Sunday 9 May 2021

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

 ***This post, and all 169 previous blogs known as 'Matte Shot', were originally created by Peter Cook for nzpetesmatteshot with all content, layout and text originally published at

Hello again friends, film freaks and fellow fans of frequently fantastic, finely finessed and more often than not fairly phenomenal, if not fabulously formidable (unbelievably, I just plain ran out of "F" words...) old school special photographic effects.  It's well overdue for another utterly jaw dropping rollercoaster ride into the mysteries, marvels and magnificence of traditional hand painted, photo-chemical matte shots.
I am most excited about todays bumper blog post, as I have accumulated some utterly superb material - some of it never (I repeat, NEVER) seen before, that, to dedicated followers of the lost artform will surely be in awe of (money back guarantee ... assuming you've given Pete some money though!)
There are several films being celebrated here today, and are, as per usual, as diverse as one could imagine.  The films cover several decades, studios, methods and matte painting exponents, with at least half of these titles probably lost on the average casual viewer or special effects enthusiast.  But that's what Matte Shot is all about... to bring attention to as many films and studio FX department systems as possible, especially to those who only know cinematic magic as being pumped out of a PC.  So sad!

One of Albert Whitlock's expansive mattes from GREYSTOKE-THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984) is part of the vast collection that has been made available to the matte connoisseur.  More about that later.

Ahead, among other things, we have an incredibly rare, never-before-seen revelation that are Albert Whitlock's original COLOUR matte paintings that he rendered for the significant black & white 1965 picture, SHIP OF FOOLS.  These mattes have been on my 'bucket list' - to see in their pure form - before I expire and shuffle off this mortal coil, and that particular 'wish' has now been fulfilled, thanks to my friend and fellow matte shot aficionadoTom Higginson, who is busy, as we speak sorting through the vast archive of every single Whitlock matte and visual effect, as well as all of the post-Whitlock era material from the vital Illusion Arts effects house that Albert's protoge Syd Dutton formed in 1985 in partnership with visual effects cinematographer Bill Taylor.

Also featured here today are a selection of amazing matte paintings that are, or have been, made available for sale to fans from the Bill Taylor collection, several of which haven't been publicised until now.  In addition, I've included a slew of unidentified painted sky mattes that even have the former Illusion Arts staffers baffled.

For those, like me, who love older films, I have a few vintage flicks - a shoot-em-up gangster drama from the sixties, and a pair from the 1940's, one of which - from Warner Bros - THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN is a fave of mine and ranks as one of my all time number one visual effects shows with its massive load of incredible trick work and highly complex multi-component effects shots, which were Oscar nominated in 1944.  Also featured are some rarely seen original matte paintings by Matthew Yuricich which will be coming up for auction later in the year.

So, sit back in your comfy chair, put your feet up, and enjoy (on anything other than a dinky little bloody cellphone, p l e a s e) the latest cruise where we collectively sail the seven seas of significant cinematic spectacle.





Among the cohort of great matte artists from the traditional era, Matthew Yuricich was one of the most highly regarded in the field.  I've covered Matt's amazing career in various capacities throughout my eleven years of producing this blog, with coverage of many of his achievements in the realm of painted mattes, none more so than my extensive oral history, Matthew Yuricich: In His Own Words piece which I ran back in 2012, shortly before his passing, and that can be found here.  

There were but a small handful of exponents in the medium of matte artistry whose work - as invisible as it often was - made such an indelible imprint to the field of special photographic effects, and Matthew was one of them.  Recently I've been privileged to have been contacted by one of Matt's sons who informed me of a forthcoming auction (date to be advised) later in the year for a small selection of his fathers matte paintings, from an extensive family collection that overall numbers up to seventy mattes.

Illustrated below are the five mattes that the Yuricich family have chosen.  The films are all very well known, with each being a major visual effects event resulting in one of the following films, LOGAN'S RUN (1976) winning Matt the Oscar for his matte paintings, with three of the other four titles being nominated for Best Special Visual Effects; BLADERUNNER (1982), GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) and STAR TREK-THE MOTION PICTURE (1979).    

Caught by the camera!  Matt applying the finishing touches to one of the many paintings for Ivan Reitman's enormously popular spook comedy GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

The ominous gargoyle on Sigourney Weaver's apartment building that lends a threatening stare to the unwary and unprepared.

The final composite of Matthew's painting, with all of the visual effects work carried out at EEG (Entertainment Effects Group) under the supervision of Academy Award winning veteran, Richard Edlund.

Close up detail of Matt's brushwork, for a shot that few ever picked as a matte to begin with.

Matthew won his own Academy Award for his many memorable mattes for the MGM picture LOGAN'S RUN (1976).  For a number of shots showing a 23rd Century deserted Washington DC, Yuricich rendered the decay and rot of a once proud Capitol.  For this matte, and some others, high quality 4" x 5" format colour photographs were taken under the supervision of effects supervisor Bill Abbott, with these then enlarged, printed and mounted onto large masonite boards, where Matthew would do extensive retouching and painting in creeping vines, sky and centuries of neglect.  The final shots were highly effective.  *I hope to be able to show close up images in a higher resolution at some opportunity.

For the comic book fantasy tale MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987), Matt again rendered several striking matte painted shots, with this ornately designed chamber, painted entirely on glass being the highlight.

The final composite as it appears in the film.

Beautifully detailed statue work is reminiscent of Matthew's incredible shots he painted for the classic BEN HUR (1959)

More detail of the pit beneath the chamber.

One of the landmark films of the photo-chemical era of special photographic effects was Ridley Scott's sci-fi noir, BLADERUNNER (1982) - a film that was utterly robbed at the Oscars, but don't get me started on Oscar injustices!!  Matt's painting for the cliffhanger climax remains one of the most recognised scenes from the eighties.  The matte was painted in deliberate hues as seen here, dictated by the unique qualities of the duplicating stock used by the Douglas Trumbull organisation to photograph and composite the effects, though once combined for the release prints, correct colour and contrast was achieved.

Actor Harrison Ford on minimal set.

Test for final composite.

Final matte shot.

Another mammoth picture that was wall to wall photographic effects was Robert Wise's STAR TREK - THE MOTION PICTURE (1979).  This matte painting of a futuristic San Francisco was one of the best effects shots in the film.

The final on screen composite.

Some of Matt's detail work.

I hope to have a better resolution set of images at some stage, whereby I'd be delighted to revisit these paintings.



Syd Dutton's expansive matte painted Times Square as used in the Alec Baldwin action film, THE SHADOW (1994).  Baldwin even gets his own little in-joke courtesy of Syd if you look closely.

In previous blog entries I have highlighted a number of original matte paintings that formed part of the extensive collection from the old Universal Studios matte department and it's highly successful and in demand mid-eighties re-boot as Illusion Arts.  As mentioned earlier, both Bill Taylor, ASC and Syd Dutton were the backbone of Albert Whitlock's Universal operation from the mid seventies, both beginning at the studio for THE HINDENBURG, with Bill serving as Al's director of all vfx and optical composite photography, while Syd started off as apprentice matte painter under Albert, though his obvious talents quickly established him as a fine matte artist in his own right, with hundreds of features, television shows and commercials under both his and Taylor's belt all the way through the photo-chemical traditional glass painting era, right on into the digital realm.

An inside glimpse at the work and talent involved at Illusion Arts.  Top left is a very young Robert Stromberg, shown here applying the final touches to his epic AGE OF INNOCENCE museum matte.  Stromberg was a key part of the Dutton-Taylor organisation and would later go on to bigger things as a feature film director.  Top right is Bill Taylor, pictured here attaching the 35mm mag to an Illusion Arts motion control rig.  Bottom left is long time grip and miniatures man, Lynn Ledgerwood.  Lynn is seen here operating a precisely timed hand crank camera easel which was an essential tool in the Whitlock and Taylor arsenal for decades as a means to introduce subtle layered movement to clouds in otherwise static matte paintings.  The matte was rendered for THE ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES but never appeared in the finished film.  Middle bottom shows detail from a Syd Dutton matte for AGE OF INNOCENCE.  Far right is the master himself, Albert Whitlock, posing in front of one of Syd's best mattes, from Mel Brooks' SPACEBALLS.

Bill Taylor has carefully stored (temperature controlled) and maintained the hundreds of original mattes, as well as some 10 plus hours of 35mm before and after reels from not only the Illusion Arts era but also Whitlock's extensive Universal career that stretched back to around 1962.  These are all being meticulously transferred to a digital medium, with a great many requiring expensive restoration or colour correction due to the passing of time and the limited lifespan of original dyes used by processing laboratories.
Also, most exciting for old film buffs like me, Bill has dragged out some old vintage before and after reels that pre-date even Whitlock, and are remnants of the very long Russell Lawson era at Universal.  I am so thrilled at this find and simply cannot wait to see or hear what they contain.  As anyone who reads this blog will well know, Russ was matte painter on hundreds of classics (and 'B' films) such as THIS ISLAND EARTH, ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES, TARAS BULBA and countless Abbott & Costello flicks, Jon Hall & Maria Montez 'Arabian' melodramas and all those highly memorable Universal Karloff-Lugosi horrors and groovy sci-fi drive in shows like THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Most notably, Russ contributed a veritable truckload of mattes (with John DeCuir) to one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films, the fabulous SABOTEUR - which was a huge effects show.  I sure hope to see some glimpses of any of these!

One of the discoveries found when digitising all of Whitlock's personally photographed slides was this until now 'secret' matte from the Alfred Hitchcock picture TOPAZ (1969).  The scene was shot on the Universal lot, with Albert matting in an invisible 'new' location - being the Soviet embassy, entirely fabricated by Al.  I just watched the film again recently and never spotted it!

Over the past few months a large number of mattes have appeared on ebay, and in the coming months more will be added.  An auction for around a hundred or so high profile mattes is planned in the near future, while the final disposition of other vinatge Universal mattes has yet to be worked out, but I understand some will go to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Exquisite detail from one of the mattes painted for GHOST STORY (1981), rendered either by Whitlock or Dutton.  The pair painted around two dozen mattes for the show but due to indecision and lack of forsight on the part of the director, just a few were ever used, with this one being one such casualty.

Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD-PART ONE (1981) - (there never was a 'Part 2' BTW...) featured many superb mattes overseen by Albert Whitlock.  I'd always assumed this majestic piece to be one but in fact it's a Syd Dutton masterpiece.  The matte measures 64" x 42" and is on glass. Absolutely stunning!

Detail from Syd's grand matte.

More detail.  I heard that Albert - being British - wasn't one to dish out glowing platitudes willy-nilly, and the best one could expect when seeking approval from the master was a gentle elbow nudge from Al while sitting watching the rushes.  The 'nudge' said it all.

This jaw dropper of a cityscape was painted by Syd for a well known General Motors 'Flying Car' commercial.


This curious photograph was concisely clarified by Syd:  "That odd painting was for a tire commercial, Goodyear I believe. There was a rear projection on the right of a truck forced to the side of a mountain road, the camera pulls back to reveal that help is just through the tunnel where there is an oddly located Good Year Tire Station. I didn’t write them, I just painted them."

Some of the myriad paintings in storage.

For a 1985 made for television version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Syd painted this fairytale setting.  I well recall seeing this on the matte showreels along with scores of other great shots back in 1986, when I met Syd purely by (good) chance.

Before & after

With all of the various - though far from complete - mattes by Al Whitlock in the Bill Taylor collection, I was most surprised to see this wonderful full frame glass painted shot from a long forgotten Kirk Douglas film, FOR LOVE OR MONEY (1963).  The draftsmanship is superb, as is the fine signwriting and lettering, which comes as little surprise as Whitlock started off as a signwriter at Gaumont Studios in England and graduated into title card lettering before drifting into scenic backings, miniatures, Schufftan shots and finally mattes!  The size of this lovely piece is surprisingly small, compared with latter day mattes, measuring just 45" x 34" - which was clearly adequate for the time, what with film grain and such.

Closer detail reveals confident and skilled lettering.  The Kirk Douglas character points to this billboard (of himself as a kid) from his window and remarks that "he's gained a bit more hair and teeth since then", to his paramour.

One of many mattes Illusion Arts rendered for the Keannu Reeves vineyard love triangle that was A WALK IN THE CLOUDS.  Love that Whitlock inspired 'donut night sky' that was a feature in so many of Al's shots and subsequently Syd and Robert's mattes as well.

The final original negative composite, complete with soft split drifting cloud layers and bright full moon.

Another of Whitlock's mattes that he made for numerous tv series and movies of the week.  This one is from DELIVER US FROM EVIL (1973), though it was later altered, probably for a different film or as a 'stock' matte painting.  At some point Albert repainted over what was originally the 'blacked out' area of ledge and part of the background and filled it in.  Likewise with the extreme left and extreme right of the frame which was originally left black as the matte was made for tv's 1.33:1 Academy projection.  Close inspection shows where Al has painted additional dimension to the vista.

Detail captures Al's inate sense of daylight and texture.
Illusion Arts furnished a lot of mattes for the shortlived 1985 sci-fi series, OTHERWORLD.  I sure hope this futuristic Syd Dutton vista finds a good home!

Around 1977 Albert made a pair of special painted mattes for what was designated the white cel rotoscope test to enable foreground character action to be introduced across the painted area without the need for blue screen travelling mattes.

These selected frames demonstrate the combined input of Whitlock's painted street scene, Bill Taylor's matte photography and (presumably) Millie Winebrenner's careful hand drawn roto work onto many dozens of large acetate cels.  The 'actor' is longtime Whitlock matte assistant Mike Moramarco, and the upper frame shows Mike on a stock Universal backlot street before the painting is matted in.  Subsequent frames show Mike vanish in part under the painting, though the latter frame examples here show how successfully Mike has been hand roto'd frame by frame across the shot.  I've watched the scene in HD - and another test - on a 55" tv and it worked a treat.  One of the big advantages I'd say here is that the actor is photographed in natural daylight, as opposed to artificial sound stage light - which was so often a dead give away in the old days.
A trick within a trick that nobody would ever suspect.

The popular late 80's early 90's tv series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was a feast for beautiful matte shots - though sadly the awful video quality of the actual tv transmission made for some of the muddiest viewing of the day, not helped by the fact that much of it took place in dark caves and caverns - a recipe for disaster in those pre HD days.  I believe the show was shot on 35mm, but transferred to a video tape medium for post production and editing, as many were at that time.  Anyway, this is a magnificent matte by Syd Dutton, and one I find particularly enchanting.

Oh boy, I've always admired this one too!  One of the many mattes Albert contributed to a single episode of the hit Rock Hudson tv show McMILLAN & WIFE from the mid 1970's.  This episode was titled Birth of a Monster.

Some of Al's brushwork.

The final, invisible composite, made on the original negative.  Ross Hoffman was Al's FX cameraman for this and had been with Universal since the 1930's.

Now here my friends is a true rarity from the vaults.... Al's missile silo matte painting from the James Bond film DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) - one of my fave 007 films despite what the 'new' generation of Bond fans claim.  

Detail is more than one might expect.

More of Al's brushwork, with extensive interactive cel overlays and double exposed pyro elements to be added during composite photography.

The original live action plate at left with the actors on a tiny 12 foot set, while the fx men blast them with an intensely bright red arc and a high powered fan to simulate the mother of all explosions!

The final, complicated fx result, with painting, live action, painted cel overlays of interactive 'blast' light, and of course some practical pyro doubled in.  Great movie, and also a great John Barry score, especially in this extended set piece where Charles Gray's effete Blofeld goes apeshit and starts blowing up nuclear bases around the globe, to the incredibly sublime slow jazz, light-orchestral Barry soundtrack that one would never associate with such a sequence, but has stayed with me ever since I first saw the flick in '71.  The track on the OST is '007 And Counting' for any soundtrack buffs out there, and is a showstopper in every chord of it's subtlety.

I rather enjoyed THE SHADOW (1994) and must do a blog on it.  A fun movie, filled with great moments and many terrific mattes, shared between Illusion Arts and Matte World.  This is one of Syd Dutton's shots of the night exterior to The Cobalt Club.  I have always had a big thing for painted neons and sparkling billboards in matte art, which is why I watch as many old MGM musicals as I can as they were the kings when it came to this gag work.

Although a very uneven and misguided film (I understand post production studio tampering kind of fucked the film over), the show has it's delightful aspects as it tells the story of two robots who fall in love.  The very opening shot shown here features one of Albert Whitlock's most dynamic matte shots.

The very wide pan as it looks when the several elements are all combined.

Detail 1

Detail 2, with Al's unmistakeable backlight and gently receding feeling of 'atmosphere'.

Detail 3

Detail 4

Detail 5

Whitlock with the large revolving miniature sonic receiver (or some such thing?), with the large painted 'flat' at the back which will be merged in with the separate matte painting.

THE HINDENBURG (1975) was Al's second Oscar win for best special visual effects - and I should point out that in his acceptance speech that night (viewable online), he personally named and acknowledged each and every member of his valuable photographic effects crew.  This glorious matte was one of over 70 such shots in the film, and was a show stopper in it's own right as I recall the chorus of soft 'gasps' eminating from the audience when I saw this at the (long deceased, R.I.P) mighty Cinerama theatre here in Auckland back in the day.  This painting measures approx 65" x 34" and is on glass in a pine frame, with a second bonus matte from the same film at the back.  **For anyone keen, this, and the other mattes from THE HINDENBURG illustrated here are available to the collector.  *For further information email:

The final composite with miniature dirigible doubled in, along with a sun element, slowly drifting clouds and an actual ocean plate photographed with a real sunset in progress.  Sensational.

Same film, with this being the matte on the reverse side of the sunset painting above.

Final composite shot with water and airship added in, along with drifting clouds in layers.

Albert Whitlock at work on one of the airship paintings.

There are a few matte paintings that leave me breathless, and this is one!  Also from THE HINDENBURG (1975), this magnificent piece occurs shortly before the final end credits.  The matte measures approx 65" x 34" and is on glass, with a second matte painted at the reverse side.  Of note is a small technical inscription by Albert on the wooden frame: "50mm 14 degree up approach", which translates as a directive as to the light direction and the careful placement of the miniature dirigible within the shot so as precisely match Al's painted aspect.  That sort of fine detail to his shots was what made Whitlock's work so damned good for so long.  *For further information email:

The final shot, though the colour balance in the bluray is skewed (often seems to be the case, with a far too strong magenta hue all too often I find in many so called remastered blurays??)

Same film, this superb painting is on the reverse side.  Al's clouds are always so organic and real to me.  As a (very) amateur hobby painter myself I spend so much bloody time trying to get clouds 'right', or even 'half way right' !!!

A very rare HEARTBEEPS painting by Whitlock is a sight to behold, and a fitting tribute to the Hudson River School of noted painters such as Frederick Church and Thomas Cole of whom Albert was so fond of.  I'm confident this masterpiece will find a happy home.

Closer detail.  The disparity at left between the painted sky and the unpainted scenery beneath was standard operating procedure for Albert to animate the sky with very sleight cloud drift during the sunrise.  Al said once or twice that people may not necessarily notice the movement of the sky, but they do tend to notice when it's NOT moving.

An additional sun element was added during photography, as were acetate overlays with subtle highlights of light reaching parts of the landscape and trees.  Love it!

Final composite

Illusion Arts at it's peak - busy supplying movie magic.


Although very highly touted in many circles I found SHIP OF FOOLS (1965) to be somewhat tedious an affair.  A great cast to be sure, but a few too many melodramatic set pieces of bawling hystrionics and scenery chewing a-plenty.

Although Whitlock was a Universal employee, he was frequently loaned out to other studios and effects facilities to provide mattes.  A top Warner Bros executive once coined the phrase that "Albert Whitlock is Universal's secret weapon" due to the cost savings made possible by his more often than not unnoticed camera trickery.

The plot involves a luxury liner filled with all manner of characters - all with a chip of one sort or other on their shoulder it seems - as they embark on a voyage from Vera Cruz to Bremerhaven in 1933.  This is the opening shot, and it's a stunner.  The camera pans off the city and docks in Vera Cruz and across the bay as the ship in question steams out into the open sea.  All a total fabrication by Albert Whitlock, and a masterpiece of visual effects design and application.

And here, for the very first time ever we may see Al's original full matte painting that really takes one's breath away.  Still to be added is the additional painted ship, smoke and water wake elements.  Interestingly, the multi-talented all round visual effects man, Jim Danforth - who was good friends with Al and worked with him around this time - told me that this matte was in fact the second version of the same shot, with Whitlock not happy with the first painting for some reason and starting the whole thing again from scratch.

You want detail.... Pete's not going to let you down!
It's all about the effect of light hitting the object, rather than the object in itself.

For those who only just realised that Albert's mattes were painted in colour, yet the film is clearly a black & white affair, in a 1982 interview he explained:  "Previously our mattes were painted in black and white just as you would expect, but that was a mistake.  Peter Ellenshaw and I found that it is actually much better to paint in colour, even for black and white pictures; letting the tines take its own natural course, rather than forcing the issue by working with different shades of gray."  I wonder whether Whitlock might have been influenced by another highly regarded British matte painter, Albert Julion - whom I think was Al's mentor - as I have seen examples of Julion's mattes painted in full colour for black and white films such as the comedy DON'T PANIC CHAPS, made at Shepperton in 1959.

"The sky is an organ of sentiment" was a quote Whitlock used, from the 18th Century English landscape painter John Constable.

By examining the top of this area of sky we can see Al's handwritten notation 'ship' with a red line pointing downward, indicating the planned placement of the painted ship in the bay.

I simply cannot get enough of skillfully painted skies by all manner of matte artists.

Each and every view of the ship is a Whitlock trick.  For this view, all is painted with around one third of the frame having an actual sea element soft matted against Albert's painted sea.  The clouds drift across the screen in subtle layers.  The painted ship was a separate element, probably painted on glass, with animation gags for it's wake and smoke.

Al's matte painting with his trademark 'additional sky' painted off to the side, beyond the field of the final 35mm frame.  It may look odd but there was a very good technical reason for this.  From his early days at Universal, Whitlock had developed an excellent technique to introduce subtle and entirely credible movement to clouded skies in his otherwise static mattes.  He never felt the old means of simply having an entire clouded sky move as one was believable, even though that means had been used in countless pictures going way back.  Albert, along with his matte cameraman Roswell Hoffman, developed a method whereby the painting would be photographed on the matte camera stand with the sky section masked off entirely.  During photography, the upper most portion of the sky would be exposed only, through soft split screen in-camera matte placement.  The painting would be slowly hand cranked to a precise speed on the horizontal axis across the matte stand.  Then the painting would be returned to it's start position and the soft split moved to expose the middle layer of painted cloud only.  This in turn would be exposed similarly as the hand cranked matte was moved, though at a slower rate.  In some cases a third soft matte would then be applied solely to the lowest (and most distant) clouds, with this shot and moved at an even slower pace.  The final combined effect was that of an incredibly convincing layered 'sky' where, as in nature, those clouds nearest us appear to drift more than any further away. The trick, when combined with the rest of the painting and the live action component, all combined on original negative, were what made Albert's work so seamless. Whitlock refined this technique over the years and later on cameramen Bill Taylor and Dennis Glouner made further improvements.  The method stayed in constant use all the way up to the break-away digital era.

Detail of sky.

Made in 1965, SHIP OF FOOLS was a Columbia production though I think all of the process scenes were shot on Paramount stages.  Albert was Universal based but was commonly called upon by other studios and directors to fill the requirements.  Al's cameraman was Ross Hoffman, and I think other longtime Whitlock staff such as grip Larry Shuler, rotoscope artist Millie Winebrenner and assistant cameraman Mike Moramarco were likely in his department.  Jim Danforth was too, although for just a short time.

Now this was a very bold shot to pull off, and I don't really feel that it worked.  As the ship pulls into the docks a huge crowd is present, with the entire shot being a Whitlock painting - supplemented by some sort of ripple gag on the painted water.  I recall this may have had a very sleight 'pan' or camera move? I'm trying to recall whether Al introduced any form of 'animation' into the painted crowd - I don't think so, which, surprisingly, was taking a big risk with such a subjective shot.

Whitlock's original matte art in it's entirity.

Maybe it worked better in 1965, what with film grain and lower resolution than we have today?


I'm trying to recall, but Al may have done some sort of soft split screen gag to lend a semi parallax shift?

A subsequent shot that I think is a soft split matte with most above the actors heads painted in.

Entirely shot on soundstages, SHIP OF FOOLS relied heavily on process projected backgrounds, and they were, by and large, very good shots and I suspect some may have involved Whitlock skies matted into actual ocean plates (see below).  Bill Taylor mentioned to me that all the shots on deck were shot on the process stage at Paramount, supervised by that studio's veteran RP man, Farciot Edouart.  The shots were made at the maximum size possible, being some forty foot in width, utilising triple-head VistaVision process projection.

Another SHIP OF FOOLS Whitlock painting, though one I couldn't find the matching shot for in the film.  It may well have been used as a rear projection plate once combined with sea footage, as many similar shots appear behind the actors.

Sky and water detail.

Exquisite cloud brushwork.  When it came to skies, the maestro's of the artform were 'The British Invasion', Albert and the great Peter Ellenshaw.

Real ocean footage soft split matted into Whitlock's painted sea, sky and moving ship. Ross Hoffman gave the shot a very subtle swaying motion on his optical printer, to suggest the vantage point was from another vessel.  I was hoping to have a breakdown of the individual elements from Al's showreels by the time of publication but thus far nothing has turned up during the as yet incomplete transfers of all of those old 35mm reels.  If it does, you'll see it here in a later blog.  I'd hate to leave you hanging!

Interestingly, Jim Danforth told me how SHIP OF FOOLS was submitted to the Academy for visual effects consideration.  "When the reel was shown to the AMPAS committee, a light system was setup to indicate when a matte painting was on the screen.  (There were also full-size RP shots used for closer scenes of actors on the deck.)  Later, some on the committee stated that a mistake had been made — that the light was turned on when a miniature was on the screen.  There were NO miniature shots used for the Ship of Fools (or for any of the other ships).  Occasionally, Al tried to do too much — as when he used multiple slits and camera moves to simulate a moving camera view of the arrival at a South American dock.  It didn’t quite work."

The final matte shot in the film, as it appears in the release prints.

And here is Albert's original painting prior to photography and the addition of smoke from the stacks and animated water sparkles.  All of these colour shots were taken by Al himself back in 1965 in the form of 35mm slides, and these form the basis of a massive collection of matte paintings the man documented over time.

Some of the detail.

Of note here is the method Albert often relied upon to introduce 'lights' in windows and such like.  Jim Danforth told me Al didn't care for backlight scrape-away gags and always felt the effect could be accomplished so much more simply just by carefully painting those atributes in the correct values and hues.  For certain films where complex gradual infusion or shifting of light was a requirement, Albert would utilise large acetate overlays, painted with highlights and appropriate interactive effects and animate these.  The film COLOSSUS-THE FORBIN PROJECT (1969) is a masterwork in this respect.

Flat painted detail that will ultimately have tiny reflective sparkles doubled in by fx cameraman Ross Hoffman.

Unsurprisingly, American Cinematographer magazine wrote at great length about the rear projection work in this film, but not once did they mention Whitlock's vast matte contribution!

The picture concludes with this shot, which I had wondered about, but now know it was a huge cyclorama.

* A special thank you to Tom Higginson for sharing the colour images.  Very much appreciated.


A pretty violent 1967 Roger Corman helmed bio-pic of sorts of the dubious characters such as Al Capone and pals, and the wholesale slaughter with Tommy guns a-plenty, that took place in Chicago in the 1920's.

There are only the two matte shots in the film, but they are certainly worthy of exploration.  Note the small, partial set in the upper right pic, on the Fox backlot, which will be transformed into twenties Chicago via Emil Kosa jnr's matte art.

The opening credits appear over a long, slow and impressive pullback revealing Chicago in all it's glory during the Prohibition.

L.B 'Bill' Abbott was head of special photographic effects at 20th Century Fox, and had been with the department as director of effects photography from as far back as around 1940 under former heads Fred Sersen and Ray Kellogg.  Abbott's career started even earlier as a camera operator, on silent films such as WINGS and SUNRISE - both notable 1927 pictures, with the latter being a significant showcase for  bold optical composite shots.

The pullback ends after the full opening credits, which was quite a long time to have a matte shot on screen.  I'm sure the optically added snow fall helped conceal the trickery.  

The second of the two mattes is a completely invisible one, and also involves a camera move.  Most of the frame here has been painted and matted in to what I assume was a Fox backlot set.  It's very impressive indeed and even with repeat playback in BluRay there is very little that gives the game away.  The grain is minimal and Emil Kosa's colour matching is spot on.  Great little shot that fits the bill of "the trick that nobody ever notices is the true special effect" as Whitlock once stated.

The final part of the push in.


Time for an oldie, but a goodie... THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1944)  - a beautifully told semi bio-pic of the life of American icon, Samuel Clemens, and his literary alter ego, Mark Twain.

I'm very fond of older films, and this one is a classic in all respects, not least the remarkable, brilliantly executed visual effects - of which there are scores!  Mattes, miniatures, opticals, process and even some I just can't deconstruct, for love nor money!  As already reported in many previous blogs, Warners had one of the biggest and at the time, most ingenious trick shot departments in all of Hollywood.  The calibre of work they turned out through the late 1930's and up to the end of the 1940's was astounding.

Two of MARK TWAIN's key creative people were Paul Detlefsen (left), who was chief matte painter at the studio for nearly 20 years, and Chesley Bonestell (right) - another famed matte painter who moved around a number of studios at various times.  Of Danish heritage, Paul began in glass work (as it was termed) in 1923, working on old silent Douglas Fairbanks and Cecil B.DeMille pictures before joining Radio Pictures before it became RKO as their matte man, and later coming to Warners as Byron Haskin's matte expert.  Chesley started somewhat later in the matte field, getting a job at RKO as well, in 1939, just in time for THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.  Both artists had long careers in matte work, with Bonestell most famous for CITIZEN KANE, while Detlefsen was for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE.  Both men had pretty much had enough of the motion picture business by the 1950's - largely due to the invasion of television (*Bonestell penned a letter to his friend, fellow matte artist Jan Domela, in which he clearly stated "the picture business is pretty much dead now"), with Bonestell largely turning his talents to astronomical art and science fiction covers, while Detlefsen became a noted calender artist after working on his last film, ANDROCLES AND THE LION in 1950.

A peek inside the matte camera room at Warners Stage 5 effects department in 1939.  The paintings on the stand are Paul Detlefsen's from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.

Matte painter and celebrated fine artist Chesley Bonestell.

The film begins with an extensive camera move across a painted night sky - complete with animated falling star - across a river and landscape and finishing on a group of folks, gaping in awe.  This sort of complex shot was bread and butter for Warners' Stage 5 technicians, as they really were ahead of the field when it came to elaborate trick shot gags, as we shall see later in this article!

Stage 5 had as many as eight matte artists employed at any one time according to one time head, Byron Haskin.

The film was Oscar nominated for it's special effects in 1945 - one of seven films that year, though it lost to the thoroughly 100% deserving THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO.  Warner's head of effects was Lawrence W. Butler - one of the greats in camera effects work.  Eddie Linden was director of effects photography.  Linden was noteworthy for being cinematographer of the original KING KONG (1933)

The film contains a great deal of excellent miniature work, though by whom, I don't know?  It was all supervised by Larry Butler of course, but I've no clue as to who did model work at Warners.

What appears to be a very large tank set with model paddle steamer and likewise raft filled with kids.

Larry Butler was a genuine multi-talent in the special fx business, and had a great deal of know-how in opticals - having designed and built a printer meeting certain requirements for Korda's THE THIEF OF BAGDAD for Technicolor travelling mattes, which won him the Oscar.  Butler was versatile in all manner of effects work, with a certain expertise in miniatures as seen in things like THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK and IN HARMS WAY.  Larry's father William was an old school optical effects exponent, and worked at First National-Warner Bros on shows like NOAH'S ARK and others, which was where young Lawrence got his first foot in the door, as a mere 15 year old.  Butler would progress through the ranks to become assistant to Ned Mann who was Alexander Korda's chief of effects on several films, then he assumed the supervising role on things like JUNGLE BOOK and many others, as well as being head of effects for some years at Warners, then again as head over at Columbia where he was teamed with effects cameraman Donald Glouner (another name with a long lineage of several generations involved in effects work).  In either the late 1950's or very early 60's Columbia shut down their effects department, as did many studios, whereby Butler regrouped with Glouner and formed Butler/Glouner Inc as a stand alone effects house.  They specialised in all kinds of effects but didn't have an in-house matte artist, so often farmed out or subcontracted matte work to Albert Whitlock, such as many of the Edgar Allen Poe films and ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS to name a few.  Both Whitlock and Jim Danforth had dealings at different times with Larry and Donald and both reported having a good work relationship. Jim called Larry "a nice and generous man in the dealings I had with him."   Butler would continue as an effects consultant even after the sell off of their operation in 1973, with Larry even getting a character named after him by Steven Spielberg in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.

The camera sweeps across the mighty river from one bank to the other, with the scale of the 'current' suggesting a sizeable miniature set up.

An outstanding set piece here involving large miniatures, child actors, and excellent process projection in a half submerged - and well concealed - RP set up.

Warners had a number of highly skilled effects cinematographers such as Hans Koenekamp, Edwin DuPar, Warren Lynch and Willard Van Enger.

Trying to navigate through tricky waterways.

Painted sky and horizon (maybe the boat too?), matted into a water plate.

Not sure here, the ceiling at left may possibly be painted in.  Miniature boat almost collides with floating houseboat in the fog.

A grand matte painted Southern vista.

Another beautifully rendered 1850's view of The Mississippi.

Not sure about this.  Might be an actual location, or possibly one augmented with snowy mountains?

The once proud river steamer has seen better days.  All well shot in miniature.

While chatting to Jim Danforth about Lawrence Butler and water tank miniatures he remarked: "Did I ever tell you about him telling Warners to uncap the artesian spring which was under their Stage 5, in order to get clear water for the miniature ship shots in “The Caine Mutiny” ?

Jim Danforth knew Larry Butler and told me a great story:  "Larry sometimes referred to Warners' as 'The Pig Farm', because it was supposedly built on the site of an old pig farm."

Matte painted set  extension on the Warners back lot.  Alongside Detlefsen and Bonestell, the Stage 5 FX department also employed Mario Larrinaga, Hans Bartholowsky, Vernon Taylor, Jack Shaw, Clyde Hill and later on, Louis Litchtenfield.

Split screen shot with some painted additions, possibly multiplying the same group of people to fill both stalls and the balcony.

Most likely a matte painted shot.

An elaborate dream sequence involving travelling mattes and process work.

Another fine matte shot.

Star, Fredric March as Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain in what looks like a trick shot of some sort - be it a painting rear projected, or a just plain backing cyclorama?  Incidentally, March was a fine actor, and I reckon he played the most convincing United States President of them all in the riveting John Frankenheimer masterpiece SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964).  See!!!

The moneyshot of all moneyshots occurs halfway through MARK TWAIN whereby he tours the world as a raconteur and teller of tales, beginning here in India.  An absolutely 'jaw-on-the-floor' effects showcase, with this (poor quality) illustration taken from Chesley Bonestell's memoir.

This sequence is a real tour-de-force.  The camera starts on a gathered crowd in a square and does an incredible 180 degree sweeping pan around the buildings, cityscape, skyline and harbour with thousands of locals fascinated in what Twain has to say.  It's a show stopper of a continuous, uninterupted effects sequence, and is a real head scratcher as to how Butler managed to pull it off.

Here are the key frames for close inspection...

I'm fairly convinced the whole deal is a superbly orchestrated mix of painted matte art, photographic cut outs and very precise process projection.  Warners would often do just such 'stunts', and nothing seemed out of their comfort zone.  Just take a look at similarly eye popping sequences from YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, RHAPSODY IN BLUE and THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT - each one a dazzling display of technical and aesthetic skill that no other studio dared to tackle.

It's only evident upon repeat viewings and close scrutiny that many of the 'Indian extras' appear multiple times in various different places during the camera move.  It's sure that some are photo cut-outs, skillfully blended, yet some others are in motion and clearly 'real' extras!!  The whole thing is a wonder.

It's of little surprise that Don Siegel - Warner's top montage director and soon to be top flight director in his own right - had much responsibility on this film as well as the others I mentioned above.  The sequence would fall into the montage category as it's part of a group of similar sequences cut together in a breathless relay of movie magic.

This sequence was played at the Academy Awards that year apparently, as the visual effects category came up.

Man, would I love to see a full breakdown of this.

The same old faces keep cropping up, but you'd never know it.

Kudos to the stills photographer and/or fx cameraman who shot these extras, with the light and shadow being 'right-on-the-money' all the way.

I ponder whether the whole set up was an enormous painted/collage/process rig possibly constructed in a vast semi-circle, maybe with the taking camera in the centre on a nodal head??  Any ideas you SFX guys out there?

The film was unique in that for the period, any film nominated in a technical category, it would automatically go to the head of that particular department, such as sound or design.  MARK TWAIN marked an entirely unexpected direction with the actual SFX nomination going to the chief matte painter, Paul Detlefsen and longtime Warners matte cinematographer, John Crouse, and not Lawrence Butler.  I can only assume Butler himself put forward the names of Detlefsen and Crouse, recognising the important role they both played in pulling off the many trick shots in the film.  Reviewing the history of Oscar SFX nominations and winners, I've rarely seen a case like that before - certainly not until well into the 1960's.  The very first effects Oscar in 1938 for SPAWN OF THE NORTH did though single out and name around eight FX crew.

The fluid camera moves up off the masses and onto the podium where Twain stands delivering his speech.

Todays CG jockeys may yawn at this, but remember, this was all physical/photo-chemical and took an enormous amount of configuring to achieve.

I'm sure Fredrick March and friends are a process plate rear projected into Chesley Bonestell's vast matte painting.

Just when we thought the mind-bending effects moves were done and dusted, we get a second one directly dissolved into from the other.  Again, an incredibly well accomplished trick that is a tough nut to dissect.

Frame by frame HD look at the sequence.

Twain is a rear projected element, in what is likely a huge matte painting or retouched photo blow up.

Once again, we get the huddled masses of people - most of whom appeared in that previous major FX shot, and most of those re-occur several times.

As with other similar Warner shows with such shots, they are rarely, if ever, just a simple 'optical zoom out'.  Their pullback shots like this were, without exception, remarkably free of grain nor any optical related artifacts, with a pseudo 3D-like depth that one might associate with modern era drone footage.  Just take a look at THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT to see what I mean.

The camera moves back, with columns and foreground elements coming into view in a most naturalistic 'you are there' manner.

In an old interview, Paul Detlefsen said that he owed so much to matte cinematographer John Crouse for his camera abilities and making the mattes look good.

The massive pullback ends on a pair of laughing locals.  How on earth did Butler et al manage this?

Our storied literary personality addresses another massive crowd in this extensive matte shot.

Full matte painting for a melacholic scene.

The film concludes with yet another grand, multi-element visual effect scene.  There's more to this than meets the eye folks.

With Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens on his death bed, things become strangely metaphysical.

In what must have been a hellishly complex sequence to put together in the printer, Twain leaves his own body, joins hands with boyhood characters and climbs the stairs to what must surely be heaven - or somewhere nearly as good!  While all of this is happening, his lifeless form - and that of his wife - are absorbed by billowing white clouds, assuming their shape and form(!)

Note the gradual transformation at lower frame as Mr and Mrs Twain/Clemens are absorbed by clouds.

Meanwhile the sun is rising over the hill...

Jimmy Page takes his Stairway To Heaven...

The continuous shot is a constant transition with dissolving elements replacing others in different areas of the frame, light changes, and more!

Much occurs here in an uninterrupted shot which must have gone through the optical printer a few times to composite the many elements.

'Hold on... this ain't Heaven... it's just plywood, plaster and arc lights!'

From the theatrical trailer, a matte shot absent from the feature.  Not an uncommon thing.  The CASABLANCA trailer - also from Warners - has an unfinished matte shot in it!


This well made 1943 mystery directed by George Cukor has all the ingredients, with political corruption and the hungry newspaper man eager to get to the bottom of things, with secrets long buried.  I do think Humphrey Bogart would have served this well in the star role.  Just sayin'.

The MGM production is quite a lavish affair (weren't they all?), with a number of excellent matte painted shots supervised by Warren Newcombe, as well as an opening storm and road crash sequence done in miniature by A.Arnold Gillespie.

Important to the storyline, a lone car speeds down a deserted road in a dense forest block during a raging thunderstorm.  The great miniaturist, Donald Jahraus was MGM's resident maestro in model construction, with many sensational examples of his craft evident over the years he spent with the studio.  Special effects chief Arnold 'Buddy' Gillespie handled the sequence, most likely by way of an undercar mechanism which passed through a slit in the miniature road surface.  Gillespie was in charge of all physical effects at MGM as well as miniature work and process projection.  Mattes all fell under the control of Warren Newcombe while opticals were the domain of Irving G. Ries.

In a post crash montage we get this curious shot suggesting a bereaved population.  It looks like the end to end parade of cars in the funeral procession are largely painted, with quite a degree of manipulation optically to lend the desired effect.

MGM were gung-ho when it came to using matte art in their films, and spared no expense when commisioning mattes, whether they would be used or not, as we shall see later. 

Newcombe's stable of artists were, for the most part, technical illustrators, but their skills adapted so well to the requirements of film.

Many artists worked in the Newcombe matte department over the decades, and it is indeed rewarding to discover a heretofore new name.  This particular matte was painted by Henry Peter McDermott - a name unknown to me until now.  This painting is unique in that Henry has personally inscribed his name, the date and the number of days spent rendering the matte (five and a half days).  Very unusual to say the least, but for researchers like me utterly fascinating factual information.  I've since discovered that McDermott, who was born in 1897, reportedly worked from the 1930's for some sixty years in the art departments of both MGM and 20th Century Fox studios, retiring only in 1972.  He passed away twenty years later in 1992.

More atmospheric mood as set by the matte department at MGM, with much more here painted than you might think.  The foreground tree has 'live' elements bi-packed into the painted tree to lend subtle 'action'.

Other name matte painters at MGM around that time were Howard Fisher, Henry Hillinck, Rufus Harrington, Irving Block, George Coblentz, Otto Kiechle and Norman Dawn, among others.

A meticulously drawn out Newcombe matte, which based upon the couple of old MGM mattes I own, would measure 75cm x 55cm - or for those of you still not in the age of metric, 28"x22".

Newcombe ruled his kingdom like a Sultan, it has been reported by those who worked under him.  That said, the sheer quality control Warren exercised over each and every matte effect that came through his closely guarded department was extraordinary.  Rarely, if ever, did anything ever reach the theatre screen that might be deemed rushed or substandard.  The MGM output, certainly during the black & white years, was of the highest standard.  Things did slip a little once Technicolor, and later Eastman Color came on the scene, but that may have been more down to the state of affairs after the negative was 'locked', and handed over to the commercial labs for theatrical prints to be struck.

An unused matte painting which in itself is astonishing due to it's incredibly small size for the actual painted information, which regardless of that, is amazingly detailed and nuanced with great skill.

Spencer Tracy, at bottom left, surveys the bridge where catastrophe occured at the very start of the film.

A secondary cut shows the bridge, though in this case a Don Jahraus miniature.

Another matte painting by Henry Peter McDermott, possibly another unused shot from KEEPER OF THE FLAME.

As I've described in earlier MGM blogs, in case you are new to NZPete's world, all of the old Newcombe mattes from the 1930's right on through to the 1950's - with few exceptions - were rendered on heavy grade art card with a mixed media of goache, pencil, fine tipped soft pastels and what appears to be India Ink.  These were really illustrations in every sense of the word, more than paintings, but the end result was surprisingly effective.

One aspect of the MGM Newcombe mattes that has continually astounded me was the excellent blend between 'fact and fiction' as I call it - the matte join virtually never becomes evident, such was the skill of Newcombes chief matte cameraman, Mark Davis and his crew at photographing and marrying together the elements.  Incredibly impressive work, with what appears to be a strong reliance upon soft matte lines and from what I've examined, often completely unexpected demarkation lines that sometimes run straight across trees or curl through bits of architecture where you would never expect it.

Not entirely sure but think this is a matte shot top up of a stage set.  The give away is the old Newcombe/Davis gag of bi-packed real foliage across part of the painting, always with a soft 'breeze' moving the leaves to fool the viewer.  Crops up in a zillion MGM matte shots.

Again, I'm fairly certain this too is a masterful matte shot, with most of the frame painted, and enhanced with bi-packed foreground tree and leaf movement to sell the deal.  A close look suggests over half the frame to be matted in.

Here is another deleted matte that never made the final cut.  Of interest here due to the very personalised 'doodling' by the matte artist, whom I'd wager might possibly have been Howard Fisher.  Jim Danforth knew Howard and worked with him on MAD, MAD WORLD.  Jim told me that Howard liked to paint odd little jokes into his mattes such as dogs humping, which apparently, he did in some GREEN DOLPHIN STREET matte shots (though I've searched hard but never spotted 'em).  Odd as it seems, Fisher wasn't the only one.  Matt Yuricich said that fellow painter Lee LeBlanc painted dogs copulating within the intricate plasterwork designs of his VIVA ZAPATA ceiling mattes.  I have an image of an old matte - possibly by Jack Cosgrove - where if you look closely, the director of whatever show it was, has been painted as a monkey in a tree holding a clapperboard with a stupid grin on his face!

The same locale as above, but this time as a miniature set, filmed in a dolly shot as an RP plate for a departing vehicle.

A later view of same, this time from the main house.

A wonderful full matte painting of the ideal 'fixer-upper'.  For more info, call Norman Bates Realty now!.

Quite possibly a miniature set with a painted background.



I covered the 1994 post apocalyptic teen video game saga DOUBLE DRAGON in the last blog, but completely overlooked a pair of Robert Stromberg matte painted shots, so in an effort to be complete, here they are.

Much happens in a 'future' 2007 New Angeles which had been partly sumberged.

The mattes were contracted to Illusion Arts, with Robert Stromberg being handed the baton to paint the numerous shots.


The most impressive sequence has these two goofballs jet ski down Hollywood Boulevard, in what appears to be a cleverly assembled multi-plane shot.

Close up of the most distant matte painted plane.  I expect there is likely another mid-plane painting that has yet to surface - and maybe an even closer third painted plane - with the shot being accomplished with motion control camera movement.  Really impressive on screen.



Among the clearout of old matte paintings from the former Illusion Arts collection are this handful of painted sky mattes that remain a complete and total mystery, even to Bill Taylor, Syd Dutton and Robert Stromberg.  If anyone has any clue, do let me know.

This one is a very nicely rendered, though in poor shape matte from a mystery production.  The damaged scuff portion is presently being restored to it's former condition by one of the old Illusion Arts staffers, Lynn Ledgerwood, whom I'm reliably told, is something of a genius at this sort of thing.

Some of these may be unfinished pieces, or just sketches, though most are in pine frames which would suggest production use of some sort or another.

Some may well date back to Al Whitlock's era at Universal?

Any ideas?  Yes, I'm asking you Domingo... if anyone can figure these out, it's gonna be you.

We end this months blog on a high point ... given the turmoil around the globe these days, this beautifully rendered original matte may give some hope.

***This post, and all 169 previous blogs known as 'Matte Shot', were originally created by Peter Cook for nzpetesmatteshot with all content, layout and text originally published at

I hope that proved an illuminating and revealing journey.  Do send me your feedback and let me know if any of you have any matte images to share, or recommendations.  
Stay safe, wherever in the world you happen to be.
NZ Pete