the film. Pissed off a number of people including the real visual effects producer: Brooke Breton. I can’t blame her, hopefully she’s forgiven me by now.
Matte painter and co-visual effects producer/supervisor Michael Lloyd paints the quite beautiful matte for the closing shot.  The painting is quite large to accomodate a pull out and tilt up camera move.
Q:        So what’s the difference between a VFX Supervisor and a VFX Producer then?
A: VFX Supervisor is the creative person who is responsible for getting the writer’s and director’s “vision” to the screen.  The VFX Producer takes care of the breakdown and budgeting of the effects, then he or she gets bids from the various vendors and organizes the workflow and changes to the shots.
Q:        The show must have set an all time record for the number of artists involved on a single production – some seven painters, I think.
Master matte artist Paul Lasaine at work on a shot from the climax of the film.
A: We used to brag that it was the total of all available matte artists in Hollywood.
Q:        How was the vast workload divided up?  I know that Michele Moen and Paul Lasaine completed a number of shots as well as work as a team on those two huge city vistas.
A: Michele and Paul did a lot of the work, mainly because they were/are both so damn good. I would try to help out as best I could, but in most cases we would want Paul or Michelle to at least put the finishing touches on most of the paintings. Though Michael preferred to work long hours on one matte at a time, from start to finish all by himself.  Still it was a team effort and part of the challenge was how to best utilize everybody’s time and talent.
Q:        Once again David Mattingly came on board to help out, as did your father late in the game.
A: With so many changes and Warren’s inability to make timely decisions we began to run out of time.  Then a bit of a bombshell was dropped when Warren decided he wanted a long panorama matte painting for the main titles.  We had only a few weeks to paint it and photograph it. We also needed some miniatures to put in front of the painting; Mark Stetson and Robert Spurlock saved the day by providing wonderful models. Then there was a final optical to lay in the main title graphics. David came from New York and my father spent a couple weeks with us as well.  Getting it finished in time was just under the wire. The shot was finally finished and    was a wonder to behold.  An elegant sweeping vista of the stylized city.  But at the last minute Warren decided he wanted the whole thing skip framed and shortened the move by 70%.  To my mind it destroyed the illusion and trivialized the opening.  A huge mistake.  It is as if Pope Julius, upon completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling said to Michelangelo, “Hey Mikey, I changed my mind, could you take a roller and paint over all but about three or four of those panels? I really don’t need ‘em.  Grazia”.
Paul Lasaine's El Train matte painting and finished composite.
Matte Cinematographer Peter Montgomery worked wonders.
Q:        Wasn’t there a sense of sheer frustration among you and your artists at how Beatty would change his mind and want things painted in, painted out, altered, put back in as before etc.

A:  Warren is a control freak and hates it when he has to depend on someone else to create something for him.  As someone said, “Warren is willing to wait until a better idea comes along.”  This drives studios and others crazy, but Warren loved that.
The orphanage matte shot which is simply glorious.  Much more paint here than you'd think, with even the foreground car being half matte art and half prop.

What a magnificent matte shot, with superb brushwork and flawless compositing.  This too was a joint effort between Harrison and Paul.  Note the top edge where changes were made to the skyscrapers, though 1.85:1 release prints and home video crop this out.  I personally felt the film was overly cropped to widescreen and may have been better served as a 'flat' 1.33:1 presentation.
Q:        Were you ever able to get the best of Mr. Beatty?
Matte art detail from train yard sequence
A: Well, maybe he won’t be reading this, so I can tell you another story. Warren, in typical control freak fashion, had to have approval on ALL signs in ‘Tracy Town’; they all had to be generic such as ‘Crackly Flakes’, ‘Speedmobile’, ‘Comfee Shoes’, ‘Superior Telephone’, things like that. One of them we proposed was ‘Grant Hotel’, we got the approval and painted that (along with other approved signs) into three shots. Then Mister B., even though he approved the final shots, decided, it should be ‘Hotel Grant’, not ‘Grant Hotel’. Sounds crazy, but I was in the meeting when this took place and it is true.  So we painted out ‘Grant Hotel’ and put in ‘Hotel Grant’ - this AFTER the shots had been approved (!) - approximately 12 -14 hours to repaint and re-composite   I got so angry thinking about it I painted ‘Hotel Grunt’ into the final pull back.   If the Blu-ray ever comes out, I’ll probably be sued.

Michael Lloyd's evocative waterfront matte shot which required post production tinkering to widen the shot and introduce Madonna into the scene a few seconds earlier.
A close up photograph of Michael's wonderfully romanticised waterfront matte art.

Q:        The name Leon Harris is interesting to me as he was your matte shot draftsman as I understand it.  The only other film I’m aware of Leon’s involvement with matte shots was the 1966 comedy THE GREAT RACE along with Albert Maxwell Simpson and Cliff Silsby.
A: Leon had worked in the business for many years, often as an uncredited member of various art departments.
Pre-viz matte illustration atop frame blowup
Q:        I take it having a dedicated draftsman drawing out all of that complicated architectural detail ahead of time would prove a great time saver, especially with this show being exclusively cityscapes and architecture.
A: Leon was an incredible help, a real talent and a hell of a nice guy. His layouts were invaluable.
Q:        I heard from Matt Yuricich that 20th Century Fox also had a specialist draftsman named Bill Meyer in the Sersen Department who would do all of the design and layout work, with the pencilled in Masonite then handed over to the matte painters to ‘fill in’ and complete the shot.  Yuricich said it was a terrific time saver and he deeply admire Meyer’s skills.

A: Always a treat to have someone do an early layout drawing, working out the perspective and composition.
One of artist Leon Harris' large layout drawings which would prove invaluable to the matte artists and be a major time saver in establishing architectural perspective and composition.
One of many Paul Lasaine mattes featured.
Q:        Michele Moen told me the DICK TRACY matte boards were far smaller than what she was accustomed to on other shows at Boss Films and with Matt Yuricich.  What dimensions did you paint to on DT, and were these the standard size given finer grain film stocks and bigger movie screens in more recent years?
A:  When I first went to Disney, the standard size of glass or boards for matte paintings was 30 x 40”, so it was a number of years before I realized that most matte artists painted on larger surfaces.  It’s always a bit of a compromise, that is, it takes less time to paint on a smaller size, but you can’t always get the refined detail you can get on a larger size.  So, on DICK TRACY we would sometimes paint larger especially if a move (pan and/or tilt) was required.  By the way, I have to say Michele is one of the most accomplished artists I have ever had the pleasure to know. Her work on DICK TRACY and many other films is never anything other than truly outstanding.  An added plus is that she is a wonderful person.
David Mattingly works alone on one of the two large panoramic matte paintings for DICK TRACY
Stages of a matte, from block in to finished painting and final shot as combined with miniature train and live action plate shot on the backlot at Universal Studios.  I think this is another of Michael Lloyd's shots.

Harrison working on matte as shown below in detail.
Q:        Talk about the colour palette on DICK TRACY.  I loved it and still feel it looked sensational.
A:  Michael Lloyd had worked with the art department from the beginning, giving input about the colour palette for the film. The look and color of the film was awesome. A lot of added credit goes to the art department and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
Harrison painted this magnificent shot along with Paul Lasaine.

Close detail of Paul and Harrison's painting

Another wonderful area of detail from the above matte.  I've noticed several instances where a none too conspicuous 'Wank' neon sign has appeared in various matte paintings... no doubt symbolic of the matte artists' having to put up with constant changes and alterations by the director? 
Q:        We’ve spoken previously on the subject of composites, with some other Disney mattes looking mismatched and washed out and so on.  The DICK TRACY matte comps consistently looked terrific to me with exquisite blends and invisible matte lines.  Was there some sort of game change in the department this time around to ensure the best possible quality?

A: Most of the shots were rear projection. I left the department in 1979 and during the 80’s there was a major restructuring with an emphasis on improving the quality of the rear projection. 
Look closely for VFX in joke!

At some point Michael Lloyd had taken over the department and by the late 80‘s, thanks to him, and to Peter Montgomery as well as the technicians at Disney, they had done a lot of work refining the rear projection process, getting rid of ‘hot spots’, increasing the contrast and color saturation. 
I thought the quality of the shots on DICK TRACY looked as good as original negative. A lot of the shots ended up as opticals, combining paintings with various live action elements. We were blessed with one the best optical printer operators ever, Kevin Koneval.

Peter Montgomery and Glen Campbell shoot an in camera multiplane glass shot for part of the bridge sequence at the end of the film.  The reason it was shot in camera was to allow a hand held POV.  Cameraman Peter Montgomery is shrouded here in black velvet to prevent reflections on the foreground glass. 
Pre-viz painted sketch for matte shot

Q:        Even the dark scenes …and most of them are night shots, the blacks look perfect.
A: I recently saw a digital projection of the film and it looks better than ever.

Paul Lasaine before & after
Q:        I’d regard DICK TRACY as one of the very last (and best) traditionally painted effects showcases and I was so disappointed at it not gaining Academy consideration in the visual effects arena.  Was it put forward as a potential nominee?
A: Yes. Disney took out a lot of trade ads featuring the mattes and we even sent a VHS of the effects shots to most of the Academy visual effects members.  All to no avail, the film did not even get an effects nomination. In fact the snub was so egregious that the rules were changed the following year.  It is interesting that Bill Taylor told me at the time that we had been too aggressive in our campaign. You just can’t win!  
Q:        Tremendous work all round in the VFX side – mattes, miniatures, composites and opticals.  The train shunting yard chase sequence is absolutely marvelous.
A:  I agree, it is an amazing sequence. I was still working on GHOST, when it was shot.  A lot of very talented people worked on that.  Bill Neil who shot the miniature train, Kevin Koneval who put all the elements together and, of course, Michael Lloyd and Peter Montgomery. I think you covered that in your blog about DICK TRACY a couple of years back.

The Mark Stetson miniatures get the special DICK TRACY 'look' and lighting.  Stunning to think how many people worked on this project, and then the ability to match motion control for so many elements.  Today it's all about computers doing the match moves.  Back then on DT, camera people had to be real smart.
A limited soundstage set is significantly enhanced through matte painting.
More Paul Lasaine matte magic from DICK TRACY

Just half of an enormous twin glass end to end matte painting where all available hands were required.  The blacked out areas are reserved for RP plates of Beatty walking out doorway and along street as well as a train plate and later live action RP plate for the end of the wide pan (not seen here) of Club Ritz.  Pure magic!
Co-effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw poses here with a micro brush that would make his father, grandfather and mentor all turn in their graves!  Michele Moen told me that somewhere a time lapse video exists of this major painting being executed over some weeks, and I'd sure like to see that!

The DICK TRACY effects unit - Buena Vista Visual Effects Group


Q:        BVVE handled effects on a number of films after DICK TRACY.  Can you give us an idea of the variety and range of trick work undertaken?
A: In the six years that BVVE existed after DICK TRACY, we worked on over 40 films, many of them for “outside” non-Disney studios. By the time that Disney shut us down we had established a very good reputation in the business.  We were very fortunate that, in about 1993, we made the transition to digital, leveraging the very successful software computer system that Disney Feature Animation was using. We had the help of software engineers from both Disney and Pixar. Pixar’s main business then was selling both hardware and software. They had only just started on a little film called TOY STORY.

The old Disney matte room now under a new banner, Buena Vista Visual Effects Group.  Shown here is matte artist Paul Lasaine at work on one of the many invisible matte shots for the Kevin Kline comedy DAVE (1992)

Q:        So, when exactly did Disney set up it’s Buena Vista Visual Effects organisation.
A:  It was a few years before DICK TRACY came along that the effects departments at Disney became collectively known as Buena Vista Visual Effects Group (BVVEG). After DICK TRACY we dropped the “Group” and just made it BVVE. We also gave the name of Buena Vista Imaging (BVim) to the optical department, main title department, process lab and foreign ‘main and ends’, all under the auspices of John Chambers who had been with Disney for many years.
Q:        Run us through the BVVE set up if you will.
Note, one of Peter's GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE mattes on wall
A: I was very fortunate to hire Ray Scalice in 1990. Ray had extensive experience at ILM, Lucasfilm and before that at Disney. We actually worked on some Disney films at the same time in the 70s, one of which was THE TREASURE OF MATECUMBE (1976); he worked in accounting and I was doing a few effects. His business sense and experience was the perfect choice to help restructure BVVE. With Ray we made BVVE into a very credible effects facility and, hard to believe, we made Disney a crap load of money, something unheard of in the effects business. But much as I tend to bash studio executives, there were a few execs that really had my back. I was in a meeting with about ten or twelve people from the studio right after DICK TRACY, and they were trying to tell me how to manage BVVE. But there was one guy in the meeting that just said not to worry about any of it and it will all work out fine. Danny Rosett soon became a trusted friend and went on to eventually became head of United Artists. We are still best friends today and often have a few laughs about the “early days” at BVVE.
Although matte work for Disney's A KID IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT (1995) was carried out in the UK, certain shots were deemed unusable by the producers, with Harrison enlisted to provide some replacement matte shots - this one among them - at the eleventh hour.

Paul and Justin with an old Maley LOVE BUG matte behind.
Q:        Give us if you can, a little background on other key figures in the matte department such as Michael Lloyd,  Jesse Silver, J.P Trevor and Justin Brandstater?
A: Michael Lloyd came to the matte department a few years after I left Disney, he then combined with the optical department and created Buena Vista Visual Effects Group (BVVEG). Jesse Silver was a matte artist at Disney for a few years in the 80s, I remember looking at his portfolio and I was impressed.  J.P. Trevor worked for me in the 70s and he was recommended by Bob Schiffer who was head of Disney’s make-up department. J.P.’s portfolio was entirely surrealist work,  but I could tell the guy had loads of talent. Justin Brandstater worked in the matte department in the early 90s, then moved over to Walt Disney Feature Animation for eight years and ended up at Illusion Arts.
Q:        A bit of trivia here in that Jean Pierre (JP) Trevor’s father wrote the book FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, which in turn became a classic movie.  I’m told that Mike Lloyd had previously been a matte painter at Van Der Veer Photo Effects with Lou Litchtenfield and Bob Scifo.
A: Gosh, I’m ashamed to admit I really don’t remember. The first time I met Michael he was working at WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering) in the 70s, it was known as WED back then.
Three matte masters - One visual effects department: Paul Lasaine, Harrison and Peter Ellenshaw paying a visit.  Note the two MARY POPPINS mattes in shot.
 Justin Brandstater painting a promo matte for Disney execs.
Q:        One of my favourite traditional matte artists of around this era was the talented Paul Lasaine.  Paul’s career in matte work was amazing and would be a highlight of many subsequent films after DICK TRACY. There’s a minor Disney picture Paul did superb work on WILD HEARTS CAN’T BE BROKEN (1991) with some delightful period mattes of Atlantic City and the boardwalk.
A: Great stuff by Paul. This was our first film after the reorganization of BVVE. I can remember going with Peter Montgomery, BVVE’s visual effects supervisor, to South Carolina to shoot plates for the matte shots. I was only there to lend support; nothing really to do. I was on the set, standing in the background and the producer on the film came up to me and said, “We need you to go to the wardrobe trailer and get outfitted so you can be an extra in the crowd.”  Not exactly what I thought I, as a major studio executive, should be doing, but I’m a good guy and the producer Lou Phillips was a good guy too... so I did it.
For a BVVE open day the guys put together this complicated old school Schufftan shot for visitors with miniature helicopter, glass paintings and beam splitter.  It was a lot of fun by all accounts.
Q:        But there are people who would be thrilled to be an extra in a Hollywood movie.
A. For WILD HEARTS they needed hundreds of locals to be extras to fill the grandstands in the movie. The pay was very small, but you did get free breakfast and lunch. The work really is very boring and after lunch most of the extras left and went home, some even left in costume!
Q:        I had some communications with Paul once where he mentioned during his time at Disney you brought in your father’s magnum opus, that is the SPARTACUS painting for repair to the cracked glass and Paul was beside himself with joy at this masterpiece and shot several rolls of film detailing the painting in all it’s glory.
A: That matte painting is probably one of the best my father ever did. You have noted it in one of your recent blogs.  It has been donated to the Academy Museum and is now on display at special exhibit about Stanley Kubrick at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). I was just there at the exhibit, which is absolutely amazing.  Viewing the matte painting again was very emotional.
Q: Was this the only matte painting on SPARTACUS?
Another of Harrison's matte fixes for A KID IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT
A:  No, there were others, but the first try at doing this establishing shot of Rome was done by the Universal Studios matte department under Russell Lawsen and Kubrick didn’t like it, so he borrowed my father from Disney and had him do it. My father was very proud of this shot, but after he saw it in the film with the graphic ‘Rome’ over it, he sniffed, “‘Rome?’ What the hell else would it be? New Jersey?”

Q:        When you took over BVVE it was all still traditional methodology, I take it.
A: Yes it was, but we were starting to take aggressive steps into digital as early as 1991. By the time we were forced to shut down in 1996 we were one of the leading digital facilities in the business.
Several stunning mattes are seen in WILD HEARTS CAN'T BE BROKEN with this Atlantic City matte just one such shot
Ivan Reitman's film DAVE (1992).  Whitehouse and buildings all painted.
 Q:        In looking at the BVVE showreel  I was surprised at just how many invisible matte shots you guys did for films like the Kevin Kline comedy DAVE, which had phenomenal matte work which nobody would ever have suspected. Paul Lasaine’s many mattes of the White House are quite remarkable.
A:  DAVE (1993) is the movie that put BVVE on the map. Disney had a hard time understanding that it took a Warner Brothers film to make us legitimate. But it was great thanks to Paul Lasaine, probably one of the best artist I have ever personally known; and I have known a lot of great artists. He had a tremendous knowledge of perspective, composition and technique; an excellent artist with flare and style, but not overly stylish.  I never saw him do a bad painting.  When he left BVVE to go to work for the art department on THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, it was a tremendous loss for us, but a real plus for Dreamworks.
One of many brilliantly executed mattes BVVE provided for DAVE.  Not only painted mattes either, but one of the best ever motion control 'twin' effects shots with dual Kevin Kline's face off.  Harrison was VFX supervisor on the show.  Superb work guys.
Q:        When did BVVE wind up it’s operation and quit the effects business?
BVVE matte painter Justin Brandstater
We were due to be closed in May 1996 at the end of my contract, but the execs at Disney literally forgot that we were under contract to Paramount to complete effects on two films: THE PHANTOM and ESCAPE FROM L.A. Paramount threatened to sue Disney unless we stayed open another four months to complete our work. Debra Hill, the producer on ESCAPE sent a scathing letter to Disney, telling them what idiots they were to shut down one of the best effects facilities in the business.  I loved that. God bless Debra.

Buena Vista's supervising matte artist Paul Lasaine is shown here finishing off his astonishing Whitehouse matte for DAVE.  Note the clip at right from BVVE's showreel where the Academy frame allows edges of Paul's painting to be visible, though this won't be seen in 1:85.1 ratio release prints, as shown at left.
Another Lasaine matte you'd never spot from DAVE
Q:        I presume the competition at that time in the industry was simply too great.  
A:  It wasn’t about the competition, it was about studio politics and jealousy.  We were too successful and only Jeffrey Katzenberg (he left Disney in 1993) and then Michael Ovitz supported us.  All the other execs told them we would fail. After Jeffrey left the knives came out. I battled for three years, but finally they wore me down. It was pretty painful as BVVE had made a profit for all six years that Ray and I were there. Made no sense, but then in Hollywood success often comes with a penalty. Everyone resents winners, it’s sad.
Q:        Many effects shops closed up around then, such as the wonderfully inventive Dream Quest.
A: Ironically it was DQ that Disney bought after they dumped BVVE, after a while they changed the name to The Secret Lab. Eventually they drove it into the ground through a lot of dumb decisions and terrible administration; at a huge cost to the studio. I’ve heard between the purchase price and the losses DQ and TSL racked up it was over $40 million. 
The elegant night picnic scene from DAVE....all paint on glass!
Q:        I recall seeing an offbeat science fiction movie you worked on titled MILLENIUM in the late 80s.  This is interesting to me as your father’s old associate Albert Whitlock painted the mattes with Syd Dutton on that film.  What interaction did you have with Albert and Syd?
A:  I worked on MILLENIUM, came to it late after the effects went over budget - sound familiar? But I didn’t have any interaction with Albert and Syd, they had finished their work by then. But the best thing about MILLENIUM was that I met Stephen Brooks on that show, who joined us on DICK TRACY and at BVVE, he was another godsend. A great visual effects supervisor, he is now a writer and director.
Q:        I think Al’s son Mark may have been involved too.  He painted on several films through the 80’s and early 90’s though he never found the level of success that you found as the son of a famous film illusionist.
A: I don’t think Mark’s heart was ever really into it.
Q:        I suppose it begs the question:  Is it a tough journey following in the footsteps of someone so much a living icon in the field?  Living in Peter’s shadow for you, or Albert’s in Mark’s case.
A:  I got a lot of lucky breaks and I had a great mentor in Alan Maley.  But I never really wanted to do what my father did.  When I first went to Disney, I was only supposed to be there for six months. But I loved the challenge of working on movies, it all just kind of snowballed.
A good look in the BVVE matte room with multi level racks filled with old glass paintings.  That's Michael Lloyd busy blocking in the final shot for DICK TRACY.
Michele Moen and David Mattingly apply finishing touches to one of the big DICK TRACY paintings - without question Buena Vista Visual Effects biggest and most demanding show.

Not BVVE's finest hour - nor John Carpenter's for that matter... the abysmal ESCAPE FROM LA (1996). Give me the first picture any day of the week.
Production Designer Les Dilley about to get crushed by giant mechanical feet on location in Las Vegas for HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID.  "Another crazy time, but great fun.  Les is a great guy and also worked on the original STAR WARS".

Q:        You directed a picture in 1989, DEAD SILENCE – a film that had intrigued me, and thanks to you, I’ve been able to finally see it.  I really enjoyed it, though the actor playing the doco cameraman was a bit dodgy.  Couldn’t you get Charlton Heston?
A: I think Chuck was busy at the firing range, so I had to fill in for him.  DEAD SILENCE was an independent film; a comedy without any known stars. It won a few awards at small film festivals though. I had a good time directing that film. Someone told me they saw it on a bus in Turkey. Really. I’m still waiting for residuals.
Q:        It’s very well photographed and quite witty, with some nice film biz in jokes.  Do you find you’ve now gotten the ‘directorial bug’ out of your system, or would you like to further that side of the creative process?
A: It is certainly out of my system now. Directing is hard work. But I had a great cast and crew. Incredible producers, a wonderful writer (Clete Keith), amazing cinematographer (Brian Duggan), terrific actors and dedicated people on all levels.  One of the producers, Christopher Keith (the other producer was Lynda Thompson) originally came to work on TRON and I was lucky enough that he and I worked together on all the films I did in the 80s. Great guy, would work 80-90 hours a week.  Of course he would often remind me of such.  But I would tell him I paid him a fixed salary that was for 24 hours a day and if he spent any time NOT at work, then that time was gravy.
Elegantly photographed and very funny, this is Harrison's one and only voyage into the realms of 'director' - but then, Charles Laughton only directed one show too - NIGHT OF THE HUNTER - and that's a bullseye classic!  Note, the suspect looking individual in top right frame, the doco camera guy...and he's not the only Ellenshaw to grace the screen with his/her presence.
Q:        It seems like you have indicated that people make all the difference, on all your projects.
A: I have been blessed.  So many great people, many who became life long friends. I’ve already mentioned some, but if it hadn’t been for people like Michael Lessa, Marsha Carrington, Scott Santoro, Kevin Kutchaver,  Dorne Huebner, Wally Schaab, Bernie Gagliano, Tim Alexander, Blaine Converse, Elisa Bello, Don Q, Ed Eyth, Mark Tamny, Todd Vaziri, Mark Kochinsky and dozens of others, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it.
"Cabin Boy - a Production Illustration I did for the ill-faited CABIN BOY movie.  Yes, it's supposed to look cheesy".


The Ellenshaws secretly rehearse for their Broadway debut (!)
Q:        A couple of years ago you were here in New Zealand for some sort of visual effects conference or something along those lines.  Can you elaborate?
A:  I was asked to make a presentation and to host some seminars for AnimFX in Wellington.  It was a wonderful experience, Kiwis are special people.  I love New Zealand and I would love to live there  one day.
Q:        Did you manage to take a look through WETA while you were here?
A: Well sort of. About 20 of us were invited for a tour of WETA. We all walked into the lobby and each of us had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Our very gracious host then took us through a number of buildings. In each building were large main frame computers, big wires and noisy fans. I kept waiting to go somewhere and see some artwork or at least a few compositors working on shots.  Didn’t happen. Eventually we were shown our way out. It was pretty much a waste of time. I really don’t know what the hell that was about anyway, I guess I just violated the non-disclosure agreement, that I had nothing to disclose. (laughs)
Xena - u r there: matte painting layout for a XENA-WARRIOR PRINCESS episode in 2000
Q:        Of course you’ve had a connection with my country previously as effects chief on the XENA-WARRIOR PRINCESS television series, shot here in NZ.
A: I worked for two seasons on both XENA-WARRIOR PRINCESS and HERCULES -THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS.  Probably more fun and satisfying than working on movies.
Q:        How so?
A: There were thirteen episodes each season for each show and literally thousands of effects shots.  If there’s a shot or two that don’t work fully, there is no time to agonize, because there is another show and another 300 shots due in a week. 
XENA-WARRIOR PRINCESS background, acrylic on vinyl.  "I did this for the first episode of season six.  It was the background for angels coming down to Hell (!). The angels were CG and the compositors cleaned up my painting so that the brush strokes didn't show.  I wasn't like those other visual effects supervisors who are just another pretty face with a cupboard filled with Oscars....I'm jealous!"
Q:        For XENA and HERCULES, I assume all of the work was digital?  I recall seeing something once about split perspective fx shots, a-la DARBY O’GILL?
A: Yes, it was all digital with the exception of some layouts that I did with paints. The split scale show was done before I was hired.  I only saw parts of it, looked pretty good.

Q:        I’m no lover of the new age of visual effects, as anyone who follows my blog will know.  Sure, the technology is just a ‘tool’, but so often the shots are so badly designed with little if any sense of the laws of physics and and this incessant need for the camera to fly through the eye of a goddamned needle for no purpose other than “because we can”.  Even shots which would be better served with a static camera and a good sense of composition and editing are instead bombastic over the top visual whirlpools which fail instantly once that grounding in film logic is lost.
A:  Yes, I couldn’t have said it better. Just because you can move the camera, doesn’t mean that you should.  But I do have to say that there are really great effects that couldn’t be done without digital.  Excellent example is THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, amazing achievement. 
Harrison's matte painting for THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003) - 31"x48"acrylic and oil on masonite.  "I painted the sky only in oil for a better ability to blend, something I rarely do - but there was such short time to do this 'traditional' matte painting.  I only did a half a dozen matte paintings for this show which was still in complete disarray only weeks before release.  Most were used as layouts with additional digital changes after.  This painting is very close to what's in the show, but with added binocular matte and falling snow".
Q:        Given the opportunity, what would have been your own fantasy film to make mattes for?  Something historical perhaps, a period drama maybe or high end literary adaptation?  
A:  Well, having said I didn’t like science fiction, my favorite treatment of the ones I have pitched to studios is called DISTORTED FREQUENCIES.  Takes place on an alien planet.
Q:        And?
A: Well, I can’t tell you any more about it otherwise it will get ripped off. Though maybe one of Larry Ellison’s children might want to finance it. Ya think?
Rock Face - a production illustration for a yet to be produced project titled DISTORTED FREQUENCIES.

Harrison, pictured here at a book signing with Matt Yuricich a few years ago
Q:        I’m often reminded of Albert Whitlock’s fantasy film which I’d loved to have seen was something Al referred to as TIME AND AGAIN – all set during the late 1800’s in New York City with so much now lost period architecture, bridge building, erecting the Statue of Liberty and sprawling city growth and so forth. He called it the most interesting city in the world for this sort of matte technique.

A: If I ever had a dollar for every film that I took a meeting or lunch with a producer that never got made, I’d be hugely rich. I have a rule of thumb if they ask me to more than two meetings, then it means the film will never get made.

For a recent tv documentary Harrison was taken to the famous JC Backings on the Sony Pictures lot and got to see this classic and iconic George Gibson painted backing for MGM's FORBIDDEN PLANET (1955)... lucky guy!

Q:        So Harrison, what are your proudest career moments and what are your biggest disappointments?
A: Proudest moments? Hard to say, it’s like asking, “Who is your favorite child?”  I love them all and for different reasons. I really can’t say that I had any big disappointments.  I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything. 
Q:        You must feel very fortunate.
A: Yes, I was blessed to have had so many opportunities in my film career. When I worked back then it was a very special time for movies. I worked with a lot of  wonderful people, they were talented and hard working; always striving for excellence. But the thing I will always remember about them is that they loved to share what they knew.... what they had learned. There are no secrets in special effects. Everyone loves to talk about how they solved a problem, they screwed up.  For a long time the studios didn’t want anyone to know what was a miniature or a matte painting or an optical, they felt it would take away the magic. But that is what will always be the real magic; that even when you see how it’s done, it is still magic!!
Harrison's 'Into the Ether' - mixed media on board


Well friends...I have lot's more but that's about all I can manage today (well several days in fact...neck sore...fingers ready to drop off!)

*Coming up next:  I was talking to matte artist Richard Kilroy recently about his dynamite DARKMAN matte shots and he (rightly) suggested I do a blog on that style of matte shot, so, next up will be A Matter of Perspective where I'll take a look at lots of those extreme matte shots with bold, exciting perspective and vanishing points - you all know the sort of shot I mean.  I've got some great shots already.

*Also, coming soon:  I'm proud to say that one of my favourite matte and all round trick shot exponents, Mark Sullivan has 'signed on' for the NZPete Q&A, which is so exciting as Mark has contributed so many magnificent effects shots over the years, yet he has maintained a shockingly low profile in doing so.  I can't wait to 'chew the fat' with Mark, and I know many of you will feel likewise.