Sunday 5 May 2019

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

Hello Friends,
It's time for another dedication to those wonderful artisans and craftsmen who were responsible for so many memorable motion picture 'trick shots' from days gone by.  I say memorable, in that so many of these matte painted shots are memorable to me, and maybe a handful of other like minded folk who may also have actually seen the films in question.  I realise that many of the readers of NZ Pete's blog - particularly younger film fans - may be largely unaware of a great many titles that crop up on this ongoing archive.  I well recall receiving an email a few years ago after I did an earlier summary of Whitlock effects films, with the author stating how much he was educated by that particular blog, even though he'd never heard of any of the films illustrated(!!)   I needed a stiff drink immediately after the fact and a prayer to the 'celluloid gods' in sheer disbelief.

Pete's Editorial:
A wonderful Robert Scifo matte that will feature in the next installment...
Anyway, on with the show, as they say.  I've often remarked that although I have a zillion matte shots, with more acquired every week, I often find it difficult to find the appropriate platform or overall theme to include so many of these.  Sure, I've come up with a multitude of topics such as Jungle Mattes, War Film FX or Urban Landscapes among the many examples covered by NZPete.  In fact I have a sizable one covering key matte moments in world history still to complete, plus an ILM tribute which covers quite a lot of ground indeed. 

John DeCuir as a young matte artist at Universal Studios.
Today's blog however, is the first in a series of overlooked films that had worthy mattes and other effects - some from the distant past and some from more recent times though all largely unknown to the average viewer I suspect.  There are some great matte paintings featured, that I can tell you.  The genres are varied, as are the artists and technicians responsible, though regular readers of this blog will know there names and pedigree.
For this edition, I've covered four movies (I was planning on twice that but those big darn blog posts take their toll on Pete).

Albert Whitlock update:
THE WAY WEST before & after
As a follow up to my very extensive three part series on the master of illusion himself, Mr Albert Whitlock, I must inform Al's fans of the latest YouTube reel in the series put together by documentarian and Al's friend Walton Dornisch.  Click here to see it. Walton and Albert put together a showreel of some of Whitlock's own favourite mattes back in 1980 no less, and as you know, this video material has been carefully stored and catalogued ever since.  This reel is a 25 minute collection that actually has Albert's narration throughout, describing various methods and approaches that made each shot.  He even surprised me with his disappointment of some shots and how he'd loved to have redone certain HINDENBURG mattes, given the time.  How fascinating.  I should point out though that one or two of the shots (from EARTHQUAKE) that are included appear to be not the shot that Al is explaining, probably an oversight, so all is forgiven and we applaud Walton for bringing this amazing material to us after 40 odd years.  For this we are eternally grateful.

Vintage Whitlock matte from Rank's MALTA STORY.

I'm told by Walton that up next is a lengthy collection of unedited and unseen conversations with Whitlock from the day, complete with a most curious insight into the numerous 'Whitlock-isms' that were inscribed on the walls workspace at Universal by the man himself.  Things like "It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick" - meaning, that matte could be worse!  Watch this space.

A Blast From The Past...
Every so often a reader or even a complete stranger unfamiliar with my blog or my somewhat worrying and highly addictive fetish for all things matte related, will send me something quite out of the blue.  One such gift arrived recently which unquestionably was right up my street - an absolutely wonderful portrait of Golden Era matte painter Hans Bartholowsky busy with brushes in hand on a giant glass matte painting.  The excitement in my inbox was palpable folks.  I'd equate that with the dizzying thrill those Marvel people must have felt when the box office take came in from the opening weekend of, yet another (please, more!) Marvel extravaganza, such was NZPete's happiness.  Yes, I know, there's much more to life than an old faded 8x10 photograph (bought as part of a box of unrelated 'junk' from a car boot sale I'm told) .... well, you might think so.  One man's cast-offs are another man's treasure.

Hans (John) Bartholowsky at work on a mystery matte, probably at Warner Bros - late 30's early 40's.  The enormous size of the painted glass is impressive, and I feel that this is no doubt planned as a giant pullback or push in shot - something that Warner Bros were absolute masters at above all of the other studios of the day.  The unpainted centre area is almost certainly set aside for what I would presume to be a rear projected live action element.  If anyone can identify the film, please email.
Hans, or as he was sometimes known John or sometimes Johann, was one of the true veterans in the business, having started painting glass shots as far back as 1917 for the old Lasky Company, which eventually became Paramount.  Hans would go on to have a successful career at Warner Bros in their famed Stage 5 special effects unit alongside artists such as Paul Detlefsen, Mario and Juan Larrinaga, Chesley Bonestell, Jack Shaw and others.  The director of many science fiction and adventure pictures, Byron Haskin, started off his career as a trick cinematographer and for some years headed up Warner's Stage 5 and held Bartholowsky in very high regard for his speed and ability in creating matte paintings.  It was probably around the mid to late 1940's when Bartholowsky left Warners, along with Juan (Jack) Larrinaga, to carry on his specialty over at Columbia Pictures under Lawrence Butler.

Detail from above matte art.  Just sensational to Pete's eye.
More wonderful detail from an era long passed, and a skill now largely dead and buried  :(
One of Hans Bartholowsky's Warners mattes from 1940.
So, there you have it.  A nice lead in to todays blogpost, Matte Painting Review - A Selection of Overlooked Films - Part One, with the movies being: UNTAMED (1955), which has so many cracking good mattes that look just magnificent, and they're in high def too; SUDAN (1945) - one of the myriad of desert romantic adventures featuring curvy latin siren Maria Montez; ROSE MARIE (1954) - the all singing Technicolor & Cinemascope smooch-fest; and lastly, a curious little satirical gem from Great Britain THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON (1968) that nobody remembers, due in part to it's complete lack of availability in any format it would seem.



In no way should the unwary viewer confuse this 1955 picture with the similarly titled (though I must confess, arresting as a one of a kind WTF visual experience in itself) 2016 Mexican film by the same name.  The similarities end there!! 

The art of the movie poster, as it once proudly was.

UNTAMED (1955) was a big 20th Century Fox production, shot largely on location in Africa, though many composite shots and matte paintings were required.  The effects team were lead by Ray Kellogg (who can also be seen in the main top photo standing in the middle examining some film.  I'm not sure if that camera is a 65mm model or a 3-strip Technicolor model?) At bottom left is chief matte artist Emil Kosa jnr;  The optical department with optical cinematographer James B. Gordon (wearing tie); while at far right bottom is matte artist Lee LeBlanc whom I know painted some of the mattes for this film.

Star Tyrone Power must have been in more huge special effects films than any other actor, with a dozen or so epics just with Fox alone such as THE RAINS CAME, IN OLD CHICAGO, SUEZ among many others.

A lavish and expensive show all the way.

Marine miniature work was always handled with realism at Fox.  The effects cameramen included L.B 'Bill' Abbott, Walter Castle and Frank van der Veer.  Clarence Slifer may well have still been there too, though he would transfer to MGM.

I'd only ever seen UNTAMED on awful 4x3 vhs, so never appreciated the beautiful wide screen compositions in CinemaScope until seeing the gorgeous, immaculately mastered BluRay.

I get the impression that the production company shot most of their material close to a major city in Southern Africa, and used extensive matte work to flesh out the story of the settlers on their long journey through various, geographically distant landscapes such as this.  I suspect the distant mountain range and sky might be real (as is the lower frame foreground), with all else in between painted in.

In studying successive frames I think this sequence may have utilised split screen work to combine the herd of cattle with the rest of the shot, especially as much firing of guns and mayhem takes place as the Zulu's come down the hill.

As I stated, there is a lot of excellent blue screen travelling matte work in UNTAMED, with quite a number of dialogue scenes being shot back at the studio and composited very nicely with the South African plates.  The comp work is incredibly good, especially for it's time and for the fact that it's been shot using huge, distorted optics of the early Bausch & Lomb scope lenses.  Rear screen process wasn't used, thank God, as the results were rarely effective in Technicolor and widescreen by a long shot.  Hats off to James Gordon for the first rate optical cinematography, often involving horses, cariages, gunfire as well as the actors.

There are so many fabulous painted establishing shots, some of which were full paintings such as this.  Emil Kosa jnr was chief matte artist, and Lee Le Blanc was senior painter on this film.  Also at Fox at the time were Jim Fetherolf, Ralph Hammeras, Max DeVega, Cliff Silsby, Menrad von Muldorfer and Matt Yuricich, though he may have moved across to Metro by then?

Another sprawling vista, completely painted in the Fox matte department.

Exquisite composition and brushwork once again extends a small foreground patch of grass - probably on the Fox backlot - into something vast and exotic.  An excellent level of matte art can be seen throughout UNTAMED, though Fox were way up there when it came to any kind of effects work.

One of the more subtle mattes, with the roof, top of the tree at left, hillside and sky flawlessly painted in.

I'd never spotted this one till now, as old vhs tapes were badly pan and scanned, thus the right side of the frame was cropped out as I recall.  A very clever matte addition where a split runs just along the frame above Susan Hayward's head (right) with the river, trees, mountain and even part of the roof and posts painted in.  The blend is immaculate and to demonstrate it I have included frame blow ups further in this article for comparison.  This sort of matte trick I just love to discover.

I'm always a sucker for good cel animated fx.  A painted sky with a mother of a storm closing in...

Another trick shot that I'd never noticed until now was the scene where lightning strikes the tree, which topples onto two of our main cast.  A brilliantly executed sequence with what appears to be a large miniature tree against a painted backing, which is further enhanced by having the two actors composited in as travelling matte elements (probably hand drawn), both of whom are enveloped in the falling tree foliage. 

The tree topples onto our hapless cast.  A brilliantly done sequence that was nothing new for 20th Century Fox's incredible effects department as this gag had been employed countless times on dozens of pictures as far back as the early 1930's with always amazing results.  Note too the physical properties of the dust cloud and flailing branches as the tree hits the dirt.  It could have looked so awful in the wrong hands, but Kellogg's crew nailed it, and then some.

It rained and it rained.... this is the aftermath as Susan stands in her doorway surveying the damage.  All trickery except actress on porch, and I suspect the foreground here could be a miniature, with all else being painted.  Bravo!

Now, here's that same view we saw earlier, though now the background is a disaster zone.  Again, a cleverly painted in set extension that includes not only the scenery but also the posts holding the roof up.  See below...

A close up comparison of the two paintings used for different times in the storyline.

The farm is a write off.  Let's go back to Ireland.  A full fx shot, probably mix of miniature and painting.


SUDAN (1945) featuring the most seductive Maria Montez who made a ton of similar movies with co-star Jon Hall at Universal, and they tend to all resemble one another.  Montez was a babe but was no Dorothy Lamour!

For many years the Universal effects department was run by the legendary - though very temperamental - John P. Fulton. John was an ace cameraman in his own right and was adept at all manner of trickery from miniatures to optical composite work, which he demonstrated so many times over the decades, particularly on the popular Universal horror film series. Fulton joined the studio in 1931 following the departure of fx director Frank Booth. At left is Fulton kneeling down, with longtime Universal optical and matte cinematographer Ross Hoffman standing behind him on the left of the picture.  The photo at right of John and pal was a gag pic taken on the set of one of these very Montez/Hall films.

A superb behind the scenes snapshot in the Universal matte department during the making of SUDAN.  The artist shown here is the young John DeCuir - many years before becoming an Academy Award winning Hollywood Production Designer.  I spoke with John's son (also named John BTW) about his father's matte career.  "My father joined Russell Lawson in the matte department from 1939 through to 1942.  I still have a folder with some of the old film strips that he and Russ used to bi-pack the matte shots together on films such as ARABIAN NIGHTS, which I distinctly remember, and ABBOTT & COSTELLO IN THE NAVY among others.  John said that he and Russ developed a technique to create full matte composites when the live action footage was down to the last take after the other departments had failed, so Russ and John would be called in."  John DeCuir junior continued the story:  "As the story goes, Russ took my father under his wing and his first assignment was when Russ slammed a large, variegated rock down onto the studio table and said 'Paint that rock, and when I can't tell whether it's a photograph or not, we'll move onto painting clouds'.  The rest was history."   

Vivid, saturated Technicolor sets and costumes, bevvies of dusky maidens, larger than life dramatics and a whole slew of lush matte shots.... what more could I ask for.  No, really, what more??  As an aside, the male star later worked on the other side of the camera and shot some of the plates for Al Whitlock of flocks of circling seagulls for Hitchcock's THE BIRDS.  True story.  Don't say you never learn nothin' from NZ Pete.

SUDAN, though filmed on the Universal backlot and in the nearest patch of local desert.

Nice matte work here by either Russ Lawson or assistant matte artist John DeCuir.

This is definitely one of DeCuir's paintings.

Universal's matte and optical cameraman was Roswell Hoffman, who enjoyed a mammoth career with the studio, starting around 1933 under John P. Fulton on James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN and worked solidly right through to 1974 with the Oscar winning fx show EARTHQUAKE as Al Whitlock's right hand man and cinematographer.  Ross died in 2001 at the age of 96.

SUDAN (1945)  While not what might be considered as 'photo real', the mattes here are perfectly acceptable to the essence of the genre and have the requisite romantic, dreamlike qualities that serve these narratives well.

Lawson's matte department supplied scores of similar looking vistas over the years, especially in the 1940's, as Universal cornered the market in desert adventures and Arabian Nights inspired modestly budgeted spectacles.

Much could be gained through matte painted set extension.

Interiors also benefited greatly through the artform, both as construction cost saving and as a means to conceal the array of stage light gantry and rigging.

Longtime Universal effects man David Stanley Horsley may well have been on board here too.  David had a long association with Fulton, eventually taking over the department when John moved on to Goldwyn Studios.  David and John worked together as far back as THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933.

This may in fact be an actual location?

The skies here look as though they have been painted, with possibly further scenery added.

The classic Golden Era matte shot ending, so typical of the genre and the period in which the film was released.


The 1954 ROSE MARIE had been made twice before - both in 1928 and 1936 - and was one of MGM's first big CinemaScope musicals.

You'd be hard pressed to think this film is a jolly, jaunty family sing-a-long with the Canadian Mounties judging by this poster, which more resembles a Russ Meyer or David F. Friedman flick.

Being an MGM picture, Warren Newcombe supervised the matte work, though as is now common knowledge, Warren himself rarely painted mattes himself, at least not since the very early days when he and associate Neil McGuire were prolific on the East Coast.  Newcombe's ability chiefly lay in his complete understanding as to how and where mattes could be utilised, and to what extent.  The matte work and resulting scenes carried out under Newcombe's supervision generally spoke for themselves and, especially through the 1940's, were truly in a class of their own.

There are a half dozen or so mattes in ROSE MARIE which are well worth inclusion here as these are the first time I've been able to source the correct 2.35:1 Scope frames, whereas previous incarnations were awful, muddy looking 'flat' tv prints.

For decades, MGM stood alone in the industry - and possibly the world - in rendering all of their
Newcombe shots on relatively small artist card boards using fine tipped, high quality pastel crayon and gouache with remarkably good results. As for ROSE MARIE I'm not sure what method was used.  I know from Matthew Yuricich in his extensive oral history on my blog in 2012, that the old pastel technique was largely phased out by the time he joined MGM in the mid fifties, with paint being the medium of choice, especially once Newcombe left and that role went to Lee Le Blanc.

A beautiful Newcombe shot with the matte blend running pretty much midway across the frame, allowing second floors, rooftops and trees to be added in along with the Canadian Rockies.  

The live action horse and rider come into frame against a spectacular matte painted landscape.

Either a George Gibson painted cyclorama or an Arnold Gillespie process shot of a matte painting.

While the frames I've gathered from ROSE MARIE are high quality, this matte shot took a sharp dive due to it occurring in the middle of a pair of optical dissolves out from one scene and back into some other action, thus the matte footage was a dupe... maybe duped twice.  This shot looked terrible so I tried to clean it up as best I could.

The awesome closing shot from ROSE MARIE.  Among the painters employed under Warren Newcombe were veteran Howard Fisher, Henry Hillinck, Otto Kiechle and Hernando Villa.  It's possible that Matthew Yuricich may have been there too.  Chief matte cinematographer was Mark Davis.


From one extreme to another.  While the aforementioned film was a colourful family song and dance, THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON (1968) was the polar opposite.  This British film was quite controversial back in it's day due to it's mildly 'racy' theme and the odd flash of flesh.  It's quite a funny and dark satire (written by Dennis Norden) about a UK government sponsored brothel.  A great Brit cast, with a young John Cleese hilarious in an extended cameo.

The film is next to impossible to track down and never appears to have been released on tape or disc to my knowledge.  NZPete however has a copy.

The special photographic effects were handled by the Shepperton Studios effects department, sited on 'M' Stage, which at the time was run by Ted Samuels (shown top right).  Also pictured here are matte artist Gerald Larn (top left); matte artist Bryan Evans (top middle); VFX cameraman Peter Harman (bottom left) and miniaturist Bill Jarrat (bottom right).

The matte department at Shepperton with artist Gerald Larn shown at work.  Gerald told me that it was such a wonderful place when he joined the unit in 1964, with many classic glass mattes decorating the walls and hallways from films such as THE COLDITZ STORY and ALEXANDER THE GREAT to name but two, which were a source of constant inspiration to the budding matte painter.  When I asked Gerald about these wonderful artifacts he told me that every so often paintings would just vanish and be replaced with a newer matte.  Gerald was never able to discover just where these beautiful pieces went, though he did say in jest that they are probably all under Wally Veevers' bed (Veevers was head of the dept for many years but had departed by this time to work on Kubrick's 2001).  The picture at top left reveals one of the BEST HOUSE mattes of Paris in the background, while the bottom right reveals another matte of Victorian London.

Fellow Shepperton matte artist and optical expert Doug Ferris is shown here blocking in one of the mattes.  Artist Gerald Larn told me that "Doug's specialty was working on split screen shots, awkward matte joins and other subtle technical matters.  Doug was often found in the optical room working with cameramen Peter Harman and John Grant" On the right we can see the workings of the matte camera set up which served for many years as far back as Percy Day's latter years in the early 1950's.

Bill Jarrat's miniature balloon composited into a matte painted sky.

Matte painter Gerald Larn told me about this shot:  "I well recall a major painting I produced for that film.  It was a near full-frame painting of the skeleton of an airship under construction in it's hanger.  There was some small scale foreground live action in the shot, but I painted the complex and the orange coloured metal framework of the craft as it sat within it's huge space.  There was another painting of the airship - this time with it's finished outer covering - that was rendered by Bryan Evans.  I vividly remember the two of us working on both paintings simultaneously."

Victorian London courtesy of the matte artist's brush.

Before and after, with the final comp a beautiful piece of work indeed, both the painting and the camerawork.

Gerald Larn described painting this shot to me:  "I was always keen to have my painting filmed on it's own and then quickly combined with remastered film stock at the earliest possible opportunity.  For this shot from BEST HOUSE IN LONDON  I wasn't going to commit to the final painting of the detailed balustrade designed to fit on the hard matte line until there was an established colour match between the painting and the ground floor set built on the lot."

Bryan Evans painted this matte of the finished airship and the hanger.

A painted set extension.  Gerald is a wonderful storyteller of his 11 years at Shepperton - from 1964 until the studio closed down and laid off all remaining employees in 1975, by which time, he was the sole remaining matte artist and one of just a mere handful of staff still on the studio lot.  Gerald had fond memories from when he started at Shepperton, where he was hired by Wally Veevers to replace the veteran artist Bob Cuff who had decided to go, with cameraman John Mackie, into partnership with Les Bowie and Ray Caple.  Gerald spoke fondly of the remnants from days gone by such as the huge office file cabinet that had belonged to the great Percy 'Poppa' Day which still contained decades worth of photographic reference material, carefully clipped and indexed by matte painter Albert Julian, mostly from the London Illustrated News that dated back to the Korda period and even further to the dawn of the twentieth century no less!  

All painted except lower floor.  The foreground actor has been matted in via blue screen.

BEST HOUSE IN LONDON miniature airship.  The sky may be painted.

The airship over Paris, I suspect is a wholly miniature set up.

An unbalanced early test frame.

Part painted, part miniature, part actual setting.

"Well my dear, that really was fun."