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
In this, the second part in my series examining a number of motion pictures overlooked and in many cases largely unknown to today's generation of multi-plex weened film audiences, we will be taking a look at the special photographic effects work from one of the biggest films of 1943, Sam Wood's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. While the film itself is well known - based upon the immensely popular story of partisan fighters in the Spanish Civil War by Ernest Hemingway - and was a huge hit with audiences at the time, the technical aspects of the movie probably slipped by most fans of the film. The three million dollar epic was headlined by two of Hollywood's greats, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman - both favourite actors of mine though I feel quite miscast in this instance. Personally speaking, although I've never really read any of Hemingway's prose aside from something back in high school in the mid 70's, pretty much every motion picture adaptation of a Hemingway story has left me cold. I simply don't get the guy. As popular as he was - and still is no doubt - that Hemingway headspace, mindset and especially his use of the English language (at least in the many movies I've seen over the years based upon his writings) in getting his narrative across remains completely lost on me ... period. Generally, films based upon Hemingway's works are, for me, interminable and very much an acquired taste.
A huge film in all respects, not least in it's mammoth near three hour running time, FWTBT was a very big visual effects showcase for Paramount's trickshot department headed by Gordon Jennings, with dozens of matte painted shots required to transform the Californian Sonora locations into 1930's period Spain with numerous miniatures utilised in the action sequences and often times split screened into painting/live action combination shots. While the many visual effects were generally effective and well integrated, the back projection shots tended to let the show down considerably, with process shots in general in most pictures rarely ever coming off with any degree of success when filmed in Technicolor at the time, despite the advances with high intensity illumination and multiple band projection. It would be many years until colour rear projection shots would look acceptable.
Paramount's special effects department had had a number of chiefs over the years, with Roy Pomeroy, Oren 'Bob' Roberts and Farciot Edouart running things at various times before Gordon Jennings took over the role in 1933. Gordon started in the industry as an assistant cameraman in 1919 before eventually shifting into trick photography. Jennings would hold that post for twenty years until his sudden and untimely death in 1953 during a game of golf soon after completing the arduous effects work on George Pal's WAR OF THE WORLDS, from whence Paramount's visual effects would then be under the management of John P. Fulton. The big, soft spoken Jennings was much liked by his close knit team at Paramount and would be the recipient of three Academy Awards and was lined up to provide visuals on Cecil B. DeMille's epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS - and was widely known as DeMille's favourite trick shot man - but fate stepped in and it sadly wasn't to be. Gordon's older brother Devereaux Jennings had also joined the Paramount effects department in 1933 as VFX cinematographer and would work alongside his brother on many films for the next 19 years, shooting miniatures mostly.
Brothers in arms, and artistry - Irmin and Oren 'Bob' Roberts at work photographing various Jan Domela matte paintings for films such as THE EMPEROR WALTZ and THE GREAT GATSBY in the late 1940's. *Many thanks to Irmin Roberts jnr and his wife Janet for this and other rare photos.
FX cameraman Irmin Roberts, upper middle.
Irmin Roberts was another key member of the photographic effects unit, having joined the studio in 1926 working off and on with his brother Oren, who for a time was head of the department. With expertise in effects and matte photography, Irmin worked on hundreds of pictures made by the studio such as SPAWN OF THE NORTH for which he earned an Academy Award for it's special effects in 1938, FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (see further below), WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to name but a few. Late in his Paramount tenure Irmin would be ace 2nd unit cinematographer on memorable films such as the 1953 hit film SHANE where Oscar winning D.O.P Loyal Griggs stated in his awards ceremony acceptance speech that the statuette really belonged as much to Irmin Roberts for his wonderful 2nd unit photography. Roberts also invented several photographic effects procedures, one of which has become a mainstay even to this day in mostly thriller type pictures, the so called 'Vertigo' shot (dolly out while very carefully zooming in) distorted reality viewpoint that Hitchcock dazzled audiences with in VERTIGO and Spielberg used brilliantly in JAWS many years later. Irmin would continue behind the camera for what would be a very long career, culminating in 2nd unit work in AIRPORT and effects camerawork for L.B Abbott and Ray Kellogg on TORA! TORA! TORA in 1970 which deservedly won the best visual effects Oscar that year.
Matte artist Jan Domela on the backlot.
Matte painter Jan Domela(the 'Jan' is pronounced 'yawn') hailed originally from Holland and like long time associate Irmin Roberts would have a very long career in matte work, having joined Paramount around 1927 and remaining with the studio through to the early 1960's when they closed down their special effects department. Domela painted mattes for literally hundreds of films and tv shows, principally for Paramount, though later assignments in the 1960's would see Jan freelanced at MGM, 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Film Effects of Hollywood on a wide variety of projects from epics such as THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY through to smaller things like THE MAN FROM UNCLE television series. Jan gradually got into the movie business after meeting fellow Hollander Hans Ledeboer while painting at the Panama Pacific Expo of 1915 in San Francisco. Ledeboer would go on to become a movie scenic artist and matte painter at several studios such as Paramount and later Selznick International.
Jan Domela in his studio at Paramount, probably from the late 1930's.
As far as I know, Domela, by and large, painted virtually all of the matte work for Paramount single handedly, though noted artist and close friend Chesley Bonestell did work with Domela in the 1950's on at least two George Pal pictures providing mainly astronomical matte art. Future art director Al Nozaki was also, for a time, employed in Paramount's matte department. According to Jan's daughter Johanna, Jan tried to organise a training scheme for apprentice matte artists in the 1950's but the notoriously tight fisted studio wouldn't hear of it and he even attempted some weekend training off his own bat but it didn't take off. Jan certainly had his workload cut out for him with this picture, with some of the mattes looking, understandably, quite rushed.
Matte painter Jan Domela (left) with longtime associate effects cinematographer Irmin Roberts (right) on the Paramount lot with a scene requiring matte work being masked off.
Miniatures supervisor Ivyl Burks
Miniaturist Ivyl Burks was another longtime Paramount effects staffer, though I have no real details as to when he started. Burks was certainly active through the 1940's and 50's. Burks would provide excellent miniatures for THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI, SAMSON AND DELILAH, WAR OF THE WORLDS, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and one of my all time favourite effects films, the sorely under rated Byron Haskin ants-on-the-rampage adventure THE NAKED JUNGLE - an 'A' Grade effects show if ever there was one - to name a few. Other model makers at Paramount were Art Smith and Harry Reynolds, though these men worked on the lot in the 1930's and may not have been active in subsequent decades.
Farciot Edouart wins 1941 Oscar
The studio's process department was run by Farciot Edouart who was at one point actually in charge of the entire special effects department. Early in his career Edouart dabbled in glass shots as well as early variations upon rear screen projection. Farciot made numerous developments to the science of process projection including multi-strip projection rigs with dual or even triple screens to good effect, at least when used in black & white pictures such as I WANTED WINGS which saw Edouart receive the visual effects Oscar (shown at left receiving 1941 VFX Oscar from Darryl F. Zanuck) for his highly creative application of process and gimballed, highly mobile fighter planes that swoop and dive with very realistic results. Really impressive stuff even now. Edouart knocked out some great process shots in his time, with probably the last being seen in SHIP OF FOOLS. Unfortunately, process projection of the 30's through to the 50's was more often than not a dismal failure when it came to colour, with washed out plates, inexcusable hot-spots and colour mismatch - though this wasn't a problem unique to Farciot's unit at Paramount and was a common liability across the industry. Travelling mattes may have had fringe or bleed through issues at times but at least the elements were crisp and controlled when compared with bad back projected process .
Edouart was yet another long-stay career employee of Paramount and only 'retired' when the studio chiefs actually 'found' him. The story goes that Farciot would deliberately go out of his way to make himself scarce, if not invisible whenever the cost cutting hatchet men were on the prowl and apparently he would literally hide from them, to their continued frustration in an effort to stay on the payroll! Out of sight, out of mind I guess? Edouart apparently had a flair for rubbing people the wrong way. Irmin Roberts' family told me that Edouart was an arrogant man who always wanted to take the credit for everything. The esteemed miniature trick shot wizards, brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker had a notorious run in with Farciot at a screening of effects reels for Academy consideration in the 1940's where the Lydeckers' ran their superb shots from the John Wayne war picture FLYING TIGERS, whereby Edouart, who was on the voting committee, vocally dismissed their work outright as unworthy and a waste of his time!
A good view of the juggernaut that was Technicolor 3-strip.
Cinematographer Wallace Kelley was Edouart's regular process cameraman with, among other assignments, a mammoth workload on De Mille's TEN COMMANDMENTS and the George Pal sci-fi pictures, Kelley would later go on to become a regular director of photography and became Jerry Lewis' first choice of D.O.P on his films.
Just before we take a look at FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, I would like to include this marvellous photograph (below) that was recently sent to me by the family of Irmin Roberts detailing the shooting of an elaborate in camera special effects scene utilising a large hanging miniature and partial painting from the Paramount film FRENCHMAN'S CREEK made in 1944. It beautifully sums up the sort of specialty work carried out at the time, applied in various forms in many movies of the Golden Era, a time honoured cinematic trick that I think was also utilised in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.
For the film FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (1944) several sequences involved action in and around a stately mansion, which didn't actually exist. As the action required fluid camera pans and push ins following horse and carriage, effects supervisor Gordon Jennings assigned the sequences to visual effects cameraman Irmin Roberts to execute. A quite large partial miniature, partial painting of the homestead was mounted and photographed in camera to excellent effect - so excellent in fact that when the bigwigs at the studio's head office in New York saw the footage they had a fit, and demanded to know how much the director had spent building that god damned mansion! In the rare photo is cameraman Roberts (in white shirt) demonstrating the trickery to his amazed young son, Irmin jnr, while daughter Capitola and wife Nelle watch on. Irmin jnr told me that it was indeed a special treat to be on the set while his dad worked, and a very rare thing indeed to even learn about his father's work as it just wasn't something he ever really cared to discuss. *Many thanks to the family of Irmin Roberts for this photo.
Special Photographic Effects: Gordon Jennings Special Effects Cinematographer: Irmin Roberts Matte Artist: Jan Domela Miniatures: Ivyl Burks Mechanical Effects: Walter Hoffman Process Photography: Farciot Edouart
Vintage era trailer, the like of which we'll never see in this modern era.
Director Sam Wood will always get my vote for directing two of the funniest movies ever made - The Marx Brothers A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES ... absolute side splitting masterpieces that never age!
It's good to see the actual effects guys getting a name credit as well as the head of department for a change.
The epic opens with a dramatic sequence with a sabotaged train wreck. Sadly, the excellent miniature work is utterly wasted through awful rear projection where the plate is completely lost in the shallow depth of field of the process photography - probably down to impossibly slow film stock when shooting in Technicolor. Completely inexcusable in my mind and surely a blue screen comp would have far better suited the scene.
The urban landscape of the Spanish Civil War of the mid 1930's courtesy of a Jan Domela matte shot where everything on the right side of the post is artwork.
Hi there friends. Sorry it's been so long since we last touched base, but as many of you may already know, NZPete just has to be in the exact 'frame of mind' to tackle one of his often gargantuan and always illuminating blog posts. The mood right now is just right and I suddenly decided very late last night that today will indeed be 'the day'.... so blogging here we come with all guns blazing, as it were. No preparation ... just frantic typing and assembling pictures in a mad, frenzy of blogging activity. This issue will be the first in a series of retrospectives on individual films which take a firm place in my own personal Hall of Fame for their outstanding or just plain memorable special photographic effects work. The films I've selected for this and subsequent blogs were largely neglected, overlooked, lost in the shuffle or to many of the modern viewers out there weaned on endless bloody 'Marvel' regurgitations (oh, when will it ever end?) these films may be completely unknown!
There are so many Golden Era effects shows that I still find entertaining and pack a sizable punch in their respective technical achievements, even many decades later as today's featured motion picture will prove. Some upcoming Forgotten Gems on NZPete's Matte Shot blog include not only matte painted wizardry but in some cases stop motion animation, optical work and full blown physical effects. In an effort to keep it as fresh as possible I'll try not to re-visit movies already covered at length - though thoroughly deserving they may be - such as all time faves 30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO, GONE WITH THE WIND, DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, THE NAKED JUNGLE (may re-visit that one now that I have excellent HD1080 screen captures), IN OLD CHICAGO, THE RAINS CAME and many others.
What we will be covering, starting with this post, will be the epic and still spectacular 20th Century Fox desert picture SUEZ (1938) where the sheer volume of trick shots and brilliant effects design blows me away completely. In following articles expect to see some retro visits upon the beautiful matte showcase that was MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938) - with hitherto unseen crisp high definition imagery. I'll be reviewing JOAN OF ARC (1947) where Jack Cosgrove and John Fulton joined forces to create evocative vistas of period France, again illustrated in exquisite 1080p images directly captured from the recent BluRay.
Also expect to see a comprehensive look at the massive Paramount visual effects show FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL (19430 which must set some kind of record for the sheer number of mattes and composites in a single film. Out of left field comes the Hammer flick WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) where Jim Danforth and a host of British matte and effects fellows created probably the best Dinosaur footage and settings since KONG. I've recently acquired a truckload of terrific high rez BluRay frame grabs from the WDRtE, and the film has never looked better. Danforth's animation far outclasses even Ray Harryhausen's from ONE MILLION BC in my opinion. Watch this space...
Special Photographic Effects Director: Fred Sersen Photographic Effects Associate: Ray Kellogg Miniature Photography: Ralph Hammeras Mechanical Effects Supervisor: Louis J. Witte Special Effects: Bill Gallagher Optical Cinematography: James B. Gordon Effects Camera Operators: L.B Abbott, Walter Castle, Al Irving Process Photography: Sol Halperin, Edwin Hammeras Matte Painters (then active at Fox): Emil Kosa snr, Emil Kosa jnr, Menrad von Muldorfer, Gilbert Riswold, Hector Serbaroli, Joseph Serbaroli snr, Ray Kellogg, Ralph Hammeras, Barbara Webster, Clyde Scott, Max De Vega, Fitch Fulton
The Sersen Special Effects Department at Fox, pictured here in 1938. That's Fred standing centre with one hand in his pocket. Photo courtesy of Joseph Serbaroli jnr.
Ray Kellogg and, Fred Sersen
It may not look it from the fairly dull one sheet poster, which sold the film on the basic boy meets girl(s) under the blazing desert sun level, but SUEZ (1938) was in fact a lavish and extremely well mounted period piece packed with as much spectacle as it did predictable romantic entanglements. Star Tyrone Power was everybody's favourite square jawed leading man back in the day - decades before Charlton Heston assumed that mantle - and no one recognised this as much as 20th Century Fox's head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck, who made sure Tyrone was gainfully employed in as many huge, epic scale cinematic events as possible.
Matte painters at work in the busy Sersen Department.
Power was a strong leading man and, especially later in his career, took on many demanding and rewarding roles. His Fox era would see the dashing box office drawcard frequently cast in big disaster type epics, and long before anyone even coined the phrase. THE RAIN'S CAME and IN OLD CHICAGO being two prominent earth shattering crowd pleasers from Zanuck, and both top notch motion pictures, especially in the special effects side of things, with THE RAIN'S CAME taking home the 1939 Oscars for best special visual and sound effects, and boy were they good! A class act all the way thanks to Fred Sersen and his collaborators in the Fox effects department.
Fox Optical Department with Jim Gordon and staff.
SUEZ is a fairly predictable though undeniably exciting yarn of the earliest notions and practical attempts to build the famed Suez Canal in Egypt. Apparently historic accuracy wasn't a consideration for the studio and many liberties were taken. That aside, SUEZ provides much drama and sprawling vistas of a cast of thousands of swarthy labourers and engineers slogging away with shovels, camels and creaky steam powered mechanisation carving out a mighty chunk of Egyptian desert in what seems an impossible endeavour.
Being a special effects blogger naturally it's that area that interests me the most. The many (and I do mean many) trick shots are, in a word, amazing. There are a huge number of painted mattes to be seen in SUEZ, complimented often with miniatures, optical printer combinations, excellent process work and awe inspiring full scale live action physical effects. The production value in the visual effects sequences is on the scale one can always expect from the Sersen Department at Fox, who pretty much cornered the Hollywood studio system in producing a consistently high standard throughout the 1930's and beyond. I've written much about Fred Sersen in many previous blog articles and in an effort to not repeat myself I've included an interesting article below penned by Sersen himself for the 20th Century Fox in-house magazine Action from the mid 1940's, which although isn't related to SUEZ, it does provide an excellent overview of the man and his department.
Louis J. Witte - Mechanical FX
Key to the success of the large scale on-set action in SUEZ was long time Fox mechanical effects man Louis J. Witte (shown here at the studio pay window). Witte, who is not to be confused with the similarly named Louis DeWitt of Project Unlimited fame some years later, had a lifelong association with the William Fox Studios and 20th Century Fox and engineered hundreds of physical effects for many Fox films including the phenomenal work seen in THE RAINS CAME and IN OLD CHICAGO to name but two.
James B. Gordon was another industry veteran who operated Fox's optical department from the mid thirties through to the late fifties. Jim would provide amazingly subtle optical work on films such as THE MARK OF ZORRO and DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL among many others. Gordon was an experienced visual effects cinematographer who would continue through the 1960's in partnership with Linwood Dunn and Don Weed at Film Effects of Hollywood. As with his contemporaries in sister studios such as Ross Hoffman at Universal, Lin Dunn at RKO, Paul Lerpae at Paramount and Irving Ries at MGM, Jim too was a company man for most of his very long career. It seems that optical men were married to their printers!
The 1930's and 40's represent my favourite period when it comes to the artform of matte painting, so, let us take a look at a long neglected and for many people completely unfamiliar picture.... SUEZ. Let the canal digging commence!
I love these old time hand painted title cards. An art form all in itself and one sadly lost now. :(
Note Sersen's very own individual screen credit which was extremely rare indeed.
Fox's top drawer box office stars Loretta Young and Tyrone Power
It suddenly dawns on our feisty and resourseful leading man that all that separates the Mediterranean from the Red Sea is a bunch of sand. Shouldn't take more than a week or two to dig it out...?
Stage set topped up with detailed matte art. The exact same set and camera position was used for a completely different scene with another painted extension, which is shown as a comparison later in this blog post.
Complex perspective drawing for this matte composite.
Ceiling and upper part of chandelier painted in.
The old Sersen standby, the double glass foreground matte. The palm tree hides the join between the two glasses as the camera pans across. This trick was a Fox standard and was utilised on more films than I can count.
Included for no real reason other than the actress, Annabella, married Tyrone afterward and hoped for a Hollywood contract, which mogul Zanuck did not provide and didn't much care for Mrs Power apparently.
An extensive painted top up over a minimal set.
Another extensive matte addition with the matte line running across the foreground tree trunk just above the soldier's head.
Much painting here, with the cavalry flag bearer's staffs merging into the matte line at left as they ride past.
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