Sunday 29 September 2019

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

Welcome back to yet another installment of New Zealand Pete's tribute blog to old school special visual effects and the masters of that particular form of cinematic magic.  I've assembled a fascinating collection of effects shots from a broad spectrum of motion pictures, with more than a few surprises.  As per the norm, I've included some well known, a few not so well known, and at least one completely off the wall celluloid oddity that I bet most readers will, in all likelihood, never have heard of, let alone actually seen.  In addition to the analysis of five movies, I'm also delighted to finally showcase a recently auctioned Al Whitlock matte painting in detail, as well as a review of two most deserving coffee table books that I purchased recently.  No space for another 'Blast From The Past', but next issue I'll have some cool stuff.
Do give me your feedback, comments, corrections, gossip or tips on movies worth tracking down that I may have missed (I generally watch 3 or 4 per night, which is fine as I'm retired and don't need to get up at the crack of dawn to be a part of the rank and file traffic misery that is rush hour in Auckland.)


Pete's Book Review:

The American author J.W Rinzler has published several essential and sizable volumes on the original Lucasfilm STAR WARS trilogy which occupy pride and place on my sagging bookshelves, such is the remarkable attention to detail, deep investigative journalism and utterly splendid photographic archival material - particularly with regard to the first STAR WARS book, A NEW HOPE - a re-readable tome if ever there was one.  I recently purchased two more of Rinzler's magnificent books - THE MAKING OF PLANET OF THE APES and just last week, was delighted to open a weighty package from Amazon, UK containing Rinzler's most recent book, THE MAKING OF ALIEN.
Both films are in my all time top list, right near the top, so it was with great haste that I order and devour these books A.S.A.P.  I was not in the least disappointed with either purchase.  The APES volume I received and read a few months back, while I'm about halfway through the newly unwrapped ALIEN edition.
I've never tired of viewing the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES film, and so vividly recall seeing it on the big screen, probably around 1970.  A most literate, intelligent and thought provoking film that was a hell of a gamble for the studio, and for most associated with it.  So much of the film still resonates with me, even all these years, and countless viewings later, with of course the 'kick in the guts' tag scene of the Liberty Lady buried in the sand being a jaw dropping moment that ranks right up there among the greatest 'reveals' in cinema history.  In saying that, there was another particular brief scene that shot a bolt through me as a kid in the movie house audience (the suburban Mayfair Cinema, Auckland), and that was the very first shot of one of the apes on horseback right after that skin crawling screech heard from an off camera shell horn up in the trees.
Riders dressed entirely in black chase the primitive human folk through the corn field... we can't quite make out who or what the pursuers are until one stops and turns toward camera, with a zoom in to reveal an ape!  Cut to Charlton Heston in disbelief! Might not read as much nowadays but it rattled me no end as a kid. It still gives me a shiver even today some 50 years later. Rinzler covers every aspect of the production and leaves no stone unturned, from the casting - my fave being the wonderful Maurice Evans who steals the show hands down - to Bill Abbott's low key visual effects (I always admired the opening shot outside the spacecraft windows); John Chambers' groundbreaking make up design and of course, the incredible experimental percussion score by the great Jerry Goldsmith. Oh, and as an addendum, the one thing I never liked was the 'cheap' looking Ape City, where a matte painting really could have been employed to extend the small exterior set and create something resembling a 'city' rather than the quaint little styrofoam village that it appears to be on screen.  Just my opinion.
A fabulous read, very well researched and illustrated.


In my opinion, director Ridley Scott has never topped his remarkable achievement that was ALIEN, and it's plain author Rinzler shares the sentiment.  As with his previous books, no aspect of the surprisingly lengthy and tangled journey - from Dan O'Bannon's initial idea; the largely under-credited Walter Hill's major script revisions; the utter revulsion by 'The Suits' at Fox toward eccentric Swiss surrealist H.R Giger's conceptual artwork; the hiring of an unknown English director who'd only helmed one previous 'arthouse' feature with every director in town turning the project down as, in the words of one, "a piece of shit monster movie".  Finally one studio executive (Alan Ladd jnr) was willing to risk his reputation and green-light the film. 

I've lost count of the number of times I've seen the film, dating right back to an advance industry preview in 1979 which blew my socks off, to the umpteenth look on BluRay the other day, the film never fails to deliver on every single front, even 40 years down the track.  Terrific screenwriting complimented by a superb ensemble cast, all of whom were the very definition of perfection playing characters that were real people (I especially admired Ian Holm's 'Ash', and Veronica Cartwright's 'Lambert' - just so bloody good...but then they all were!).  Brilliant art direction (where was that God-damned Oscar I ask you?), cinematography, music, the very deliberate slow-burn pacing that just 'tightens the screws' ever so gradually till it's almost unbearable (Brett's was there ever a more nerve wracking build up to a death scene, ever? All that dripping water and jangling chains.  Genius Ridley.) and the most ghastly screen incarnation of sheer, unrelenting pulse pounding terror that was the title creature itself.
It all worked because Ridley knew just how much (if anything) of the creature to show, and exactly when it would work to heart stopping perfection.
As a big fan of movie sound effects, I'd easily rank ALIEN as one of the best ever for sound fx editing (by Jim Shields) and this area too is covered in depth in the book along with all of the creative departments, not forgetting Brian Johnson and Nick Allder's Oscar winning visual effects, which never outstayed their welcome and were used sparingly, unlike films of this current vogue, unfortunately.
Both books, as with the previous Rinzler 'Making Of' volumes are substantial 350 page, large landscape format, heavily illustrated, quality hardcover publications that I highly recommend to anyone who shares my love for these two iconic science fiction films.

[Footnote:  The James Cameron sequel ALIENS may well be an all out action packed rollercoaster ride, but it completely lacked any form of empathy for it's human characters - one simply can't wait for them to be wiped out, as obnoxious, cliched and one dimensional as they all were - due to Cameron's curious inability to 'direct' actors and contribute believable dialogue exchanges, an unfortunate and inexplicable reality that's sadly all too evident when his subsequent films are also viewed. But that's just my observation]


 Albert Whitlock update:

It's not very often that any of Albert's mattes come up for auction, but three did recently, and as much as I'd love to be the happy owner of any of them (I'm not!), a friend in Germany managed to purchase one major piece, with the added bonus of having another matte painting on the reverse side, which my pal wasn't aware of until the enormous crate arrived and was opened.  The paintings come from the estate of Larry Shuler who, as mentioned in my earlier Whitlock career blog, was Al's grip for many, many years, dating from the early 1960's.  Larry, who passed away earlier this year owned half a dozen wonderful paintings, with his daughter sending me snapshots of them all gracing his walls.
My pal in Germany was thrilled, not only to be the proud owner of these superb pieces, but to actually receive the carefully boxed up shipment in one, unbroken piece, especially given that we're talking about massive glass matte art.  This makes three original Whitlock's and a dozen vintage MGM mattes now in his collection.
*A very big 'thank you' Thomas, for sharing these and other images with me.  It's much appreciated, and I know at least one MatteShot reader will be delighted (I'm talking to you Steve).

Albert's spectacular panorama of Washington DC which appeared in the opening shot of AIRPORT 1977 with Al's split screen rolling cloud gag and a miniature 747 jet airliner matted flying over.

Detail from a masterpiece of matte art.

Albert's loose, impressionistic brushstrokes at play.

Just love the dots and dashes which appear random, yet pop to life with considerable realism when viewed as a total piece.

Foliage and urban sprawl - AIRPORT 1977 detail.

On the reverse side of the above matte was this beautiful painting from THE HINDENBURG.  The matte featured as a POV tilt down with a subtle rainbow element doubled in.  Naturally the clouds moved in layers too.

Detail of Whitlock's cloud work from THE HINDENBURG.
Interestingly, the particular auction house appeared to have absolutely no idea as to what they were marketing, nor who Whitlock was, the basic concept of a matte painting, nor even any of the film titles!  The AIRPORT one was simply described as 'Cityscape by Albert Whitlock' (!!!)

Now, let us review some overlooked effects films...


A sensational cast under the eye of a more than capable director, PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE (1944) was an entertaining - though confusing - patriotic WWII melodrama dealing with the Free French, Devil's Island incarceration and escape and a myriad of experiences all told in the most convoluted of flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and even a flashback within that just to make it a head scratcher.  Still, the film has a ton of action and is loaded with great effects sequences and matte shots.

The legendary Jack Cosgrove was director of special effects on the film.  Primarily a matte painter, Jack worked on many huge effects films such as GONE WITH THE WIND, DUEL IN THE SUN, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY and THE PRISONER OF ZENDA - mostly for David Selznick.  Jack worked on several films at Warner Bros during the forties and onward.  The sheer volume of trick shots required for PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE (1944) encompassed many painted mattes, complex miniature set ups, opticals and process shots, not to mention some very impressive full scale physical effects.  Long time Warner's VFX cameraman Edwin DuPar was Cosgrove's cinematographer for the model shots, with Hans Koenekamp most likely on board too.  John Crouse was matte photographer and a number of painters worked in the studio's famous Stage 5 FX department, with Paul Detlefsen as chief painter and a staff that included Mario Larrinaga, Chesley Bonestell, Louis Litchtenfield, Hans Bartholowsky and Jack Shaw.

Although the painting here is not a matte from PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE (actually it's from The Adventures of Robin Hood), this excellent photo demonstrates the matte stand set up at Warner Bros.

Curtiz was responsible for so many excellent films, largely for Warner Bros. A most adaptable and competent director.

There's a ton of model work in the film, and it's all solid stuff.  Here an air raid takes place on German occupied French railroad depot.

I'm not sure, but I suspect these shots may have been lifted from an earlier Warners film - something the studio was not at all ashamed of.

At left is an interesting rear projection shot with Bogart jettisoning a large parcel to his lady.  The French farmland zooming by under the bomb bay is all a large miniature.  At right is an effective pyro miniature shot.

Bogart's lady hears his plane and runs out to look.  Mostly matte painted shot with just the yard and partial house frontage being an actual setting.

Bogart's miniature bomber intercut with Michele Morgan in heavily matte painted settings.  Warner's were so identifiable through the 30's and 40's by their wonderful matte painted clouds and romantic evening skies.

The cast is not to be scoffed at - Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains and the great Sydney Greenstreet.

Although it takes place in England, France and Devil's Island, the film was naturally shot in Hollywood as it was war time, with substantial matte painted additions made.  This, the first in a substantial wall-to-wall FX sequence, shows our star being driven through the countryside to a secret rendezvous - and every shot is either a matte or an elaborate miniature.

A somewhat corny matte, complete with wooly English sheepdog, shepherd with his crook, and all the fanciful makings of a bucolic greeting card of the era.

The drive continues, with trick shot expertise.  Everything is a miniature.  The farms, the car, the mechanised farm animals, the tractors and hay makers, it's all one very cleverly engineered model shot.
Faintly visible is the 'slit' in the road behind the model car where the pulley mechanism is situated.

Edwin DuPar's effects camera floats along, following the action, with the car being 'driven' from a mechanism beneath, connected through a slit in the roadway to a drive system underneath - a standard gag for such scenes.

As a still frame here it looks phoney, but when viewed in motion, as a tracking shot with the cows moving their heads as they 'eat' grass and the tractor 'driving' by.  Now what is so interesting is that the large set appears to have been constructed on several individual 'planes', with subtle and credible parallax shift evident between the foreground, midground and background as the camera moves through the scene.  I assume the set must have been built in maybe three sections and engineered on tracks.  It's so subtle, and barely perceptible.
As I've said, it looks much better in motion in the movie.

Miniature setting in process shot.

The sequence ends with a clever continuous camera tracking shot that optically pans off the miniature set and onto a full scale live action set up.

A rare out-take shows Edwin DuPar's effects camera slate and his assistant at the tail end of take one.

The original staff car miniature as it looks today.

The small metal hook visible at extreme right is likely the drive mechanism which would connect to a pulley device hidden beneath the miniature roadway through an invisible slit.

An impressive VFX shot where bombers, having been hidden is secret bunkers in the farmland, taxi out in readiness for a night bomb run.  A miniature set augmented with actual people added through a density travelling matte of some sort.

More model work.

A couple of maritime shots, with a matte painted view through a German U-Boat periscope, and a curious lower frame on a ship that seems to me to be a miniature ship with people and ocean both matted in. 

Although I'd seen the flick several times on VHS, TV and DVD, I never spotted this shot till I saw the BluRay recently. A soft split runs across the scene just above the guy's head, with the sky, trees, top of the building and even the upper half of the jail bars being painted.  Very brave shot to pull off, but those old time craftsmen could handle these as a matter of 'all in a days work'.

Humphrey Bogart in front of a process screen, with an effects composite projected comprising a partial crowd matted with a painted crowd (with slot gag waves and cheers) and a painted plane and airport.

A pleasant drive through the English countryside is a wall-to-wall series of matte shots.

All painted except for the bit of foreground road and the bottom half of the nearest trees.

California augmented to become WWII period England.

All painted except for the balcony and actors.

A tracking shot and push in follows the miniature train through the countryside.

The infamous Devil's Island looks like Club Med to me.  A multi element photographic effect with real beach, actors on a set, and much matte art from Cosgrove or one of his painters.

Bogart, Lorre and compatriots escape Devil's Island and are strafed by German aircraft.  All in miniature.

They take casualties but do manage a direct hit on the enemy plane.  Incidentally, the practical fx crew did some great work here with full scale pyro and stunt guys blown to hell on the deck of the boat.

A pretty impressive set piece that looks like it was executed on real ocean, possibly the Salton Sea, which I seem to recall reading somewhere was the case for this film and another from the same era and studio, ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC.

The secret storage hanger interior which I'm sure was extended with matte art to complete the walls and ceiling architecture.

Total miniature set up in action.


I was reluctant to watch this film, what with bad to middling reviews, but I gave NEWSIES (1992) a shot mainly for the matte work and found it a reasonably enjoyable and energetic song and dance time filler.

The film was a bonanza for effects house Illusion Arts, who contributed a number of excellent matte shots and one show stopping grand vista of an effects sequence mid-way through.  Bill Taylor, Syd Dutton and Robert Stromberg provided the trick shots with panache and period style for the 1899 narrative.

In case newer readers aren't familiar with the folks involved, Bill Taylor was (and still is) a career VFX cameraman who specialised in matte and optical cinematography from the mid 1960's for a few well known optical houses in Hollywood.  Taylor would strike up a friendship in the sixties with Universal's ace matte expert Albert Whitlock -  a friendship that would pay dividends years later when Al hired Bill to become his matte cameraman at Universal in 1975.  At the same time, a budding artist named Syd Dutton had occasion to be also employed in Whitlock's matte department where an apprenticeship in the art of matte painting would establish Syd as one of the industry's best.

An elaborate matte painted tilt up and pull back on period turn of the century New York City.

Numerous plumes of smoke or steam were superimposed, and it appears that one smoke element was re-used for all of the individual smoke stacks as they all look identical to me.

The grand final frame of the extensive matte painted shot.  Beautifully handled backlight which was a Whitlock standard and surely passed on to Dutton.

The most memorable centrepiece of NEWSIES was the incredible, massive pullback from the Brooklyn Bridge.  I am delighted to have high quality photos of the original Syd Dutton matte painting which was in the living room of retired master grip, Larry Shuler, and was sent to me by Larry's family, to whom I'm most grateful indeed.  Such a magnificent painting.  Note the tiny black area lower left which Syd left unpainted to allow some live action component to be added.

Here is the huge pullback in a set of sequential frames.

Bill Taylor well remembers the shooting of this major effects shot for Illusion Arts.  "There were three paintings match dissolved in a big motion control move back.  There are rear projection live action inserts in the first and the third paintings."

Illusion Arts' resident 'special ops' technician, Lynn Ledgerwood, was instrumental in bringing the complicated shot together.

Bill Taylor:  "The move was calculated so that the rate of change in size is constant - not counting the slow in and the slow out - so that the camera is always slowing down as it is approaching the painting(s), complicated by the close focus limits of the anamorphic lens."

Bill Taylor:  "Shooting was so finicky that we had to brace off the frame that held the paintings and screw the braces to the floor.  The VistaVision plates were shot on a roof on the Disney lot."

Final frame from the pull out with RP live action added.  Syd Dutton recalled to me just how big the overall painting was, something like eight feet wide.  Syd told me that Larry Shuler had plenty of wall space in his home so it was no problem to hang this one and several others.
Some wonderful close up detail of Syd Dutton's painting.

Detail with the blacked out area visible for a crowd of extras to be added in later.

You want detail? - I got detail!

NEWSIES masterpiece of matte artistry detail of the Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1899.

Assisting Dutton on the many painted shots was newcomer matte artist Robert Stromberg, who himself would prove to be a top exponent in the field before turning in his brushes (and later his Mac) to turn his hand at motion picture direction.

It has always interested me in the different sizes various matte guys prefer to render their work.  In the old days the Selznick studio under Jack Cosgrove worked on large masonite panels for their mattes, while over at MGM the standard size chosen by Warren Newcombe was surprisingly small and incredibly detailed - sometimes as small as a modern A3 scale, yet they held up on screen perfectly.  In England, Percy Day would paint on very large glasses, as would the artists who succeeded him at Shepperton.  Pinewood's mattes were somewhat smaller from the examples I've seen.  Tom Howard's studio at MGM Borehamwood painted small as well.  In the modern era, the paintings just got bigger and bigger, presumably to accommodate the higher fidelity optics of photography and projection yet no one painted as tiny as master matte painter Ken Marschall, who rendered incredibly accurate and finely detailed works on astonishingly small sheets of art card (painted often on his kitchen table!) no bigger that an A3 sheet of paper.

All paint, with just a tiny slot of live action on the balcony.


Here's a film that probably isn't that well known (if known at all) among my American readers, GUNS AT BATASI (1964), a superior British made military drama set in an un-named African country under the last bastions of colonial British rule.  A powerful psychological drama plays as a battle of wits and wills ensues between the British garrison, commanded by a tough as old boots Staff Sergeant, played superbly by a never better Richard Attenborough, stretched to breaking point as a coup de-tat occurs with a wanna-be African dictator, who, as history has shown us, will surely turn out like all the other strongman African dictators before the sun goes down.... Dire.   An outstanding movie!

Although it was a 20th Century Fox release, GUNS AT BATASI was an entirely Rank-Pinewood show.

There are only four matte shots in the film, all quite minor except this one, but they are a good example of trick shots that nobody suspects nor notices.  The apparent African setting was entirely photographed on Salisbury Plain in the southern part of the UK, and at Pinewood Studios.  Cliff Culley was Pinewood's matte chief and would have been key to making these shots. The upper half of the frame is a painting, including the native village, mountains and foliage.

The African township and surrounds have been painted.

The British garrison and army base on the central African plain as painted by Cliff Culley.  Note the foreground trees, bushes and palms have also been rendered by Culley.  Matte cameraman was probably Roy Field, assisted by Martin Shorthall.

Subtle painted extensions added to a Pinewood backlot set with the roof and upper floor of the guard house, as well as the mountain behind, being painted in.  A terrific film, superbly written and acted, and beautifully photographed in B&W CinemaScope by the great Douglas Slocombe.


FOREVER AMBER (1947) was a popular and lavish Technicolor costume romp set during the era of King Charles II, based upon an equally successful novel that everyone seemed to be reading in the 1940's apparently.

As I sadly have no Dorothy Lamour movies this month, the next best offering on hand is the vivacious Linda Darnell who starred in FOREVER AMBER and was a popular leading lady under contract to 20th Century Fox for some years.
A peek inside the matte painting room of the Sersen effects department.  At lower right is scenic artist John Coakley who would later go on to establish the essential J.C Backings company, supplying painted cyclorama's and backdrops to Hollywood studios.

Fred Sersen keeps a watchful eye over his stable of skilled artisans in this wonderful photograph, probably taken around 1950.  The artists at work here are:  Ray Kellogg, Lee LeBlanc, Cliff Silsby, Emil Kosa jnr and Max DeVega.  *Picture courtesy of the utterly indispensable book The Invisible Art, by Craig Barron and Mark Cotta Vaz.  A must own if ever their were one!

A multi part effects shot opens the film with a blazing manor house - probably a miniature - combined with live action escape in a horse and carriage and a matte painted foreground with trees and such.  Fred Sersen was Fox's chief of special effects, with Ralph Hammeras and Ray Kellogg as primary contributors to the trick work.

A full frame matte painting, shown as part of a camera move in close.

Superb period matte art combined with a backlot set at Fox.  Emil Kosa senior and his son Emil junior were matte artists in Sersen's department, along with Barbara Webster, Lee LeBlanc, Max DeVega, Cliff Silsby, Fitch Fulton and Menrad von Muldorfer.  Sersen, Kellogg and Hammeras were also skilled matte artists, as well as all round effects experts, with Hammeras being most adept at miniatures and special photography.  Fox had the biggest matte department in Hollywood during the golden era, and the standard of the work was exceptional.

Effects cameramen at Fox included Walter Castle, Charles G. Clark and a young L.B 'Bill' Abbott who would go on to head up the department from 1957 and win several Academy Awards.

I so much enjoy dissecting fx shots of old, and this one's a doozy.  A seemingly straight forward buggy ride is a multi-plane gag with extensive matte painted background art and what looks like a separate painted foreground with trees and bushes, with our live action dirt road, horse etc and a bit of grass sandwiched in between.

A nice atmospheric night matte that would be stolen later and cropped up in other non Fox films such as Irwin Allen's THE STORY OF MANKIND and others.

There's a massive blaze at the end of the picture with several fx shots, probably combining miniatures, painted matte art and full scale action.  Incidentally, for many of the background rear projection plates Sersen assigned the young Bill Abbott the task of completing the required inferno footage.  Having worked on the much earlier Fox epic IN OLD CHICAGO back in 1937, Abbott remembered shooting a great deal of high quality fire footage to be used in many of the process shots.  So good was the footage that Bill dug out many of the old unused takes from the Fox vault and through a complicated process proceeded to 'colourise' the black & white footage on the optical printer.  It worked a treat and Sersen was very impressed with Abbott's ingenuity.

A splendid Technicolor matte shot, and one that also appeared later in other movies and tv shows.


Another Fox film, and one I'll bet many of you have never heard of - CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932) - a completely off the wall, deliriously insane, incident packed programmer that runs like a bunch of old time serials all strung haphazardly together where all rationale is thrown out the window and the audience of the time were no doubt left reeling with 'What the hell did we just see?'.  This of course is all the more reason to seek out this mysterious, little known but thrill packed celluloid concoction.  NZPete actually digs the flick and just had to include it in this blog.  

I'm fond of Bela Lugosi, and couple him with legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe and visionary designer turned movie director William Cameron Menzies..... I mean, you really can't pass this one by, now can you?
The scatter brained scenario (which is not to put it down) concerns a dashing spiritualist (Edmund Lowe) who's pitted against a patently insane megalomaniac (Lugosi...who else) hell bent on destroying the world as we know it with his very powerful, home made 'death ray'.

Opening shot is a long dolly shot into the mysterious temple, all done in miniature, probably of some considerable size due to limitations with focus and depth of field at the time.  No effects credits but certainly would have involved Ralph Hammeras and probably Fred Sersen helming the considerable catalogue of various trick shots, from matte art, glass shots, models, animation, split screens, optical gags and explosions.

The visual effects work is really good actually, with this sequence where the mystic walks on fire being an impressive use of carefully registered double exposures and roto work.  A few other fire scenes also occur where drums of flaming oil are tipped over and cast members have to wade through the conflagration - all accomplished as travelling matte and superimpositions.

Lugosi and his dreaded 'death ray' (NRA sanctioned I presume)

Giving the contraption a run through... cel animated beam and squibs.

'Honey, I shrunk the faith healer'.  Standard split screen.

'Yeah...and screw you pal, and the camel you rode in on.'.  More well executed split screen antics, possibly done in-camera?

Glass painted shot with real water.

I thought this scene to be rather good, where the fellow's alter ego splits from his body and runs off.  Good work for 1932.

The evil lair of our off-his-rocker villain.  Most likely a glass shot with the walls on the left and at back,as well as the roof all painted in.  I'm sure Chuck Jones must have been influenced by that 'death ray' as it looks the same as the one in Duck Dodgers' classic WB cartoon.

In seeking out their foe, our heroic troupe must scale the (miniature) rockface to gain entry through the rather inconveniently designed door.

Peril strikes our intrepid trio at every turn...

Matte painting with well combined live action.  Nice blend.

A vertigo inducing downview is also well executed, most likely as an extensive matte painting with some sort of slot gag for the water ripples.  Again, a very impressive composite.

Glass shot with moving clouds.

Matte or glass shot.

'I'm just half the man I used to be.'

Madman Bela fires up his ray gun and does some serious damage ...

Probably matte art, maybe with a foreground miniature?

The death ray virtually erases the city off the map in one fell swoop.

Nice montage with multiple exposures as our cackling super villain goes about his wicked deeds.

Matte art most likely, with effective cel animated death ray.

The death ray focuses in on a major hydro dam, with catastrophic outcome.

Miniature dam breaks apart and floods the town.

I couldn't fathom why, but Bela's toy sort of has a big hissy-fit, overheats and in a last gasp blows the Lugosi kingdom all to hell.  Cel animation and miniature rockface with actors matted in at lower right.

The miniature mountain hideout explodes and comes crashing down.  Will our evil genius survive and get to inflict his reprehensible nastiness another day?  Will Lugosi ever get to play a nice guy?  Will NZ Pete ever be forgiven for criticising James Cameron's directing ability?


A nuclear countdown thriller that still resonates today - perhaps even more so than it did when the film came out in 1979.  One of my fave thrillers, the thought provoking and intelligent screenplay and terrific performances, especially from the great Jack Lemmon, who really should have snapped up the Best Actor Oscar that year.  Fonda and Douglas are great, but it's the presence of some first rate old school character actors like Scott Brady, James Hampton and Wilfred Brimley in important support roles that help so much to sell the realism.  I'm a huge follower of character actors, those unsung thespians who have saved many a motion picture....  I could do a whole blog on those folks.

It wasn't until years after first seeing this film in the theatre that I even became aware of the matte work in it, as I believed everything I saw as being an actual nuclear installation. Matthew Yuricich's mattes are excellent and among his best, and least visible work. 

Closer look at the above matte shot Matthew said he wasn't happy as to how this photographed as he'd spent a great deal of time texturising the cement walls:  "So I used a razor blade there and I had every colour in the spectrum on the walls and it still came out looking white.  It's speckled, and I tried to dirty it up and make all the slots in it...something to give it a little character instead of it being a 'coffin' out there."  It looks sensational to NZPete.

News reporter Jane Fonda and her cameraman played by Michael Douglas as in the process of doing a routine scheduled short TV item about the glories and safety of nuclear energy at a (fictional) Californian power plant when things suddenly go askew.  This is another beautifully integrated Yuricich matte shot of the non-existent reactor plant. 

A BluRay blow up from the same matte.

Although THE CHINA SYNDROME was a Columbia picture, Yuricich utilised the optical department at MGM, which was being run by James Liles at the time and still had a matte stand, to paint and shoot the mattes.  Matthew had numerous arguments with Liles and his camera assistant over the approach and photography of the live action plates.

Matthew had many difficulties when working on the film.  Yuricich:  "The thing is I had to do several paintings, longer shots and all that stuff but there's no character when shooting the plates.  There's no shade.  Everything was blah.  I said to the director 'You need some cross light here.  Either early morning or late afternoon'.  The director said 'Well, why are we shooting it now?' So I said, 'I don't know.  I specifically said I'd like to shoot at 10am or something'.  He had us do the whole shot over and wait for the best light."

The interior of the reactor with the huge cooling tanks was all a matte painting, with just a door and ladder being an actual set.  Matthew was displeased with this matte:  "I never finished it...I wanted to change the tanks.  They went in and secretly took a picture of a real plant.  I did a bad job drawing this because I had to get it done right away.  My ellipse on the top of the tank [upper left tank] should not have been going that way and a couple of them aren't actually finished.  They had to have the shot, though I think it served it's purpose because it's not something that you see all the time."

The matte is shown as a zoom in to the live action character.  

Another of Matthew's barely noticeable mattes.  Apparently, all of the matte paintings for the film went to the director and other key people.

In addition to Matthew's painted shots the film had several excellent miniature shots overseen and photographed by Richard Edlund.  These shots are from the sequence where the turbines are basically overheating and burning out the bearings, with the whole unit shaking itself apart, leading to a potential catastrophe of near biblical proportions.

The technician's giger counter goes off the scale as he inspects the turbine for leaks.  An entirely miniature set with an actor matted in.  Nicely done as it allows his flashlight to shine on parts of the model while he checks it out (and in the story things looked pretty dire, as those who have seen the film will recall.)

That's about it for this installment.  Catch you all next month...

NZ Pete