Monday, 6 December 2021

THE LOST MATTES OF RUSSELL LAWSON


 


Hi there fellow enthusiasts of that marvellous, magical and utterly beguiling lost artform of traditional matte painting and old school trick photography.  It's that time once again for NZ Pete to unwrap another parcel of ingenious and often amazing hand painted motion picture processes from the photo-chemical era, or as my friend Mark Wolf would say, "B.C - before computers".

In this, the final article for 2021 (and maybe for good given the state of the world as it stands at present) I want to delve into an exciting treasure chest of never before seen goodies that I'm quite confident will enthrall many of my regular readers, and most likely a few irregular readers as well(!)

The bulk of today's blog post covers the lost 35mm sample reels of old Russ Lawson matte shots that had been hidden away in storage since the late 1950's.  There are some fantastic before and after shots in this exceedingly rare collection of Universal Studios oldies, which for this fan, is pure heaven.

In addition to the old Lawson showreels, I've also including a few other gems as well, such as a look at the consumate visual effects professionalism that was matte artist Geoffrey Dickinson - an integral part of the small yet much loved British movie studio, Ealing.  As if that weren't enough, I've also recovered another 'lost' matte shot, this being an Albert Whitlock shot that wasn't used in SHIP OF FOOLS.  Finally, I've come across a pair of interesting before and after mattes also painted at Universal for the first George Lucas EWOK telemovie that just happened to be tacked onto the end of one of the aforementioned sample reels.

Oh, and in closing...  As you know I received a crate load of wonderful original mattes recently.  I'm told that another of my fellow New Zealand countrymen also ordered a sizeable shipment, though just who, I don't know.  If you happen to be a reader of Matte Shot, I'd love to know what marvellous paintings you acquired.  My guess would be a certain film maker of those grand Tolkien epics, who has a massive private museum of Hollywood props, artwork, vfx artifacts and so on.

So, with that.... let us board the bus and start the journey...........

Enjoy

NZ Pete

***This post, and all 173 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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NZ PETE'S RANDOM MATTE FROM THE ARCHIVE:

 

This spectacular matte shot was rendered by British matte artist Geoffrey Dickinson for the gritty crime drama POOL OF LONDON (1950). The sequence shown here was a complicated assembly in more ways than one.

Geoffrey Dickinson was Ealing's photographic effects supervisor for a number of years, usually screen credited as 'Special Processes'.  Dickinson was the resident matte painter on many films produced by the studio from the mid 1940's through to his final picture the year he died in 1955.  The studio was famous - not just for being the oldest continually operational film studio in the world - but for the catalogue of timeless British classics that were enormously popular with, not only the English audiences at home, but throughout the Commonwealth countries, and, presumably to a limited extent, in America.  Films such as KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, WHISKEY GALORE, THE LAVENDER HILL MOB, SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC and the excellent THE NIGHT MY NUMBER CAME UP are all classics and are as sought after today as they were when first released.  Dickinson was, and pretty much remains to this day, one of those creative enigma's of the UK film industry, as were so many ingenious visual effects craftsmen, who received very little by way of a mention.  Geoffrey did however get on screen credit for many films during his years with Ealing, and for that at least we should be thankful.

The dizzying 'leap of faith' shot from POOL OF LONDON, with Dickinson's elaborate matte painting combined with a partial live action plate, and all of this serving the basis for a brilliantly executed travelling matte described in an interesting article about the Ealing effects department in Brit. Kine at the time as the 'split-beam process', where the backing is illuminated with blue light and the foreground actors with yellow light, in much the same way as the old Dunning Process.  The two films are exposed in the beam splitter camera with the yellow lit foreground on panchromatic film and the blue lit backing on special blue-sensitive film.  The latter produces a sillhouette of the foreground image, with the films combined in the optical printer.  The benefits of this process being a complete lack of fringing around the final matte.

Dickinson (centre) and his vfx camera crew are shown here setting up a foreground glass shot for the classic Alec Guiness film THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951) - a very dark satire indeed.  Geoffrey also served as scenic artist on several films, so I'm assuming he came from that long line of British backing painters who, over time, merged into specialised matte and glass shot work.



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RESCUED FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR:

A few months back I did an extensive article on the vfx for the Stanley Kramer film SHIP OF FOOLS (1965), and illustrated for the first time, the original Albert Whitlock mattes - painted in colour as in fact they were for what was a black & white film.  One particular matte painting stood apart, as I could never find a matching scene in the film to correspond it with.  The mystery is now solved, as the matte was indeed composited and finished, though evidentally fell victim to the editor's scissors.  I'm happy to report that glorious deleted shot, though unused, can now be seen and appreciated.


One of a number of spectacular paintings created by Al Whitlock for SHIP OF FOOLS, though not seen by audiences.

The glorious final composite recently uncovered on Al's old sample reels.  For those unaware, ALL of the shots of the ship at sea in that film were entirely fabricated by Whitlock as matte art at Universal.  Only the very near ocean here is real, with the distant sea, ship, sky etc all painted on glass.  Additionally, the clouds drift slowly in layers and smoke rises from the stacks.  As per Al's non-negotiable preferred method, all done on original negative for maximum resolution and quality.

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THE LOST MATTES OF RUSSELL LAWSON:

I was thrilled beyond belief to receive the digitally transferred masters of the remaining 35mm sample reels of a broad selection of Russ Lawson's mattes that to my surprise had been stored in the temperature and humidty controlled vault that the late Bill Taylor had carefully conserved thousands of vfx elements such as all of the old Albert Whitlock showreels dating back to the early sixties, as well as the later Illusion Arts paintings, photographs, preparatory sketches and other material.  I am greatly indebted to my friend Tom Higginson for kindly sharing these incredibly rare original before and after mattes with me, and most importantly, in their original 'movie' format, as they were intended to be seen. 


Universal of the 30's, 40's and 50's - flat, scope, monochrome and Technicolor.  The logo always revved me up as a kid, watching Saturday matinee's at my local revival picture theatres, with shows like THIS ISLAND EARTH blowing my young mind.

It was common industry practice for a number of decades for mattes to be a high, almost secretive specialty trade, with some of the practitioners themselves seen as part of the branding exercise as shown here as a 'Lawson Matte Shot'.  

Universal had a pretty inventive photographic effects department since it began back in the early silent era.  Among the heads of department for the VFX side were Phil Whitman in the early and mid 1920's; Frank Booth took over from Phil from the late twenties; George Teague did a very brief stint as well as chief but didn't last long; the legendary John P. Fulton was in charge from the early thirties through to the mid to late forties; John's long time assistant David S. Horsley managed the department from the late forties until the mid fifties, whereby Clifford Stine was given the headship for around five years.
  


On the matte painting side of things, the pioneering Norman Dawn - pretty much regarded by most in the business as the inventor of the motion picture matte shot - was Universal's matte expert in the very early days and conjured up many amazing shots and tricks.  British born artist Conrad Tritschler, I believe, was engaged for a time painting mattes (most likely for the original Bela Lugosi DRACULA and others), and somewhere in the early part of the thirties both Jack Cosgrove and Russell Lawson teamed up as resident in-house matte painters.  Jack departed in the mid thirties for David Selznick's up and coming studio and never looked back. A few years later future Production Designer John DeCuir came on board as a young apprentice in Lawson's department and painted many mattes with Russ, off and on, between 1939 and 1946.  DeCuir's son told me some great stories about his father working for Lawson:  "As the story goes Russ took John under his wing. Russ managed up John's skills from illustrator into matte artist. John told me his first assignment from Russ I recall he said his first day at work, Russ came in and dropped a huge rock on his desk - dirt, shit and leaves flying in all directions and said "paint this", when I can't tell if it's a photograph or not we will go on to painting clouds, and then Russ went up on the roof to take his lunch time-nap. After rocks Russ told him to paint the clouds outside his window. He was about to quit when he got his first real glass matte to paint.  As Russ's roof top naps got longer, Dad found himself running the department and would have stayed there except he went into the Navy (WW2) about 1941-44. - After the war he came back to Universal as an art department illustrator and he rest was/is history."  

A classic golden era Universal matte shot from the Bela Lugosi DRACULA (1931), may be one of Lawson's but most likely executed by British artist Conrad Tritschler, with Frank Booth as head of special effects at the time.

As is well known, the Universal matte department would eventually pass from Russell to Albert Whitlock around 1962 or so.  What isn't well known is the fact that both Russ and Albert worked together for a time.  Al's long time friend and associate, Syd Dutton, kindly shared some history of the events, as told to him by Albert.  "Albert and Russ did work together briefly, but I don’t know if it was on Taras Bulba, but the time line suggests it could have been. I’ll watch the film and give you my impression if there were two hands working on the matte shots."
"Al told me that he had struck a deal with Universal, but under the condition he wasn’t supervised. Russ started to critique a painting of Al’s and Al shot back that Russ wasn’t his supervisor. Russ, so the story went, said “We’ll see about that!” and stormed off. After seeing the powers that be, he returned and said that Al was correct. It must have been a frosty relationship."
"Al said that not long after, the owner of a bar across the street from Universal died and left the establishment to Russ, who was his best patron and friend. Russ came into the painting studio with his new found wealth and said to Al, “It’s all yours!”…..and that was that."

Finally, I've never been able to track down any photo's of Lawson, unfortunately.  John DeCuir's son told me recently he still has a large storage box of old Universal matte department memorabilia from the 1940's, including before and after 35mm frames - many being of the various Arabian Nights genre pictures - and photographs of matte paintings.  I had hoped to see some of this wonderful material to flesh out this blog piece, but sadly, nothing came of it.

So then, here are the lost mattes from the old sample reels.  Some are pretty ordinary, some are really good, and a few are jaw dropping.  I do hope you enjoy them.


As mentioned, I was only able to identify about half (if that) of these films, though this shot I do know.

From the comedy film KATIE DID IT (1951).  A very nice shot with some interesting perspective allowances.  Note the real tree in the foreground added as a separate bi-pack element to lift the shot out of it's static look.  Universal did that occasionally, as did Warners, though MGM under Newcombe were gung ho with dropping in such 'actual' elements over the paintings.

A partial composite with a location airstrip matted with a separate live action element of air traffic staffers at top right.

The beautiful finished multi-part composite with Lawson's stunning sky, soft matted in as well as an airstrip filled with fighter planes.  Sadly, I have no clue as to the film here, and I've seen hundreds of old war pictures (love 'em).  Anybody recognise this?  Probably from the late 1940's.

Just the full and final composite here, and again, a mystery as to title.

This film I do know.  It's the Errol Flynn melodrama ISTANBUL (1956).  This frame is from the original unmatted live action shoot, with this set eventually being transformed into not one, but two different matte shots...

The first of the two mattes, with a fine rendering of the port and city of Istanbul, with the famed Blue Mosque in the distance.  I visited this city in 2008 and enjoyed it.

The same setting as seen later after a bomb goes off, with a revised Lawson matte painting.  I've only ever seen this film on YouTube in an awful 'pan & scan' full frame edition, likely recorded off tv, so most of the matte was cropped off badly. Note, this CinemaScope film was in Technicolor but the ravages of time have been extremely unkind to the film stock.  I have tried to make it easier to view as it was 'pure magenta'.  

Another mystery film.  Take note of just how much of the live action plate will need to be replaced with Lawson's artwork, as evidence below will demonstrate.

The final shot from what appears to be a late 1940's or early 50's war film, of unknown title.


I made a blow up of the mid portion so as to demonstrate all of the invisible 'filling in' that Russ rendered to the military camp, no doubt as a buget saver.  This sort of trick work really sums up 'special effects' for me.  As Albert Whitlock often stated:  "the true special effect is the one that nobody ever notices"  Truer words were never spoken.

Live action Technicolor plate from an unknown production.

Finished matte comp which appears to have an apparent English setting.

Very small area of live action to be greatly expanded...

Again, the production is a mystery.  Something set in tropical climes on a plantation?  The perspective draftsmanship is a bit off, with the fountain at left all out of kilter, though I'm sure nobody ever notices these things.

A plate for a quite expansive matte as seen below...

A great shot, and possibly a deleted shot from a rather good little thriller called PHANTOM LADY
 (1944) directed by Robert Siodmak, which had other similar mattes involving railway settings and lookalike actress.  *Noteworthy as a taut film to watch actually, as it crossed the censorship boundary of the time with the wonderful character actor Elisha Cook jnr (no relation) portraying one of the screen's most perversely creepy, deviants ever - positively oozing with sleaze, which may have had audiences choking in their popcorn back in the day!  Ya' heard it here first!!  ;)

Now, this one was interesting.  At first I thought I knew it, but was misguided...

It had the look and design of a very similar matte in Alfred Hitchcock's excellent SABOTEUR (1941), though the clapper board info suggested otherwise.  Different director and cinematographer chalked on, unless of course it was shot as a second unit?  Hmmmmm?

The completed shot.  Sure looks like the same cabin and forest from the Hitchcock film as shown from a closer angle?

Live action element from another unidentified Universal film...

I've attempted to research this based upon the director chalked onto the slate and the date, but to no avail.

The final composite - one of a pair on the sample reel from the same film.

A second view from the same unknown production demonstrates a partially assembled, multi-element shot...

"Action...."

Final result.  Noteworthy as it surprises me how Russell would run his matte lines through sky and along edges of clouds, which to me seems very bold.

This show I recogised.  This unmatted plate was for the Rock Hudson war film BATTLE HYMN (1957)

matted plate

Composited but not yet complete ...

For the eventual release prints the BATTLE HYMN matte shot was flopped optically.  This BluRay grab shows how much was lost from the badly faded old 35mm footage.


Sorry folks.... this one's another mystery.

A Technicolor period film, looks like it's set in New York, yet shot at Universal.  Any takers?

Just when you thought I didn't know any titles, well this one I picked easily.

The live action train (possibly a miniature?) has been matted into an extensive painted setting here for the Joel McCrea western CATTLE DRIVE (1951).

Live action component that would be invisibly integrated into matted scenery...

Plate masked off for matte.  Note the portions of actual sky left visible.

I think I've seen this film but probably never picked the shot as being a matte.  Can't place the title, but the blending is very well done.

Another unknown show, but possibly the same period film that at least three of the Lawson shots in this blog tribute originated from.

Live action at Universal...

Invisible blend bringing the painted together with the set.  Film unknown but vaguely familiar?

Before you give up all hope folks, this one I can confirm!  It's EAST OF SUMATRA (1953), and a fairly entertaining adventure it was.

The superb composite which involved not just the live action foreground and painted city of Singapore, but a separate painted sky moving across slowly.  Lawson had a peculiar habit around this time of deliberately shooting the painted sky element 'out of focus', presumably to attempt to soften the clouds.  It never worked and always looked artificial to me.

Singapore was very, very dodgy in those days, with many a treacherous cut-throat and countless ladies of questionable morals at every street corner.... or so I'm told ;)


Not sure, but this pre-matted plate probably from EAST OF SUMATRA as well.  I've seen it, but may have missed this shot, or fallen asleep, or not taken it as a trick shot, as YouTube is the worst possible venue to see old films, quality wise, so I avoid in general.

Interesting how some of the original, long tucked away colour 35mm reels look perfect, while others look shite.  Some 40 odd years ago I worked in film distribution here in New Zealand, with vast back catalogue product in 16mm, 35mm and even some in 70mm.  As I recall, release prints from various eras had notable differences.  The old genuine dye-transfer process used by Technicolor (I think called imbibition) produced beautiful, rich colour, impervious to fade and very difficult even to scratch via frequent projection and rewinds.  Those old prints from the 40's onward still looked great in the early 80's when I was there, though shrinkage could be a problem, resulting in film perforations sometimes slightly out of whack during projection.  Technicolor labs phased this practice out, maybe in the mid 70's.  Later release print technology however, moved away from this tried and true quality, with Eastmancolor type chemistry and printing nowhere near that of imbibition for lasting the distance. Different base film stocks for prints also played a part, with Estar, Acetate and the dire Nitrate being especially unforgiving! 

Yes, I know this one too.... Three cheers for NZ Pete!

Universal cornered the movie market when it came to colourful desert adventures, that usually sat on the lower half of the double bill.  This grand shot is a real beauty from THE GOLDEN HORDE (1951). 

Very dark, but this live action plate is of a small walled culvert from what will be an Arabian palace.

Extremely dark (and I've lightened it up as far as I dare) final shot from the laughable Tony Curtis sword & sandal desert flick THE PRINCE WHO WAS A THIEF (1951).


Easier to see here, with an alternate shot from the DVD.

A standing set on the Universal lot that was used in many a production over the years.  This set up is for the pirate adventure YANKEE BUCCANEER (1952), where a great deal of alteration will be carried out courtesy of matte painter Russ Lawson and fx cinematographer Roswell Hoffman.

Hardly any part of that standing set will be retained...

When all is said and done, the small amount of backlot facade has been extensively augmented by Lawson, including one of those deliberately 'out of focus' cloudscapes drifting across.  An additional live ocean front and rocky foreshore plate has been shot and matted in by Hoffman to complete the illusion.  The painted blend between the set and the ocean is really good.

As it looks on BluRay, with all expertly assembled, except that damned 'blurry' sky, which kind of kills the whole affair!

Also from YANKEE BUCCANEER is this live unmatted plate which will eventually expand the horizons of this swashbuckling fodder.

Ross Hoffman's carefully positioned matte.

From Hollywood to Jamaica.  Seeing is believing.


YANKEE BUCCANEER as it looks remastered in all it's vivid Technicolor glory.  


A snuck this one into the previous blog post as a teaser...

This standing riverboat set appeared in tons of Universal movies, though this particular one I don't know.

A most grand and expanive vista indeed.  I thought it could have been from the Yvonne de Carlo film RIVER LADY (1948), but cannot be sure??


As I mentioned in the previous blog, this mighty shot, oddly, did appear in the John Wayne picture THE COMANCHERO'S (1961), which was a 20th Century Fox flick, and was 'optically scanned' as a tilt down camera move for CinemaScope to boot!  I had always assumed it to be an Emil Kosa jnr matte shot for years, having seen that 1961 film, but obviously it pre-dates the Fox show.  It seems that Fox's Bill Abbott, who ran their fx shop, lifted/begged/borrowed/stole/acquired this shot from Universal - not at all unusual as fx shots from questionable origins often appear in other studio's films.  George Pal was notoriously cheap when it came to this, with scores of 'his' key fx shots in his films being lifted wholesale out of other, older films... and even winning an Oscar at one point!  Though I digress....

Now folks..... this one's a doozy, in every sense of the terminology.  I had to play this reel a number of times just to take it all in.  I will explain as we go along, so pay attention, as I will be asking questions later...  The film is another Universal 'B' picture, of some economy, but not without it's merits - this shot being one of them.  The film is DESERT LEGION (1953) with Alan Ladd.  The plate shown here formed the basis of a vast and extravagant matte composite, which you will see shortly.  Matte cameraman Ross Hoffman shot this on location with the full intention of isolating specific elements only to use later, as you shall see...

DESERT LEGION: A separate plate was made of distant horses (I think)...

DESERT LEGION:  Another plate added, with other live action horses or riders...

DESERT LEGION:  Added to the jigsaw puzzle is a plate of white water rapids...

DESERT LEGION:  Further additions by Hoffman include another plate of some different rapids...

DESERT LEGION:  Additionally, Ross has shot and dropped in a river flowing into the distance.  **Note:  Pete will be very bloody annoyed at any reader viewing this all on some fucken cellphone sized piece of crap!  :(

DESERT LEGION:  ...and it just keeps getting more complicated.  Now Ross has combined footage taken from that very first full frame of live action, with the waterfall element isolated as well as a portion of the foreground brush with the riders on horseback as well.  "Are you following me? ... Well quit following me or I'll have you arrested" (**the great philosopher, Groucho Marx)

DESERT LEGION:  Okay, so now let's see... rapids, white water swirling, river, distant fields with horses, more horses, waterfall, foreground people, a partridge in a pear tree - and, oh yes, the first of two painted mattes by Russ Lawson!  All individual pieces of film... and we're still not done!

DESERT LEGION:  The magnificent finished visual effect jigsaw puzzle, all seemlessly assembled on Ross Hoffman's optical printer.  Incredibly smooth collage of numerous pieces of film.  Bravo!


I made a close up of the Russ' artwork.

That old riverboat set again, though just what film this plate is intended for, I dunno?  The final shown below is quite cleverly done.

Composite, in Technicolor, though not so as you'd notice it!

Same movie, night view.

Another doozy of a matte, that I guarantee nobody would ever detect in the final version...  This full frame plate (in colour...apparently) was made in the desert (apparently).  See below...

For the same unknown western, a second plate was shot of a typical cowboy town set...

Town set masked off by Ross Hoffman for some rather skillful trickery...

Here is where the fun begins.  Hoffman has matted the desert footage into the town footage, though with specific portions remaining, which will be blended in by Russ.

The finished effect, not so as you'd ever expect it to be a trick shot.  The two plates have been expertly blended with subtle matte painting to tie it all as one authentic western setting!  Brilliant, though I wish I knew the film?  I'd most likely never even spot the 'trick' anyhow!  Bravo!

A blow up of the unpainted area.

Subtle matte art pulls the illusion together flawlessly.


Also included on Lawson's reels was this avalanche sequence from the James Stewart western THE FAR COUNTRY (1955), with Clifford Stine as visual effects chief.  

The sequence was basically a split screen affair, with miniature mountain matted onto live action.  I'm guessing Russell may have painted on the shot to blend the two together, with the rocky outcrops at left and extreme right appearing to be added in later.
Curiously, the tumbling boulders all seemed to have precisely 'drilled' holes visible as they crash toward the people, making me assume the miniature rocks were pinned in place somehow and released on cue.

As seen on the DVD, with proper colour!


Live action set up for yet another mystery Universal film.  The building was a regular standing set on the studio backlot, and was seen in countless pictures and tv shows over the years, more often than not as part of a matte shot of one sort or other.



Live action limited to a small piece of wall and driveway prior to addition of painting.

Transformed into the Green Island Casino for mystery film.  Cameraman Ross Hoffman has added an additional water plate as well as a blinking neon sign and smoke rising from the chimney.

I'm most curious about this scene, and would like to know just what the film is?

Minimal live action added to Lawson's sweeping, period European setting.

I knew this one as soon as I saw this 'before' plate... It's from Douglas Sirk's emotionally shrill menage-a-trois WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956).

Ross filmed the original plate full frame Academy ratio and then had it optically reduced and repositioned to fit the matte painting.

Lawson's painting perfectly married into Hoffman's live action plate.


The shot as it appeared in the Technicolor release prints.

WRITTEN ON THE WIND starts off with this night time view of The Hadley Oil Company HQ, with blinking animated signage above.


Unmatted live set for another Douglas Sirk picture, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955).

Matte painted landscape and added architectural features.


The scene as it appears in the film, with Rock Hudson in foreground.

A variation as a night sequence.


Much optical work was needed for a seemingly straight forward scene in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), with this small soundstage set to be extended somewhat.

The orchestra is isolated initially.

A group of extras were photographed in the left side...

...and the same extras repositioned in the middle...

...and subsequently moved to the extreme right...

With the crowded auditorium assembled optically, Lawson was then required to paint in the balcony seats and patrons at extreme right, as well as architectural additions to the stage and proscenium.

I've lightened this final CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY frame for clearer viewing.

Partial set on a sound stage for an evening matte.

Painting combined from an unidentified Universal picture, illustrated earlier in a daytime shot.

Painted set extension using that familiar backlot homestead, as seen here in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956).



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ADDITIONAL LAWSON MATTE SHOTS FROM PETE'S ARCHIVE:

What follows are a sizeable selection of some of the other matte shots carried out by Russell throughout his very long career at Universal.  As one would expect, there are a number of memorable mattes from the numerous science fiction and horror pictures that served as Universal's profitable bread and butter throughout the decades, beginning in the early 1930's through to the late fifties.  As mentioned, Russ teamed up with the legendary Jack Cosgrove in the early few years at Universal and for a time at Columbia as well as a couple of so-called Poverty Row establishments in Hollywood.  After a couple of years Cosgrove moved to Selznick International, where he and cameraman Clarence Slifer set up the much acclaimed matte and photographic effects department.  Russ would remain at Universal for the remainder of his career, working closely with studio effects cinematographer Roswell Hoffman.  The only actual screen credit Russell would gain was for the big budget TARAS BULBA shortly before his retirement.

In an email I received from the son of John DeCuir, who as mentioned, worked with Russ for several years, he stated:  "We too are digging through the archives and recently came up with a wonderful collection of 35mm bi-pack camera test strips from those Russ Lawson Universal days (mattes dad was painting for Russ). The film strips are short only three to six frames. They seem to be in pretty good shape - the subject matter was mostly Arabian Nights but more detective work is required to ID the actual film(s). I am sure you would be able to help there. When time permits I will get the strips scanned and we can share the detective work. We also have some B&W prints of the half-black half-painted glasses."

I'm hopeful that these will become available at some point and shared on a future blog.


'Lights, camera, action'

A spectacular Arabian city - somewhat of a specialty for Lawson, along with gothic castles - from the movie THE GOLDEN BLADE (1953).  Not unusually, this shot cropped up an other similar films of that ilk.

I love old time horror pictures, and old time matte shots as well.  It's the romanticism of the artform from back then that appeals to me greatly.  This 1932 version is one of numerous.

An arctic CinemaScope matte from THE PERFECT FURLOUGH (1958)

Both Russ and fellow artist Jack Cosgrove worked on THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

An exceptional matte for BENGAL BRIGADE (1954).

A rare non-Universal Lawson assignment was the ambitious disaster-end of the world show DELUGE (1933) - a film that was quite bold for it's time, both with gung-ho effects sequences, but also with staggering pre-code sexual assault sub plot.



A low key Universal-International western, CAVE OF OUTLAWS (1951), had a couple of interesting mattes.

Also from CAVE OF OUTLAWS was this excellent Lawson shot.

From the very funny Abbott & Costello film WHO DONE IT? (1942)

Another great shot from WHO DONE IT?.  Russ' assistant, John DeCuir also worked on this film so he may have painted these?



Science fiction was a real money maker for Universal, with those shows churned out by the dozen.  THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955) was way above average for the genre, and provided many exciting visuals and classic matte shots.

I'm pretty sure that's David Stanley Horsley manning the camera for THIS ISLAND EARTH.  interestingly, the studio sacked Horsley halfway through the filming due to supposed cost over runs and internal politics, resulting is production cinematographer Cliff Stine taking over, not just the rest of the unfinished fx shots, but also the Universal photographic effects department!  Not to worry, as Stine had a long 'previous life' as an effects cameraman at RKO and worked on things like KING KONG and many others.

Iconic imagery from THIS ISLAND EARTH, courtesy of Russ Lawson.


Also from THIS ISLAND EARTH.  Great movie but ends too abruptly.



Two of the several mattes from the highly absorbing war film THE IMPOSTER (1944).  At right is production designer Eugene Lourie's concept sketch for Lawson's matte shot.  Lourie would himself become an established effects man later on, with a special talent for miniatures on many a show such as BATTLE OF THE BULGE and KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA.

Exotic locales Russ painted for THE FLAME OF ARABY (1951).

Stately architecture and set extensions for the original SHOWBOAT (1936)

From the Rock Hudson Korean war flick, BATTLE HYMN (1957)

I can't be certain whether Russ was already at Universal then but here is a shot - most likely a foreground glass shot - from the original 1931 James Whale FRANKENSTEIN.  The painted ceiling has been added in, which was common practice for practical purposes.

Painted factories from ALL MY SONS (1948)

Another James Whale flick, GREEN HELL (1940).  My late father often described this jungle adventure to me, as his mother - my grandmother - who was very, very religious, absolutely forbade my dad from going to see a film with "Hell" in the title, as it would surely lead to damnation and an eternity of fire and brimstone up the whazoo!  My dad, being the fellow he was, went anyway!  Miss ya' dad!

Speaking of 'religion', this one's called BACK TO GOD'S COUNTRY (1953) and starred the one actor who possibly appeared in more Lawson-matte shot pictures than anyone else under Uni contract... one Rock Hudson.

One of my favourite golden era matte shots was this one from the Lon Chaney classic, THE WOLFMAN (1941).  Not sure why, but it's always grabbed NZ Pete.

Two more from THE WOLFMAN.  The matte at left was a multi-plane gag, with the mansion, midground and tree all painted on separate glasses, to give a perspective shift as seen from a motorcar driving past.

Two interesting frames that Russ worked on with his cameraman Ross Hoffman from the film CHIEF CRAZY HORSE (1954).  The setting was designed to slowly dissolve from one time period to another, with much of each period painted in, such as the river, prarie, distant homestead and most of the Indian tents.

Bizzarre, post-modernist design at play here with the mattes Russ did for SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).


A pair of the numerous Technicolor mattes from the Gregory Peck saga THE WORLD IN HIS ARMS (1952).  Very nice work here.

From the rather good (and I think true story) THE GREAT IMPOSTER (1961) starring Tony Curtis.  Poor perspective work though.

Universal-International must have made a hundred pirate shows too.  Most of them forgettable, but many with effects shots, such as this one, THE PIRATES OF MONTEREY (1947) featuring the rather delectable Maria Montez, who while no Anita Ekberg, managed to make an impression...of sorts.

That same, familiar Uni backlot homestead is used yet again, this time for the not too bad Orson Welles drama MAN IN THE SHADOW (1957).  I got these from a cropped tv print whereby the only time you get to see the full Scope matte shot was during the uncropped titles.

Scores of mattes feature in SUDAN (1945).  Lawson's off-sider, John DeCuir definitely painted some of the many shots, so a few of these might have been his.

Another iconic monster movie matte shot, with this being from THE HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

The always reliable and competent Jeff Chandler made a ton of westerns and war films for Universal.  This one was RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL (1958), with some creative and clever painting going on here.

I'm a big fan of old comedy teams like Abbott & Costello - though this one was not one of their better efforts.  A & C GO TO MARS (1953) had lots of vfx shots and matte gags... and also had Anita Ekberg in a tiny bit part, so I suppose all was not lost!  I'll be doing a special blog on all of the many and varied trick shots used in the Abbott & Costello pictures at some point.  John Fulton and Stanley Horsley really earned their paycheques with those.

A nicely atmospheric setting from WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935), virtually all painted.

Two of the many mattes from TARAS BULBA (1962) - the only show to ever give Russ a screen credit.  I was told by Al Whitlock's friend, Rolf Giesen, that Al painted certain shots as well on this film.

One of my favourite films, the ultra-nasty prison flick BRUTE FORCE (1947) with the brilliant Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn.  A number of inventive matte shots, opticals and complex combination shots are used very well.  A classic, and not to be missed.

Also from BRUTE FORCE.  John DeCuir's son told me a nice story about visiting the set:  "I am writing a series of articles that resurrect some of the old art department stories and Brute Force plays a role in one of my stories.  I walked the Brute Force set but I was only 6 years old.  I do remember getting patted on the head by Burt Lancaster in the elevator of the Waldorf Astoria in New York. He asked me if I wanted to an actor when I grew up, I said no...my mother was furious l;-))"


The exceedingly dull Tony Curtis costumer, THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH (1954) - a film often misquoted as the one with that terrible line by Curtis "Yonder lies the castle of my fodda...".  It wasn't that line, and in fact the actual awful, similar line in question was used (by Curtis) in SON OF ALI-BABA which also features in this line up of mattes...


As I said earlier, I just love the old time comics like The Marx Brothers, Olsen & Johnson, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy and of course the great W.C Fields.  This shot is one of many from one of the most insane pictures W.C Fields made, NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941) - a film of such wild abandon it looks as if he made it up as the camera's were rolling.  Utterly hilarious, and pointless - and all the better for it - as only Fields could get away with.

Also from the same W.C Fields comedy.  Let me give you a clue as to what's happening here... well you see, Fields is in a commercial airliner, mid-flight and his bottle of bourbon falls out of the open(!) window of the passenger cabin, with which, any shameless drinker would do, he leaps out of the (open) window at 15'000 feet in pusuit of said bottle, flailing and falling toward earth, and straight into the arms of 'Mrs Hemoglobin', played by Margaret Dumont, in her mountain top retreat that can only be ascended by rickety, block and tackle elevator!!!.... and so forth.  Then things start to get real crazy!

One of the mattes that often cropped up in various Universal westerns, with this BluRay shot taken from MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953).

I'm wondering whether Ron Howard got the idea for the silly film SPLASH from MR PEABODY AND THE MERMAID (1948), as it's the same gig.  Some nice mattes by Russ here.

Nice matte from the Doris Day comedy LOVER COME BACK (1961).  Probably Lawson's as I don't think Whitlock was there yet.


When it came to side-splitting, off the wall, leave your brain at the door insanity, few films matched the crazy Olsen and Johnson flick HELLZAPOPPIN (1942) - one of the funniest films I've seen.  The sequence shown here (among several ingenious John Fulton vfx gags) involves the stars questioning what the hell is going on (as is the audience by this time!) and pausing to pull out a Russell Lawson matte painting, prop it up against the wall, and allow the 'live action' to commence within the darn matte painting itself, as they sit back and watch!!  Surely the most unique usage of the painted matte ever conceived.  

HELLZAPOPPIN - truly a one of a kind, and almost Monty Python, long before it's time.  I chuckled all the way through this one.

Universal churned out dozens of Sherlock Holmes thrillers, and some were quite good.  HOUSE OF FEAR (1945) had the requisite creepy abbey in a thunderstormatop the precarious cliff - as any half way decent thriller should, of course!

The original James Whale film of H.G Wells' THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) was a staggering trick shot showcase for John Fulton, David Horsley, John Mescall and Ross Hoffman, but also used matte art in some subtle ways as well.  This shot is practically all painted, with just the doorway and bottom area being real, along with the crowd of people approaching the other side of the non-existant house.

More sci-fi here, from THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957)

Venice on the Universal backlot, courtesy of Russ and his paintbrush, as seen in THE LOST MOMENT (1947).

The Maria Montez and Jon Hall tropical adventure WHITE SAVAGE (1943)

I discussed a similar shot in the 'Lost Mattes' sample reels, which bore a close similarity to this matte from the fabulous Alfred Hitchcock chase thriller, SABOTEUR (1942).


Also from SABOTEUR - quite possibly my number one Hitchcock film, and also one of, if not the, biggest visual effects shows connected to Hitchcock.  Packed with mattes, miniatures, optical gags, process and sometimes all of these combined!  Astonishingly, John P. Fulton didn't even get a screen credit on this huge project!  Must have pissed him off, no end.

More from SABOTEUR.  Lawson's assistant, John DeCuir painted many of the shots, in particular the stunning Statue of Liberty action climax, which rank right up there in movie folk-history.

Much painted ballroom additions from the obscure Boris Karloff thriller THE CLIMAX (1944).  The mattes were better than the film itself.  DeCuir painted also on this film.

I really enjoyed this oldie - THE INVISIBLE RAY (1935) with both Karloff and Lugosi!  Man, they could be great together... just check out the patently freakin' insane THE BLACK CAT (1934) for a real experience that defies definition in psychotic depravity.  

A terrific little film-noir, PHANTOM LADY (1944), that hit all the right notes.  Some fine mattes, moody cinematography, good performances and Elisha Cook jnr!  Enough said!!

Also from PHANTOM LADY.  Love this shot!  Virtually all brushwork here.

CinemaScope spectacle from THE TARNISHED ANGELS (1957), featuring, yes, you guessed it, Rock Hudson - who's probably in more matte shot films in Universal history!

An oddly designed and executed matte at left from the silly SON OF ALI-BABA (1952).  This one is where Bernie Schwartz utters his (oft misquoted) line:  "This is my father's palace, and yonder lies the valley of the sun".  The line is infamously quoted in error as: "Yonder lies the castle of my fodda" and was falsley attributed to THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH, not that it matters, but it's long held Tony Curtis Hollywood folklore

More gothic imagery that Russ furnished for THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), with the shot at left benefitting from the bi-packed in moving tree foliage.

Also from the same film is this shot - a shot that I'm very fond of.  Has the very essence of the time, the genre and the stylistic approach of the day.

Definitely one of the least impressive 'creature features' from Uni was the silly THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956) which pretty much failed on every count!

THE MOLE PEOPLE habitat, though surprisingly well illuminated given it's 1000 feet under the ground.  Not Universal's best.

This excellent matte appeared in both THE GOLDEN BLADE as well as THE SON OF ALI-BABA.

Mattes from MAGNIFICENT DOLL (1946), with the set extension shown at right being especially good.

Most of the old Abbott & Costello comedies had matte shots and other visual trick work.  This beautiful shot is from PARDON MY SARONG (1942).  Nice shot.

Also from PARDON MY SARONG, which John DeCuir's son told me his dad also painted on.



TOWER OF LONDON (1939) had Russ painting mattes under George Teague who was Universal visual effects boss for a short time.

Stately manor home matte painted for THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE (1944).

One of scores of western forts that Russ rendered at Universal.  This shot's from WAR ARROW (1953) though I've seen it in other films as well.

The utterly captivating spoof, ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) was, oddly, titled ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE MONSTERS here in New Zealand back in the day, presumably due to the fact that Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman and the Invisible Man all show up!


Some rather nice Technicolor mattes from CANYON PASSGE (1946).

The classic Hollywood ballroom, with this one being from THE GOOD FAIRY (1935)

One of many mattes found in ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942), with the decidedly cute Maria Montez.  I think this was Universal's first go at Technicolor if I recall.  The studio weren't too keen but relented as it was 1942 after all, and others had been working in the glories of full colour for some time.

Just the style of old time matte shots that appeal to me, is this lovely matte from THE MUMMY'S CURSE (1944), with this shot looking almost first generation to me, such is the clarity.  I wonder if it might have been an in-camera glass shot set up on the sound stage as the shot appears a dozen times throughout the very short, barely hour long, monster flick.  Cool baby!

A not entirely successful jungle picture, but COBRA WOMAN (1944) did have Maria Montez in it...and in vivid Technicolor.

A terrific, almost invisible matte from THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942).


Although Disney's Peter Ellenshaw was responsible for the most impressive of all the SPARTACUS matte shots, with Peter's single matte of Rome being among the greatest ever committed to film, Russell supplied a number of mattes to broaden the canvas, as it were, of Stanley Kubrick's film.  These are two of Lawson's shots, with the lower one have numerous 'slot gags' to suggest background action - not something commonly seen in Lawson's shots.

Gothic mood was beautifully captured in these shots from THE STARNGE DOOR (1951), with the extreme perspective in the down view being just the ticket for NZ Pete.


Some of the exotic Eastern action in ALI-BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944), expanded with the matte work of Russ.

One more lavish interior, this being from ARABIAN NIGHTS.


        

Maria Montez ... the sultry and exotic femme fatale who died young, aged just 39.  She was Universal's answer, but no equal to Dorothy Lamour - Paramount's reigning box office queen of jungle & sand pictures.

             

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BUT WAIT... THERE'S MORE!

Before we say goodbye to 2021, here are a couple of interesting shots that were found on one of the sample reels.  These are Syd Dutton mattes that were done at Universal in 1984 for the Lucasfilm telemovie THE EWOK ADVENTURE-CARAVAN OF COURAGE.  The film and it's follow up were both ILM affairs but I assume the workload was too great so they farmed out a couple of shots to Universal and also to Jim Danforth.  Take a look at these...

Original plate photography of live action.

Syd Dutton's matte painting shown here as a test comp.

A poor quality image of Syd's painting.

The final shot as it appears in the telemovie.

The masked off live action plate for a second EWOKS matte shot.

Temporary composite with Syd's painted additions.

The final shot.


***This post, and all 173 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/


Well friends, that's about it for this substantial installment.  I look forward to your feedback.  Judging from last month's posting, the magnificent Anita Ekberg is proving more popular than most matte exponents that I've covered(!!) ... And rightly so, says I.   ;)

Take care wherever you are.

Pete


















20 comments:

  1. 👏 I can't Thank you enough for the work you do for Cinema posterity especially Matte Painting. But I can't help but wonder what it would be like if you added Miniatures to the blog since Mattes and Miniatures went hand in hand throughout Cinema History especially from the 1930s-1990s. Not criticizing your already wonderful work of journalism, but it sure would be an greatness to see the men and the models they built that helped to make movie magic just as great as Matte Artistry has. Oh, and, Merry Christmas!

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  2. Oh and one more thing Pete, may I suggest something? What if you adapted this blog into a book?...Just a thought...

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    1. Hi Tom

      A book would be great, I agree, but I simply couldn't deal with the costs involved, stress, editorial oversight or interference... Just couldn't cope my friend.
      I've had enough feedback from folks I know who have published 'real' books on the topic, and the journey wasn't as smooth as They'd have liked.

      On miniatures... well I agree. I do include them when I feel the need, and have done a couple of specialty miniatures only blog posts of considerable length in the past, as well as smaller one off pieces on old flicks that are strictly model affairs (and who wouldn't want to have an affair with a model, I ask you?) ;)

      Pete

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  3. I think you may find that the shot that ultimately becomes the Glen Island Casino (you labeled it the 'Green Island Casino') is from "The Glenn Miller Story." This is a real location that used to be not all that far from where I live.

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    1. Thanks for that tip. I'll take another look at that film. It's been many years since I saw it.

      Pete

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  4. A NZ Pete update is always a delightful surprise on a blustery Sunday like today. Great mattes as always. Cheers from Canada.

    M.

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    1. Marlon

      I looked at the international weather in the paper and said to myself, "My mate in Canada is in dire need of something to lift his flagging spirits", so a new blog was implemented.

      Pete

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    2. True, it's cold. However, the mountains all look like they were painted by Whitlock. As long as the multi-plane cloud effects aren't moving too fast, it's not altogether horrible!

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    3. Marlon... I hate to spill the beans mate, but Whitlock DID paint your mountains, or so I read on some 'conspiracy rabbit hole' website(!!) :(

      Pete

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  5. What a wonderful surprise! Many thanks for these Russell Lawson matte paintings.
    I have only been bale to identify one of the many unknowns. The matte with the man on the building's ledge is from Bedtime for Bonzo (1950) directed by Frederick de Cordova
    You can see the film at Youtube. That matte shot at minute 2.51. The heroic man risking his life to save a chimpanzee is none other than Ronald Reagan.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NXjrEgWTHA
    Best regards.

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    1. Thanks Domingo...

      I had almost expected you to identify a dozen more as well!

      All the best my friend,

      Pete

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  6. Once again Pete an amazing, thorough and thought provoking offering. Your attention to this field is outstanding. A genuine contribution to the History of cinema which is too heavily populated by work focusing on directors and stars, as if they worked alone. Really, really valuable. Thank you.

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    1. Hi Gerard

      So glad you and a small-ish club of likeminded folks get something out of these blogs. I do try to cover the artform as best I can.

      **An apology is needed here: Although I do review and check the article(s) a few times prior to publishing, and figure all is 'okay', it constantly astounds me when having a later look-see a week later at how many damned typo's, spelling errors and grammar mishaps have slipped through! :(

      Pete

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  7. What a Christmas treat to see this fine and large new article! I'm so glad I stopped in! So many of the blogs I check in on regularly are asleep for the holidays right now, but here you are, working hard as usual! What a resource you are. I am gobsmacked as always, and will have to come back and absorb all of this again to digest it properly. Cheers.

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  8. Thank you, Pete. Great, educational, & darned fun reading as always.

    Noticed an odd detail in that superb composite (town + desert BG) from the unidentified Western shown about midway scroll-down. To start, look at the pristine BG plate: the camera is closer than one realizes, & the saguaro cacti are in fact human sized (see the bushes scattered around them to get a sense of the actual scale). The composite, however, scales up the BG considerably so that the cacti appear to tower well above all the houses & structures in the foreground. This was surely a deliberate exaggeration -- ain't that Hollywood? -- to lend the landscape a "big" (epic) look; those pesky bushes are tactfully obscured or distant.

    Knowing this makes me dub the shot "Amazing Colossal Saguaro." Good old Russ & co. must've known that, in reality, there are saguaro cacti that are truly as enormous as they'd made them appear to be here. It makes me wonder what similar kinds of fudging may be evident in other composites from the golden age.

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    1. Having never set foot in an actual desert (or dessert, for that matter!), I'd never have noticed. It's good to know eagle-eyed readers are out there among the sagebrush and scorpions.

      All the best
      Pete

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  9. Ah, Pete, with all your love for American films, it sounds like you've never set foot in L.A. & environs?? You won't likely want to emigrate any time soon, but for a movie lover, it's a neat place to visit.

    Now we're not talking the same kind of desert (no saguaro cacti, instead a smattering of joshua trees), but my buddy lives a drive away from the desert location that opens 1954's THEM! Scroll down a little ways to see his posting, "THEM location found": https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/monsterkidclassichorrorforum/them-1954-t24661-s880.html

    Happy New Year!

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    1. I've been all over the world (and glad I did it when I did given the shitstorm this ball has found itself in of late!), and as far as the US goes have visited LA (several times) and numerous other cities, though always strictly 'urban' visits.

      Pete

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  10. Hi Pete, thanks so much for putting these posts together. They are an extremely helpful resource and very interesting. I've just come in via searching for John Bryan's work on the David Lean films and found a great post by you. I could barely believe my luck when I checked to see your other posts and saw you are still active. Thanks again, this article is wonderful and I'll be checking out the others.

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    1. Hi Matthew

      So glad you stumbled across the blog, and that you found something worthwhile from it.

      Pete

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