The 50 greatest matte paintings of all time - Page 2 of 2
|LISTS - MOVIE LISTS|
25. Superman (1978)
Director: Richard Donner
As perfect a superhero adventure as one could ever wish for. A dream cast, witty script, elegant cinematography, powerhouse score and thrilling visual effects. Painting alongside Les Bowie was his long time protégé and associate Ray Caple, with this magnificent matte of the Fortress of Solitude being one of Caple’s best ever. A huge effects show with a multitude of supervisors and crews, Superman deservedly took home the Oscar for its effects. Sadly, matte supervisor Les Bowie passed away the night before the award was announced, totally unaware that his work was receiving the ultimate recognition from his peers.
24. Citizen Kane (1941)
Director: Orson Welles
Welles’ classic was a massive photographic effects field day for Vernon Walker’s RKO camera effects department with all manner of trickery employed throughout from miniatures, stop-motion, complex opticals and fine matte art. A trio of celebrated artists painted the many mattes on Kane – Chesley Bonestell, Mario Larrinaga and Fitch Fulton. For me this shot has to be the highlight – an ambitious matte of the interior of Kane’s Xanadu where the entire shot is carefully rendered artwork except the gentleman in the foreground and the character standing in the distant doorway – though his reflection on the floor is part of the overall painting.
This is a film which really should have been an Oscar contender for special effects, but I suspect it was probably never put forward by the studio and external entities who were none too happy with Welles’ vision.
23. Quo Vadis (1951)
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
The grand old Hollywood epics were events worth waiting for, and Quo Vadis was one of the best of the batch. How this film missed at least an Oscar nomination for it’s special effects is bewildering, with all facets of the effects work in a class all of it’s own. From the large scale Arnold Gillespie and Donald Jahraus miniatures of the burning of Rome through to Tom Howard’s opticals, this film was a winner. When it comes to the matte paintings, Quo Vadis is in a class all of it’s own. British matte artist Peter Ellenshaw single-handedly supplied the numerous mattes of Rome, with this staggering view an Ellenshaw masterpiece. Practically all of the view is pure paint, with just the foreground and the first few rows of extras in the crowd being live footage. As with all of Peter’s mattes in this film, the photographic quality of the completed shots is remarkably clean and crisp, probably due to matte cameraman Les Ostinelli’s abilities as much as anything.
22. The Jolson Story (1946)
Director: Alfred E.Green
Columbia Pictures were never one of the big players when it came to special photographic effects, though the studio could hold it’s own with occasionally stand-out matte shots. Case in point is this wonderful transitional cityscape matte showing the passage of time from night to day. It’s likely that two or more paintings were prepared of the same view, each painted to differing colour and light values, with a precisely timed cross-dissolve between the paintings. Animated lights, possibly backlit within the first painting and exposed on a separate pass, seem to have been employed for street-lights and traffic. All in all a marvellous visual effect. Special effects supervised by Lawrence W.Butler with matte art possibly by Juan Larrinaga, Chesley Bonestell and sundry other artists.
21. The Wiz (1978)
Director: Sidney Lumet
My favourite director and maker of many bona fide masterpieces such as Fail Safe, The Offence and the brilliant Prince of the City, Lumet was an oddball choice for this funky black musical version of The Wizard of Oz. Not an entirely successful film by any stretch of the imagination, The Wiz is an absolute winner in the matte creativity stakes. The legendary master of the matte Albert Whitlock pulled off this amazingly complex matte shot, which combines six painted elements and 13 film elements - including a stop motion miniature apple. The footage required 40 passes through the camera and optical printer for matte cinematographer Bill Taylor to pull all of the separate elements together into a final seamless visual. A gorgeous and show-stopping set-piece which looked sensational on the huge screen in 70mm.
20. Saboteur (1942)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Definitely one of Hitch’s best films in my book – thrilling, cocky, fast paced and visually arresting. A sensational visual effects roller-coaster ride that’s packed with excellent matte-painted shots, miniatures and a terrifying death-by-conflagration which opens the story. John P. Fulton was Universal’s resident special effects genius, a not undeserving label for a man who had created some of the studio’s finest photographic effects over the past decade, from The Invisible Man onward. The resident studio matte artist was Russell Lawsen, though the sheer volume of mattes leads me to suspect that other artists may well have been brought in to help out. It’s difficult to choose my favourite among the dozens of mattes in Saboteur, though this shot is right up there. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
19. South Pacific (1958)
Director: Joshua Logan
Hollywood musicals in the fifties were more often than not, the ideal platform for matte effects, and a great many memorable trick shots came about throughout that decade. South Pacific is notable here for it’s beautiful Todd-AO widescreen matte painted depictions of the mythical island of Bali-Hai. Under photographic effects director L.B Abbott, long time chief matte painter for 20th Century Fox, Emil Kosa Jr was primarily responsible for this wonderfully romantic vista which immediately conjures up such a richly flavoured vista of the perfect dreamlike escape to a Technicolor paradise that works it’s way deep into the viewers imagination and lingers on. This large 6’x3’ matte painting still survives today, by all accounts.
18. Black Narcissus (1947)
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Probably more has been written about the special effects shots in Black Narcissus than any other film. Practically the entire shoot took place on the back-lot of Pinewood Studios, with a significant amount of matte painting utilised to fill in the Himalayan setting. Master matte artist Walter Percy ‘Pop’ Day was the grandfather of the UK special effects world, with most of the future generations of British matte artists and special effects men having some form of lineage linking back to Day - none more so than Peter Ellenshaw, who painted with Day on this and many other productions. Other artists thought to have painted under Day on this show were protégés Ivor Beddoes, Les Bowie and Judy Jordan – all of whom would move on to careers in the British effects industry.
17. King Kong (1933)
Director: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
One of the greatest films of all time, and one loaded to the hilt with magnificent, evocative glass shots from the pallets of a quintet of skilled glass paint artisans. The entirely studio-bound production shared several sets, cast and technicians with The Most Dangerous Game – even to the point where chief matte artists Byron Crabbe and Mario Larrinaga would adapt and modify some of the Dangerous Game glass paintings enhancing certain sets to meet Kong’s scenic requirements. Rarely has the art form so successfully created such mood, mystery and malevolence as it did in Kong’s matte art. The dank, stagnant, humid jungles of Larrinaga and Crabbe’s Skull Island remain as memorable as Willis O’Brien’s genre defining stop motion work. Never has a jungle felt as palpably terrifying than the one painted by these guys.
16. Planet Of The Apes (1968)
Director: Franklin Schaffner
Probably the most identifiable and unforgettable movie image of all time, from an equally unforgettable science fiction masterpiece that’s as engrossing today as it was when I first saw it back in the early 70’s. A fairly straightforward matte shot designed by art director Bill Creber, originating from a retouched photo blow up of the Statue of Liberty split-screened onto a Malibu beach, the shot is nonetheless a brilliant statement and packs such a sucker punch that I can’t think of a single closing shot before or since which has had the impact that Emil Kosa’s matte has had. I believe this was Kosa’s last assignment, as he passed away shortly afterwards.
The one failing was the highly ‘mechanical’ pull back, which was very grainy and ‘duped’ in appearance.
15. Dick Tracy (1990)
Director: Warren Beatty
A visually arresting matte painting show, Dick Tracy is a virtual exhibition-hall of bold colours and larger than life, highly stylized vistas of the world of Chester Gould’s comic strip hero. The Disney film is something of a record-holder for the number of matte artists assigned not just to a single film, but in the case of one major matte shot, the number of artists to work on a single painting. This mammoth painting was the work of Harrison Ellenshaw, Paul Lasaine, Michelle Moen, Michael Lloyd, Peter Ellenshaw, Tom Gilleon, David Mattingly and Leon Harris...phew! It’s a wonder so many individuals were able to maintain a uniform style, let alone have enough elbow-space to work their magic. The final painting would serve as a massive tracking shot across the city, both commencing and concluding on tight close-up live action. Kudos to all involved - the film really should have been nominated in the visual effects category that year...but don’t get me started on Oscar injustices!
14. Vertigo (1958)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Probably one of the most iconic mattes from any of Hitchcock’s films, this Jan Domela-painted tower added to an existing Spanish Mission is one of around six key matte shots from various vantage points which form the cornerstone of this classic film, and were much imitated in later films. Special effects supervisor John P. Fulton was not the easiest man to work with by a long shot, with Domela and the other Paramount technicians constantly at odds with Fulton’s volatile personality. A shame really, as John was one of the industry’s most intuitive special effects designers, with many landmark trick shots under his belt. Terrific perspective here with invisible blending between the art and the location, courtesy of effects cameraman Irmin Roberts.
13. The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance Of The Vampires, 1967)
Director: Roman Polanski
A bizarre film that’s very much an acquired taste, The Fearless Vampire Killers did however have first-rate matte work carried out under Wally Veevers at Shepperton Studios. Among the mattes was this hallucinatory opening ‘flight’ which begins on an ultra close up of the moon and pulls back further and further to a snow covered landscape in Transylvania. British matte artist Peter Melrose was tasked with painting this incredible shot as a series of large overlapping glass paintings. The glasses were photographed by Peter Harman and John Grant with Doug Ferris supplying the necessary optical transitions between paintings as an animated vampire bat flies across frame to blend the footage. What really sells this shot is the unusually pristine image quality, something normally elusive for a highly complex optical such as this, where the individual elements would have to be duped, gathering much grain and contrast in the process. A breathtaking and flawlessly-executed set piece.
12. Torn Curtain (1966)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
In putting together this list I simply couldn’t omit Torn Curtain. Part of the scenario involved a chase through an East German museum, a geographic impossibility to film due to the socio-political era in which the film was made. To solve his directorial dilemma, Hitch turned to his frequent collaborator, matte painter Albert Whitlock, with the resulting sequence presenting some of Whitlock’s best ever work in the form of some half-dozen mattes depicting the various galleries within the museum. The shot shown below is nothing short of phenomenal, with just the small staircase under actor Paul Newman being real, while the rest of the frame is a Whitlock painting. Even the tiny ‘masterpieces’ lining the walls are all a result of Albert’s skilled brushwork.
11. Back To Bataan (1945)
Director: Edward Dmytryk
War films are an ideal ground for extensive matte painting and trick shots and this RKO picture has several top-notch mattes - the best of which is this extensive matte-painted interior of a Catholic church. Practically the entire shot is a meticulously-painted and skilfully blended piece of artwork, probably done by veteran Albert Maxwell Simpson, who did much work for the studio over the years, going back as far as King Kong and earlier. Vernon L. Walker was head of photographic effects at the studio and was responsible for so many fine effects shots over the decades along with his assistants Linwood Dunn and Russell Cully.
10. Ship Of Fools (1965)
Director: Stanley Kramer
Albert Whitlock was the matte artist’s matte artist – arguably the most celebrated practitioner of the art form from his early days at Rank Studios in England in the forties right through to his final years with Universal in the late eighties. Being a wholly maritime drama, Ship of Fools was in actuality completely shot within the studio, with Whitlock’s matte art simulating all subjective views of the ship at sea. This shot is the opening sequence of the film and is an entirely fabricated visual effect. The city, dock, ocean, sky and the ship are all an extensive Whitlock painting.
The clouds move, the water sparkles and smoke rises from the funnels – all carefully animated through split screens and cell-painted overlays onto the original negative by Albert and his long time cinematographer Ross Hoffman. Stunning work which surprisingly was actually painted in full colour onto the glass, though photographed in black and white. Apparently the film was submitted to the Academy for consideration that year for best special visual effects, but was passed over.
9. The Adventures Of Mark Twain (1944)
Director: Irving Rapper
If there were one Hollywood studio where challenging visual effects was welcomed with open arms it must be Warner Brothers. Throughout the thirties and forties the large and ever resourceful Stage 5 Special Effects Unit accomplished many difficult matte shots, the calibre of which other studios generally steered well clear of. Case in point is this VFX Oscar-nominated 180-degree panoramic effects composite by matte artists Paul Detlefsen and Chesley Bonestell, and matte cinematographer John Crouse. The shot is a beautifully crafted mixture of matte art, live action, photo cut outs and process projection – a time honoured trick which Warner’s effects boys had used several times on different films, each time with amazing results.
8. Take Me Out To The Ball Game (1949)
Director: Busby Berkeley
Now, when it came to fooling the public with subtle matte painted set extensions that nobody tended to notice, the esteemed, though secretive Warren Newcombe matte department at Metro Goldwyn Mayer were at the top of the game. This shot is a remarkable example of the abilities of the artists and cameramen working under Newcombe. The crowd in the grandstand at a baseball game is actually quite a loosely-painted affair on close inspection, with the true magic of the art form resting in knowing just how much brushwork is really required to sufficiently fool the eye. This trick was commonly used through the 1930’s and 40’s and for the most part passes by totally unnoticed. Newcombe knew what would work, and so long as there were some real people in the shot, that was sufficient to sell the view as genuine - as long as colour, tone and light were well matched between the art and the live footage.
7. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Director: George Stevens
A quite beautiful and intelligently made epic story of Christ – by far the best of the genre in all departments. The dozens of beautifully rendered mattes and visual effects shots are quite something special. The matte workload was so large that photographic effects supervisor J. MacMillan Johnson divided the shots among three journeyman matte painters – Jan Domela, Matthew Yuricich and Albert Maxwell Simpson. Both Domela and Simpson’s special effects careers span as far back as the late 1920’s with Yuricich being the comparative ‘new kid on the block’ as an early 1950’s veteran having trained under legends such as Fred Sersen and Warren Newcombe, and who himself would have a long and distinguished career in matte painting. The shot shown here is a Jan Domela-painted matte, painstakingly composited by matte cinematographer Clarence Slifer, with fabricated sun flare and atmospherics. It’s a crime that this show struck out in the best visual effects slot at Oscar time to a vastly inferior competing film.
6. Gone With The Wind (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
Probably the grand-daddy of all matte painting showcases, Gone With The Wind set something of a record in 1939 for the sheer number of matte shots. Reputedly over 100 mattes, though I’ve never spotted any more than around half that number myself. Jack Cosgrove was chief matte artist and in charge of all special photographic effects on GwtW, as well as most of producer David O. Selznick’s other productions. A mammoth undertaking with four artists painting full-time on the show to bring forth Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Old South’ - essentially without ever leaving Hollywood. Staggering, not just for the volume of trick shots but for the fact that the film was shot in 3-strip Technicolor – itself a massive and cumbersome technique – with the majority of the mattes photographed and married up straight onto original negative – a highly risky undertaking at the best of times let alone the early years of three-strip colour negative. Many of the mattes employed numerous elements such as miniatures, foreground paintings and projection inlays to expand the visuals.
5. Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991)
Director: Steve Miner
A very minor Disney-produced film with a ‘stop me in my tracks’ wide panorama by matte painter Paul Lasaine. The shot in question was a period depiction of Atlantic City with the camera's point of view starting off on a funfair arcade and then panning the length of an entirely hand painted board-walk and beach-front. The shot contains just a couple of live-action inserts for the sea, some sunbathers and a small group of people on the board-walk. A superbly painted and composited matte shot that is totally convincing, from a very talented artist.
4. The Paradine Case (1948)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock had always been a strong advocate of matte and special processes in his films with The Paradine Case displaying many amazing mattes where you’d least expect them. This shot is the highlight, one of several conceived in post-production to help strengthen the narrative. All of the shots of Gregory Peck’s tour through the mansion are painted mattes, with no physical sets at all. Under special effects chief Jack Cosgrove, matte painter Spencer Bagtotopoulis and cameraman Clarence Slifer achieved the impossible with Golden Era virtual set matte art – the sort of thing which today is widespread by way of digital imagery and a green screen – Slifer and Bagtotopoulis confidently created fabricated environments some 70 years earlier with just paintbrush, camera and an optical printer.
3. Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Director: Joseph Sargent
There was a time when visual effects trickery was employed chiefly to fulfil the narrative and not bludgeon the audience to death with pointless visuals ad nauseum, as is now sadly the case. Colossus:The Forbin Project harks back to a time of restraint, when photographic effects were always at the service of the storyline. The chilling what-if scenario of Colossus - the world’s most powerful super computer defence system run amok - provided long time Universal matte exponent Albert Whitlock with the most difficult assignment of his career. Among them numerous, often invisible matte shots in the picture is this truly stunning opening sequence where ‘Colossus’ powers up. Whitlock and career Universal optical effects cameraman Ross Hoffman worked out a very carefully-orchestrated series of cell-animated overlays for the rapid light introduction, with reputedly, as many as 20 or more passes through the matte camera all on the original negative. This is also one of those memorable matte shots where ‘sound maketh the matte’ – with excellent sound effects editing complementing the stunning and unforgettable photographic effect.
2. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
Director: Mervyn Leroy
The tremendously exciting WWII story of the heroic Doolittle Raids over Tokyo was a showcase of beautiful Oscar winning MGM matte work and thrilling miniature sequences – all of which stand up extremely well still today. This superb matte shot is a bold and totally convincing facsimile of the crowded flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. A small, rudimentary set was constructed on a stage at MGM for the live action. Under matte department director Warren Newcombe, a beautifully detailed matte painting, executed with pastel crayons, was prepared to fill in the Hornet flight deck, the squadron of B25’s, the ship’s defence systems and even some additional Naval crew are all matte art. A separate plate of the passing ocean was split-screened in against the painting to complete the illusion. As good as matte art can be, it’s only as good as the effects cameraman’s skills at bringing together the individual elements as seamlessly as possible, and this incredible composite shot is about as good as it gets – and all for only 3 seconds of screen time. A matte masterpiece if ever there were one.
1. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Director: Michael Curtiz
One of the all time great movie musicals also features, in my opinion, the greatest matte trick shot which still boggles the mind that it was able to be pulled off in the first place!. Warner Brothers’ famed Stage 5 Visual Effects Department of the 1940’s was an industry leader at engineering incredibly complex motion matte shot composites on a number of features, with the central tour de force effects montage of this picture being a glittering example. The shot begins with a wide view of a busy 1920’s Times Square – a veritable sea of flickering neon marquees and theatre hoardings – and in one staggering, uninterrupted 93 second shot, the camera moves across the cluttered intersection, down 42nd Street passing various music halls, then moves back across the busy square to an entirely new series of Broadway show marquees. The camera, still in motion, pans along more Broadway theatres, then up and over the rooftops and into the night. End of scene! Mere individual frame grabs can in no way do justice to this intricately assembled sequence. Future director Don Siegel was the film’s 'Montage Director’, and was largely responsible for designing and overseeing this jaw-dropping set piece. All manner of tricks were employed, with matte art, miniatures, rear-projection and backlit graphic art all combined with live-action street footage. Although there was no actual effects credit, Special Effects Directors Byron Haskin and Lawrence Butler, Visual Effects Cinematographer Edwin DuPar and Matte Painter Paul Detlefsen were most likely chief participants. Unforgettable.
When I was initially asked to write this article my heart sank. Not through any lack of enthusiasm, but moreso possessing just a tad too much enthusiasm for this now-lost cinematic art form. Being a pathological devotee of traditional hand-painted matte imagery, largely from the Golden Era of Hollywood and British cinema, I realized from the outset that such a list would be a tall order. It’s always so easy to include the highest-profile films and widely publicised glass shots therein as they tend to be the ones we all remember most, such as Dorothy and her merry entourage dancing down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, though I’ve tried to resist that temptation – though some shots just had to be profiled here for reasons which I hope will be clarified. Being a spectacular or a huge shot doesn’t necessarily guarantee a place on the list, with some small, almost obscure films standing out as worthy entries.
Visit Peter Cook's excellent blog on pre-CGI visual effects at: http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.co.uk/
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- alan maley
- albert maxwell
- albert maxwell simpson
- alfred hitchcock
- arnold gillespie
- ben hur
- black narcissus
- buck rogers in the 25th century
- busby berkeley
- byron crabbe
- byron haskin
- chesley bonestell
- citizen kane
- clarence slifer
- cliff culley
- colossus the forbin project
- dance of the vampires
- david stanley horsely
- dick tracy
- don siegel
- donald jahraus
- doug ferris
- emeric pressburger
- emil kosa jr
- emilio ruiz del rio
- franklin schaffner
- fred sersen
- george roy hill