Monday 25 January 2021

MATTE PAINTING REVIEW: A Selection Of Overlooked Films - Part Fourteen


Greetings folks.  It's a fresh year and much has happened in the world - to put it lightly - since we last connected, so the time is ripe indeed for some pleasant and illuminating diversion into the wonder-world of cinematic sleight-of-hand.  I'm sure all of my readers would agree!  I know full well how rough things have been for a great many of you, so if this blog can in any way provide some respite and 'time out', then you're welcome!

As is my field of interest, I've put together a varied cross section of motion pictures from a number of studios as well as diverse decades.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  In addition to the usual mixed bag of cinematic treasures, which include a pair of massive super wide-screen 70mm roadshow films and a couple of very much lesser known old black and white shows from the 1940's that are not without merit both in entertainment value and creative effects technicality. 

I have included another in my Blast From The Past series, after a brief hiatus, where we pay tribute to another of the movie worlds veteran matte and trick shot exponents which I hope you enjoy.  

But first...

A Most Curious, Yet Timely Discovery:

In sifting through my files I came across an old MGM matte painting produced by one of Warren Newcombe's artists, rendered in pastel, probably from the early 1940's. The intended shot appears to represent a vast military presence of some sort in Washington DC, though what the film is, I have no idea.  Given the recent chaos at the US Capitol building that was witnessed across the globe just a week or so ago, this matte seems pertinent. If anybody can identify the film, let me know.


A Blast From The Past:  CLIFF CULLEY

British effects artist and matte painter, Cliff Culley was one of those largely unsung and to a great extent, invisible trick shot heroes of the UK film industry, in a career spanning some five decades no less.  Cliff began his very long career as a scenic artist - as most matte exponents of the day in fact did - with the famous J.Arthur Rank organisation based at Denham and Pinewood studios in 1946.  
The Rank special effects department at the time was a busy one, with a considerable number of able and very talented technicians applying their individual specialties.  Their were such effects men as supervising Effects Cameraman Henry Harris; Schuftan Process and general special effects expert Bill Warrington; Physical Effects man Jimmy Snow; Model Maker Douglas Woolsey; Miniatures Cinematographer Bert Marshall; Travelling Matte Cameramen Bryan Langley and Vic Margutti; Matte Painting Cinematographer Wally Gentleman; All round visual effects maestro Filippo Guidobaldi; as well as a number of matte painters working under the departmental oversight of Joan Suttie and later Les Bowie.  Cliff Culley was one such matte painter, and virtually all his lengthy career would be based on the Pinewood Studio lot.

The matte department was for some years run by Les Bowie, under whom worked Cliff together with Albert Whitlock and Peter Melrose.  Later on other artists joined such as Bob Bell and Charles Stoneham, as well as future art director Stephen Grimes, Alan Maley and future well known effects man John Stears. After Bowie left to go independent, Bill Warrington would take charge of the whole Rank effects machine, and although not a matte artist himself, would have final say on all matters matte, and get on screen credit, which would rankle the other technicians (*see special published apology later in this article).
Cliff would also work alongside famous matte maestro, the great Peter Ellenshaw on the enormous matte showcase that was Disney's IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962), with the huge roster of mattes and composite photography being carried out at Pinewood, with the results ranking among the best - and biggest - of all the Disney films in my book.
Around 1973 Cliff set up his own visual effects company, Westbury Design & Optical, situated right there on the Pinewood lot.  I believe this later shifted elsewhere.  He was in constant demand and would provide his services to films as diverse as ZARDOZ, SHOUT AT THE DEVIL, DOCTOR WHO through to CLASH OF THE TITANS among many others.  Cliff retired from the movie business in 1999 after an incredible 52 years in visual effects.

A Scrapbook of Cliff Culley Matte Moments:

A wonderful, and rare studio portrait taken in 1963 shows Cliff adding finishing touches to his beautifully ornate ceiling matte extension for the James Bond film FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. British visual effects supervisor of several more recent 007 adventures (and dare I say it, a big fan of this very blog), Steve Begg, had this recollection: "I worked with Cliff a couple of times [as a young matte painter], and they did indeed do a front-lit pass of the painting, with the live-action area clear glass with black behind, then with the film rewound in the matte camera and a white cyc lit behind the glass and the painting in silhouette, a bi-packed interpositive of the live-action was exposed onto the camera neg using the white backing as a printing light. That's what I think I remember.  Leigh, is that your recollection?".  Fellow Brit matte painter and miniatures veteran, Leigh Took was also one of 'Cliff's boys', and had this response:  "That’s a great shot of my boss, Cliff. One of my first jobs for Cliff as his assistant was to stipple glasses with several layers of black emulsion with a pad of mutton cloth this would be then scraped with a blade to smooth out any nobly bits and then repeat the process with white emulsion ready for delineation.  Great times indeed. Mainly bi-packed colour separations a long process. And that lovely gearbox motor on the right would be grinding away all day. I can hear it now!"

The final, now iconic shot in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)

Cliff worked on so many films, with rarely ever a screen credit.  This is just one such show, the excellent war picture SEA OF SAND (1958)

Pinewood had a stable of artists who would come and go over the years.  Other painters included Bob Bell and Charles Stoneham.  Peter Melrose was another who moved around various studios and eventually went freelance.  Peter painted on this film, THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957) alongside Cliff, so it could have been either artist?

Also from THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL is this excellent shot which I suspect could be either a hanging miniature or a foreground glass shot, given the crispness of the 'effect area'?  The far background action appears to be a separate element added in?  The film was loaded with many matte shots, some of which looked like retouched or hand coloured photographs - not an unusual thing as many studios did that as a time saver by the 1950's.

Some rare before and after frames from the Alan Ladd period piece THE BLACK KNIGHT (1954).  Another film with a load of matte shots.  Albert Whitlock may still have been at Pinewood then so he may have also had a hand in it.

More BLACK KNIGHT frames in Technicolor and VistaVision.

I've a soft spot for old time comics, and the crazy Norman Wisdom madcap adventures were, and remain, pretty funny.  These are two of the mattes from THE BULLDOG BREED (1960)

Arguably Cliff's finest matte work was seen in the huge blockbuster KHARTOUM (1966).
A rare behind the scenes look at a block in and test composite for THE TALE OF TWO CITIES (1958)

Another of the many agreeably insane Norman Wisdom comedies, with this one being THE EARLY BIRD (1965) which featured a number of clever miniature set ups, mattes and cel animated gags such as this bit where hapless Norman crashes the firetruck into the (painted) building and giant cracks spread all up the frontage.  Funny movie, with Cliff actually getting a screen credit for 'Special Matte Effects'!

This shot from the first Bond film DR NO (1962) is a next to invisible set extension where Cliff has painted in all of the upper part of the set.  Culley worked on all of the 007 movies up to and including On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and after a spell came back a few years later to do some small scale matte work on Man With The Golden Gun as well as some cel animated gags on Octopussy and The Spy Who Loved Me. 

One of my favourite films, the terrific Richard Attenborough starrer GUNS AT BATASI (1964). A wonderfully acted, directed and photographed piece set in an unnamed African colonial outpost where a coup de tat is under way.  All shot in England of course with Cliff augmenting UK landscapes with subtle painted 'African' scenery.  Great movie!

I well recall my grandma taking me to see CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) at the now long gone Embassy theatre in downtown Auckland, in 70mm, magnetic track stereo no less.  I recall the day out as vividly as if it were yesterday, yet I can't for the life of me remember what my friggen passwords are for any damned thing!!  Go figure!  Anyway, I digress..... live action composite here with beautiful Culley painted sky and hilltops, with miniature airship.  Cliff got on screen credit too!

Matte set up at Pinewood for another of the CHITTY shots.  Shown at top is Cliff in pale sweater adding final touches to his glass painting, while matte cinematographer Roy Field mans the huge 65mm camera and an unidentified projectionist mans the 65mm rear screen process projector.  

The very popular Carry On series also required Culley's expertise as seen in this frame from CARRY ON CLEO (1966).  The shot is interesting as it appears mostly be a huge painted cyclorama with just the middle temple bit being matte art, and by the looks of it, done as an in camera foreground glass shot.

Another from the Carry On series - FOLLOW THAT CAMEL.

The spy spoof HOT ENOUGH FOR JUNE (1963) was titled AGENT 8 3/4 in the US.

The action adventure NORTHWEST FRONTIER (1959) - aka FLAME OVER INDIA had this exciting sequence atop a busted rail viaduct, done as matte art and actors combined through travelling mattes.

A sorely overlooked war bio-pic, OMAR MUKHTAR-THE LION OF THE DESERT (1979) was an extremely impressive, big budget spectacular with Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed and the always completely over-the-top Rod Steiger (as Mussolini!).  Massive action set pieces, stunts and physical effects, it's a film many have never heard of but is well worth seeking out.  Cliff supplied a pair of quick mattes of this vast refugee camp stretching far into the desert.

As I said, I have a soft spot for old time comics, with Bob Hope being one such entity.  CALL ME BWANA (1963) was pretty weak, though it did feature the gorgeous Anita Ekberg, so that's enough reason to sit through it!
Cliff's company Westbury Design & Optical handled all of the special miniature work for Ray Harryhausen's CLASH OF THE TITANS (1979).  Cliff's son, Neil Culley, is seen here photographing the impressive deluge.

CLASH OF THE TITANS flood with bluescreen performers added in by Frank van Der Veer.

A Culley matte shot from CLASH OF THE TITANS.

Arguably one of the very best James Bond pictures was ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), which even with a change of lead man still hit the spot and delivered.  A tough, no shit, kick-'em-in-the-balls style of Bond that even Connery hadn't ventured into.  This is one of many mattes and visual effects from the film.  Interestingly, I think Cliff painted the mattes for this one 'squeezed', as evidenced by photos I've seen (the pic at right I've un-squeezed for this blog).  Presumably to enable the matte art to be photographed with superior spherical lenses and allow later scope stretch to 2.35:1

A couple more OHMSS mattes, with the lower one being the perfect invisible trick that nobody ever notices.  The small village far below has been painted in by Cliff, and speaking of 'cliffs', the safety cable on the stuntman's leg is very visible in this action bit.  The film, though a tad overlong, was a very satisfying experience.  Lazenby was surprisingly good and could have made a couple more (wish he had), Telly Savalas was wonderful as ever, Diana Rigg was a stunner, Peter Hunt's direction and John Glen's very 'Hunt inspired' rapid, almost violent action cutting was fantastic, but best of all was the breathtaking score by John Barry - arguably his best in the series.  Sorry guys, you can keep Daniel Craig (easily the least impressive 007 by a country mile), with not a scene being memorable from any of his Bond films, whereas I can recall so much from all my faves.

Another great little British flick many would not have heard of - THE LONG HAUL (1957) starring Victor Mature and Diana Dors.  One of several UK 'trucking' thrillers made around that time (another great one being the incredible HELL DRIVERS, made the same year.  See it now!!).  Here is a sensational full matte painting which features near the action packed climax.  

I'd seen the film several times but never spotted this matte shot until Dave Worrall, editor of Cinema Retro magazine (a must read!) told me and sent me a shot.  WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL (1971) with  an actual Scottish castle (that's by a lake in reality) that has been altered via Culley matte art to make it atop a sheer rocky clifftop.  Genius.

A superbly rendered Old Bailey courtroom matte from the Sean Connery drama WOMAN OF STRAW (1964).  Incidentally, Sean and Cliff were good mates and would often play golf together once the day's shooting had been completed at Pinewood.
One of the best James Bond films to my mind was YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967).  My father took me to see it as a kid and I well recall later having nightmares over the opening sequence in space where the bad spaceship chomps through the air supply of the NASA astronaut, letting him float helplessly away, and then this 'bad' spaceship literally swallows the NASA rocket.  Really shook me up as a young fella. Although, as a kid at the time of the first release, I knew nothing about trick effects, it was upon subsequent viewings in 35mm, 16mm and TV that the sequence really showed up the worst examples of 'garbage matting' - that is, a common procedure where optical patches are applied to omit or conceal undesired artifacts from the original composite photography - where in this YOLT sequence they popped up all over the screen in very visible 'repairs'.  Later DVD and BluRay don't seem to show this annoying artifact. maybe thanks to tighter control over the contrast of 'black' effects shots in the remastering process?

I've contributed a few articles to Dave Worrall's wonderful mag, Cinema Retro over the years and he was kind enough to send me this wonderful pic he took when he visited Cliff Culley's matte studio at Pinewood quite a number of years back.  Dave remembered Cliff as being a really nice guy and fun to be around.  This painting is interesting as it's one of just 4 remaining Culley paintings that are known to exist.  Eon, the producers of 007 apparently have this and three others in their offices (one of them is a CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG matte, which Eon also produced).  The sequence in the final film only ever uses the middle part of this matte for some reason, as a close up.  Perhaps the proposed long shot was dropped during editing?

Another grand view, entirely painted, from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.  Incidentally, this too had the most sublime score by John Barry, and beautiful Nancy Sinatra theme song to boot.  Love it!

As mentioned earlier, an apology was forthcoming:  The Pinewood studio effects team were miffed at being omitted from not only official screen credits but from all mention in the British industry journal Cine Technician, where boss, Bill Warrington was always the one and only FX kudos in print form.  This probably dates from around 1957 or so.

In the late 70's Cliff had a new apprentice, Leigh Took, and the pair of them would paint mattes and provide miniatures on a myriad of films such as WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS (1978)

Another of the spectacle films Cliff worked on was ARABIAN ADVENTURE (1978) which had many matte shots, models and some clever process combinations.

A couple of barely detectable mattes from the Brook Shields adventure film SAHARA (1983).  There were also a couple of other mattes that were supplied by Mark Sullivan and Jim Danforth.

In the mid seventies, the Disney organisation produced several pictures entirely in the United Kingdom, using all British talent.  This is one of several Culley shots from ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING (1975).

From the same film is this neat, almost entirely painted interior of The British Museum, circa 1920.

From the popular Peter Sellers series THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976).

Scenes of spectacle from the made for tv mini-series THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, with assistant Leigh Took helping out on the large number of shots, and Cliff's son Neil on fx camera duties.

Preparations for an in camera painted glass shot, made on the Pinewood back lot.  See below...

A revealing look at the set up for the foreground glass shot.  That's Cliff at the 35mm camera, lining up the matte art with the partial set, and Cliff's son Neil as effects cameraman shown observing at left.

Some mattes from another mini-series for American television, PETER THE GREAT, from the 1990's.  Note the wonderful Winter Palace painting shown top left.

Now here's a film that featured some mind boggling visual effects - and most impressive they were at that.  The film was HELLBOUND-HELLRAISER 2 (1988).  These scenes were highly imaginative in design and supremely well executed by Culley and his team. 

Another bizarre set piece from HELLBOUND-HELLRAISER 2.

While we're on extreme and utterly insane films, we can't for a moment omit the psychotic nightmare that was NIGHT BREED (1990) which I covered in detail in a previous blog.  Tons of excellent matte painted shots and optical combination work.  This is a great look at the way things were done, from the conceptual artwork, plate photography through to the finished composite.  Assisting Cliff on this mammoth matte show was former Pinewood matte painter Bob Bell, and a young trainee, Terry Adlam.

I think this might have been Cliff's final film, or certainly near to it.  RESTORATION (1995) was a rollicking, sumptuous, bawdy, 17th Century, bodice ripper of a yarn if ever there were one.

So now, on with todays topic - the overlooked films.....


SPARTACUS, made in 1960, is one of those films that improves with age, and is far more than the 'sword and sandals' epic one might believe, thanks in no small part to a superb, literate and intelligent script by Dalton Trumbo - who thanks to the power of star/producer Kirk Douglas was hired and credited despite his 'blacklisted' status as a result of the paranoid Red Scare. The perfect cast of veteran actors  compliment the wonderfully penned dialogue.  While the film is really Kirk Douglas' show - and great he is - the support cast absolutely make the film.  Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and best of all the unforgettable Charles Laughton who gets all the best lines.  So good is the writing that one hangs on every spoken word.  Terrific.

I'm a big fan of Stanley Kubrick, and rank several of his films as all time classics.  PATHS OF GLORY, THE KILLING, BARRY LYNDON and especially the brilliant DR STRANGELOVE - a film that gets better every year.  SPARTACUS was never a favourite for its director, with him really just being a 'director for hire' (and replacing the original helmer, Anthony Mann), though I feel the film is exceptional, and ranks as among the very finest of the big budget Roman-Biblical genre.  Beautifully photographed by Russell Metty in the high fidelity large format Super-Technirama 70mm.

The legendary Saul Bass was title designer and overall visual consultant.

SPARTACUS contained a number of matte shots, with all bar one (above) executed in house at Universal Studios.  The shot above is perhaps the most recognised and deservedly so.  For some reason, this shot was farmed out to Disney Studios where Peter Ellenshaw ran the matte department.  According to FX cameramen Bill Taylor and Craig Barron, this view of Rome was initially handed on to Peter's assistant, Albert Whitlock, to paint, though for whatever reason Albert only progressed so far - maybe just blocking it in - with Ellenshaw taking it over and completing it.  Both Taylor and Barron mentioned to me that the finished matte as a whole is unquestionably Ellenshaw in style, technique and composition.

Ellenshaws' magnificent piece as it still looks today.  The glass had cracked at some point and great care was needed to repair the delicate matte which was recently donated (or loaned?) by the Ellenshaw family to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Peter inspects his one and only non-Disney matte painting at his California home in the mid 90's.  The lower right pic shows Peter examining a tiny fragment of the original 35mm live action plate (shown top right) as shot on the Universal backlot.

So much to admire..... Modern era matte pro's Christopher Evans (left) and Craig Barron show great admiration for the Ellenshaw masterpiece, and who wouldn't?

Detail with that definitive Ellenshaw feeling of backlight and subtle silhouettes. Fantastic.

More wonderful detail.

You can see some cracks in the glass here.  An occupational hazard with the artform.

As mentioned, the remainder of the mattes were Universal renderings, with Russell Lawson being long time resident matte artist, a position he held from as far back as the 1930's on shows like THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Lawson retired a couple of years after SPARTACUS when he inherited a fortune.  Albert Whitlock jumped at the chance to head up a matte department of his own, so departed the Ellenshaw department at Disney and got the job at Universal.  The rest, as they say, is history.  For the above shot, the matte line runs across the screen just above Olivier's head.

A curious shot this one.  The matted in portion (much of the frame) seems to have multiple layers, with the background and distant sky on different focal planes than the main painted section with temples etc.  May be dual glasses, which is something evident in a number of old Universal films.  Quite why they did this is unknown?

Previous incarnations of SPARTACUS were poorly timed, with the matte comps looking very unnatural.  Old TV prints, VHS and even DVD's never looked satisfactory.  These frames have been taken from the remastered and restored BluRay, which literally looks (and sounds) a million dollars.  It's out on 4K UHD too, which I bet looks mind blowing indeed, though no good to me nor my home theatre set up, sadly  :(

For a three hour and fifteen minute epic there is rarely a dull moment.  Just the unwelcomed and likely front office mandated 'commercial' love interest kind of bogs things down.  Other than that, it remains a tremendous and thrilling epic.

There was no special effects credit on the film, though I know Clifford Stine (who did get an 'additional photography' credit) handled some split screen photographic effects to greatly expand crowd and army numbers, and rather skillfully.  I'm sure this shot is a complex one with painted upper half of the frame - complete with tiny flaming torches slot gags - coupled with a carefully replicated crowd of extras greatly expanded in number via soft splits.  I read about that in a Kubrick book many years ago.

An ambitious shot where most of the frame has been painted in.  Many little 'movement' slot gags are evident in the avenues between the troops barracks, bringing subtle life to an otherwise static shot.  Veteran Universal matte cinematographer Ross Hoffman would have photographed all of Lawson's mattes and orchestrated the various gags.  Hoffman has been highlighted many times in my blogs as a vital member of Universal's photographic effects department, having worked there as far back as the original INVISIBLE MAN in the early 1930's, right through to EARTHQUAKE in 1974.  Hoffman handled all matte photography and travelling matte optical composite work.

Kirk surveys his mighty army, not realising that the majority of them are mere Lawson matte art.

I've deliberately adjusted this frame so as to see the painted half of the frame, again with numerous slot gags introduced to simulate fires etc.

A subsequent cut shows the encampment from a closer vantage point.

Now, these frames are of interest.  The vast approaching Roman army of Larry Olivier is in fact a trick shot accomplished with a moving optical split which basically uses the same mass of extras twice over.  Clifford Stine is documented as having done this work.  Stine started in Hollywood in the silent era and was an old time effects man and had been a VFX cameraman back at RKO on things like KING KONG and many other films.  Later on, Clifford came over to Universal and for a time was a production D.O.P and then again was drawn back into trick photography on memorable films like THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and TARANTULA.  Even post retirement Stine was tempted back to the studio to shoot miniatures (superbly) for the Oscar winning EARTHQUAKE.  Cliff's brother Harold was also an effects cameraman. 

In a later cut it appears that the background Roman battalion are either a freeze-frame split screened with the actual mobile extras in front, or the background players may be painted entirely? I wouldn't be the least surprised if the nearest mass group of slave warriors were the same extras matted again.

While SPARTACUS remains notable for a great many reasons, the savage battle sequences are indeed a thing to behold.  Superb choreography and fearless stunt work as flaming rollers are unleashed upon the Roman centurions, completely obliterating them in the process.  We can see the asbestos masks and gloves in freeze frame, but when viewed in motion the scenes are harrowing to watch.

Of course, nobody knew about asbestosis back then.

A memorable shot that probably rankled censors in various territories shows Kirk hack the arm off of a Roman soldier - complete with spurts of arterial blood. Bold for it's time.  I believe that Project Unlimited had some involvement with the film with both Don Sahlin and Wah Chang listed on IMDB for 'creator of forced perspective figures', presumably for the masses of dead on the battlefield after the monumental arse-kicking.

The final matte shot in the film... Oh the humanity!

And the 'Dorothy Lamour' honourary award goes to..... Jean Simmons - superfluous as she was to the progression of the narrative.

The Jean Simmons bathing scene was quite bold, though these rare publicity photos are extraordinarily frank for 1960.  I just felt compelled to include 'em....entirely out of respect for Stanley you understand (!) 


As I said, I have a definite affection for the old time comics.  I love the films of W.C Fields, The Marx Brothers (a huge fan of the Marx's), Bob Hope, Oleson & Johnson, and Jack Benny, who headlines here in THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT (1945).

The crazy slapstick story required a multitude of visual effects that ran the gamut of matte art, miniatures, optical trickery, process and some amazingly complex camera moves with all of the above in the one shot!  Luckily, the film was produced by Warner Bros who were certainly up to the task.  The famous Stage 5 special effects unit were definitely no slackers when it came to creativity and problem solving.  Warners had one of the biggest trick departments in Hollywood with everything self contained.  For this movie, Lawrence W. Butler (upper left) was effects director.  Larry's father, William, was an optical effects technician at Warners, with the younger Butler already assisting his father at the tender age of just 15 on films such as NOAH'S ARK .  Much later Larry was chosen by the legendary Ned Mann to train as his assistant, with both shifting across to England to work for Alexander Korda.  Also pictured here is Hans 'Koney' Koenekamp (middle) - a top notch trick shot specialist who made hundreds of effects shots for Warners over his long career, with such films as NOAH'S ARK, THE LOST WORLD, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and a particular vfx favourite of mine, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS - a film that Koenekamp himself was apparently most proud of.      Also pictured above is Edwin DuPar (right) - one of the greats among Hollywood effects cinematographers.  Among Ed's memorable achievements were the gargantuan FX show PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE and an all out classic in my book, the incredible YANKEE DOODLE DANDY - with it's central bit of movie magic still an absolute jaw dropper for me.

A view inside the legendary Stage 5 special effects stage at Warners.  Fred Jackman established the unit in the 1920's and many notable technicians and artists worked within those hallowed walls.  Some of these names being Jack Cosgrove, Roy Davidson, Byron Haskin, Chesley Bonestell, Paul Detlefsen and William McGann

Oddly, it was directed by Raoul Walsh.  Not a name I'd link with slapstick shenanigans.  More with tough guy westerns and war pictures.

The first of numerous mattes, though I'm sure I've seen this shot in other films - possibly from other studios?

The basic plot involves an angel sent down to Earth to, well, end life as we know it, by blowing this confounded trumpet precisely at midnight!  I never said it was high brow, but it is pretty amusing, largely thanks to it's star.

Part of the massive tilt up and dolly in toward Heaven.

The Warner Bros creative team were absolute genius when it came to complex motion shots such as this.  It was very rare indeed to see such bold photographic trickery from the other studios, and when attempted it was never a patch on the Stage 5 expertise.  Beautifully rendered matte art here with what I assume to be a perfectly blended rear projection plate of the Heavenly conductor atop the clouds. 

Chesley Bonestell was matte artist on this show to some extent, and a I'm sure Mario Larrinaga, Louis Litchtenfield and chief artist Paul Detlefsen must have had a hand in.

Jack Benny as our somewhat bored and 'tone deaf' angelic trumpeter.

The opening frames from an astonishingly well executed visual effects sequence that I'm still trying to figure out!  The conductor and his massive heavenly choir and orchestra, all in full concert...

...and in one arresting single camera move, we sweep up and over the conductor, over the heads of the choir and orchestra - all of whom are in full motion with violins and bows and the rest of it - while the camera finally comes to rest on the face of our hero with his out of tune trumpet.  Hard to describe to do it justice, but it's an absolute stunner of technical mastery that still has me baffled.
Each figure moves independently of each other...

Blurred due to original camera move sweeping across 'orchestra'.

Warner Bros successfully pulled off similar complicated camera gags in many films, particularly in the 1940's, which was the heyday of such inventive work.  Other films like THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN, RHAPSODY IN BLUE, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, SVENGALI and of course THE FOUNTAINHEAD all contained miraculous and dazzling work of this nature.  No other studio was as adept as were Warners.

Matte set extensions.

Our angel Benny is sent down to Earth via some cosmic elevator.

Likely matte set top up.

A multi-plane effects shot with flickering neons, a dolly in camera move and live action atop the building.

Dramatic camera move ending with Jack Benny coming out of rooftop doorway.  Impressive shot.

I presume the main building to be a large miniature, with process projected live action.

Matte painted set extension.

So starts an utterly madcap rooftop escapade.

The street views are very cool.  Presumably large miniature for the down views, with model cars attached to some sort of conveyor belt mechanism.

Considerable mayhem as Jack Benny does all he can to save his precious trumpet, which at midnight must be played to bring the planet to oblivion.

Painted matte.

More characters become entangled in Benny's scheme, which of course is a dismal failure.  Great miniature, matte and process work.  Also part of the effects unit on this film were William McGann and Warren Lynch.  Robert Burks was one of the miniatures cameramen and would go on to a solid career later as a production D.O.P on films such as HOUSE OF WAX, Hitchcock's THE BIRDS and NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

Several characters are hanging daisy chain style from each other in a wild puppet set piece.

If it all starts to resemble the climax of Stanley Kramer's IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD - well hold on to your hats friends, as that film is covered next in this blog, and I'm sure Kramer got his ideas from this show.

'No comedians were injured during the making of this film'.


From one wild, unleashed comedy to another.  Stanley Kramer's behemoth of a raucous laugh-fest, IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1962) had a cast of every known comedy star - and a few new to the genre - going through the motions of what amounted to a gigantic three hour plus chase for some stolen loot.  The comedy is broad, though the action is plentiful and packed with outrageous stunts, pratfalls, gags and some amazing effects work that ranged from thrilling physical effects by Danny Lee, optical combinations by Linwood Dunn and Bill Reinhold, effects cinematography by James Gordon, miniatures by Howard Lydecker and Marcel Delgado, mattes by Howard Fisher and Cliff Silsby and stop motion by Jim Danforth and Marcel Vercoutere, all operating under the banner of Film Effects of Hollywood.

Founder of Film Effects of Hollywood, Linwood Dunn (left & middle) with associate James B. Gordon (right).  Cecil Love and Don Weed were also co-founders. The company was established by Dunn, Love and Weed after RKO shut down it's operation in the 1950's.

Matte painter Howard Fisher is shown here at work on the high rise matte.  Howard was one of the old timers of the industry, having worked mainly at MGM in Warren Newcombe's matte department for decades.  Howard began with Newcombe as far back as 1933 and was considered one of the most senior painters.  Among the scores of films Howard painted on were GREEN DOLPHIN STREET, where according to Jim Danforth, who knew Howard, he would add little jokes into his mattes such as dogs copulating in some of the GREEN DOLPHIN mattes (though I've never managed to spot them).  Most famously, Fisher painted the amazing show stopping matte in FORBIDDEN PLANET of that massive underground power plant that everyone remembers.  In later years Howard would work for Film Effects of Hollywood alongside another veteran from days gone by, Cliff Silsby.

Some insider glimpses of the Film Effects of Hollywood facility. Top left we can see Linwood Dunn and James B. Gordon with other crew members.  Top right has Howard Lydecker crouching, Jim Danforth atop the ladder and Marcel Vercoutere on the right.  Bottom left is the matte stand with 65mm camera set up in operation.  Bottom right we see founder Linwood Dunn with director of effects photography James B. Gordon in front of a large miniature set.

Film Effects co-founders Lin Dunn and Cecil Love.  Both men had a lengthy career in optical cinematography going back as far as the old RKO era with KING KONG and films like CITIZEN KANE.  Love was instrumental in designing and building a then state of the art optical printer to Dunn's specifications, which became an industry staple for many decades.  Here the two men are shown shooting the titles for WEST SIDE STORY, in what appears to be large format 65mm.

James B. Gordon (second from right) had a long career in optical cinematography, for the most part at 20th Century Fox, under Fred Sersen, Ray Kellogg and Bill Abbott.  Gordon was responsible for hundreds of unique and outstanding optical puzzles at Fox, where a favourite gag was to drop live action figures into miniature action of scenes of destruction such as THE BLACK SWAN, THE RAINS CAME, HELL AND HIGH WATER and many more.  A Fox specialty.

A young Jim Danforth concentrates on the stop motion action climax, assisted by Marcel Vercoutere.  *Photo from Jim's vital career memoir 'Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama'.

It was a film that never really knew when to quit, and tended to overstay it's very lengthy welcome.

The film was shot in Ultra-Panavision, which was 65mm with a 25% anamorphic squeeze, allowing high quality optics on the large negative and a wider than normal 'scope' presentation when projected unsqueezed at 2.76:1.  This looked good in it's true ratio but was absolutely dire when viewed on TV or VHS, with two thirds of the action missing.  I'm sure the current digital generation have no idea what I'm talking about (?)

For the most part, the film was almost devoid of photographic effects, with the first 9 or 10 reels being non-stop mechanical effects and mayhem.  There were the requisite process shots supplied by Farciot Edouart and Irmin Roberts, as well as a couple of invisible optical 'fix' jobs where Dunn was required to make optical mattes in the printer to alter some mistimed physical destruction that did not go according to plan when the cameras rolled (the gas station destruction as I recall). It wasn't until the last reel where visual effects kicked in.  This was the first matte shot, shown above with the pre-production artwork where an upper floor and windows were required.

The first matte painted shot may be more than just the upper floor, with the wall at left possibly also matte art.

The big money shot occurs at the start of the stunt packed climax atop a high rise building.  Here is the initial design and layout as well as a photo of artist Howard Fisher's beautifully detailed matte.

The matte as it appears in the film starts off as a close up on an actual partial set built on the Universal Studios backlot, and rapidly zooms out to reveal the full extent of the perilous situation.

Far more than a straight matte shot, as you will see below with the breakdown of individual elements.

The matte shot above comprised around seven different live action components as well as the painting itself, all assembled in 65mm on the Film Effects optical printer, which in itself, was a mammoth task given the system used at the facility.  Using the then standard method of colour separation masters, each of the live action elements required three separate passes - as yellow, cyan and magenta - each run in bi-pack with appropriate red, blue and green filters. Some twenty one separate exposures were required overall.

The matte was painted on a large, five foot wide sheet of hardboard, or Masonite as the Americans refer to it.  In my extensive oral history blog back in 2012 with Matthew Yuricich, I asked him about Howard Fisher, with whom he had worked at MGM:  "Howard was a really nice guy… he was an MGM matte artist and also one of the nicest guys you’d ever find – a very nice gentleman.  Howard must have been around 65 back in 1955. They hired Howard away from some other studio.  There was a lot of jealousy in those days."

Close up of Howard's detail work.  Friend and coworker, Matt Yuricich referred to Fisher as "a photo realist" in his style and approach.

I'm not sure about this photo.  It doesn't appear to be a matte block in due to the sheer size (note the studio lamp at right plus the notation 36" on one of the buildings).  I'm thinking it was the early stage of prepping a large painted backing for the stop motion work perhaps.

Matte shot with live action filmed on the Universal lot combined with painted in skyline.

Here's one of those cool finds that nobody ever spots until high def BluRay allows us to notice things not previously visible.  A seemingly straight production shot looking down at the plaza is in fact a 3 part matte shot.  Painted in store frontages at left, live action mid section filmed at Universal, and a matte painted street, cars, people and shops at right.  Cool, huh?  I live to discover shots like this.  See below...

Blow up of the left side of the frame.

...and the matted in right side of the frame.

A wonderful and rare image of an incomplete test for a major effects shot.  The performers on the mock up set at Universal have been split screened into a live action plate of Los Angeles, with a rough block in of what will become a matte painted section that will blend the two live plates.  See below...

The block in for the matte art that will ultimately blend the studio action with the 2nd unit cityscape.

The final shot as it appears in the film with perfect join and invisible intermediate matte art.

Not sure, but looks like a distant building may be painted into this shot?

Another view of the stunt action with another matte rendered to blend in.  I spoke with Jim Danforth about this:  "In this frame the comedians are real and were filmed on the set at Universal.  The wall of the building extending to the left appears painted.  I don't  remember how many storeys of the building at Universal we constructed.  I'm guessing that part of the building below the comedians was painted.  Obviously, the street traffic is real.  My guess is that the brick building to the right of the real building is painted (and the entire city may be).  I think this shot was completed before I started at Film Effects".

This angle may have entirely painted cityscape matted in?  Shades of THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT me thinks?

A revealing behind the scenes look at just how much skill went into executing these shots, that for the most part, were invisible to the audience.  I asked Jim Danforth, and his remarkable memory recalled the manner in which this was composited:  "The scene is live, filmed on the set at Universal with a matte split to a painted distant cityscape.  The Film Effects / Fox duping system made it possible to have the delicate iron work extend into the sky area.  In some scenes the artists penciled in 'ghost' images of the fire escape on the duping board in order to increase the black density of the fire escape iron work".

The Ultra Panavision frame.  Cliff Silsby was also matte painter on the film.  Cliff was another old timer who's career stretched back to the old days at Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox.  Famed matte artist Matthew Yuricich told me that he had fond memories of Cliff when at Fox in the early 50's.  He described Silsby as "a mousy little guy, a good matte painter who would take it all personally", especially when their boss Emil Kosa got on his back and bugged him, as he habitually did with all of his matte artists at Fox.

I enlarged a BluRay frame to show the extensive matte art.

An extensive matte painted shot with miniature action.  I was communicating with Jim Danforth a few years ago about the mattes in MAD WORLD and asked him about this curious looking shot:  "The perspective of the primary building is off compared to the buildings on the right and left.  Note that the verticals of the painted buildings at the far right are almost a true vertical whereas the primary (miniature) building is greatly canted clockwise, as though drawn to a three-point perspective, and yet, the buildings farther to the left of center are not canted as far.  This is a scene with multiple vanishing points (which rarely happens in life).  The fire engine ladder is a stop-motion miniature as I recall, and the people on the fire escape balcony are stop-motion puppets".

In an interview for American Cinematographer, Dunn revealed that some 25 matte paintings were required for all of the action shots involving the fire escape and ladder sequences, with almost all views of the buildings, surrounds and city being rendered by Howard Fisher and Cliff Silsby at Film Effects of Hollywood.

Behind the scenes stop motion.  * Pics are from Jim Danforth's memoir: Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama

*I have copies of these pics from the old American Cinematographer magazine but decided to substitute same better quality images from Jim Danforth's Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama - volume one, which I recommend to anyone fascinated in 'old school' special effects.  Jim discusses MAD WORLD in depth, among much else.

*From Jim Danforth's Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama.

Miniature with stop motion.  Initially, the legendary Willis O'Brien was assigned to design and animate these sequences but sadly passed away during pre-production.  Jim Danforth - himself a massive fan of O'Bie - came on board and took over animation chores, with the experience being, according to Jim, one of the most enjoyable of his career.  Also on the stop motion was Marcel Vercoutere, and according to some sources, articulated puppet builder Marcel Delgado did some animation, which ultimately wasn't used.

Miniatures coordinator on the film was another full on legend in the field, Howard Lydecker.  Howard had decades of experience along with his brother Theodore, at the old Republic Studios, where, despite the unavoidable cost cutting that a second tier studio had to live with, the Lydeckers constantly produced incredibly realistic miniature effects that still look great today, due in no small part to excellent photography out of doors in actual daylight, something not common at the time.  So many of the newer generation of effects men owed their lot to the Lydecker brothers and their no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to making terrific model shots.  Apparently, on the MAD WORLD shoot, Howard and Linwood would clash over differing approaches to achieve shots, with Lydecker figuring upon a no-nonsense, practical means while Dunn preferred to orchestrate a complicated, multi-element optical solution. Some ill feeling developed, resulting in Lydecker walking off the shoot with a simple "Well, it's time I went fishing" as a form of resignation, and off he went, never to return.

Carey Loftin's stunt team bounce off the power lines at the conclusion.  Real stunt guys with optical overlays of sparks and zaps of voltage.

Yeah....ain't that the truth!!!


From frantic slapstick to a somber Christmas sort of 'pull at the heart strings' movie...

Although trashed by the critics, I didn't mind THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS (1948) too much.  A hokey sort of story for sure, but I actually quite enjoyed it as a lazy afternoon time filler.

The film is of particular interest here as it is one of the few examples where storied visual effects visionary, the great Willis O'Brien no less, was matte painter.  O'Bie was a highly skilled artist in his own right, as well as a stop motion genius (KING KONG for any pathetic individuals who don't already know of his importance to the timeline of trick film technology and sheer gold standard entertainment).  When work was limited, O'Bie occasionally took on matte shot assignments, painting mattes for films such as THE DANCING PIRATE and THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S.  The story goes that the industry had a major and very, very nasty union strike in the late 1940's, certainly effecting the matte artists and illustrators union as I heard it.  Studios like RKO were blockaded with picketers, violence was rife and all hell had broken loose. I have an account by John P. Fulton's daughter:  "Dad had a friend who was an artist at Universal and when he tried to cross the picket line he was grabbed by some union guys who laid his hand across the curb and pounded it with a hammer and broke every one of his fingers".     Willis apparently worked on the sly, rendering the mattes for MIRACLE OF THE BELLS and others, at home and having them smuggled in through the studio gates.  According to Matthew Yuricich, his mentor at MGM, Henry Hillinck was also caught up with the big strike and he told Matthew he painted in secret in a non-descript building across the street from the studio.

I had a couple of readers email me about this shot which I'd used as a tiny part of my blog header collage for my previous entry so I figured I'd celebrate it here properly.  There are really just a couple of shots in MIRACLE OF THE BELLS but this main one is a doozy.  A beautiful matte that is kept on screen for some time with a slow optical zoom in, following Fred MacMurray up to the doorway.

Russell Cully was chief of the RKO photographic effects department, following the unfortunate death of Vernon Walker.  Clifford Stine was effects cameraman on the film.

A blow up of the Willis O'Brien matte art.

A few other shots from MIRACLE OF THE BELLS.


That's it for now.  Hope you found this blog interesting and maybe even educational.
Take care and stay safe wherever you are...