Pete's Editorial: Greetings friends and assorted special effects 'nuts' (and I do mean that in the nicest possible way!) I'm back with a fresh blog post of some substantial volume (would you accept anything less?) and I think many of you will enjoy this retrospective. However, before we do that I'd like to take a moment to mention a superb book that I've just finished which I'd rate as probably the best of it's kind when it comes to giving the lowdown on the making of any motion picture you'd care to name.
SPACE ODYSSEY: STANLEY KUBRICK, ARTHUR C. CLARKE AND THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE by Michael Benson is the book in question, and what a book it is. I've read several published accounts on the making of Stanley Kubrick's often misunderstood 1968 cinematic masterpiece but none came even close to exploring that mammoth, complicated and certainly controversial production as comprehensively as Benson has done. Not a word is wasted in this 500 page tome, with a great many portions of the text being re-read a second or third time by this reviewer such was the quality of the writing. With scores of (the then) surviving cast and crew members interviewed - including Arthur C.Clarke, Douglas Trumbull, Stuart Freeborn, Brian Johnson and many others - often with surprisingly candid and revealing results, some of which are quite hilarious. Of course the film's groundbreaking photographic effects work is covered in much detail and even I learned so much more than I thought I already knew. Michael has augmented these very passionate recollections with many archival interviews from those no longer with us, often from unpublished sources. The result is to put it simply, wonderful. The accounts presented to the author from the least likely of interviewees such as low ranking production assistants and even newbie 'green' pimply faced interns and the like, who amazingly wound up having key creative input and artistic responsibilities on the film in itself was such a revelation and for me proved among the most rewarding aspects of the 'out of control' behemoth that was Stanley's baby. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's certainly one that takes a special place on my bookshelf. A must read! *PS: For those interested, I did an extensive and surprisingly well received blog on 2001's special photographic effects a few years ago and it can be read right here.
Today's blog is something a little different inasmuch as there ain't a whole lot of matte painted effects on show here for once. Instead we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable visual effects sequences where catastrophic mayhem was the order of the day. It's not really a disaster film showcase that you might anticipate, as this article covers a range of genres that just happen to have an element of epic scaled mayhem as created by the special effects departments of various studios over a long timespan of movie history. There are war films, drama's, soppy love stories, westerns, fantasy films, science fiction yarns, dawn of man epics, comedies and even musicals among the line up here. Musicals I here you utter? Well, yes... MGM's big CinemaScope song and dance show SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS wasn't all vocals and melody, as there was a ripper of an avalanche in the movie with much technical virtuosity required.
Of course there are some of the obvious entries such as EARTHQUAKE, which played a massive part in my love for visual effects back in 1974, and there are some classic effects sequences from terrific war pictures such as THE DAMBUSTERS and the amazing HELL'S ANGELS in addition to shows like the classy Cinerama epic KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA through to the dire Irwin Allen flick THE STORY OF MANKIND.
Some of these films had significant chunks of running time devoted to some form of catastrophic mayhem, while others may have just had one brief segment that occurred within an otherwise unremarkable movie, but all those effects sequences selected are here because NZPete fondly remembers them. Not all are masterpieces (ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT - what were they thinking?), while others remain to this day fully fledged classics in all aspects of the artform and entertainment value (THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO - unforgettable!). Some time back I published my Magicians of the Miniature blog special on all things miniature, which incidentally has proven to be my most popular post ever. While today's blog post isn't really a follow up, it's probably the next best thing for those of you who dig models in the trick shot arena. My big miniature effects blog can be read here.
So, with that, let us put our feet up onto the seat in front of us, dig into our popcorn (or if you were me back in the day, a double chocolate dipped ice cream) and become immersed in a few hours of most worthy m a y h e m ... I'm sure you'll get a kick out of it Enjoy
I'll start off with one of my absolute all time favourite movies, and certainly one of the finest special effects entries ever, MGM's big budgeted THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944). The film deserved took home the Oscar that year for it's effects work which included fabulous miniatures by the great Donald Jahraus under the overall supervision of the legendary A.Arnold 'Buddy' Gillespie in what I'd regard as a career best for both men.
The film deals with the famous Dolittle bombing raids on Tokyo as a show of force after the calamity that was Pearl Harbour. The bomb run itself as shown here was brilliantly executed on the MGM backlot by Buddy Gillespie and a crew that included several son to be famous in their field effects practitioners such as A.D Flowers, Jack McMaster and Glen Robinson - all of whom went on to major endeavours later in their careers. These sequences were shot from atop a 90 foot tower erected on the backlot.
Part of Don Jahraus' massive miniature set of Tokyo. The blur at the lower edge of the frame isn't the fault of Max Fabian's excellent fx cinematography but is a result of these frames being screengrabs from what was a fast motion sequence filmed from the bomber aircraft's POV as it swoops low over the industrial area in flames.
Miniaturist Don Jahraus started off his career at RKO around 1930 and then did some time at Universal briefly before taking up the position at MGM where he stayed for the remainder of his illustrious career.
Part of the aerial bombardment set piece, and although it's hard to see on these frames, the B25 is actually visible flying across the devastation as it occurs. What I love here is the remarkably authentic pyrotechnic work that is perfectly scaled to the large miniature set and looks utterly convincing. Marvellous horizontal piano wire guidance system (that can faintly be seen vibrating as the explosion goes off) that was an industry standard for decades and was largely known as a Lydecker rig, named after Republic special effects masters Howard and Theodore Lydecker. The system would still be in use by Gillespie's assistant A.D (Adlia Douglas) Flowers on the big Steven Spielberg film 1941 (1979) and also featured in later shows such as INDEPENDENCE DAY among others.
In his memoir, Buddy Gillespie called Donald Jahraus "...the best executor of miniature assignments with whom I ever came in contact - imaginative, intelligent, artistic and creative - Truly one of the greats."
Glen Robinson and Robert MacDonald were Gillespie's 'powder men' for these scenes. Buddy described these miniatures as being 1/2 scale, which suggests enormous models, though maybe he meant 1/2 inch to the foot scale?
A close up of one of the B25's from Gillespie's own historic collection. The take offs and landings were executed with a vertical piano wire system (barely visible in this still) attached to an overhead trolley rig which ran along cables strung between telephone poles.
A rare still taken from the same position as Maximillian Fabian's vfx camera - atop the 90 foot tower - which demonstrates the amazing skills of the powder men and their pyro mix. I just can't get enough of miniature explosions, with Gerry Anderson's THUNDERBIRDS being my weekly 'fix' back in the 1960's.
While on aerial mayhem, we cannot overlook the phenomenal effects work in Spielberg's 1941 (1979) which was orchestrated by one of the THIRTY SECONDS veterans, A.D Flowers. Jaw dropping miniature set pieces with brilliantly executed 'Lydecker rigs' allowing model aircraft to not only fly down Hollywood Blvd but to do barrel rolls and all manner of stunt gags.
Greg Jein's miniatures get all blown to hell in 1941.
Another viewpoint of the miniature Hollywood Blvd aerial sequence. Oh, and I've actually stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel once while on an expedition to great places like Larry Edmunds Movie Bookstore and Hollywood Book & Poster etc ... and all while 'attending' an international conference as an invited speaker on very weird medical things in a previous life, but keep that to yourself.
Frames from the climactic Ferris wheel sequence where the whole thing comes off it's axis and rolls into the bay, though sadly Eddie Deezen survived!
Effects crew at work on 1941. That's Logan Frazee at lower left and A.D Flowers middle right. For much more on the effects from this movie you can visit my special blog right here.
Kiwi director Roger Donaldson did a splendid job with his version of the famous Bounty mutineers saga with THE BOUNTY (1984) and the film hit all the bases for this viewer. A couple of effects shots which included a first rate climactic scene where the Pitcairn deposited mutineers deliberately sink the mighty ship The Bounty so as to not draw attention to their whereabouts. Excellent model work and composite photography by Van der Veer Photo Effects - a company established by longtime effects cameraman Frank Van der Veer who sadly died in 1982. Frank began in the effects biz in 1950 at 20th Century Fox as one of Fred Sersen's crew and he founded his own optical house in 1962 and produced many composite shots for films as wide ranging as EXORCIST II-THE HERETIC, ORCA THE KILLER WHALE and the 1976 incarnation of KING KONG.
Epic conclusion to an epic film, THE BOUNTY.
For the MGM film ABOVE AND BEYOND (1952), A.Arnold Gillespie re-created the Atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima to frightening effect though I'm sure the footage was in fact lifted out of an earlier MGM picture called THE BEGINNING OR THE END (1947). The terrain was actually just a scenic painting inside a large glass tank measuring 4 by 5 feet and 7 feet in depth, filled with distilled water. The mushroom cloud was created by injecting a chemical formula into the tank at a strategic point, augmented by specially rigged flash bulbs behind to add to the illusion. The subsequent views of devastation were achieved via miniatures. At the time Gillespie created this effect, nobody outside of the military had actually seen the effects of an atomic bomb blast so it was a bit of guess work on the fx technicians part.
For the 1957 Korean war drama, BATTLE HYMN, Universal's effects department under Clifford Stine produced a superb bit of destruction. Miniature most likely made by veteran Charlie Baker, with Fred Knoth being one of that studio's pyro experts.
Irwin Allen's feeble attempt at remaking the classic LOST WORLD (1960) was an insult to Willis O'Brien who was engaged on the film purely to have his esteemed name associated with this turkey and nothing more. Anyway, there was a halfway decent cataclysmic finale when the whole she-bang goes up like the forth of July. L.B Abbott was effects chief with Emil Kosa jnr painting the matte art, which I think much of this shot is.
Welcome fellow enthusiasts of the magical world of the traditional hand painted matte photographic effect. Today I'm offering up something entirely fresh in the realisation that I have so many wonderful matte shot frames and associated imagery encompassing all manner of genres and a myriad of themes and specific subject matter that much of the collection could well be overlooked by yours truly as I try and offer up my monthly 'topics'. So, as a change of pace I've pulled out a couple of hundred (and then some!) matte shots that cover a wide range of themes, genres and era's, with the twist being that probably 75% of these images haven't been seen until now.
Some are from films that I have covered in the past but these particular shots haven't been published as they generally didn't meet the particular theme of a given blog post, so the mattes are in the large part 'new' to my readers. I couldn't resist throwing in a few familiar ones due to much improved image quality as a result of BluRay technology or HDTV broadcast. Many here are very rare and some have originated from films that run the gamut from timeless right through to time-waste!
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will know NZPete is especially fond of the so-called 'Golden Era' of matte painted trick shots, with many of my favourite matte artists such as pioneers Norman Dawn, Jack Cosgrove, Percy Day, Ralph Hammeras, Jan Domela, Albert Maxwell Simpson, Chesley Bonestell, Emil Kosa jnr, and those fabled, though largely anonymous Newcombe artists at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, all the way through to the next generation of oil on glass maestro's such as Peter Ellenshaw, Albert Whitlock, Irving Block, Matthew Yuricich and Ray Caple. Latter day exponents also receive wide coverage here such as Syd Dutton, Ken Marschall, Harry Walton and Robert Stromberg. Of course, a great many fine matte has been rendered over the ninety-odd years that the practice had been a film maker's staple, by largely anonymous, uncredited and pretty much unknown, yet highly talented artists whose work is the main reason that this blog exists in the first place. I am more than sure many of you will love this collection as much as I do.
As stated in the past, it's always my hope that readers of this blog actually view same on a decent sized PC or Mac, and not one of those damned little matchbox sized 'toys' that seem to have proliferated for reasons that escape me. Many of these images, whenever possible, are high quality and need to be appreciated on 'real' computers with a tangible screen size. So come on, be a 'real bloke' with your 'V8' viewing equipment and not some 'kaftan wearer' who needs to pinch that little micro-screen to make it marginally more viewable. *This message was not sanctioned by the folks who brought you the i-phone.
So folks, with that out of the way, prepare your popcorn, get comfy, dim the lights as the perfectly timed overture takes us up a notch and the glorious waterfall curtain starts it's slow ascent as the picture show commences (if you have to ask 'what the hell is a waterfall curtain?', then I'm afraid no amount of therapy will suffice...)
Now I did say that not all of the films featured here today were classics ... which brings us to the silly beyond belief MANNEQUIN 2 - ON THE MOVE (1991), which at least had some fine visuals from the always reliable Illusion Arts. Syd Dutton was matte artist and Bill Taylor chief fx cinematographer. A dud film with some beautiful matte shots.
The rather taut little British thriller, ANOTHER MAN'S POISON (1951) featured a scenery chewing Bette Davis in the role she was born for. An independent film made at a small studio at Walton-on-Thames with no effects credit so I'm assuming the several mattes were farmed out to somewhere like Pinewood or Shepperton. This one is a full painting with what looks like animated gag for the water.
From the same film is another full painting representing the estate where all manner of chicanery takes hold.
MGM's deservedly famous Newcombe department supplied this invisible matte to the Fred Astaire film ROYAL WEDDING (1951). The matte line bisects the frame right across the upper part of the gateway with practically the whole house being artwork.
The Alistair MacLean spy thriller WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL (1971) had this undetectable matte shot by Pinewood's Cliff Culley where an actual Scottish location (a well known castle on a lake in truth) has been made to appear atop a steep ridge via clever matte painting which adds in the cliff and distant scenery.
I've covered Selznick's SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) previously but missed a couple of nice shots that slipped by. This interior of the USO club is all painted (including the suspended foreground piece) except for the people. Jack Shaw was a veteran painter with Selznick and Warners and, under Clarence Slifer had much to do with the many mattes in the film. Other artists included Spencer Bagtatopolis, Hans Ledeboer and Jack Cosgrove. The film was nominated for best visual effects for 1944 but lost out.
Also from SINCE YOU WENT AWAY is this remarkable shot that I'd never spotted before until seeing the BluRay disc. Only the area with the foreground stars and various extras are actual with all else painted and composited in flawlessly by ace camera wiz Clarence Slifer. I think the entire tree at left of frame has also been added in by the artist, such was the skill of the fabulous Cosgrove matte department at Selznick Studios. This sort of trick shot just blows my mind folks.
I have an epic Al Whitlock blog coming up soon but I couldn't help throwing in a few tidbits before time such as this wonderful (and very rare) matte from the brilliant COLOSSUS - THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970). I say rare because the shot was painted and composited with a small live action set up at lower left, initially as a full 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic shot showing the Soviet nuclear missile battery, though in the final film it's only ever seen as a heavily cropped down image on a little tv screen, and even then, ever so fleetingly. Trivia note: years later Matthew Yuricich did a similar shot on a smaller scale for FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER that was so degraded in the final 'tv news' presentation that it's hard to even see.
John Huston's MOULIN ROUGE (1952) had a couple of trick shots courtesy of Shepperton's matte department, with this lovely shot being one of Judy Jordan's matte paintings. Judy trained under Walter Percy Day and would carry on under Wally Veevers at that studio for a number of years before transitioning across town to Tom Howard's matte department at MGM-Elstree.
Anyone who regularly peruses my blogs will know that I'm an enormous fan of the legendary Fred Sersen and his remarkable effects department at 20th Century Fox. The excellent Gregory Peck epic drama KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (1944) was a showcase for many superbly integrated mattes, complex multi-panel glass panorama's and miniature work.
Also from KEYS OF THE KINGDOM is this extensive, though barely detectable matte painted shot where it's all paint except the patch of grass with the actors. Even the tree is a Sersen painted element.
From the same film is this superbly executed and entirely convincing trick shot. Painters working for Sersen included Ray Kellogg, Emil Kosa snr, Emil Kosa jnr, Fitch Fulton, Ralph Hammeras, Max De Vega, Irving Block, Jack Rabin, Cliff Silsby, Clyde Hill, Lee LeBlanc, Barbara Webster, Chris von Schneidau and Menrad von Muldorfer among others.
Columbia's Glenn Ford western THE MAN FROM COLORADO (1948) was a good genre piece and what's more featured several excellent matte shots that seemed a par above the usual shots produced at that studio. No FX credit but likely to be Larry Butler and Donald Glouner. Matte artists employed at Columbia included Juan Larrinaga, Hans Bathowlowsky and Louis Litchtenfield for a time.
An outstanding matte from THE MAN FROM COLORADO (1948) that is as convincing and beautifully composited as any I've seen. Very nice work.
Rocco Gioffre painted this Latin American port for the blood thirsty though oddly watchable WALKER (1987) starring the always excellent Ed Harris. It's one of those films that you want to turn off after a while but just can't bring yourself to do so.
Universal cranked out dozens of Rock Hudson vehicles over the years, with BACK TO GOD'S COUNTRY (1953) being the third cinematic incarnation of the very same story. Russ Lawson was Universal's resident matte artist for decades.
Syd Dutton painted this sweeping establishing shot for BATMAN FOREVER (1995).
If ever there was a director with a sincere feeling for the human condition it must have been the great Frank Capra, who's career included so many all time classics. THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1932) may not be his most well known picture but it ranks among his very best. A beautifully told and acted piece that stays long with the viewer after the fact. A Columbia film, as were most of Capra's pictures, the film is stunningly photographed (by Joseph Walker) and contains many visual effects shots from burning towns through to imposing Chinese palaces. I don't know who painted that mattes other than Columbia apparently had a New Zealand matte painter, Ted Withers, among it's staff around that time, so maybe it was Ted? Withers also painted for MGM for a while and became a famous calendar artist of pin ups etc. I think Russell Lawson and Jack Cosgrove both worked for Columbia as well in those early days.
One of the vast, oppressive interiors from THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1932).
The epic scale 70mm Super-Technirama CUSTER OF THE WEST (1968) slipped in a few excellent matte shots courtesy of Spanish maestro, and one of my all time favourite trick men, Emilio Ruiz del Rio. If you open this image and study it you will see much painted augmentation going on, with trees, hills, indian encampment and distant mountains all beautifully rendered with oils on glass by magician extraordinaire Ruiz. Emilio had worked on around 300 films going back as far as the 1940's and was still busy post-retirement and well into his twilight years.
Another big 70mm epic was the extremely long EXODUS (1960) from Otto Preminger and a cast of thousands it seemed. This shot was curious and struck me as possibly a full painting with doubled in pyro for the bombing of the hospital.
The timeless story of LES MISERABLES has been filmed many times, with this set of frames being from the 1934 French version. I don't know who did the fx shots but a fellow named Nicholas Wilcke was active on many French films requiring mattes, models and foreground gags,
Hello friends and assorted special effects freaks - and I do mean that in the nicest possible way ;) It's that time again where, after a sweltering summer break I have finally found the motivation to plod away at one of these mammoth blogs. It's always a strange process trying to come up with new topics for these blogs as I have so many matte images I want to share, so it can be a struggle trying find a decent enough reason. Generally, I find that while walking my dog blog ideas spring to mind, with a myriad of flashbacks to particular films I've seen and how they might figure in the greater scheme of things in a potential matte blog. Today I have something that I'm sure many of you will find quite interesting and really not really examined until now - the wonders that are the matte painted jungle.
If you are anything like me many of you will have been weened on the old TARZAN pictures and various assorted daffy jungle adventures featuring exquisitely presented heroines of the Dorothy Lamour or Maureen O'Sullivan magnitude - and to a lesser extent Maria Montez - with these glossy though wafer thin scenarios usually produced on larger than life backlot sets that have been extended into magical make believe locales by way of our best friend, the matte artist. In an effort to be as comprehensive as possible I have included some classics, some lesser efforts and a handful of best forgotten films that span the all encompassing 'hand painted' traditional matte shot era. For my money, the painted jungle was never better than that depicted in the 1933 bona-fide classic KING KONG. Matte artists Mario Larrinaga, Byron Crabbe and Albert Maxwell Simpson created the quintessential 'gardener's nightmare' - a foliage rendition of Dante's Inferno where danger lurked at every junction and a sense of unease was near palpable for the viewer. That damp, humid, tangled hell painted on glass made KONG every bit as memorable for me as the creatures that inhabited the environs. The same could not be said for the Dino DeLaurentiis reboot in 1976 which while having a few okay points (like John Barry's score), was a complete and absolute let down in the jungle stakes, such was the dreadfully unimaginative production design on Dino's film which for all intentions seemed to have been shot in a garden centre nursery. I'd love to have seen what the proposed but unmade Universal adaptation THE LEGEND OF KING KONG might have been like.
At least Peter Jackson got it right on the money with his version of KONG, and as a true devotee of the original I'd have expected nothing less from Jackson. I've assembled a fairly substantial collection here with plenty of great TARZAN vistas, some WWII jungle movies, a few pirate yarns and plenty more. Among the collection here are some very rare images and some never before seen photographs from family albums of old time matte exponents which, as good fortune would have it, fell into my hands fairly recently, for which I'm ever grateful.
So folks, let us stock up on mosquito repellent, fill our water canteens and set our compasses to "adventure" as we hack and slash a path through the cinematic foliage ...
This beautiful jungle vista was painted by Mark Sullivan for a proposed Jim Danforth project JONGOR around 1985, though I don't think it ever got finished or far into production.
One of the better films of the genre, the Arnold Schwarzenegger monster flick PREDATOR (1987) was one of the most dazzling displays of pre-CG era photographic effects by R/Greenberg and Associates based out of New York. The matte shots were contracted to artist Bob Scifo in Hollywood and included this great shot in an altogether audience jarring moment
Walter Percy Day, known as Pop Day throughout the British film industry, is still regarded as the grandfather of UK trick photography (or, 'Process Shots' as he preferred to be credited). For a number of years in the early 1920's Pop based himself in Paris and was in constant demand to the French film industry producing scores of elaborate mattes and other effects. This shot is from one such French film though I don't know the title nor year.
The matte shot world's best kept secret would have to be the astonishingly talented Ken Marschall who for more than 25 years would turn out more than one hundred remarkable original negative matte shots together with effects cameraman and business partner Bruce Block under the banner Matte Effects. This exquisite rendering for the film DANGER ISLAND from the mid eighties was classic Marschall matte magic - painted in acrylics onto special black glossy art cardboard and as was often the case, rendered at Ken's kitchen table at home! Marschall is also well known among marine art collectors for his many wonderful paintings depicting The Titanic and other vintage era ocean liners.
I've always had a soft spot for left of centre film maker extraordinaire Samuel Fuller. A real life war hero and tough guy who never minced words and called it as he saw it. His interviews are always illuminating to say the least. Among his many films was this interesting one set in Indo-China, CHINA GATE (1957). Oddly, a 20th Century Fox logo precedes the film but the effects were credited to Linwood Dunn who had for decades been a part of RKO (which I think might have closed up shop around this time).
Another matte from CHINA GATE. Well worth catching.
Norman Dawn was unquestionably the pioneer of matte photography, having developed glass shot methodology as early as 1907. Among his many decades in the business, Dawn produced nearly 900 trick shots, all meticulously recorded and indexed for future historians. This shot is from the 1920 silent picture THE ADORABLE SAVAGE. The ocean beach is real, the village is a backlot set at Universal with the background landscape a matte painting all combined in camera.
There have been numerous incarnations of the classic KING SOLOMON'S MINES with this one being from around 1985 from the Cannon Films outfit - and the resulting low brow film shows the fact. Not sure who did the mattes, possibly Cliff Culley or Leigh Took?
An invisible matte shot by Syd Dutton for the 1980's tv series MAGNUM P.I with Tom Selleck. The episode was Two Birds of a Feather. The same matte was used in at least one other instance.
I kind of enjoy some of these formula, by-the-numbers African adventures from the 1950's. TANGANYIKA (1954) was just such a show and had a couple of nice Technicolor mattes by artist Russ Lawson. The one at left was recycled (in b&w) for the horror show THE LEECH WOMAN.
...as the title suggests, the film sucked...big time!
Paramount made many a jungle movie, often starring the exquisite Dorothy Lamour in the most fetching of sarongs and HER JUNGLE LOVE (1938) was one of many. The film was Technicolor and although I have a copy it's too awful to get decent frame grabs from so here are Jan Domela before and after photos.. The sea is a real plate, the middle portion a set at Paramount and the rest a Domela painting.
Another Jan Domela shot from HER JUNGLE LOVE (1938). Gordon Jenning was effects supervisor and Irmin Roberts was matte cinematographer.
British matte artist and optical effects wiz Doug Ferris created this expansive African vista for a UK cigarette commercial in the 1980's.
Doug's matte art that still survives today along with numerous others. Doug started as a matte painter at Shepperton under Wally Veevers around 1962 as part of Wally's large and well equipped and highly regarded photographic effects department.
A big special effects show was Columbia's THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK (1961) with veteran technician Lawrence W. Butler in charge of the many effects shots with cameraman Donald Glouner. I don't know who did the matte painted shots but some are pretty good as shown above. I know that Al Whitlock did numerous mattes as an independent contractor to Butler-Glouner after leaving Disney in the early 1960's and on through his tenure at Universal so maybe Whitlock had a hand in.
More mattes, miniatures and split screen fx from DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK. The huge model volcano was built in Larry Butler's rural property apparently as he wanted excavation work done and it just suited him down to the ground.
A dazzling matte painted shot by Mark Sullivan for the film MIRACLES (1986).
Equatorial West Africa as realised by Albert Whitlock for the epic GREYSTOKE - THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984). This view - one of many mattes in the film - was entirely manufactured as a complex visual effect by Whitlock and cameramen Bill Taylor, Dennis Glouner (son of Donald) and Mike Moramarco. All painted, with elaborate cel overlay effects art and animation gags for the burning lava, waterfall, birds, lightning and sunlight 'God Rays', not forgetting the classic Whitlock moving clouds trick (produced with multiple soft horizontal split screens).
Another jaw dropping vista from GREYSTOKE is once again entirely painted and features subtle cloud drift split screen gags and sun rays. I am happy to report that he painting still survives and this along with several other rare Whitlock matte paintings that I have high res images of will be featured in a forthcoming Whitlock Special, where I'll have as many of Albert's mattes as I have been able to acquire - many of which have never been seen before! Stay tuned.
GREYSTOKE mighty tilt up from river boat to smoldering volcano.
Old time Newcombe pastel matte from MGM's CONGO MAISIE (1940)
As a teen I enjoyed this one, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975) although it all looks pretty hokey nowadays. Derek Meddings was in charge of the highly variable effects,..
Hi there friends and fellow trickshot enthusiasts. It's time once again for a re-evaluation of another classic event in special visual effects, with todays topic being the substantial visual effects showcase that was Hammer Films 1970 diversion away from their standard fare of vampire bats and stitched together reanimated corpses, WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH - the genre and theme of which pretty much speaks for itself. I've always been a big fan of Hammer films and still regard their catalogue and output as standing in a class of it's own for the most part, with often quite impressive films produced under modest circumstances to say the least. The British studio was a stock company of talent both in front of and behind the camera, with quality showing in most every case. The film being discussed here today is probably a unique entry in the Hammer catalogue as it's the only film I know of that was deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination, with the category of course being for Best Special Visual Effects. The film lost out to Disney's BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS that year which suggests that it would have to be a cold, cold day in hell before a little British Hammer film won out over a big budget American film with the Disney name attached.
Although known mostly for horror pictures, Hammer actually had a wide, across the board range of genres and topics from the 1930's through to the mid 1970's, from comedies such as DON'T PANIC CHAPS to meaty war pictures as THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND and YESTERDAY'S ENEMY swashbuckling adventures like THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and the wonderful CAPTAIN CLEGG; sci-fi excursions MOON ZERO TWO and the QUATERMASS series, and crime dramas such as the excellent little bank heist film CASH ON DEMAND through to delvings into the occult with the sorely under-rated Dennis Wheatley chiller TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER as just a few examples.
Hammer delved more than once into Prehistoric territory with classics such as the Ray Harryhausen picture ONE MILLION YEARS BC and the 'less said about it the better' turkey PREHISTORIC WOMEN (both of which I saw together on a double feature at the dreadful and now thankfully demolished Astor theatre in Auckland - your 'classic', somewhat less than desirable, suburban fleapit of the Grindhouse variety ... though I digress). I saw the topic of today's blog also on a double bill, this time paired with, I think, Harryhausen's VALLEY OF GWANGI, though mercifully at a far more upmarket movie house, the beautifully managed and maintained Mayfair cinema, Auckland. You couldn't get two venues at more opposing ends of the cinematic spectrum, though I'm certain many of my readers have likewise tales from the old days where double, triple, quadruple bills (and then some!) were standard fare each and every weekend, and with dozens of movie houses to select from and so many flicks on offer it became tough to choose what to see (oh, I'm digressing again .... a time long gone ... ahhh, memories!)
"I've got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it."
Anyway, on with WDRtE (as it will be known henceforth) - the film is rightfully deserving of rediscovery and praise as it's actually a pretty good film of the genre for a number of reasons (many of those being the very appealing female cast who leave the other Hammer effort ONE MILLION YEARS BC in the dust), and also of course for the outstanding visual effects work by Jim Danforth which is primarily what we're about here at Matte Shot.
While I have always been a confirmed devotee of Ray Harryhausen's films and grew up on his shows, I hope it doesn't come across as sacrilege when I make comparisons between the effects work in OM BC and WDRtE, as I feel that on many occasions with these two comparable films Jim's work probably surpasses Ray's work on that earlier film, with, in some cases, smoother animation, miniature lighting design and most especially in terms of the integration of stop motion puppets into live action settings with a number of quite flawlessly executed composites via a variety of means such as split screen-rear projection process (more or less the same as Ray's Dynarama process) which for the most part exhibit far less tell tale grain and illumination issues as was commonly evident in Ray's work, with some shots looking quite amazing indeed. As will be explained later, some of Jim's animation set ups were incredibly complex and time consuming, with that effort giving the modest production the gloss of a picture of somewhat greater budget. As part of my 2012 Matte Shot interview with Jim I asked about WDRtE and how he became involved. Jim told me that, for him, it all came about with photographic effects specialist Linwood Dunn recommending Jim to Warners. "The screenplay had been almost completely written by the time I joined the film, so my control over basic content was limited. However, I had a lot to do with the fine tuning of the sequences, including the shot design. I was the 2nd Unit Director. I directed or co-directed all the scenes that would have stop motion added to them, and I also directed some scenes that did not involve animation, usually with doubles for the principle actors."
Dinosaur sculptor and fabricator Roger Dicken; Producer Aida Young, and Visual Effects Director Jim Danforth shown here in Roger's workshop at Bray Studios.
Jim Danforth directs Victoria Vetri
In the excellent 2010 book Hammer Films - The Unsung Heroes by Wayne Kinsey (a book I simply cannot recommend highly enough if you are a fan of Hammer films ... it doesn't get any better than this splendid, massively detailed tome), long time Hammer producer Aida Young spoke about the trials of bringing WDRtE to the screen after already acting as associate producer on ONE MILLION YEARS BC a few years previously. "Oh, the animation [on WDRtE] took forever. With Ray Harryhausen [on OM BC] you couldn't ask. Ray was God and we just sat and waited, but I wasn't the producer then, so I didn't have to take the flack. Now I was the producer [for WDRtE] and Ray was busy, and we had a guy called Jim Danforth from America. His work was excellent but he was slow, and a couple of times I knocked on the door and said 'Jim, how's it going?' because the months were going by and this time I had nobody to go to, so the buck stopped with me, and they kept saying to me 'When is this bloody picture going to be finished?', and I used to say the same thing to Jim. He was such a sweet man and his eyes would fill with tears, and he'd say, 'I'm doing my best you know...it's a slow job'. And it really was." I'm sure Aida wasn't he first, nor the last movie producer to question a stop motion expert as to what the hell is taking so long. The obviously time consuming work and constant pressure for any animator would be lost on most of the 'front office suits' who see things in a completely different light, and usually in columns filled with figures. I'll bet both Ray and his mentor the great Willis O'Brien had similar conflicts over the years.
Val Guest with lead cast.
Interestingly, director-screenwriter Val Guest wasn't particularly proud of his film as he is quoted in an interview with Wayne Kinsey as stating: "We were at our holiday pad in Malta, and Aida Young flew over to see me with a barebones sort of a story and said 'Would you like to do it?' And I thought, what a wonderful idea if we could shoot in Malta, then I could have my holiday pad and get paid. So we scoured Malta but couldn't find any mountains or anything which even looked prehistoric, so we shot in the Canary Islands. Jim Danforth did the special effects. We had storyboards and we knew exactly what we were doing all the way. It was not my favourite picture by any means. I wasn't happy with that one at all. I wasn't happy on it or after it". Val's favourite expression was "How long do we have to wait?"
Budding stop motion enthusiast, David Allen with a 'fan'.
As the visuals make up a considerable component of WDRtE, we should look at the creative people involved. As already mentioned, Jim Danforth needs no introduction - already a renowned and multi talented effects artist in his own right - was the key figure here and either supervised or personally executed the many visual effects. Jim provided most of the stop motion footage himself though when the pressure was on to get the film completed, a few sequences were handed over to one of Jim's old associates from Cascade Films, David Allen, who flew over from the US to work on the Chasmosaur chase scene and some of the crab attack. David was an exceptional animator and would go on to provide stop motion shots in many films such as FLESH GORDON and BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED among many others.
Roger Dicken with LAND THAT TIME FORGOT creatures
British special effects expert Roger Dicken had been heavily involved with Gerry Anderson's tv series and the feature length THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO (I can't even begin to count how many times I went and saw that as a kid on various double bills, often paired with something odd like KING KONG ESCAPES) andwas actually approached before Danforth as a possible candidate for the animated effects. Roger talked about his call from Hammer in an interview in the truly dedicated and eminently worthy fanzine that's still in publication, Little Shoppe of Horrors: "I got a call from Tony Hinds at Hammer. He was looking for someone to do animation for WDRtE; he'd seen my showreel and wanted to talk. The problem was that I didn't feel experienced enough to tackle such a major project, but after Jim Danforth was hired, Tony was back on the phone saying that Jim would need an assistant and was I interested? Well, I'd read about Jim in Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters so I couldn't wait to work with him. We worked together for about a year. I did the donkey work. I sculpted the animals, made the moulds and did anything else that came along."
By Danforth's own account, both he and Dicken got along extremely well throughout the production and proved absolutely vital in setting up the animation and workshop areas at Bray and was very handy when it came to building miniature sets, carrying out pyrotechnic effects and more. In more recent times Dicken contributed some grotesquely fantastic alien life forms to the still brilliant space chiller ALIEN, imagery that still unsettles many a punter.
Ted Samuels at Shepperton Studios.
The various physical effects, or mechanical effects were handled by technicians Allan Bryce and Ted Samuels. Samuels was head of special effects at Shepperton and had been a part of that studio for many years along with his brother George who was chief matte artist for a while. Ted had been one of Wally Veevers' crew for decades and was with Shepperton until the effects department (and all other departments for that matter) were disbanded and closed down in the mid 1970's. To the best of my knowledge, Ted handled the studio effects such as the sea storm scenes in a giant tank, while Allan Bryce, also from Shepperton, looked after location special needs in the Canary Islands
Brian Johnson, known at the time as Brian Johncock, was a part of Bowie Films, an independent special effects house run by industry veteran and all round effects wizard Les Bowie. Brian started off in the mid 1950's when, as a young man, his role was sweeping the floor in Bowie's earliest incarnations of an FX studio sited in an old converted cinema. Brian went on to become one of the legions of highly sought after UK effects men who were trained by Bowie and owed more than a nod of gratitude to Les, with many such as Johnson receiving Academy Awards later on for their work. For WDRtE, Brian contributed a number of optical gags for lunar eclipse and solar event sun flare scenes (described later in the blog) that set a particular tone to the film and utterly confound the primitive tribes therein. Brian would go to work on big shows such as 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and ALIEN.
Matte painter Ray Caple
Originally the plan was that WDRtE would only have a few matte shots, though due to problems arising from lack of planning on the part of the Val Guest - Aida Young partnership when shooting on a completely viable, perfect natural location, opportunities were missed that might otherwise have broadened the scope of the main unit footage, with the end result being the requirement of a number of painted mattes to flesh out the scenes. Being an experienced matte artist himself, Danforth personally rendered most of the glass paintings that were needed to extend set ups involving stop motion action. With a number of hats to wear throughout this production it soon became apparent to Jim that other reliable matte artists would need to be recruited to take some of the workload. Jim asked his old friend Albert Whitlock if he could recommend any artists in the UK, with Whitlock suggesting Ray Caple as a good choice. Caple was another of Les Bowie's 'boys', having trained with Les from about the age of 15, and later becoming one of Britain's most successful artists in the field. At the time Ray came on board he had just finished work on the huge 65mm matte shot project MACKENNA'S GOLD and was in play to paint the mattes for THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN. Ray ended up collaborating with Jim on a pair of WDRtE mattes (detailed later in this article).
Matte painter Peter Melrose.
Another veteran matte painter who had began in matte work back in the late 1940's at Pinewood with Les Bowie, Cliff Culley and Albert Whitlock was Peter Melrose. Peter was enlisted by Jim to paint a key shot toward the end of the film. Although Peter pretty much completed his matte, it was ultimately never used due to an editorial change of design for the scene. Jim wanted to further utilise Peter's talents for other shots, especially as he painted at Bray Studios alongside Danforth's effects stage which would allow ideal circumstances in which to collaborate, but the film's producer, Aida Young failed to secure Melrose for the time required to supply mattes and he accepted another more prestigious film assignment at Shepperton.
Les Bowie, considered the father of UK effects
Les Bowie's name has come up more than once here. Bowie Films was a leading supplier of all types of trick work for British films throughout the 1960's and well into the 1970's. His company specialised in everything really; mattes, models, opticals, physical effects, mechanical rigs, special photography, make up effects and just about anything else one desired. Les was first and foremost a skilled matte artist, having trained under the legendary Walter Percy 'Poppa' Day. Les was approached by Aida Young as he'd done many mattes and other trick shots for Hammer over the years as far back as the 1950's with the QUATERMASS films as well as ONE MILLION YEARS BC. Jim visited Les and, after viewing some of his many old painted glasses in storage at his studio, signed Bowie on to supply some matte art for several shots. The glass paintings were prepared though for reasons covered later in this article, were not used in their original form due to..
I still enjoy many of those old 1940's and 50's epics that, when the budget permitted, saturated the screen in gorgeous 3-strip Technicolor splendor and lavish set design, while a thundering score by maestro's such as Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Elmer Bernstein or Alfred Newman splendidly punctuated the proceedings on screen making many a memorable viewing experience.
For todays blog I will be taking a trip down the proverbial cinematic backroad to 1948 where, under independent mogul-producer Walter Wanger and director Victor Fleming, star Ingrid Bergman and a cast and crew of thousands, a memorably grand, production was assembled. The film - one of many to explore the same events - tells the story surrounding the popularity, strength and inevitable persecution of the fifteenth century Saint - an uneducated French peasant girl known as Joan of Arc who, during the 100 years war between France and Britain would lead armies and conquer territory in the name of her mother land, while at the same time antagonising the Religious and political establishment of the day, to her peril. The events are supposedly based upon actual historical documents and apparently no expense was spared in creating as exact a narrative of events and the period as possible.
Interestingly, the film was not a Hollywood 'studio' picture at all and was actually an entirely independently financed production from Producer Walter Wanger. Wanger had a solid track record while Producer at several studios in the thirties and early forties, and eventually went solo, and in doing so was responsible for such excellent pictures as Hitchcock's wonderful FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, Don Siegel's still chilling INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and the Susan Hayward disaster spectacular TULSA among many others. RKO would go on to release JOAN OF ARC but had nothing to do with the production itself.
Bergman with blimped Technicolor camera
The film was, for several decades, only available in a severely truncated version running just 100 minutes, with almost 45 minutes missing. I have both the annoying cut version - which tries so hard to cover the sprawling events via awkward narration to fill the many gaping holes - and the full length unedited version (sans voice over!) which is really the only way to go. JOAN OF ARC though set in France and Britain was entirely filmed in California and at the old Hal Roach Studios, with extensive matte magic required to bring the shooting locations the appropriate 15th Century look (more about that later). The picture was helmed by veteran top shelf director (and former Hollywood stuntman) Victor Fleming who of course had GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ under his belt to name but two from a long list of premium movies. Sadly Fleming died shortly after completing JOAN OF ARC making this one his swan song. The film was a veritable who's who of 1940's acting talent - some of whom were superb choices such as the always magnificent Ingrid Bergman, and some odd choices such as the scenery chewer extraordinaire that was Ward Bond! Everybody's in this picture and unusually they all get full screen credit up front.
Jose Ferrer in his debut screen performance as Charles VII King of France, in the first of many skin crawling characterisations (did Jose ever play a role with even a semblance of 'normal'?). Bergman and Ferrer would both receive Oscar nominations for this show as did other categories, with both Cinematography and Costume Design winning that year for this film. Speaking of talent in front of the camera, one of my all time favourite character actors, the great Francis L. Sullivan is there too, and as always is utterly compelling as he was in films such as David Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Even respected Actor's Studio character icon of many a fine film, Jeff Corey (theHarry Dean Stanton of his era) turns up as a prison guard with a penchant for rape!
Star Bergman suiting up in armour.
Production wise, the film is right up there with the best of them and still looks great today. The Special Photographic Effects consist of numerous matte paintings, some process work and a wonderfully executed action sequence involving rotoscope work. In order to bring the visuals to life, Producer Walter Wanger and Director Victor Fleming each called in the services of technicians they had known and worked with previously, with Wanger signing up Photographic Effects maestro John P. Fulton, with whom he had worked on previous films such as the WWII Navy show WE'VE NEVER BEEN LICKED, while Director Fleming obtained the services of veteran Matte Painter and all round effects man Jack Cosgrove, with whom he had worked closely with on the gargantuan effects show that was Selznick's GONE WITH THE WIND some ten years earlier. Cosgrove and Fulton had previously worked alongside each other at Universal during the early thirties on a few classics such as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN where Fulton was in charge of the (still) groundbreaking optical effects and Cosgrove painted the mattes.
Legendary matte artist and effects man Jack Cosgrove.
Both Cosgrove and Fulton remain two of my favourite trick shot practitioners from the Golden Era (and beyond). Jack Cosgrove started off in effects work in the late 1920's and would be most acknowledged as a matte artist and something of a master of the artform. Jack worked at Universal with fellow matte artist Russell Lawson for a few years then did some time at Columbia Pictures in their matte department as well as doing a few sideline independent matte jobs before joining David O. Selznick's small studio as chief of all Photographic Effects around 1936. Jack masterminded trick shots on dozens of Selznick motion pictures, from split screen work on THE PRISONER OF ZENDA through to beautifully iconic matte shots on things as varied as the Technicolor THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, DUEL IN THE SUN, SPELLBOUND and THE GARDEN OF ALLAH to name just a few.
Cosgrove matte: SAN FRANCISCO STORY
Some years later Selznick's money man put the small studio into hiatus, Jack was to find work as contractor on the Charlie Chaplin classic THE GREAT DICTATOR followed by the role of Special Effects Director over at Warner Brothers on the famed Stage 5 where he would oversee trick shots on a ton of films such as the massive effects event, Michael Curtiz' PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE with it's incredibly intricate miniature set pieces and many matte shots and also noteworthy, the other Bogart war film ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC. Cosgrove would, for a time, work again on small independent productions such as INVADERS FROM MARS and others as artist for hire under Jack Rabin, Irving Block and Gene Warren on a string of cheesy 'B' movies like MONSTER FROM THE GREEN HELL before moving back with the big boys at Warner Bros for a period in the fifties where he painted period mattes of stately homes and a harbour filled with tall ships for THE SAN FRANCISCO STORY and some mattes of oil derricks for James Dean's GIANT.
From what I've been told, Cosgrove's life was really something. His painting talents were envied by many yet his colleagues often found it hard to believe such superb mattes resulted from apparently slipshod working practices. Matthew Yuricich outlined in his Oral History in my 2012 blog how Cosgrove would be slapping paint around with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, with ash frequently dropping into the wet oil paint, yet without a care in the world. The story goes that Jack would on occasion be pretty much drunk while on the job and teetering as if trying to keep his balance while rendering a matte, yet they all said the same thing; the final shot would look a million dollars on screen! Jack's matte art was spontaneous, loose and instinctive - a far cry from most of the 'technical illustration' style so prevalent in the matte industry at the time. His longtime associate, Effects Cinematographer Clarence Slifer once said that Cosgrove had an innate ability to read through a script and immediately see where matte shots would benefit both the story and Jack's bank balance. The more mattes Jack painted the more he got paid ... goes without saying. Jack could envisage mattes where nobody else could, and films such as GONE WITH THE WIND are a testament to that.
One of the true legends of matte artistry, Jack Cosgrove, shown here with one of his matte painting set ups at the Selznick Studio during the production of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA in 1937, some ten years prior to his engagement by Walter Wanger on JOAN OF ARC.
The Co-Supervisor of Special Photographic Effects on JOAN OF ARC was another Hollywood legend, and one of the most insightful and creative forces in the field: John Phipps Fulton. John was the son of Swedish born matte painter Fitch Fulton, whom I outlined in last month's blog on THE BIG TRAIL. John got his start in the business around 1925 by working at the Frank Williams Laboratories - the only real optical effects operation available to budding film makers at the time. Williams himself was a pioneer and had pretty much invented optical cinematography and the travelling matte system for black & white composites known at the time as the Williams Double Matting Process. This was used on such films as THE LOST WORLD, KING KONG and THE INVISIBLE MAN and was the forerunner to all modern blue screen photo-chemical travelling matte techniques. Fulton was a highly intelligent, focused though moody individual who soaked up everything around him and put this knowledge to good use when he got a job at Universal Studios as head of the Special Effects Department in 1931 which had previously been under the supervision of Phil Whitman through the 1920's and then Frank Booth.
Fulton with his three Oscars.
John would head the Universal FX Department for many years and created many of the most memorable moments of movie magic that so many fans of Golden Era genre movies can remember at a single sitting. The unforgettable INVISIBLE MAN series, that still jaw dropping SON OF DRACULA optical set piece where the guy dissolves into wisps of thin smoke and drifts through the jail cell bars (much, much more impressive than it reads here!); the record setting number of trick shots John contributed to Hitchcock's fabulous SABOTEUR from ingenious miniatures, opticals, roto animation and many mattes in one of the biggest effects films of the decade (none of which seemed enough for Universal to even qualify Fulton a damned screen credit though! ... though I digress). During the mid 1940's he would be employed by Samuel Goldwyn Pictures with the handshake 'promise' of being able to direct - a dream of John's that was never to be fulfilled. Fulton did however gain notoriety with his work on a couple of Danny Kaye pictures, one of which, WONDER MAN, would win John the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Fulton continued at Goldwyn for several years before taking on several assignments for Walter Wanger which included the Oscar nominated miniature work for TULSA and of course JOAN OF ARC. Becoming disenchanted with his career prospects as they stood, Fulton took a job over at Warner Bros with Lou Litchtenfield where once again he would work with Jack Cosgrove. John's biggest break would come with the untimely death of Paramount's long time chief of Special Effects, Gordon Jennings in 1953. Paramount desperately needed an ace visual effects man and Fulton fitted the bill. Among the hundred or so pictures John worked on at Paramount, two stand out. Cecil B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS which won John another Oscar, and the George Pal bugs-on-the-rampage adventure THE NAKED JUNGLE which is one of my favourite special effects movies of all time.
The great John P. Fulton with his visual effects camera crew.
The famous ADDAMS FAMILY tv house by Luis McManus
Another key member of the Cosgrove-Fulton effects department on JOAN OF ARC was matte painter Luis McManus. Luis was another old time title artist and matte exponent who had worked in the Roy Seawright Special Effects Department at Hal Roach Studios through the 1930's on such films as Laurel and Hardy's SWISS MISS and BUSY BODIES. McManus would paint the interior of the vast French cathedral for the opening scenes of JOAN OF ARC and probably painted other shots too. I presume Luis became involved due to the fact that JOAN was being made on the Hal Roach lot. Later in his career Luis worked at Project Unlimited and supplied some additional mattes for both THE TIME MACHINE and JACK THE GIANT KILLER. Among the television work Luis worked on were the series THE ADDAMS FAMILY (the famous house was a partial actual building with matte art extending the set and surrounds), and the show THE UNTOUCHABLES with McManus bringing his finished matte art into Project Unlimited for photography and compositing. Jim Danforth mentioned meeting Luis in the early 1960's in his memoir Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama in which he described the UNTOUCHABLES painting: "It was interesting for me to contrast the style of Luis with that of Albert Whitlock. Luis's paintings were more detailed yet less realistic. When Luis painted a brick building, he painted every brick. In fact, Luis mentioned that he had calculated the number of individual bricks he had painted for that one UNTOUCHABLES shot." --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Glorious saturated Technicolor frames with the perfectly cast Ingrid Bergman (who had wanted to make this for years) at top left; Jose Ferrer already showing signs of playing a career load of off-the-wall characters that you wouldn't want to spend a weekend in an isolated cabin with shown at top right; The great character actor Francis L. Sullivan at left in bottom left frame; And at bottom right is Joan The Terminator, such is her passion for the cause.
An almost fully painted shot with just a patch of live action with the guys and the horse and cart. Beautiful Cosgrove sky.
Part of the grand cathedral sequence which is wall to wall effects shots. I'm not sure if this is a miniature (doesn't look it) or a matte painting with miniature bell matted in? The next shot is a similar puzzler ...
Same sequence with this spectacular vista of the cathedral courtyard with a dozen bells a ringing. Again, this shot has always puzzled me. It's definitely a trick shot but just how it's been put together is a mystery. Although the whole thing could be an elaborate miniature I'm more inclined to feel it's a large matte painting which has had a single live action bell element optically multiplied and printed in very skillfully by John Fulton. John was after all a wizard on the optical printer and was never afraid of complex multiple superimpositions.
A full painting with candle flicker added optically.
The vast interior as a full matte painting by Luis McManus. Effects man Jim Danforth knew McManus from the old Project Unlimited days and recalled Luis as being especially proud of this matte painting.
Hi there fellow fans of old time special photographic effects. It's time for another examination of traditional hand made trick shot magic from days gone by, and in today's case, days VERY long gone indeed.
Just before we embark on today's dusty trail I'd like to put out a request on behalf of the family of former Selznick International Pictures matte artist, Spencer Bagtatopolis. Spencer was active in the matte department from the mid 1940's and painted memorable shots on such high profile classics as DUEL IN THE SUN, THE PARADINE CASE, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (illustrated here), PORTRAIT OF JENNIE and others. He also worked for RKO on several TARZAN adventures and later on for a time at 20th Century Fox in addition to being a well known gallery painter. A book on Spencer is in advanced stages of completion, based largely upon letters and scrapbooks belonging to Spencer's widow, though the biographer tells me that the historic timeline largely dries up just before Bagtatopolis began his matte shot career, aside from several old photographs of some of his matte paintings. In the unlikely event that any of our readers have any information that could be of help please let NZPete know and I'll forward same to the biographer who would be most grateful.
Part of a special layout in Daily Variety for THE BIG TRAIL
I've forever been a great fan and follower of that most American of motion picture genre's: the western. You just couldn't find anything else that's so quintessentially part of the fabric that makes up their identity. I couldn't even guess at just how many cowboy pictures I've seen over the years, and continue to see. There have been so many great cowboy flicks over the past 80 odd years of Hollywood, with evergreen titles such as THE SEARCHERS, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HIRED HAND, TRUE GRIT (the original of course), THE WILD BUNCH, HIGH NOON, BAD COMPANY, THE COWBOYS, SOLDIER BLUE, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, EL DORADO (a fave of NZPete) and a couple of recent titles such as Quentin Tarantino's wonderful THE HATEFUL EIGHT and another recent little known, though excellent, low budget Kurt Russell western with a genre twist, the utterly brilliant BONE TOMAHAWK which I can't recommend highly enough. Rarely have I seen a film from this genre with such beautifully crafted dialogue and characterisations. One for repeat viewing in my book. See it, or face the eternal wrath of NZPete!
The Fox Studios went all out with promotion in 1930.
Today's retrospective looks at one of, if not the earliest of the epic western films Raoul Walsh's monumental THE BIG TRAIL produced by Fox in 1930. The film is exceptional on a number of levels, not the least being the ground breaking use of the then revolutionary new wide screen process known as Grandeur which would see 65mm negative being utilised for one of the first feature length motion pictures. It had been used experimentally on a couple of short subjects in 1929 and on one full length 'musical', which oddly was silent and had the lyrics etc on intertitle cards as the performers 'sang' their hearts out (!) I'll talk more about the Grandeur Widescreen Process shortly.
A very young John Wayne with the very lovely Marguerite Churchill
As a movie, I'd regard THE BIG TRAIL as one of the best westerns ever produced. It just hit's the mark for me on every level and even some ninety years on still seems relevant and barely dated (aside from the clunky direct sound recording unavoidable of the period). The story revolves around a large wagon train of settlers crossing vast expanses of the American wilderness in search of a fresh life, complete with hardship, confrontation, betrayals, Indians, births and the inevitable deaths - the exact sort of narrative one might feel could be seen as 'cliched' but with the difference that this film did it all first. The film succeeds in large part by an impressive ensemble cast where no one figure dominates the proceedings and all players get to shine in their own way with the many inter-relationships and much drama. As a confirmed fan of John Wayne, it is a real thrill to see The Duke in his first lead billed role, though as I say, no one character takes precedence over the others, not Wayne who was yet to find true 'stardom' with John Ford a few years later.
Wide screen composition was an entirely new approach for cinematographers
THE BIG TRAIL is really one of the most honest and truthful westerns I think I've ever seen. The entire two hour saga is told in an almost documentary fashion, with the Grandeur cameras merely observing the goings ons, and mostly in an unobtrusive manner. I give director Raoul Walsh full credit here for bringing the proceedings together so well and so credibly, The entire picture exudes a 'you are there' feel the whole way through, with barely a slack moment nor a wasted frame. Anyone who enjoys a really good western should do themselves a service and see this film.
Technically the film is incredible. The aforementioned Grandeur 70mm (sometimes known as Fox Grandeur) wide-screen photography is stunning. Incidentally, the film was shot in dual formats - 70mm by cameraman Arthur Edeson as well as standard 35mm Academy ratio by associate cameraman Lucien Andriot - in order that Fox could ensure bookings at all movie houses regardless of projection equipment. At the time of it's initial release there were only two venues in the US that could exhibit the Grandeur prints - Graumans Chinese in Los Angeles and The Roxy in New York. Apparently the two versions as well as having the obvious compositional differences are also slightly different editorially. I understand that later on Fox made optical reduction 35mm prints so as to retain the full 2.2:1 image to enable screening in any cinema. Other studios experimented for a time with the large 70mm film format such as United Artists with the very strange THE BAT WHISPERS also that same year, though this variant was billed as 'Magnafilm'.
The original Grandeur 70mm camera
In the very interesting American Cinematographer article published in September 1930, cinematographer Arthur Edeson explained in detail the trials and tribulations of shooting on this new format. Said Edeson: "I had the typical conservative cameraman's attitude toward wide film. It might be alright as a novelty, but as a practical medium for serious artistic work it was impossible. Everything, especially the new proportions of it's picture seemed absolutely wrong. Since then I have spent more than six months photographing the 70mm version of Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL and in this time I have shot hundreds of thousands of feet of Grandeur film and the results have convinced me that I, and not the process, was wrong. Now that the production is completed, I know that I shall find it difficult indeed to return to the cramped proportions of our present day standard film. For 70mm photography has given me an entirely new perspective. Instead of regarding things in the old, cramped Movietone frame, I now see them, photographically, as my eye naturally perceives them - in much the same proportions as the low, wide Grandeur frame". The article goes on to explain the technical hazards that Edeson was confronted with: "Another troublesome detail for which we found a sure cure was that of film curling and buckling. A buckle in a 70mm camera is a terrible thing, for it not only ruins a large quantity of valuable film and often damages the camera, but it invariably makes the motor a total loss. During our our first week's work on the picture we had several bad buckles - which meant new motors every time. Naturally this was serious and it couldn't be allowed to continue. So we spent all of our energies toward finding a cause for these buckles. Eventually we found it to be caused by friction between the edges of the film and the magazines. After that we took special pains in film loading, making sure that every roll of film used was absolutely true to it's spool, with no chance of touching the walls of the magazine". Interestingly, neither Director Raoul Walsh nor Cinematographer Arthur Edeson saw so much as a single exposed frame of the film during production as the unit was constantly on the move across many locations and it would be some five months until either party could see any of the footage when the unit returned to Hollywood. Not an uncommon aspect of shooting epics on far flung locales as I recall Director David Lean and Cinematographer Freddie Young experienced similar artistic hurdles when filming LAWRENCE OF ARABIA with both having to rely upon daily telegram reports from Technicolor Laboratories in London in order to know that the exposed footage was free of scratches or accidental fogging.
Veteran matte painter Fitch Fulton
As this is a special effects blog, THE BIG TRAIL is noteworthy as having a generous number of matte painted shots with scenic enhancements and moody atmospheric effects. The film has no special effects credit though there is screen credit 'Settings by Harold Miles and Fred Sersen'. Miles was an Art Director on many films while Sersen, as all of my readers will know by now was a legend in the visual effects community from the early 1920's through to the early 1950's having started off in glass shot work in the 1920's before becoming chief of all special effects at 20th Century Fox. Just recently I was in contact with family members of Oscar winning effects wizard John P. Fulton and I was informed that John's father, Fitch Fulton - a well respected matte painter - worked on the matte shots for THE BIG TRAIL. Fitch began as a scenic backing painter in vaudeville theatres and it was at the urging of his son John, who himself had just been given the headship of Universal's special effects department, that Fulton senior try out his artistic talents in the motion pictures. Later Fitch would work again with Sersen as one of 20th Century Fox's regular matte department artists through the thirties and beyond and would also provide much wonderful matte artistry on films such as Fox's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY; David O. Selznick's GONE WITH THE WIND as Jack Cosgrove's primary matte artist where something of a record was set with the sheer volume of 3-strip Technicolor matte shots, and most of them being on original negative to boot; CITIZEN KANE over at RKO, a stint with Larry Butler on the big Korda Studio's Rudyard Kipling adventure JUNGLE BOOK where Fitch painted many wonderful Academy Award nominated Technicolor mattes of steaming jungles and lost temples (for more on that topic, stay tuned for a special forthcoming blog on Painted Jungles with just about every matte I could find on the theme... Pete). In the late 1940's Fitch headed the matte unit on what would become the Oscar winning effects showcase MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Odd fact: Both John and Fitch had films up for the Best Visual Effects Oscar in 1949 - TULSA for John and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG for Fitch. According to John's daughter, her father had something of a falling out with her Grandfather when Fitch's film took the effects Oscar over John's film that year (!) Talk about family rivalry. Fitch didn't even get the Oscar (nor was he expected to) as it was awarded to Willis O'Brien as overall special effects supervisor, and Fitch was but one of four matte artists on that big film...... though as usual, I digress.
Effects artist Fred Sersen (centre) with his matte painters preparing in camera glass shots on the Fox lot probably in the early 1930's. I've always wondered about this photo as the glass work closely resembles some of the shots seen in THE BIG TRAIL.
The mattes in this film look great. Some are just 'top ups' to an existing location and others are full paintings. I'm inclined to think that many may have been in camera glass shots, painted and photographed right on location such is the extraordinary clarity and high fidelity of certain mattes. These were certainly common at the time the film was made. Others may be mattes in the true sense of the term whereby part of the frame has been masked off and a held take made with the cast, with the painted element added sometime later back at the studio. Some shots barely exhibit a soft matte line while others are flawless blends of painted and real. The visuals for the most part look original negative and must have looked terrific up on the big screen back in the day. The BluRay edition looks magnificent.
So fellow Cowpokes, let's mosey on down to the ole' waterin' hole and see them thar varmits... (apologies to Yosemite Sam)
I'm a sucker for old time hand painted title cards. Absolutely a lost artform.
No effects credit, though I now know that Fitch Fulton was matte painter on this production and most likely worked under Fred Sersen - himself an experienced matte artist.
No, that's not the Tyrone Power you might think ... rather it's his father.
Never a truer word has been uttered...
Upper half of the frame is painted. Trees, sky and moon.
This appears to be a matte as there is a soft line running across the scenery just above the wagons.
A stunning vista courtesy of Fitch Fulton and Fred Sersen. Love that sky very much.
A warm hello to my regular followers and the ever growing numbers of special effects fans who are still discovering NZPetes Matte Shot. Today I'll be covering the 1988 George Lucas-Ron Howard picture WILLOW, one of the most spectacular visual effects showcases that emerged during the final phase of the traditional hand made special effects era - an era where stunning vistas were conjured up by being painted on glass; elaborate in camera multi-plane gags were created through careful planning, pragmatic solutions and a great deal of old fashioned camera knowhow; where dazzling set pieces were assembled element by element, negative by negative on the optical printer in such complex, time consuming and often exhaustive, unforgiving fashion that would most likely leave a modern day CG compositor quaking in his boots. The film was loaded with all manner of magical trick shots - some old and some new - and I'd regard it as among the finest work delivered by Industrial Light & Magic. The 1980's was an exciting time for many effects fans as we eagerly awaited the next ILM project, or movie that just happened to have that effects house as an a contributor, often with little regard for the film itself. Industrial Light & Magic were at the top of their game throughout the decade with, for this fan at least, an enviable expertise in the fields of matte art, miniatures and cel animated effects in particular, which thrilled me then and still do so now.
Co-Visual Effects Supervisor Phil Tippett
The 1980's would see a number of similarly themed family pictures such as LABYRINTH, THE DARK CRYSTAL, LucasFilm's own pair of EWOK made for television features to name but a few shows. For my money the 1988 film WILLOW is by far the best of the bunch as far as this genre goes, due in no small part to the fresh helmsmanship of director Ron Howard, the most agreeable Warwick Davis as our title character and above all else a wonderful 'English sensitivity' in the overall flavour and texture of the narrative - an important factor that can only be a strong positive factor in such fantasy storytelling.
WILLOW was a large budget fantasy tale that producer George Lucas had been wanting to put into production for some years. The story of a band of merry little adventurers in a mythical land who are tasked with arranging the safe passage of a special infant in order to put a stop to the sneering wickedness of the thoroughly vile Queen Bavmorda, and told in a very Tolkien-esque fashion. Filming took place on diverse locations such as here in New Zealand, Wales and at Elstree Studios outside of London, as well as some pick up shots made during post production in California.
The mammoth trick shot roster on WILLOW where over 350 visual effects were required would necessitate no fewer than three overall Visual Effects Supervisors: Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett and Michael McAlister, with ILM veteran Christopher Evans as Matte Painting Supervisor. Each were tasked with overseeing their own effects sequences which were divided up among the supervisors into specialised fields such as Tippett supervised the stop/go motion creature sequences, Muren taking on the ethereal fairy sequences and groundbreaking transformation shots, and McAlister having the substantial load of some 170 so called 'Brownie' shots - photographing and compositing eight inch tall elf like forest folk into life size settings and action sequences via blue screen travelling matte photography and complicated pin block techniques to allow maximum freedom in compositing.
I tend to deal mostly with matte artistry in this blog as my regular readers will know, but on occasion I branch out to include other visual effects techniques when I find it important enough and relevant. WILLOW is one such motion picture and as such I'll begin with a detailed look at the mattes, followed below by many examples and explanations of the optical, cel animation and go-motion effects techniques employed on the film. Ya' can't say you ever get short changed by NZPete!
WILLOW would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Special Visual Effects in 1988 along side the dynamite Bruce Willis actioner DIE HARD and the largely animated WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, with the bunny cartoon-noir snapping up the FX Oscar unfortunately as I feel WILLOW really deserved it (and don't even get me started on BLADERUNNER losing out to that bug-eyed E.T in the effects category a few years earlier... is there no justice in the world?) , but I guess ROGER RABBIT was a bigger hit and ain't that how it works? I mentioned this to Matte Supervisor Christopher Evans and he too felt somewhat disappointed at the outcome that year.
So, without further ado, let's take a pleasant journey to a land far, far away, of little people, even littler forest folk, rather fetching fairies and their drop dead gorgeous fairy queen, a wicked old hag with a pandora's box bursting with nastiness and a two headed dragon ........... oh, and some nice New Zealand scenery.
*In preparing this retrospective I am most grateful to former ILM Supervising Matte Artist Chris Evans for his reminiscences, technical explanations and photographic material pertaining to WILLOW's many wonderful matte shots.
WILLOW is a warm, charming and beautifully photographed (by Adrian Biddle) fantasy adventure with a winning star turn by Warwick Davis as the title character. Support from Val Kilmer isn't bad, though Kilmer had yet to find his feet with his astonishingly brilliant performance as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's THE DOORS a few years later, though as usual I digress. A pleasant family film though not one entirely devoid of quite hideous beasts, a worryingly unbalanced and patently evil Queen, and an irritating pair of comic sidekick diminutive Brownies whose schtick quickly outstays it's welcome.
As Chief Matte Artist on WILLOW my job was to provide Director Ron Howard with a series of matte shots establishing the look of the make-believe world in which the action takes place. To create the thirty shots I worked closely with Director of Matte Photography Craig Barron, Optical Supervisor John Ellis, some four Matte Artists - Caroleen Green, Michael Pangrazio, Sean Joyce and Paul Swendsen - in addition to model makers, animators, effects editors and the production staff at Industrial Light and Magic. We began designing shots in September 1987 and delivered finals in April 1988.
Ron Howard, George Lucas, Craig Barron & Chris Evans discuss matte concepts
The primary challenge with a fantasy film like WILLOW is to design matte shots that fulfil the Director's imaginative vision of the picture with unusual and breathtaking scenes which do not, however, call attention to themselves as paintings. The shots needed to match locations in New Zealand and Wales, and enhance the scope of the live action as filmed on sets at Elstree Studios in the United Kingdom. A sense of mood and epic scale was provided at key points, as in the montage of Willow's journey through enchanted lands and his arrival at the ominous castle of the evil Queen Barmorda. Such full screen, daytime panoramas are very difficult to paint convincingly and demanded the utmost artistic skill from myself and the other artists.
Various traditional and innovative photographic techniques were used including latent image and optical compositing. Wherever possible, camera movement was introduced. To create the boom shot of the canyon maze, the live action area was rear projected into a low-relief painting surrounded by a multiplane miniature set and photographed with a motion control camera system.
A new technique pioneered at the ILM Matte Department was the double-exposing of a matte painting over an exposure of a miniature set, so that the two images are blended together at the artist's discretion. Combining the details and textures of a miniature with the perspective and atmospheric lighting of a painting would bring a new dimension of realism to the matte shot - as in the scenes of the Queen's castle - and I believe set a new standard for the effects industry in this area.
By creating convincing illusions of a fantastic, yet believable world of make-believe, I know the matte paintings contributed greatly to the look and feel of WILLOW. Ultimately, the success of these shots was the result of the dedication and artistic and technical excellence shared by the team who had worked closely together producing matte painting effects on over twenty-one motion pictures. It was a privilege to lead this group in creating these matte shots for WILLOW.
Christopher Evans September 2017
The first of some 27 matte paintings that would expand the vision of the film's Director, Ron Howard of the mythical Kingdom. Unusually, the ILM matte department were not involved in the pre-production stages, nor the on location matte plate photography. During principal photography an inordinate number of potential matte shot plates were photographed on the various locations in New Zealand, Wales and England with the notion of these plates being insurance later for possible matte painted enhancements though ultimately very few of these 'potential plates' ended up being used, as no definite design nor look of the matte additions had yet been decided upon. About 20% of the mattes originated from plates that had been shot in New Zealand or the UK. Matte Supervisor Christopher Evans can't recall who painted the above shot but told me that it's a very nice matte. According to Chris, his department only really got involved once George Lucas called him, fellow matte artist Mike Pangrazio and matte cameraman Craig Barron out to the Skywalker Ranch to view a rough assembly of the mostly complete picture. Chris says "George would stop the film from time to time and say that a matte shot of a castle was needed here or we want a landscape there. At that time he gave us his shopping list of around 30 matte shots."
Chris Evans told me that this shot was one of matte cameraman Craig Barron's "brilliant concepts". A latent image sunrise, filmed undercranked to slightly speed up the movement of the clouds across the sky, with a large 4x8 foot sheet of Masonite carefully cut out to resemble mountainous contours set up between the camera position and the actual sunrise. This latent negative was then taken back to ILM where matte painter Paul Swendsen added subtle detail to the silhouette that was already masked on the film. Mist and birds were added in a second pass, with the six actors, having been photographed separately at Skywalker Ranch in silhouette at magic hour bi-packed to hold out the mist exposure. These were two very old tricks, latent image and bi-pack used together and were commonly used back in the heyday of cinema by vintage practitioners such as Clarence Slifer, Jack Cosgrove, John P. Fulton and Fred Sersen on scores of motion pictures.
One of the dozens of conceptual painted sketches made by Chris Evans, with this being the overall look for the scene with the Nelwyns leaving their village.
Christopher Evans at work on one of several paintings he personally completed for the film. The plate is original negative or latent plate shot in Marin County, California with the matte taking up approximately half of the screen.
The finished shot combined on original negative. George Lucas requested Chris to paint landscapes based on the area around Qui Lin in China with many unusual limestone rock formations.
Sean Joyce matte shot combined in front projection, with painted giant trees behind the actors and a miniature tree trunk in the foreground.
On location at Birney Falls in Northern California (or Oregon?) with Chris Evans shown etching the proposed matte line onto glass mounted in front of the VistaVision matte camera for a spectacular latent image matte shot (shown below). Also shown here are Assistant Matte Cameraman Wade Childress and Director of Matte Photography Craig Barron. Chris: "George and Ron Howard allowed me to be Second Unit Director for these shots and to be in charge of the actors and crew on location. They were great fun to be with."
Conceptual painting by Evans for the Birney Falls scene.
Hello friends and fellow aficionados of the lost artform of the traditional matte painter. This issue we will be taking a look at two of my favourite Golden Era Hollywood motion pictures that both fit the bill inasmuch as being top shelf prestige productions as well as each being beautiful examples of the matte painter's skill from an era long since passed. Both of today's films were important Metro Goldwyn Mayer pictures from the 1930's, MARIE ANTOINETTE made in 1938 and A TALE OF TWO CITIES made in 1935.
MARIE ANTOINETTE was of course based upon historic fact and, even with some opulent Hollywood flourishes was probably reasonably close to the actual events of the time, being the grass roots people power revolt in late 18th Century Paris which resulted in the downfall of the extremely unpopular Monarchy of King Louis XVI and his consort, the aforementioned Marie Antoinette - Queen of all she surveyed. The groundswell of popular unrest would see both figures not only unceremoniously de-throwned and imprisoned, but ultimately tried and executed by way of that most French of industrial modes of dispatch, the feared guillotine.
Whereas MARIE ANTOINETTE was based upon actual events, A TALE OF TWO CITIES on the other hand, although also set amid the same time frame and civil unrest and the horrors of the Reign of Terror and the storming of The Bastillewhich really did occur in Paris of the late 1700's, TALE was principally a fictionalised narrative dropped very successfully into an authentic segment of history by way of the pen of the great Charles Dickens. The novel takes place in both London and Paris (the two cities) published in 1859 and is still in print today. The Dicken's novel and the various seven or so cinematic adaptations, of which this 1935 Ronald Colman version is arguably the best.
Both films were products of the extremely well resoursed and substantial studio facilities that were MGM, undoubtedly the envy of all of the other studios in Hollywood at the time and for years to come. MGM were the prestige production house for grand, opulent motion pictures where it seemed, money was no object. MARIE ANTOINETTE in particular was a Rolls Royce production all the way, and it looked it - beautifully photographed by William Daniels - with uncredited work by George Folsey and Leonard Smith; stunning vast sets by the legendary Cedric Gibbons and an all star cast to boot. Norma Shearer, the sister of MGM's chief sound department man Douglas Shearer, looked the part as the doomed Marie, and although a little shrill at times she was generally excellent, especially in the second half of the two and three quarter hour epic. Tyrone Power is the dashing though not entirely necessary love interest, with not a lot to do. Reginald Gardiner is sensational and practically oozes venom from every pore of his skin with each scene he's in, though it really is the great Robert Morley, as the fragile and somewhat effete King Louis who absolutely steals the show hands down with a beautifully nuanced, multi layered performance which would earn him (and Norma Shearer) Oscar nominations.
VFX cameraman Mark Davis & Warren Newcombe
I'll discuss the background to A TALE OF TWO CITIES later on in this blog post, though much of the technical information applies to both pictures.
Naturally, with this being a special effects blog you are no doubt waiting to learn more about the trick work. I have nothing but the highest admiration for the special fx departments at MGM, particularly during the 1930's and 1940's which, as well as being their 'peak' era also remains my favourite era for matte work. Although not credited, the effects responsibilities fell into the hands of A.Arnold 'Buddy' Gillespie and Warren Newcombe - both career trick shot technicians for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Effects responsibilities at the studio would be divided into separate departments, with Gillespie in charge of Process, Miniatures and Physical Effects, while Newcombe controlled the large matte department under the overall umbrella of Cedric Gibbons' Art Department. A separate Optical Department was run by Irving Ries.
MGM's painters. Photo from The Invisible Art by Craig Barron.
Buddy Gillespie's responsibilities on MARIE ANTOINETTE were confined to two scenes with intricate miniature set ups, and some rear screen process shots - all of which look great. Warren Newcombe's matte unit however were kept very busy with many exquisitely detailed, photo real matte painted set extensions and establishing shots which even today remain breathtaking.
Warren Newcombe initially began his career sometime in the 1920's on the East Coast of the United States with associate Neil McGuire specialising in glass shots, title art and silent film intertitles. According to Newcombe's friend and matte artist Matthew Yuricich, Warren painted mattes in the 1920's for films such as AMERICA (1924) among others and came to MGM as best I can research in the early 1930's, bringing McGuire along with him as principal artist. From what I've been able to glean, Newcombe gradually phased out of the actual painting of mattes and zeroed more on managing and overseeing what would arguably become the finest collection of matte exponents in the industry at MGM. Fellow matte painters Irving Block and Lee LeBlanc backed up Yuricich's assertion that the eccentric Newcombe left all of the actual painting to others, though being head of department, received on screen credit on hundreds of pictures anyway, which was standard practice for decades. Whatever the case, Warren absolutely understood what constituted a good matte, and made sure that the vast majority of matte shots produced on his watch went out at the highest possible quality. Of all the studios it has always been the old MGM paintings that have held a special place of merit for this researcher/author. The MGM collection of matte artists were especially adept at might be termed technical illustration.
In his 2012 Oral History for NZPete's blog, MGM veteran Matt Yuricich explained the role of artist Bill Myers at the studio: "At that time Bill Myers was a draftsman who drew in most of the matte shots when I first got there, and I thought Bill did a great job. So he would mostly draw architectural stuff. He would draw the buildings and everything...all he did was to draw these things in with the lines being an indelible blue, and then you'd just fill in the spaces." Myer was an old timer who's career stretched back for decades.
For MARIE ANTOINETTE I have been most fortunate in presenting the frame captures from a beautifully crisp HDTV print which far exceeded the image of the standard DVD release. I wish I could say the same for A TALE OF TWO CITIES though, but all I have is a not very impressive Warner Home Video DVD release which left a lot to desired quality wise... :(
MGM's Newcombe matte department circa 1940 with the large roster of artists, cameramen and technical specialists. *Photo courtesy of Craig Barron's indispensable book The Invisible Art - The Legends of Movie Matte Painting.
Matte artist Rufus Harrington shown here at work on an unidentifiable 1938/39 MGM film. Unlike other studios the Metro artists were often architectural draftsmen and were used to preparing mattes in highly realistic fashion like a technical drawing by way of goache and very fine pastel pencils, rendering every detail upon a thick cardboard support. With many of the old MGM mattes still surviving (I have a couple) it amazes me as to how these delicate pastel crayon renderings never seemed to become smudged or defaced over the decades. The studio gradually switched to paint as a medium, according to Matthew Yuricich, around the early 1950's with films such as SCARAMOUCHE and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.
MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938)
Special Effects: A.Arnold Gillespie Montage Effects: Slavko Vorkapich Matte Supervisor: Warren Newcombe Matte Cinematographer: Mark W. Davis Miniatures: Donald Jahraus Matte Design & Layout: Bill Myers Matte Artists (probable): Rufus Harrington, Otto Kiechle, Howard Fisher, Jack Robson Process Photographer: Thomas Tutwiler
Ahhhh, the old hand lettered titles of days gone by, painted on glass - itself an artform all of it's own.
Norma Shearer looked the part and did a pretty good job in the epic length bio-pic. Tyrone Power (lower left) was a bit superfluous, but the rest of the cast were terrific, especially Robert Morley (top left and bottom right) as the ill fated King. Superbly directed by veteran MGM helmsman W.S 'Woody' van Dyke, for whom this sort of grandeur was nothing new. The film reputedly cost Louis B.Mayer a tad under $3million, which was a massive amount for the time.
The first of many exquisite matte shots where Newcombe's artists have added on a significant portion of the set, with the upper half being all artwork. MGM seemed to favour the use of soft blends with the matte lines very rarely detectable. I don't know whether the work was done on original negative or not but the lack of grain and the excellent contrast suggests latent image work.
One of the most common types of matte were the 'top up' where a ceiling would be added in later partially as a matter of cost cutting in avoiding needless set construction, and partly to conceal gantries, lighting rigs and studio rigging.
In his highly recommended memoir, The Wizard of MGM, author and veteran effects man Buddy Gillespie illustrated this shot as a miniature-live action composite with a mass of cut up pieces of cork bobbing in a large tray of water used to simulate the vast crowd of onlookers gesticulating. Although Gillespie didn't mention it I'm sure the palace is a matte painting or painted cutout, with the composite rear projected behind another foreground miniature set, with the washed out process being somewhat of a giveaway. The shot would have worked a lot better I feel if the foreground had been painted in as part of the original matte rather than adding an extra 'layer' of softness and hot spot evident with rear projection.
Another jaw dropping matte shot with superb blend to the live action columns, something that the Newcombe department were experts at. As already mentioned, Newcombe always dictated a soft matte rather than a hard matte line, with the soft join usually just sweeping across the frame with the artist expertly working the join to blend the two as one with fantastic results.
Beautiful pastel draftsmanship. In my 2012 blog Matthew Yuricich In His Own Words,(which can be found right here) Matt explained that MGM had a highly skilled artist by the name of Bill Myers who's job it was to 'lay out' the proposed matte for the painters to work on. Apparently Myers' draftsman's skills were second to none and according to Yuricich made the matte painters job all that much easier.
Not sure here...possibly a genuine production shot ... or may have had that wonderfully deliberately distorted columnal perspective added in later? Whatever, it looks cool.
Before and after where we can see the soundstage rigging and lighting fixtures prior to the addition of the artwork.
The final matte shot.
Elegance was for decades the by-word at MGM. They may not have had the grittiness of Warners, the morbid horrors of Universal nor the comedic output of Paramount, but they did have elegance by the truckload.
Another before and after...
...and the flawless finished scene.
For several sequences, MARIE ANTOINETTE is wall to wall matte shots.
I don't know of any other matte departments where media other than oil paint was the method of choice. Matt Yuricich started at Metro after the pastel era when it was all pretty much being done in paints and explained: "We tried pastels later but found they were so soft we just lost the entire composition. Early on, somebody at MGM wanted to do them all in pastel crayons, with all of the mattes done in..
I've always enjoyed war pictures for as long as I can remember, with many an action packed double feature frequently occupying my afternoons back in the days of the now long gone Saturday matinee's at the various local movie houses in Auckland such as the old time Crystal Palace, the quite luxurious Mayfair or, when desperate, the ghastly Astor cinemas being my typical haunts for many years. Shows like VON RYAN'S EXPRESS, OBJECTIVE BURMA, TOBRUK and THE DAMBUSTERS really made an impression. Although the celluloid heroism depicted on screen was usually a far cry from the realities of actual warfare, we lapped up every moment of it and a group of us kids would band together after the fact to re-enact the events in the dense bush up the hill behind my house. My pals and I would often be up there from daylight till dark, whereby the "It's dinner time" call from my mother would put an end to the adventure.
Retitled recut re-issue of NORTH STAR
Sometimes my friends and I were 'specially trained' junior jungle fighters having landed on one of the many Pacific Islands inhabited by garrisons of imaginary Japanese troops - which in reality came very close to New Zealand being invaded for real at the height of WWII as my parents told me. Other times we'd be on a special mission to sabotage some fictitious Nazi munitions factory. We'd improvise hand grenades out of old fireworks saved up from Guy Fawkes each November, with the classic and extremely dangerous old 'Thunderbolt' fire crackers - which could blow your fingers off and often did blow a glass pint milk bottle into a thousand pieces - and the reliable 'double happy' red crackers that would just about pierce one's ear drum when thoughtlessly hurled too near to one of us. My own now adult kids and their generation have no idea how much fun this 'wargames' stuff was, and in fact look at me with blank expressions when I regale them of such fun times. To kids nowadays, if it ain't on a damned PS3 or some such thing, it can't possibly be fun. Those were wonderful, carefree times, though you try telling that to a modern era kid where the mere thought of skinned knees, dirt encrusted fingernails and general rough and tumble is a completely alien concept!
Though the actual historical wartime events occurred somewhat before my time, I'm quite passionate about many of the motion pictures that were actually produced during the years of the Second World War for some reason. Most often these films were made as morale boosters for the folks back home and were enthusiastically received as such. My own Grandfather served in both World Wars as that was just what virtually every bloke did in those days, without hesitation. As with many of those fellows though, he barely spoke of it.
For today's blog post I'm doing a special double feature retrospective, in keeping with the old time double bills I watched lots of these shows on. Both of the films highlighted here are pretty much forgotten relics from the mid 1940's, though both are certainly excellent contenders in NZPete's ever vigilant cinematic eyes for worthy special visual effects tribute. The two pictures discussed, Lewis Milestone's THE NORTH STAR (aka ARMOURED ATTACK) (1943) and Jacques Tourneur's DAYS OF GLORY (1944) have many similarities, despite each being the product of different studios - Samuel Goldwyn and RKO respectively - both films deal with the effects of German invasion and brutal occupation of Russian villages in WWII and the efforts therein of the local inhabitants to survive and put up as much resistance as possible. High production standards and good performances shine in each movie, with both being nominated for best special effects Oscars for 1943 and 44.
THE NORTH STAR (1943) was apparently quite a successful picture at the time of it's initial release, with the Russian people depicted (rightly) as heroes persecuted by a seemingly insurmountable invading force, though oddly this film would itself be later sabotaged by industry censorship where some 25 minutes would be cut so as to "de-emphasise the good Russians" with the film repackaged as ARMOURED ATTACK, presumably as a result of the bizarre political climate of the time in the US where 'Russkies' were far from flavour of the month. Having reviewed the disc again it is indeed apparent that the endless scenes of smiling, happy, singing and dancing - not to mention suspiciously well nourished, carefree Russian peasants frollicking in pastoral idyll are far from the truth of Stalin's repressive Russia depicted in the first half hour or so does get tedious in it's incredulity. In it's early reels it all resembles a feel good MGM musical! I understand that this all would prove rather embarrassing to mogul Sam Goldwyn once McCarthyism found it's insidious place in the movie industry, thus severe edits were ordered to extract any notion of the picture being potentially 'Red Friendly'. You just can't make this stuff up(!)
Visual Effects Cinematographer Clarence W. Slifer
I'll discuss the RKO picture DAYS OF GLORY later in this post, so for now let us learn a little about THE NORTH STAR. The film has some spectacular action set pieces with matte art, miniatures, cel animation and clever optical overlays utilised to excellent effect, sometimes all at once. The special photographic effects were done by industry veterans Clarence W. Slifer and Ray O. Binger - both old hands when it came to trick work. Clarence Slifer was one of the most creative visual effects cinematographers in the business, having entered the industry in 1927 as a camera assistant, with the move into special effects in 1932, firstly at RKO, on classics such as KING KONG and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and later at Selznick International as matte cinematographer for the great Jack Cosgrove on a number of monumental epics such as GONE WITH THE WIND and DUEL IN THE SUN among many others until Selznick reduced their production activities during the war where according to historian Rolf Giesen, Clarence would continue to operate the matte department as part of a special agreement for other movie companies, especially Goldwyn, from which THE NORTH STAR would be produced. In later years Slifer would work at 20th Century Fox for several years from 1953 under Ray Kellogg and finally for MGM under Lee LeBlanc with Matt Yuricich from the late 1950's through to the late 60's, finally retiring in 1975. Clarence was one of the best in his profession and continually developed better and improved means in which to shoot and composite matte shots and took the methodology to that of high end science.
The Selznick International matte department, circa 1946. Far left; equipment machinist Oscar Jarosch; Back Row are matte painters Jack Shaw and Spencer Bagtatopolis with camera assistant Owen Marsh at right. Front row from left is Director of Effects Photography Clarence Slifer (with arm on camera); effects camera operator Harold Grigg and at right veteran matte painter Hans Ledeboer. During the war years the Selznick Studio wound down but the effects department carried on operating providing mattes and effects for other studios such as Samuel Goldwyn. I assume at least some of these matte artists worked on THE NORTH STAR. *photo from The Invisible Art - The Legends of Matte painting.
I can't offer much info on co-effects supervisor Ray O. Binger (1888-1970) other than he was prolific in process cinematography through the 1940's through to the late 1950's, mainly at Samuel Goldwyn's studio as well as for United Artists, Walter Wanger and later did a bit at Universal. Binger did some excellent work for Hitchcock in the terrific FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT and effects camera work with Clifford Stine on THE LAND UNKNOWN in the late fifties.
Canadian lobby cards from the much shortened down 82 minute re-release now titled ARMORED ATTACK where the ratio of Russians to Nazi's has been astonishingly re-jigged in what can only be seen as 'Red Scare' censorship.
THE NORTH STAR (1943) Special Photographic Effects: Clarence W. Slifer & Ray O. Binger Matte Painters (probable): Jack Shaw, Spencer Bagtatopolis & Hans Ledeboer Effects Camera Operator: Harold Grigg Effects Camera Assistant: Owen Marsh
Matte shot under the title cards complete with cel animated flock of birds flying across screen.
As the title sequence progresses the background gradually changes with more and more (painted) trees etc slowly dissolving in for a most poetic opening. Probably multiple layers of glass art work.
Beautiful multi-plane matte art with shifting clouds and moon peaking through. Slifer won an Academy Award a few years later for the similarly striking cloud effects on Selznick's PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.
Interesting trick shot with the entire right side of the dirt road and row of trees all matte painted.
Classic evocative sky matte painted shot which was very much iconic of the period. If I didn't know better I'd think Jack Cosgrove might have painted this as it's 'Jack' all the way.
Erich von Stroheim's Nazi thugs en route. Ray Binger Process shot with matte painted vista projected in.
Mostly matte art just above the motorcycle riders heads.
More invisible matte work with the left side being actual setting and the right side all painted. A German fighter plane will be composited into the shot as well, making a strafing run on the truck..
More subtle artistic enhancement with the large tree branch painted and matted in for aesthetic effect.
Successive frames from a remarkably clever and complex photographic effects sequence. The children settle down to sleep under the large tree and in what appears to be a single continuous camera move we crane upward through the branches to the very tree top, where birds sit chirping and fluttering their wings. Sounds straightforward but it's quite amazing in fact. First part of the camera crane up was done on a soundstage. Partway up the shot seamlessly dissolves into a detailed matte painting of the evening sky framed behind a separate matted in element of painted branches and leaves and birds. Now the clever bit, the birds are all ingenious cel animated 'cartoon' birds! An amazing shot that must have taken an eternity to put together. Bravo!
Closer view of the matte as we ascend the tree...
...and we settle upon those wonderful cel animated birds. Brilliant.
Not sure here... possibly the real deal, though I'd not be surprised if the Selznick artists had augmented those clouds?
The Russian villagers stop in their tracks and look skyward .... Trouble is brewing. Painted sky likely here.
German dive bombers at 12 O'clock. Miniatures one and all.
One of the enemy peels off to make a strafing run...
Multi part composite shot. Actual setting with miniature dive bomber optically superimposed in later, with this plate being rear projected behind the model foreground rooftop and sirens.
One of the incredibly well executed aerial attack sequences. Much fine trick work here, with real train, matte painted tree line and sky, miniature German plane doubled in and the topper, the supremely well done shadow of the (model) plane as it dives low and fires upon the innocent villagers. For years that shadow element has impressed me no end. It was either an on set practical effect with some sort of 'shadow manipulation' in front of a big assed arc light (?) or more likely an entirely animated shadow introduced by Slifer on his aerial image optical printer. Whatever it was, the effect is outstanding.
As a kid in the 1960's, I was shaped considerably by the numerous television shows of Irwin Allen, where much excitement, spectacle and out of this world adventure was to be had on a weekly basis. I, like many of my readers I'm sure, grew up on things like VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, LOST IN SPACE, LAND OF THE GIANTS and THE TIME TUNNEL - 100% kid friendly escapism one and all with LOST IN SPACE being my favourite of the bunch. Perhaps the only other television film maker of the day able to capture the mind and imagination of a young NZPete to the same extent would have been the great Gerry Anderson who's THUNDERBIRDS, STINGRAY, CAPTAIN SCARLET and UFO were the equivalent of an obsessive compulsion in viewing enjoyment.
T.I's Action Unit cinematographer Joe Biroc with Irwin Allen.
Irwin's shows were always a guarantee of grand spectacle (even though those vividly saturated colour schemes were only ever broadcast here in New Zealand in good ole' b&w until the mid 1970's when colour and a second channel came in!). Irwin loved special effects and his programs were ample showcases for all manner of trick photography. Miniatures, matte paintings, optical effects, split screens, crazy assed monsters and always those gratuitous explosions, often for no apparent reason other than to thrill kids like me to bits. Those wacky, over the top electrical explosions with sparks and flashes showering all over the actors just blew my mind, especially when Allen introduced his crazy 'rock n' roll' camera with the cast swaying this way and that as the camera sways in tandem, suggesting the whole set of the Seaview or the Jupiter II was about to flip over! Insane, but essential, as were those dramatically scored cliffhanger endings where we had to wait a whole god damned week to see what happened to the Space Family Robinson in LOST IN SPACE or David Hedison and pals onboard that wonderful VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA submarine.... Entertaining like nothing else of the era. Great days!!
Effects wizard Bill Abbott at left with Irwin and Mrs Allen.
These shows were the first that drew my attention to 'special photographic effects', with the name L.B Abbott (and sometimes Howard Lydecker) always up on the screen during those end credits. Abbott's name stuck with me as it was pretty rare to even see an effects credit back then on screen, especially on TV. I'd often see John P. Fulton's name on re-runs of older Paramount and Universal pictures, which made Fulton a "name" trick shot star to me as well. These gentlemen certainly managed to gain my attention back in the day.
As a producer and occasional director, Irwin turned out many feature films over the years, often with a bent toward grandiose spectacle such as THE STORY OF MANKIND, THE LOST WORLD, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE SWARM and the dire WHEN TIME RAN OUT (aka THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED). Allen was the last of the 'showmen', from an era where flamboyantly shameless promotion and mass media gimmicks were the norm to sell one of these 'event' pictures.
FX chief Lenwood Ballard Abbott
I used to work for the NZ office of Warner Bros. from the late 1970's for several years and I can remember the huge and often outrageous publicity campaigns orchestrated by the production sales department in Burbank in order to promote these sorts of films. The pressbooks alone were jam packed with often ludicrous gimmicks that would even put a shonky used car salesman's dubious modus operandi to shame, Some of Irwin's latter films such as BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and WHEN TIME RAN OUT were tired excuses for a night at the movies, with even the distributors and exhibitors realising that Irwin-esque box office magic had in fact had it's day.
THE TOWERING INFERNO, the tale of a disastrous fire on opening night in the world's tallest (fictional) building in San Francisco, - the 138 story Glass Tower - was indeed a box office smash and I vividly remember seeing it on the huge screen at Auckland's Cinerama theatre back on it's initial run. The mighty Cinerama (long gone to sadly be replaced with an awful, characterless, 'modern' and ultimately failed muliplex, which has also been mothballed, and not a moment too soon) was the gig for all of the big films, usually at Christmas Holiday period which is our peak movie release time in this part of the world in which only the most worthwhile movies in terms of guaranteed seat filling-queue around the block cinematic events.
Not one but two separate novels - The Glass Inferno and The Tower - provided the basis for THE TOWERING INFERNO screenplay. If that weren't enough, not one but two major studios joined forces to produce the film - 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros, each of whom were racing to get their own burning skyscraper epic off the drawing board - with the former providing studio space and soundstage facilities and the latter handling worldwide distribution. I don't know if Warners provided any studio production space. Some $15 million was spent on this film (double that of competitor Universal's modestly budgeted EARTHQUAKE that same year). THE TOWERING INFERNO certainly had the look of a hefty price tag affair when viewed up on the big screen. Kudos belong to Production Designer William Creber and co-Directors of Photography Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc for the great look and texture of the film.
I was, and remain, a sucker for 70's disaster movies. I saw 'em all back in the day and eagerly awaited the next one. Some were good and some were pretty bad. I loved TOWERING INFERNO then and have seen it countless times since and I'd still regard it as one of, if not the best from the genre. Tight helmsmanship from director John Guillermin maintained a good pace and surprisingly fast clip for a two and a half hour plus feature. Producer Irwin Allen co-directed, handling all of the action set pieces, with the finished result not for a moment suggestive of alternate directors. The disaster genre was generally prone to stock characters, sugary sub-plots and 'oh give me a break' back stories, though to it's credit this film generally manages to keep that flotsam and jetsam to a relative minimum with any extraneous fluff quickly overtaken with scenes of frighteningly intense peril, fire fighting and rescue. I loved the fact that the fire fighting stuff was totally real and closely guided by actual fire rescue people, much as another disaster film a few years later, AIRPORT 77 did with a knuckle biting ocean rescue carried out on screen largely by the actual Coast Guard and US Navy utilising real procedures and personnel.
Who gets top billing? - Paper, Scissors, Rock.
The casting can make or break any film as we know, with INFERNO's cast being great. Leads Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were superstars and perfectly cast, with the often under-rated McQueen in particular being superb. I recall the promotional materials for the film very specifically spelling out just how these two top stars must be billed on all advertising as both felt they deserved top billing. Very explicit memos from Warners head office dictated Newman's name exactly the same size as McQueen's but Steve's billing first to the left and Paul's billing second but slightly higher up (thus before McQueen's credit in effect ... or not?) by precise measure on all the ad art and one sheets than Steve! A veritable megastar pissing contest me thinks.
William Holden faces off with a questionable Richard Chamberlain
Other key cast members were the always excellent William Holden and a most loathsome Richard Chamberlain - each in strong roles - and the glamourous Faye Dunaway, somewhat under utilised as a flimsy sort of love interest with not a lot to do aside from look cute. Interestingly, Dunaway had a run of great films in the 70's with the sensational thriller THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and the utterly brilliant blacker than black satire NETWORK (co-starring again with William Holden in definitive career best performances for both actors) being two of my all time favourites, though as usual, I digress. Many other name stars also feature such as Fred Astaire and Robert Wagner. Supporting cast are also good with even a certain now notorious O.J Simpson carrying his thespian weight rather well. He ain't no Orson Welles but he did okay. Established character actor Don Gordon - long time pal and costar of Steve McQueen is on board as are Dabney Coleman and one of my fave 70's support players Felton Perry (great in Clint Eastwood's MAGNUM FORCE as well as a particular guilty favourite of mine, the ass kicking, jive talking, revenge blaxploitation cheapie SUDDEN DEATH with Robert Conrad... a real hoot and then some! ... there I go digressing yet again)
L.B Abbott & A.D Flowers at the TORA Oscar ceremony.
The special visual effects naturally play a large part in the film's success, with longtime Irwin Allen collaborator L.B 'Bill' Abbott being an essential member of the production team. Lenwood Ballard Abbott had been in the motion picture business since the late 1920's as an assistant cameraman and would go on to have a life long career at 20th Century Fox as special effects cinematographer under Fred Sersen, Ralph Hammeras and Ray Kellogg. Bill would work on hundreds of films, eventually assuming the headship of the effects department in 1957 when Kellogg left to pursue a career in direction and 2nd unit work. Abbott would stay with Fox until they closed down their effects department, at which time he would freelance on many pictures. Among his key credits were his Oscar winning work on TORA!, TORA!, TORA!, JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH and LOGAN'S RUN. Bill was a four time Oscar winner for best visual effects, though oddly TOWERING INFERNO wasn't in the running.
The other vital member of the production was Oscar winning mechanical effects man A.D Flowers. A.D, whose actual name was Adlia Douglas Flowers, was another old time veteran with a career dating back to the late 1930's at Metro Goldwyn Mayer where he worked as part of A.Arnold Gillespie's special effects department on such classics as THE WIZARD OF OZ, 30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO, GREEN DOLPHIN STREET and many more. Later achievements would include such films as THE GODFATHER and the gargantuan project that was APOCALYPSE NOW. Some of Flowers' finest work can be seen in Steven Spielberg's 1941 where he would work with frequent associate Logan Frazee devising and constructing remarkable wire rigged aerial miniature dogfights and various other sequences which would see Flowers nominated for best special effects. For the whole rundown on the phenomenal trick work in 1941, click here to view my extensive article.
Matte painter Matthew Yuricich
Other technical staff included matte artist Matthew Yuricich who'd already had a long association with Bill Abbott from their days together at Fox through the early 1950's under Fred Sersen. For such a big film the number of matte paintings required were relatively small. In addition, Abbott hired another old Fox effects associate, optical cinematographer Frank Van der Veer to assemble the numerous blue screen composite shots. For the full story on Matt Yuricich's fascinating life and film career, check out my exclusive oral history from the man himself by clicking here.
So, let us take a look at one of most successful and memorable event films from the 1970's.
Under Bill Abbott's supervision, technicians and craftsmen built a very large miniature - some 70 feet in height - representing the 138 floor Glass Tower in the Sersen Lake at the 20th Century Fox Ranch, in Malibu, California.
An original storyboard and photographs by Production Illustrator Joe Musso demonstrate the scale of the project with not just one skyscraper being required but also the fictional neighbouring building as well, for it too would play an important role in the ensuing drama.
The 'open' reverse side of the Glass Tower highlights the network of gas piping supplying flame jets as well as water pipework for the spectacular climax sequence.
Another Joe Musso photograph taken of the finished miniatures at the Fox Ranch.
One of Bill Abbott's camera crew adjusts the mirror set up utilised in photographing the skyscraper model from as low a vantage point as possible, as viewed by Fred Astaire in an early scene.
Bill Abbott operates the camera for the mirror up view.
Some of Production Illustrator Joe Musso's storyboards. Joe would pursue a long career in motion picture illustration, occasionally branching out into matte painting on projects such as FLESH GORDON and others.
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
Special Photographic Effects: L. B Abbott, ASC Mechanical Effects: A. D Flowers & Logan Frazee Optical Cinematography: Frank Van der Veer Matte Artist: Matthew Yuricich Special Effects Men: Fred Kramer, Johnny Borgese, Gerald Endler, Gary King, Jay King, Paul Wurtzel