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The iron-fisted father of movie matte painting

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A fierce and intense movie-making talent is honoured in a new documentary...

Percy Day's work on Black Narcissus (1947)

Another great documentary has gone online from visual effects supervisor Dennis Lowe (Alien, Neverending Story, Labyrinth, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer). Lowe has become a prolific and valuable documentarian of visual effects history, starting out with his Alien documentaries a couple of years back, and recently looking into the life and work of matte painter Leigh Took (Clash of the Titans, Batman, Neverending Story II, The Da Vinci Code).

Now Lowe has turned his attention to one of the founding fathers of visual effects photography, the fine-artist-turned-matte-painter Percy Day O.B.E.

Day stumbled across the technique of 'original negative matte painting' when working as a matte artist in France for the production of Au Bonheur Des Dames (1931). Up until this point, matte painting was a very public spectacle, with the artist working live on location to add dimensions to a set by depicting scenes on glass, which would line up with the background to appear integrated with it. This kept the 'effect' in-camera, and avoided the degeneration caused by optical printing, which combines two already-exposed and developed elements together.

Day's notion was that if the area normally occupied by the painting were to be painted perfect black and filmed with a camera possessing adequately accurate pin registration, there was no reason why the painting could not be exposed on a separate pass later on, away from the pressures of production. This technique would ultimately win the Oscar for cinematographer Jack Cardiff for Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947); Cardiff is reported in Lowe's documentary to have admitted that it was really Percy Day's matte-painting work that deserved the Academy Award...

Percy Day's matte work on the famous bell-ringing scene in Black Narcissus (1947)

Double-exposure in itself goes all the way back to Mélies, and the new technique, also known as 'latent matte', had in fact been discovered by Norman O. Dawn for the 1911 film Story Of The Andes. However Dawn was unable to perfect the method until he came across the new Bell & Howell type 2709 camera, which had stable enough pin-registration to ensure that neither of the exposed elements (live set and matte painting) would 'jiggle' and deflate the effect. Unfortunately Dawn's experimentation with latent mattes was ultimately scotched by his sceptical bosses.

It fell to the the famously combustious Percy Day, a fine artist of some distinction who turned to matte painting at an itinerant point in his life, to popularise a technique that he would ultimately teach to his apprentice, visual effects legend Albert Whitlock (The Andromeda Strain, Diamonds Are Forever, Earthquake). A late entrant into the Day patriarchy was apprentice Peter Ellenshaw (Quo Vadis, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea), whose equally ambitious and pioneering work on matte paintings for the Disney studio and others would eventually be continued by his son Harrison Ellenshaw (TRON, Star Wars, Ghost, The Black Hole), also largely under the Disney aegis.

Lowe's documentary, Poppa Day: Mattes & Miniatures, runs at 77 mins and can be seen at his own website or in the embedded video below. Lowe's extensive conversation with Day's grand-daughter Susan Day reveals the history of a forbidding and Victorian-style figure who disapproved of women wearing make-up and kept his own sons working unpaid for him for many years - until the advent of Peter Ellenshaw's apprentice-salary forced the virtuoso visual effects wizard to put the matter on a more equal financial footing.

Perhaps Day's most visionary and best-known work was with Alexander Korda, and most especially on the Korda adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Shape Of Things To Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies in 1936...

The Shape Of Things To Come (1936)

Lowe's documentary is a fascinating and all-encompassing look at Day's life and work, and pretty uncompromising in depicting the self-styled founding father of modern matte painting techniques as a very difficult man to live with both on-set and off, given to jumping on his own paintings in a fit of rage if he considered that they had gone wrong in some way. Day's extensive French career makes this doc a must-see for lovers of French film, and a fascinating portrait of genius and a notable degree of misanthropy combining strangely into movie magic...

Dennis Lowe website

Watch some mind-blowing 'Alien' extras NOT on the Blu-ray anthology

When CGI couldn't fix it...


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