Friday 7 June 2019

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

Greetings friends and fellow enthusiasts of all things matte painted and hand crafted in the realm of motion picture trick shot magic, from an era we are never likely to see again.  This month I've assembled another grab-bag of amazing matte shots from a wide range of films and genres - from early top shelf RKO true-life drama, to wild Disney high-jinks; a glossy all-star MGM musical; a lushly saturated 'B' side Biblical flick and, astonishingly, even a relatively modern Meryl Streep comedy no less (where the sole reason for viewing are the beautiful mattes from the wonderfully inventive fx company Dream Quest, though I digress...)  Yep, NZ Pete has all bases well covered and never lets a genre, era nor special effects exponent escape his long reach if at all possible.  There's some great material here folks.


Albert Whitlock update: 
As readers will know, in addition to my extensive three part retrospective on virtually all of the hundreds of mattes and effects shots that Albert ever produced, I've also been in close contact with Al's friend and documentarian Walton Dornisch who as we know produced the fantastic doco on Albert way back in 1980, Albert Whitlock-Master of Illusion.  Each month Walton uploads additional unseen material originating from that initial shoot all those years ago - material that has been carefully stored on original one inch video as raw footage.  In fact, Walton described for me the tricky process required in 'baking' the video tapes (I'd never heard of that till now) so as to prevent the oxide from literally crumbling off the base, due to the age of the tapes. 
The interview process between Dornisch and associate Mark Horowitz with Albert was lengthy and detailed, amounting to over 100 hours of precious, historically important video taped material that was both revealing and incredibly insightful to movie buffs and visual effects artists alike. 
Among the segments specially prepared and uploaded to YouTube have been the high def master of the original 1980 doco, still photograph galleries, before and after showreels and most recently the first in a series of out-take reels which, informally, show the master at work while candidly sharing his own philosophy of the artform and the business in general.  The first sampler can be viewed here.  There will be much more to come as Dornisch compiles the mass of taped material.  Thank you Walton... we owe you one!


A Blast From The Past:
I love old time matte shots, and have a personal preference for the early days, with the 1940's being my own 'prime' favourite matte period where the artform was in maximum use and at its peak, in terms of bold application and a certain, though soon to be, long lost sense of romance of old Hollywood.  Today's blast from the past is a revealing glimpse at the matte process at Paramount Studios, circa late 1920's to early 1930's.  These wonderful historic photographs below - just a portion of a sizeable collection - generously came to me from the daughter of career matte artist Jan Domela some years ago, for which I remain ever so grateful.

Wonderful 'you are there' set of rare snapshots taken on the back lot of Paramount Studios, probably around 1929 or 1930 show veteran matte painter Jan Domela (dressed ever so smartly in suit and tie and wearing a Fedora) supervising photography of a matte shot - possibly a latent image original negative matte?  Domela's long time associate and vfx cinematographer Irmin Roberts, is shown with his hand on the camera mount.  Note the black gaffer's tape being applied to the glass to mask off unwanted portions of a standing back lot set.  This unique photographic slice of cinema trick shot history is pure 100% solid gold to NZ Pete.  *Photos courtesy of the Domela family.

The various stages of a Jan Domela-Irmin Roberts matte shot, resulting from the camera set up illustrated above.  Sadly, the film is a mystery, though if you happen to know it, let me know please.
Irmin Roberts, ASC doing what he loved.
 Both Domela and Roberts started at Paramount on the West Coast about the same time in 1926 and worked on every film the studio produced that required mattes. From the early thirties Gordon Jennings would head up the effects department up until his untimely death in 1953, after which John P. Fulton would take charge.
Late in the game, around the mid 1950's, Irmin got more involved in Second Unit D.O.P work and won acclaim for his astounding location photography on films like SHANE as well as designing the now famous 'trombone-zoom' trick for Hitchcock's VERTIGO (which would later be used by many other directors over the years, the most impressive being Steven Spielberg for one particularly brilliant shot in JAWS.) and later assisted on other big effects shows like TORA!, TORA!, TORA! with vfx master, L.B Abbott.
Another sensational step by step look at one of Jan Domela's vintage matte shots at Paramount.  

The final composite from an annoyingly unidentifiable motion picture, probably from the late 1920's or early 1930's.  I'd just love to know what this movie is??  I've researched high and low but can't name it!!  *Photos all courtesy of the Domela family.
Jan Domela would continue with Paramount for close on 40 years as matte artist, though his role would diminish somewhat come the sixties with mass cost cutting across the studio.  Domela would freelance for various studios such as Fox on THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY; MGM on THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD and THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN; Columbia on THE MAN FROM UNCLE and Film Effects of Hollywood for HAWAII and various tv shows.
Another mystery Paramount matte before and after.  *Photos courtesy of the family of Irmin Roberts.
Late 1920's New York city street scene created on the Paramount lot with Jan Domela's invisible matte art.  *Photos courtesy of the family of Irmin Roberts.

So, let us now examine NZ Pete's special selection of movie matte memories...

Enjoy the journey


With a cast like this you'd think you were onto a sure thing.... Think again!  Not even the immense talents of Rip Torn and Buck Henry could salvage this 1991 misfire.  The Dream Quest mattes and vfx however, are great!

I was always an immense fan of the incredibly versatile vfx house Dream Quest, who formed initially in pretty much a disused garage to begin with, around 1980.  The FX journal Cinefex did a sensational article in issue #12 years ago all about the Dream Quest guys and their base of operations - an article that remains to this day as my all time favourite Cinefex article.  Shown above are two of the second generation of DQ matte artists, Ken Allen (left) and Robert Scifo (right), both of whom shared painting duties on DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991).

A matte so damned good the producers used it on the movie poster!  That's got to be a first.  

If it hadn't been for my friend/blog follower/matte artist/all round good guy Mr Richard Kilroy sending me these behind the scenes snapshots of the original matte art, I'd never have even heard of this film, let alone seen it!  

Closer detail of the matte.  I don't know whether Ken Allen or Robert Scifo painted this shot, though both must have had their hands full with quite a number of mattes that feature in the quite tedious show.  Albert Brooks has always been a sort of 'take him or leave him' kind of an actor for me.  Best film was TAXI DRIVER, though I do digress... *Painting photos courtesy of Richard Kilroy.

Dream Quest was the brainchild of a bunch of 'youngsters', figuratively speaking, who never let their apparent youth mask their considerable knowledge and skill set.  Hoyt Yeatman, Rocco Gioffre, Scott Squires, Fred Iguchi, Thomas Hollister and the 'old man' of the bunch, Robert Hollister, were Dream Quest from day one. I followed these guys back in the day and was constantly delighted with their work and feel proud to own two of the DQ mattes, painted by Rocco Gioffre.

Matte magic from Dream Quest artists Bob Scifo and Ken Allen.  I know absolutely nothing about Allen nor his background, though I know a little about Scifo that I can share.  Robert started off in matte work as an assistant to legendary matte painter Louis Litchtenfield, (an effects artist who's career stretched as far back as GONE WITH THE WIND as a layout artist for Jack Cosgrove, and through to stints at all the major Hollywood studios, painting on shows like MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS eventually becoming resident artist at Warner Bros from the mid 1950's with big epics like HELEN OF TROY.)  Scifo would assist Litchtenfield in the mid 1970's with mattes at Frank Van der Veer's vfx house on films such as Dino DeLaurentiis' KING KONG, CAPRICORN ONE and later FLASH GORDON.  In the 1980's Scifo proved himself a vital and highly talented matte exponent and rendered some amazing traditional painted mattes for films such as THE SEVENTH SIGN among others.


I can't remember what the point of it all was - maybe the trams were transport to heaven...or hell (the other heaven??)  Whatever it was, I'd pretty much lost interest at this point.  NOT one of Meryl's more memorable films.

Much to admire in this climactic action piece, with matte art, motion control and nice fx animation.

The tunnels of destiny... or some such thing.  It took 112 very long minutes of my life to get there!  The things I do for the sake of this blog!!


MGM were the Captains of Industry when it came to big, slick, glossy all-star musical extravaganza's such as DEEP IN MY HEART  (1954).

Photographic effects supervised by Warren Newcombe, with Mark Davis as chief VFX cameraman.  Artists included Howard Fisher, Henri Hillinck and most likely Matthew Yuricich.

Possibly my favourite 'style' or 'genre' of matte artistry would be the dazzling, glittering, animated showcase theatre facades that MGM were so darned good at.  Other studios tested the water with this sort of thing but it was absolutely the realm of Newcombe and his artists and cameramen who mastered the technique.

Jaw dropping and often complex backlit animated flicker gags proliferate DEEP IN MY HEART.  Just love it!

Beautiful matte artwork to begin with, with most skilled perspective work on the lettering - something that didn't always work as effectively with other studios.

I am happy to report that I own this particular original matte painting.  It's done with gouache mostly onto thick artists card (MGM had moved away from their old pastel technique by this time), with the original colour gels still taped on the reverse side over the carefully drilled out 'lightbulbs'.  The painting was firstly filmed 'as is', with additional stop motion passes made solely for the backlight elements for the 'dancing' illumination, with the painting itself being only lit from behind.

The original matte art owned by NZ Pete.  Interestingly, the film was directed by Stanley Donen though we can clearly see the name of Richard Whorf here.  The reason being that the matte was originally painted for a much earlier MGM musical, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946) (see below).  The show title 'Midnight Girl' as well as the theatre venue sign were added in 1954 for DEEP IN MY HEART - a technique frequently employed by Newcombe's department to re-use matte art and cut costs.  New revisions were painted on artists board, or in this case on a slice of spare board cut from the original unused matte edge shown at right, and very carefully inserted into a well disguised 'hole' left by the excision of the old, unwanted portion.  It takes a keen eye to spot these clever 'repairs' but BluRay does show them on occasion.
The true original matte art as it was rendered for the Richard Whorf film TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946), which would be altered eight years later for the Stanley Donen film.

Detail shows where the new signage has been cut into the old matte theatre facade.

More detail.

Note the 'cut in' theatre sign at left.

In my 2012 oral history with the great Matthew Yuricich, Matt described the scores of theatre frontages he had painted and drilled during his tenure at MGM.  He made special mention of long time matte and visual effects cinematographer, Mark Davis, and his innate skills in orchestrating such shots.  Davis, in addition to being Newcombe's number one associate and cameraman was also a very talented matte artist in his own right, though wasn't treated very well by Newcombe and departed in 1956 to go it alone.

The painted, animated theatre fronts are an artform all of their own.  An artform within an artform.


Painting with foreground elements.

Big pullback from neon signage to a broad cityscape (below).

Presumably a quite large matte painting to facilitate the camera move and considerable animated light work.  Generally the MGM matte art was surprisingly small, though incredibly detailed as a rule.

Magical glittering theatre frontages as only MGM's Newcombe department can render them.


The beautifully acted and directed true story, NURSE EDITH CAVELL (1939), was a deeply moving account of the work done by a particularly courageous nurse working with the Belgium underground during the First World War.

RKO's Camera Effects Department, as they referred to it.  At top left is head of department Vernon Walker who, after being assistant to Lloyd Knechtel, would take over the reigns in 1933 and take charge of all effects work until his early death in 1948,  The top right picture is an amazing look at the photography for the famous RKO logo, with miniature globe and radio mast, backed by clouds painted on glass by matte artist Paul Detlefsen (in dark jacket).  Paul started out in glass shots as far back as 1923 on early DeMille pictures and came to RKO in 1929.  After a couple of years Paul shifted across to Warner Bros. where he remained until 1950 as head painter.  Optical cameraman Linwood Dunn is shown crouching next to Paul, while two unidentified effects staffers as shown on extreme left and right.  Bottom left shows Dunn and Walker posing with the new Acme-Dunn Optical Printer.  Bottom right shows us the RKO effects stage with a rear process projection shot in progress.

NURSE EDITH CAVELL was a superb drama and featured a number of very high quality mattes such as these day and night shots of occupied Brussels where everything above the heads of the marching German soldiers is painted.

The matte at left is particularly effective.  The shot at right is a small stage set augmented with much painted rendering extending directly above the guard box.  The clouds also move across the sky.

I previously mentioned artist Paul Detlefsen in the introduction, though by the time this production came along Detlefsen was already long gone across town to Warner Bros with Byron Haskin.  Artists at RKO at this time would have been Chesley Bonestell, Mario Larrinaga and possibly Fitch Fulton, that is if he hadn't gotten tied up with Selznick's mammoth enterprise, GONE WITH THE WIND where he was a key component of Jack Cosgrove's matte effects department.

The forboding prison where things are looking grim for our heroine.  Beautiful matte art here, with matte photography by Russell Cully who would eventually take over the FX department upon Vernon Walker's untimely death.

A common matte requirement in those days was the painted interior of an opera house or theatre.  At right is a later night shot of the grim prison where Anna Neagle awaits her fate.

The moving closing sequence stands as a powerful and poignant a statement still today.


After the solemnity of the previous film we now embark on a lightweight and jolly family enterprise, THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (1967) starring everybody's dad Fred MacMurray.

Master matte and photographic effects wizard, the great Peter Ellenshaw shown here at work in what was initially his 'dedicated' work space at Disney during the fx work on 20'000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA in 1954 - in a cramped corridor in the animation building!  Happily Peter was eventually given a proper purpose built matte department of his own, and a staff of painters and camera operators and specialty technicians.  Peter was one of the shining lights of the entire Disney empire and contributed so much to so many projects.  In addition to huge amounts of matte painting work, Ellenshaw frequently took on Production Designer assignments and other duties.

Matte artists toast!  Alan Maley and Peter Ellenshaw congratulate each other on the Oscar win for Disney's BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971).  *Photo courtesy of Harrison Ellenshaw.

I love the matte work of the Disney Studio, especially from the old days, with Walt as well as directors such as Robert Stephenson being utterly gung-ho on trick shots as a means to break the scenario out of the confines of the Disney lot.  Disney's were very big on matte painted shots - often used very tactfully as a fix or subtle alteration to an existing production shot.  They were also big on opticals, with Eustace Lycett being worked to the bone in providing endless, often wall to wall sodium vapour travelling mattes.

Although Ellenshaw was the only matte artist credited, the department had several painters at the time.  Fellow Brit Alan Maley had been with the unit since the early sixties, having come from Wally Veevers' effects department at Shepperton. Interestingly Maley is credited here as 'Title Designer'. though I'm sure he had a hand in the many mattes too. Constantine 'Deno' Ganakes was another long time artist who had been with Ellenshaw since the late fifties and would continue right on through to the 1980's.  Jim Fetherolf was a talented former actor who had turned his equally talented hand at matte work back at 20th Century Fox in 1951, from which he transitioned over to Disney around 1956 or so to work alongside Peter and yet another Brit ex-patriot, Albert Whitlock.  I'm not sure if Jim was still with Disney by 1967 as he eventually gave up the movie business to concentrate on his wonderful fine art.

Painted top up to provide the proper period feel to a back lot set.

An extensive tilt down effect with just the doorway and steps being actual.  The style suggests the brushwork of Jim Fetherolf to me, with the fine attention to architecture as was Jim's field of interest.  See below for High Def detail.

Detail 1

Detail 2

Detail 3
Wonderful period feel to this full painting (with optical snow overlay).... and it's in HD too!

An interesting shot that appears to be two actual live action settings matted as one, with painted foreground and midground foliage elements blending the plates as one

Another intriguing trick shot.  The exact same live action plate as that used in the above shot has been matted with a completely different location plate of fields and rolling hills (the real clouds cast an actual shadow).  The two plates are again blended with painted elements, though the area to the right of the car has been painted differently.  The trees at left seem entirely painted in.  Note: The two shots don't occur back to back like this,  There is some action between the cuts but I placed them together for comparison.  You're welcome.
Autumnal colour courtesy of the matte department.

Nothing like a jaunt in the fresh country air to clear last night's heavy hangover.  All painted except the bit of roadway and car.

Exquisite Ellenshaw brushmanship.

Multi-part shot combines some live action foreground, a second live action ocean plate and various painted elements.

All matte art except the road, people and car.

A substantial pull back shot.

Everything here is painted with the exception of the people, the steps and the doorway.  Magical.

And as the sun sinks into the unbelievably smoggy West, our loveable Disney folk drive off to pastures new.


Columbia Pictures knocked out a whole slew of these things in the early fifties, with SLAVES OF BABYLON (1953) being just one of many.  It's forgettable in itself, even though the legendary shock-meister William Castle of all people helmed this picture (!!)  That's as bizarre as hiring Peter Bogdanovich to direct a Jess Franco 'Women-in-Prison' flick, or John Ford to do a Woody Allen film!  Though, I digress.

The picture is however loaded with matte shots, though who handled that side of it I don't know.  The only special effects credit went to a Jack Erickson, about whom I know nothing much.  Columbia had used the services of various matte painters over the years such as New Zealander Ted Withers way back in the day, and later people like Juan Larrinaga, Louis Litchtenfield and Hans Barthowlowsky.  Matthew Yuricich worked at Columbia for a time during one of his layoffs from Fox in the fifties, so maybe he was there then?

The mattes are many and quite adventurous an undertaking.  Presumably Lawrence Butler and cameraman Donald Glouner would have been around as they were a staple of Columbia's trick department.

The matte joins are quite good in this show, with very well blended shots that hide matte lines well.

Columbia has always been something of a mystery as far as their effects department go, with little if anything ever published.

Some of the SLAVES OF BABYLON mattes are pretty impressive, especially for what was essentially a 'B' picture.

Columbia did a few big and quite impressive matte shot shows around this time such as THE JOLSON STORY and THE MAN FROM COLORADO.

A full painting with a tiny slot of live action in the upper window.

Nice cloud work.

The colour matching is also good for a minor league production.  I've seen plenty of big time shows with glaringly bad blends, matte lines and colour match issues.  Take a look at the Oscar winning fx on THE TIME MACHINE for some appalling matte lines as big as marker pens!  Incredibly sloppy.

Painted canyon trail is effective, though the interior at right may in fact be a full set.

Now, say what you want, but I really like this shot.  It has all the Golden Era sense of romance and high adventure that I find especially appealing in the matte painters artform.

That's it for now.....