Friday 15 October 2021

MATTE TRICK SHOT REVIEW: Scaling The Heights of Excellence


Hi there friends... and welcome to another edition of NZ Pete's Matte Shot; your veritable 'one stop shop' for all things 'traditional' as far as painted mattes go, as well as other forms of old school hand made motion picture trick shots.  I've got some wonderful material assembled here, a great deal of which hasn't been seen before.

The title banner on todays edition, Scaling The Heights of Excellence, was most deliberate.  It actually encompasses not just a very spectacular effects filled Alpine motion picture from the late fifties, but also doubles as a personal tribute to the recent passing of one of the visual effects community's most respected members, the late Bill Taylor, with whom I've had many helpful and engaging interactions with over a number of years.

This edition of Matte Shot features a long overdue retrospective on the astonishing Disney picture THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN - with celebrated matte artist and visual effects designer Peter Ellenshaw providing dozens of thrilling trick shots.  Also, in a not entirely coincidental outcome, I've included some bafflingly well executed trickery carried out by none other than Ellenshaw's own step-father, the great Walter Percy Day, from one of his final films, the brooding, though excellent Carol Reed picture OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS reviewed here.  Also, how can NZ Pete release a blog without at least one old MGM show?  Well, the beautifully acted and directed MADAME CURIE is one such picture, with a dozen wonderful Newcombe mattes, of the quality readers of this blog have become accustomed to (even though we all know Warren never painted a single one himself!)

Last in the line up is ZARAK - a big budget UK period swashbuckling actioner set in what would eventually become Pakistan, with some Tom Howard supervised sprawling mattes, a tough square jawed hero and a spectacularly eye-popping leading lady who filled the lush and vivid compositions of the CinemaScope frame admirably.

Finally, some very exciting news - well for Pete it's monumental in VFX thrill factor.  I have been fortunate indeed to have been sent the long lost before and after HD transfers of the matte showreels of old time Universal matte exponent, Russell Lawson (thank you so much Thomas).  These original 35mm reels - dating from the 1950's - have been in storage among the late Bill Taylor's collection for decades, and feature among the nearly 12 hours of 35mm showreel material covering all of Al Whitlock's work and subsequent Illusion Arts assignments.  I had intended to include them here in this blog, but will instead do so 'next issue'.     I did however include one fabulous sample at the close of this blog.



***This post, and all 172 previous blogs known as 'Matte Shot', were originally created by Peter Cook for nzpetesmatteshot, with all content, layout and text originally published at


BILL TAYLOR - Respected VFX Cinematographer, Inventor, Magician, Collector.

With the sad passing a month or so ago of Bill Taylor, I'm using this opportunity to pay tribute to a man whose many contributions to the film industry - not to mention the world of stage magic and illusion - have earned a number of accolades over the years. 

Bill Taylor pauses for a snapshot while on a desert location in 1994 for the film SPEECHLESS.

Although I never met Bill in person, I can say that I did enjoy a most fruitful and highly educational line of communication with him for a number of years, through a great many email missives back and forth, largely on the subject of matte shots, photographic effects and technical breakdowns.  We also had some wonderful discussions on cinematographers, such as the late, great Gordon Willis; films that had been overlooked, effects wizards from the golden era and a few personal opinions Bill had on certain auteur directors he'd had the displeasure of working with.

I have been so very fortunate since I created this blog around 12 years back.  There have been so many specialists in the field who have been more than happy to answer my 'inane' questions, explain modus-operandi, share long lost tricks of the trade and basically open up.  Guys like Harrison Ellenshaw, Mark Sullivan, Jim Danforth, Gerald Larn, Brian Johnson, Matthew Yuricich, Syd Dutton and others, have been so generous with their time.  Bill was one such gentleman - and from comments I've received from others, he was a gentleman - where no question would ever go unanswered, trick shots were broken down and explained in incredible detail, right down to the film stock used and whether the film had been 'flashed', etc.  Bill's memory on all aspects of not just the thousand odd trick shots he'd no doubt worked on, but on the work of others in the business, was phenomenal to say the least.

Far left:  Bill at Illusion Arts shooting some bi-pack elements.  Middle: Lining up a blue screen shot for THE GATE.  Right:  Bill and Syd and their excellent adventure.

Only now do I realise, having spoken to Bill's long time associate, Syd Dutton, that this sort of 'giving back' and furthering the educational aspect of the effects business was something Bill was driven by.  

In a recent conversation between Syd and myself, I asked about Bill's interests, knowing him to be a very keen magician and in the process of writing a book on the subject, Syd summed up his longtime friend and collaborator so well:  "Yes, Bill did finish his magic book. I have no information about publication.  Bill had so many interests. Magic might have been his first love. His sister just recently told me that at her wedding, he cut one her bridesmaids in half. I know he had an act, dressed in top hat and tuxedo  along with the obligatory attractive female assistant, but unfortunately I never saw a performance".

"Our long 26 year partnership probably worked because we were so different. Bill was active in the whole visual effects community and advancing the science of cinematography. I was only concerned with painting and solving visual problems. Bill was also an avid clock collector and fascinated by different movements, complications and how it impacted the history of navigation. After long hours in front of the easel, my only interest was driving home to my family and a stiff drink".

"Bill also loved music. But that’s another story among several others.  
Bill’s home, in which he lived the entire time I knew him, he'd had that completely 'tricked out' - a treasure trove of an eccentric, multi-faceted man.
I told someone that Bill was like a Swiss Army knife, the specialty blades neatly folded and hidden away until needed".

Some of the faces of Bill Taylor.  At left, busy with Albert Whitlock rigging the miniature 747 jumbo jet for the sea crash in AIRPORT 77.  Top right shows Bill manning the trusty matte camera for a shot for the film WEEDS, in which a standard street in North Carolina will be transformed into a bustling New York City avenue.  Lower right is a rare behind the scenes picture showing Bill (in white shirt) with Jim Danforth (manning camera) and Laine Liska shooting effects tests for the unfinished film COLD WAR IN A COUNTRY GARDEN (aka THE MICRONAUTS) *photo courtesy Jim's excellent memoir Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama.

Rather than go into a complete historical study of Bill's career, as I've written much about it in earlier blogs, and an excellent, wonderfully detailed piece appeared courtesy of the American Society of Cinematographers, which can be found here, I'll instead provide some personal anecdotes from Bill, as well as some comments from those who knew him and very kindly contacted me, along with a rare selection of behind the scenes photos and clips. I've included a few select effects shots only as to do a full and complete summary would indeed be an epic endeavour.  Much of Bill's work can be shown in my extensive three part career piece on Albert Whitlock; here, here & here, as well as an article I did years ago on Illusion Arts (here).

Two important pieces of machinery that Bill utilised on a daily basis throughout the photo-chemical era at both Universal and later on at Illusion Arts.  On left is the tried and trusty Mitchell-Fries 35mm matte shot camera.  On the right is the studio matte camera mounted on a sturdy lathe bed as used for photographing paintings, making latent image composites and introducing elements within specific shots by way of the bi-pack arrangement.  Note the lamphouse visible at the right, allowing the camera to also serve as a projector for displaying a frame of the original plate photography onto the primed and prepared glass for the matte artist to trace off and make the necessary perspective lines and other important decisions.

Matte painter and all round visual effects exponent Mark Sullivan wrote me:  "The news about Bill shook me up. Bill, Albert Whitlock and Syd Dutton were a huge inspiration to me growing up (and now, too).  I recall meeting Bill when he visited Jim Danforth, at Jim’s studio. I was working on my first professional matte painting at the time. Being in the same room with Bill Taylor and Jim Danforth, I felt very privileged, and lucky!  As Bill was very skilled and knowledgable, he was equally as kind and courteous."

A great behind the scenes photo from the making of the Oscar winning THE HINDENBURG (1975), which was Bill's first assignment when hired by Albert Whitlock at Universal - and as Bill once regaled to me, almost became his last assignment!  From left to right are assistant matte painter Syd Dutton; matte camera assistant Mike Moramarco; visual effects supervisor Al Whitlock; effects cinematographer Bill Taylor; key grip Larry Shuler; and special stills photographer Larry Barbier.

Years ago, Bill told me about his first 'adventure' with the fated German airship on the backot:  "I was determined to shoot the miniature airship in real sunlight; no phoney stage lighting for me!  I experimented with an odd scheme for matting the miniature that I thought would work in daylight that in retrospect sounds 'Fulton-esque'.  In those days a day-lit blue screen was not saturated enough to give a good result.  I shot the model airship against black velvet, with the sun as the key light.  I filled in the miniature with a row of arc lights with deep blue filters, balanced so that viewed through a blue filter the ship appeared to be flat lit. Black detail like the swastica was painted blue."

"My intent was to print a silhouette matte from a  blue positive separation,  which I hoped would have uniform density throughout. Then the foreground detail would go on with the green separation used twice, through blue and green filters, and with the red separation. This of course was a sort of simplified Vlahos colour-difference dupe. The highlights and shadows and the red patch around the swastica reproduced normally on the green and red separations.  Don't think anything like this had been tried in colour." 
"Clever scheme, eh?  In practice, a disaster!   The grey airship just soaked up the blue light, and even with arc lamps cheek by jowl, it proved to be impossible to light the shadow side uniformly enough so there were not translucent areas in the matte.  To try to get the sun intensity in balance with the arcs. I had the grips hang a net over the airship.  If there was more than one layer of net, there were beautiful moire patterns cast on the ship.  There was a little wind on the back lot on one day, which ripped the net, and down it came, where the arc lights burned holes in it. 
 It was thanks to Al Whitlock's enormous clout at the studio that I got to try this in the first place, and did not get fired as a result!"
"I began to re-think shooting the miniature against blue screen on the sound stage, which we finally did.  On Universal's biggest stage,stage 12, which was right outside our door, I could back the single key light 200 feet away to get really hard, parallel shadows.  I loved those old arc lights, which were close to being point sources of light.   A great big wrap-around diffuser produced shadowless fill and a ground cloth produced the appropriate bounce from land, water or lower clouds.  We dollied the camera on rails which rested on a carefully screeded sand bed, so the camera move was dead smooth" .

THE HINDENBURG - Bill with grip Larry Shuler at left, and with cameraman Mike Moramarco at right, in the process of filming the post crash wreckage of the dirigible.  The partially visible full scale rigged airship skeleton would be matted out and replaced with entirely painted elements by Whitlock.

Bill had been an entry level employee at Ray Mercer Opticals in the early sixties, gradually moving from van driver and general helper, to learning optical line-up work and finally camera operator.  "During my ten years at Mercer and some time with Linwood Dunn at Film Effects of Hollywood, I introduced myself to Al Whitlock around 1965, by cold calling him at Universal, and also to Petro Vlahos, from whom I learned the Colour Difference Blue Screen System for travelling mattes.  Those two gentlemen changed my life, because when Whitlock needed a blue screen 'expert' for THE HINDENBURG, he hired me to take the newly retired Ross Hoffman's position".  Bill also remarked:  "In between Mercer and Universal I did the opticals and served as consultant on John Carpenter's and Dan O'Bannon's DARK STAR - and I also wrote the lyrics for the title song, 'Benson Arizona'.  You can get to do pretty much anything you can in the low-budget film world.  So, in brief, I worked nine years at Mercer, one year freelancing, ten years at Universal and 26 years at Illusion Arts.  I have been so lucky.  Most of my colleagues have had dozens of jobs, and I've really only had three".

Before and after, with the final composite.

Also from THE HINDENBURG was this seemingly ordinary, mundane production shot that I'd never appreciated, until Syd Dutton drew it to my attention, as described below.  This sort of ingenius problem solving was what traditional trick photography was all about folks...

For quite some time I had assumed the shot shown above to be a piece of newsreel footage, but then Syd Dutton mentioned a particular HINDENBURG fx shot that always made a lasting impression:   "One of my favorite fx shots in the film wasn’t a painting at all, and I was referring to the men on the guide line shot at magic hour and then in sunlight to simulate the explosion. Pure genius."  Syd then asked Bill to write me his recollections of the particular shot, which now puts a whole new spin on the brief cut for me:   "Syd is referring to the shot in which the men holding the mooring lines are suddenly lit by the explosion of the airship above them.  Our camera was on one of the big corner pylons of the airship hanger in  Santa Ana.  The same men were shot twice in exactly the same positions, their feet carefully marked and each man taking note of his body position.  In one shot they were in full sun from above, casting strong shadows.  On cue, they dropped the lines and ran away.  In the second shot, made later the same day when the sun was low enough to be off them (Magic Hour), we shot them in the same spots, looking upward at the airship.  I had shot a Polaroid of the guys in the first shot and we used it to cue them into matching poses."
"The shot in the film starts with the Magic Hour shot.  With a very soft-edge wipe we transitioned to the brightly-lit men colour timed to appear as though they are lit by the exploding airship.  Their shadows provide exclamation marks as each man runs for his life.  Because the scope of the shot is so wide, it would have been impossible to achieve the effect with any lighting instrument and of course any real pyrotechnic effect would have been very dangerous.  As Syd said, a brilliant idea.  Albert did not get hung up on whether the effect was physically 'authentic'; he knew that for the few seconds that were needed it would play perfectly."

Whitlock with Taylor on location in Vermont on Interstate 89 shooting plates for what will become the fictional town of Milburn for the film GHOST STORY (1981).

Bill checks his f-stop while atop an elaborate manually 'driven' camera dolly/sled, as constructed by key grip Lyn Ledgerwood, for a vital sequence in the film GHOST STORY.  In the scene, actor Craig Wasson, ultimately blue screened into this miniature plate, tumbles to his death, with the camera both trailing the frightening descent with him, in addition to capturing the subsequent up-view of the actor falling face first straight into the glass atrium.

On board The Queen Mary, in Long Beach, for the filming of CHAPLIN (1992).  From left:  Bill, Larry Shuler, Albert and Syd.

Veteran stop motion exponent, matte artist and fantasy film visionary, Jim Danforth, worked with Bill on a number of occasions, dating back to the early 1970's, and told me he had very fond memories of those times:  "For many years, I owned an MGBGT automobile. It accommodated two nicely, but there was only a small back seat, plus the luggage area.  Bill often curled up in the luggage area.  What fun we had".  Jim and Bill collaborated on projects as diverse as the popular KUNG FU television series, John Carpenter's cult flick, DARK STAR, the low budget Australian drive-in classic ESKIMO NELL, and the unfinished science fiction project COLD WAR IN A COUNTRY GARDEN.
"Bill was very generous, and he gave my wife Karen and me tickets to see Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, He also took Karen and I to some magic shows starring David Copperfield, for example. Bill also took the official studio portrait of Al Whitlock and was a proud member of the ASC - the American Society of Cinematographers."
Unknown to many, Bill also plied his thespian talents, and appeared in bit parts in things like the terrific original ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, INTO THE NIGHT, THE FOG, BEVERLY HILLS COP 3 and others.

A curious snapshot which once again proved some amazing visuals could be conjured up with the most rudimentary of materials and a considerable degree of imagination.  This is the special camera rig built for the explosive climax of the exceedingly groovy flick, THE CAR (1977).  In fact, it was my curiosity about the visuals in this film which prompted me to contact Bill many years ago - not for one moment expecting so much as a response.  Bill quickly replied, amazed at my interest in this forgotten bit and elaborated on the scene in great detail, for which I was - and remained - very grateful.  Shown here are Bill, Mike Moramarco and Al Whitlock with the home built lens distortion rig that would create the demonic incarnation from the bowels of hades for the fiery climax.

Ever since I saw THE CAR back in '77 on the huge Scope screen at our Cinerama theatre - complete with pounding Leonard Rosenman score, it's been a favourite for NZ Pete.  Here's what a somewhat surprised Bill had to say when I wrote him: "I'm glad you like this shot.  As time has passed and technology has improved, it makes me wince.  The face was much subtler in earlier versions, but previews revealed that most of the audience did not get the gag, so we re-did it much more blatantly.  I thought that a horn on the soundtrack, accompanied by a flashing title that read, 'big demon face' was the next logical step".

"We started with big naptha fires and slow motion flame thrower film elements just as you thought.  
We shot elements of white Mole smoke against black in our studio, which we cherry-picked to find interesting shapes, then reversed into black smoke to serve as the background for the face.  The face features were constructed from black cloth on an articulated wire armature so the mouth could move.  The cloth was dampened with napthalene - like lighter fluid, nice yellow flame - and set alight, blown with a fan and photographed in colour at a high frame rate, probably about 120 FPS.  I recall that it dripped little drops of flaming naptha.   Even though the face was a pretty good size, the flames were too big in scale and 'miniature-y' looking so we hit on the idea of shooting them through a moving distortion glass to break them up". 

"The final result was not exactly finished as much as it was abandoned, since we just ran out of time. Leonard Rosenman's music helped a lot!  I thought that this was a pretty good film in which the subtler ideas are the most effective, like the creak of the floor boards just before the car appears in the barn".

Still so cool after all these years.  As far as flaming satanic beasts from the pits of hell go, this evil bastard get's my vote every time!

In an astonishingly rare-as-hens-teeth snapshot here my friends is the aforementioned 'Devil' in all his sock-puppet, 'lamb chops' meets Cujo glory!  My pal Thomas Higginson sent me this, and some of the other pics here, and had this to say:  "Here's another pic of that odd 'The Car' gag.  There you'll see Al with the toy race track transmitters that controlled the rotational speed of the distortion lenses and Syd in command of the sock puppet.  The picture says it all!"

One of my all time favourite movies was THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), and alongside a few mattes, Bill engineered a show stopping sequence where an entire flop-house in Chicago is blown to pieces by a patently off her head Carrie Fisher.  The view here was in fact a huge photo blow up of the actual location, salvaged from the small amount of head trim from the original 35mm production take.  The blow- up was heavily massaged with painted touch ups and blends.  Bill told me all about the trick, as explained below, which I think is a corker of a shot.

"The explosion shot for The Blues Brothers may be more amazing than you realize" Bill revealed to me.  "There is no actual miniature at work here; it's all a giant blow up, but carefully divided into two planes.  The back plane photo of the hotel was pasted onto a large thin sheet of fabricated plasterboard, made with a very brittle formula.  The photo/painting was heavily scored with a Stanley knife so that it would break apart at the appropriate places.  There were holes cut clear through for window openings, and so forth.  The back of the plasterboard was 'wired' with a large serpentine pattern of the smallest, 'gentlest' detonation cord available.  Because the 'det-cord' is virtually instantaneous, the timing was critical to allow the naptha bag explosion to develop before the plaster was blown.  A small scale test determined that timing.  There was only one full size take needed".  Interestingly, as an aside, many years later at the VES tribute to Al Whitlock, director John Landis regaled the audience and panel with his memory of being invited onto the effects stage by Al to witness the epic event.  Once the cameras rolled at a very high and noisy frame rate as was needed, it was all over in a mere second.... basically a 'poof' and a quick 'flash'.  Landis reported witnessing the event first hand as being "Extremely unimpressive", but once finished and cut into the daillies the shot looked a million dollars.

A great insider look at the Illusion Arts crew creating a smoke effect or other gag with various liquids for an unknown production in the 1990s.  Left-to-right: Matte cameraman Mark Sawicki, Bill and miniatures wrangler Lynn Ledgerwood.

The daily routine at Illusion Arts in the mid nineties, with Bill retrieving 35mm original negative 'held takes' from the chiller; setting the mag onto the motion control system; and shooting a multiplane matte/miniature set up for DENNIS THE MENACE. 
One of the reasons Bill found himself fascinated by trick photography was the work and films of the legendary Ray Harryhausen.  Here is a picture of Bill presenting Ray with an award at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.  The frames shown here are, of course, from Ray's remarkable JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) -  a film which stimulated the imaginations of so many future visual effects exponents, not to mention many thousands of 'monster kid movie' freaks like yours truly and I'm certain, a whole swag of Matte Shot readers out there.

Speaking with Bill a decade or more ago, he shared his memories of early influences:  "When I saw JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS in the summer of my freshman year at Pomona college, at which I flunked out after just three semesters, I was immediately inspired by Ray Harryhausen's example to look for a career in the visual effects field.  I was thunderstruck to realize that here were visual illusions on such an enormous scale.  Up until then, and unlike virtually all of my contemporaries in the effects world, I had not been especially interested in visual effects, or even in photography; but since my artistic abilities were nil, it at least seemed that a life in the movie business as a technician was possible".

Like me, Bill admired so many of the old effects films, and we talked at one stage about the work in Disney's fabulous DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959) - a film I still regard as perhaps the pinnacle of all round trick shot excellence.  "Some of the classic stuff is so perfect, that it's hard to imagine what's really going on.  I remember being totally baffled by the trick perspective work in DARBY O'GILL, and Peter Ellenshaw's work, until I finally read an explanation somewhere.  So, I was delighted to be part of Randy Cook's crew years later on the trick perspective shots he designed for THE GATE.  Later I devised the moving camera trick perspective technique used in the first LORD OF THE RINGS film, which allowed limited dolly moves in depth, so I feel like I made a tiny contribution to the advancement of the art".

The many facets of Bill.  At left attending a tribute for comedian and actor Steve Martin - himself  a lifelong devotee of magic - Bill demonstrates a series of sleight-of-hand coin tricks he learned from a very young Steve, back in the early 1960's while working together in the magic store at Disneyland.  Upper right shows Bill and Syd conducting one of their day long seminars on VFX, while the lower right has Bill demostrating to a group of aspiring effects students.

In an email, Bill told me about his interests in stage magic:  "I was indeed interested in both stage magic and sleight of hand, and have created several stage illusions that have been performed by magicians around the world, including Harry Blackstone jnr, and The Pendragons".  At the time of writing to me Bill said that he was still busy as an illusion designer at Owen Magic in California.  In another conversation we talked about favourite cameramen, knowing Bill to be fond of guys like Jack Cardiff.  "On the film BRENDA STARR, which was lit and shot by Freddie Francis, I asked Freddie what his secret was for 'glamour lighting'.  He said 'Put a great big light over the camera, and get Brooke Shields if you can!'"  Bill continued:  "I always wanted to get Freddie and Jack Cardiff together and just record their conversation, but I could never quite manage it."

At left:  Albert and Bill at Illusion Arts in 1992, pose next to a very large matte painting of 'Hollywoodland' for the film CHAPLIN.  At right, Bill recieves the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation from AMPAS in 2013.

Telling a tall tale perhaps?  Bill manages to crack up fellow vfx man Harrison Ellenshaw.  I sent Harrison a copy of this image, which to my surprise he'd not seen, and he said: "If I recall that was a presentation at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theatre. Bill himself persuaded the Academy to name it that. That's former ILM'er John Knoll to Bill's right.  John and his brother invented a thing called Photoshop".

Bill carried his knowledge of motion picture visual effects requirements all the way through the traditional photo-chemical era and well into the digital arena with ease.  Interestingly, Illusion Arts - the company he and Syd co-founded in 1985 - would often integrate both traditional and digital tools on the same film or tv assignment well into the late 1990's where, as a pragmatic decision, both methods could occasionally compliment each other to deliver an effective end result.  Syd told me he liked to paint his mattes using the customary artists' tools and medium whenever the opportunity presented itself, and in general found the older process more satisfying as a trained painter.  The traditionally rendered paintings, if not composited as original negative or rear projection were sometimes scanned as a large digital file and augmented or manipulated with computer technology, though the foundation and integrity of so many shots made in the CG era, remained 'hand made'.

A dire film, but some beautiful photographic effects work from the Universal matte department, RED SONYA (1985) saw Bill create some interesting gags to accompany the stunning painted mattes:  "We were pretty happy with our fake lava in this film.  It was all back-lit, made from plastic wheels, positioned at a raking angle to the camera.  They were painted to add bits of texture.  As usual procedure, we shot this gag through soft splits, with multiple passes, and so on.  We made a separate lava element that Frank van der Veer and Barry Nolan used elsewhere in the movie".

The epic 'Big Apple' sequence from Sidney Lumet's THE WIZ (1978) remains one of the bona-fide eye popping vfx shots of the decade - and beyond!  There are some eight painted elements, thirteen individual filmed elements, a motorised styrofoam apple which were all assembled in some 34 separate passes through Bill's matte camera and a further six passes through the optical printer!

Bill remembered the sequence shown above as something of a nightmare to pull off:  "All I can see is the matte line around the apple, which, for some reason didn't bother Al at all!  We had other takes where the miniature apple fit perfectly, but the shot was so complicated that something else went wrong in every one of them.  It was one of the shots made on our matte shot camera with multiple passes, and then carried over to the optical printer for the apple, so as to avoid duping the paintings".  I asked the fairly obvious question about the traditional photo-chemical era optical composites and the complexities therein:  "No... I don't miss the 'good old days' one little bit!"

Bill was recipient of an Emmy award,  along with Al, Syd and the entire Universal matte department staff, for the visual effects work they accomplished on the Biblical miniseries A.D (1985), and would later collect a couple more for the tv series STAR TREK-THE NEXT GENERATION later on, and was a founding member of the Visual Effects Society.  If all that weren't enough, he was also on the Board of Governors at the Motion Picture Academy.  

Bill with two buddies - matte cameraman Mark Sawicki (left) and matte painter, friend and co-founder of Illusion Arts, Syd Dutton (right).

                                   William (Bill) Frank Taylor, ASC   1944 - 2021



Having so many matte shots in my archive, it's not always easy to show 'em all, no matter now much I feel they deserve some attention.  This is one such shot that I like and needs some attention.  This is the opening shot - a full painting - from the Andre deToth western LAST OF THE COMANCHES (1952), starring the great Broderick Crawford.  The show was a Columbia picture, so Larry Butler and Donald Glouner would have looked after the trick work.  No idea who painted this nice shot, but possibly Juan Larrinaga - the brother of Mario - who was a fixture at Columbia for years.



Some of Disney's best live action films were made in the fifties, in my opinion.  THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN (1959) is among the class catalogue which included shows like 20'000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE and of course, the delightfully marvellous DARBY O'GILL & THE LITTLE PEOPLE.

Key to the thrill factor of the, mostly genuine mountain climbing sequences, were the dozens of superb matte shots supervised by the great Peter Ellenshaw.  Peter, for those new to my blog, was one of the true masters in the artform of painted mattes, with a long career originating in the mid 1930's in England, under the steely gaze and brushmanship of his mentor, Walter Percy Day - the Grandfather of British special effects.  Peter would become a staple at Disney Studios, with Walt himself giving him a lifelong contract as a result of his astonishing work on the studio's first live action picture, TREASURE ISLAND in 1950.

Master matte artist Peter Ellenshaw is shown here at work on a foreground in-camera glass shot for another of the studio's big productions, IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962) filmed at Pinewood Studios in England.

I'm not aware of anyone else recieving 'Matte Artist' screen credit before Peter did on all his Disney films, even as far back as 1950 for TREASURE ISLAND, and in fact it would be decades until a similar credit appeared on screen for any other practitioner

Matte painted view which opens the film, which although was The Matterhorn, was changed in the script to The Citadel for some odd reason?  Maybe the real Matterhorn threatened to sue?

One of the stunning mattes by Peter Ellenshaw which reminds me of his paintings which open the earlier BLACK NARCISSUS.

The Swiss village, presumably a set on the Disney lot with an extensive make over by the matte artist to extend the view.  The matte line runs across just above the heads of the extras.  According to Peter's son Harrison, a number of the mattes in THIRD MAN were done as latent image shots, on original negative, which Disney did utilise off and on around that time on various productions, before settling into their in house rear projection composite method which they would pretty much stick with throughout the sixties and seventies.

I'm not sure on this shot.  If it is a matte then it's a very well blended and matched matte.  The film was largely shot on location in Switzerland, with a great deal of first rate professional climbing unit material expertly integrated into the shots with the actors.

Apparently the film was originally called BANNER IN THE SKY, and after a not very enthusiastic box office take, would again revert to this alternate title for later TV showings.  The critical reaction however for the film on it's initial release was good and it's held in high regard among many Disney enthusiasts to this day.

Not sure with this one, but strongly suspect it's an actual 2nd unit shot?

The numerous moments of danger in THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN were accomplished with carefully designed and composited matte shots, such as this thriller of a shot.

My favourite shot in the flick is this devastatingly well executed downview of James MacArthur atop a spindly pinnacle, high above the valley floor.  I've always had a thing for extreme perspective painting in matte work.  Absolutely love it!

Even in a matte shot you'd never get NZ Pete to be up there!  :(

Unquestionably the work of Peter Ellenshaw, with his trademark cloud brushwork and light as witnessed in so much of his own fine art and also scores of movie matte shots.

Another cut, this time with drifting mist added in.

Peter had two assistants in the matte department at this time, Albert Whitlock and Jim Fetherolf.  I'm sure both men lent a hand in furnishing such a large number of mattes.  Bill Taylor once mentioned to me that Al learned so much from observing Peter paint.  The quick block ins, often using towels, rags or huge brushes, followed by an intense period of highly focused dabs and 'expressions', where Peter instinctively knew just how much to paint, and where to draw the audience's eye in.  According to Bill, Al acknowledged his own painting progressed in leaps and bounds as a result of watching Peter paint. Peter was a highly prolific and very fast matte artist.  A master, and by all accounts, a true gentleman.

I'm most impressed with the live action plate photography in this film.  Almost all of the plates appear to have been carefully shot in natural light as opposed to studio lit soundstage mock ups, where the 'fake' studio arc's of the day never matched the Kelvin of actual sunlight and were for decades, always a dead giveaway.

Being alpine, the weather can change at the drop of a hat.  The skies darken and a storm rolls in...

A beautifully manufactured alpine storm, combining multi-plane Ellenshaw matte art, with the mountain range, at least two layers of glass painted clouds, and cel animated lightning bolts as well as the interactive gags.  Very nice work.

This film's director, Ken Annakin, did a number of shows for Disney, starting with SWORD AND THE ROSE in 1953.  Ken was a huge admirer of Peter's abilities, and would consult and utilise matte shots frequently on many pictures.  In an interview with film critic and historian Leonard Maltin when discussing the vast number of effects shots for SWORD AND THE ROSE, Ken had this to say:  "Walt specifically had the picture (Sword and the Rose) designed in such a way to use the maximum number of painted mattes; in fact, we used sixty-two mattes in all on that film, and it allowed us to give the picture a much broader sweep visually than it ever could have had.  It resulted in Peter being given a life contract by Walt Disney.  I got very taken up with this matte technique, and continued to use it on later pictures, but I almost had to train new artists myself, and pass on to them the sort of tricks I thought Peter Ellenshaw relied on.  But Peter just knew how to modify reality to make it look realer than real".

It's Matterhorn Five-0 for James MacArthur.  Another splendidly painted set extension that most likely slips by unnoticed, split screened into a totally realistic exterior setpiece.

The weather turns treacherous.  Matte art and multiple fx gags.

Director Ken Annakin was apparently known in the business as 'Panicin' Annakin'.

I was chatting with Peter Ellenshaw's son, Harrison, about this movie and he said:  "Your mention of THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN (original title BANNER IN THE SKY) brought back some very pleasant memories.  I was only 13 or 14 when I travelled with my mother and father to Zermatt, Switzerland to the location for THIRD MAN. I was even an extra for two shots. I recall that we combined the trip with a visit to my grandmother and her husband Walter Percy Day, OBE. You may have heard of him."

Another dizzying matte, with drifting mist and cloud layer.

The marry ups of the paintings and the live action plates are really impressive in this film, with blends quite hard, if not impossible to detect in most instances.  Soft matte demarkations would suggest original negative photography and compositing.

THIRD MAN is probably a mostly forgotten film today, though it's worthy of rediscovery and appreciation as it's a great little film.  Another couple of great little Disney flicks are KIDNAPPED and GREYFRIAR'S BOBBY made a couple years later, made before they concentrated on silly, squeaky clean and largely unimaginative matinee fodder.

Another vertigo inducing point of painted view.

Extremely convincing alpine grandeur, created on Peter Ellenshaw's matte easel.

Not somewhere I'd pitch a tent folks!

Our sort-of villain, the wonderful character actor Herbert Lom - who played far more baddies than most actors have had hot dinners - in a precarious situation.  An interesting effects shot here.  I'm wondering whether the background of mountains and valleys might have been actual location still photography, matted into the foreground artificial snow set, and blended with an expertly painted in precipice.  Whatever Peter did, it worked a treat.

This show is one of the rare Disney films that didn't rely on studio bound sodium shots to place the actors into 2nd unit footage.  Disney were gung ho on the yellow backing travelling matte system, and, come the 1960's would use it constantly - if not excessively - on the majority of their films.  I don't recall any travelling matte shots in THIRD MAN at all.

Would have looked fantastic on the big silver screen back in the day.

The final scene as the adventurers return home.  Upper half of frame is painted, with the matte line curling around just above James MacArthur and Michael Rennie's heads and down across the set.



After the light and breezy Technicolor adventure discussed above, we move into far darker territory.  OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS (1951) was a very deliberately grim and forboding narrative indeed - just as one might expect from anything penned by Joseph Conrad (ie: LORD JIM and most notably, the underlying theme, characters & entire premise of Coppola's brilliant APOCALYPSE NOW).

I've written much about the effects work and contributions of the grandfather of British special effects, Walter Percy Day - or Poppa Day as he was well known in the industry.  For those not in the know, Pop was step-father to the aforementioned Peter Ellenshaw, and thus be came step-grandfather to the also aforementioned Harrison Ellenshaw.  Talent seemingly runs in that family.

A dynamite cast in my book, all exquisitely photographed by John Wilcox, and brilliantly directed by Carol Reed.  Percy Day never liked to be lumped as 'special effects' in film credits, and much preferred 'Process Shots' as his specialty apparently.

Some of my favourite actors feature in this show; the fabulous Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson and Robert Morley all provided solid performances - as did the dark and mysterious native beauty, 'Kerima', who has a whole truckload of psychological issues.  Excellent, though unsettling British film, and a top shelf production all the way.

The picture was made on location for the most part - though where, I don't know - somewhere steamy and exotic.  The fictional locale is never identified in the film but looks like Malaya or Borneo to me. This is an effects shot BTW, with foreground cast and set combined with ocean and schooner via travelling matte.

Another wider view, with what must have been a vast blue screen.  I only noticed it as being a travelling matte on a BluRay viewing recently, as previous editions were strictly VHS or YouTube.

Aside from a number of blue screen composites, made at Shepperton Studios under the supervision of Wally Veevers, there is really just one special photographic effects sequence, but it is a substantial and beautifully executed, lengthy set piece that is very much worthy of inspection.  The sequence in question involves the dangerous navigation of the ship through near impassable coastal reefs and rocky outcrops, where hazards lurk at every turn.  It may not sound like much to the Marvel or X-Men VFX overload generation, but it's a remarkably adept and complex puzzle to traditionalists like me. 

There isn't a cut in the 3 minute sequence that isn't an effects shot of one sort or another.

Strikingly, each and every shot in the several minute sequence comprises a visual effects shot of one sort or other.

Try as I might, I've never been able to firmly establish how Day and Veevers managed to pull off the numerous shots.  This material is extremely impressive, and continually blows my mind as I try to deconstruct the work.  This is what 'special effects' really amounts to.

The best guess on my part is that combination set ups involving miniatures, glass paintings and actual ocean footage were somehow merged in layers...?

I'm almost given to think of a similar technical variation on Ray Harryhausen's Dynarama/Dynamation method where a miniature could be 'sandwiched' within an already pre-composited effects shot by way of split screen mattes?  Some shots suggest this.  The shots are rapidly cut, so repeat slow motion review on my part proved the best bet, but even then, left me scratching my head.

Certainly miniature rocky pinnacles and outcrops were used in some shots, and matted with actual ship footage, such as where the vessel almost comes to grief in this bit.

I'm thinking, multi-plane glass paintings with real sea?

Blue screen work probably carried out by Doug Hague or Bryan Langley, with the latter often working with Wally Veevers and an expert in travelling matte composite photography.

Likely a full tank miniature set up here.

I'd donate a kidney to see a breakdown of the elements for a shot like this.  There's far more involved here than you may think in the brief time the shot appears on screen.  Perplexingly brilliant!

Definitely a multi-plane glass shot as shown below...

Painted foreground, water actual, and separately painted background - all expertly 'moved' as the boat passes through the gap.

This was one of Pop Day's last films before retiring.  By this time Day had several painters working for him, including George Samuels, Albert Julion and Judy Jordan.  Pop's son, Thomas Day had been a cameraman for his father from as far back as the mid 1930's,  in an unpaid capacity for the most part!

Commonly, special effects cinematographer Wally Veevers had generally avoided shooting miniature boats in tanks and preferred, where possible, the option to shoot boats 'dry' and matte them into actual ocean plates, which he would do on scores of films at Shepperton.  Looking at this frame it seems apparent that the boat may be painted perhaps, with a faintly discernable matte split along the waterline. The very distant formations seem painted on one plane while the mid-ground rocks are on a second plane.  The immediate foreground rocks appear part genuine (for the water splashes) and part painted as a top up.  All up, a superb puzzle of trick photography, supremely done.

Again, a matte line split is visible, with what may be a painted profile of the ship animated frame by frame amidst several levels of painted scenery and real water.  Great stuff!

Percy Day had for many years worked out of his own home and then at the giant Denham Studios, in conjunction with J.Arthur Rank.  In 1946 he joined Sir Alexander Korda's London Films, based at Shepperton Studios, establishing a fully functional and well equipped matte and process department where he remained until retiring in 1954 at the age of 75. 

The footage is so well shot and combined for 1951, it's hard to detect anything might be amiss.

Most likely a large outdoor tank shot, with painted profile cutout for the background.

Split screen matte shot with model ship combined with foreground stage set, merged with matte art.

In her biography of her grandfather, Susan Day reported:  "Percy officially retired from Shepperton in 1954 but continued to serve the British film industry in an advisory capacity.  The BBC asked him to give a series of talks on special effects, and even proposed the services of a chauffeur driven car, but in his usual ornery way, Grandad turned the proposition down flat.  He was determined to devote his declining years - he was by this time seventy five - to his one consuming passion.  He enrolled for a refresher course at Canterbury College of Art, and had the gratification of having the remarkable self portrait - which I now own - hung on the line at The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1954.  He told a journalist who interviewed him that painting gave him more satisfaction than working for the film industry, because it's more creative."

A fascinating letter, sent to Percy by Sir Alexander Korda in 1951, congratulating him on the trick work in OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS as well as inviting Day to prepare for a planned, though unproduced, ballet picture of Sleeping Beauty.  (Letter courtesy of Susan Day)

'Kerima' - a woman of few words, or bat-shit mad harpie?  You decide.  Great film!



In customary glossy style, MADAME CURIE (1943) told the story of the discovery of radium, with the always reliable Greer Garson in the title role as the Polish-French physicist.  Wonderful production standards, as you would expect from MGM.  Male lead, Walter Pidgeon had always been a tad wooden for my tastes (though one of his final films, HARRY IN YOUR POCKET made in the mid seventies with James Coburn was really good!)

The true story takes place in Paris in the 1890's, with a number of scenes fleshed out with matte art from the Newcombe department at MGM.

The World famous Sorbonne Institute in Paris, 1890 as realised in pastel and gouache.

MGM had some of the finest matte artists in Hollywood, many of whom came from a technical illustration background.  Warren Newcombe was the longtime 'chief' of the department, and by all accounts I've heard and read was a most eccentric man to put it lightly.

As well as having utmost control and say over his stable of artists, Newcombe settled for nothing less than the highest standards when it came to the integrity of the finished shot, with expertly blended mattes that made detection of just where the matte join might be next to impossible.  Chief matte effects cinematographer was longtime associate Mark Davis who really pulled off some miracle composites.

As I've described in earlier blogs, the favoured method for rendering matte art at MGM for decades was with very fine pastels and gouache, applied onto artists card with astonishing results.

Cedric Gibbons was longtime head of the art department at MGM, and this stunningly composed matte painted shot is a testament to the romanticism of the golden era, which that studio reigned supreme. Best shot in the film.

A great many matte artists came and went in all of the Hollywood studios during the war years when this film was made.

Some of the artists around at the time were Howard Fisher - one of the original guys, and Henry Hillinck, George Coblentz, Henry Peter McDermott, Otto Kiechle and Jack Robson.

Almost all painted here.

I'm pretty sure this is a major set extension too, with the trademark 'doubled in' tree as an actual film element to add life.

A wonderfully detailed interior matte, with much credit to the artist.

This shot is interesting, not only for the superb draftsmanship and painting, but noteworthy for the crowd replication.  The two balconies have the exact same live action plate matted in if you watch closely, though timed a little independently so that when one balcony rises to clap and cheer, the second does so just a second or two later.  I'm also curious about the crowd below the balcony seating, which may be a split screen to multiply the number of extras?




While not an especially memorable movie, Terence Young's ZARAK (1956) was an okay time filler on a wet Saturday afternoon.  Star Victor Mature was always an underrated actor in my book, and did some solid work over his career (was an absolute hoot playing himself to the hilt in The Monkees freakin' insane film HEAD in 1968).  As for the feminine love interest... well more about Anita Ekberg later  ;)

Grand CinemaScope title cards and thumping score.

Special Photographic Effects were overseen by an uncredited Tom Howard at the MGM-UK studios, though the picture was a Columbia release.  Tom was a specialist in optical cinematography, having begun his very long career in the early 1930's with Ned Mann on the sci-fi classic THINGS TO COME, and later on providing the blue screen composites for THIEF OF BAGDAD right on through to designing and constructing the state of the art reflex front projection rig for Stanley Kubrick's monumental 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968.  Tom recieved a pair of Oscars for his effects work, one for TOM THUMB and the other, inexplicably, for BLITHE SPIRIT - a film pretty much devoid of visual effects, that even it's director, David Lean, was left mystified as to quite why that award was given, as he mentioned in the wonderful memoir of his life and career by Kevin Brownlow.

Anita Ekberg is the seductress in ZARAK, though not so you'd really notice.

I've no idea who painted the mattes here.  It's always been a bit of a mystery with regard to the Tom Howard department, though I do know that Judy Jordan - a former assistant to Percy Day at Shepperton - left to join Howard over at MGM-Boreham Wood around 1954, so it's possible she painted on this show.

Our femme fatale, Miss Anita Ekberg, was box office gold, with studio publicity departments building entire movie campaigns around her charms, whatever the role or film. I feel utterly compelled by forces beyond my control to single out Anita in today's illustrious blog, as I also quite equally would have had Dorothy Lamour been available!

The mattes are variable, but work reasonably well.

Did I mention that Anita Ekberg is in this movie?

Matte painted Peshawar, in what was India at the time the story takes place.

Ms Ekberg was a former Miss Sweden!  For this flick she's Miss Colonial era India, 1850.

The classic old school fortress atop the hill matte shot, with far more painted here than you might think.

Seen in a second closer cut.  Very nice sky.

She reportedly once shot a paparazzi with a bow and arrow!  Fact.

No actual credit for Tom Howard, though physical effects men Cliff Richardson and Jack Erickson both got screen credit, oddly.

She does quite a lot of seductive dancing, gyrating, writhing and pouting of the lips in this film - often all at the same time!  Worth the price of admission alone.

In successive cuts during this extended raid sequence, the matte itself 'shifts' jarringly, though only when viewing individual frames end to end is it evident.  See that in a lot of films, and a useful way to find where the matte join is.

True fact:  Anita's first husband was very, very jealous - for the life of me I can't imagine why - and was known to violently assault anybody who so much as glanced at his wife!    

The walled city goes up in flames.  Virtually all matte art here - with added smoke and matte stand fire gags.  The only live action portion is the bit of grass with Victor Mature riding away.  All else, including the foreground rocks are matte art.

'The Dance of the 7 Veils', or something along those lines.  Maybe it was six veils... or no veils at all?  Hell, it's been a long week here!

Oh, and there are some scenes and matte painted shots that don't involve Anita, though in hindsight, they probably should have!

There's no easy escape from this gal.
Victor Mature is also in ZARAK.... well, he's the star actually so I suppose I should give Vic some breathing room here.  An undervalued actor actually, and did some great films.  

Nothing whatsoever to do with the art of special effects, ... yeah, yeah, I know... but seriously folks, whatcha gonna do?          Anita ... we loved 'ya baby!



As mentioned in my introduction I had intended to showcase the contents of the old 35mm showreels containing many before and afters by career Universal matte artist Russ Lawson and effects cinematographer Roswell Hoffman.  Both Lawson and Hoffman had a mammoth career at the one studio, as readers of my blogs will know, dating from the early 1930's.  Lawson retired in 1961, while Hoffman did so in 1975.  I'll dedicate the next issue to these wonderful finds, though I can't resist a small sampler.  A very big thank you to Tom Higginson for sending the complete showreels to me.

Presumably a tank on the Universal backlot, this partial riverboat set has been extensively altered, extended and brought to life by artist Russell Lawson, with smoke elements added in a subsequent pass by Ross Hoffman.

The name of the original production is a bit of a mystery, though I can confirm this same shot was later 'borrowed/stolen/purchased' by 20th Century Fox, with photographic effects man L.B Abbott using it in the John Wayne picture THE COMANCHEROS (1961).  The original 'flat' Academy aperture ratio matte comp was transferred to 2.35:1 CinemaScope on James B. Gordon's optical printer at Fox, and presented as a tilt down scan to accomodate the wide screen ratio.  I'd always assumed it to be an Emil Kosa jnr matte, but now having viewed the Lawson reels in full, it's quite clear the shot was made years earlier at Universal.

***This post, and all 172 previous blogs known as 'Matte Shot', were originally created by Peter Cook for nzpetesmatteshot, with all content, layout and text originally published at

Hah!  Just when you thought I'd gotten Anita outta my system ... Well, she was rather memorable in Federico Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA (1960), as pictured here.  AlrightNo more Anita Ekberg!

Well folks... that's about it till next 'issue'.  I do hope you enjoyed the ride.  I need a drink!

Catch you again next journey...

Take care,

NZ Pete