Monday, 2 June 2014


THE UNSEEN WORLD OF THE VISUAL EFFECTS CINEMATOGRAPHER:     A tribute to the epic career of Irmin Roberts, ASC

All who frequent this blog will be fully aware of the importance I endeavour to place at the feet of those many, often uncredited and little known movie matte shot artists who have thrilled and delighted us endlessly through the first 80 odd years of the motion picture.  The sense of wonder we experience when the talents of the matte painter can transport us to another place, another time and even another universe, armed with the merest of rudimentary tools – oil paint or pastels, glass or hardboard – not to mention an instinctive ‘feel’ on the part of the artist as to just what will or won’t work for this most peculiar avenue of cinematic sleight of hand.  The matte artist of course is just part of the final creative equation, with the too often unheralded technical skills of the matte shot cameraman usually overlooked or bypassed altogether.

It is a rare commodity indeed for a matte painter to be his own cinematographer, especially in the days of the studio system. Norman Dawn shot his own mattes for decades while an independent effects man, though wouldn't have when he eventually worked at MGM under Warren Newcombe in the 1940's. Certain latter day traditional era matte exponents like Jim Danforth and Ray Caple would, on many of their projects often set up, shoot the plates, paint the matte and later photograph their paintings and even composite the elements themselves, though this was more a result of the artists or effects provider mentioned being small, often one man ‘cottage’ operations in themselves.

  Among the studios were such greats as Hans Koenekamp, Edwin DuPar and John Crouse at Warner Brothers;  Tom Tutweiller and Mark Davis at MGM;  Ross Hoffman and later Bill Taylor at Universal;  Bill Abbott, Al Irving, Harry Dawes and Ralph Hammeras at 20th Century Fox; Donald Glouner at Columbia; Paul Eagler at Samuel Goldwyn; Roy Seawright at Hal Roach Studios; Clarence Slifer at Selznick; Russell Cully at RKO  and Irmin Roberts at Paramount, who is the subject of today’s special tribute.

The studio system in its heyday boasted a battalion of ace special effects cinematographers who would ensure the work of the matte painter and the live action director was brought together as smoothly and the less detectable the better. Studios went to extraordinary lengths to maintain a veil of secrecy around the actual making of their films inasmuch as hocus pocus which may have been employed to fool the paying audience that what they were seeing on the screen wasn't what it seemed.

I often get emails from family members of veteran effects people who have long since passed away, and while I’m always thrilled to be able to garner further information (*note, I'm just receiving detailed info and material from Fillipo Guidobaldi's grandson - too late for the Pinewood article but absolutely to be included in a future blog... though as usual, I digress) and, in some cases rare images, more often than not the assurances of old photos being shared sadly often never come to fruition.  I am delighted to report that this has not been the case in regards to Irmin Roberts’ family.  The sheer energy levels, kindness and generosity (not to mention patience) of Irmin’s son (Irmin jnr) and his wonderful, good humoured wife Janet, in going beyond the call of duty in securing the somewhat ancient and fragile photograph album containing some 70 odd snapshots of very rare matte shots and set ups from many long forgotten Paramount pictures from the late 1920’s and on into the late 1930’s.   

Getting hold of the photo album is a story in itself, and I won’t bore the reader with the details other than to express my gratitude to Gerel Santiago who, as a member of the extended Roberts family went out of her way – both time wise and geographically to assist in digging out said album.  It’s been a long journey fraught with mishap and I’m so pleased to now be able to celebrate the career of one of the film industry’s most productive and little known technicians:  Irmin Roberts, ASC.

Irmin was born in Los Angeles in 1904 - something of a rare occurance to be actually born in LA at that time I'm told, though quite why that is, I don't really know.  While Irmin’s career was truly epic in scale and duration – having entered the industry in 1927 and working non stop, almost exclusively for Paramount up till 1959, followed by more than a decade of freelance camerawork up to around 1971 – surprisingly little information on his movie work is readily at my - or his very own adult children's fingertips to reveal, sadly.  Irmin, according to his son and daughter in law, was a hard working family man who loved the great outdoors and spent as much time between film assignments with his wife and two children and was by all accounts a quiet, unassuming man who just never saw the need to speak of his work.  It came as something of a surprise to me when probing with many questions about such and such a film, specific big effects shows and winning Oscars and so forth that Irmin’s son and daughter both knew very little about their Dad’s actual day to day work and films he provided photographic effects work on.  It was many years down the track apparently that the family learned of Irmin being included and cited by the Academy for his matte effects camerawork on the Oscar winning SPAWN OF THE NORTH [1938].  He simply never saw a reason to mention it.  Irmin was the kind of 'man of his time' who just got on with the job and never saw it as anything out of the ordinary to win Academy Awards, with half a dozen of his effects shows winning the coveted statuette no less, though as was the procedure of the time the actual technician never took home the little golden fella, with either the studio or the head of department snatching the trophy... and Paramount snatched a bucketful of Oscars in special effects, and received as many again in nomination plaques.   
A wonderful and rare look inside the matte department at Paramount around 1948.  Irmin is seen on the left while his brother Oren - on a brief visit to his old employer - is shown at right.  The middle matte painting is from the Alan Ladd version of THE GREAT GATSBY while the rooftop at far right is from the Bing Crosby picture THE EMPEROR WALTZ. I'm reliably informed that Oren had to be taken by his brothers to the airport and put on a plane back to Argentina due to some romantic entanglement having gone sour!
 I get the firm impression from Janet Roberts that everyone in the family would have loved to have known more and especially now, in this more 'enlightened' film history appreciation era where so much interest is to be had from fellows such as myself in just who these folks were and what they did.  It's now that Irmin's family have so many unanswered questions about his very long and exciting career that can never be fully answered.  Never one to draw attention to himself or his work, he tended to just not mention working with big stars like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, Paulette Goddard, Ray Milland, Barbara Stanwyck, Elvis Presley and Charlton Heston as though he were any regular work-a-day guy like any one of us going on down to the factory for his eight hours at the plant.  Imagine that!
Trade ad for Paramount's head of photographic effects

In the early 1920’s, Irmin’s older brother Oren ‘Bob’ Roberts was employed at Lasky-Paramount as a general cameraman before moving into special photographic effects camerawork around 1921.  In time Bob became head of photographic effects at Paramount, a position he would hold from 1928 to 1932 and when his contract expired in 1935 he would move to Argentina to head up the special effects department in Buenos Aires.  Upon Roberts’ departure Gordon Jennings was brought on board around 1933 to supervise all special effects work at the studio for the next 20 years until his untimely death in 1953. Bob Roberts meanwhile would remain in South America for the remainder of his career, only popping back to the US on occasion on a flying visit, and would continue to oversee visual effects on many Argentinian films.  I assume Bob would work on many projects with artist Ralph Pappier – Argentina’s talented matte painter whose work is quite beautiful and has appeared from time to time in past blogs here.  According to the family lore, Oren did a screen test for Eva Peron.

Irmin marking out a matte onto glass while Jan looks on.
To the best of our fairly limited knowledge, Irmin himself entered the movie industry in 1926, working with his more experienced and camera savvy brother at Paramount and most likely entered into photographic effects the following year, based upon the dates of some of the film stills in Irmin’s old album.  Irmin’s primary area of work was in matte shots: photographing plates on location or on the sound stage and marrying these to the matte paintings created by career matte artist Jan Domela, with whom Irmin would continue to work alongside on scores of films for near on 40 years. 

 I've written many times how fascinated I've always been with not only the painted matte, but the mystery of the 'blend' - the marriage of fact and fiction on a strip of celluloid where, in experienced hands, the join or matte line is next to impossible to spot and can often be in the least expected of places.  It's forever intrigued me this seemingly minor, though important aspect of the craft.  The list of directors whose pictures employed mattes painted by Domela and photographed by Roberts was impressive.  Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Cecil B.DeMille, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, Alfred Hitchcock, Henry Hathaway, Billy Wilder, George Stevens and many others.  

The special effects department at Paramount was a self contained studio in its own right, with Gordon Jennings directing the department, Paul Lerpae running the optical printers, Ivyl Burks in charge of miniatures, Farciot Edouart in charge of process projection and Wallace Kelley later on shooting process plates and transparencies.  Jan Domela, for whom I published an earlier extensive career retrospective, was matte artist for the most part, though I understand veteran Hans Ledeboer may have worked on early films prior to Domela’s signing on around 1927, and in an old article Farciot Edouart even claimed to have painted early glass shots as well.  Later on, future Paramount art director Al Nozaki also worked for a time in the matte department, and in a few instances so too did Chesley Bonestell on a couple of science fiction shows.  Several cinematographers were engaged in the effects department, with Jennings’ older brother Devereaux Jennings looking after miniature shots, along with Art Smith, Dewey Wrigley, Clifford Shirpser and Roy Hunter.

A young Irmin (left) with Jan shooting a plate for a matte in the 1930's
As matte cinematographer, Irmin went largely uncredited – as did matte artist Jan Domela – although the studio conceded to giving out screen credit to both technicians from around 1943 on an occasional basis for films such as FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL (which was an enormous effects show – possibly the biggest for the studio outside of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS) through to films such as THE GREAT GATSBY, KITTY, A CONNECTICUTT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT, WAR OF THE WORLDS and a few others.  Neither Roberts nor Domela could have cared less about the screen credit and both just preferred to get on with the job and do it well.  Interestingly, Irman’s daughter told me that process man Farciot Edouart always insisted on taking all of the credit (and receive on screen credit) for everything, whether deserved or not.  According to Jan Domela's daughter, the studio would offer a better salary package to Jan of he would forego screen credit - which he was happy to do.

Irmin outside the special effects dept.door, approx 1940.
I asked Irmin jnr if he had any recollections of visiting the set or seeing his father working on any special effects shots, and he mentioned just four occasions whereby the family visited sets during production, with just one of those visits being a full revelation of trick shot work in progress.  That film was FRENCHMAN’S CREEK made in 1944:  “The only time I, and the family, ever saw any special effects work was for this film.  The picture was supposed to take place in period England, and the special effects unit’s work was done in the northern coastal area of California, near Albion.  There is a large English Manor House in the picture that was approximately 4 feet high x 4 feet wide hanging miniature which was set up in front of the camera with some artificially created mist.  The only life size structure were the stairs in front of the house.  In the movie one can see a coach being driven up to the (miniature) manor house and people getting out – all filmed realistically with the camera panning across – with the people getting out and going up the stairs into the house.”  In a very rare one off interview Irmin snr described the same effects shot for American Cinematographer in 1974 – more than likely the only occasion where he ever publicly discussed his trick photography work - and said “The New York Paramount people wanted to fire everybody after seeing that, for having the nerve to build a big castle just for a movie, when everybody at the time was stressing economy and the war effort (Irmin chuckles for Amer.Cine interviewer)… That film won an Oscar for Art Direction and Set Decoration, but not for special effects.  The studio never put the film up in that category… it would have won hands down.”

Two frames from FRENCHMAN'S CREEK [1944] with flawless hanging miniature house and background ships etc.

Throughout the thirties and on into the forties, Irmin would continue to create and devise photographic effects on a vast roster of pictures.  All of Cecil B.DeMille’s films required visual effects shots, from perspective miniatures, painted mattes, elaborate process projection and optical combinations.  Among the numerous DeMille pictures which Irmin contributed to was UNCONQUERED [1947] with the river rapids scene being the pivotal action sequence which involved considerable effects work.  The production couldn’t find the perfect river with rapids and waterfall for our principle characters to spill over in a canoe.  A separate river and waterfall from entirely different locales were seamlessly matted together into one, with additional rotoscope and matte art added to allow Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard to wash over the edge and grasp onto a tree limb.

UNCONQUERED [1947] - separate river & waterfall matted as one.
I’m a big Bob Hope fan, as well as a W.C Fields nut as well, and matte shots and effects gags feature in many of their films, many of which are illustrated below.  In that same American Cinematographer interview, Roberts commented on the Golden Era of trick shots:  “The special effects departments came about, not only for the sake of economy, but also because many directors and producers realised that scenes sometimes could be done better by the special effects people than if they were done on the actual location.”  It’s noteworthy that the interviewer states in the article that when he’s closely questioned about his work, Irmin tended to clam up and prove reluctant to part with his secrets. 

WE'RE NO ANGELS [1954] tilt down matte shot.

 With many film makers of the thirties and forties enjoying the controlled environment that studio bound shoots could permit, matte shots were seen as a natural alternative to the real thing, and used quite extensively on many productions.  The interviewer cited above referred to Roberts as one of the few people to qualify for the title of “unsung hero” which, from what I’ve learned from his immediate family would surely embarrass the man no end, as Irmin was not in the slightest one to promote his talents and tended to downplay his work.  Irmin’s son said:  “Dad was never very aggressive or demanding… neither was he ambitious - to my mother’s regret!  Dad once spoke of a movie star who was difficult to work with, but he never revealed the name – this was the type of man he was, no gossip, no complaining.  He didn’t push to be head of any department.  He was just content doing his work and thoroughly enjoyed it.  He respected all people, especially the actors, and never bothered them.  He does have a mug given to him from John Wayne and he was given a silver belt buckle by Barbara Stanwyck from some 1940’s western they worked on.  Dad also received a silver tray from Stanley Kramer in appreciation of his work on IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD [1963].”

Interestingly, a rare public accolade came Irmin’s way in 1953 at the annual Oscar ceremony where Loyal Griggs nabbed the Academy Award for best cinematography for the film SHANE.  When Griggs went up to collect his statuette he turned to the huge audience and said: “I really didn’t win this…Irmin Roberts won this with his second unit.”  A refreshingly kind comment for a generally selfish, single minded and egocentric entertainment industry.

The rather interesting adventure film ELEPHANT WALK was a big visual effects film, with some very complicated travelling matte work, miniatures, and optical combinations.  Irmin travelled to Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) to shoot effects plates and 2nd unit for later matte shots.  It was a life changing experience in more ways than one.  Irmin’s son told me:  “When my father was to return from Ceylon to the USA, the plane on which he was scheduled to fly, the new Comet jetliner blew up mid flight with total loss of life!  Someone had alerted Irmin’s wife Nelle of this event, but fortunately Irmin had been delayed in order to complete some work!

Paramount took the reigns of the burgeoning sci-fi genre in the early fifties with a slew of classic films, often with George Pal's name attached.  We all are familiar with titles such as WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE [1951] and WAR OF THE WORLDS [1953] - both Oscar winners for their visual effects (even though a high number of the best effects shots in the former film were lifted out of other Paramount films and even other studio's films such as TULSA). 
Mention must be made of one of the best special effects films to come out of the 1950's, and one in which Irmin played a significant role behind the cameras - George Pal's THE NAKED JUNGLE [1954] which was directed by another former visual effects cameraman, Byron Haskin.  I've mentioned this film several times in past blog posts and even dedicated an entire article to all of the terrific effects work seen in that film. 

One of Paramount's biggest and most accomplished visual effects productions and one so sorely overlooked by commentators (and that damned Academy...but don't get me started on Oscar injustices as I'm enjoying prepping this article so much!) - a massive assembly of every conceivable type of movie magic - from scores of excellent painted mattes, cel animation, split screen composites, blue screen travelling mattes, rotoscoped flood deluge, excellent miniatures that are not only well constructed but superbly shot out of doors in natural light for maximum realism.... it's all here folks, and what a tremendous visual experience the film is (and one I'd give my left kidney to own on BluRay).  John P. Fulton was in charge of the special effects and it's one of his best efforts with all round top shelf achievement. 

VERTIGO [1958] now famous contra-zoom sequence devised by Irmin.
It was on a pair of Hitchcock films that Irmin especially proved his worth by devising special techniques still in use today.  For REAR WINDOW Roberts designed and built a special camera device which used prisms, short range projection and quick focal changes for a key plot point in the story.  For VERTIGO Irmin is credited with inventing the still popular so called ‘trombone shot’ or ‘contra zoom’ effect where Jimmie Stewart gets spooked when confronted with deep stairwells with the entire set seemingly stretching out to infinity – to brilliant narrative effect.   It’s still in use today though rarely to such fine dramatic effect as in VERTIGO or much later for a key scene in Steven Spielberg’s JAWS which was the other best application of the technique.
Closing shot from DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS [1956]
Irmin had a great love for the great outdoors, with trout fishing and golf being popular past times. Irmin and his wife Nelle were introduced to snow skiing by friend and long time colleague Jan Domela and his wife with the two couples taking numerous ski trips together, first in the local mountains, then later on trips to Sun Valley, Idaho.  Skiing also became the family sport and after WWII most of their vacations were spent skiing.  Irmin would play golf with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (now wouldn't that be something else?) - both resident Paramount stars and absolute golfing nuts.  Golf was the only non-work event that Paramount sponsored. 

One of Paramounts biggest fx shows FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL [1944]

  As I’ve written in other articles, life under Gordon Jennings in the Paramount effects department was a collaborative effort, with Jennings being well liked by technicians and directors alike.  Things changed when  a new head of special effects in the guise of John P. Fulton took over, who seemed determined to run the ship as antagonistically as possible.  Later on, the big conglomerate Gulf+Western bought out the studio and job security was on the line.  Departments were shut down, staff laid off and a general sense of misery settled over the once great studio.  This scenario wasn't unique to Paramount and several other studios were decimated by East Coast accountants along similar lines.  By this time Irmin was working less and less in special effects and more in 2nd unit photography on many movies such as FUN IN ACAPULCO [1963], IN HARMS WAY [1965] and television shows such as THE INVADERS and many others.  In addition to his ongoing film work Irmin was, from 1960 to 1975 on the AMPAS selection committee for film selection for the Best Visual Effects category.
Among Irmin’s last few films were second unit photography on AIRPORT [1970] and the Paul Newman film SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION [1971] and for his last big scale assignment he was recruited by L.B Abbott to assist on the effects photography on TORA TORA TORA [1970] - a truly epic effects showcase deserving of it's best VFX Oscar.  In 1976 Irmin and Nelle retired to the quiet life in Palm Springs, California, with Irmin passing away some two years later.

ROAD TO MOROCCO matte shot
What follows is a significant collection of many of the mattes and effects shots that Irmin made during his very long career.  Most have never been seen before.  Approximately 70 are directly taken from the old photo album still in the care of the Roberts family, though none of those pictures were dated nor correlated to any titles, I have managed to date and name around a dozen of those frames through diligent research.  The remaining 150+ photos are a combination of my own collection and those provided me some five years ago by Jan Domela's daughter, Johanna Domela Movassat, to whom I'm most grateful.  I'd like to acknowledge the generosity of Irmin Roberts, jnr, and his wonderful wife Janet - for whom no ask was too great it seems.

**If anyone can identify the mystery shots, please contact me.


Irmin ( second from right) at the camera for a special effects sequence from what I thought to be SPAWN OF THE NORTH [1938] as that looks like director Henry Hathaway pointing out, but the cameras look as though they are Technicolor units, whereas the film was in black & white.

The matte camera set up on the backlot at Paramount, probably around the early 1930's.  Man on left is unknown camera assistant but middle is Jan Domela and right is Irmin Roberts.

Erich von Stroheim's silent masterpiece THE WEDDING MARCH [1928] marks but one of scores of cathedrals and church matte shots that Roberts and Domela would make during the years.

Rare mattes from Ernst Lubitsch's silent picture THE PATRIOT [1928] - now thought to be a lost film.

An unknown before shot

Unknown composite matte

Unknown before shot

Unknown composite matte, with what seems to be Notre Dame cathedral, probably from some silent or early talkies era.

Unknown before shot

Unknown composite matte

Unknown before & after matte shot

Unknown matte painted composite
Unknown before & after matte

Veteran Paramount matte artist Jan Domela taking a break from an unidentified matte painting.

Unknown before & after matte

Unknown painted matte

Unknown composite of above

Unknown Paramount matte - 1930's

Unknown matte composite (matte line just discernible running across through foliage)

Unknown matte composite (note the soft blend running across above actors heads)
Unknown matte before & after

Unknown matte composite - late 1920's or early 1930
Unknown matte composite

At last, a title... THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE [1932] - a quite controversial pre-code movie of the era.

Before shot on the Paramount back lot, possibly for THE PATRIOT [1928]

Composite matte of above

Some interesting before & afters from another unknown Paramount picture
Unknown matte composite inscribed "Irmin Roberts 1926 special effects"

Unknown before & matte art, but no final comp available

A before set up from the film FOLLOW THRU [1930] - a very early Technicolor picture.

Composite matte from FOLLOW THRU

Also from FOLLOW THRU is this most bizarre of musical song & dance numbers which combines imagination (what were they thinking?) with dazzling visual effects work.  The troop of chorus girls work themselves up into such a state that they burst into flames mid song...and continue on singing and dancing while being totally enveloped in an inferno, at which point a fire truck flies down out of the matte painted clouds and extinguishes the seemingly asbestos driven girls!  I've seen some wacky Busby Berkley type numbers in my time but nothing even comes near this one for sheer audacity, and excellent (and I do mean 'excellent') optical composite work where flames lick around, behind, in front with total realism.  Irwin Allen eat your heart out!

Unknown before & after

Unknown before & after
Glass shot from the 1928 film INTERFERENCE which some sources claim was painted by Farciot Edouart.

Unknown matte art

Composite of above

Unknown before & after

Unknown before matte

Unknown composite of above

A beautiful matte from the exquisite Ernst Lubitsch film BROKEN LULLABY [1931]
Also from BROKEN LULLABY.  A wonderful film BTW

Unknown matte composite

Unknown matte before & after

Unknown matte composite

Unknown before & after

Unknown matte painted composite

Unknown before & after

Unknown before & after ballroom
An interesting look at how a miniature set up is photographed and composited into the final film.  The movie is the Bing Crosby WE'RE NOT DRESSING [1934].  I'm surprised at how large the model ships are for just the one long shot.

One of my all time favourite films, The Marx Brothers' DUCK SOUP [1933].  Groucho: "Don't forget, we're fighting for this woman's honour - which is probably more than she ever did."

Unknown matte shot with features that show up in several of these mystery mattes, suggesting a number of shots are from the same film

Before shot and matte art from George Burns' HERE COMES COOKIE [1935]

I've a soft spot for the insanity of the great W.C Fields, with this bizarre treat MILLION DOLLAR LEGS [1939] having some great gags - this title card over Jan Domela's matte art not withstanding.

A better view of the wonderful Domela matte art

The same matte composite without the intrusive overlay which was also used in the film FORCED LANDING [1941] and at least one other Paramount movie.

Matte art and final comp from the George Raft film PICK UP [1932]
Unknown before

Unknown matte comp

Unknown location plate shot

Final composited matte shot from an unknown film

An unidentified matte that's possibly from the Gary Cooper film BEAU SABREUR [1928]

Very early glass shots from the film UNDERWORLD [1927]

W.C Fields' film POPPY [1936] with almost all of the frame here painted in by Jan Domela and expertly blended by Irmin with a soft, irregular matte.

Unknown matte shot - late 20's or early 30's

Unknown comp and painted matte from a film that looks like it stars either Gary Cooper or Cary Grant, judging by the fellow seen at right.

The very strange INTERNATIONAL HOUSE [1933] with W.C Fields and Bela Lugosi sharing the screen (!)

Also from INTERNATIONAL HOUSE is this foreground miniature shot with ceiling added in camera, filmed with a pan

Unknown matte shot

Unknown matte shot
Unknown before and matte art

Also from that same unknown film is this very small live action element which will be beautifully integrated by Roberts with Domela's painting as shown below.

Matte composite from above, with everything here painted except small centre section with archway.
Cecil B.DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS [1932]

unknown before

Unknown matte comp with similarities to several other untitled matte shots in this collection.

Before and after matte from Ronald Colman's IF I WERE KING [1938]

A close view of Domela's matte painting from above film

Painting and partial set from IF I WERE KING [1938]

Final comp from IF I WERE KING

Unknown composite matte

Matte from Ernst Lubitsch's 1933 film DESIGN FOR LIVING

Matte composite shot from PARAMOUNT ON PARADE [1930]

Another of Irmin and Jan's matte shots from PARAMOUNT ON PARADE

Unknown matte

For Mae West's I'M NO ANGEL [1933] a series of carefully concealed split screen mattes brought the leading star and a lion together seemingly in the same scene.

Unknown matte

The opening matte painted shot from Cecil B.DeMille's THE CRUSADES [1935]

Before and after from THE CRUSADES
Also from THE CRUSADES is this elaborate and perfectly executed composite - quite likely a foreground miniature set up of rooftops and ships in the harbour, with the actual rope ladder adding a sense of believability to the shot.

An excellent, though unidentified before and after that one would never suspect as a trick.

Unknown before & after

A partial set masked off by Irmin from an unknown Paramount film

The final composite, as yet unidentified.

The long forgotten 1933 adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND was a delight to behold, with much imagination and flair - moreso in fact than any later cinematic editions of the classic story.  Packed with cameos such as Gary Cooper, interesting transformation opticals, great process work and, for it's time, very impressive animatronic and character make up.

Matte composite from THE RETURN OF DR FU MAN CHU [1930]
The partial set for another scene in THE RETURN OF DR FU MAN CHU

The final comp from RETURN OF DR FU MAN CHU

A pair of mattes from W.C Fields' hilarious MISSISSIPPI  [1935] - a film noteworthy for the single funniest poker game in movie history!!

Unknown matte
A matte composite from the Gary Cooper film ONLY THE BRAVE [1930]

Another matte painted shot from ONLY THE BRAVE

Unknown before shot with unfinished interior and upper floor.

The finished comp of above set up with all of 2nd floor and ceiling etc painted in.

An unknown early matte shot

A well executed trick shot from THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS [1934] with a sweeping camera pan across the harbour filled with tall ships and across to a military compound - complete with a final push in.

The second floor here has been added by Roberts and Domela for Mae West's SHE DONE HIM WRONG [1933]

Unknown before & after
A partial set masked off by Irmin to conform to what will be a substantial painted matte by Jan Domela - film unknown

Jan Domela's painting prior to being photographed and composited by Irmin.

The glorious finished matte shot from a yet to be identified Paramount film...
Unknown before & after

Ernst Lubitsch's classic satirical masterpiece TROUBLE IN PARADISE [1932]

Another Lubitsch film matte shot - MONTE CARLO [1930]

Before and after from the Technicolor sarong picture HER JUNGLE LOVE [1938] featuring one of Hollywood's best visual effects... the exquisite Dorothy Lamour.  Enough said!
An invisible before and after from Mae West's BELLE OF THE NINETIES [1934]

A superbly accomplished matte shot from BELLE OF THE NINETIES with live action foreground, painted building and trees with very well integrated fire and smoke elements doubled in to tremendous effect.

An unknown film partial set on backlot...

...and the invisible finished matte shot as seen on screen.

Two mattes from Gary Cooper's THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER [1934]

A matte composite from MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW [1937]

Unknown before & after matte painted shot
An existing location has been masked off by Irmin in preparation for matte painted extensions later on.

Jan's matte art completed to marry up with Irmin's 'plate' photography...

...and the finished shot from yet another unidentified film (but I am slowly correlating many of these mystery shots to the actual films, though it's a slow process... any assistance would be welcomed).

This very rudimentary facade on the backlot will be skillfully transformed by Irmin and Jan.....

...into this undetectable painted matte trick shot from an unknown 1930's film.
Another backlot set masked off by Irmin for painted additions.

...with this matte comp being the final scene from another unknown film.

It's taken me years to I.D this and the shot below, but I only just nailed it a couple of nights ago.  The film is DeMille's original 1938 version of THE BUCCANEER which by the way was far more satisfying than the later 1958 remake.

Sensational before and afters also from THE BUCCANEER [1938], though they kind of marred the final shot (not shown here) by matting additional ships masts and junk over the foreground where it just wasn't called for.

Matte painted top up from the film MIDNIGHT [1939] with a soft matte blend running midway through the tree and column whereby Domela has painted everything from that point on upward.

Matte work from the film EASY LIVING [1937]

Unidentified matte that looks like it might possibly be an out take from either THE BUCCANEER or MISSISSIPPI?

Ceilings were a very common matte assignment throughout the 1930's and 40's, partially to conceal studio lighting rigs and also to cut down on production costs whereas it was so much cheaper and quicker to have a matte artist just paint it in later.  Many of these sorts of matte tricks are very hard to spot and tend to slip by un-noticed.  This wonderful matte before and after is from the equally delightful Gary Cooper picture PETER IBBETSON [1935]
Also from PETER IBBETSON we can see a small partially constructed set on the Paramount stage which Irmin has demarcated with black masking in front of his camera to produce a latent image 'plate' is Jan's meticulous painting carefully matching light, shadow and lines of perspective.

The finished shot which you'd never pick as a matte trick.

Unknown before shot

The final painted matte comp from same mystery film.

Another mystery film with a revealing look at the actual location at left prior to Irmin's carefully masked off area of unwanted scenery which will be replaced by Jan with an entirely new 'location'.

Jan's matte painted scene which will be added by Irmin to his original masked footage.

...and the final shot seemlessly blended as one, from another mystery Paramount picture circa 1935.
an unknown before shot

The finished shot with painted in ceiling and chandelier that's hard to spot as a special effect.

A successful multi element effects shot from Gary Cooper's BEAU GESTE [1939]

Matte shot from the Mae West picture KLONDIKE ANNIE [1936]

A one time mystery photo now happily solved is this opening matte shot from the Bob Hope comedy NEVER SAY DIE [1939]

Another NEVER SAY DIE matte

Another delightful Jan Domela matte from NEVER SAY DIE [1939]

An unknown films painted cathedral - one of many such shots handled by Irmin and Jan over 40 odd years.
For Cecil B.DeMille's UNION PACIFIC [1939] featured an elaborate train wreck sequence, part of which required the actors to be matted underneath a fast moving miniature train.  The film was Oscar nominated for it's visual effects.

An unidentified Paramount film which looks suspiciously like an out take from W.C Fields' MISSISSIPPI to me.

The same shot once topped up with matte artwork.

A nicely done matte with help from Paul Lerpae's optical department from the Jack Benny comedy BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN [1940]

An unidentified painting by Jan Domela

Composite of the painting to a limited set.

A matted in city skyline from Preston Sturges' THE GREAT McGINTY [1940]

Two mattes from another Preston Sturges picture THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK [1943]
The excellent WWII picture WAKE ISLAND [1942] had much fast and furious battle action, with impressive mechanical effects and full scale sequences.  Among the photographic effects was this matte shot of the fleet engaged in battle.

Before & after frames from MY FRIEND IRMA [1949]

A vast number of effects shots featured in the Oscar winning SPAWN OF THE NORTH [1938] with Irmin and the rest of the team being awarded the first Academy Award for special effects.  This frame shows miniature salmon fishing boats in the tank at Paramount, prior to the addition of Jan Domela's extensive matte painting.

The finished shot

Another before and after from the same film.

The same film - Jan Domela's matte art

Irmin's finished matte composite with everything perfectly blended as one.
Same film

Another of Domela's many matte paintings from SPAWN OF THE NORTH

Mattes provided bridges and gullies for Bob Hope's very funny CAUGHT IN THE DRAFT [1941]

Matte shot from HERE COME THE WAVES [1944]

The huge special effects show FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL [1944] saw record numbers of mattes and composite shots as well as miniatures and over 200 process shots used to tell the long and not entirely interesting story.  Some of the composite shots had multiple elements matted together with pockets of model work matted into painted scenes and these in turn split screened with live action location footage shot at Sonora Pass, which was standing in for Franco's Spain

Another of the 50 odd matte painted shots from FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL
Same film

Gary Cooper amidst much matte work in FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL

Bob Hope's THE GHOST BREAKERS [1940]

The 1945 period drama KITTY utilised this hanging miniature to extend an already lavish set and facilitate a tilt up

The scene from KITTY with the foreground miniature employed as an in camera effect.

Irmin and Jan actually received screen credit here for the extensive matte work on Bing Crosby's A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT [1949]

An intriguing multi part matte shot from the same film, with what appears to be three separate live action elements combined and blended with some matte art to tie the whole shot together as one. 

One of many matte painted shots that Irmin and Jan supplied for A CONNECTICUT YANKEE.
Two mattes from Bob Hope's THE LEMON DROP KID [1951]

There were some great effects shots in the 1940 science fiction show DR CYCLOPS, with some imaginative process projection that still looks great and split screens in addition to the few painted mattes.

Another painted matte from DR CYCLOPS which was nominated for it;s effects work.

Four mattes from Bob Hope's classic MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE [1946]

Technicolor matte from Cecil B. DeMille's NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE [1940]

The first of the popular 'Road' pictures was ROAD TO SINGAPORE [1940]

And here's a matte from ROAD TO MOROCCO [1942]

The fourth 'Road' picture, ROAD TO UTOPIA [1945] was the biggest effects wise, with a large number of painted mattes and other trick shots.
Same film

The 1943 war film SO PROUDLY WE HAIL was another of Paramount's nominees in the special effects category.

SO PROUDLY WE HAIL had excellent miniature and process work to bring many sequences together and some effective scenes with dive bombers matted into the live action

Matte shots from the western spoof THE PALE FACE [1948]

Some mattes from the action adventure film ROPE OF SAND [1949]

Trick shots from STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM [1942]

The haunted house from Ray Milland's THE UNINVITED [1944] was an entirely painted matte environment.
A really good hard boiled film noir was this early Alan Ladd masterpiece THIS GUN FOR HIRE [1942]

A rare look at one of Jan's paintings on the matte stand while being photographed by Irmin for the film THE GREAT GATSBY [1949]

Some of the numerous mattes used for Billy Wilder's THE EMPEROR WALTZ [1948]

A matte shot that was ultimately cut from the final film:  THE EMPEROR WALTZ
The popular Bing Crosby drama GOING MY WAY [1944] with much of the above scene added in by Irmin and Jan.


A matte painted scene from Billy Wilder's SABRINA [1954]

The action melodrama THUNDER IN THE EAST [1951] was another of those quite rare occasions where bothe Irmin and Jan received actual screen credit.

One of the matte shots seen in Alan Ladd's WHISPERING SMITH [1948]

While on trains, here's a great sequence from DeMille's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH [1952] with a massive train wreck miniature set up where Irmin and Dev Jennings have matted in an area of ground with panicked people running away as the train plows off the tracks.
As mentioned earlier in this article, I have nothing but the highest admiration for the multitude of special effects work seen in the George Pal rampaging ant movie THE NAKED JUNGLE [1954].  Above is one of the large number of excellent Domela matte paintings employed to simulate the South American setting.

More from THE NAKED JUNGLE with Chuck Heston about to be deluged with a massive tidal wave.  Most of the above shot is painted, with just a narrow ditch constructed for Heston to run through, with a great rush of water rotoscoped in behind him.

Some of the outstanding Ivyl Burks miniature work seen in NAKED JUNGLE.

Another of Domela's wonderful mattes, with numerous fire elements optically printed in.

The epic closing matte shot from THE NAKED JUNGLE - a film that should have been considered for best special effects Oscar, as it's that good.

A matte test shot from the VistaVision film OMAR KHAYYAM [1958]

The Italian villa matte shot from CAPTAIN CAREY USA [1950]
Another great Paramount effects show was the problematic production ELEPHANT WALK [1954] which required Irmin to fly to Ceylon to shoot elements for special effects shots and 2nd unit material of elephants to be matted into other footage later on.  The above shot is a dense, complex optical marry up of a number of Irmin's elephant plates carefully married together as a mass of elephants, with some Domela matte art used in certain parts of the frame to conceal matte lines and artifacts.  Irmin's son told me that when Vivien Leigh had to be replaced with Elizabeth Taylor, his father was sent to London for a month to shoot back up work for the scenes that had to be re-shot with Liz Taylor acting with or to be intercut with Peter Finch.  Irmin had to shoot special plates for the many Liz Taylor scenes which were supposedly taking place on a plantation near Kandy in Ceylon as it then called.  It was problematic and apparently it was decided to do much of the picture all over again in London because of the change of  lead actresses.

The sensational, action packed climax with live action foreground, miniature homestead in flames, painted backing and some minor matte art to tie it together.  For the low angle rampaging elephant shots, Irmin and his assistant were put into a dug-out in the ground with an iron grill over the top.  The elephants trampled all over the top of this while the cameras rolled.  The perils of film making.

Another effects shot from ELEPHANT WALK shows Elizabeth Taylor matted into a miniature balcony of the plantation homestead as it goes up in flames.

Matte shot from Hitchcock's 1956 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH with everything except the courtyard and garage doorway being one of Jan Domela's painted mattes.

An interesting triple trick shot from THE BRIDGES AT TOKO RI [1954] where the same aircraft carrier has been flopped and matted on either side of the pier, with some matte art supplied at the end of the pier and beyond to balance the shot.  It should be noted that by this point Irmin was moving more and more into second unit camera work and less involved with special effects.

Another of George Pal's sci-fi epics was CONQUEST OF SPACE [1955] with effects that were less than the standard seen in other similar films.  The above is a full matte painting with just the small area where the astronauts are being 'real'.

Irmin is shown here on location in Peru shooting plates for the largely studio bound SECRET OF THE INCAS [1954]

An unfinished matte test for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS [1956].  The mountain is a Jan Domela painting and the shot as seen in the final film would have actors blue screened into the close foreground.

One of optical cinematographer Paul Lerpae's original effects breakdowns for the pillar of fire sequence from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS with blank space visible where Irmin will matte Jan's painted rockface into the shot.

A group photo of the Oscar winning effects crew from the above film.  John P.Fulton is seated in the middle with Paul Lerpae to the right of him.  Irmin is shown seated next to the woman, while Ivyl Burks is seen crouching next to Irmin at the extreme left.  Jan Domela is visible standing at the back, second from right, with Farciot Edouart standing slightly in front of Jan.

Matte shot from Danny Kaye's THE COURT JESTER [1955]

A split screen matte composite combining different locations for THE COURT JESTER.

Valley and mountains added as matte art for HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS [1960]
The farm homestead from THE RAINMAKER [1956] extended via matte art.

Jack Arnold's sci fi flick THE SPACE CHILDREN [1958]

The excellent Richard Widmark Korean war drama TIME LIMIT [1957] - the only film ever directed by actor Karl Malden.

New York in 1905 as seen matte painted in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis western PARDNERS [1956]

Although it won the Oscar for special effects, George Pal's WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE [1951] was something of a hit or miss affair, though some of the effects work was sensational such as this superbly done set piece.  The Times Square view was stock footage out of an old Danny Kaye film, from which Gordon Jennings' effects crew duplicated the view by constructing a rudimentary, non detailed mock up though with identical angles and perspective which was covered in black velvet. Water was released from dump tanks onto the black clad mock up from which density mattes were successfully pulled by Paul Lerpae.  The frothing, surging, turbulent water elements were then matted back into the original Times Square stock footage, with which the mass and movement of the deluge precisely conformed to exactly where the buildings stood, with the help of rotoscope artists who 'massaged' the edges of the water with articulated mattes and successive optical printing.  The sequence works a treat and looks terrific - in fact 100% better than an identical sequence executed almost 20 years later for the huge budget METEOR [1979] with utterly dire results.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE miniature photography

Another big Paramount effects movie was WAR OF THE WORLDS [1953] - a sensation in it's day and another Oscar winner for visual effects.  Packed with all sorts of effects, many of which still look pretty good (despite the wires being constantly visible).  Above is a nice split screen matte comp with Gene Barry on the backlot matted with a miniature street and possibly some painted sections in between for the nearest building on the fx side of the split.
Same film - a matte shot that tends not to get noticed.  The foreground is most likely a miniature.

One of my favourite shots in WAR OF THE WORLDS. 

Same film

Same film, with Gordon Jennings shown standing at right of miniature set.
WAR OF THE WORLDS miniature sets and Martian spaceship ready for a take.

same film...'Let the fun begin'.

Ivyl Burks' miniatures crew with the LA City Hall model, which I read somewhere was possibly left over from another film

An entirely matte department created town from LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL [1959]

Anthony Quinn's matte painted ranch from LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL

Alfred Hitchcock's classic VERTIGO [1958] saw Irmin come into his own with the development of what would become known throughout the film community as the 'contra zoom' -  a technique where a carefully planned dolly in camera move could be combined simultaneously with a zoom out lens move to create an amazing in camera illusion whereby the background seems to stretch outward way out of proportion with the foreground - to un nerving effect!  It's commonly accepted that Irmin was the originator of that technique on this film.

A memorable VERTIGO matte painted extension where Jan Domela has painted in the non existent tower, all of the trees, part of the mission roof and the moody sky.

Another of my all time favourite matte shots, as I love these extreme perspective painted mattes so much.  The tower is pure Domela artwork as is the tiled roof and the stand of trees to the right.  Absolute masterpiece of effects shots.

A multi element photographic effect here from Humphrey Bogart's WE'RE NO ANGELS [1954].  I'm guessing here that the ship, horizon and sky are painted on glass; the water is real and looks to be rear projected, while the foreground is likely an Ivyl Burks miniature.

Jan Domela matte painted scenery and rooftops from WE'RE NO ANGELS

An extensive matte painting from the Clark Gable picture TEACHER'S PET [1958]

Irmin Roberts on some unidentified far flung location doing what he loved to do... making movie magic.                                       Irmin E.Roberts: 1904-1978


  1. Pete - what a wonderful tribute to a wonderful artist! I always admired the effects in Paramount films, even as a young child! Thanks so much!
    Mike G - Nashville

    1. Hi Mike,

      It's been a while since I heard from my 'Tennessee Connection'. I spent some time at a medical conference in Knoxville TN some years ago... real friendly folks, but such lousy beer! Got me initiated into Jack Daniels that crazy American beer!

      Glad you enjoyed the article... I often worry that I just type up and collate all this old stuff just for myself. For my money, I'd rather read about these guys and there achievements than any of the "X-Men" generation of over the top visuals that just numb me senseless.



  2. Pete,

    Another great entry! Thanks for sharing so much (unfortunately) obscure information and imagery.

    It's a shame many 1930s Paramounts are just sitting in a vault somewhere. I would suppose the people at Universal, who now own most of the pre-1948 Paramounts (how I understand it at least) probably don't think there is enough of an audience for such old films. Recently, Olive films has been releasing some of the 1940s and '50s Paramount movies onto DVD and Blu Ray. Perhaps sometime they will start making available some of the "unknowns" you've pictured above.

  3. Hi there Mark

    Always great to hear from you! Yes, I've noticed and acquired some of those Olive Films releases myself (THIS GUN FOR HIRE with Alan Ladd is terrific) and like you, just wish someone somewhere would 'pull finger' and get more old Paramount shows released. There must be hundreds of negatives or interpos prints just sitting and getting mouldy in some vault somewhere.


  4. Lord of the Rings animation director Randall William Cook wrote me with an identification of a before & after mystery matte shot in this article. The shot with several kids in a large cave with lots of stallegtites is from TOM SAWYER [1930]. Thanks Randy.