The 50 greatest matte paintings of all time
|LISTS - MOVIE LISTS|
Back when there was no 'undo' button for movie magic, here are the magicians who wowed us the hard way...
The art of the glass shot or matte painting is one which originated very much in the early ‘teens’ of the silent era. Pioneer film maker, director, cameraman and visual effects inventor Norman Dawn is generally acknowledged as the father of the painted matte composite, with other visionary film makers such as Ferdinand Pinney Earle, Walter Hall and Walter Percy Day being heralded as making vast contributions to the trick process in the early 1920’s.
Boiled down, the matte process is one whereby a limited film set may be extended to whatever, or wherever the director’s imagination dictates with the employment of a matte artist. In it’s most pure form, the artist would set up a large plate of clear glass in front of the motion picture camera upon which he would carefully paint in new scenery - an ornate period ceiling, snow capped mountains, a Gothic castle or even an alien world. An area of the glass is left clear and unpainted, through which the actors may be photographed simultaneously with the matte art onto the original negative, producing an entirely convincing ‘new’ shot without the need for the production unit to leave the studio grounds. There are many technical variations of the matte process, some of which are outlined in the selections below. All of the films included here are from the pre-CGI era and the processes utilized are exclusively old school ‘photo-chemical’ with the artists’ instinct and his cameraman's’ keen eye, long before the advent of the ‘undo’ button.
50. The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1974)
Director: Gordon Hessler
A terrific Ray Harryhausen fantasy, arguably his last really good film, which hits Bullseye all the way. Aside from Ray’s exquisite stop motion we are treated to a few foreground painted mattes courtesy of Spanish effects maestro, the late, great Emilio Ruiz Del Rio. Emilio’s stock and trade was for the most part the use of foreground hand painted matte art photographed in real time with the original action as had been the popular method back in the silent era. The chief benefits of this age old technique being the ability of the director to actually see the finished effect in the camera right there and then, with no post production waiting period. Additionally, the use of foreground matte art permitted a more even daylight illumination source and the advantage of the matte artist being able to match colours and hues directly to the location set. This shot of the mythical walled city was painted onto a sheet of aluminium which was then carefully cut out and mounted on a concealed post directly in front of the camera, thus producing a first generation original negative composite with the added bonus of a camera move done on the spot. Pure, simple magic from one of cinema’s true magicians.
49. Mary Poppins (1964)
Director: Robert Stevenson
An Academy Award winner for best visual effects, and deservedly so, this much loved Disney picture is a cavalcade of wonderful matte art and thrilling effects animation and to this day is still an absolute joy to behold. Chief matte artist Peter Ellenshaw was as much a part of the Disney machine as Walt himself, with important creative input into all of the studio’s live-action films, and even aspects of the theme park. Mary Poppins was the dream assignment for Peter and his small crew of matte artists Jim Fetherolf and Deno Ganakes. The magical quality of P.L Travers' stories of Edwardian London is beautifully transformed by way of Ellenshaw’s paintbrush. There are so many paintings in the film, many being full-frame art with just the actors matted in later, that it’s difficult to choose one above any other.
48. Khartoum (1966)
Director: Basil Dearden
A solid, well acted historical biopic with a number of excellent matte shots produced at Pinewood Studios by resident matte artist Cliff Culley. Cliff started back when it was Rank and worked with Les Bowie, Albert Whitlock and Peter Melrose on many vintage shows from the mid forties onward. This sprawling matte shot is a beautifully painted and blended scenic effect photographed by Roy Field on the large 65mm film format for this sweeping Ultra Panavision production.
47. Ghostbusters II (1989)
Director: Ivan Reitman
Mark Sullivan is one of the finest matte painters of his generation, and for a time he was head of ILM’s matte department. Among the work he did during the closing years of the old traditional ‘oils on glass’ era was this sensational full-screen painting of Sigourney Weaver’s apartment building and the surrounding cityscape. Only the roadway was left unpainted, to allow for later insertion of traffic etc. A remarkable piece of artwork for sure, though sadly one not long for this world. Apparently this massive glass painting was accidentally shattered while being prepared for a display frame – a fate not uncommon to this fragile art form, where breakage or just plain scraping down for re-use on another project were normal practices in the industry for decades. Yes…. this author feels a sickness in the pit of his stomach at the thought.
46. Rhapsody In Blue (1945)
Director: Irving Rapper
When it comes to matte shots which simply break down barriers and go where no matte shot has gone before, the extremely resourceful Stage 5 Visual Effects Department at Warner Brothers Studios in the 1930’s and 40’s were indeed king of the castle among the Hollywood dream factories. Whereas the typical matte shot of the era tended toward being a ‘locked off’ static affair, often out of necessity, the boys at Warner Bros would routinely break the mould and take matte work to staggering levels of mobility. This amazing closing shot from the excellent biopic of George Gershwin is indeed such a shot. Starting in on Robert Alda’s fingers tickling the ivories, the camera, in one seamless shot pulls up, and up, and up eventually passes through the concert hall ceiling and into the night skies - finally resting in the clouds! A truly jaw-dropping shot which, at a guess, was probably a combination of process work for Alda at the piano and multiple paintings smoothly cross dissolved from one to the other as part of a frame by frame track out .
45. The Love Bug (1968)
Director: Robert Stevenson
A perennial favourite from Disney with a delightfully daffy scenario, engaging cast, groovy musical score and, above all, dozens of exhilarating matte shots. It was tough to decide on which matte to highlight, but I feel this one is the strongest choice. This shot is one of half a dozen consecutive painted mattes for the sequence where Dean Jones roams the lonely, desolate streets of San Francisco at night looking for Herbie, the hypersensitive Volkswagen. Peter Ellenshaw designed and oversaw the effects for this magical sequence with matte painters Alan Maley and Jim Fetherolf kept busy preparing the gorgeous nocturnal artwork. So extensive is the matte work in this sequence that most shots are almost all paint, with just a tiny area of live action. One shot is all paint with the actor added onto the shot via sodium travelling matte. A striking and almost ethereal display of matte artistry not commonly seen. Beautiful indeed.
44. The Colditz Story (1957)
1957 Director: Guy Hamilton
A memorable true life account of heroism under adversity, Colditz utilised the matte process for all of the long shots of the infamous German castle. Bob Cuff and George Samuels painted mattes on this film, under the supervision of Shepperton Studios Wally Veevers. This view is a particularly atmospheric effects shot with great perspective which nicely represents the high calibre work carried out at the Shepperton special effects department - which carried on the traditions established by Percy Day. Shepperton matte artist Gerald Larn told me of finding a constant source of inspiration from this marvellous glass painting which would grace the wall of the matte room for a decade afterwards.
43. Earthquake (1974)
Director: Mark Robson
Quite an achievement this – a hastily-made, medium-budget extravaganza which made a mint at the box office. What makes it so impressive are the 22 matte paintings by Albert Whitlock, all finished within 12 weeks, with an average of three paintings per week, some of which were completed in just a few hours! A certain amount of the effects work is admittedly shoddy in places, with falling debris vanishing through matte lines (and in one shot debris suddenly appearing out from under another matte line for no apparent reason), and this is doubtless due to the incredibly rushed schedule; but most of Whitlock’s painted mattes look great, all things considered. What sells the shot illustrated here is the tried-and-true Whitlock technique of loose, impressionistic brush strokes with an amazingly adept ‘feel’ for what works in terms of light and colour values…and he seldom failed. This painting is so loose on close examination that Al’s original pencil lines are still plainly visible, and what appears to be highly detailed brushwork is anything but…. just a great many dabs and dashes which look photo-real when photographed. The smoke and fires were additional live action elements composited into the painting later.
42. Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (1979 theatrical)
Director: Daniel Haller
Made as a pilot for a popular television series, though released theatrically in most of the world. Buck in fact managed to turn out quite an impressive collection of matte painted shots courtesy of Syd Dutton, who learned his trade under the wing of master illusionist Albert Whitlock. The work in this film is consistently high and looked sensational back in ’79 on the big cinema screen, thanks largely to Dutton and cameraman Bill Taylor’s use of the original negative techniques acquired from Whitlock at a time when no other matte departments were employing the method.
This matte is a full painting, and was later reused in various other Universal TV shows - even appearing as an underwater city at one point.
41. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
I never cared much for the film myself, but amid the special effects sequences is this stunning Jim Danforth matte. I love the way Jim has managed to capture the refractive qualities of the crystalline formations – all of which is matte art. The shot proved to be so successful that the producers recycled it in the sequel. Jim is widely known and respected as a stop-motion animator, though he’s really an all round visual effects expert, with matte painting being just one of his many talents.
I regard this as Danforth’s best matte work.
40. Ben Hur (1959)
Director: William Wyler
It was a toss up between The Robe and Ben Hur here. The former qualified mainly as being from the very first CinemaScope picture – which itself posed many problems for Ray Kellogg, Emil Kosa Jr and Matthew Yuricich of the 20th Century Fox matte department, due to the peculiar optics of the anamorphic lens used for the brand new widescreen process. Ben Hur, though made five years later, posed similar photographic problems. It was necessary for the mattes to be painted partly ‘squeezed’, which to the naked eye looked quite unnatural and distorted. The mattes would eventually be unsqueezed during theatre projection and screened at the correct 2.40:1 ratio on the then amazingly panoramic screen, much to the delight of the viewing public. Artist Matthew Yuricich painted mattes on both films, with the latter film displaying many beautifully-composed and rendered shots - including the majestic, show-stopping spectacle shown beneath...
39. Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991)
Director: Simon Wincer
A pretty obscure nineties action flick which, in it’s favour, does feature this dynamite matte shot by the immensely talented Rocco Gioffre. The scene was more economical to do as a matte rather than erecting a billboard over busy Sunset Boulevard. The live-action element of the guys next to the sign was shot against a prop sign in Tucson, Arizona, while the stream of traffic was a separate element shot guerrilla style on the actual Sunset Blvd. The remainder of the shot is Rocco’s incredible painting, with the sun flare created by shining a bright light through a small unpainted area of the painting directly at the camera lens, all composited on the original negative for maximum quality. Rocco even painted in a pair of in jokes: Rocco’s Diner and Paul’s Deli – with ‘Paul’ being Geoffrey's visual effects cameraman Paul Curley.
38. Belle Of The Nineties (1934)
Director: Leo McCarey
Matte painter Jan Domela was a key effects collaborator with Paramount Pictures from 1927 up until the early 1960’s – a massive tenure by anyone's standards. Jan painted thousands of mattes, with so many invisible shots such as this gem of New Orleans from this Mae West comedy. Only by seeing this break down of elements here can the precise blend of real and unreal be really appreciated in this briefest of establishing shots. The matte cinematographer was long-time colleague Irmin Roberts, with Gordon Jennings as head of the special effects department.
37. The Wolfman (1941)
Director: George Waggner
The Universal monster movies were great spawning-ground for creative visual effects (and I wish I had the space to illustrate more of those), with a great deal of technical creativity on pretty modest budgets and schedules. John P. Fulton, and, later on, David Stanley Horsely achieved some amazing feats at Universal. This frame is my favourite 40’s Gothic monster movie matte from that studio and is a particularly well-drafted vantage point with great feeling of perspective painted by Russell Lawson and expertly composited with a soft blend to the actual live action by Ross Hoffman.
36. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Although I’ve tried to keep the massive pop culture matte shots to a minimum I’d feel pretty remiss if I didn’t include at least one matte from the amazingly able Michael Pangrazio. Mike’s signature shot from this film is now a part of movie folklore and is instantly recognized and even parodied. The painting is tremendous, and unlike most mattes is held on screen for a considerable length of time - something most matte exponents try to avoid if possible, as it allows the audience too much time to analyse and figure out where the trick lies. Pangrazio’s painting is a surprisingly loose assortment of shapes and smudged pools of light, represented for the most part with casual streaks of paint and an almost unfinished ‘blocked in’ look which Mike instinctively knew would read as ‘real’ on 35mm film. Grand result from a huge talent.
35. Topaz (1969)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Many Hitchcock films are remembered for their more audacious special effects scenes, but Topaz stands out as a film seemingly devoid of matte-painted effects - yet a number of mattes were used to flesh out scenes without the audience being aware. As was the case with all of Hitch’s Universal pictures, Albert Whitlock was a key collaborator, and never more so than here. This view of the mansion in Havana, Cuba was a completely fabricated matte effect whereby the house, hill, town, sea and foreground are completely Whitlock’s oil paint, with just the tiny ‘slot’ of live action on a small length of the roadway to facilitate the approaching vehicle. Staggering work that, as with so much of Albert’s work, simply slips by the viewer unnoticed.
34. Sixty Glorious Years (1938)
Director: Herbert Wilcox
One of the most commonly required matte effects for many decades was the ‘top up ceiling’ matte. Generally films were shot on stages with highly visible, though necessary overhead lighting rigs and such. More often than not the matte artist was called upon to paint in a ceiling where previously none had existed. Some of those were standard run-of-the-mill top-ups simply to conceal the studio apparatus; but more often the technique was called upon to add something more elegant, ornate or just plain spectacular. British matte maestro Walter Percy ‘Pop’ Day was a genius at supplying this type of thing, with hundreds of amazing ceilings and elaborate architectural interiors painted from the early 1920’s onward. This example from Sixty Glorious Years illustrates Day’s seamless integration of glass-painted ballroom walls, ceiling and hanging chandeliers to a minimal studio set with totally convincing results.
33. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Director: Tay Garnett
A still highly sensual film noir classic that inspired many imitations over the decades, The original Post man Always Rings Twice is fairly light on trick shots, though among the few is this dynamite full painting of the rural American landscape, all painted with fine pastel crayons, with the exception of the small strip of roadway where Lana Turner and John Garfield are on foot. This shot is one of the benchmark top-shelf mattes created under the eccentric Warren Newcombe at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, though secrecy and departmental politics ensured the actual artist responsible remained anonymous. MGM and Warners both had huge effects departments with a large roster of matte painters, cameramen, opticals people and more, whereas some studios such as Universal and Paramount had comparatively small departments.
32. Treasure Island (1950)
Director: Byron Haskin
If there was ever any subject that Peter Ellenshaw was truly skilled at, it would be the classic tall-mast sailing ship, as was so often evident in his private gallery art, as well as many motion pictures. Treasure Island had a good head start, as the director Byron Haskin was himself a former visual effects cameraman and director of effects at Warner Bros in the 1930’s. This, being the first live-action Disney feature, proved a delight to Walt, who would quickly befriend Ellenshaw and utilize his services on all subsequent Disney features both as matte artist and a key collaborator in the design process. Among the many mattes in this film is this photo-real harbour populated with many tall ships, almost all of which were painted on glass by Ellenshaw.
31. Spawn Of The North (1938)
Director: Henry Hathaway
This gutsy, outdoors Paramount adventure film bears the accolade of not just having great effects work throughout, but also as being the first ever feature to receive an Oscar for special visual effects – a year before the Academy introduced that category, with even the miniaturist, optical man and matte artist receiving awards – a rare event indeed when usually only heads of departments received credit let alone awards, regardless of how much input they might have had on the film itself. The shot here is one of many painted by Jan Domela for the film, and is an excellent example of there being much less ‘real’ in the final shot than one might initially think. Throughout the first few decades of cinema, scene modifications such as this were extremely common, and for the most part, never noticed by the film-viewing public.
30. Easter Parade (1948)
Director: Charles Walters
Of all the genres of matte work, there is none that delights this author as much the glittering, dazzling neon theatre façades as were so prevalent in the forties and fifties, especially on MGM musicals. This matte, painted under Warren Newcombe’s supervision, is one so typical of that ‘school’ whereby the entire theatre frontage is completely painted and the seemingly hundreds of tiny flickering light bulbs and neons all worked directly into the original painting as cleverly conceived backlit ‘gags’. The artist, upon completing the lettering, would carefully drill out dozens of tiny holes in the artist's now-completed painted board to correspond with the points of light. Then the rear of the painted board would have coloured gels attached, depending upon the requirements of the shot. When illuminated from the reverse side, the painted signage etc would literally ‘light up’ and come to life. Often a special interference device would be moved behind the drilled out holes to lend the illusion of movement or flicker of those lights. The back-light effect would generally be carried out as a separate pass through the matte camera without illumination on the painted front surface. The results...pure magic!
29. The Red Shoes (1948)
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
I had always been reluctant to see this film…. A lengthy old film on ballet dancers??? Well, how wrong I was. The Red Shoes is a delightful, magical picture and succeeds on every level. Effects-wise, the many ground breaking travelling mattes and optical composites are exquisite, often supplemented by beautifully designed matte paintings.
Contrary to popular folklore, neither Percy Day nor Peter Ellenshaw had anything to do with this film. The wonderful glass shots were the combined work of Joseph Natanson, Ivor Beddoes and Les Bowie – each of these men former Pop Day protégés. According to matte cameraman Leslie Dear, the heat from the flood lights surrounding one of the paintings during photography was so intense, due to the slow speed of the Technicolor negative, that the glass cracked in mid shoot and needed a quick patch up to disguise the crack – much to the embarrassment of the matte team. This shot is a revelation of surreal, Technicolor-saturated magic.
28. Darby O’Gill And The Little People (1959)
Director: Robert Stevenson
One of Disney’s best fantasy films, and one of the finest visual effects shows ever made – and yet one which inexplicably wasn’t even considered for an effects Oscar!
Amid the multitude of flawless perspective tricks and creepy effects animation are dozens of excellent matte paintings overseen by Peter Ellenshaw with his two assistants Jim Fetherolf and Albert Whitlock. The many matte shots are often undetectable to the casual viewer with Ellenshaw’s preferred method of painting virtually everything in the frame and then slotting the actor in amid the painting as opposed to the more common method of ‘topping up’ a shot with a painting. Darby has many shots like this and the sheer boldness of having such a large percentage of the onscreen shot painted was a gamble which paid off time and time again for the Ellenshaw unit on shows such as Johnny Tremain, Mary Poppins and The Love Bug.
27. Mutiny On The Bounty (1962)
Director: Lewis Milestone
For decades MGM held the high ground for fine quality matte shots and optical composites. The exciting and highly under-rated remake of Mutiny on the Bounty featured this impressive panoramic composite as an opening establishing shot. Under photographic effects chief Lee LeBlanc matte painter Matthew Yuricich painted the busy port, sailing ships, town and docks on two separate glasses – one for distant ships and the other for closer town structures. The row-boat was a cable-controlled miniature filmed separately in the studio tank by Arnold Gillespie, along with crude mock up ‘sails’ positioned out of frame which were employed to cast reflections of sails onto the water to match up with Yuricich’s painted ships. Effects cameraman Clarence Slifer then carefully plotted and composited a smooth pan from one painting to the other – finishing with a push in camera move onto Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando on the dock set on the MGM backlot. One amazing shot.
26. The Sting (1973)
Director: George Roy Hill
For much of his career matte artist Albert Whitlock’s work tended towards the low key, largely undetectable type of matte which was destined not to draw attention to itself. The Sting is a prime example of Whitlock’s subtle mastery. This shot is classic Whitlock - an extensive painting of a row of buildings on a 1920’s Chicago street in early-morning light, with an elevated commuter train passing by. The train was a small stop motion animated miniature, filmed separately and itself matted into the painting. A split screen also added vehicles and people under the El-Track to complete the illusion. Director George Roy Hill was reported as saying this was the best shot in the entire film.