Friday 6 December 2019

MATTE PAINTING REVIEW: A Selection of Overlooked Films - Part Six

Hello friends and fellow fans of traditional era motion picture visual trickery.  It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to tackle a new post for this blog as I've been doing my civic duty as an elected juror in the New Zealand justice system.  This has been the third time I've landed a place on a panel of fellow jurors, though the other occasions were nothing compared with this intense and multi-layered four week High Court trial (which threatened to go over into a fifth week!)  Talk about 12 Angry Men (and women).  Glad to be finally finished with that I can tell you.

All round vfx exponent, Jim Aupperle on FLESH GORDON.
Anyway, back to the blog.  As well as a terrific Blast From The Past tribute I've pulled together some really interesting material here today from a positively eclectic - to say the least - selection of films that you would be most unlikely to ever see on the same 'triple bill' (if such a mode of viewing even exists nowadays).  I've got a solid old MGM exotic adventure picture, GREEN FIRE, with Stewart Granger and Grace Kelly which has some nice matte and miniature work.  Also featured is a lightweight Demi Moore vehicle titled THE BUTCHER'S WIFE which, though not especially memorable,  has some wonderful Illusion Arts matte shots and visual gags.  Lastly, I am proud to present a comprehensive overview of one of the most notorious films of the seventies, the delightfully insane parody FLESH GORDON - a deliriously naughty, sci-fi romp that in true early seventies 'all or nothing' collective creativity captures all of the old time serial flavour and fervour with a great deal of affection, and 'balls to the wall' special effects from a multitude of junior visual fx exponents who would all go on to bigger things and, in some cases, Academy Award - Hollywood Walk-of-Fame glory in their own right.  The sort of flick from a sadly lost era that simply wouldn't and couldn't be produced in the suffocating cinematic climate of today.
But first, let us pay some long overdue attention to an unsung hero of the matte painting world, Joseph Natanson in a real Blast From The Past.



Joseph Natanson is a name probably completely unknown to the majority of my readers, though his career in the matte shot industry stretched back over several decades and featured in both the British effects medium and later with great success with numerous studios in Europe.
Noted surrealist artist and very much in-demand matte painter Joseph Natanson.

Joseph (or Jozef) was born in Poland and took his artistic abilities to Britain and found himself gainfully employed as a matte painter in 1947 on the exquisite Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger ballet epic THE RED SHOES alongside fellow painters Ivor Beddoes and Les Bowie, matte cinematographer Leslie Dear and optical effects wiz George Gunn.
Joseph had a knack for surrealist painting - in fact he had quite a claim to fame in that artform - so I'm sure that was what caught the eye of Powell and Pressburger, with the film requiring dozens of dazzling mattes and eye popping vfx transformations.
Dazzling Technicolor matte magic from Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's beautiful THE RED SHOES (1947)
Rare before and after frames from one of Joseph's mattes from THE RED SHOES.

A film I never expected to so much as 'get through', but instead found it utterly enchanting:  THE RED SHOES.

Natanson at work, and mattes from FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1961)
Joseph worked also for some time with the legendary father of British 'Process Shots', Walter Percy Day - or Poppa Day as he was known by many.  Working with Day and other artists such as George Samuels, Bob Cuff, Judy Jordan and Albert Julion at Shepperton Studios, as well as with effects cameraman Wally Veevers who would take over the department upon Day's retirement in 1952. Natanson departed around 1954 and moved to Italy where his skills were in constant demand by studios such as Cinecitta on a never ending stream of 'sword and sandal' cheapies, grand historic costume adventures and numerous CinemaScope epics of a Biblical slant.  Films included shows such as HEROD THE GREAT, CAST A GIANT SHADOW and Michael Curtiz' FRANCIS OF ASSISI as well as some mattes for the big effects laden Warner Bros extravaganza HELEN OF TROY, the mammoth Fox spectacle CLEOPATRA (1963) - which earned an Oscar that year for it's matte paintings - and some subtle painted additions for the Sean Connery medieval whodunnit THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1986) to name but a few.  Joseph worked on over eighty films in his long and busy career with his last motion picture credit listed in 1991 for LA MONTAGNA DI DIAMANTI.  He passed away, aged in his nineties in 2003.  Certainly one of the many unsung and little acknowledged masters of the matte painting world.  What follows are some examples of an unsung effects artists' trick work.

Natanson mattes from various Italian films:  Top left NEFERTITI QUEEN OF THE NILE (1961); Top right MASTER STROKE (1967); Lower left THE MINOTAUR (1961); Lower right COLOSSUS AND THE AMAZON QUEEN (1960).
Before and after shots from PUCCINI (1953)

Another of Joseph's matte shots, this being from LUCRECIA BORGIA (1953) which appears to be a multi part composite with different Roman landmarks matted together and extended with painted elements.

A remarkable before and after matte from the film ETERNA FEMMINA (1954).  **These, and a sizeable number of other very rare photos came to me by way of another matte legend Harrison Ellenshaw who many years ago received a weighty package in the post from British matte artist and all round effects expert Ian Scoones.  Ian had trained under Les Bowie and begun his career on THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (recently covered in another major blog here).  Ian told Harrison that he had retrieved a mass of material from a garbage skip at London's Technicolor Laboratories way back in 1961, with the stash including a number of ancient Percy Day and Peter Ellenshaw mattes, hence the collection being forwarded to Harison for appraisal and examination.  Given the origin of the photos, it appears that even the foreign titles illustrated here must have had the requisite post-production photographic effects work carried out in London.  As always, I'm very grateful indeed to Harrison for sharing all such 'museum gems' with me, as is the generosity of the man.  Interestingly, an almost identical, though smaller collection of photos went up for auction in the UK recently, possibly the same collection though I've seen both and some prints show different markings etc.  The plot thickens!
20th Century Fox spent a bloody fortune on CLEOPATRA (1963), and it nearly broke the studio.  Production initially commenced in England, with even some matte and glass shots being completed before the plug was pulled.  The top heavy production resumed a while later entirely in Italy.  The film, as dull as it was, managed to grab the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year (stolen outright from the more deserving THE BIRDS, though I digress).  Emil Kosa jnr accepted the statuette though I'm not sure just how much he had to do with the hands-on matte work.  There were only 3 or 4 mattes in the film, with two of them being rendered as old style in-camera glass shots.  Ralph Hammeras did one majestic shot utilising dual glasses - possibly on a stateside location, one other of Rome was probably a studio made matte done back at Fox, maybe by Kosa himself, while Joseph Natanson and Mary Bone rendered the staggering establishing shot on the film's European location shown above.

Natanson, like many of the Europe based matte exponents, such as the great Emilio Ruiz and many others, often preferred to render their mattes in-camera as latent image foreground glass shots, with superb results.  Noted Production Designer John DeCuir designed and orchestrated the glass shots for CLEOPATRA, with a fair chunk of experience in mattes as assistant to Russ Lawson at Universal Studios from the late 1930's through to the mid 1940's.

There is much to be said for the oldest trick technique since the invention of the movie camera... the glass shot!  It's still admired and even used, though sparingly, in recent times to my delight.

The final frame from the extremely impressive panoramic glass shot.  *See below for the backstory...

Matte painted city and port of Alexandria with British muralist Mary Adshead Bone (left) and Joseph Natanson shown surveying their work in progress.  The glass and camera set up was located in a small historic castle south of Rome in the village of Nettuno.  The building was perfect for DeCuir to use for his matte painters as the vantage point was exactly what they were looking for, as was the elevation.  The small castle was linked to the mainland by an old causeway or stone bridge.  A platform on the rooftop was set up with two giant plates of glass locked off at right angles.  A miniature stone statue was placed in such a fashion to obscure the join where the two glasses met - an old Fox gag used hundreds of times by the effects department since the twenties to invisible effect.  DeCuir recruited British mural painter Mary Bone to come to Rome to assist Joseph in this mammoth undertaking.  She came highly recommended and Natanson spoke very highly of her, as he did of his involvement with CLEOPATRA.  The work proceeded on time and without problems until delays on the main production unit meant the giant glass shot couldn't be used exactly when scheduled. Stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were both escorted up to the platform to see the trick for themselves and were reportedly most impressed with what they saw.  Two camera tests were made and all fitted perfectly, but the actual shot had to be put on the back burner. The glasses were carefully wrapped in plastic for protection from the elements as the seasons changed.  Quite some time later, Natanson was called with some sense of urgency to the glass shot set up by Production Designer John DeCuir.  At first he thought the glasses might have been damaged by the change in the climate and elements, but not so.  Apparently when now viewed through the viewfinder a row of mountains had mysteriously appeared and were now clearly visible beyond the cityscape.  According to Natanson, when the matte was painted in summer, the natural haze like sea fog had obscured the actual Apennine Mountains.  Now when seen in Spring, with the fresh breezes at play to blow away the mist and haze, the vista is completely unlike that of the ancient sea port of Alexandria, which was, and still is, situated along the Nile Delta, where no mountains are to be found.  Joseph had to do a great deal of remedial painting to cover up the unwanted mountains whereby a few more additional districts of Alexandria were painted on as a fix.  The final repair was invisible and the on screen result speaks for itself

A not altogether accurate schematic on the CLEOPATRA glass shot at least gives the general idea.
*Addendum:  At the time of this blog post there is a retrospective of the work of Joseph Natanson in both film and art being held in Rome.  There will also be a series of lectures on the history of the artform by the Italian Association of Visual Effects Artists.  I understand this exhibition will continue until late January 2020.

GREEN FIRE (1954) was a fairly entertaining and at times spectacular early CinemaScope adventure from MGM, set in Colombia, South America, and dealing with emerald prospecting and assorted mischief.  The film isn't effects heavy by any account but does have a few good sequences involving Arnold Gillespie miniature destruction and some good Newcombe matte art.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.... NZ Pete loves those old hand lettered title cards from days gone by.  Beautifully crafted by an altogether anonymous team of skilled lettering artists onto large sheets of glass.  Some studios did their own in house, while a great many were farmed out to Pacific Title in Hollywood who were masters of the artform.

A beautiful sprawling matte painted set extension adds much to what was presumably a set on one of MGM's numerous vast backlots.  Warren Newcombe was King, Emperor and Lord of the highly regarded matte department at MGM for many decades, though never picked up a brush according to reliable co-worker accounts.  He did in the very early days, back in the 1920's, mostly as a New York based effects artist, but seemingly didn't participate much once coming to Metro.  His organisational and planning skills however were second to none and Newcombe had an uncanny ability to know just how valuable matte art could be to a given production.  MGM were at the top of the game when it came to visual effects for many years, thanks in no small part to Warren's directorship of his jealously guarded team of matte painters.  Painters working under Warren at this time included Howard Fisher, Henry Hillinck, Otto Keichle and quite possibly a young Matthew Yuricich.  Director of matte photography was Mark Davis.

A minor, but effectively handled gag courtesy of A.Arnold Gillespie, who in addition to running all the physical, mechanical and miniature effects requirements, also oversaw the process work at MGM.  A seemingly invisible shot where star Stewart Granger is seen approaching a small taverna and coming inside and engaging with other principle players.  The background of the harbour and jetty with Granger in full stride is a previously filmed process plate, with the action perfectly timed to allow the projected Granger to enter an exterior doorway and then to appear 'live' in front of the same process screen and carry on with the requisite action.  Seems basic, but timing the action to match, plus ensuring a crisp back projected plate (no mean feat in scope and colour!) made it work seamlessly.  This gag wasn't new and has been done a million times but often with dire results.  MGM often utilised overlapping multiple projector processes to ensure an extremely bright and clean image, often with remarkable results.  Carroll Shepphird was the studio's resident process man, with a career dating back to the original KING KONG and even earlier! 

Another Newcombe matte shot depicting Stewart Granger's emerald mine operation.

I'm a big fan of superbly executed miniature sequences that have been set up and filmed outdoors in natural light.  Buddy Gillespie was a devoted advocate of just such application, and the quality was there up on the big screen for decades as a testament to Gillespie's understanding of 'miniaturisation'.  Here, a major screw up in the mine site causes a water race to burst and cause a devastating flood and landslide.

The mountainside starts to collapse onto the encampment.  All miniature, filmed on the backlot.

I wish Gillespie had included some info about this film in his fascinating memoir The Wizard of MGM, but I suppose with the 300 or so films he worked on a few got missed out along the way.

Miniature mayhem is only as good as the cinematographer lining up and shooting the gag.  Almost certainly, longtime studio miniatures cameraman Maximilian Fabian would have been the key player in photographing these scenes.  An amazingly skilled effects cameraman who had a life long association with MGM, filming such massive effects showcases as the earthquake in SAN FRANCISCO, another monumental quake and flood for GREEN DOLPHIN STREET and the pick of the bunch, the still jaw dropping bomb run sequences from the incredible THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO - a career best in my book that rank among the finest effects set pieces ever filmed!

Upper frame, probably live exterior physical effect, though very well cut in with exterior model destruction without the usual differential in tungsten indoor stage light and natural sunlight that NEVER cut together believably in other films.

Water is problematic when it comes to miniature work, though Gillespie and his large effects team were time honoured experts in making such shots work.  Presumably Buddy constructed very large miniatures here (I'm guessing around 20 feet high?) to lend a credible 'gravity' and weight to the rock fall and subsequent water action.

Gillespie was 'ace' at this sort of demanding work.  Just take a look at the Oscar winning trick shots in GREEN DOLPHIN STREET if you don't believe me. 20th Century Fox were also very adept at this sort of thing under Sersen, Kellogg, Hammeras and Abbott.

I don't know who was in charge of the miniature construction here.  For many years it was the incredible Donald Jahraus who contributed so damned much to those other films I previously mentioned.  Donald started off at RKO back around 1930 building models and worked on shows such as THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.  He may have worked on KING KONG as it was made back to back pretty well with that film, but I've never seen any evidence.  From the late thirties Jahraus worked at MGM where he remained for the rest of his career.  The last film I have documentation on was the 1952 picture  PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE, made two years before GREEN FIRE.

Appropriate camera position, choice of lens, focal length and depth of field.  

Actual daylight makes all the difference and can make a miniature look a million dollars.

The film concludes with some very damp stars, a painted sky and optical overlay of a rainbow.  How sweet!


A rather thin, though amiable rom-com with Demi Moore, THE BUTCHER'S WIFE (1991) was to my lady wife's liking somewhat more than me, but the matte and visual effects shots were a definite stand out for me...naturally.

As discussed in previous blog posts, Illusion Arts germinated from the remnants of the old Albert Whitlock matte department at Universal, and proved to be a force to be reckoned with for around two decades.

A beautifully rendered sky with the tried and true 'rolling clouds' gag which had been pioneered by Al Whitlock as far back as the early 1960's.  The trick involved photographing a skillfully painted sky one portion at a time, with the sky masked off in three horizontal 'bands' using soft splits.  Each 'band' would be photographed individually as the painting was being very slowly hand cranked along the matte stand, with each of the sky 'bands' being cranked at a slightly different speed - with the band of clouds nearest the foreground being cranked at a marginally faster rate than the second 'band' of mid distant clouds.  The most far away clouds near the horizon would be moved extremely slowly, if at all.  All of this was carefully filmed directly onto original negative in a series of exposures that when viewed gave a remarkable and convincing 'live' sky.  As Whitlock often said "You may not necessarily notice that subtle movement, but you do tend to notice when it's not there."

Several shots in THE BUTCHER'S WIFE take place atop buildings in a congested New York City neighbourhood.  The Illusion Arts team, headed by Effects Director of Photography Bill Taylor and Supervising Matte Painter Syd Dutton - both co-owners of the effects company - furnished several dazzling views of the city at night and day, with this marvellous rendering being an all out winner in my books.  Assisting Dutton with the matte art were Robert Stromberg and Mannix Bennett.

The glorious matte art with some small rooftop action added in.

An alternate take with our male lead character looking on as part of a blue screen composite.

Same frame lightened up for better examination.
Close up detailed look at the above masterpiece nicely demonstrates draftsmanship and brushwork.  All very Whitlock inspired in both style and technique.

A later evening matte painted view of the City That Never Sleeps.... a far cry from a couple of other places I've visited elsewhere as 'The City That Never Wakes Up' and 'The City That Dozes Off When You Least Expect It'.  True story!

Morning in NYC as per the matte painters at Illusion Arts.

The film concludes with an incredible, and quite massive, pullback from our star crossed lovers, all manufactured in house at Illusion Arts.  Love that sky, which again is strongly influenced by Syd Dutton's mentor Albert Whitlock.
Glorious HD 1080 frames of the above grand finale for matte fans to enjoy....

Evidently some kind of complex multi-plane gag, probably engineered with motion control for precise camera move.

All painted except for the people, with possibly the ocean as well being manufactured?

Possibly a smooth transition from one painting into another, which was a technique employed by Bill Taylor for other massive 'moving' shots for films such as COMING TO AMERICA and NEWSIES to name just two.

High Def brings out all of the 'finery' in the craft.

Possibly a miniature element for the lighthouse.  Lynn Ledgerwood was Illusion Arts' resident miniatures and 'special rigging' expert and contributed many intricate gags and foreground models to many films and tv shows.

And they all lived happily ever after ... except Demi who went through a kind of messy divorce with Bruce Willis and didn't make too many more films after the fact because women in their forties in Tinseltown are pretty much 'old hat' and nobody wants to cast a woman who actually has matured gracefully unlike in England where they are treasured, admired and celebrated for their talent and longevity and usually get loads more work the more senior they become! ... (though I digress)


Political correctness seems to infect nearly every aspect of the society in which we now live, unfortunately.  Thankfully the Seventies were an era where such so-called social engineering was strictly contained within the dystopian framework of George Orwell's brilliant, immortal 'it-could-never-happen-here' masterwork 1984.  Who'd ever have imagined back in those carefree, halcyon days that the Orwellian nightmare would a few decades later be an insidious reality.  I bring this up as the film FLESH GORDON (1974) is a prime example of just what could be made back in the day and would never in your wildest dreams get the 'green light' nowadays.

The movie had been in the minds of the creators for some while I believe, from as early as 1971, though things really kicked off around '74.  Endless controversy would soon follow in FLESH's footsteps, with FBI raids, confiscated prints and hidden negatives!

A veritable 'who's who' of movie magic talent were on board, and these are just some of the names who got a screen credit.  Rick Baker went on to multiple Oscar glory (best work was for the John Landis classic AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON me thinks) and possibly got his own star on the Walk Of Fame (?).  An uncredited Dennis Muren also went on to massive success with ILM and more Oscars than you could possibly imagine, and did get a star on the Walk Of Fame.  Note, the oddly named chap 'Mij Htrofnad' .... he's actually Jim Danforth who asked not to be credited though ended up with a 'reverse' credit.

A myriad of names were bundled together for the key credits, with Howard Ziehm seemingly getting the lions' share, no doubt due to the rave reviews(!) of his earlier cinematic classics CITY OF SIN and the monumental SEEDS OF LUST.

German lobby cards from the theatrical release.

The film is still a riot all these years on and despite its shortcomings achieves considerable production value and benefits from a genuine thirties 'stay tuned folks for the next exciting installment' flavour that the film makers seem to have had a real affinity for and put their hearts and souls into translating to film.  For the most part, the creators hit all the right buttons.
Tom Scherman at work on the miniature set for Dr Flexi Jerkoff's' (no, I'm not making that up!) secret rocket propulsion lab. Scherman, along with the majority of the young effects technicians on FLESH GORDON were part of the well regarded Cascade Films Stage 6 Special Visual Effects Studio which largely concentrated on scores of tv commercials and other assignments though I understand they worked as independent contractors for FG.  One or two declined due to the 'nature' of the project. 

The big reveal.  Dr Jerkoff unveils his somewhat unique intergalactic rocketship.  The ship and laboratory workshop is all a miniature by Greg Jein with the actor split screened into the shot at right.  Jein became most well known later for such films as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE 3rd KIND, STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE and my fave miniature effects showcase 1941, which was a total jaw-dropper.  I did a massive tribute piece on 1941's phenomenal effects here a few years back.  You can read all about it here.

Thar she blows ... Dr Jerkoff, Flesh and his come hither galfriend Dale, head into outer space.  Their adventures are quite unlike anything experienced by Capt James T. Kirk and Mr Spock - not to mention Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong I can confidently say.

A rare photo of a still relatively unknown Dennis Muren who photographed the miniature sequences.  Dennis had previously been heavily involved with another low budget enterprise EQUINOX - also with some of the same fx folk, and would soon after FLESH move onto a little film called STAR WARS, if anyone can recall that one!!  Among Muren's other notable credits were CE3K, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (a definite high point) and scores of others for ILM
The intrepid trio hurtle through the 'Moronosphere' and encounter space junk including flying billboards as well as the man in the moon.

I loved the crazy assed art direction and prop design - very much of what would now be termed 'Steam Punk' I believe.  Wacky Victorian era control panels and levers, with not a seatbelt to be seen - just overhead hand straps.  Love it!  Of course you know you have problems when the 'low-tech' equipment declares "Trouble", and you are really up shit creek when it reads "Double Trouble".

Our trio of brave Galactic adventurers face a slight hitch when caught in the net of the evil Emperor Wang's Sex Ray (don't ask).  Nice optical work which seems to be from a welding torch, optically tinted and doubled in.  Bob Costa was responsible for the opticals on his own home built optical printer.

The ship is dragged into the planet Porno (hey, there are a million planets out there...can you prove this one's made up??)  Great wire rigged miniatures filmed in natural light against a real sky, complete with Buster Crabbe style smoke trails, sparks and cartoon sound effects.  Love it!  If anyone doesn't know who Buster Crabbe was then you have no right to read this blog and should go back to your damned 'Marvel' world!  Shame be heaped upon you.

'Let's find a landing strip, Flesh'.  Pun unintended.

As mentioned earlier, a great many talents were engaged to work on the many trick shots, with Jim Danforth primarily hired to supply some of the matte paintings (others were by Joe Musso).  This was just a tiny partial set augmented with Jim's matte art, as shown below.

The pic at left shows the partial set, or facade with a doorway really, of Flexi's rocketship.  The frame at right is the final.

Jim Danforth at work on the original matte art for the above shot.  Jim was also involved with some of the later stop motion work and provided the film's most memorable animated set piece.  More about that later.  *Note the rather witty graffiti scrawled in the background.
The picture was filmed in the standard Academy 1.33:1 ratio, which was entirely faithful to the format in which the original 1930's serials had been made.  Original 16mm prints and VHS releases were made in this 'standard' format though all later editions on DVD and now BluRay have been remastered in a severely cropped (excessively so!) pseudo widescreen format which eliminates a great deal of information at the top and bottom of the frame.  A BIG mistake!  Aside from the loss of carefully designed production detail and set decor, not to mention compromised visual effects shots such as this Jim Danforth matte painting (see below for comparison), the film's new 'modern' format buggers the composition and just isn't honest to the films' and serials it parodies and celebrates with such affection.

Jim Danforth's original matte art still in fine condition as pictured here as one in the collection of fellow effects artist Harry Walton.  Note the 'full' composition' here which was compromised in the widescreen digital formats.  *Many thanks to Berton Pierce for this great photograph.

On the planet Porno there are many strange and highly suspect forms of life, with this Penisaurus being one such beast. Bill Hedge was primary animator for this sequence.  The stop motion composites were all miniature rear projection process set ups, and for the most part worked well, though this sequence suffered badly from poor process plates and colour mismatch from shot to shot - something not uncommon to stop motion process work with even the great Ray Harryhausen turning out some shocking results for VALLEY OF GWANGI where colours jump all over the place from shot to shot, not to mention grain the size of golf balls.

Other contributing animators on the film to various degrees were Rob Maine, Jim Danforth, David Allen, Doug Beswick, Laine Liska, Jim Aupperle and Stephen Czerkas.

Dale and Flesh look on in true old time serial fashion as Flexi does battle with not one but two Penisaurus'.  Who dreams this stuff up?

'Emperor Wang-The Perverted' (official Royal title, though he's occasionally addressed as 'Your Sickness'), has a pretty impressive castle, shown here as a finely detailed miniature.  At lower left is another future 'effects star' Joe Viskocil who would become famous for his mastery of miniature pyrotechnics on a ton of films like STAR WARS and I think INDEPENDENCE DAY.  The pic in the centre shows Mike Minor and other fx staff as they shoot a moving POV of Queen Amoura's swan ship.  At right is Dennis Muren lighting a stop motion set up.

Wang's lair.

FX man Tom Scherman adds finishing touches to Wang's castle.
Although technically not a Cascade assignment, most of the effects artists pictured here worked on FLESH GORDON in various capacities.  I'm not sure when this trade advertisement dates from, whether before or after FG?

A more fierce front door you are never likely to find in the known Universe my friends!

Emperor Wang's mighty throne room is party central it seems.  Jim Danforth painted a significant amount to top the set up, with ornate statues, ceiling as well as smoke elements rising from the cauldron (which was in fact the same smoke element that Jim had used several years earlier for the Plesiosaurus sequence for WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH) and a pulsing glow from the suspended orb. The film was intended and filmed as an X-Rated hardcore flick though was later recut by the film makers to soften the graphic nature of the shenanigans, though oddly still wound up with the dreaded 'X' from the MPAA.  Cut as it was, hardcore activity is still to be seen in certain sequences behind the key players.  The film was heavily censored in numerous territories and banned outright here in New Zealand for several years.  See below for an uncropped frame from Jim's original 35mm trims.

Once again, the film was designed and shot for 'flat' exhibition (ie- 1.33:1 ratio, or at most, the 1.66:1 ratio so commonly seen in Europe)  The needless chopping of the image to an extreme 1.85:1 ratio eliminates much detail that would be better served as being part of the full image.  You judge.

A word of commendation for the cast here.  Jason Williams as Flesh was the perfect choice, and managed to conjur up all of the quite deliberate excesses and mannerisms so essential to the thirties vibe.  Joseph Hudgens as Dr Flexi Jerkoff and Suzanne Fields as Dale (below) also play to the comic strip tone so well.  William Dennis Hunt, as Wang (right), chews the scenery like a hungry dog...though I'd not accept it any other way.
Suzanne Fields as Dale Ardor.

Part of a massive, multi-plane matte painted tilt up to the heavens by artist Joe Musso.

Joe Musso's wonderful glass painting.

Musso at work on his glass painting.  Joe was primarily a production illustrator in the industry for decades and occasionally ventured into matte art for films such as Irwin Allen's WHEN TIME RAN OUT and WRONG IS RIGHT.  For quite some time Joe was President of the Motion Picture Matte Artists and Illustrators Union.
The big tilt shot culminates with the swan spaceship of Queen Amoura cruising along.  I suspect a second painting was rendered for this as there is a lap dissolve from the tilt into a slow zoom in and animation.

Emperor Wang's stormtroopers chase down Queen Amoura amid a variety of curious celestial bodies.

Speaking of curious celestial bodies..... Queen Amoura auditions our shy hero.

Wang wequests Woderick and Wobert to wescue the wocketship. 

Another wonderful matte painting by Jim Danforth which he told me was his favourite from FLESH GORDON.  *For a most impressive career blog on Jim's matte career - which is quite substantial in itself - check it all out here.

A full frame Academy ratio look at the same matte shot as originally intended, from Danforth's personal 35mm trims.  In my extensive career interview with Jim back in 2012 I enquired about his work on this film.  "I was no longer on Cascade Films permanent staff, but I did work for them when they needed me.  Some of the FLESH GORDON paintings were composited at a small facility Cascade had set up for me on their property.  I rented the facility for the FG work.  Initially the film was a hardcore porno film - but with laughs.  I asked the producers not to put my name on it.  The producers decided to use my name spelled backwards and said I would probably be happy later to have the credit.  After the film was re-edited to 'soften' it, I was happier."

Another tighter view of Wang's throne room, with Danforth extending the set upwards.

My particular favourite among all of the many effects shots in FLESH GORDON was this remarkable Jim Danforth matte, complete with excellent fire elements, interactive 'flame' lighting and live action of Flesh escaping the crashed ship.  Jim spoke to me about the film a while back:  "I believe FG began with a suggestion made by animator Mike Hyatt to director Michael Bienvenisti (aka Mike Light).  The production designer was Mike Minor, and he was definitely not minor!  Mike was a major force behind the film. Greg Jein made the miniature spaceships, Tom Scherman made some of the full scale props, such as the robots.  Joe Musso did some of the matte paintings while Bob Costa did opticals on his unique printer and also printed plates for my shots." 

Effects cameraman Dennis Muren lines up a forced perspective shot of Wang's ships ready to take off while  Tom Scherman watches on.

Simple old fashioned forced perspective shot with our actor literally yards away from a quite large model set and painted backing.

In addition to executing several mattes for the film, Danforth also animated a full set piece where the Beetleman attacks Flesh and friends.  Jim discussed his work with me:  "I was originally asked to work as Mike Hyatt's assistant animator.  That wasn't an assignment I wanted, so I declined.  Later the production got behind, so the producers asked me to do some of the animation for them, without Mike Hyatt's supervision.  This wonderful crew didn't all work together in the same facility.  Tom, Dennis, Joe Musso and Joe Viskocil all worked in a rented studio in Eagle Rock.  I did some of my matte paintings there, some at Cascade, some at Raleigh Studios.  The animation I did of the Beetleman was done on part of a stage at Raleigh Studios, next to the stage where the FG live action had been filmed."

The Beetleman puppet was built by future Oscar winning make up specialist Rick Baker.  The sequence is a pure joy and owes much to the films of Ray Harryhausen in design and execution, particularly two of the SINBAD pictures, 7th VOYAGE and GOLDEN VOYAGE - both top shelf shows in my book.

In an interview in the magazine SPFX in 1995, Danforth talked about the work on FG:  "I passed on it initially, then a year and a half later they didn't have any effects finished so they brought some other people in and they hadn't been able to do it either, so I eventually inherited back some of it.  Of course, I had nothing to do with the planning, but I got to re-edit the Beetleman sequence.  The movie that came out was a lot better than the one they started with.  I watched them shoot a little bit here and there and it was really a straight X-Rated porno movie.  After they realised they could actually improve it by some deletions it actually turned out to be pretty funny."

Beautifully handled animation and blending of process action with puppet interaction.

Straight out of Harryhausen's wonderful 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD.  No apology required.  Great work!  Jim told me that while the main production was shot on 16mm, initially most or all of the effects material was also shot on that smaller gauge. Jim said that those effects shots were redone in 35mm for higher resolution, especially with regard to shots requiring 'registration' for matte or additional exposure later on.  

Another of Jim's numerous matte paintings which starts off on the bathing maiden and tilts up to an approaching Ladybug spaceship coming in (see below).

Jim described this shot to me:  "All the matte paintings I did for FG were inexpensive - $250 above my costs for each shot!  The shot with the giant trees you mentioned was more difficult because I had to match the painted trunk to my cut-out painting of a section of tree trunk, in front of which Dennis Muren and Tom Scherman 'flew' the miniature spaceship." 

The Ladybug craft enters a secret realm ...

Greg Jein at work on the Ladybug miniatures while Tom Scherman adds detail to one of the models seen in the final confrontation between good and evil.

Another Jim Danforth matte shot which Jim told me:  "I particularly enjoyed painting the down angle of the palace tower that was supposed to evoke memories of a shot of the witch's castle in THE WIZARD OF OZ."

A multi-plane glass painting by Joe Musso, with drifting clouds painted on a seperate glass, and a slow push inward.

Closer in...

Joe Musso's glass painting with what looks like some miniature foreground elements.

Effects technician, and a guy who loved to 'blow shit up', Joe Viskocil, shown here with one of Musso's glass paintings.

A selection of behind the scenes photos showing various aspects of the FG effects work at play.

The gnarly front door to Emperor Wang's groovy abode.  I really want one of these for home when those damned religious zealots ring my doorbell!

The gnarly door in action.  Door knocking Scientologists beware!

"NO" to all of the above.

Our interstellar trio hook up with a Robin Hood-esque fellow with very peculiar tendencies and wind up in Wang's 'Royal Flush' chamber.  A nothing set extended by Jim Danforth for front and reverse angles.  The despicable Wang has engineered the room as a giant toilet bowl (I want one of these as well) to dispose of irritating folk.

Danforth described this complex scene to me:  "The Royal Flush shot was tricky for me as I had to create an expanding oval shaped travelling matte, which I bi-packed in my projector while compositing the shot that showed the floor opening near the actors' feet.  That shot also required me to create a floor 'thickness' painting that I had to expand in sync with the matte.  The producers got a lot of 'bang' for their buck there."

We then cut back to the palace throne room and begin a very long tilt-down matte shot from one Danforth painting onto another which encompassed the entire sewerage system of the palace as our good guys get literally 'flushed away'.  See below.

Danforth:  "Another difficult shot was the big tilt-down from the throne room to the cross section view of the drainage system, into which I added Flesh and his friends swimming."
Detail from part of Jim's matte art.

And it keeps on going...

...and going!  I assume more than one painting was used due to the extent of the shot. When I asked Jim what sort of timeframe was involved in finishing all of these matte shots he said "The film was sort of 'on again', 'off again' for a while, so there wasn't much time pressure for my work.  But at those prices, I didn't want to spend much time on each shot."

One of the many neat opticals seen in FLESH GORDON, with Queen Amoura making a mystical appearance.  Bob Costa was optical cinematographer on the flick with the old Hollywood based Ray Mercer company screen credited for opticals.
The final act of the film introduces the beloved behemoth 'Nesuahyrrah' - which cutely, was 'Harryhausen' spelled backwards.  Ya just gotta love these guys.

The gigantic behemoth is called upon by Wang The Perverted to defend the planet Porno.  A nice shot with stop motion puppet, fire elements and a live action character at bottom right.

Referred to in the script as The Great God Porno, the creature is a marvel of stop motion and in-your-face character.  Talk about personality...this dude's got it in spades!  Most of his animation was done by Bob Maine, with some additional shots carried out by David Allen and Jim Aupperle.  Several crew worked on the puppet prior to it being camera ready, including Laine Liska, Mike Hyatt and David Allen, with parts of the armature being cannibalised from an old Pete Peterson puppet for an unfinished project.  Peterson had worked with the great Willis O'Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and did some great work on the very much under-rated THE BLACK SCORPION.

I love the 'swagger' that this character has ... so damned arrogant and full of himself.  Reminds me of a world leader somewhere.

Puppet against process plate of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, with the actors running down the stairs.  See below for a far more revealing glimpse.

An out take from the same sequence where the tie downs are clearly visible, as are the unwanted vehicles parked in a row.  The final sequence will include foreground miniatures to obscure the unwanted material.

Animation is as smooth as silk.

Nicely done little cutaway as Porno grabs at Flesh.

Interestingly, the creature was planned to be a non-vocal being who just grunted once in a while, but once the animation cuts were viewed the makers decided to add a voice and some sparing, though hilarious quips.  The voice was provided by the then unknown actor Craig T. Nelson.  What floored me was the remarkable 'lip sync' considering it was never the intention to begin with.  They must have really paid close attention to the silent animation cuts and worked it all out carefully.

Great line here from Porno in the smoothest of Barry White tones:  "This is the tower of evil...and it's where I hang out."

Jim Aupperle dressing the miniature set for the climax.  This was Jim's first professional film experience, with him initially coming on board to assist in model lighting and camera operating, then got himself in with actual hands-on animation for several shots in the now classic grand finale.

The big KONG moment where our lovable beast climbs the tower with nubile damsel firmly in hand.

Flesh and Flexi steal one of Wang's cruisers to rescue Dale from the clutches of the giant beast.  Danforth matte shot.

Fledgling effects artist Jim Aupperle does an exposure check while animating some of the climactic action.  Note the expansive painted backdrop.

In tried and true KONG fashion, the beast toys with his Fay Wray.

David Allen works on the final action sequence, for which he animated around 25% of the footage.
It was controversial back in 1933 and fell afoul of the censor's scissors.  Not so for this 1974 incarnation (nor the later 1976 DeLaurentiis effort either) where it wasn't an issue, though the PC brigade of today would run screaming through the streets tearing their hair out in sheer unrelenting horror.

Animator Rob Maine who was primary animator for the Great God Porno sequence.

Once again, terrific lip sync, even if it was only worked out after the fact.  Monster utters the immortal line "My asssss" as he is hit in the butt with a ray gun.  Beautiful marriage of vocal and foam rubber articulation.

Another glimpse of animator David Allen at work on the sequence.

In addition to providing a number of excellent matte paintings and an extensive stop motion sequence elsewhere in the film, Jim Danforth also supplied other elements.  "I was also involved with some of the process composite set-ups, plus the animated rays fired by the passing space ships.  I animated the rays on glass while Jim Aupperle and Rob Maine were animating the Great God Porno."

Porno utters the inimitable final line "Oh.....shit!" as he loses his footing and trips over the edge...

A ton of pyrotechnics wrap the show up, with explosives guy Joe Viskocil having a field day, as he would do on every other film he worked on such as STAR WARS and a ton of others where miniaturised explosions are indeed a fine art.

The whole house of cards comes crashing down upon Emperor Wang's frosty head with miniature mayhem process projected behind various extras running in terror.

'Does this mean the end of Wang The Perverted?' ... Yeah, I'd say so, though there was a very feeble sequel made many years later that wasn't a patch on this one.  Worthless.

Time for our final farewells as we leave the planet Porno and head for home.

I've included this out of interest, as Jim sent me this page some time back which is from Volume Two of his incredibly thorough memoir DINOSAURS, DRAGONS AND DRAMA-THE ODYSSEY OF A TRICK FILM MAKER.  Here we see the making of an effects shot which never made the final cut.

The Lucasfilm odyssey that never was?