Tuesday, 10 August 2021

The Visual Effects of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG: O'Bie's 9th Wonder of the World

 

Pete's Editorial:

Welcome once again to another installment of Matte Shot, the venue for devotees of 'old school' movie magic, where we celebrate the practitioners of traditional special visual effects, and dissect their methods and pioneering achievements from the pre-computerised era - which as we know, constituted the majority of the motion picture production splendidly for near on ninety years.

Today, I have some exciting bits of news and updates, which bookend the single film being examined in this issue of Matte Shot.  I say 'single film' as the production I've chosen has such a vast number of visual effects shots that there simply isn't space to have a multi-film article this time around.

The 1949 feature MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was a mammoth effects showcase, with a huge stop motion component, complimented by a large number of painted mattes, process shots, optical tricks, miniature mayhem and mechanical gags, all of which I will attempt to illustrate and expand upon here as best I can.

Willis O'Brien concept watercolour for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG.

Additionally, I simply must make mention of an exciting new book now available on my favourite subject, traditional special effects!!  I'll detail this essential publication below.

Also, I am most delighted to mention that I have just recently acquired several beautiful original matte paintings from Bill Taylor's collection, with the superb artistry and skills of Syd Dutton as well as the matte maestro himself, the great Albert Whitlock.  I'm so thrilled to own these pieces, which entice untold study, close examination and admiration each and every time I look at them.  More on those later in this blog post after the 'main feature'....

One of the breathtaking mattes recently acquired by NZ Pete.  The others can be seen in the latter stretch of this very blog post.  Check 'em out ... ya know you want to!

***This post, and all 171 previous blogs known as 'Matte Shot', were originally created by Peter Cook for nzpetesmatteshot, with all content, layout and text originally published at http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com/

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A New Book on the History of Movie Special Effects:  


I have just about every book - and a ton of journals and mags dating way back - on traditional special effects (*with the exception of the magnificent 'Master of the Majicks', which is the finest of the realm), though I'd have to say that this new release from author Mark Wolf easily matches the best of them, and proudly stands head and shoulders above the vast majority.  What makes this volume different is that the author, Mark Wolf, isn't a mere 'scribe for hire' as was the case with many other similar books over the years, with Mark himself an experienced career effects man in various capacities on numerous productions.  Mark's knowledge of the artform, methodology and the technical experts involved is extensive to say the least, with quite possibly the broadest survey of all aspects of pre-CGI era trickery examined, illustrated and discussed in detail, than I can recall seeing in quite a while.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS: Special Visual Effects B.C - before computers covers it all; from the silent era pioneers, miniaturists, matte artists, make up specialists, special props, optical printer trickery, stop motion, effects cinematography, and even the hokey bottom-of-the-fx-barrell flicks and tricks that some of us (moi) actually get a kick out of(!)

The book (yes, a 'real' volume printed on paper and bound!) is available from Amazon (click here), and, I believe, from selected bookstores in the US at least.  If you don't believe my 'thumbs up' editorial, then just check out the 100% positive 5 star reviews on that site.  NZ Pete's highest recommendation!

Below are several profusely illustrated sample pages for the enlightenment of my readers...













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The Special Visual Effects of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG:  O'Bie's 9th Wonder of the World

With the success of the much earlier bona-fide classic KING KONG (1933), creators Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack sought to re-boot the almost identical scenario with most of the same production team and technical expertise, as well as one of the key KONG cast members for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949).  The film followed the same basic premise of the aforementioned KONG - misunderstood beast falling in love (of sorts) with blond beauty, and being eventually exploited for monetary gain by dodgy profiteers.  By no means on a par with KONG (the human performances in MJY leave a hell of a lot to be desired, and are, at times, downright awful), it's still a remarkable picture - and better by a longshot than the dismal SON OF KONG - with Joe's breathtakingly life-like stop motion achievements bringing so much 'humanity' to the title character, that would set the benchmark for many years to follow with animated character effects.

The viability of MJY rested entirely upon the producer's certainty that the great Willis O'Brien - the visual effects wizard behind CREATION, KING KONG, THE LOST WORLD and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII among others - would be on board.  The film simply could not have gone into production without O'Bie as chief creator and designer of special photographic effects.  Here we can see O'Bie at work, probably as early as 1947 on a wonderful concept painting for MJY which would serve as the centrepiece in the overall FX action.

For those who don't know - and shame on you for not knowing - Willis O'Brien is still considered the father (or grandfather) of fantasy film trick photography.  A true cinematic visionary whose notions, foresight and imagination spurned not only a catalogue of some of the greatest effects films and outright masterpieces of the genre (KING KONG...need I say more?), but a man who also stimulated the younger imaginations and activities of scores of up and coming visual effects artists such as Ray Harryhausen, Mario Larrinaga, Jim Danforth, David Allen, Randall William Cook, Jim Aupperle, Mark Wolf, Dennis Muren, Peter Lord, Gene Warren, Phil Tippett and many more, not to mention film noted directors such as Merian C. Cooper, Peter Jackson, George Pal and others. 

The remnants of one of the six Joe puppets looking somewhat worse for wear many decades later.

Another important creative staffer from the KONG ensemble was the legendary Marcel Delgado.  Marcel specialised in building the puppets and making miniatures.  At far left is one of the Joe armatures built by the incredibly skilled RKO machinist, Harry Cunningham, while at far right is one of the cowboy armatures as made for the incredible roping set piece.

In what was Ray Harryhausen's first feature film experience, as First Technician under O'Bie, his extensive stop motion work on MJY set a benchmark and launched Ray's career skyward whereby he never looked back, except in complete admiration for Willis O'Brien in taking a chance on his untested talents in the first place.  Here are images from Ray's latter days with him tinkering with one of the original precision engineered Joe armatures.

Harryhausen at work, probably in 1948, on the most intricate animated sequence, where a goup of cowboys on horseback try to lasso Joe to bring him down.  Note the striking jungle matte art on multiple panes of glass.  More about this sequence later!


Another look at Ray animating a Joe puppet in front of a large glass painted vista with rear projected area for live action (also visible at extreme left).

A rare and very revealing studio breakdown containing a complete list of credits as well as the VFX budget itemised down to the smallest detail.  Incredibly informative.  For those who can't read the type I'll mention specifics in various captions that follow.  Note the credit for Harryhausen which has had a handwritten notation "God bless him!", possibly the handywork of Ray himself?  Cheeky fellow!

Unusual for the era to see so many technical credits up on screen, but good on them for going that extra mile.  The film wasn't made by RKO, just distributed by them.  Argosy Productions was a small independent firm set up years before by director John Ford and producer Merian C. Cooper (for the John Wayne picture STAGECOACH) which was bold in the days when mega studios ruled the roost and typically had 100% control.  Ford himself had a credit but had nothing to do with MJY, as he said at the time that 'films about giant gorilla's weren't his forte'(!)  Classic!


I just love to come across photographs of matte painters at work, none more so than from the so called golden era where such imagery was usually verboten and shunned by the front office who never wanted their secrets or behind the scenes trickery to 'get out'.  Their were four skilled matte painters assigned to MJY, headed by old time veteran Fitch Fulton - the father of storied effects man John P. Fulton (one of my faves).  Under Fitch were Louis Litchtenfield, Jack Shaw and Vernon Taylor.  George Webb would lay out the many glass shots for the painters. I'm not able to confirm the identity of the artist shown above, other than to say he's definitely not Fitch Fulton, who was quite old at the time.  * Photo courtesy of Dr. Harry Heuser of Aberystwyth University and included in the book SMOKE AND MIRRORS. 



MJY starts off with a grand and stunningly composited tilt down from the cloudscape to a glorious African landscape.

At left is a preliminary composite, with additional foreground foliage, possibly added by Willis O'Brien himself as I once read.  The right shot is the final on screen matte tilt down, made as a multi-plane shot with at least three separate painted glasses.  The shot is astounding in it's resolution, particularly as a live action plate of the river as well as stop motion birds have been very successfully added, with very minimal grain build up or contrast, which one might expect from such a composite shot.  A marvel which sets the tone of the film so well.  It should be noted that the Art Director was none other than former head of MGM's special effects department, James Basevi.  British born Basevi started off in the field with such films as the original MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1928) and on through such epics as SAN FRANCISCO (1936) for which he designed and supervised incredible scenes of destruction.  James also provided dramatic visuals for HURRICANE (1937) and the Gary Cooper epic THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO (1938) before moving into art direction for Hitchcock and others.


There is however a curious anomaly with this shot, whereby what appears to be the relection of passing motor traffic visible along the edges of the actual water plate, though I seem to be the only 'nerd' to spot it.

After the downward tilt, the camera pushes into the small compound and dissolves to another shot.



A closer view of the unknown matte painter applying brush strokes to the middle of the three large glasses.  I've seen photos of both Jack Shaw and Lou Litchtenfield, though none of Vern Taylor, so I'm not sure here.  It could well be Litchtenfield?

Magnificent detail.

According to the original official FX budget, there were 31 glass paintings at a cost of $800 per glass, coming to some $24'800.oo in total.  Seems like a good deal to me.

The main aspect of that same matte shot as it was preserved in Willis' personal 1949 photo album pertaining to the shoot.


A second vantage point showing the same painter at work, sandwiched between the dense jungle foreground glass and the sprawling African valley painted glass.  The sky would be a separate glass in itself.

The glass mattes measured typically some twelve feet in width and were mounted in sturdy wooden frames, with the frames costing some $1500 in total.  I sadly presume they were all scraped down for re-use after the production, as was commonplace at the time.  The horror!!!!!!  :(

Another wonderful behind the scenes look at the use of the glass painting, of which MJY has dozens.  Here a camera assistant holds the clapper just behind a large painted glass extending the roof and jungle beyond for the compound set.

The final, invisible combination.  The film wasn't shot at RKO as some think, rather over at the Pathe Studios in Culver City as an entirely independent project.

One of the many original concept sketches made by O'Bie, with this being for the wonderful caged lion sequence.

The first appearence of Joe - or Mister Joseph Young of Africa as he was titled in early drafts - is indeed a show stopper if ever there were one.  Out of nowhere, Joe arrives and immediately has a confrontation with a very pissed off caged lion.  The sequence is a jaw dropper in every respect.  A brilliantly designed and conceived action piece where visuals and audio are so well combined to maximum effect.

From O'Brien's personal archive is this before and after showing the live action lion as well as a seperate plate of flowing water.  The lion element would ultimately be projected into the miniature cage.

Also from O'Bie's album is this 1947 frame enlargement of one of the cuts.


While Willis was overall visual effects director, due to the massive demands on MJY's technical requirements he was only ever able to be hands on with specific animated shots in various sequences.  The lions share - pun intended - was carried out by the very young and fresh Ray Harryhausen.  Various accounts state that some 80% of the MJY stop motion was Ray's, with some statements by Harryhausen himself in later years raising this to 90%.  Others were involved, and I'll outline those later, but all of the lion sequence I understand, was Harryhausen's work, and damned superb work it is at that!

Ray spent a full month completing this complicated sequence without assistance.

The extent to which Ray 'injected' emotion and feeling in the Joe puppet was astounding, and still holds up today 70 years later.  Ray wrote:  "When I received the live footage of the lion I counted the number of frames it took for the image of the lion to rock back and forth and matched them to the number of frames I needed to shoot for Joe rocking the model cage.  Then the real lion was projected on a little screen within the cage and the two actions matched".

The 'stop-you-in-your-tracks' moment in visual effects comes when Joe rocks the cage back and forth tips over the wagon, with the lion spilling out.  A bravura example of technical ingenuity.  The lion was a live action element, very skillfully projected (some accounts say rear while others state front projected, which is more likely) into the otherwise 'empty' miniature wagon. The 2nd unit lion footage was very carefully choreographed at an animal sanctuary, with forced rocking motions introduced by it's trainer, under O'Bie's supervision, to match what was intended for later stop motion action.

Some accounts state that the lion plate was projected in on a second camera pass(?), though perhaps an expert can tell me how that could be done when working with a stop motion set up where the miniature components are non-repeatable??  I'm hoping Harry Walton or Jim Danforth can elaborate.  :)

Joe smashes up the cage, which all required delicate wire rigs to 'animate' the destruction.  At this point, the 'real' lion is substituted with an animated puppet, which has a go at Joe and a bit of a tussle ensues.

From this original camera test we can see more trickery that really completes the scene.  At left is the beautifully rendered multi-plane glass painted jungle, with a real lion split screened in.  The bottom of the animation table is also visible.  At right we can see the final composite with the same matted plate combined as a rear projection element behind the miniature Joe and wagons.  The clever bit is a brilliantly hidden transition between the stop motion lion, as it jumps off the wagon and for a fraction of a second is hidden, and the rest of continuation where the real lion is seen running off into the jungle.  Harryhausen's match up as well as the physics of the puppet lion movement are exceptional.  Apparently John Ford viewed this sequence in rough cut form and immediately sent word through the camera department to tell Ray how much he loved that scene.  (A later account by Ray stated that Ford himself came up to Harryhausen and personally thanked him).


Harryhausen with his favourite Joe out of the six puppets - each of which seemed to have a slightly different 'feel' as far as movement went.



One of the various African vista's as matte art.

Final composite.


Ray with visual effects cinematographer Bert Willis - another KONG veteran - who oversaw photography of all of the miniature set ups.  Willis was an old hand in special camerawork and had previously worked with O'Bie as far back as THE LOST WORLD in 1924, as well as a key member of the effects unit on KONG in 1933.  In an interview, Bert remarked: "The scene I was most proud of was the one where Joe knocks over the lion cage, which used front and back projection.  I lit that one".


MJY not only required a miniature ape puppet, but numerous horses, cowboys, a baby and assorted folks in articulated form.  Here is one of the remarkable miniature horse and rider combo's, I believe, built by Marcel Delgado.  Shown here in white shirt is specialist taxidermist, George Lofgren, who mastered various processes for utilising carefully preserved and rubberised hide from an unborn calf in order to provide a very convincing non-ripple fur for the various Joe puppets, as a far more credible skin than was possible with KONG years earlier where the animator's fingers caused much fur disturbance from frame to frame.  The various miniature props that were heavily used throughout MJY were built by brothers Marcel and Victor Delgado.


A test for the ape vs cowpokes sequence.

Three frames from yet another sensational sequence, with a stop motion horse and rider galloping through a multi-plane glass painted jungle setting.  

A great deal of unexpected technical assistance came to Willis by way of a company camera grip named Pete Peterson, who as it turned out was fascinated by what he witnessed being done on the various stop motion set ups and asked if could 'have a go'.  O'Bie granted Peterson a few test shots and was astounded at how accomplished the material looked when played back.  Before long, Pete was assigned as a member of the visual effects team and in fact would play a substantial part in animating a number of sequences and key shots, with great finesse.  I believe some of the horse material was Pete's as he had a great love for horses and a close affinity for how they moved and behaved. 

A flawless rear projected miniature set up.

A very well executed combination of matte painted set extension, live action cowboys, puppet Joe, miniature foreground and solid rear projection work.

Incidentally, MJY was originally slated to be shot in colour using the newly developed monopack Eastmancolor system of the time, but tests proved disastrous as colour matching between process projections and model set ups were a major problem, with line ups looking good when in front of the camera yet coming back from the lab as complete mismatches in tones and hues.  It had always proved a simple task to hand develop 35mm tests when working with black and white and get a fast result, but the production could not afford the costly down time waiting for colour tests to be sent away and be processed elsewhere.

The plateau sequence, with extensive matte art and much highly complex multi-element action about to occur down below.

One of the superbly crafted miniature animated horses (and cowpoke) circle Joe, with a brilliantly timed transition as the horse moves off screen right and reappears again coming back around the rear of the shot, but this time as a real horse and rider as part of a process projected plate.  This gag is used a dozen times to excellent effect and is pure genius.



O'Brien was adamant that the sequence have horsemen not only seen behind or near to Joe, but to completely encircle him in action shots.  Apparently Willis animated some cuts, as did Victor Delgado, but these were deemed as not working in well with the rest of the sequence so were therefore dropped in editing. Peterson and Harryhausen shared animation duties on these shots.


Masterful!

Pete Peterson had suffered a lifelong, crippling debility of multiple sclerosis, and as such had to animate from as comfortable a position as was possible, and in later years on subsequent pictures worked on specially lowered miniature set ups, near to the floor out of physical necessity.

Interestingly, the film's director, Ernest Schoedsack was virtually sightless by the time production began, have had both retina's detached in a high altitude flying incident.  Ernest was unable to direct out of doors in direct sunlight and was severely compromised with his vision otherwise.  As an aside, a few years later the first major studio film in 3-Dimension, HOUSE OF WAX, was directed at Warner Bros by Andre deToth - a man with only one eye, thus never able to see the '3-D' himself.  But not many people know that.

Matte artists Fitch Fulton and Louis Litchtenfield shared the workload for these sequences. There is a major shift of the painted matte during this shot which oddly slipped by.

Live action plate photography for later inclusion into complex miniature stop motion scenes.

Frames from the lasso sequence where cowpokes hurl ropes over Joe in anattempt to subdue him.

Initially, Willis had commissioned a studio sculptor to make a clay model horse as a macquette for Delgado to work from but this proved unworkable so Marcel  himself ended up designing the armatures and building all of the horses from scratch, with O'Bie being very happy with the final results.

A neat bit of action with well matched stop motion wacking process horseman to the ground.


The effects camera operator would take some initial footage into a small darkroom on the stage and develop hand tests of each set up.  They would then go back in, process the strip, print up 5x7's and study them closely for matching and line up of elements.

"I'm only prepared to be pushed just so far..."


Author Paul Mandell wrote an excellent article on MJY for Cinefantastique magazine, and described the sequence as thus:  "The horsemen actually roped a bulldozer and several wooden posts, which were obliterated by split screening the action on either side of the frame.  When the doctored scenes showed cowboys slinging lariats into a soft matte line, the model of Joe was positioned in front of the split, and animated accordingly".

Whereas on KONG O'Bie had worked efficiently with a small, tight effects crew of around six key technicians, the new union rules dictated a vast crew of 25, highly unionised staffers and things did occasionally get out of hand as a result.  The story goes that when someone felt like quitting work early and going home, an arm or leg on one of Marcel's puppets would be mysteriously 'broken', which would bring filming to a halt that day while Delgado went about repairing or replacing the model.

Frames from the wonderful lasso sequence.  The ropes were tiny wires that Harryhausen would carefully match by eye to the background action seen in the rear projected process plate.  This work proved extremely taxing for Ray, having to match and align the frames one at a time through the rack-over of the Mitchell animation camera.

A very accomplished artist in his own right, O'Bie rendered scores of watercolour sketches for confirmed scenes and unused proposals, not only for MJY, but for a great many varied prospective projects that would never, sadly, see the light of day.

The heavily unionised shoot proved difficult for Harryhausen, with such simple matters as shifting a light or camera being officially 'off limits' and only to be carried out by an official union member of that specific local who would be pointlessly put on the payroll.  Later, Ray made sure to operate non-union as best he could on all of his later pictures.


All involved in the hands on animation spoke very highly of the superb engineering skills of machinist Harry Cunningham.  Harry milled and constructed some six Joe armatures of varying scales, with the smallest being just four inches tall.  Each one had precise simian skeletal joints built out of dural, with exact ball and socket or hinge joints where applicable which aided Harryhausen's animation to such a realistic level, based upon observations of actual gorilla's in captivity.  Soft wire sections were inserted for lip and eyebrow movement, and a thick rotational allen screw under the chin made for exacting jaw movements.  Marcel Delgado and his brother Victor would then set about the task of building up the model, layer by layer using foam rubber muscles and wads of cotton wool over the skeletal armatures. Then the Delgado's would apply the carefully prepared George Lofren fur hides and stitch these in position invisibly,  The same technique was used for the model lions and horses with excellent results.

The Cunningham armatures were so good that Marcel Delgado remarked: "They were like a Swiss watch.  You just moved it and it went wherever you wanted it to go."

The film was shot at Pathe Studios, with the cavernous hanger-like Stage One, which had used by Cecil B. DeMille for KING OF KINGS back in 1926, repurposed as a complete special effects stage, with all matte painting, model making, process and animation in individual cubicles, partitioned off with heavy black velvet drapes.

Another nice horse fall fx gag.

An interesting rapid cut of Robert Armstrong (so good in KONG but quite hammy in MJY) galloping up in what appears to be either a rear projection with glass painted foreground foliage or miniature trees?

Of note, this entire roping sequence was once again put on celluloid two decades later by Ray for his VALLEY OF GWANGI, though not with a monkey on that occasion.

"Enough of this shit.... you're just starting to really piss me off!"

At left is Peter Stich, the fx unit painter who worked on the final paint schemes of the miniatures, shown here with one of Marcel Delgado's superb miniature horse and rider puppet combo's, as O'Bie looks on in obvious appreciation.  Note the matte painting behind them.

O'Bie had never heard of Harryhausen until the young fan, and devoted KONG addict, cold called him one day around 1940, while O'Bie was working at MGM on what would be his unrealised dream project WAR EAGLES (now that's a film I'd have loved to have seen using traditional methods) and managed to show O'Bie some of his own hand crafted models and 16mm short films.  O'Bie just felt he was being kind to an enthusiastic young fan but was very impressed with the obvious talent on display.  O'Bie's wife, Darlyne was, by all accounts, VERY impressed, and told O'Bie how talented this Ray fellow was.  Their paths crossed a few times, with Ray working on some George Pal Puppetoon short subjects in Hollywood, so when MJY finally got the green light, O'Bie knew the man he'd like to hire as his chief assistant.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Constant manipulation of the puppets created its own problems, with wear and tear from much handling resulting in repairs that would often be quite substantial, where the model might need stripping back and relayering of foam latex.

A particularly groovy bit of business with very nicely realised animation of the struggling cowboy.

Reportedly, Merian Cooper had a lifelong fascination with jungles, which probably explains why so many of his films were set there.

More attempts to lasso the giant ape, all well orchestrated.

Note the skillfull blend between the miniature wire 'rope' and the real rope held by the actor.

For the most part, the miniature rear projection shots work very well, with some unavoidable 'hot spot' from the source projector in certain shots.  Harold Stine was effects cameraman for all of the process shots, and was the brother of Clifford Stine, a noted effects cameraman who was one of O'Bies crew on KONG and did amazing work many years later on EARTHQUAKE (1974).

Visual effects cinematographer, Bert Willis was interviewed by author Paul Mandell:  "O'Bie was a fine artist, and an even better cartoonist.  We had gobo's on the lights and he'd doodle all over them with chalk.  Frankly, O'Bie got me into trouble on several occasions.  We'd be shooting, and he'd be, you know, getting juiced up across the street somewhere [in his little 'oasis', the Coral Island Bar].  I caught heat from Cooper and studio boss Walter Daniels more times than I care to remember,  But I loved the man.  I think I was closer to O'Brien than any other employee."


Assorted plot devices in the original treatments were dropped along the way, such as having Joe's transport plane crash during a thunderstorm on a desert island and saving the crew from marauding lions; a pointless courtroom sub plot and a tug of war with an Indian elephant.


Mostly glass painted.

Close up frame enlargement from the above glass painting.

In addition to building all of the model armatures, Harry Cunningham also built the special process projectors for scenes such as this.  Four were built at a cost of $4000 each, plus an additional $300 for a set of four air condensers and $800 for four lenses.  I recall that either Jim Danforth or Mark Sullivan later owned one of those original MJY projectors.

In the official 1949 FX cost breakdown it cost $4000 for material and labour to make 6 gorillas, 2 horses, 4 men, 4 lions (and a partridge in a pear tree?) in miniature as well as plaster casts of one of each and a full size mechanical gorilla arm and hand.  That's an offer you can't refuse.

Whereas the earlier KONG pictures had both heavily utilised the Dunning and also the Williams travelling matte processes for composite photography, O'Bie made the early decision to combine shots in a less complicated - and optically degraded - fashion as possible by almost exclusively relying on process projection on both the small scale miniature set ups as well as the full size live action requirements, which in general, worked surprisingly well, and occasionally with stunning results.  The same would not be the case had they shot in colour as first tested, with colour process shots being notoriously poor in quality at the time and for some time after.  The only travelling mattes in the picture are a couple of shots later in the show with hand drawn rotoscope effects.

Everyone agreed that Marcel Delgado was indispensible.  Marcel's brother, Victor - another original KONG alumni - was assigned to the miniatures shop as prop maker and test animator.  O'Bie preferred to work with tried and true technicians he knew from earlier collaborations.

O'Bie was insistant to avoid costly and time consuming - and ultimately unneccessary - optical printer composites, as he felt, quite rightly that better and quicker results could be achieved in camera, despite Linwood Dunn's arguements to the opposite.



The film had a 47 strong special effects unit, with many of those being KING KONG and SON OF KONG veterans.

In real life, Willis O'Brien had suffered a great deal, with his first wife, Hazel murdering his two teenaged sons in cold blood while he was filming SON OF KONG, then, as fate would have it, surviving her own suicide attempt.

Now this one's a great little matte shot that most people don't notice.  A rider projected into a fully painted jungle setting, with Joe about to lash out and grab the guy.  Fitch Fulton was already an old school veteran in the matte field, having started as far back as the old William Fox days on films such as the wonderful THE BIG TRAIL (1930) where John Wayne got his first lead.  Fulton - the father of John - painted for years at what became 20th Century Fox, as well as RKO on shows like CITIZEN KANE and SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (both 1940).  Fitch also painted beautiful Technicolor shots as Jack Cosgrove's chief artist on GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and did striking jungle mattes, also in full blown Technicolor for Korda's JUNGLE BOOK (1942).

This sequence where Robert Armstrong is pulled up off his horse by Joe was a very complicated affair, with photographic challenges that weren't able to be corrected.

A stuntman rigged in a body harness hanging from a crane on the Pathe backlot in front of a partial mock up of fake rockwall, was filmed swinging wildly back and forth.  Many months later that footage was rear projected frame by frame into the glass painted scene on the animation stage as Harryhausen carefully matched the plate with his Joe animated gestures.  A problem arose when the live action plate stuntman 'swung' to high and wide and thus vanished behind the glass painting for some 40 frames.  After some deliberation with O'Bie it was decided the best course of action was to make photographic cutouts of the man to cover for the 'missing' 40 frames of movement.  The cutout was delicately prepared and hand retouched with paint for definition, from which point Ray continued and completed the shot.

Miniature man and ape.

Matte artist Lou Litchtenfield told author Paul Mandell:  "The glass painting for the rock set was just awful!  We had just finished one glass.  This one in particular was a frontal piece, and a lot of work. We didn't want to touch it until the paint was dry, so we left a note on it for the janitor who came in the next morning to clean the glass.  Which meant 'Clean off the opening.'  He wiped the whole damned thing off, and we had to start again from scratch!"


As Joe dropped Armstrong to the ground the stunt harness device was visible dangling below the matte line like a vine.  Ray remarked:  "We never attempted to correct that.  It seemed like a minor thing at the time.  Audiences were less critical in those days and we didn't think they'd notice.  We had to move on".


Willis O'Brien was a man brimming over with ideas and imagination, with literally dozens of unrealised scenarios, film projects and potential colaborations, though very few ever got picked up by Hollywood producers or money men.  To make ends meet between scarce assignments of his choosing, O'Bie would dabble in matte painting for a few studios on shows like THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS and GOING MY WAY - mainly during the notorious motion picture strike of the mid 1940's when picket lines turned really nasty.  Other jobs for hire included a few consultant credits on films far beneath his status and talent, often merely to have his celebrated name associated with an otherwise worthless picture, such as THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and the dreadful Irwin Allen remake of THE LOST WORLD where I don't believe he actually had any input at all aside from Fox using his name as a promotional gimmick.

The film went way over budget and came in at around $2 million, which for 1947 was a head spinning figure.  The animation and effects were around $200'000 or thereabouts.

Initially, O'Bie hired Harryhausen in late 1945 as an assistant whose many duties included sharpening O'Bie's pencils, cutting cardboard mattes and sundry other chores.  They had known each other in a casual capacity for a few years, with it being Ray's dream to eventually work with his idol.  Getting the call up was a treat but the on again, off again start date for filming was disconcerting.  Both Ray and O'Bie were never entirely confident as to whether MJY would ever get off the ground.  Even well into his twilight years, Ray had nothing less than reverence for Willis.

A matte test frame from 1947.  One of the artists employed was Jack Shaw, another old timer who had long associations with master visual effects artist Jack Cosgrove on shows like GONE WITH THE WIND, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY and DUEL IN THE SUN.  Jack also painted most of the matte shots at Hal Roach Studios and Roy Seawright for things like the TOPPER series and the original ONE MILLION YEARS BC.  Many years later, while at Warner Bros, working on HELEN OF TROY, Shaw would again cross paths with Willis O'Brien as matte artist on Irwin Allen's ANIMAL WORLD (1956), which was his final film.

An earlier test with photo cutouts standing in for the principals.

Matted off and final comp.

BluRay frame grab.

Former stuntman and bit player Ben Johnson was the leading man, though was, unfortunately incredibly wooden in MJY, with even his animated puppet doppleganger having more life on screen, though he eventually became an excellent character actor in about a hundred pictures such as Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH and often worked with his pals John Ford and John Wayne, and he won an Oscar in 1971 for Peter Bogdanovich's classic THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.

Matte artist Lou Litchtenfield was interviewed in Cinefantastique magazine in 1998 and discussed the glass shots and his relationship with supervising matte artist Fitch Fulton:  "Fitch was our head matte painter, a grumpy but lovable old bastard.  He did the basic design of the set ups.  He'd do a sketch and we wouldn't even use an art director; we were on our own.  I co-painted the jungle and mountains, and several for the nightclub.  The way we worked it, a big glass mountainscape was positioned in back of the set.  An intermediate glass had twisted trees and vines.  The miniature was on a tabletop in front of that, and in front of that was another glass of foreground rocks and trees.  Sometimes we'd all work on one simultaneously".

Note the quality drop from the crisp upper frame to this one, with the multi-part composite (several glass paintings, live action water, miniature ape and fence) rear projected onto a large screen behind the actors as Terry Moore (not a patch on Fay Wray in my honest opinion) throws a banana to Joe.

Glass paintings, miniature foreground and projected hens in cage.


Test frames before and after projected plate.

Harryhausen animates the compound sequence.


Ray with miniatures painter Peter Stich, and O'Bie at far right, pose in front of a glass matte.  Ray mentioned in an interview that he liked this picture as it was the only one he had of him together with O'Bie.


A superb production design illustration for the Golden Safari nightclub which would be later rendered as matte art for the exterior and a mix of large miniature, glass art, stop motion set ups and full sized stage sets for the action packed interiors.

The camera pulls back from the neon signage.

Matte painted nightclub with live action street plate, possibly augmented by an additional painted foreground with palm trees.  Another of the matte painters assigned to the film was Vernon Taylor, about whom I know very little, other than him being a regular Warner Bros matte artist.

A grand camera move through a combination glass painted, miniature and live action nightclub interior is something in itself, with a beautiful multi-plane move and a left sweep on and upward into the treetop viewing gallery.  

I got to chatting with Jim Danforth about these MJY shots:  "Some of the push-in shots were done on multiple panes of glass as you described. They were NOT optical blow-ups. This was ground-breaking work. The general principle was first explained to me by L. B. (Bill) Abbott when I worked with him at Fox.  However, it had never been applied as spectacularly as it was in Mighty Joe Young.  However, the shots that really impressed me were done (I’m pretty sure) by placing large sheets of neutral density gels over the process screen, behind the painting.
I used this method when doing the pull-back shot for Portnoy’s Complaint. When the projector was turned off, the screen area was completely black, even though it was illuminated by a very bright light. 
The idea is that light passing through the gel is reduced according to the angle of incidence (for example, a 45 degree angle will reduce the light by the square root of 2 (1.4 approx.) Some of the light will pass through the screen and be absorbed by the screen density.  Some will bounce back, but will not be at an angle, so it will be absorbed only by the nominal density of the filter rather than (in my example) 1.4 times the density.
When all the factors are combined, the result is a jet-black screen area, even though the painting is illuminated by a very bright light."

The camera move continues, with several pockets of projected live action.

It still moves in, at this point with a radical shift to the left and upward to reveal a musical combo visible as a process plate within the glass painting.

Another matte artist on MJY who worked under Fitch Fulton was Louis Litchtenfield.  Lou began at Selznick International in the art department under William Cameron Menzies in the late thirties and had involvment in laying out matte concepts and general assistance in the effects department under the legendary Jack Cosgrove on GONE WITH THE WIND (1939).  Lou wasn't one to let the grass grow under his feet, as they say, and spent the next decade moving between various studios' matte departments learning the ropes and different techniques as he went along.  He painted at Columbia, RKO and MGM for varying periods before becoming part of the fixtures at Warner Bros as head of photographic effects in the 1950's where he would hire back his former boss, Jack Cosgrove, as well as Fitch's son John for a time.   Lou painted mattes on many big shows such as THE FOUNTAINHEAD, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, HELEN OF TROY, THE SILVER CHALICE and many more.  In later years he provided mattes for the remake of KING KONG (1976) and FLASH GORDON (1980).

I wonder if that large hanging lighting fixture could have been a miniature?

The iconic Beautiful Dreamer sequence unfolds.

On of the most elaborately staged and talked about moments in MJY comes when the sweet Terry Moore performs at piano to the surprise accompaniment of our hairy friend, Joe.

An early test frame of the matte elements lined up with the stop motion.

The sequence is truly extraordinary for a number of reasons.  The main one being it was almost entirely animated by the former grip, Pete Peterson, who, as mentioned, was a keen amateur home movie experimenter with 8mm stop motion in his spare time and was frequently in awe while watching O'Bie and Ray go about their business on the set.

Not only does Joe raise up the special stage platform with our heroine, but he too is standing on a slowly rotating rostrum, carefully balancing his human friend.  Practically every shot was Pete's work, with Ray pitching in for one or two, and O'Bie himself contributing one close up cut.  Some long shots were filmed with everything done as stop motion, including the Terry Moore character, in puppet form, and beautifully done it all turned out to be.


A wonderful photograph from O'Bie's personal album showing Peterson attending to the most delicate of complex animation.  The live action plate of Terry Moore and her piano is not yet visible but will be projected one frame at a time on the screen behind the models.  Bert Willis and his crew photographed all of the animation and miniatures, while Harold Stine shot all of the process plates, often in consultation with Roy Hunt, the overall production D.P, to ensure continuity in lighting and such.

Incredible timing and planning was needed to match the exact speed of the pre-filmed Terry Moore live action revolutions and that of the puppet Joe revolutions.  The sequence is simply sublime.

A close up of Peterson at work.  Reportedly, Pete was (fully justified) in his pride at how this scene turned out.

The actual Golden Safari interior was a huge set built on Pathe's stage 11, with much visual effects work applied to further extend the setting in long shots, with multiple painted planes of matte art on glass and numerous miniature rear projections each from its own individual projector, providing the live action plates such as the bands of musicians and other folk to the treetop cabana's and such.  All in all, these shots are incredibly well executed for 1949.

The shameless hucksters continue to exploit Joe for every cent they can, with this event - a staged tug-of-war between Joe and twelve of the ugliest musclemen ever assembled being an example.

The muscle men on set were pulling against an actual rope that was attached to a mechanical ratchet device, to give them real tension and some back and forth give.  Ray elaborated in an article:  "In the animation studio I placed the model of Joe in front of where the ratchet stood in the rear projected plate and matched the real projected rope to the front of Joe's hands, as well as adding a miniature rope appearing from the other side of Joe's hands.  In other words, the model's hands covered the exchange from 'real' to 'miniature'."

A tough guy has a go at slugging it out with Joe.  Big mistake.  Nice work by Ray and splendid ape-boxing moves too!

"It's the same every time... can't a giant gorilla go into a bar without some Chuck Norris wanna-be giving me crap." 

Things are booming on the gorilla vaudeville circuit...

Matte painting test for what would be a pivotal turn of events...

The organ grinder and the monkey... has it really sunk to this?  A touching and emotionally moving sequence where the mostly drunk audience hurl giant frisbee sized fake coins at Joe.  Superb character animation by Harryhausen, matched with skilled cel animation of the hurtling coins.

Various trials were made to accomplish this sequence including using stop motion techniques with large balsa wood coins, though this was abandoned as being impractical.  Eventually O'Brien managed to hire a former Disney animator, Scott Whittaker, to render the shots as cartoon cel animation, carefully matching the mannerisms and reactions of Joe as to where the coins should target, from which they were bi-packed into the Joe footage as backlit travelling mattes on Linwood Dunn's optical printer.  Scott spent more than a month rotoscoping and animating the cartoon footage, and the finished material worked a treat.

Ben Johnson consols a despondent Joe who is still pissed at having been knocked back for SON OF KONG(!)

The film takes a dark turn when three loudmouth drunks hassle Joe and introduce him to the 'demon booze'.  Not a wise decision as it turns out.

Nice subtle animation where Joe samples the booze...

...but whatever you do, don't open the cigarette lighter.  But don't worry folks, those bars are made of 'chromed steel'    (get it?)  ;)

'Don't get mad Joe.....Get even'.

A paste up image showing Joe climbing the faux tree in the Golden Safari in some sort of jungle flashback...

An unused concept by O'Bie which would have had Joe picking up obnoxious extras and throwing them into a large tank of crocodiles.  It gets my vote!

Something I always admired about MJY (and also a later very much under rated Peterson/O'Brien picture, THE BLACK SCORPION), was the inventive camera work and highly imaginative orchestration of some of the memorable stop motion gags.  This is a great, dizzying downview as Joe climbs the fake tree to survey the impending carnage.

Much destruction takes place, with carefully wired and rigged miniature sets being torn to pieces in front of a process screen.

Well, that godammned cello is gonna be the first thing to go!

...Followed by that piano!  Note the fine wires holding the model in position.

A great photo of the talented Pete Peterson animating some of the tree house carnage.  Apparently, Pete's wife had worked previously with O'Bie animating birds on KING KONG back in '33.

Joe the swinger.  Harryhausen spoke about the work:  "Suspending Joe on wires was never easy, especially when he had to be airborne.  Everything had to be rigged ahead of time.  If you leave a clamp loose, you're at the mercy of gravity.  Generally we used very thin piano wire, but I sometimes used support rods, as O'Bie had done on KING KONG."

Visual effects concept paste up combining already filmed stunt action with the proposed miniature work.

And the same sequence as it was finally put together.  Large miniature set and puppet, with frame by frame back projected stunt action.

Effective destruction, with all material property damage achieved as delicate stop motion as well as Joe.  Astonishingly, not only was the action animated here, but Bert Willis' fx camera was also match moved frame by frame as a truck in on the final part of the scene during Ray's animation.


As with the first appearence of Joe back at the start, he once again encounters a pride of lions caged in thick glass.  Another terrific piece of fx work here, with actual lions filmed on a safari ranch in California, under trainer Mel Koontz, and added into the miniature set as rear projected process shots.  What sells the shot is the brilliant transition as the glass cage shatters and the 'projected' real lion is replaced by one of Marcel Delgado's fabricated animated lions as it leaps onto Joe.  Outstanding!  You can sweep all your bloody CGI Marvel stuff out the door friends, these are 'special' effects!

Joe isn't about to be pussy-whipped by some damn lion.

Or is he??  :(

Again, utterly captivating effects photography, animation, editing, sound effects etc.

Joe uses all his might and pushes a giant fake tree over, causing much concern to the nightclub owners who weren't insured for just such a catastrophe.  Always read the fine print!

Superbly executed destruction on what must have been a significant scaled miniature set.  The overall Golden Safari miniature set measured some thirty feet across and contained five process projection set ups for the real lions within the faked African settings in glass fronted cages.  Jack Lannon was the physical/mechanical effects man on the film.

Puppet Joe in front of process projected miniature carnage, including model tree toppling.  The explosion of glass and sparks is yet another live action plate projected in behind the main miniature set, frame by frame.


We are currently in hiatus while we find a lookalike gorilla who will work, literally, for peanuts.

The city officials want to have Joe sent to the dog food factory, but Terry/Jill has other ideas...

On the run... just like Thelma and Louise.  Pete Peterson handled all of these shots.

Incredibly, even the getaway truck was a stop motion miniature.

As was this entire detour set up.

A beautifully crafted miniature valley and mountainscape, likely built by Victor Delgado, and it looks like it has been augmented with a foreground glass painting to assist with depth of field - a common practice in the old days with slower film stock etc.

All animated; the truck, the ape and the girl.



Pete Peterson and friends.


The County Sherrif and his cohorts are rapidly approaching.  All miniature stop motion work.


Merian C.Cooper asked for some light comedic touches, so Peterson animated some expressive, near 'human' gestures and some thumb tapping gags, which pleased the producer but not Harryhausen.


There's some really nice curling lip and sneer expressions here.

No, your eyes are not decieving you... MIGHTY JOE YOUNG really does change hue in the last reel to emphasise the danger of the visual effects packed fiery conclusion at this burning orphanage.

Behind the scenes photo from O'Brien's personal album.  Note the gas jets and special shaker rigging under the miniature which were controlled by special effects man Jack Lannon.

Entirely miniature set with stop motion truck approaching.  The rooftop fires are either rear projections or possibly added later optically.

Miniatures and animated truck.  One of O'Bie's close associates from the KONG films, Buzz Gibson, was on board MJY, though in what exact capacity I don't know.  He did some stop motion on the KONG films so may have helped with similar work here?

I have much admiration to Bert Willis and his crew for the excellent miniature cinematography throughout MJY, none more so than in the last couple of reels where the work is truly outstanding.  Bert's crew included Monroe Askins, Pinky Arnett, Richard DeVol, George Hollister and Tex Wheaton.

OMG... it's an inferno....a towering inferno!

A considerable amount of clever optical work is evident in these scenes, with Ben Johnson and Terry Moore matted into the large burning model as they climb the stairs.  Various fire elements and falling flaming debris were also superimposed by Linwood Dunn and Cecil Love on the Acme-Dunn optical printer.

It's really very impressive, and I'd love to see an exact breakdown of the elements that went together here.  Great work!!

I think the actors were on a small set of stairs with a large process screen behind them filled with miniature conflagration footage, with a split screened right side in foreground with a burning model in front of the actors... plus the superimposed debris falling.


Harold Stine photographed the gradually collapsing seven foot tall miniature orphanage at 96 frames per second.

More excellent miniature work as Joe senses trouble above, and clambers up to the roof.

All of the animation staff had a part to play in the tree sequences, including Marcel Delgado, who did the long shots with the smallest 4 inch Joe model.

Harryhausen had a small foot pedal on the floor to advance the camera and projector frame by frame.  Camera assistant Monroe Askins was tasked with always making sure the Mitchell was sufficiently locked down and running properly.

The orphanage begins to collapse.

Joe breaks open the wall and rescues his gal.  Another outstanding bit of trick work combining process fire fx, an additional process plate of Terry Moore, a miniature structure - destroyed in stop motion - and of course, our pal Joe


The entire last reel is packed with wall to wall visual effects; from large scale miniatures, pyro effects, mattes, split screen effects, animation, optical superimpositions and rear projection - sometimes all at once in a single given shot!

I'm fairly sure that this is Pete Peterson, though it sure is a sensational behind the scenes photo.

Apparently, these specially tinted sequences were missing from prints for a number of years - possibly due to the cost of striking 35mm or 16mm prints with special requirements.  A few initial release prints had these reels printed by Technicolor, though the cost was too much for the producers so the remaining prints relied upon a simplified 'tone and tint' process using standard black & white film.  The DVD's and BluRays have restored it all as intended.

The sudden change to tinted footage was jarring at the time for audiences, not to mention theatre projectionists, who scrambled to check whether they had threaded the correct film for the change over!

An expertly carried out bit of miniature demolition and effects camerawork.



The miniature was mounted on a large rocker platform which shook the pre-prepared (plaster?) structure loose to great effect.


I've seen the sequence in plain old monochrome and it isn't half as effective.


A remarkably crisp muliple part composite that has all the hallmarks of being first generation.  The live action rooftop set has been combined flawlessly with what appears to be an extensive matte painted downview, with people, possibly painted and with slot gag 'movement'(?), or a live action plate with real extras.  Also, some optically added fire to set the scene.  One of the best shots in the film.

Left, a split screen matte.  Right, full miniature set and characters.

MJY took some two years of extensive pre-production, followed by around 14 months of animation, matte and composite work, and three months of principal photography.


The top left frame is from Marcel Delgado's animation using the smallest of the 6 Joe models.

Another tremendously effective shot has the baby crawling along the ledge while all burns around him.  A brilliantly executed scene with model rooftop and tree, complete with Ray's animated puppet baby - built by Marcel Delgado - and rear projected inferno.  


An incredibly powerful shot where all hope seems lost.

A great deal of emotion was injected into the Joe puppets, largely by Ray Harryhausen, armed with a modelling tool, a screwdriver, an animators surface gauge, and a pencil eraser to facilitate eyebrow movements and manipulation.

Yet another highly inventive piece of action where the tree falls to the ground with Joe, still safely clutching the baby.  The neat thing is that the camera's POV follows the tree collapse in a single motion shot, almost as if the cameraman were bolted to the tree!!  Brilliantly conceived and executed.

A second angle shows onlookers projected in.

"I can't hold her together Captain...she's breakin' up!"

Cooper was so impressed by Harryhausen's output that he loaded a bonus onto his $250 salary per week.

First rate miniature destruction married with first rate animation.

Frame by frame...

"So...what do you say we split this joint and head off somewhere for a quiet drink?"

T'was beauty who, this time, didn't kill the beast...  He lived to a ripe old age back in ole' Africa (*and no 12 foot gorilla's were harmed during the making of this motion picture).


The upper left and middle frames are from the end title of MJY while the rest of these frames come from the re-issue trailer.  They made such good trailers back then that would tempt any 12 year old boy to go along.  I don't think the film was a particularly successful one, sadly, with a few atrocious reviews here and there, but reportedly theatres had sell out houses in various venues, so it certainly had an audience.  I believe that the production company, Arko/Argosy, had a deal with RKO for a 50/50 split of international distribution rights.

Willis and the Oscar for Best Special Effects.  The trophy actually was meant to go to the producer, as was the accepted practice, but Cooper happily gave the statuette to his longtime friend and creative associate, not only for MJY, but as an acknowledgement for all he'd done on KING KONG, which preceeded the FX Oscar category by some six years.  This Oscar has just come up for auction should any of my readers be interested??

The original pressbook from an era when they really knew how to sell a movie!


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NZ Pete's Big Box of Mattes:

As I mentioned, I was very happy to recently recieve a large, solidly constructed wooden crate from Los Angeles containing a bounty of wonderful original Universal and Illusion Arts matte paintings from Bill Taylor's collection.  I'm so thrilled with these beautiful pieces, which include one of Albert Whitlock's and a half dozen of Syd Dutton's as well as a couple of unidentified works at the reverse sides of two mattes.  
Out of neccessity I had to choose mattes prepared on hardboard (or Masonite as it's called in the States) for safe shipping purposes over a vast distance to the other end of the globe. A couple of them were already in their original old Universal pine frames so I've been busy constructing frames for the remainder, as well as mounting same up on wall space, which was a task and a half given the very large dimensions of the mattes and the added weight of the wooden frames.  Three of them went atop a high staircase and that required very precarious balancing acts atop high ladder wedged on a narrow edge of steps.  Got there after some sweating and swearing.

Here are the mattes and some close up details as well.  If anyone else has acquired any of those many mattes that were recently auctioned off, do tell me what you have.

Enjoy



The 130kg crate which reached New Zealand quite speedily yet sat in NZ Customs for some 9 days till they finally got around to opening it and examining the very well packed contents, which they apparently also photographed for some unknown reason?  At least in got here, which in this pandemic of 'the pox' is in itself, a small mercy.

Probably my favourite one, and a matte that simply draws in the eye of the viewer with it's myriad network of roadways and a wonderful vanishing point.  It's one of many mattes that Syd painted for a short lived sci-fi series OTHERWORLD (1985) - a show that has a dedicated fan base still to this day.  The vast size measuring around 96 inches in width seemed excessive for tv but the final shot involved a foreground glass painted hot air balloon with painted people which travelled frame by frame up and over the futuristic city, with the camera following the balloon's progress.  Syd told me that he designed it all to resemble a giant circuit board.

Detail of Syd's loose and impressionistic brushwork which sells as photo real when viewed in toto.

More of the same.

Annoyingly, OTHERWORLD has never been released on any form of home video at all, despite having a cult following.  C'mon Universal/MCA.... get off your lazy arses and release this 8 part series... please.


 
I love strong perspective work in matte art, and this one proudly fills a wall in my living room.

Another Dutton matte painting, also from OTHERWORLD (1985), is a stunner, and is beautifully rendered.  The final shot in the show involved subtle painted light rays coming through the trees on an overlay, with a slow push in on the castle.  My wife, who is firmly disinterested in mattes and fails to 'share the joy', and took MUCH convincing to allow me to embark on this matte importing venture, loves this one and admits to having great admiration for the rest of 'em too.


Detail

This one is a stunner, with all the elements falling into place that I like: an evocative sky with finely crafted clouds, strong architectural detail and a wonderful sense of backlight.  It was painted by Syd Dutton around 1988 for a commercial for a French energy company.  See below...

A frame from the final composite (maybe a tilt up?) which show a parent and child walk up a ridge and point out the 'city of the future', which presumably is powered most efficiently by some French energy corporation of some description.  There is animated traffic on the freeways and, I think, moving clouds drifting across the vista.

Close up of the futuristic city.


Syd makes it all look so easy...



A striking 10th Century European landscape with traditional motte and bailey fortifications as painted for the fantasy film DRAGONHEART (1996) starring Dennis Quaid and Sean Connery.  Syd Dutton painted this beautiful matte after the film's original effects contractors, ILM, failed to come up with a satisfactory result, with Illusion Arts coming to the rescue.


Detail from the very large 78 inch wide matte.




And here I can say I'm so happy to own an original Albert Whitlock matte.  This gorgeous sunset across a valley is a sight to behold up close, and was painted for the Andy Kaufman robot love story HEARTBEEPS (1981).  The extra sky at left was a standard Whitlock/Dutton gag, painted deliberately to allow later drifting cloud trickery with the sky exposed in separate soft matted bands as the painting is moved frame by frame on a horizontal matte stand.

Whitlock was the master of light when it came to subtle infusion and gently inter-woven hues. Genius!


Just love those violet hues creeping over the valley.

Of interest, I have a video interview with Whitlock at Universal at work on this matte and describing in detail the many additional gags that will be employed to add life to the raw painting, including a burnt in sun element, moving clouds, complex painted overlay animation of the last rays of sunlight gradually fading from the foliage.  For a subsequent wider shot as seen through the factory windows by the main characters, a real tree was positioned on set outside the window in front of a blue screen which covered the unpainted left side of the artwork.

Another of Syd's mattes, and one of many he painted for the popular tv series from the late eighties, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  I find this particularly atmospheric.

The finished scene with the boat added as well as a painted overlay of light rays.  That series had so much matte work.

Close up



A bonus painting as found at the back of one of the other mattes was this Japanese temple in a thunderstorm from the relentlessly violent Christopher Lambert actioner THE HUNTED (1995).

Before and after showing the final composite with drifting cloudscape, moon element, lightning flash interactive gags and rain all added on the matte stand.  Note the top of the tree at right has not been painted on the original matte but does appear in the finished composite.  The tree top was painted on a foreground glass so as to facilitate the moving clouds and other painted overlays with lightning highlights across the clouds and temple.

Detail plus half a tree!

Although Dutton did paint on this film, he thinks this shot was done by another artist, most likely Robert Stromberg.

And finally, another interesting little 'bonus' of sorts, on the reverse side of one of the paintings.  What appears to be a loose blocking in of a matte that will be eventually completed separately (see below...)

The finished matte painting that Syd painted for what he told me was a 'Terry Bedford commercial'.  Syd mentioned that the final composite included a coyote or large dog bipacked up on the ridge and howling at the sky.


***This post, and all 171 previous blogs known as 'Matte Shot', were originally created by Peter Cook for nzpetesmatteshot, with all content, layout and text originally published at http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com/




I hope you enjoyed this journey as much as I did.  Your feedback is always welcomed and appreciated.

Stay safe wherever in the world you happen to be.

Pete

12 comments:

  1. Hi Pete! I love this blog on Mighty Joe Young. You have some great behind the scenes photos I have never seen before. Regarding the sequence with Joe and the Lion cage...the way I would have done this shot is to have rear projected the plate of the lion into the miniature wagon/cage. I would have filmed the lion plate in a cage that was rigged to tip over. As Joe was animated frame by frame and the rear projected lion plate was advanced frame by frame, Joe pushed the cage over matching the tilt/perspective of the projected lion image. Maybe it was done another way but this how I would have done the shot. Thanks for doing this blog of one of my favorite movies! Harry Walton.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Harry

      I always enjoy your feedback and industry knowledge.
      Thanks for the 'professional' explanantion. A remarkable sequence amid scores of remarkable fx shots in an overlooked stop motion masterpiece.

      It's always so fulfilling to get feedback from real effects people such as yourself. Makes it seem worthwhile.

      Pete

      Delete
  2. Pete, you have done it again. All your hard worked paid off, providing such a tribute to OBie, Ray and their associates for their impressive vfx work on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG! However, I have to complain that I seriously hurt my jaw from dropping repeatedly... Thanks so much for keeping old school vfx alive. And all my gratitude for mentioning my book!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Mark

      Thanks for that. I knew you'd enjoy that article as I know you have a 'sleight' penchant for all (I repeat ALL) things stop motion. Personally I've been told by some that YOU yourself have an armature and foam latex construct instead of flesh & bone.

      A correction for the book review... In error I meant to say that your book is up with the best of them "with the possible exception of that incredible Master of the Majicks" tome(s) on RH. Call it editorial confusion after a marathon typefest.

      Pete

      Delete
  3. An amazing presentation! Thanks for all your hard work.

    With regard to double-exposing the front-projected lion footage, I believe this was done by rigging the miniature lion cage to a ratchet mechanism. Turning a handle would tilt the cage one increment (one click of the ratchet) at a time. This precise control allowed the movements to be repeated on a second pass.

    During the first pass, the effects crew had to log the particular frame when the cage started to tilt, and note down all subsequent ratchet turns from frame to frame. For instance: frame 462, 3 clicks right; frame 463, 2 clicks right. Etc.

    Once the main animation was completed, the film was rewound and the set was draped in black, with only the lion footage (front-projected onto a white card, or so I’ve read) visible inside the now-dark miniature cage. At the appropriate point, the ratchet mechanism was again used to tilt the cage, with the new movements exactly replicating the original ones, following the crew's detailed log.

    As long as nobody lost count, the cage would perform the same motions as it had the first time, and the resulting double exposure would match the projected lion to the animated cage.

    Of course, it would have been far easier to project the lion into the shot while the main animation was being done, but assuming it was front projection (as I believe), the image would have been washed out by the general lighting. There was no super-reflective material such as Scotchlite available yet.

    ReplyDelete
  4. An amazing presentation! Thanks for all your hard work.

    With regard to double-exposing the front-projected lion footage, I believe this was done by rigging the miniature lion cage to a ratchet mechanism. Turning a handle would tilt the cage one increment (one click of the ratchet) at a time. This precision control allowed the effects crew to perfectly reproduce the motions of the cage in a second pass.

    During the first pass, the crew had to log the particular frame when the cage started to tilt, and note down all subsequent ratchet turns from frame to frame. For instance: frame 462, 3 clicks right; frame 463, 2 clicks right …

    For the second pass, the set was draped in black, with only the lion footage (front-projected onto a white card, or so I’ve read) visible inside the now-dark miniature cage. The rewound film was advanced to the point at which the cage started to tilt. The log kept during the first pass told exactly how many ratchet clicks were needed in any given frame in order to match the previously exposed footage.

    Of course, it would have been much easier to project the lion into the shot while the gorilla animation was being done, but assuming front projection was used (as I believe), the image would have been washed out by the general lighting. There was no super-reflective material such as Scotchlite available back then.

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    1. Hi Michael

      Thanks for that pretty credible theory. The shot has perplexed me for years, as it's so far removed from the regular 'locked off' shot where this would normally have been straight forward.

      All the best

      Pete

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  5. Hello Pete,

    Great blog, as usual! Just when I thought I'd seen everything there is to see on Mighty Joe Young, you come up with some new images and info! And thanks for the preview of Mark's book--it was great fun working that up with Mark--and the mention of Master of the Majicks.

    Just a quick note regarding the lion cage shot: Michael, above, pretty much got it right. Ray confirmed both front projection (onto a white card) and two passes on several occasions over the years, and to me, personally. The stop motion does not need to be repeated, which, as you say, would be impossible. But during the animation pass the interior lion cage was blacked out with black velvet (or whatever), and the second pass, in sync, had the whole set darkened with only the live action image front projected onto the white card inside the cage visible. This allows for greater control of exposure (both f/stop and exposure time for the sake of depth of field).

    (Incidentally, taking a lesson from this shot, Ray later used the front-projection-onto-a-white-card approach for the wide shot of the lighthouse in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.)

    As Michael stated, the cage is attached to an unseen hinge-type rig that could be tightened, with incremental hash marks to indicate its position frame-by-frame. This allowed the "tip-over" action to be repeated accurately, and in sync with the first pass.

    I think you mentioned this but it's interesting to see that the platform with the live action lion was tipped during photography of that element: note the shift of shadows in that image.

    Keep up the good work!

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    1. Hi Ernia

      So good to hear from you, and thanks for the excellent summary.
      I had wondered forever about the mechanics of that shot, and it now seems we have a totally accurate explanation. It all makes sense now. Such a bold and superbly executed bit of trickery - especially for 1949.

      In my mention of the incredible Majicks books on Ray, I mistakedly made it sound as if I hadn't read any (due to a rush to finally edit sentences and publish at 3am in the morning!)... Truth is, I do have the phenomenal Majicks tome on Ray's British films - purchased from you - and it is probably THE most exhaustively researched, illustrated, detailed and annotated volume on special visual effects EVER published! Be proud my friend... it's one of the 'wonders of the world'.

      Pete

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  6. Great work, as always, Pete!
    Thanks for the recommandation about Smoke and Mirrors too ! Good books about special effects are so rare it is great to see them mentioned here.

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  7. Whew!!! This is one of your monster posts where I just had to sit and study it all of the way through, with no breaks. As a long-time reader of your page, I am continually impressed with all of your dedication and hard work. And congratulations on that crate of paintings! I can't imagine having a big enough house to display such wonders. Wow. Again, strong work!

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    1. Hi there Drew,

      Thanks for that letter of approval. Just when I'm left pondering whether I'd completely gone over the top with a given blog post, I'm always delighted to get a note just like yours, where you by all accounts, lapped it all up!

      Regards

      Pete

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