Monday 21 December 2020

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


Greetings folks, wherever in the world you happen to be.  In light of the depressing global situation that's still being inflicted upon many, I think it's high time to 'take five' and put all of that on the back burner for the time being and enjoy another of NZ Pete's phantasmagorical trips down the cinematic rabbit hole of old school special photographic, matte and miniature effects.  With the festive season just days away, what better time to shift gears and take our minds off of the events that surround us, and have done so for all of 2020 - arguably a bastard of a year, bar none - and as a pleasant diversion enjoy some wonderful and creative matte painted visuals from a trio of films.  Just three I hear you complain?  Well, there are a lot of shots here today, so you ain't being short changed.  I try to be thorough.

The first retrospective is THE BLACK HOLE - a massive, effects laden and 1979 FX Oscar nominated extravaganza from Disney, with a record breaking number of mattes, opticals and miniatures.  Second film celebrated here today is an old Paramount classic that only senior film buffs such as myself will be familiar with.  The Joel McCrea-Barbara Stanwyck picture, THE GREAT MAN'S LADY from 1942 with a multitude of wonderful matte paintings and cleverly engineered trick work.  Lastly today is a very low budget monster-supernatural flick, EQUINOX, from 1969, that although wasn't very good at all, the semi-professional cult classic was important as a foundation for several burgeoning effects creators who would all go on to much bigger things and considerable fame as a result.

So my friends, as per standard with my introductory ramblings, let us take a seat, dim the lights, have a Jack Daniels & Cola at hand, and through the magic of the cybernet, enjoy some magical and occasionally jaw-dropping cinematic trickery from the days of old ... you know the sort.

This magnificent matte painting and exquisite final composite is from the 1946 Gregory Peck family film THE YEARLING.  It has absolutely no connection to todays blog other than being an utterly sublime, even soothing sidebar to the tough times facing many of us at present.  The sun will come out to shine again.  Please enjoy this piece of Warren Newcombe history.  

Enjoy, have a safe Xmas and New Year wherever you are, and chill out!


Great ad-art that I never saw back in the day (1979), and may have helped sell the picture better had they used it?  It didn't do very well I believe.

Can't read it?  Well, that's what you get when you try to view this magnificent blog on one of those silly, dinky cellular devices.  Try a real 'man sized' screen for optimum matte appreciation.

One of the many conceptual paintings by long time Disney creative icon, the great Peter Ellenshaw.

Veteran vfx cinematographer Art Cruickshank, was director of all miniature photography on THE BLACK HOLE.  Art had a very long and esteemed career in visual effects, beginning at Disney as an animation cameraman in 1939, Art would participate on old classics such as FANTASIA and was instrumental in working with Disney's multi-plane animation set ups for shows like BAMBI. Art played a key role with trick shots on classics like the still jaw-dropping DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE - a film that belongs in the pantheon of all time VFX excellence if ever there were one! 

Why just employ one Ellenshaw when two will double the creative output?  Peter had been with Disney ever since TREASURE ISLAND back in 1950 when Walt asked him to paint mattes for that classic film.  Peter stayed with the company from that day forward, and in addition to being principal matte painter (and for a time the only matte painter) would also shift roles and work as production designer on several big Disney shows such as JOHNNY TREMAIN and others.  For THE BLACK HOLE Peter was assigned the dual role of both production designer and miniatures supervisor.  Peter's son Harrison was another long time Disney staffer, having joined the matte department in 1970 for BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS.  Harrison would oversee all of the, reported, 100 or so mattes for BLACK HOLE.  As an aside, I think Peter must have been the very first painter to actually get an on screen credit for 'matte artist' back on TREASURE ISLAND, thanks to Walt.  I've never seen any other matte painters that I can think of getting that specific on screen credit prior to then, and no others for some time after that film, until Disney started to credit fellow matte shot artists in the mid 50's like Albert Whitlock and a little later, Jim Fetherolf.  No other studio did that.

A close up photo of the wonderful, and large, miniature of the ship Cygnus, as built by British modeller Terry Saunders and his crew.  I do like the design of this craft.

The Cygnus model set up in front of the galactic rear-illuminated backing, with the camera track for the new ACES (Automated Camera Effects System) motion control rig - a further development on the ILM Dykstraflex which proved revolutionary at the time.

The miniatures crew with Terry Saunders' 22 foot long tunnel shown at top right, which would see much action later in the film.  Lower right, Peter and Harrison confer on a model shot set up.

Art Cruickshank with the ACES set up and model ship.  Art had a very busy career aside from Disney and was 'poached' by L.B Abbott to come across to 20th Century Fox in 1964 to oversee the optical cinematography on big Fox science fiction films such as FANTASTIC VOYAGE for which Art took home an Academy Award, and later did major fx work on the first two PLANET OF THE APES pictures, with all of these mentioned films having a profound effect upon NZ Pete as a young film viewer at Saturday matinee's I assure you!

Model magicians:  Ellenshaw inspects the space probe at left while Cruickshank takes a light meter reading on one of the Cygnus miniatures.  In L.B Abbott's indispensable memoir, he spoke fondly of Arthur and the astounding fact that until he managed to hire him - on a strong recommendation of Ub Iwerks - for FANTASTIC VOYAGE at Fox, Abbott had never been aware of Art, as he'd been hidden away in the Disney studio under the radar for many years. Sadly, Art passed away relatively young at just 65 in 1983 and the industry lost a master specialist.

Miniature Cygnus mounted in front of one of the 'space' backings, which were painted, stretched muslin, with about a thousand holes individually punched out and lit from behind with massive amounts of light.

Spacecraft model ready for a shot, with Peter Ellenshaw perched atop camera crane with what appears to be a snorkel camera mount.  The computer controlled ACES rig is shown at left on its track.

Behind the scenes photos of the vast Cygnus miniature.

Peter and Harrison pose in front of the film's most memorable matte painting - and most complex multi-element matte composite shot.

The Disney matte staff on the job.  Top left is matte cameraman Ed Sekac, with the department's new Matte Scan camera rig.  Middle top is matte plate projectionist Don Henry with the VistaVision process projector.  Top right shows the whole crew: matte painter David Mattingly, chief matte artist Harrison Ellenshaw, projectionist Don Henry, matte painter Constantine Ganakes and cameraman Ed Sekac,  Bottom pics show Ellenshaw at work.
A closer view of the MatteScan rig, with Ed Sekac entering code.
Harrison scratching out tiny blinking control panel lights within the vast control room painting, while at right, he is shown supervising plate photography for one of the matte shots.

A peek inside the wonderful Disney matte department, with 'fresh' matte painter David Mattingly busy.  Note the multitude of 'works-in-progress' all about the room, in various stages of completion.

A selection of mattes that were among the many rendered for the film.  In a 1979 interview David Mattingly said: "Altogether there were 150 mattes, but only 52 were full scale paintings.  Most of the others were primarily specialised mattes, designed for optical use and the blue screen process, in relation to some of the full mattes".

A matte painted control tower on the stand for composite photography.  I'm not sure this was ever used as the similar looking view in the final film appeared to be a miniature, with rear projected action?

David Mattingly blocks in the so-called Umbrella shot, which will be integrated with live action and a tilt up.  Note the racks filled with vintage - or complete BLACK HOLE - matte paintings.  I'd love to have a wander through there!

Matte men:  Harrison Ellenshaw, David Mattingly & Constantine 'Deno' Ganakes.  Mattingly's first matte assignment was this film, though he would go on to eventually head the Disney matte dept for a short time and later on be called back to work on the massive, effects loaded DICK TRACY, where he would prove vital as deadlines loomed. Recently David published a comprehensive handbook on Digital Matte Painting.  Deno Ganakes, on the other hand, was an old timer in the matte department, having started back in the late 1950's and painting on films such as DARBY O'GILL and POLLYANNA alongside fellow artists Albert Whitlock and Jim Fetherolf.  Later Deno would assist Peter Ellenshaw on big matte shows like MARY POPPINS and THE LOVE BUG and the huge ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD, which must have been one of Disney's biggest VFX films ever.  Rarely ever credited, Ganakes would paint alongside Matthew Yuricich and Michele Moen on GHOSTBUSTERS in 1984.

Although the script was inane and the direction very much almost a 'TV Movie of the week' level of insipidness, the film was buoyed by the plentiful visual effects sequences, many of which were pretty good, and some of which were excellent.

Excellent Art Cruickshank miniature photography.

Said Peter Ellenshaw:  "With The Cygnus, we've managed to come up with a spacecraft that's never really been seen before".

Multi-part composite with live action in gangway, painted right side of frame, and I suspect miniature background superstructure(?)

A strong cast of name actors, with the delightful Yvette Mimieux and the late Robert Forster headlining. Some of the other casting choices were bizarre, such as a miscast Ernest Borgnine and the perpetually jittery and irritating Anthony Perkins who no matter what he did could never shake his Norman Bates alter-ego.

Harrison paints the background on glass, with certain elements rear projected.

Blue screen set up for Ellenshaw matte composite.  Traditionally Disney relied upon the tried and true Sodium Vapour yellow backing travelling matte technique, as developed by the Rank Laboratories in the UK and adopted by Ub Iwerks and Eustace Lycett for Disney application on a mass scale.  As BLACK HOLE was an anamorphic film, Lycett was forced to switch to the Blue Screen method for all of the composite photography as scope lenses weren't compatible with the complex beam-splitting prism array within the special Sodium matte cameras.  The final BS shots were variable in quality, often quite washed out and grainy.

Harrison's trench matte art on the camera stand with the Matte Scan camera in the foreground.  Ed Sekac was operator and had been with Disney for many years on big movies like ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD and also photographed and composited several of Harrison's mattes for George Lucas' STAR WARS, which were rendered at Disney as a 'moonlighting' enterprise.

The cast race through some sort of pneumatic tube to the main ship.  A beautifully done sequence, with the miniature set shown below, along with the special snorkel lens array rigged for the journey.

A sensational colour spread from my old Cinefantastique special double issue on the film.  Man, did that mag exceed all others back in the day with their double issues, with a number of issues still cherished and re-read by yours truly.  The mag fell down in later years, with as much to do with the lack of worthwhile films deserving coverage.

Elements of a multi-part composite.  At left is a partial matte painting by David Mattingly which will be used to fill in the limited stage set, while the huge tunnel is a rear projected element of a still photograph of the miniature set.

The final shot.

Minimal live action set augmented with much matte art as well as, a likely model tunnel still photograph projected in.  Nice.

The first frame of the so-called 'big umbrella' matte shot.

Tilting up to a reveal...
Final shot with set, painting and miniature all comped with a camera move.

The initial block in for the 'big umbrella' matte.

David Mattingly's original completed matte painting.

Peter Ellenshaw's concept sketch for the grand control room set - almost all of which would be rendered as a significant and complex matte shot.

In an elaborate camera move that tracks out and upward, the cast walk out of the elevator and into the massive control room, or throne room if you prefer, of nemesis Maximillian Schell - a very fine actor BTW, and definitely the best in this cast by a long shot  (and don't get me started on those fucken' 'cute' robots!!!!!!!)

Virtually all painted here with the exception of the small pocket where the actors are as well as the extras playing those strange cloaked beings seen above on the gantry.

The tilt up complete with live action 'beings' and a nifty lens flare as the overhead light hits us.  An utterly sensational shot, and by far the best in the film.  Apparently, it was very difficult to get the correct colour match for the matted in live action portion within the painted planetary globes - matching pure colour straight against pure colour without matte lines showing.

In the magazine MediaScene, painter David Mattingly stated:  "At one point we seemed to run into a jinx.  It was an eleven plate matte that normally took a whole day to put together.  It was a scene where the Palomino crew comes out of an elevator, see's the interior of the Cygnus, and the camera pans up to show the control room, and outer space and some other details.  Literally every element had to be artificially added with special effects, and it just took a long, long time to process.  For some reason we got hung up on that shot.  A piece of tape was left on one of the glass paintings; another shot would be over-exposed, and one time we even had a computer breakdown.  Finally after about seven days we got the shot, and everyone began praying until the next shot went through smoothly".

At left is Disney's old tried and trusted matte shot camera (Bell & Howell I think?), that was used for standard 'straight' matte work that didn't require any camera move.  At right are three of the live elements that would be integrated into the vast and dramatic matte shot shown above.

Harrison's original sizeable matte art.  Note the blacked areas where the actors appear as well those up above where the 'beings' or whatever the hell they were, will be dropped in as process plate elements.  The masked corners are a guide as to where Ed Sekac's camera move should avoid, as he tracked back as the camera tilted upward.  Harrison discussed the matte:  "The Observatory shot (above) has the most number of elements used in any of our mattes.  It was our most complex shot.  There were 3 plates in the bottom for our YCM's; one on each side; 4 for the humanoids; one overlay for the burn-in, and then one for the painting.  That makes 11 separate elements in all.  Then of course, we had to expose them all three times".

Another view inside Schell's 'Throne Room', with extensive matte art and multiple elements combined and photographed with a camera move.

One of Peter Ellenshaw's conceptual paintings.

Multiple element composite.  David Mattingly:  "As for the actual black hole itself (visible in the distance), we wound up creating 15 or 20 full paintings - more than we had planned - because of complications arising out of various angles and colour matchings".

Again, almost entirely painted scene.  Disney never really experimented with original negative latent image matte shots, and were more secure in doing almost all of their shots as rear projection comps using YCM separations.  I did hear from Jim Danforth that some early mattes from the Burbank operation were done using original negative, with some on DARBY O'GILL and of course Whitlock painted his Grand Canyon mattes for Disney's TEN WHO DARED as o/neg shots

More mattes, with the top frame especially interesting as I'm sure most of the control room to the left and right of Max Schell is painted - and comped purposely 'out of focus' to match.  If so, it's brilliant, and just one of those clever VFX gags I just live for!

That's a long way down!  Ellenshaw senior didn't produce any mattes himself for this film, being busy with far more pressing duties.

Set extensions and split screen combination shots.

Top frame matte extended corridor set, while lower frame I'm unsure if it's a set or a painting?  Certainly the immediate foreground seems to be painted in industrial vents or something?

More of the same with much added in later.

The cathedral sequence with much matte work rendered by David Mattingly, whereby he recalled that these and other mattes needed some remedial work.  "Towards the end of production we went back and corrected our mistakes, by picking up the mattes that had 'stars' on them.  When you do a matte there's a temptation for lint and other foreign matter to land on the matte.  If you then spray over that stuff - we use a gloss in the matte room to make the colours pop out - you get a little bright spot, a little reflecting 'star' which picks up the light during photography.  We had to go back and get rid of a lot of 'stars' on the cathedral sequence mattes.  There were lots of them there because the sides of those mattes were real smooth and dark - almost black - and that's where the most foreign matter shows up.  You can see some 'stars' in other films, but the mattes we did on this picture are in really good shape".  Jim Danforth told NZPete that his very first assignment as trainee to Al Whitlock at Universal in the mid 1960's was to carefully run a razor blade across such 'stars' or small blobs of paint on Al's glass shots to smooth out where required - a job that initially had Jim quite 'on edge' through fear of ruining Al's painting .  On 'stars', you can spot them often in RKO movies of old - even CITIZEN KANE - where I assume much dust must have been floating around the matte room.  According to Matt Yuricich, old timer Jack Cosgrove used to drop all manner of cigarette ash and what have you into his matte art, though the results were always first rate (!)

David Mattingly's agriculture centre matte shot before and after.  The notations visible on the side of the glass are important instructions to Ed Sekac, the matte cameraman, as to the camera move requested by the director.  Harrison mentioned in my blog interview with him:  "I was so blessed to have David work on the matte shots with me.  A great artist".

For THE BLACK HOLE's work load, Harrison painted 14 complete mattes, Deno painted seven, and David rendered a substantial 31 mattes.  A significant number of other mattes were small patches and partial painted elements required to tie together production and model shots.

Combination miniature-matte-live action scenes.

Another view down the chasm.

Another multi-part effects shot with live action (severely washed out, regrettably), matte paintings, blue screen additions, and a camera move.

Same scene in a closer cut, with matte art and other elements.

Harrison mentioned to me that one failing with the rear projected plate composites were that contrast would suffer and it was very hard to get true 'blacks'.  "It was indeed a downside to RP mattes - making the blacks black enough.  Interesting though, about 10 years later we used RP for DICK TRACY, and, by then, thanks mainly to many dedicated and talented people, including matte cameraman Peter Montgomery and his compatriots, things had improved considerably with our matte composites".

Most likely a miniature, with RP inserts.

Cleverly disguised blend between the set and the matte art.

I like this shot.  A very bold trick shot with almost everything being matte artistry.  The mid frame slot of live action up on the railing seems to be a separate element.

While the retro rocket blast off gags were by Joe Hale and Dorse Lanpher very well executed, I found the rest of the film's cel animated fx work surprisingly below par for a Disney film.  The later laser battle cel shots were utterly flat and uninspired when one considers those responsible did such supreme work on shows like LT. ROBINSON CRUSOE USN, MARY POPPINS and THE GNOME MOBILE to name just three that still blow my socks off today with their eye-popping cel gags.

In addition to painting some 14 mattes himself, matte supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw was tasked with being on set to oversee each and every proposed matte shot and direct the action to fit with the matte cut off point.  Co-painter David Mattingly commented: "So much of the credit must go to Harrison.  He spent so much time on the sets with the real actors lining up shots, and then coming back to the matte studio to lay out every matte in detail.  He was responsible for every facet of each painting."

The myriad optical composites were handled by long time Disney optical man Eustace Lycett, assisted by Bob Broughton and a staff of twenty line up, rotoscope and printer operators, equipped with seven optical printers.  In addition to making the numerous blue screen travelling mattes, the Disney optical department also prepared the many YCM VistaVision separations required for the 150 painted matte shots.  Both Lycett and Broughton started at the studio in 1937 on the animated Technicolor classic SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and provided subtle optical gags such as rippling reflections in water and such like.  Both would work under Ub Iwerks in the optical laboratory and would be tasked with compositing the many hundreds of travelling mattes throughout the decades, which Disney were very big on.

One of the many seemingly endless passageways aboard the Cygnus, in reality minimal sets heavily augmented with much skilfull matte art.

First rate miniature cinematography by Art Cruickshank compliments Terry Saunders' excellent model spacecraft, and dazzling black hole physical effect created as a swirling vortex of various coloured lacquers injected into a water filled perspex tank.  The vortex 'hole' effect was strongly backlit and filmed from above, seriously overcranked at some 15 times normal camera speed.  The tank vortex footage was later blended with subtle matte painting.

Small stage set enhanced with matte art.

A large miniature with a tiny portion of live action at left, possibly extended with painted elements.

What should have been a thrilling ray-gun battle is instead an abysmally inept sequence lacking even a modicum of excitement or danger.  

Terry Saunders' substantial miniature tunnel gets much screen time in several sequences, usually supplemented with areas of live action and matte paintings to extend the length.

Good production design and execution marred by very inadequate cel animation effects (and utterly lousy direction of a key sequence)

Many layers within these fx shots, though a more 'static' and uninspired action sequence you are never likely to see.

Terrific effects shots here as things start to go 'pear shaped'.  Miniaturist, Terry Saunders had earlier built model spacecraft for the film MAROONED, which won that film's chief miniaturist, Robbie Robertson the Oscar for visual effects in 1969, though quite how it won when up against the vastly superior KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA that year is anyone's guess, but don't get me started on bloody Oscar injustices!

Ellenshaw remarked that they did attempt a few direct on-set glass shots, and I assume this is one such shot as the background structure ghosts through Robert Forster's head as he and Yvette run away.

The never ending hallway - mostly painted of course.

One of the mattes completed and photographed, though ultimately left on the cutting room floor.

In the final act of the film a massive meteorite shower bashes the hell out of The Cygnus in an extremely well done series of scenes and vfx shots.  Art Cruickshank orchestrated this and explained his process to Cinefantastique magazine in 1979.  To this blogger, this is exactly what special effects is all about - or at least used to be all about:  "To get that effect of the meteors I just dropped some different sized plastic balls right onto the camera.  We pointed the camera up towards the rafters of Stage 3, and then I put a 20mm Technovision lens on it and protected the lens with a plastic bubble.  Then we built shields for myself and the camera assistant, and then the effects people dropped those things directly down onto us.  Since they were at that height, there was over 40 feet of travel on those balls, and you got a nice sense of them hurtling through space.  I then lit those with every arc light that the studio had - all 19 of them - and put red gels in front of the lights.  I was cranking at five times the normal speed.  We were shooting the meteors for about two weeks, and then it was just a matter of running the footage and selecting the good stuff that we'd matte in later."  
I seem to recall that Cruickshank did something very similar for the blood corpuscles on FANTASTIC VOYAGE.  Another great effects showcase that earned Art an Academy Award.

The shit is about to hit the fan!  A monumental slice of science fiction cinematic wizardry at play.

The miniature meteor attached to it's special rolling device, which will be driven down the large miniature tunnel.  Massive amounts of light were required to obtain the eye watering glow as it barrels along.  According to miniaturist Terry Saunders, everybody who's somebody at the studio came by to watch this effects shoot, and it was an embarrassing failure first time up.  Subsequent takes worked well.

Terry Saunders admires his beautiful handiwork just prior to it being utterly destroyed.

According to Art Cruickshank, the travelling matte line up and composite worked out first run through the printer here, much to everybody's delight.  Often these comps can take 8 or 10 attempts to pull off successfully.  Harrison told me about the problems of shooting anamorphic travelling mattes:  "20'000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) was the last anamorphic (scope) Disney film until THE BLACK HOLE. A number of reason for that.  Walt liked the look of non-wide screen (flat) presentation, which was better for sharper depth of field for the type of live action films Disney were doing.  Initially Fox had the only anamorphic lenses and they were huge and expensive to rent.  Panavision eventually filled the need with less bulky, but greater variety of lenses, though at the start, Panavision lenses were dreadful.  They still weren't all that great when we came to do BLACK HOLE.  That's why we went with Technovision lenses.  Doing anamorphic opticals was also very difficult to accomplish with our system at Disney, with sodium beam splitting cameras, anamorphic lenses wouldn't fit those cameras as the mount would bump into the prism, so blue screen was the next best thing".

Superb wide-screen mayhem that still looks great today!  Incidentally, famous vfx artist Jim Danforth had worked with Art Cruickshank in the 1970's and told me an amazing story about Art's skills.  "Art was an extremely knowledgeable and dedicated effects man, whose animation camera experience had made him comfortable with procedures that would probably terrify some of todays visual effects workers.  Art told me he decided to make a TV-compatible 'pan & scan', non-anamorphic negative of Disney's 20'000  LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, which was originally filmed in 2.55:1 CinemaScope - an extremely wide format.  Art had personally printed the dupe negative on the optical printer, animating all of the 'pans' manually, one frame at a time.  Because the dupe negative was printed from black & white three colour separation masters, Art had to repeat all of the moves and positions three times, to an accuracy of about .0001.  The running time of 20'000 LEAGUES is about 127 minutes, so Art had to correctly expose about 548'000 individual frames of film.  In those days, some of the cameras still had wooden bodies, but the men who ran them were made of steel."

And you think you've got problems?  This baby was uninsured!

The cast escape in one of those cool pneumatic tube car things as the Cygnus takes a thrashing.

The escape is one of the best orchestrated action scenes in the film, with the tube car winding, rolling and swerving all over the show, like an insane theme park ride.  Looked great in scope on the big screen.  A massive amount of trick work here, with Saunders' miniatures, Cruickshank's fx camera savvy, Lycett's optical compositing and also Danny Lee's pyro, in addition to multiple components introduced within the layers of shots such as the meteors, the actors and the optically created 'roll over' gags.  All up, sensational.

Extensive matte painted shot with tiny slot of live action.

The end is apparently close for Max Schell and his army of mute cyborg militia.  Again, almost entirely painted scene with just the actor and a portion of his control panel being real.  The hurtling meteor shower is a miniature set up, rear projected into the painting.

A series of quick cuts all comprise various degrees of matte art and optical work.  The 'blink and you'd miss it' shot at left is practically all matte art, with just enough actual space around the actor to move.

The upper frame is another sensational effects shot that worked a treat.  The lower frame is a miniature with some live action people matted in on the gantry.

The swirling vortex created with coloured lacquers, heavily backlit, in a perspex tank filled with water.

The heroic crew fight for their lives against a particularly nasty, mean spirited and completely insensitive 'bucket of bolts' armed with buzz-saws and ray guns.  Extensive matte painting extends all of these shots.

They just had to write in a pair of 'cutesy' robots, didn't they?  Nice matte shot though.

The cosmic toilet has just been flushed, it seems!

For the film's bizarre 'tag' scene, where Max Schell appears to have morphed into something-or-other (it all kind of lost me to be honest), and now resides in Hades, production designer Peter Ellenshaw rendered this vivid conceptual painting as an indication of 'Hell' - a regular Dante's Inferno.

For the visions of 'Hell', a pair of miniature sets were built by Terry Saunders and were shot separately by Art Cruickshank and then combined optically as one smooth single pullback shot.  Each miniature set measured around 40 feet deep by 60 feet wide, equipped with hidden gas jets, engineered by veteran Disney physical fx man, Danny Lee.

For the final shot in the film, the initial miniature of Earth was deemed unusable after excessive heat from lighting rigs actually melted and deformed the plastic globe - much to Cruickshank's annoyance.  As a fix, the shot was turned over to the matte department from which Harrison painted an Earth matte.  Mattingly spoke about the shot in Cinefantastique:  "Harrison did the matte painting, and I think his version looks better than the model one.  We ran one test on it and then shot it. We got that halo effect in two passes.  The first we shot the painting itself.  The second time through we didn't light the painting.  We put a very heavy light source behind it, and then Harrison took an Xacto knife and scraped a hole in the painting around the outside of the globe.  To get that diffusion on it he put some vaseline on it and then rubbed it out.  So when the camera went by a second time you got this gentle glow around the rim of the Earth, and, as a plus, all these rays of light shooting out from it.  It was really quite effective, considering how simple it was."

At the London premier, Peter shows the Royal Consort, the perpetually bemused Prince Philip (centre), one of his grand conceptual paintings.  An O.B.E was not forthcoming for Peter, sadly.  :(


A fairly lively Paramount 1941 drama with a strong headline cast - the always great Joel McCrea and the forever reliable Barbara Stanwyck - both stars of dozens of pictures from that studio.

I watched the picture purely based upon the cast and the period, not expecting any significant trick work.  Imagine my surprise when a substantial load of mattes and other visual effects cropped up along the way.

The film opens with a nice close up of a veranda on a stately home and pulls back to reveal the property in question to be plonked right slap bang in the middle of a vast urban metropolis.

Gordon Jennings was Paramount's chief of special photographic effects from 1933 up until his sudden death during a game of golf in 1953, right after completing the Oscar winning work on George Pal's WAR OF THE WORLDS.  

It's a very impressive shot.  Jan Domela was matte painter at Paramount from 1926 for around the next 40 plus years.  That's a career and a half if ever there was one!

The matte photography was handled by Irmin Roberts - another long time industry veteran whose career, largely with Paramount, spanned from 1926 up until 1971, with latter forays into 2nd unit D.O.P assignments and various big films such as IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, AIRPORT and TORA!, TORA!, TORA!.  

More matte painted composites which place the stately home in the urban jungle.

Multiple Oscar winning effects chief Gordon Jennings was, by all accounts, very well liked and much respected in the industry.  Director Cecil B.DeMille once wrote that Jennings was "the best special effects man I had ever had the pleasure to work with." 

Nicely rendered matte art by Jan Domela, with excellent blending into the live action.

An exquisite Domela matte which hits the spot for me as I'm a massive fan of this period in Hollywood matte painting - the 1940's being my favourite era of the artform.

Even the process work is of a high standard in THE GREAT MAN'S LADY.  Farciot Edouart was another marathon player in Paramount's effects department, having started in 1915 as a camera assistant at RealArt Studios, which was a forerunner to Paramount.  Edouart pioneered various rear projection developments, and remained employed until the late 1960's.

This entire sequence is very well done and lends an almost ethereal feel to the narrative.  While Joel and Barbara discuss the future, the vista beyond slowly dissolves from a simple western landscape into a bustling metropolis.  Optical man Paul Lerpae created a slow dissolve from one Jan Domela matte painting into another, with this material serving as a plate for the Edouart RP set up. Beautifully done, and helped a great deal by the actors.

A closer look...

More atmospheric Domela matte art.  I've always liked the actor Joel McCrea (no doubt a name lost completely on less aged film viewers!) and his work in films like SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS was unforgettable.

More matted set extensions.

Now, we shift gears.  The film isn't all matte art and process, as this remarkable sequence demonstrates.  The horse drawn coaches cross a bridge above a raging, flooded river during a storm, with dire results involving loss of life and death of children.  The sequence (below) impressed me as one that had to be rewound and played back a bunch of times (always the sign of a great trick shot) to figure it out.  As best I can figure it out, the raging torrent was a miniature tank shot, likely matted - with great skill - into a plate of the surrounding valley, possibly blended with matte art.  The bridge with horses and carriages I suspect were a separately filmed element shot elsewhere probably against a pure (white?) backing to facilitate a travelling matte being isolated.  This would then probably be all combined optically in Paul Lerpae's department, complete with rain overlay.  That's my best guess.  It's brief but very impressive.

Frames from the scene just before the bridge collapses.  Gordon's brother Devereaux was miniatures cinematographer.  There was another famous quote about Jennings from DeMille, at least as best I recall reading it years ago:  "Anything God can do, Gordon can do better."

I've purposely lightened up this frame for a better look.  I'm certain the whole thing comprises separate elements; Actual valley, miniature river torrent, art department built bridge set with speeding horses and coaches, painted  blends to tie it together, plus superimposed rain.

Another superb painted matte rendering, complete with smoke doubled into chimney stacks.

For a straightforward sort of drama, I was pleasantly surprised with all of the effects shots, and here is another winning Domela matte shot.

We end up in San Francisco.  A full matte painting suggestive of a great sense of romance found in the movie making style of the period.

Same matte shot, but lightened up for closer inspection.

Same old homestead, though seen at a different time.

The film closes on another moody Domela matte shot.


EQUINOX (1969) was an indescribably bizarre semi-amateur film that makes little sense, but was an important exercise for a number of budding trick shot exponents to get their collective 'foot in the door', namely Dennis Muren, David Allen, David Stipes and Jim Danforth - though in fact Jim was the 'veteran' of the bunch, having already worked on a number of major film and tv productions in a variety of visual effect capacities.

Shot, for the most part I believe, on 16mm, the film was sold to producer Jack Harris who then shot additional material and blew the 16mm negative up to a more commercially viable 35mm.  For a detailed article on the production, click here to learn more fascinating background.

Any visual effects fan would well know these names, and if they don't they should hang their heads in shame.  All had links through the Cascade Studio, which specialised in photographic effects for tv commercials and films.  All would work a few years later on the pop-culture fave FLESH GORDON,  Dennis, of course, went on to major feature assignments such as STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, INDIANA JONES, THE ABYSS and scores more, mostly for ILM.  Primarily a vfx cameraman, Muren also worked in stop motion and holds the record for the most number of Oscars awarded a single effects technician!.  The late David Allen was a stop motion animator of some repute, with credits on major films such as WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (as assistant to Jim Danforth), THE STUFF, WILLOW, YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES and one I really liked, a little Charles Band 'B' flick called ROBOJOX.  Jim Danforth is a multi-talented creator of trick shots, with vast experience in matte painting, stop motion, miniatures and vfx camera work.  Jim had already racked up many credits prior to EQUINOX, with things like tv's I LOVE LUCY, a number of tv commercials and huge features such as IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD.  Later films included DARK STAR, CREEPSHOW and NEVER ENDING STORY among many others.

One of Jim Danforth's evocative matte shots from EQUINOX.  Jim had experimented with glass shots as a teenager and was well versed in the technique by the time he had his first professional assignments.

A subsequent cut with more Danforth matte art.

Very little of EQUINOX makes much sense, with disjointed sequences seemingly strung together with abandon, with the whole shoot taking place intermittantly over a number of years.  The stop motion however is quite good and generally effective for audiences of the day.

Rare behind the scenes images of the key monster puppet and Muren with one of his stop motion set ups, presumably rear projected.

Stop motion that's unstoppable!

There were several ingenious trick shots in EQUINOX that caught my attention.  This nifty little bit of business where screen character 'Sue Turner' (presumably named after crew member and future miniaturist of the same name) is rescued by an actor running into the composite frame.  Has me baffled??  Possibly the runner's lower legs rotoscoped for a few frames to cross the action?  

Behind the scenes shot of stop motion set up.

Jim Danforth matte painting with what looks like a foreground miniature close to camera.

Miniature set with painted backing, and a realistic cave set constructed in Dennis Muren's yard.

I well recall as a kid seeing stills of this scene in Famous Monsters of Filmland and other like minded publications, and being utterly fascinated at how pristine the trick shot was, with none of the normal indicators of matte lines, dupe grain or fuzzy back projection. I found this scene so intriguing as a youngster.  Having now seen the film quite recently I was not disappointed with this sequence at all, even with all my childhood expectations.

The jolly green giant takes a whack at our hero...

The effect was as old as the hills, but supremely well executed.  Simple perspective photography - nothing more.  All done in camera, which explains why it had me transfixed to published frames as a kid.  I'm wondering whether Dennis got some clues from Disney's wonderful DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE - the benchmark for perspective gags until Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS which raised it to a whole new level.

The Ogre unmasked!!  Setting up the perspective shot in the blazing heat.

A cleverly matched prop foreground atop a picnic table blended in perfectly with the actual setting.  The only giveaway being the slight wobble of the picnic table as the actor stomped across the top.

A still photograph taken from the 16mm camera position gives the game away, though the final framing conceals the bench.

As it appears on screen.
Jim Danforth mans the 16mm camera to shoot one of his foreground matte paintings (see below)

From Jim's extensive and incredibly detailed memoir Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama.

Muren animates the winged nemesis.

Stop motion split screened into live action.  Production began tentatively as far back as 1965 and slowly progressed in dribs and drabs until it's eventual and long overdue theatrical release in 1970!!

I seem to recall reading that some form of front projection was employed on some shots, with Danforth having much to do with that?

Well friends, that ought to do it for 2020.  Here's hoping we will all still be around in 2021 to enjoy more of this wonderful old school movie magic.  Take care wherever you are - especially those of you in the Northern Hemisphere which seems to be having a never ending critical situation.

Happy New Year....