Pete's Editorial: Greetings friends and assorted special effects 'nuts' (and I do mean that in the nicest possible way!) I'm back with a fresh blog post of some substantial volume (would you accept anything less?) and I think many of you will enjoy this retrospective. However, before we do that I'd like to take a moment to mention a superb book that I've just finished which I'd rate as probably the best of it's kind when it comes to giving the lowdown on the making of any motion picture you'd care to name.
SPACE ODYSSEY: STANLEY KUBRICK, ARTHUR C. CLARKE AND THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE by Michael Benson is the book in question, and what a book it is. I've read several published accounts on the making of Stanley Kubrick's often misunderstood 1968 cinematic masterpiece but none came even close to exploring that mammoth, complicated and certainly controversial production as comprehensively as Benson has done. Not a word is wasted in this 500 page tome, with a great many portions of the text being re-read a second or third time by this reviewer such was the quality of the writing. With scores of (the then) surviving cast and crew members interviewed - including Arthur C.Clarke, Douglas Trumbull, Stuart Freeborn, Brian Johnson and many others - often with surprisingly candid and revealing results, some of which are quite hilarious. Of course the film's groundbreaking photographic effects work is covered in much detail and even I learned so much more than I thought I already knew. Michael has augmented these very passionate recollections with many archival interviews from those no longer with us, often from unpublished sources. The result is to put it simply, wonderful. The accounts presented to the author from the least likely of interviewees such as low ranking production assistants and even newbie 'green' pimply faced interns and the like, who amazingly wound up having key creative input and artistic responsibilities on the film in itself was such a revelation and for me proved among the most rewarding aspects of the 'out of control' behemoth that was Stanley's baby. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's certainly one that takes a special place on my bookshelf. A must read! *PS: For those interested, I did an extensive and surprisingly well received blog on 2001's special photographic effects a few years ago and it can be read right here.
Today's blog is something a little different inasmuch as there ain't a whole lot of matte painted effects on show here for once. Instead we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable visual effects sequences where catastrophic mayhem was the order of the day. It's not really a disaster film showcase that you might anticipate, as this article covers a range of genres that just happen to have an element of epic scaled mayhem as created by the special effects departments of various studios over a long timespan of movie history. There are war films, drama's, soppy love stories, westerns, fantasy films, science fiction yarns, dawn of man epics, comedies and even musicals among the line up here. Musicals I here you utter? Well, yes... MGM's big CinemaScope song and dance show SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS wasn't all vocals and melody, as there was a ripper of an avalanche in the movie with much technical virtuosity required.
Of course there are some of the obvious entries such as EARTHQUAKE, which played a massive part in my love for visual effects back in 1974, and there are some classic effects sequences from terrific war pictures such as THE DAMBUSTERS and the amazing HELL'S ANGELS in addition to shows like the classy Cinerama epic KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA through to the dire Irwin Allen flick THE STORY OF MANKIND.
Some of these films had significant chunks of running time devoted to some form of catastrophic mayhem, while others may have just had one brief segment that occurred within an otherwise unremarkable movie, but all those effects sequences selected are here because NZPete fondly remembers them. Not all are masterpieces (ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT - what were they thinking?), while others remain to this day fully fledged classics in all aspects of the artform and entertainment value (THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO - unforgettable!). Some time back I published my Magicians of the Miniature blog special on all things miniature, which incidentally has proven to be my most popular post ever. While today's blog post isn't really a follow up, it's probably the next best thing for those of you who dig models in the trick shot arena. My big miniature effects blog can be read here.
So, with that, let us put our feet up onto the seat in front of us, dig into our popcorn (or if you were me back in the day, a double chocolate dipped ice cream) and become immersed in a few hours of most worthy m a y h e m ... I'm sure you'll get a kick out of it Enjoy
I'll start off with one of my absolute all time favourite movies, and certainly one of the finest special effects entries ever, MGM's big budgeted THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944). The film deserved took home the Oscar that year for it's effects work which included fabulous miniatures by the great Donald Jahraus under the overall supervision of the legendary A.Arnold 'Buddy' Gillespie in what I'd regard as a career best for both men.
The film deals with the famous Dolittle bombing raids on Tokyo as a show of force after the calamity that was Pearl Harbour. The bomb run itself as shown here was brilliantly executed on the MGM backlot by Buddy Gillespie and a crew that included several son to be famous in their field effects practitioners such as A.D Flowers, Jack McMaster and Glen Robinson - all of whom went on to major endeavours later in their careers. These sequences were shot from atop a 90 foot tower erected on the backlot.
Part of Don Jahraus' massive miniature set of Tokyo. The blur at the lower edge of the frame isn't the fault of Max Fabian's excellent fx cinematography but is a result of these frames being screengrabs from what was a fast motion sequence filmed from the bomber aircraft's POV as it swoops low over the industrial area in flames.
Miniaturist Don Jahraus started off his career at RKO around 1930 and then did some time at Universal briefly before taking up the position at MGM where he stayed for the remainder of his illustrious career.
Part of the aerial bombardment set piece, and although it's hard to see on these frames, the B25 is actually visible flying across the devastation as it occurs. What I love here is the remarkably authentic pyrotechnic work that is perfectly scaled to the large miniature set and looks utterly convincing. Marvellous horizontal piano wire guidance system (that can faintly be seen vibrating as the explosion goes off) that was an industry standard for decades and was largely known as a Lydecker rig, named after Republic special effects masters Howard and Theodore Lydecker. The system would still be in use by Gillespie's assistant A.D (Adlia Douglas) Flowers on the big Steven Spielberg film 1941 (1979) and also featured in later shows such as INDEPENDENCE DAY among others.
In his memoir, Buddy Gillespie called Donald Jahraus "...the best executor of miniature assignments with whom I ever came in contact - imaginative, intelligent, artistic and creative - Truly one of the greats."
Glen Robinson and Robert MacDonald were Gillespie's 'powder men' for these scenes. Buddy described these miniatures as being 1/2 scale, which suggests enormous models, though maybe he meant 1/2 inch to the foot scale?
A close up of one of the B25's from Gillespie's own historic collection. The take offs and landings were executed with a vertical piano wire system (barely visible in this still) attached to an overhead trolley rig which ran along cables strung between telephone poles.
A rare still taken from the same position as Maximillian Fabian's vfx camera - atop the 90 foot tower - which demonstrates the amazing skills of the powder men and their pyro mix. I just can't get enough of miniature explosions, with Gerry Anderson's THUNDERBIRDS being my weekly 'fix' back in the 1960's.
While on aerial mayhem, we cannot overlook the phenomenal effects work in Spielberg's 1941 (1979) which was orchestrated by one of the THIRTY SECONDS veterans, A.D Flowers. Jaw dropping miniature set pieces with brilliantly executed 'Lydecker rigs' allowing model aircraft to not only fly down Hollywood Blvd but to do barrel rolls and all manner of stunt gags.
Greg Jein's miniatures get all blown to hell in 1941.
Another viewpoint of the miniature Hollywood Blvd aerial sequence. Oh, and I've actually stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel once while on an expedition to great places like Larry Edmunds Movie Bookstore and Hollywood Book & Poster etc ... and all while 'attending' an international conference as an invited speaker on very weird medical things in a previous life, but keep that to yourself.
Frames from the climactic Ferris wheel sequence where the whole thing comes off it's axis and rolls into the bay, though sadly Eddie Deezen survived!
Effects crew at work on 1941. That's Logan Frazee at lower left and A.D Flowers middle right. For much more on the effects from this movie you can visit my special blog right here.
Kiwi director Roger Donaldson did a splendid job with his version of the famous Bounty mutineers saga with THE BOUNTY (1984) and the film hit all the bases for this viewer. A couple of effects shots which included a first rate climactic scene where the Pitcairn deposited mutineers deliberately sink the mighty ship The Bounty so as to not draw attention to their whereabouts. Excellent model work and composite photography by Van der Veer Photo Effects - a company established by longtime effects cameraman Frank Van der Veer who sadly died in 1982. Frank began in the effects biz in 1950 at 20th Century Fox as one of Fred Sersen's crew and he founded his own optical house in 1962 and produced many composite shots for films as wide ranging as EXORCIST II-THE HERETIC, ORCA THE KILLER WHALE and the 1976 incarnation of KING KONG.
Epic conclusion to an epic film, THE BOUNTY.
For the MGM film ABOVE AND BEYOND (1952), A.Arnold Gillespie re-created the Atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima to frightening effect though I'm sure the footage was in fact lifted out of an earlier MGM picture called THE BEGINNING OR THE END (1947). The terrain was actually just a scenic painting inside a large glass tank measuring 4 by 5 feet and 7 feet in depth, filled with distilled water. The mushroom cloud was created by injecting a chemical formula into the tank at a strategic point, augmented by specially rigged flash bulbs behind to add to the illusion. The subsequent views of devastation were achieved via miniatures. At the time Gillespie created this effect, nobody outside of the military had actually seen the effects of an atomic bomb blast so it was a bit of guess work on the fx technicians part.
For the 1957 Korean war drama, BATTLE HYMN, Universal's effects department under Clifford Stine produced a superb bit of destruction. Miniature most likely made by veteran Charlie Baker, with Fred Knoth being one of that studio's pyro experts.
Irwin Allen's feeble attempt at remaking the classic LOST WORLD (1960) was an insult to Willis O'Brien who was engaged on the film purely to have his esteemed name associated with this turkey and nothing more. Anyway, there was a halfway decent cataclysmic finale when the whole she-bang goes up like the forth of July. L.B Abbott was effects chief with Emil Kosa jnr painting the matte art, which I think much of this shot is.
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..
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.