Wednesday 11 March 2020

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

Greetings fans of old school cinematic trickery.  It's that time once again to examine some more marvellous and inventive special effects work and reflect upon the tried and true methods employed over the years to thrill, delight and completely hoodwink film audiences the world over.
My film viewing tastes are amazingly broad and I watch as much of the medium as possible, from ancient silent pictures, 50's westerns, vintage 1940's war films, B&W Universal horror flicks, film noir, Marx Bros and Abbott & Costello comedies, foreign language, lush Technicolor widescreen epics, psychological thrillers, Italian giallo, crime & cannibal movies, 70's drama, cheesy 'B' films,  Korean cop thrillers and thought provoking sci-fi all the way through to reasonably recent fare, though my preference tends to sway more toward older films for a variety of reasons.

Certainly when it comes to special effects I'm not in the least interested in modern fare and just cannot get enough of the old, hand crafted specialties.  There is plenty of highly detailed and comprehensive coverage to be found elsewhere for the calibre of film and methodology I don't delve into in what I'd term the modern era. Now in it's 10th year, NZ Pete's Matte Shot has explored hundreds of films, countless artists, cameramen and effects specialists of one sort or another, and I've still got a veritable 'treasure chest' full of imagery and odds and ends that I want to present, discuss and celebrate. It's all a matter of finding a suitable 'place' in my blog to promote same.
This month, I've sifted through and blown the dust off of a great deal of material from my archives in an effort to highlight not only great matte and miniature craftsmanship but also to bring forth motion pictures that may not be your common, well known films.  I always try to uncover as much across as broad a range of films as I can.

I've blown the cobwebs off a lot of pictures here today with everything from a genuine classic of silent era cinema from the mid 1920's, right the way through to a recent (in relative terms) 1994 star studded spectacle produced right on the cusp of traditional to digital changeover in matte visuals. I've made some great discoveries recently with some quite rare mattes, obscure films and, as with the first film discussed in the following line up, some phenomenal trick cinematography dating back nearly a full Century that really blew my proverbial socks off, such was the skill employed.  More about that shortly.

It's somewhat of a coincidence that a number of the films below have a wartime theme.  Not intended, but it just turned out that way.  There's one set in the Crimean war, another dealing with World War One, a Technicolor show set at the start of the Second World War, plus a CinemaScope flick dealing with the rising conflict in French Indochina for good measure.
But wait...that's not all.... there's also an exotic Alan Ladd espionage thriller, a Gary Cooper Marco Polo adventure, a 'knights in shining armour' love story, and to cap it all off, a Richard Pryor comedy of all things, just for the sake of 'balance'.  You can't accuse NZ Pete of cutting corners!  I had fully intended to include the Willis O'Brien classic MIGHTY JOE YOUNG but realised I have so much material that it should be a 'stand alone' blog all of it's own... so watch this space.



The mystery matte being painted here by John is now identified (see below).
It's always a joy to celebrate matte and effects talent from days long gone, and a thrill indeed to be able to put a title to a mystery matte shot that has eluded me for years.  I've previously written about esteemed production designer/art director John DeCuir snr, who, long before embarking upon his storied design career on such films as CLEOPATRA, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY and GHOSTBUSTERS to name but a few, was a busy matte artist in his own right.  Despite failed attempts by Walt Disney to secure John in cartoon work which wasn't a route he wanted to go as live action motion picture design or artwork was more appealing, John was recruited by Russell Lawson as an assistant matte painter in Universal's matte department in 1939. Add to that decision that Universal were offering much more money than Disney as an added draw card!

John DeCuir's magnificent Technicolor matte shot from the obscure Boris Karloff melodrama THE CLIMAX (1944) finally puts a name to the until now baffling behind the scenes photo shown above which even John's own family could never identify.  It's so exciting for NZPete to discover lost shots such as this, especially in high resolution as this one is and not the YouTube low grade medium one is sometimes forced to accept. The film was shot on leftover PHANTOM OF THE OPERA sets.  I thought I knew my Karloff films but never heard of this one till now.
Probably Hitchcock's best film, SABOTEUR (1941).
After a trial by fire initial period whereby DeCuir was tasked with proving himself to Lawson by painting 'realistic' renderings of chunks of rock plonked on the matte room work bench, covered in dirt and weeds, as well as other odd, but ultimately very useful subject matter such as the clouds seen out the matte department window - the very same window which would many years later be Albert Whitlock's matte room window - John would embark on matte work for scores of pictures dating from films like SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), THE TOWER OF LONDON (1939), THE WOLF MAN (1941) and THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946) and several ARABIAN NIGHTS themed 'sword & sand' movies popular with Universal at the time.  World War II would see John active in the US Navy from 1941 to 1944, with his Universal career resuming after the war for a few more years in Lawson's department before taking on his first art direction assignments for films like the powerful prison drama BRUTE FORCE (1947).

John's son told me how his father's responsibilities in the Lawson matte department really grew as Russ had a daily habit of going up onto the roof for a lunchtime snooze, which as time went on, lasted longer and longer, leaving the young DeCuir to more or less 'run' the department with effects cameraman Roswell Hoffman.  Celebrated visual effects man L.B Abbott once wrote that DeCuir was not only a fine film set designer but also an equally fine visual effects artist in his own right.
DeCuir painted on the Lon Chaney classic THE WOLF MAN (1941) as shown above among many others such as numerous Abbott & Costello comedies and my own personal favourite from Alfred Hitchcock's illustrious catalogue, SABOTEUR (1941) which was probably Hitch's biggest matte painting showcase.
John with one of his mattes for the seemingly endless Technicolor Universal romantic desert adventures, SUDAN (1945).
DeCuir's son sent me a list of all of the known films his father had worked on.  He painted mattes for the very funny Abbott & Costello farce WHO DONE IT? released in 1942.
Some examples from John's art director's years where matte shots would be used.  Clockwise from top left:  SOUTH PACIFIC, BRUTE FORCE, DIPLOMATIC COURIER, THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO and GHOSTBUSTERS. 

So, now let's look back at a sizable and carefully chosen archive of matte and effects shot films...

I have much admiration for silent cinema, with THE BIG PARADE (1925) being a most impressive anti-war epic indeed.  The film is an extremely well made, big budget affair dealing with the harsh realities and sheer horrors of war during 'the war to end all wars' - the 1914 to 1918 meat grinder.  Being pre-code by nearly a decade, the director, King Vidor, wasn't bound by what would later become the Hollywood norm with unabashed flag waving heroics and a strict compliance to maintain a 'glamour' to the narratives.  The film is startlingly honest, in both its actions and it's dialogue (shown of course by inter-titles).

Good writing and superb camerawork made for a memorable experience for this viewer.  There was no special effects credit, which wasn't unusual for the era, though I do note James Basevi's name in the credits here.  British born Basevi was a major player at MGM during the early days, both as leading art director, and a short time later as head of the special effects department which was for years a part of the overall Art Department.  James would supervise the effects work on films such as SAN FRANCISCO and several TARZAN epics.  The astonishing special photographic effects on THE BIG PARADE were carried out by Austrian born cinematographer Maximilian Fabian, an exceptional talent in the field who would be an integral part of the MGM effects scene for the remainder of his career with a particular skill at photographing miniatures.  So many grand MGM effects showcases owe so much to Fabian's camera savvy, with absolute bona-fide VFX classics such as GREEN DOLPHIN STREET, THE PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE, QUO VADIS and the still eye-popping THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO as testaments to his work.
Career visual effects cinematographer Maximilian Fabian was one of the industry's most gifted specialists in trick work and particularly miniature photography.  Without doubt, one of the unsung greats.  For decades Max would be the number one 'right hand man' of storied MGM effects man A.Arnold 'Buddy' Gillespie and mentioned with great fondness by Buddy himself in his extensive 1965 penned memoir The Wizard of MGM, which was only published a few years ago thanks to the tireless energy of Buddy's grandson, Robert and co-editor Philip Riley.  The pic on the left is an old family portrait while the one on the right showing Max kneeling by the camera is from a different film, one of Joseph von Sternberg's pictures.

At two and a half hours the film is a shade too long, but still an absolutely worthy film for those who admire silent cinema.  Even the performances are more restrained than one often saw in films of that vintage.

The studio 'hoopla' as seen in the movie trailer, typical of the time.  Advertising departments were highly creative back in the day as shown here, leaving not a shred of doubt as to what you could expect.

The film has a considerable number of trick shots, including many glass shots, in camera matte work, miniatures and phenomenal early travelling matte composite work which impressed me to the point where I had to rewind and re-watch numerous battle scenes just to try to figure out how they had pulled it off.  The shot shown here is a matte, and I suspect, quite a complex one at that.  The seemingly endless convoy of troop carriers head off onto the Western Front in what appears to be a series of clever splits to multiply the number of trucks stretching off into the horizon.  I suspect too that the dirt road is a separate element to the surrounding countryside.  The same road is seen much later with an entirely matte painted post-battle devastated landscape to excellent effect.  

Various sequences are tinted, which was quite common during the silent period, though I have purposely desaturated a matching frame to better demonstrate trick work, especially for the epic 'over the top' set piece which occurs at night and is packed with trick work.  This French town is likely an MGM backlot set and I feel the upper floor and rooftops have been added on as a glass painting.

An example of the superb cinematography and use of tint for dramatic effect.

A beautifully rendered glass shot shows the impact of the German bombardment on the small French village.  No idea who was matte painter at the time, nor whether Warren Newcombe had yet joined the studio.  I think he came along a little later than this though I'm not sure.  Newcombe did work in the early years with an associate named Neil McGuire, whom Matt Yuricich mentioned did all of the painting for Newcombe in the early days.
The night action on the battlefield may be a little hard to see in the original tinted frames so I have desaturated matching frames below.

Almost every shot in the vast confrontation contains a trick element of one sort or another.  So good were the scenes that I just had to re-watch the sequences several times to absorb it all.  It must have knocked audiences socks off back in 1925 where the real war was still fresh in every ones minds.  Most of this extended and vital set piece involves miniature sets with pyro work in addition to superimposed explosions, split screens and travelling matte combinations to add actors and extras into the mayhem.  It's all quite brilliantly designed and executed and I think designers Cedric Gibbons and James Basevi, along with photographic effects expert Max Fabian really earned their coin on this 'Saving Private Ryan' scale set piece.

It's likely the extras here were dropped in via the Williams Matting System, which, along with to a lesser degree, The Dunning System, were the only real methods available for film makers to add moving actors and such into previously shot footage.  The Ries brothers; Park, Frank, Paul, Ray and Irving were established in Hollywood by this time and specialised in camera systems.  Irving and his brother Park were employed in 1928 at MGM, with Irving becoming specialised in optical composite cinematography - a role he would hold with the studio for the remainder of his long career.  Prior to Irving's time I wonder who might have been running the optical lab, and whether they were able to handle such a workload.

Soldiers flee for their lives as a massive battery takes a direct hit.  All miniature with expertly composited people, most likely carried out at the Frank Williams Laboratory, if in fact that technique was employed.

Mayhem in all directions.

With the blue tint removed we can better appreciate the effects set up, with flawless blending in the shot on the right.

Now folks, this scene is a mind-blower...and it took me several rewinds and slow-motion views to figure it out.  I'd just assumed it to be a full scale mechanical effect with a bunch of risk taking stunt men, but no, not at all.  The exploding house is a miniature - a very large one I'd wager - shot at high speed (not at all common in the day).  The marching soldiers appear to be two different 'layers', with the distant guys as one element, added to the miniature footage, while the near and foreground extras have been composited over that already combined footage by way of a travelling matte.  Back projection wasn't really a go then, especially on such a large scale, and it couldn't come anywhere near this fidelity.  The shot is so damned perfect with then only slight give-away being some barely detectable 'shudder'' between the miniature action plate and the separately filmed actors.  It would have been much easier to do it as a straight in-camera split screen where the action occurs above the matte line, but it wouldn't have been anywhere near as effective.  With this remarkable Fabian visual effect we have the costumed extras actually immersed in the catastrophe. 

Blue tint removed here for better inspection.  Travelling matte technology of the day largely fell into the hands of two chief opposing practitioners, both of whom laid claim to who's was more effective.  Frank Williams had his patented 'Double Matting Technique' while across town C.Dodge Dunning and his son Carroll H. Dunning had their own popular variant.  I'm not sure what the actual Hollywood studios had in-house at the time as most of this work was farmed out until rear process projection was made more viable and optical cinematographers improved upon developments in composite photography.  Williams method used black backing in order to facilitate matte extraction, though later iterations would see white illuminated backings and then blue backing - the forerunner of modern era blue screen work.  The Dunning method, known as the Dunning Self Matting Technique, was unique in that they came upon the idea of using a blue illuminated backing while shooting the actors under a particular orange-yellow lighting scheme using a bi-pack camera.  Both processes were in constant use through the latter part of the twenties and well into the thirties, often to quite good effect.  Noteworthy films such as the legendary KING KONG (1933) utilised both systems in interesting ways, while other productions such as THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) relied entirely upon the Williams method.

Frame by frame breakdown as the building blows sky high, with chunks of debris crushing the soldiers.  So bold, so well designed and just so bloody impressive in execution.  The modern Marvel generation will not be the least bit impressed I'm sure, but this work, created almost 100 years ago really is the definition of 'trick photography' of the highest order.


A massive artillery battery - all miniature setting with actors matted in.

There were several similar pictures around this time such as WINGS (1927), ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) and HELL'S ANGELS (1930) - all of which have merit, but THE BIG PARADE I feel ranks above.

The German shell makes a direct hit on the battery and all hell breaks loose.  Interesting 'demolition' work of the extras here as debris rains down.  The lower frames show more comp work as a foreground skirmish is blended with a VFX background battlefield where large scale pyro physical effects have been added in the distance and closer explosive work can be seen against the background plate with unavoidable matte fringe around the smoke.  For 1925 this work is remarkable, with smoke or water elements proving a nightmare right the way through the photo-chemical era as far as optical compositing went... so these guys really did well.


More ingenious trick work as Fabian has added some soldiers in front of the already layered action by way of a travelling matte.

The mud and blood soaked 'no man's land' where each side fight for a few precious yards of soil, often to no avail.  I'm not sure here, but I think most of the set up is a large miniature with what appears to be a separately filmed advancing battalion added in later?  Not certain, but on close inspection here (and in other shots) we get the odd glimpse of bleed through or double exposure at times, suggesting photographic skullduggery was afoot.  Bold as hell though!  By the way, Peter Jackson's remarkable doco THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (2018) is a must see for anyone interested in this ghastly piece of history.  My own grandfather fought in both wars - too young for WWI so he faked his age to join the Navy, and too old (and married with kids) for WWII but faked it again to go back, much to my grandmother's annoyance.  Survived it all and never talked about it.  Those were the times, and those were the calibre of the men.

An example of THE BIG PARADE's inter-titles show a brutal honesty rarely ever seen or heard in war pictures, and certainly never in any made later on in the late thirties through the forties.  Just not allowed under any circumstances.
The long convoy of wounded and shell shocked survivors head for Red Cross assistance.  A matte painted landscape here.

An interesting side by side comparison with a pair of mattes, one showing the troops headed into danger, and the other as the remaining troops come out of the inferno.  Shot at left appears to be an actual landscape, though the road has been matted in and the thousand odd trucks I suspect have been created by Max Fabian as a series of split screens or even painted traffic in the distance.  Shot at right is all painted except the road and some of the nearer trucks.  Great stuff.
John Gilbert is severely wounded but recovers in a converted cathedral turn Red Cross hospital in France.  A beautifully rendered glass shot, artist unknown.

The exterior of said cathedral is also a wonderful glass painted shot.

Gilbert returns to the now devastated town where his French girlfriend used to live.  More great matte art done for sure as an in-camera foreground glass shot.

Hobbling about on a mangled leg, John searches in vain for the lovely Renee Adoree.  More glass art here, or possibly even a foreground hanging miniature?

Long shot of the farm she used to live in is all painted except from the windows down.

The film concludes with our hero, now minus one leg, searching the countryside for Renee.  She spots him wobbling across a hilltop.  Full glass painted shot with what might be a small puppet simulating the star of the film way off atop the hillside.


DESTINATION GOBI, made in 1953 was a very unusual WWII picture where US Navy patrol ends up in the wilds of the desolate Gobi desert for reasons few could comprehend.  Still, it was a Robert Wise film, so that's a plus, and it starred the always reliable and under rated Richard Widmark, which was always a bonus as far as I'm concerned.  The Fox ad department worked overtime with the poster artwork, emphasising the enemy as the butt-ugliest bunch of Mo-Fo's the world had ever seen.  Surely not endorsed by the Mongolian Dept. of Tourism.

A fairly routine adventure but worth it for a number of good matte shots and other invisible visual effects, as supervised by Ray Kellogg.

Opening shot might be a matte, or at least a retouched photographic blow up which was common at Fox.

Very nice matte art where our intrepid group make their way across China and into Mongolia.  Emil Kosa jnr was head of the Fox matte department for years and employed a number of very able artists under him.  Painters included Jim Fetherolf, Lee LeBlanc, Matthew Yuricich, Cliff Silsby, Max DeVega, Menrad von Muldorfer and others.  I believe Yuricich did some work on this film.

The camp comes under aerial bombardment.  A painted sky with an enemy dive bomber added in in what I assume to be a separate element.

Visual effects shot with live action location footage matted into a painted sky, airplane element and cel animated tracer fire.

The aftermath with location work, practical effects and a flawlessly animated enemy plane flyover.

A second run with plane and tracer fire added in later to match timing of live action physical fx and stunt work.

Well choreographed and executed vfx sequence by Ray Kellogg.

Matte painted view of The Great Wall of China.

Another view of the Great Wall, and the village beyond.

A less effective matte shot with the military base and harbour sprawling into the distance.

Multi part composite with miniature Junk filmed in the Fox tank, split screened along the horizon with a painted sky and animated flyover.  Effects cameramen at the time included L.B Abbott, Harry Dawes and Walter Castle.


Time for a British film now.  The story of the mother of the nursing profession, Florence Nightingale as told in THE LADY WITH A LAMP (1951)

A sensitively written and directed film, highlighted with a wonderful star turn by Anna Neagle, who incidentally played a similar role in the American WWI film NURSE EDITH CAVELL (1939) as a deeply compassionate nurse fighting for a cause, with both films being top drawer stuff.  Many fine Brit character actors such as Gordon Jackson have key roles in LADY WITH A LAMP.  This film has eluded me for decades so I was delighted to finally be able to track it down at last.  It was worth the wait.
Being a Shepperton Studios production, the large and busy special effects department was under the stewardship of industry veteran Wally Veevers (shown at right), who had only just taken over headship from Walter Percy 'Poppa' Day, who was about to retire.  Matte painting work was carried out by another British veteran, George Samuels (left) who ran the matte side of things while his brother Ted ran the practical side of the effects shop.  The middle photo shows George busy at work in 1954 on a matte painting for one of the popular ST. TRINIANS comedies.  George was one of Pop Day's 'boys' and had painted for years under Day, with Veevers being another of Pop's 'boys', having been his effects cameraman going back as far as THINGS TO COME (1936).  George painted many mattes over the years for films such as ALEXANDER THE GREAT, DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, HEAVENS ABOVE and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.  Wally was a genius with mechanical rigs and special camera devices and played a large part in the success of Kubricks' 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

An overview of Shepperton Studios and an inside look at the matte painting room, circa 1965.

LADY WITH A LAMP takes place for the most part in Turkey during the period of the Crimean War of 1854 where Florence Nightingale not only has to battle the 'establishment' to even be allowed to get there, but is mortified at the lack of hygiene and rampant spread of disease through lack of the most basic of care.  Fascinating bio-pic.  The shot here is the matte establishing shot as she arrives in Scutari, Turkey.

A second closer shot as Florence steps ashore.  A cleverly done shot as the mast and sails move freely against what I imagine was a small painted backing directly behind that isolated part of the vessel's rigging, with the matte painting supplying the rest of the vista.  I get the impression that this may have been an on location (UK) in camera glass shot in order to line up the gag, plus, the composite is very clean and sharp.

George Samuels' matte art.

Another view of the vast military hospital in Turkey as painted by Samuels.

Part of the story takes place in India.

Wilton House, England was probably also matte painted by the looks of it.
Possibly another likely Samuels matte shot.


Richard Pryor was a force to be reckoned with.  A comic genius who fell foul to his many demons (like so many American comedians for some inexplicable reason).  Richard did some great work, though this one, CRITICAL CONDITION (1987) was no masterpiece, it had its moments. I still enjoy his hilariously profane seventies record albums and his absolutely brilliant no holds barred 1979 stand up feature RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT as the best of its type.  Pryor was at his best when unscripted, unleashed and allowed to fire on all cylinders.  

The film has just a handful of matte shots, but they were really good.  Syd Dutton and Bill Taylor's Illusion Arts were contracted to provide the shots, with consultation with their retired mentor Albert Whitlock according to the end credits.  The film takes place in a run down hospital situated on a small island accessed only by a narrow causeway during a massive storm, which reads like something out of a thirties James Whale movie.... and yes, the bridge does get washed out!  This shot features a matte painted sky and tree, with rapidly closing in storm clouds.

The causeway to the island with a Syd Dutton painted city and stormy sky matted in.  I spoke with effects cameraman and co-owner of Illusion Arts, Bill Taylor about the work on this film.  "I seem to recall the causeway here did not actually exist, or at least, not there.  There was a road that ran along the edge of the water on which ran the traffic.  The water on the camera side was a separate element printed in.  The pilings, reflections and shadows were all painted - there was a similar shot in FUNNY LADY that I did with Al.  Skies were always painted and photographed in the usual splits for the moving clouds.  It looks like our stock smoke elements off in the distance."

Same scene with additional lightning flashes, interactive light on buildings and rolling storm clouds.  Brilliant work Syd.

The fictitious hospital and grounds.  An actual setting matted into an entirely painted city vista beyond, including the trees, rolling sky etc.  The helicopter is real.

Closer view of Dutton's matte art.  Note, the top of the big tree is real as per the location plate shoot, while the rest of the same tree is painted along with the rows of tall buildings directly behind.  Bill told me:  "When there were trees against the sky, they were film elements under-cranked to simulate winds, then bi-packed in later when the paintings were shot, in the usual splits method.  We may have used wind machines on the trees but I don't remember at this late date."

Matte art which may in fact be more extensive than I initially thought.  Certainly the left side, distant background and tree tops are painted, though upon reviewing the scene the whole shot might be Dutton matte art?  Nice animation of lightning strike. 
 Bill Taylor confirmed:  "Yes, the shot was done with cel flop animation lightning, plus interactive overlays just as you [Pete] thought."

A very interesting shot where the raging, howling storm really thrashes the hospital and the sea wall.  I suspect the whole thing to be a Syd Dutton matte painting - the cityscape, rolling storm clouds, lightning, tree and all - with a most intriguing bit of effects business added no doubt by premier cameraman Bill Taylor where a massive wave crashes against the sea wall and sort of curls itself along the wall in the powerhouse wind gust.  If it was a vfx gag then I'm extremely impressed.  The still frames do no justice to the final motion shot.  Bill kindly let the cat out of the bag and explained the rather ingenious shot for me in an email just before publication:  "As you guessed, the wave was a gag.  Larry Shuler, our grip, built a long, narrow metal channel - maybe fifteen feet long.  In that, we sprinkled various fine powders; talcum powder, flour etc.  An air hose travelled down the length of the channel at a good clip - maybe elastic power - blowing into a diffuser fastened to the end.  The travelling blast of air blew the particulates upward, with our high speed filming simulating a breaking wave.  This is probably an Al Whitlock idea; he was uncannily able to see right to the visual essence of an effect, avoiding expensive things like 'scale' water."
I've deliberately lightened this frame, and the frame shown below to better see the shot.

The 'wave' crashes against the seawall and curls and rolls along in a phenomenally realistic and supremely well engineered piece of movie magic.  This sort of wizardry is really what 'special effects' are all about, and I never cease to be enthralled by such work of old, with practicals, instinct and pragmatism won the day.  Kudos to Illusion Arts for this invisible shot. 

The final shot as the end credits roll.  Not sure, but suspect two different locations might have been matted together as one New York setting and blended with matte art??


The age of the genuine Hollywood movie star, with actors like Gary Cooper being one of the industry's most endearing and popular screen actors of countless classic films, though I was never sure he was cut out to be the title true-life character here.  THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO (1938) was a fairly entertaining and rollicking adventure, set in lands a-far with sneering villains and fetching hand maidens never in short supply.

Samuel Goldwyn Studios - originally the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford Studio - made a number of memorable pictures, especially in the 1930's and 40's, with such films as DODSWORTH, THE HURRICANE and THE NORTH STAR.  For a big budget picture ($2 million I believe) MARCO POLO had a number of great sets and matte shots to supply the mystical East, though no credit was given for the effects nor matte shots.  I do note that the production was designed by the aforementioned James Basevi, who did similar duties on THE BIG PARADE, so he must have played a pivotal role in organising the effects work, having just moved from MGM where he'd been head of their special effects department - a role which was then handed on to Basevi's longtime assistant, A.Arnold Gillespie. 
I seem to recall reading somewhere that the sets for MARCO POLO were constantly reused over the decades and even ended up in one of the 'worst' sci-fi flicks of all time, CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON (1954), though in truth, that flick was a masterpiece compared with FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE made a year later in 1955 - so bad you just gotta see it.... Oh, brother! ... though, I digress.

A montage of shots show Marco Cooper(!) in his trek across the globe to seek things he couldn't find back at home I guess.  Montages were something of a fine art all of their own back in those days, and entire departments were set up to shoot, edit and provide tricks where required, to facilitate 'montage' sequences.

I only have low-ish rez DVD grabs unfortunately, though I'd love to see it on BluRay some day.  Here Marco traces the Great Wall of China to a vast city - all matte painted naturally.  I've no idea who painted at Goldwyn Studios, but the work was generally of a high standard from all of the films I've seen.  So many matte artists 'floated around' from studio to studio so it's impossible to know.  Guys like Jack Shaw, Fitch Fulton, Mario Larrinaga and others tended to move around quite a bit.

The mysterious Orient on the Goldwyn lot, enhanced with good matte art.

The set during photography just shows how much was added in various views by the anonymous matte painter.

I'm very fond of matte art from this period - the thirties and forties were for me, the heyday of the art form.  There was just something so romantic and tangible about mattes in that era.  Love it!

The classic rickety rope bridge across the deep gorge - the quintessential matte subject matter.

A wonderfully evocative thirties matte shot, so much a 'snapshot' of those early years, long since passed.

I can't take credit for this, nor the couple of following images.  Years ago I stumbled across a most interesting blog site dedicated to all of the films shot at the Iverson Ranch in California.  The site details an incredible amount of data about the productions and obscure facts, so I've included a couple of facts related to the shooting of this matte shot.  *The blog can be found here for those interested in history.

A fleeting moment in an action sequence in MARCO POLO resulted in tragedy.

From the Iverson Movie Ranch blog, the author has delineated the matte, though more was to follow...

Apparently this was the only sequence filmed outside of the Goldwyn lot.  Here is the plate photographed before the addition of the matte painting.  That horse has been specially harnessed and secured with hidden cables (as has the stunt rider) to prevent a fall from the cliff edge as it rears up on it's hind legs.  See below.

I've spared you the frames where it all went horribly wrong, but as things worked out, the cables securing the horse snapped and it fell backwards down onto the rocks below to it's death according to the Iverson blog research.  The stuntman's wires did not snap so he survived, dangling in mid air.  Hollywood never wanted you to ever know about things like this.

More impressive matte art lends grandeur to the Goldwyn back lot.

Flawless blend between art and partial set.

THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO (1938) - matte shot.


The blog reader is certainly getting his or her money's worth in exotic matte painted locales... you really can't complain, can you?  Well, can you??  This one is a solid, well directed and produced war action film set in what was French Indo-China that probably many of my readers haven't heard of, CHINA GATE (1957) - in fact some of you may not have heard of French Indo-China for that matter.  Look it up!

This one is a curiosity.  It was a 20th Century Fox film, yet none of the credits suggest the usual Fox departmental heads who were always listed on all of their films - you know, the usual 'Make Up by Ben Nye' kind of credit that appeared on everything.  Odd even more is that Linwood Dunn has been credited for 'Optical Effects', whereas Dunn had always been an RKO guy until he set up his own Film Effects of Hollywood.  RKO did coincidentally wrap up all operations the same year CHINA GATE was made so it's all a bit strange.  Fox had it's own large effects department, run at that time by Bill Abbott, so I just don't know - maybe it was an RKO show bought outright by Fox or something?

Samuel Fuller ... now there was a friggen great screenwriter, director and all round tough guy one of a kind character! So many memorable films:  I SHOT JESSE JAMES, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, THE STEEL HELMET, FIXED BAYONETS, SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE BIG RED ONE among many others.  The man was a WWII hero himself and specialised - when the studios allowed him - in uncompromising, tough, unapologetic films, be they westerns, war pictures or dark film noir thrillers, Fuller's tough talking, take no prisoners signature was all over them.

A half dozen matte painted scenes appear in CHINA GATE, with this opening shot being one.  The confusing credits make it hard to figure out who might have painted the shots.  If it was an RKO deal then probably someone like Albert Maxwell Simpson who had a long association with Dunn and that studio.  If it were Fox, then any of a dozen painters could have contributed.

As with the opening shot, this too is a full matte painting.

A multi part effects shot here as star Gene Barry leads his team through the Cambodian ruins.  The background behind the actors is a process projected matte painting, while the immediate foreground with the stone pile, columns and tree is another layer of matte art, possibly a glass painting nearer to the camera position.

A stunning matte painted vista with just a small pocket of live action with the actor in front of the headless buddha.  A beautiful, crisp matte that is used to great effect in CinemaScope.

Same view as seen later at night with more actors.

The getaway sequence is another multi part effects shot.  The airplane is a miniature, as is the distant set.  The immediate foreground appears to be a glass painting due to the transparency of the barrels with the wings visible through.  It was common in the older days to layer miniature set ups with glass paintings so as to maintain a depth of field not always possible with a 'deep set' and more so with the hefty anamorphic lenses and their wonky distortion and short focal length of the time.

The miniature plane takes off and just makes it over the mountain.

Miniatures at play:  massive jungle base goes up in flames

An emergency landing is unavoidable.

They promoted CHINA GATE on Angie Dickinson's long legs (and they weren't wrong), with much advertising stressing the point!


Alan Ladd was a solid, reliable leading man, and turned out some fine work, almost always for Paramount.  His one shortcoming - pun intended - was that the dude was very small of stature yet played tough guys who beat the crap out of the other guy, and I mean guys like Jack Palance for goodness sake, without raising a sweat.  Anyway, I like his films like THIS GUN FOR HIRE and SHANE, and although the movie illustrated here, THUNDER IN THE EAST (1953) is really small potatoes yet has enough action and double crossing to make it worthwhile.

Longtime Paramount visual effects man Gordon Jennings was head of department, though he would pass away not long after and his place would be filled with John P. Fulton.  For a time, Paramount would issue multiple screen credits for members of the Jennings effects team, as evidenced here where both matte painter Jan Domela and vfx cameraman Irmin Roberts also got their names up on screen.  Process chief Farciot Edouart had it in his contract that he always received screen credit, and according to Irmin Roberts' daughter, made damned sure everyone in the industry knew it!! 

Paramount matte artist, Netherlands born Jan Domela, shown here while working on a matte shot layout for a much earlier film, THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935) on location at Lone Pine, with Gary Cooper.
Set entirely in Afghanistan, though the city here is more known as Kandahar nowadays.

A Jan Domela matte painting serves as the establishing shot, complete with a tilt down added by matte cinematographer Irmin Roberts.

Most of the matte work appears in the opening sequence of THUNDER IN THE EAST (1953)

More matte work from the same sequence.

Both Domela and Roberts had a very, very long association with Paramount.  Both started at the studio in 1926 and would work together making mattes for close to 40 years!  Domela's last work was for the MAN FROM UNCLE tv series in the mid sixties, while Roberts' was assisting L.B Abbott on the Oscar winning effects for TORA!, TORA!, TORA in 1970.

Upper frames show more Domela matte art used as rear projection plates by Farciot Edouart's process unit.  Lower frames show miniature work by Ivyl Burks, the studios' model expert.

A dramatic plane crash at night, executed in miniature naturally, and worked in well with split screened extras running to the rescue.


In terms of NZ Pete's blog goes, this film is a very recent affair, albeit from 1994.  That's 'new' as far as my coverage is concerned.  FIRST KNIGHT was okay as best I can recall, with Sean Connery stealing the show hands down, and some exquisite design and rendering of the fabled Camelot made it worth a look.

FIRST KNIGHT (1994) was produced right at the end of the traditional era by most accounts, and as such was a mix of both traditional methods and new fangled digital gadgetry.  I include the movie as the matte work was largely the hand made variety as well as some lovely miniature work as well.  British visual effects man Dennis Lowe (top left and bottom left) was effects supervisor.  Dennis has had a most interesting and long career in the field, starting off as a fresh recruit with Brian Johnson and Nick Allder on the old TV series SPACE 1999 in the mid seventies.  As with many UK effects men, Dennis was versed in all manner of the SFX industry, working with miniatures, FX camera work, optical cinematography, mechanical devices, matte painting, motion control rigs and eventually into visual effects supervision.  Dennis worked on many prestige films such as the still brilliant ALIEN as well as the James Cameron sequel and scores of other films such as THE ENGLISH PATIENT and many more.  Leigh Took (top right) is another British effects man whose company Mattes and Miniatures has provided a multitude of effects and matte paintings for decades.  Leigh started off under veteran artist Cliff Culley's wing as a matte painter at Pinewood and Westbury Design in the late 1970's and painted on such films as WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS, BATMAN and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII among others.  

Four matte artists were engaged on FIRST KNIGHT, with this opening shot being a combination job that fell into several hands before a final approved shot was finalised.  See following for details...

The original location plate which Dennis Lowe found an ideal setting in Snowdonia, Wales, whereby he photographed a large 4x5 negative and had that blown up and mounted onto a very large plywood sheet for extensive matte painting enhancement.  This is the original Welsh valley, perfect for the scenario.

Matte painter Leigh Took then painted in the mythical Camelot in the distance directly over the photo blow up.

The previous painting by Leigh was for all intents and purposes complete and ready for filming when the director, Jerry Zucker, had as change of artistic heart and decided he wanted more localised villages and monuments identifiable to the period added in to the matte shot.  By this time Leigh Took was on another assignment elsewhere so effects boss Dennis Lowe designed and painted in substantial extensions to the landscape.  Dennis said:  "I took care of the many painted modifications myself and added the rest using photos of English villages and buildings that I thought the Americans would like, and merged them in".
Some detail from Leigh's original Camelot, which remained unaltered through to the final approved shot.

More of Leigh Took's detail.
Same, with part of Dennis Lowe's enhancements visible at bottom left.

Dennis designed and painted in these architectural details and made significant additions throughout the otherwise sparse landscape.  Dennis had painted mattes previously on films such as THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER - aka CROSSED SWORDS (1977) for Wally Veevers, and also Ridley Scott's ALIEN (1979) for which he painted all of the astronomical and planetary matte art, all to wonderful effect.

Some of the photo-collage approach used by Dennis to fill in some blank space with quaint little (20th Century!) English villages (there's even a car or two evident on close inspection).  Adding photographic elements atop traditional matte art was nothing new and had been done often by various practitioners over the years.

Close up with hand painted blending of photographic and actual painted structures.

Some of Lowe's hand painted Medieval enhancements.

Additional villages and hamlets added after the fact to satisfy director Jerry Zucker.

More of the same, though in the final cut you'd never know such 'surgery' had been carried out.

More detail

Last of the detailed close ups.

Among the other matte artists on the film was American Rocco Gioffre who I believe was called upon at the eleventh hour to render this night shot of Camelot.

Rocco's matte shot with Connery and co composited in.  FX supervisor Dennis Lowe mentioned:  "I don't have any info on Rocco's work as that may have been done after I left the picture.  I have a feeling that Walter Murch, when they were back in the States, may have suggested it, as there was a frantic rush to get the whole thing finished ... business as usual."

Another matte painter was brought in as well; Doug Ferris painted this shot and a later view of the same in disarray.  Dennis talked about this work:  "Yes, Dougie did the matte painting for the town of Leonesse down there in the Welsh valley.  I remember that matte cameraman John Grant was working with Cinesite at the time as a matte painting consultant and he composited all of Dougie's paintings at Shepperton for years so he pushed for Doug to do Leonesse.  We ended up retouching the digital composite afterwards to help with the blend."

Before and after with the partial set as constructed on location, and the finished composite with a splendid miniature of the city of Camelot.

Camelot in miniature.  Dennis Lowe:  "I got Jose Granell - who had left Magic Camera Company and started his own company by then - to build a section of Camelot which we could then rearrange the buildings and insert into the other digital matte paintings done at Cinesite.  We shot only stills of the elements at Shepperton Studios as there was no need for movie footage."
Miniature merged with partial live action facade.

Another vantage point.

Closer view seen later.  Exquisite miniature construction.

Close up detail of Jose Granell's wonderful miniature set.

Magnificent night shot, which apparently was a digital shot more the most part according to Dennis Lowe, done by Cinesite.  Incidentally, Dennis mentioned to me that this was the first Hollywood film, as best he can recall, that Cinesite had done in the UK, so they really pulled out all the stops, and he believes the crowd multiplication shots are still in their showreel.
Big boys toys...

Yet another company handled these courtyard composites, though Dennis can't recall which one.  Apparently the Cineon software they used was incredibly advance for it's time.

Another Doug Ferris traditional matte shot of the village of Leonesse in very dire straights.

Another view of Camelot.

More shots, though I'm not sure about the lower right shot - it might be real.  I don't normally mention 'digital' but seeing as we're on a temporary roll I'll let Dennis describe an interesting shot:  "I do vividly remember that at one of the pre-production meetings there was a problem that Richard Gere couldn't wield the large sword fast enough for a sword fight as it was rather oversized, so I suggested that they just give him the handle and we would replace the blade digitally.  The pay off to this idea was that Richard Gere would have to make the sword stop exactly as it met his foe's sword during a clash - which was real - and to the surprise of all the crew he actually did with no problems, with very few takes, thus he was able in the film to whisk the sword with ease - a true 'superman'."


Well, that's about it for this 'issue'.  We end on a sad note as I see that the wonderful Swedish actor Max von Sydow has just passed away, aged ninety.  An exceptional talent with so many fine performances under his belt - THE VIRGIN SPRING, THE EXORCIST and even FLASH GORDON, with my personal choice being Sydney Pollack's terrific thriller 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) as being his best work.  Nothing whatsoever to do with mattes or special effects I know, but hey.... whatcha gonna do?