Wednesday 22 January 2020

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

Greetings friends, and I'd like to start with a sincere 'all the best for the new year'.  It's 2020, or so I'm told, and it's now apparently 'the future'.  Not exactly as I imagined it would be when watching The Jetsons on TV back in its heyday, more like the darkest dystopian nightmare as I look at the 6 o'clock news and read the daily papers!  Anway, before the world comes to an untimely end, NZPete will hopefully keep you suitably enthralled with old school movie magic - from a time when films were, gasp, actually produced and projected on celluloid.  Try explaining that to one of these damned Millennials.  They just stare at you with a blank expression.

I have a broad range of films here today for visual effects analysis, with my usual eclectic grab-bag of cinematic wonders that spread the spectrum from divine British comedy gems; a celebrated Disney family film; a big budget Technicolor historic epic; a long forgotten Fox western; an exceedingly dark 'anti-hero' actioner and a surprisingly good Italian remake of a true cinema classic.  What's not to like, I ask you?  Artists and technicians such as Percy Day, Bob Cuff, Robert & Dennis Skotak, Al Whitlock, Ralph Hammeras, Harrison Ellenshaw, Tom Howard, Joseph Natanson, Richard Kilroy and Rick Rische are discussed in the following VFX breakdowns.
There's something for everyone here as I endeavour to cover all manner of motion picture genres and eras, which for those of you having consumed any significant chunk of my near on decade worth of VFX blogs will fully expect, and I sincerely hope, enjoy.   In addition to the roster of chosen film titles here I've again purchased a new FX book for my collection and reviewed same,  and of course there is another of my celebrated Blast From The Past tribute pieces headlining another of the matte shot industry's usually unsung, though not at all in this case, heroes of the brush trade.

Just as a side note, I mentioned ages ago about upcoming big articles which I have still to follow through on; a substantial piece on all of the matte painted work carried out at Industrial Light & Magic (pre-CG naturally), as well as a World History According To The Matte Painter piece, where all (or a great many) significant periods in the history of the world will be exhibited and celebrated - from the age of the dinosaur through to the Roman era, the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, Victorian England and so on and so forth - maybe even into the world of the future too.  You get the drift. 

I've collected a veritable shed load of great images, many of them not seen before, but it'll take quite some sorting out.  Some shots will be familiar, though now with the added bonus of being far cleaner high definition images obtained from BluRay or HDTV.
Oh, and another topic I've been meaning to do is a Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare Matte blog, where the world has turned to a gigantic steaming pile of shite.  Should be interesting.
As mentioned previously, I'm ALWAYS keen to hear from any of you with regard to film or matte show recommendations, and will always gratefully accept matte grabs and such like.




Pete's FX Book Review:

Although I'm a through and through matte painting 'maniac' (shock of shocks!), I also love all other movie trickery so long as it falls strictly into the 'hand-made' category and hasn't been manufactured via a computer.  Be it special make up effects (a-la the great Dick Smith, John Chambers or Rick Baker), miniatures (a-la Derek Meddings and co), cel animated trick work (Peter Kuran for example) I've always been keen on special effects and the specialists behind the magic, which is where today's name fits the bill.  John Richardson has been a mainstay of the UK movie industry since the mid 1960's, following hard in the celebrated footsteps of his father, Cliff Richardson, who was one of the giants of the British effects world with expertise in miniatures and physical effects, going as far back as the old Denham and Gaumont era where he worked with names such as Poppa Day, Roy Kellino and Wally Veevers.

John fights fire with fire on A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977)
John was really born into this fantastical world of make-believe and among the many films he worked on were THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, STRAW DOGS, THE DEVILS, THE OMEN, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, ALIENS and a number of Bond films to name just a mere handful.
Richardson's memoir Making Movie Magic is an excellent addition to the bookshelf of any student of traditional special effects.  The book is a candid, revealing and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny as John regales us with many stories of his days in the trick trade, and the various personalities and productions he worked with and on, with a particular meeting at Pinewood with a prospective 'new 007' candidate, Kiwi actor Sam Neill, proving side splitting a recollection indeed.  Wish he'd included a photo of that W.T.F incident!

The wonderful David Warner loses his head in THE OMEN.
Notoriously tempramental celebrity names such as Michael Winner, Ken Russell, Sam Peckinpah and Paul Verhoeven crop up with amusing regularity with Richardson's accounts of the trials and tribulations associated with these 'artistic' folk being especially entertaining. Hell, someone could write an entire volume on the confrontational explosions that cast and crew have encountered with fascist auteurs Winner and Peckinpah alone... though I digress.
John's father Cliff is shown here prepping one of the huge miniature sets for the valiant and patriotic British Navy picture SHIPS WITH WINGS (1942).

John's book is packed with facts, anecdotes and a ton of fine photographs, though inexplicably these are generally not captioned.  The book features a brief chapter on John's dad, Cliff (thank you so much for that), including a collection of old pictures from some of Cliff's miniature effects dating back to the late 1930's, which are just marvellous.
All up, a book I raced through in record time, occasionally re-reading certain accounts and film experiences, a worthy addition to my extensive collection.  Also, frequent director and friend Richard Donner contributed a wonderfully heartfelt foreword.

One of the large miniature deep sea oil exploration rigs, complete with tiny mechanised 'people', built by Richardson for the excellent and very much under-appreciated Roger Moore action show NORTH SEA HIJACK (1980)
Before and after miniature set up and big bang from the Bond film OCTOPUSSY (1983).



Harrison Ellenshaw has been a well respected effects artist from the early 1970's, and being the son of legendary master matte painter Peter Ellenshaw, not to mention the step-grandson of the illustrious Walter Percy 'Pop' Day must have indeed loaded considerable expectation upon the shoulders of the then budding young matte painter as he embarked upon what would become a very fruitful and successful career at Disney Studios.
Harrison at his desk at Disney in 1992.  Note the beautiful matte painting on the wall behind him from ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD (1974)

Harrison with a rare surviving BLACK NARCISSUS painting.
Harrison, or as he was for a long time screen credited, P.S Ellenshaw (or Peter junior), had initially served as an intern in the Disney matte department in the late 1960's where he observed his much storied father whip out remarkable matte painted shots with an ease, agility and speed that few in the industry could ever hope to emulate.  Harrison told me once that he was somewhat nervous having to prove himself with the master's shadow still very much in residence at the studio.  I can just imagine the pressure, though none was applied, as such, but just being in the shadow of greatness itself.....!

Harrison Ellenshaw posing here with his sole matte executed for the Disney sci-fi epic TRON (1982) where a seemingly endless office space stretches into infinity.  A nightmarish environ if ever there were one.
Disney's SNOWBALL EXPRESS (1973)
Young Harrison's tutor in the artform was one Alan Maley, an established matte practitioner from England (as many seemed to be) who's career harked back to the Wally Veevers photographic effects department at Shepperton from the late 1950's on films like DR STRANGELOVE and BECKET and then for a time over at Pinewood with Cliff Culley in his matte unit, which is where Peter Ellenshaw first came across Alan during the enormous effects workload for Disney's IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962) - a film I regard as one of Disney's best ever visual effects showcases which I wrote about in detail a few years back, but can be read here.
Ellenshaw senior brought Maley to the US in the late sixties as chief matte artist when Peter decided to step down for a bit and concentrate more on production design.  Harrison's first assignment under Alan's supervision was painting brickwork and bits and pieces of old London in mattes for the Oscar winning BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971).

Eternal fame and a cult like status within the explosively successful Star Wars lexicon would come Harrison's way with his mattes for George Lucas' STAR WARS (1977).  Here is a fairly recent photo of Harrison with one of his matte paintings out of storage at Lucasfilm.
APPLE DUMPLING GANG, almost full frame matte art.
Many more Disney projects would follow, both for theatrical and television release.  Alan was supervising matte artist though more and more he would give free reign to Ellenshaw to contribute mattes.  Among the shows big on matte art were SNOWBALL EXPRESS, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG and especially ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD made in 1974, which was a massive effects show, and was covered in this blog in great detail a while back. You can read my extensive VFX analysis and shot breakdowns right here.

Ellenshaw with one of his mattes created for the Disney comedy NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN (1975), by which time he was in charge of the matte department.  See below for final shot.

Harrison would take over the matte department following Alan's departure to engage in a career in fine art with a distinctly Victorian flavour.  Disney's modus operandi as far as mattes went was their tried and true rear projection colour separations technique that were standard operating procedure for the most part, aside from some early work from the mid fifties with original negative on old shows like in camera glass shots for 20'000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE, and some shots in the still to this day eye-popping DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (absolutely one of the finest vfx films ever made, hands down) - all Peter Ellenshaw masterworks.

One of my favourite of Harrison's shots was this ingenious (and invisible) matte from the Disney family film GUS (1976).  The shot is a substantial trick shot whereby almost everything here has been painted, including the crowds, the 'Gus Day' stage, the arena and even the row of marching band and associated people.  Great shot that kind of got NZPete thinking about that monumental final shot for STAR WARS. 
Among the various Disney shows requiring matte expertise I happened upon one in particular.  I sent Harrison a high-def frame from the movie GUS (1976) shown above for comment and he responded:  "OMG...1976...I barely remember that movie.  That matte shot doesn't look half bad... in fact, better than I remember.  As I vaguely recall, I showed my first attempt to Ron Miller and he said that the stands had too steep an angle.  He was absolutely correct.  I had no excuse since I had 'faked' the angle without ever looking at reference - a rookie mistake!  So I went to the Disney reference library and searched through magazines and other reference to finally find a photo of a football game, and 'voila'...what a concept!  And I got the angle.  As I recall, the film was a typical Disney lacklustre comedy with a kind of a cute (barely) story, dreadful opticals - in spite of the fact they were sodium shots.  All I cared about was the fact that at least I got a screen credit."
Following this film, or perhaps concurrently, Ellenshaw got a deal to work on a small sci-fi flick for another studio (Fox) - and we all know what that one was.  STAR WARS was massive, and deservedly so, which saw Harrison moonlighting painting SW mattes at night and doing Disney stuff during the day, though all with Disney's approval.
Speaking of that STAR WARS shot, here is Harrison's original matte painting.  Fantastic shot then which blew my mind on the big 70mm screen with John Williams pounding theme bursting out of the 6-Track stereo sound system at Auckland's sadly long deceased, mighty Cinerama showcase (oh, how we miss ya!).  Saw the flick some six times on its initial run, including opening day. 

Said shot as it looked in '77.  Now, did Georgie-Porgie screw with it as he did with so much else when he re-jigged the 'classic' where great old school opticals were allegedly 'cleaned up'?  Leave the damned thing alone George, for Christs' sake.  Just because you have the money to tamper with these things doesn't mean you have to!  Though, I digress...
Harrison's biggest effects show must have been THE BLACK HOLE (1979) with more than 60 matte shots, and with just two assistants to lend a hand with the extensive brush work required for so much of the film, not to mention the rest of the huge catalogue of visual effects dealt with by the Disney optical, miniature and practical effects departments.  The film would see the team nominated for a Best Visual Effects Academy Award that year. Shortly afterward, Harrison handed the reigns over to fellow BLACK HOLE painter David Mattingly as head of the Disney matte department whereby other challenges and areas of interest lay on the immediate horizon such as visual effects supervision and even directorial creative assignments.

The master shot from THE BLACK HOLE, with two generations of matte painters in the studio, though Peter didn't participate in the mattes as he had his hands full with production design and overseeing the miniatures unit.

Nicholas Roeg's visionary science fiction saga THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976) - a film that when speaking with Harrison always made him cringe as he felt it so pretentious.  I disagree and found the film utterly spellbinding and as unique an experience in cinema one is ever going to find.  I always liked this important effects scene which, when cut to the vocals of The Kingston Trio's Try To Remember literally makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Another of Harrison's mattes from THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.
Harrison would go on to supervise the many mattes for the second STAR WARS picture THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) and later become a key player in the new Buena Vista Visual Effects company, whereby a largely managerial role would see younger new matte painters such as Paul Lasaine climb on board and do phenomenal work in their own right for massive shows like DICK TRACY (1990) and most noteworthy, DAVE (1993) - a particular high point in the hand painted matte shot art form if ever there were one.  If creating visual effects weren't enough, Harrison took time out to personally direct the amusing and beautifully photographed film-noir DEAD SILENCE (1989) which is well worth catching if you can find it.
The Disney high adventure ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD (1974) featured a massive number of effects shots across the spectrum of trick work, with one of the studio's heaviest matte painting assignments ever.  Alan Maley was chief matte artist, with Harrison assisting.  This is one of his mattes which involved a small live action foreground element, a large format photographic still taken by Peter Ellenshaw in Norway for the background mountain range, and considerable painted middle section with the fortress atop the hill, the Viking city, bridge, river and wall.  

A pair of uncredited shots Harrison rendered as a replacement for mattes rendered elsewhere that were rejected by the director for  A KID IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT (1995)

One of my particular pleasures in life is sitting back and delighting in the sixty odd glorious matte shots that fill the Warren Beatty comic book adventure DICK TRACY (1990).  Magical, deliberately larger than life, fantastical and as imaginative in design as just about any matte show I've seen.  Sensational work throughout with some 7 or 8 artists all busy churning out the massive volume of mattes - which the director/star incidentally was never able to make up his mind about and constantly asked for painted changes, revisions, alterations, adjustments and then when those tasks were complete would often ask for it to be 'put back the way it originally was!  Jesus!!  This was before the advent of that 'undo' button that the CG desk jockies of today rely upon.  The effects team really deserved an Oscar for their fine work, as well as a 'special Oscar' for what I would call 'painting under adversity'.

As recently as a few months ago, Harrison was the recipient of a VES Fellowship Award from the Visual Effects Society.

For my full and very extensive career interview with Harrison, conducted a few years ago, you can read that right here.


In this age of endless damned superhero type 'franchises' (gee, I hate that term and all that it stands for), where it seems the exact same thing is recycled or 're-booted' as they prefer to comfortably label it, over and bloody over and bloody over to satiate the undemanding masses, one needs urgently to step back thirty years to a terrific Sam Raimi picture, DARKMAN (1990) which, at the time, was so fresh, energetic and dark as hell - but unlike this stuff nowadays, knew the meaning of restraint.

Yeah, I really enjoyed DARKMAN, though I never saw the pair of direct-to-video follow ups.  Liam Neeson was great as Dr Westlake who by circumstance became the exceedingly dark and arguably fucked up anti-hero of the title.  Darkman isn't your regular guy by any stretch, nor an especially likeable fella, but as far as disturbed and mutilated scientists on the path for bloody revenge, he's my guy.  I wonder whether Spielberg saw this and with a light bulb bursting into life above his head thought 'Neeson is the guy to be my Oscar Schindler!'  Just wondering.  A quick mention here of the outstanding prosthetics and special make up by Tony Gardner featured throughout the film.

The movie is loaded with absolutely superb visual effects courtesy of Introvision and 4-Ward Productions.  From first rate matte art by Rick Rische and Richard Kilroy to brilliant miniature sequences by the Skotak bothers, Dennis and Robert.  Great optical composites from several providers such as Visual Concept Engineering (VCE) as well as additional key visuals from Craig Barron's Matte World.  All up, an exceptional effects show, as these stills will testify.  This early scene in the film always appeared to be a regular location to me until I happened across Berton Pierce's brilliant doco A SENSE OF SCALE where Berton had compiled a couple of years worth of interviews with miniaturists and secured a mass of behind the scenes stills of their work.  

One of the outstanding miniature sets built by 4-Ward Productions under the supervision of industry veterans Robert and his younger brother Dennis Skotak.  The brothers have had a fascinating journey and one that I've always tried to keep an eye on since initially becoming aware of their work when I saw the low budget Roger Corman space epic BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980)  and the equally little seen GALAXY OF TERROR (1981).  I still have a couple of their hard to find labour-of-love fanzines, Fantascene, published in the mid 1970's dedicated to all things fantasy and special effects (wish I could come by others!)  Really first class zine in all respects.  The boys were apparently heavily inspired by the Universal sci-fi classic THIS ISLAND EARTH as well as the ambitious Soviet era space films of Pavel Klushantsev.
Doctor Westlake's laboratory is about to blow sky high.  Invisible miniature work here.

Note the small puppet of Frances McDormand.

Seen from above, the lab is history.... what what of Dr Westlake I hear you ask?

Well, sad to say, Dr Westlake is also blown sky high, but due to a series of coincidences, does in fact pull through, albeit in a somewhat knocked about state of health.  Interesting animation here and optical work by Spencer Gil and others at VCE.

A vfx sequence that slipped by also unnoticed was this one where arch villain, Aussie actor Colin Friels, shows his amazing work in progress, Strack City, to Frances McDormand.  The cityscape is a combination miniature and scenic backing arrangement, dropped into a blue screen backed stage set with a motion control camera move across the actors. The sequence was farmed out to Matte World under the auspices of Craig Barron and Michael Pangrazio, with Kendall Nishimine building the models and Brian Flora extending the set up via his scenic art.  The shot was optically combined elsewhere by one of several companies engaged in the blue screen composites.

Strack City skyscrapers on the rise.
Extremely convincing cityscape.

Another superb example of miniature construction by 4-Ward, with chief model makers Anthony Doublin and Tom Scherman - whom I discussed in my previous blog on FLESH GORDON.

Top left we see the miniature factory under construction, with the other frames showing it's destruction at the hands of pyro expert Joe Viskocil - a name also featured in last month's blog.

A birds-eye view of the factory pre-explosion, with Neeson hanging onto a cable suspended from the bad guys helicopter.

Our battered and bandaged anti-hero makes an urgent departure from the miniature conflagration.  An effective miniature is only as good as the cinematographer lighting and filming it, with Dennis Skotak photographing these scenes it was definitely in safe and assured hands.
Blue screen composite with miniature destruction and Neeson's character below a chopper.

High speed photography captures that instant Joe Viskocil's charge 'flashes' a millisecond before the big bang.

More model mayhem from the same sequence.  Terrific pyro work here too, which is a science unto itself.

Catastrophic chopper calamity...
Flawless miniature set and importantly, believable lighting.  So many model shots in the past were screwed with poor or obvious studio lighting that in no way matched actual daylight Kelvin (temperature).

And as if the former scenes don't look dangerous enough, worse is yet to follow with the dynamite set piece where an out of control helicopter collides with a vehicle tunnel, resulting in one of the best vfx shots in the film where the rotor blade shears off and ricochets down the tunnel over the top of Liam Neeson.  Fucking brilliant!

The 4-Ward miniature stage for the chopper sequence.  Interestingly matte painters Richard Kilroy and Rick Rische found themselves with dual employers during the making of DARKMAN, with matte painting duties under the Introvision banner as well as miniature work for 4-Ward which required detailing and painting all of the many models.  

That stunning shot with the out of control chopper rotor ricocheting down the tunnel and just missing Neeson's head is an all out winner in design and perfect execution.  Absolute genius work to all involved.

Another view of Strack City - a miniature set extended with a painted backing to appear more vast.  Matte World handled these shots with matte artist Brian Flora painting in the distant buildings and landscape.

The final act of the film is a lengthy night time confrontation between the protagonist and his enemies, taking place exclusively atop a partially constructed skyscraper.  I'm not sure, but I think this pull out shot could be a matte painting by either Richard Kilroy or Rick Rische, or then again it might be real?.

Years ago I spoke with matte artist Rick Rische and he told me about the DARKMAN assignment:  "I worked on the movie at two companies - Introvision Systems and 4-Ward Productions which was Bob Skotak's company.  With 4-Ward we did three major miniature sequences, Dr Westlake's lab explosion, the factory explosion and the helicopter getting dragged into the tunnel.  Richard Kilroy and I painted and detailed all of the models.  At Introvision, Richard and I worked on the high steel sequence at the climax, painting all the girders and bits for the buildings under construction.  There were several matte paintings that opened up the scale of the scene, mainly painting down angles and up angles that were too big to do in miniature.  If I remember correctly, I painted one, and Richard painted three - including the one at the end showing the elevator coming down at sunrise.  This was needed to bridge the ending scene, which was shot at daytime with the previous action on the building, which was all shot at night.  Continuity was kind of sloppy on this film.  At times, I was working at both companies simultaneously, doing a 10 hour shift at Introvision during the day, then working at night at 4-Ward.  Good thing I was much younger then.  The main thing I recall about making this film was Sam Raimi's enthusiasm for making it.  He woke up every day thinking "I have the coolest job in the universe!!!"  You just couldn't help but be caught up in it."
Oh, and the best line in the film comes in a scene where Neeson beats the living shit out of some slack-jawed carny worker and shouts at Frances McDormand:  "Just take the fucking elephant".  Well, I laughed.

The lower frame is one of the films Introvision process shots placing Colin Friels within a miniature environment, complete with camera move.  I'm not sure but I think the upper frame is also possibly an Introvision process shot.  Introvision's Bill Mesa and Tim Donahue pioneered a patented reflex front projection system in the late 1970's which brought an entirely new dimension to standard front projection shots.  Actors and areas of soundstage sets could be cleverly integrated  within a high resolution process plate with the ability to interact and move around or behind objects or scenery previously filmed elsewhere.  The process showed tremendous potential in the thrilling sci-fi picture OUTLAND (1981) and in a number of other films such as STAND BY ME and THE FUGITIVE.  The system was effective as it allowed the film maker the ability to immediately see the finished trick through the viewfinder of the camera as it was being set up and filmed.

Another Introvision shot involving miniature setting, painted cityscape and live action.

A close up of part of the miniature set and backing.
McDormand hangs on for grim death while Neeson and Friels battle it out in a possible Introvision shot.

As my father would sometimes say, "He's got a face like an unmade bed" - or, "He's got a face like a collapsed lung".  Funny guy my late Dad.  Screw political correctness I say!

A rare photo of a surviving DARKMAN matte painting - either by Rische or Kilroy.

Frances McDormand hangs on by her fingernails in this Introvision process shot using the above matte painting.

Matte painting added significantly to a limited set in the high steel sequence with three areas of live action.

Introvision front projection shot with what I assume to be painted steelwork.

The villain begs for his life as our scarred anti-hero dangles him over the edge.

The finale includes this absolutely jaw dropping Richard Kilroy full matte painting of the construction site at dawn.  The matte was needed to bridge the previous night sequences to a rather jarring cut to daylight for the final shot.  A small elevator can be seen coming down and the matte is photographed with a tilt down.  As good as it gets, folks.

The substantial VFX crew end credit roll, which, if you have a proper computer screen and not one of those 'dinky' little i-phoney gadgets, you'll actually be able to read, unaided!!

"If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it."


If you love movies about movies, then you should enjoy THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH (1957), an endearing little British film loaded with charming affection for the days of old 'Picture Palace' theatres and showmanship.

It's a particular fave of NZPete, with a band of eccentric characters try as best they can to resurrect and maintain a broken down old 'fleapit', amid nearby competition from a mega theatre showcase.  The cast are wonderful, with Peter Sellers stealing the show.  An effects film it is not, but matte artistry does play an important part in the narrative for a handful of scenes.

I've often written about the unsung heroes of the British effects industry, with Bob Cuff mentioned frequently in previous blogs.  Bob was one of the most respected and talented matte painters in the UK and his work on scores of films, both high profile epics like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and MACKENNA'S GOLD and little films like DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS and the film under examination here today.  Bob had studied art at Camberwell School of Art in the UK and in 1952 found himself and fellow student David Hume hired by Vincent Korda as trainee matte painters at Shepperton Studios.  Percy Day had just retired and his longtime cinematographer Wally Veevers had taken charge of the quite substantial special photographic effects department.  Bob trained under chief matte artist George Samuels and the much valued Albert Julion in the methods of cinematic matte work.  Cuff stayed with Shepperton until 1963, whereby he departed and set up shop with Les Bowie and Ray Caple where he painted mattes on films such as MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, SHE and ONE MILLION YEARS BC.  Bob would go on to contribute many, many mattes and effects over the next couple of decades, with Terry Gilliam's THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN in 1989 being his last assignment prior to retirement.  Many British effects folk spoke highly of Bob, and in fact just the other day I was communicating with New Zealand born veteran visual effects director Kent Houston at Peerless Optical in London who worked a lot with Bob Cuff and told me that he never quite got what he wanted from other artists, whereby he stated Bob was by far the best matte painter he's ever known and the nicest guy too.

I think this was Bob's first actual on screen credit, after some five years at the studio, though as 'R.Cuff'.  Presumably Wally Veevers saw to it that Bob got some credit.

Just a minor shot but effective.  Bob painted in the top of the mighty old picture palace and added the name 'Grand'.  This by the way is not the aforementioned 'fleapit' movie house.... this is the corporate opposition.

Totally invisible trick photography here with Cuff painting in an entire second level 'balcony' of the somewhat rundown, rat infested Bijou, with seats and architecture where none actually existed on the Shepperton stage.  Kudos too to cameraman Peter Harman for tying it all together so perfectly with not so much as a matte line to be seen.

A magnificent full painting by Bob as star Virginia McKenna looks soulfully out of the Bijou window at the vast mega-theatre just across the way.  According to some of Bob's contemporaries from the old Shepperton department, he would just paint and paint and paint, every minute detail imaginable, regardless as to whether the camera would (or needed to) pick it up. 

The interior of the Bijou again, though from a lower camera angle this time and slightly wider in view with more painted areas in frame up top.

The hapless group of old time film buffs put on their first session, and of course it's a disaster with poor projectionist Sellers trying to cope with antiquated 35mm projection equipment that rattles, groans and falls apart each time a train passes by outside!  Hilarious.  Now this shot is sensational though you'd never know it.  Live action lower section and an entirely painted in upper section, complete with audience members!  Note the projection beam has also been added in by Wally Veevers as a separate painted element complete with subtle 'illumination' motion.  Marvellous.

An act of drunken vengeance by the Bijou doorman sees the neighbouring Grand Theatre burnt to the ground.  Another full frame painting.

A wonderful film indeed.  Just the sort they don't seem to make these days.


No folks, it's not the Douglas Fairbanks one, nor is it the Sabu one for that matter (and I'll not even mention the dire made-for-tv 1978 version), this is the largely forgotten Italian version of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD made in 1961, and to my surprise, I found it quite good.

Lavishly produced in CinemaScope and Technicolor, with what appears to be a fairly good budget, this version is actually full of imaginative ideas, some great sets, nifty special effects of all kinds and doesn't outstay its welcome.  Although the Italian film industry had various vfx experts I note they farmed out much of the work to Tom Howard at MGM at Elstree in the United Kingdom.  I see too a curious credit for miniatures by Joseph Natanson (whom I covered in last months blog) which appears odd as he was a veteran matte painter, and I'm not sure where Howard's input crossed over into Natanson's contributions?  Tom Howard was most known for optical cinematography, travelling mattes and things of that nature, whereas Joseph was a glass shot artist, so the 'miniatures' credit seems unusual, though there are some miniature sets here and there in the film.  It's almost certain that Howard contributed to the quite beautiful flying horse sequence later in the film (cel animated by the looks of it, and quite extraordinary at that), a terrific scene where a woman of questionable motives is turned to stone (also very good) and some blue screen shots too.  There are some interesting painted mattes, some being marvellous, which are most likely Natanson's work as the MGM-Elstree set up wasn't really up to a very high standard in that field.  It's worth noting too that Tom Howard was one of the original photographic effects staffers on the Korda THIEF OF BAGHDAD in 1940, providing a ton of blue screen composites in what was relatively early Technicolor, at least as far as blue screen chemistry went.

The opening shot of the Arabian city looks very odd, with everything in the frame skewed to the right?  It looks like a miniature set to me (shot with a pan across) and I put the 'skew' down to some misalignment of the anamorphic lens somehow, where it's not registered dead centre.

An excellent matte sets the tone of the adventure.

Another superb matte shot, though I may stand corrected should these shots in fact be hanging foreground miniature set ups.  The shots are all rock steady and blend very well.

Intriguing double use of the same shot flopped for two different parts of the story.

Matte with a most foreboding mountain range.

The riders race through the canyon which I would say is a foreground miniature.

Our hero, played by the muscular Steve Reeves, tackles a particularly vicious and unfriendly tree in this blue screen shot where the whole forest seems pissed off for some reason.

A magical kingdom awaits our athletic hero - or does it??  A wonderful matte shot almost certainly painted by Joseph Natanson who though Polish by birth, and England trained in matte art (by Percy Day) was by this point based in Rome, probably at Cinecitta Studios where he was gainfully employed in his trade on many films.

Yeah, Steve...don't let those bodacious dancers, lavish costumes, gaudy Technicolor and faux Busby Berkeley routines fool ya ... these Mama's mean business!!

Steve, the thief of the title, turns the chief Mama into solid rock in a really impressive sequence executed by Tom Howard back at Elstree with what appears to be gradual cel painted overlays.  More to follow...

Ever get an ice cold, turn you to stone stare from anyone?  Well she did!

...things just keep getting worse for this Dame, but the sequence works a treat.

Matte art or foreground miniature?  I cannot say for sure, though it might be a foreground glass shot, popular with Continental film makers, especially at the time this was made.

Definitely matte painted, with our hero and a blue screen ocean plate matted in.

The frames don't show it well but it's a nifty little bit of business where Steve Reeves swirls his cape and vanishes just as these strange dress shop mannequin looking folk are about to tear him a new arse.
Lovely art direction, lighting and cinematography here.

Sensational shot and a memorable effects sequence that follows.

The winged horse takes to the air in a beautifully rendered animated sequence, presumably by some of Tom Howard's people

It's actually very impressive as a pre-CG, hand made, photo-chemical visual effect, much like the old Tri-Star logo from the 1980's and 90's.  This looks as though they might have filmed an actual galloping horse, perhaps against black, isolated and rotoscoped that frame by frame, with that element being matted frame by frame into the shot - though I'm just guessing.  That's the thing about old shows like this, it's a fun game to freeze frame, rewind, study and scrutinise in order to try and figure it all out, knowing full well that it wasn't easy to pull off.  It ain't the same for CGI whereby, I simply don't care and the methodology bores me senseless.  The magic just ain't there anymore folks!

Very nice work from 1961.

Upper frame miniature environment with puppeteered characters.

Several blue screen travelling matte shots by Tom Howard at MGM-Elstree.

Matte art and live action via travelling matte process.

Again, a quite impressive bit where the winged horse with Reeves flies in atop a cloud and lands.

The last effects sequence is a neat little bit where the thief of the title creates an army out of thin air by hurtling a ball of light across the desert sands and hey-presto, an army complete with horses, is at the ready. Tom Howard would have done this as a standard 'wipe' optical transition on his optical printer and then added an animated ball of light element.

It actually did deliver the goods.


I have in fact covered GREYFRIARS BOBBY (1961) previously in my vast and mind bogglingly detailed Albert Whitlock blog a few months back.  I'm refreshing it here as I've recently viewed a high definition print of the Disney film and not only have some very crisp images of mattes we've seen before but also discovered four more in the film that never became apparent on regular DVD.  So in my ongoing efforts to be a 'Whitlock-completist', here we go...

Master matte artist and visual effects expert Albert Whitlock pictured here around about the time this film was made, and quite possibly on the Disney lot, or maybe Shepperton in England where the film was shot, though I can't be sure, though the extras seem to match those in some of the mattes shown below.  Here Albert lines up the VistaVision camera for a matte shot.

GREYFRIARS BOBBY (1961) was one of Disney's numerous British based productions, quite common at the time.  The picture was popular in it's day and still holds up very well today.  A simple true story set in Edinburgh, Scotland during the mid 1800's, the film is all out 'old-school' Walt Disney, and all the better for it.  A moving story, a great cast, amazing production design on the stages of Shepperton emulating the period, and of course a number of mattes, some of which are just beautiful.

The opening shot appears to be a matte painting with sky and distant landscape added in by Al Whitlock.

Edinburgh in the middle of the 19th Century, though shot on the backlot at Shepperton Studios in London for the most part. The upper floors of the buildings, the sky and the famous castle are all matte art.  This view appears several times throughout the film though with different skies etc.

A stunning full painting by Albert that just looks a million dollars here in HD 1080 where individual brush strokes and splotches of pigment can be identified as the painting never needed to pass an extra 'generation' through the matte camera or optical printer.  There is a quick flash of cannon fire up on the turret though that was probably done as an in-camera slot gag of some sort.

Same view as earlier though the sky and light is different now.  Al's friend Rolf Giesen told me that Albert often spoke with fondness for this film.

An out and out masterpiece is this Whitlock rendering of the city of Edinburgh.  It always looked good on TV, VHS and DVD, but check this out for resolution and quality.  Magnificent backlight, which I'm convinced Albert picked up from his Disney mentor Peter Ellenshaw who would frequently use backlight to stunning effect on so many of his shows.  The live action is just a small slot by the graveyard with a few people and a wagon acting against a small painted 'flat'.  Whitlock also added drifting smoke rising almost unnoticed from some of the chimney stacks.  I sure hope this painting survives somewhere in the Disney archive.

That castle view again, though with different time of day, sunlight, cloud etc.

Here's another heretofore unseen Whitlock shot that I had to check by rewinding a dozen times to be sure.  An almost full painting of the graveyard where the whole thing is pure Albert except a patch in the middle with Laurence Naismith walking up a path. The cobbles, the iron gate, stonework, chapel, tree and sky are all matte art.  Finding these 'lost shots' is such a thrill for me.

Here's another unseen matte shot that I just noticed too.  The family farm and house at night out in the Scottish hinterland is an entire 100% matte painting.  A tiny slot-gag allows the oil lamp in the window to be extinguished.  Love it!

Another view of Edinburgh Castle, with a loud cannon blast.  Most likely another full painting with an overlay of cannon fire and smoke superimposed.  This shot was later recycled by Disney for their PRINCE AND THE PAUPER film the following year.

Lastly, a seemingly regular production shot though I think the sunlight rays have been added as a glass painted element.  A lovely little film by the way, especially for dog lovers.


A fairly run-of-the-mill 1941 western (and I love old westerns) from 20th Century Fox, with just three mattes in it, but they are very interesting so it's worth inclusion here.

Fred Sersen has been the topic of many a conversation on this blog so I don't need to elaborate.  Long time Fox special effects man Ralph Hammeras was closely involved with BELLE STARR's trick shots, as detailed in a very old issue of the wonderful Cinefex, where editor Don Shay published an extremely rare interview with Ralph that had been gathering dust somewhere in a desk.  Thank you Don, as Ralph was one of the greats.

It's set during the American Civil War so that provides us with a few mattes such as this nice shot where practically everything has been painted in directly above the horse and farmer, even all of the detail shown at right such as the tree etc.

Photos from Ralph Hammeras' original scrapbook which were published years later in the early 1980's in Cinefex magazine. Hammeras described the shot as being a large scale miniature combined with live action, and then blended in the middle via careful matte art to tie the elements together as one.  See below.

The finished, seamless trick as it is in the film.  Fox were wizards at this sort of finicky illusion and would go to great lengths to make shots work convincingly under Fred Sersen's oversight.

The only other matte I found was this curious one where, presumably for pictorial and compositional value, the director requested a tree be painted into the otherwise static and boring shot.


A sprawling, all star, adventure set during the 13th Century, THE BLACK ROSE (1950) is a British made epic released under the 20th Century Fox banner.

The sheer scale of the storyline necessitated a great number of matte shots as well as some ingenious miniature work from the experts at Shepperton Studios.  Walter Percy 'Pop' Day was visual effects chief and oversaw the many painted mattes with a team of artists such as Albert Julion, George Samuels and others, most likely Judy Jordan and Joseph Natanson among them - all graduates of the Poppa Day school.  Wally Veevers was effects cameraman and Ted Samuels looked after the miniatures.  The picture at left shows Day with one of his matte camera bodies, sans magazine, firmly locked off atop a rostrum.

Wonderful old school hand painted title lettering on glass - an artform of its own.

Not sure if this is an effects shot but I suspect an actual location may have been extended with painted additions, particularly the tower at left.

Castle interior soundstage set topped up with matte art.

Excellent matte which extends all of scene directly above the heads of the people.

Subtle extensions, with wall at left painted and distant mountain and sky added at right.

The film has a lot of those fifties era montages where caravans traipse across exotic lands in search of high adventure.

Even a matte painted Great Wall Of China gets a look in.

The burning city was actually an elaborate miniature orchestrated by mechanical effects man and long time Shepperton staffer Ted Samuels, who was the brother of matte artist George Samuels.  In an old publication Wall Veevers explained how this sequence worked:  "Any additional movement required in the painting section became more difficult to do.  At Shepperton we overcame this by using a selsyn and oil interlock system, driven and relayed from the camera motor drive.  By this means we were able to drive any model in sync with the picture as often as we needed to.  On THE BLACK ROSE Ted Samuels used more than 50 slave selsyns to drive various effects in order to create a village on fire using a model.  This was shot with an N.C Mitchell camera three times in sync through blue, red and green filters so that Technicolor could use it as a three-strip shot."

THE BLACK ROSE isn't short of big screen spectacle courtesy of Pop Day's special effects department.  By the time THE BLACK ROSE was in production, all of Day's matte shots - or as he preferred to term it, 'process shots' - were dupe shots using the Technicolor Type 8 Separation Masters with the help of Douglas Hague at Technicolor Laboratories.  The duping process was first used in Technicolor in Britain for the famous extreme down view from the convent to the valley deep below in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947).

The flaming city seen in the distance.  I suspect the majority of this shot to be a painting, including the tents.

Wally Veevers discussed the progress in matte work:  "I joined Pop Day's matte department which at the time was tucked away in the stables at Denham Studios.  Matte painting took over from the Schuften and other model systems, mainly due to the preparation time required for making the models.  The early matte paintings were black & white, static camera, tied down shots.  The action and movement being in the lower half of the picture, in order to overcome this we used to make clouds out of cotton wool and move them across behind the paintings.  The paintings were mainly on glass so that some paint could be scraped away in order that a little movement could be introduced behind the glass.  With the introduction of the three-strip Technicolor system, things became a bit more difficult.  We not only had to match the matte lines, the drawing and the tones, but also the delicate colour.  The period of BLACK NARCISSUS, HENRY V and CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA with matte painting by the late Percy Day added so much atmosphere to those pictures and I don't think any other visual effects medium could have done it any better."

A time of discovery and true adventure, all courtesy of Poppa Day and his talented painting staff.  Apparently a very young Peter Sellers of all people provided the voice over dub for one of the Chinese characters in the film (!)

The best shot in the movie and I do wonder whether it might be a skillfully orchestrated hanging miniature?

The journey continues.  Incidentally, star Tyrone Power must hold some sort of personal unofficial trophy for appearing in more big special effects films than any other living actor of his era.  Just think:  IN OLD CHICAGO, THE RAINS CAME, MARK OF ZORRO, MARIE ANTOINETTE, SUEZ, CRASH DIVE, THE RAZOR'S EDGE and more!  Some great work in that line up.

Elaborate cave interior substantially augmented via matte art by either Pop Day or one of his artists such as Judy Jordan, George Samuels or Albert Julion.

The closing shot in the flick is a beautifully poetic full painting.

That will do it for January's issue.  See you next month, assuming I'm in the mood and the world hasn't come to a screeching, grinding halt and imploded.