50 More of the Greatest Matte Paintings of All Time
|LISTS - MOVIE LISTS|
In the days before CGI, the vast vistas and backgrounds that we now take for granted were painstaking created by the SFX magicians of that bygone era. Peter Cook celebrates fifty more of the finest examples...
A few years ago the editors of Shadowlocked asked me to compile a list of what was initially to be, the ten greatest movie matte paintings of all time. A mere ten selections was too slim by a long shot, so my list stretched considerably to twenty, then thirty and finally a nice round fifty entries. Even with that number I found it wasn’t easy to narrow down a suitably wide ranging showcase of motion picture matte art that best represented the artform. So with that in mind, and due to the surprising popularity of that 2012 Shadowlocked list (which is well worth a visit, here - Ed), I’ve assembled a further fifty wonderful examples of this vast, vital and more extensively utilised than you’d imagine – though now sadly ‘dead and buried’ – movie magic.
It would of course be so easy to simply concentrate on the well known, iconic, spectacular and so called ‘pop culture’ examples that many film viewers could easily identify with. As with the first 50 Best list I’ve once again made an effort to carefully bring together as broad a showcase of matte painted cinematic illusions as possible that hopefully will surprise, delight, educate and maybe even mystify the reader. My personal archive contains more than 5000 matte shot images and clips, dating from the very earliest days of cinema through to the end of what might be called ‘the traditional era’ before things all turned digital and the purity of the artform was washed away. All of the mattes displayed here were hand painted by skilled artists and specialists who, with mere brush, paint and a sheet of glass, could quite literally transform the world as we know it by way of their unique abilities and methods.
Just to bring the reader up to speed, the ‘matte shot’ is a specialised technique where through a number of varying methods, a scene envisioned by a director or production designer that might be difficult or even impossible to actually shoot ‘live’ for any number of reasons, could be created completely in a small special effects studio by cleverly combining a small, yet realistic painted scene or location, usually painted on clear glass or hardboard, with footage previously shot of the actors performing on a small, partially constructed set. The matte painting would be very carefully prepared in that the light, shadow, colour hues and other phenomena would conform perfectly with the limited ‘live action’ footage. The two pieces of film would then be exposed together and blended as one entirely new scene, as per the requirements of the script. The finished composite of the two (or sometimes many more) elements would appear as a completely realistic scene when executed well, with the average moviegoer none the wiser that any ‘trick photography’ sleight of hand had been carried out, with audiences accepting the vision before them as ‘real’. Matte shots have been utilised in literally thousands of motion pictures, from simple set extensions as adding in an elaborate ceiling or piece of architecture where none in fact existed, creating the appropriate period look to an historic scenario by removing modern day vistas and replacing these with convincing scenery more in keeping with the timeframe of the film, right the way through to creating an entirely new fantasy world if necessary. The technique was inexpensive, the equipment required was rudimentary, and the talent was extraordinary making the possibilities limitless.
These traditional hand made illusions that served the industry well for more than 80 years pretty much died out in the early 1990’s, with the last few hand painted mattes made around 1999 as computer technology took hold and workstations replaced the artists easel and photoshop replaced the palette. With the passing of the traditional, time honoured techniques, a tangible aspect of the magic of cinema died with them.
For those wishing to learn more about the history of matte painting and the practitioners therein, my site may well prove rewarding: www.nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com
50. THE GOLDEN BLADE (1953)
Dir: Nathan Juran
Universal Studio’s bread and butter box office receipts for a time came from a seemingly endless chain of Arabian Nights sand and sword pictures such as this Rock Hudson-Piper Laurie vehicle. Made with economy and each resembling one another, these films usually featured gaudy Technicolor saturated sets and usually a number of interesting matte shots, many of which would be recycled in subsequent Universal pictures. Long time Universal matte artist Russell Lawson provided these glass shots, with veteran special effects cameraman Roswell Hoffman shooting and assembling all of the components of the trick shots under Universal’s effect supervisor David S. Horsley.
49. MRS. PARKINGTON (1944)
Dir: Tay Garnett
Throughout Hollywood’s Golden Era, as with the British industry equivalent, it became quite common to employ the skills of the matte painter in order to extend the size of an interior set. It was bad economics to build the whole set, especially when it came to constructing ceilings as vast overhead lighting rigs and studio catwalks were a shooting necessity. Enter the matte painter who, with consummate skill, could easily create a magnificent period ceiling and other set extensions and add ons with just a paintbrush, pigments and a very high level of discipline and skill. MGM studios was a leader in the field of matte wizardry, as shown here where an unidentified artist from Warren Newcombe’s highly regarded matte effects department managed to create in just a few days what would have taken weeks and vast resourses to otherwise complete life size.
48. THE BLACK ROSE (1950)
Dir: Henry Hathaway
For this expansive, sweeping Tyrone Power Medieval epic, legendary British matte pioneer and the UK’s first father of visual effects Walter Percy Day was tasked with creating a sizable number of painted mattes and other special photographic effects at Shepperton Studios. Long time industry special effects veteran Wally Veevers worked alongside Day in making the many effects shots work, with a group of artists assisting, most likely Albert Julion, George Samuels, Judy Jordan and Joseph Natanson, all of whom were extremely talented in the field. This was one of Percy Day’s last films after a mammoth career spanning more than thirty years. Day was largely instrumental for the introduction of matte composite processes in French silent era film and was responsible for training dozens of future matte exponents both in Continental Europe and the United Kingdom.
47. DRAGONSLAYER (1981)
Dir: Matthew Robbins
Although a strictly hit or miss affair, Dragonslayer had it’s share of interesting Industrial Light & Magic visual effects scattered throughout, in particular the terrific go-motion smooth dragon animation which was completely new at the time and saw the film nominated in the best visual effects category that year. While the mattes were highly variable, this wonderful Christopher Evans matte painting stands out as memorable. Note the loose and impressionistic style as shown in the close up detail image. Matte supervisor was former Pinewood and Shepperton artist Alan Maley who later made significant contributions to Disney Studios in the 12 or so years he was employed there in the sixties and seventies.
46. SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1940)
Dir: Edward Ludwig
Not to be confused with the Walt Disney version some twenty years later, this now obscure RKO production was actually pretty good for it’s day and featured a number of grand matte shots and miniatures to broaden the somewhat stifling studio backlot sets. Shown here is a wonderfully evocative painted matte of the jungle that is more than reminiscent of Kong’s Skull Island which isn’t surprising as the artist had a hand in that legendary film as well. One of the true old time veterans of matte art Albert Maxwell Simpson, painted this and many other shots on the film. Simpson started off in the business as a scenic backing painter – as did many of his generation – and moved into matte art in the mid silent era for film makers such as D.W Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Simpson, although very rarely screen credited, would remain active in the industry for a whopping fifty years, painting mattes on such films as Gone With The Wind, The Prisoner of Zenda, King Kong and The Great Race. Swiss Family Robinson’s visual effects received a nomination for best effects work in 1940 for supervisor Vernon L. Walker.
45. THE TIME MACHINE (1960)
Dir: George Pal
Although many of this film’s visual effects have sadly not stood the test of time, the picture is still a wonderfully entertaining piece of H.G Well’s sci-fi adventure if ever there were one, due largely to the engaging presence of leading man Rod Taylor as much as anything. A huge Oscar winning visual effects film with all manner of trick shots featured, from stop motion animation, miniatures, time lapse, multi layered opticals and painted mattes (though with some rather poor composites merging the trick effect with the set unfortunately). The fledgling effects company Project Unlimited, run by Gene Warren, Wah Chang and Tim Baar were assigned the task of pulling off all these shots – a sort of small scale ILM of it’s day I suppose. Matte artist Bill Brace painted the majority of the mattes such as this very iconic painting of the famous Eloi temple in the very distant future. I recall being utterly mesmerised by this shot and some of the subsequent mattes when I saw this film as a kid many years ago.
44. PETE’S DRAGON (1977)
Dir: Don Chaffey
Having struck paydirt gold with the 1964 megahit Mary Poppins, Disney repeatedly tried to rework the same basic format a number of times with mixed results to somewhat less a degree of success. Pete’s Dragon was one such picture that missed the mark, despite Disney’s animation and effects departments both working overtime. The film has a number of matte shots by Harrison Ellenshaw, though then still screen credited as P.S Ellenshaw which would sometimes lead to confusion with Harrison’s father and Disney icon Peter Ellenshaw, hence the name change. The matte I’ve chosen here is a terrific example of a trick shot that nobody ever notices. Much of the apparently genuine location actually comprises of Harrison’s artwork. The foreground houses and rooftops, trees and the middle stretch of trees are all artwork, while the far background area is a photographic still element taken of an actual location. The children playing on the grass is a separate element rear projected into the painting.
43. THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIANS (1954)
Dir: Frank Launder
The British special effects industry has been sadly under-represented for far too long now, and so much of the work has never been properly celebrated. My web blog Matte Shot has been attempting to rectify this for some years now. Shepperton Studios’ photographic effects department, under the stewardship of Wally Veevers, handled the effects for the film with chief matte painter George Samuels shown here rendering the matte for one in a series of ever popular St. Trinians comedies. Shepperton’s matte department, formed by the recently retired Walter Percy Day, was a large unit with several skilled artists and experienced cameramen as well as other specialist technicians. As was the attitude of the time, once a matte painting had been deemed ‘finished with’, the carefully laid in artwork was routinely scraped free from the glass in order that the relatively expensive clear glass could be used again on the next project. “Oh, the horror”.
42. THIS ABOVE ALL (1942)
Dir: Anatole Litvak
20th Century Fox had a special photographic effects unit that was the envy of many of the other Hollywood studios. Former matte painter Fred Sersen was in charge of this department for around three decades and the sheer scale of the illusions accomplished under Fred’s watch was in itself remarkable. Films like The Rain’s Came, Suez and In Old Chicago are standouts. Sought after matte artists such as Ray Kellogg, Emil Kosa, Ralph Hammeras, Lee LeBlanc and others made up the Sersen department. For the Tyrone Power war film This Above All, Sersen created a superb matte composite representing Southern England on high alert (though shot in the US). The scene shown here is made up of a small slice of actual roadway, shot at Fox; a separate plate of ocean waves, and lastly a substantial matte painting of everything else, representing the seaside town and surroundings, and even the big gun emplacements along the also painted in stone harbour wall. A wonderful shot that despite all the work lasts just 3 seconds on screen. I know of so few Fox mattes that still survive today, as most were dumped in the incinerator in misjudged spring cleaning efforts at the studio.
41. THE BUCCANEER (1938)
Dir: Cecil B. DeMille
Twice made, this original thirties version of the period pirate yarn is by far the better of the two adaptations. Paramount Studio’s special effects department, headed by Gordon Jennings, provided the trick shots for the majority of Cecil B. De Mille’s films. For this shot of a tropical port of call the film makers never left California, with veteran Paramount matte artist Jan Domela creating the exotic vista with paint and brushes, whilst his longtime associate, effects cameraman Irmin Roberts carefully blended the painting with the live action footage. Both Domela and Roberts had mammoth careers in the effects industry, having started at Paramount around the same time in 1927 and continuing on with the same studio until the effects unit closed down in the early 1960’s. Now that’s a career! These old mattes just have such a sense of romance to them that gradually got lost in succeeding decades.
40. TALES OF TERROR (1962)
Dir: Roger Corman
Throughout the 1960’s producer/director Roger Corman made a whole slew of Edgar Allen Poe – Vincent Price pictures, with most of them in fact being really good. Being Poe, the gothic scenario’s are open ground for grand visual style, courtesy of great cinematographers such as Floyd Crosby, Nick Roeg and others. That stylistic approach also embraces the matte work as well, of which the Poe series feature a number of memorable effects shots. Special effects company Butler-Glouner, run by Larry Butler and Donald Glouner, were almost always contracted to provide the mattes and effects. Butler-Glouner had no matte facility nor in house artist, thus other freelance painters such as Albert Whitlock would be sub contracted to do the many matte shots, uncredited. I can’t confirm that the shot here is Whitlock’s, though I’d bet my cat that Albert painted it as it has his customary night sky with that magnificent donut-esque configured cloud in backlit moonlight – a phenomena Whitlock would include in scores of similar night mattes for years to come, from Hitchcock’s The Birds right through to Cat People among many more.
39. THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979)
Dir: James Bridges
One of the finest thrillers of the decade, The China Syndrome was and still is today a chillingly well played and directed ‘real life’ drama. The great Jack Lemmon is remarkable here, with Jane Fonda also giving it her best. Although not an effects picture per se, the film does have a number of superbly executed matte paintings by Matthew Yuricich which depict the central ‘character’ – a dangerously unstable California nuclear reactor – from a variety of vantage points central to the developing narrative. Yuricich began his matte career back around 1951 at 20th Century Fox and worked solidly for the next 40 plus years for MGM and as a freelancer. I’m of the opinion that Matthew’s work in this film is probably his best ever, and is completely invisible as a visual effect and consistently photo real, even to the trained eye. The director James Bridges appreciated the mattes so much that, according to Yuricich, he retained them as keepsakes after the film’s completion.
38. DARKMAN (1990)
Dir: Sam Raimi
I found this larger than life anti-hero yarn (for want of a better description) to be hugely enjoyable, and probably Raimi’s best film. We have tons of great action, Liam Neeson with prosthetic face long before doing all his Taken actioners, a vile and despicable villain, exciting visual effects and more! A handful of mattes are featured in the film’s prolonged and death defying climax atop a huge skyscraper under construction. Matte artist Richard Kilroy painted this shot in which we are treated to a spectacular piece of draftsmanship for this extreme up angle for the conclusion of the film. I’m an absolute sucker for these extreme perspective matte shots and this is one of my favourites, a full painting complete with animated elevator descending. Tremendous shot!
37. ERIK THE VIKING (1989)
Dir: Terry Jones
Truly one of the most abysmal films of the 1980’s – a film that has next to nothing to recommend it, with even the Monty Python elements dismally lacking. However, the film does have one factor that raises it above the quagmire, and that is a roster of great mattes and optical effects. Several matte artists worked on this film with the shot shown here being the work of the late Bob Cuff – for many years a key matte exponent under Wally Veevers at Shepperton Studios. In addition to shooting the overall painting of the city, cameraman John Grant has re-exposed Bob’s painted sky separately back into the matte shot to give the illusion of subtly moving clouds. Cuff was a very competent matte artist who painted on scores of British pictures such as The Guns of Navarone, Heaven’s Above, MacKenna’s Gold and Young Winston to name a few.
36. THE ROMANCE OF ROSY RIDGE (1947)
Dir: Roy Rowland
One simply cannot compile a list of great mattes without making mention of the pioneer of the matte shot process itself, Norman Dawn. Dawn was more or less the originator of the matte technique, initially as a means of combining images in still photography around 1905 and then developing the process for motion picture work by which static painted or drawn artwork could be combined with moving images on film to create an entirely fabricated scene where previously, none existed. Dawn’s achievements were considerable, both as a motion picture illusionist as well as an overall film maker of some repute throughout the silent era and on into the late 1940’s and beyond. The matte shot I’ve selected here is a superb example of not only the invisible ‘top up’ of a minimal set, but also a revealing look at the technical process involved in creating just such a shot succeed. The top image shows the partial set with studio fixtures etc masked off. The second image shows a test frame of Dawn’s initial blocking in of the required architectural enhancements and perspective adjustments. The final image shows the finished composite where Norman Dawn’s delicately rendered 30x40 inch pastel crayon drawing of Grand Central train station in the 1890’s has been successfully matted into the space left blank in the first image. MGM was a strong advocate of mixed media matte paintings, very often done with very fine pastels to excellent effect. According to Dawn’s arcival files, the studio chief art director Cedric Gibbons, was so pleased with the matte when it was shown at rushes, he booked a small private airplane for a group, including Dawn, on an excursion to San Francisco “for drinks”. Truly the sort of special effect that doesn’t call attention to itself, though by rare circumstance, was rewarding for those involved.
35. THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)
Dir: Val Guest
This excellent, intelligent British science fiction thriller still packs a wallop more than 50 years later. A large visual effects show indeed with many painted mattes and other effects all in CinemaScope. Canadian born UK based ‘father of British special effects’ Les Bowie was in charge of the extensive trick work, aided by his experienced team which included several notable future names in the field such as Brian Johnson, Kit West, Ian Scoones and Ray Caple. Trained as a matte painter, Bowie, with the assistance of fellow artist Caple, painted this terrific view of a dried up river Thames as well as many other great mattes for the film, which has now garnered a significant cult following.
34. SPACEBALLS (1987)
Dir: Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks’ pictures are often hit or miss affairs with few having the consistency of either Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. Spaceballs is one such misfire that came about five years too late and suffered terribly from a juvenile script. Worth a look though for generally good visual effects by a number of suppliers, and some great matte painted shots from Syd Dutton and Bill Taylor of Illusion Arts. Dutton and Taylor had been integral parts of Albert Whitlock’s highly regarded matte department at Universal for many years, with Dutton owing much in way of his artistic technique to his mentor. Whitlock’s ‘eye’ or ‘instinct’ is evident in many of Dutton’s mattes, with one such shot being this magnificent Syd Dutton full painting looking utterly glorious in soft, subtle backlight, just as I’m sure Whitlock would also have ‘seen’ the shot.
33. BATMAN (1987)
Dir: Tim Burton
The very dark superhero flick (projectionists complained on mass to the distributor that the damned prints were so dark as pitch, they couldn’t focus it!) has a multitude of effects shots under Derek Meddings supervision. Four matte painters worked on the film; Ray Caple, Doug Ferris, J.P Trevor and Leigh Took, with each assigned specific vistas and sent to provide the numerous views of Gotham City. By far the most effective of the mattes was this beautifully painted and composited view by British artist Leigh Took. Leigh trained under Pinewood’s long time resident matte master Cliff Culley in the late seventies and presently runs the active and still in demand London based company Mattes & Miniatures.
32. THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER (1944)
Dir: Clarence Brown
A lush, great looking WWI romantic picture with the usual MGM sense of panache and gloss. Some nice matte shots which include this stunner that recently came up for auction. Warren Newcombe was Metro’s in house matte supervisor for decades where he carefully selected and kept out of sight an envious roster of fine matte painting talent such as Howard Fisher, Otto Kiechle, Joe Duncan Gleason, Rufus Harrington, Norman Dawn and Henry Hillinck among others. The matte shown here is another superb example of MGM’s preferred pastel painting methodology, which to my knowledge, no other studios experimented with.
31. ANNA KARENINA (1948)
Dir: Julian Duvivier
Not to be confused with the earlier American film by the same name, this grand British production starring Vivien Leigh offers a fresh take on the classic story. Some of the effects shots are quite impressive with some cleverly combining miniatures, matte art and process projection within the one shot. Among the numerous mattes by Walter Percy Day is this effective interior that tends to slip by completely unnoticed. A production can achieve opulent grandeur on even a moderate budget with the services of a skilled matte painter.
30. THE HINDENBURG (1975)
Dir: Robert Wise
An Academy Award winner for best special visual effects, this underappreciated disaster epic has much going for it, namely an intelligent script, solid direction and excellent principal players in the form of the great George C. Scott, Charles Durning and William Atherton. Effects wise, the film is literally so jam packed with top notch photographic effects that I was hard pressed to settle on one single shot for this list. Albert Whitlock, with his small six person crew, would create some 76 matte paintings for the film in addition to various multi-element optical effects and animated overlays. What always separated Whitlock from many of his fellow matte practitioners was his adherence to the ‘original negative’ method of combining his painting, the live action and other supplementary ‘gags’ all onto the one carefully stored, undeveloped original 35mm camera negative, without any of those individual photographic elements needing to be duplicated nor suffer image degradation that occurs when a piece of film is re-photographed or copied. Albert’s success in his craft was finally rewarded with a pair of Oscars and an Emmy, in the latter stage of a career that spanned back as far as England in the 1930’s. The matte illustrated here is classic Whitlock – composition, backlight, simulated water and cloud movement, and believable cel overlay animated lightning. Bill Taylor was Whitlock’s cameraman and he deserves much credit for pulling the elements together so well for so many shots.
29. THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936)
Dir: Michael Curtiz
Michael Curtiz made a great many sensational pictures, as did stalwart leading man Errol Flynn. This film is a perfect merging of both talents. As per the era in which the film was produced, a great many trick shots were required to bring the Crimea to California. Warner Brothers had a huge effects department known as Stage 5 – at the time the biggest in Hollywood - whereby anything a director’s heart desired could be concocted and presented on screen as the real deal. Byron Haskin headed the effects department for a number of years, with among other technicians, some eight talented matte artists in residence at Warners with Paul Detlefsen as chief matte painter. This shot typifies that wonderful romantic flavour that mattes tended to be infused with throughout the 1930’s in particular, a flavour that I find most appealing.
28. BABY BOOM (1987)
Dir: Charles Shyer
Very few artists have managed to perfect the art of the invisible matte shot as has Ken Marschall. For more than two decades Ken and his associate, cameraman Bruce Block quietly turned out nearly 200 matte shots from their tiny workshop cum studio Matte Effects. Largely unknown, even within their very own industry, the duo kept a low profile and concentrated on high quality, original negative excellence that is truly in a class all of it’s own. The scene shown here from the Diane Keaton comedy Baby Boom is but one of those intricate and meticulous matte shots where one simply assumes the shot is a genuine location and not for a moment some form of sleight of hand. We can see just how small the actual real set was, with just a tiny bit of wall and the actors and nothing more. The entire town hall, surrounding trees, the parked cars, tractors and even the all of the balloons are entirely Ken’s small yet highly finished acrylic painting.
27. RICHARD III (1955)
Dir: Laurence Olivier
William Shakespeare’s adaptations to film have long been testing ground for inventive matte effects work, with this picture containing a remarkable example of cinematic magic. Among the various mattes is this astonishing trick shot whereby actor Stanley Baker has been soft matted into an entirely painted setting, with even the foreground horse, soldiers and weaponry being painted. It looks to me as though this shot was a possible post production fix, possibly due to a continuity or editorial error. Baker’s live action element appears to have been a separate shot altogether, from which the effects cameraman has made a rotoscope matte around part of the foliage directly behind the actor. The matte painter has then fabricated an entirely new view and cleverly blended the two together. It was only due to several rewinds of the BluRay disc that I became aware of this sensational trick shot, which until then had slipped by unseen. Shepperton’s Wally Veevers was photographic effects supervisor, with George Samuels as chief matte artist and Bob Cuff assisting.
26. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Outside of Hitch’s excellent 1942 espionage thriller Saboteur, this film would be the director’s next biggest in terms of the number of matte painted shots. An all round terrific film that’s still a joy to watch, North By Northwest utilises the artistic talents of Lee LeBlanc and Matthew Yuricich and effects cinematographer Clarence Slifer who were kept very busy completing the large matte requirements. Hitchcock as a director was always gung ho in not only utilising camera trickery as a means to bring his scenarios to life on screen, but in fully comprehending the technical processes and what they were capable of. The majority of his films have matte painted effects, sometimes used extensively, and many of those Hitchcock shows we are so familiar with have all manner of often complex trick photography of one sort or another. You’d be surprised to learn all the behind the scenes secrets Hitch employed over his long career.
25. KINGDOM OF THE CROOKED MIRRORS (1963)
Dir: Aleksandr Rou
An elaborate and visually stunning Soviet children’s fantasy with shades of Alice in Wonderland meets Dr Seuss, KOROLEVSTRO KRIVYKH ZERKAL as it’s known by it’s Russian title is really something else. Filled with fabulous production design and saturated colour cinematography, the film is notable for the many incredible matte painted shots which are dotted throughout the fairly short running time. Beautiful matte art that is not just exquisitely designed and rendered by anonymous yet highly skilled artisans, but noteworthy for the crispness and fidelity of the actual composites where matte art merges with the live action. The film has no special effects credits at all, with even my fellow matte researcher friend in Spain (who is an absolute expert on these obscure European films) unable to discover just who painted this and the other magnificent mattes in this film. By the way, the English title is just so darned cool!
24. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
Dir: Ernest B. Schoedsack
With the phenomenal success of the 1933 King Kong, the people behind that classic (and it’s own unfortunate sequel Son of Kong) were keen to re-invent the same basic scenario, though with a somewhat less forboding and clearly lighter touch. Stop motion maestros Willis O’Brien, Pete Peterson and a young Ray Harryhausen produced some wonderful animated sequences with the kindly giant ape, many of which were complimented with splendid glass shots to depict the African settings and other requirements. Four experienced matte artists worked side by side on this picture, painting a total of 31 glass matte paintings, which out of interest cost the studio $24’000, or $800 per matte, just in case you wondered what this sort of thing cost in 1949. Former vaudeville scenic artist turned Hollywood matte painter Fitch Fulton was senior artist here, with Vernon Taylor, Jack Shaw and Louis Litchtenfield all assisting with meeting the tight deadline. The matte shown here is my favourite in the film, and appears at the very start as a dramatic cloud view which then tilts down onto the African jungle. Interestingly, if one looks carefully at the scene on DVD it is possible to see the reflections of passing motorcars faintly visible in the water, which was obviously shot near a highway somewhere and projected into the glass shot. Yeah, I know…. I should really get a life!
23. CAIRO (1942)
Dir: W.S Van Dyke
An amusing spy flick with Jeannette MacDonald on the run in exotic wartime era Egypt, though of course all shot in not as exotic Los Angeles! Some nice mattes including this inspiring full painting of a villa where the artist has carefully drawn out perspective and shading, all with fine pastel crayons, which were the method of choice at Metro Goldwyn Mayer for many years. A small water element was double exposed into the blank area in the painting by MGM’s chief effects cameraman Mark Davis. Actual artist responsible here, like so many in the trade, was never credited nor identified as it was the custom that only studio heads of departments ever received screen billing, and those same heads taking home Oscars when that good fortune presented itself.
22. THE NEVER ENDING STORY II – THE NEXT CHAPTER (1990)
Dir: George Miller
The big, effects heavy follow up to the smash hit 1984 film, recycled a few of the original film’s mattes, but still added a healthy set of fresh matte imagery courtesy of Albert Whitlock and Syd Dutton. While British effects expert Derek Meddings oversaw the design and execution of the many special effects sequences on the film being produced in Germany, matte supervisor Al Whitlock and his cameraman Bill Taylor relocated temporarily to the Bavaria Studio’s for the visual effects shoot while matte artist Syd Dutton painted a number of the shots back at the Illusion Arts facility in California. In maintaining the careful quality control of the matte work, Dutton and Taylor would adhere to the tried and true Whitlock approach of working as much as possible in keeping all elements as first generation, combined on original negative for maximum fidelity.
21. FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
Dir: Fred McLeod Wilcox
I was unfairly castigated after my first Shadowlocked 50 Best list for omitting this film. Well, I was then as I am now trying to present as wide ranging palette of matte art as possible, from the unknown minor shots nobody’s ever given a thought toward, right on up to a few examples of the grand iconic shots. It’s probably time for Forbidden Planet to make an appearance here. Whilst not a hit in its day, the film has garnered a solid following in more recent decades. I think the film was too talky and cerebral for 1950’s audiences who expected something quite different at the local drive in on a Saturday night. Anyway, among the various effects sequences in the film were a relatively paltry handful of matte shots rendered by a trio of artists at MGM under boss Warren Newcombe. Henry Hillink painted most of the mattes, assisted by Matthew Yuricich, while this shot shown here was the work of old time matte man Howard Fisher. The painting for this elaborate shot measured some 48 inches square and was rendered on hardboard, or Masonite as the Americans call it. A separate exposure was made on an otherwise blank matte board with just holes drilled out where the lights etc would be required. This was then backlit and photographed as a specific array of ‘lights’, which was then double exposed over the footage of the power plant matte art. One of the most famous mattes of the 1950’s.
20. SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944)
Dir: John Cromwell
David O. Selznick’s small production house may have been the little brother among the powerhouse Hollywood motion picture studios, but Selznick International certainly pulled their weight when it came to mattes and visual effects work. Just think of titles such as Gone With The Wind, Duel in the Sun, Tom Sawyer, The Garden of Allah and Portrait of Jennie and you have right there a monumental tally of matte shots and other trick work that made the major studios stand up and pay attention. For many years Selznick employed the great Jack Cosgrove to run his special photographic effects department. Cosgrove was an old time matte painter and all round effects expert who had an uncanny ability to read a script and immediately visualise any number of proposed matte effects and camera hocus pocus that would benefit both the production, and Cosgrove himself, for the more mattes he ‘secured’ the more Jack would get paid. Cosgrove would work closely with his long time associate, visual effects cinematographer Clarence Slifer, where together they would create hundreds of mattes and illusions over the years. One of my all time favourites would be this beautiful matte of the interior of a hospital from Since You Went Away, which in keeping with the romantic theme of the story works a treat. This matte as well as dozens of other rare as hens teeth Selznick/Cosgrove matte paintings were thought lost for decades until they turned up in an old barn, nailed to the inside walls as, get this, insulation! True story!
19. THE SHADOW (1994)
Dir: Russell Mulcahy
A surprisingly effective comic book hero movie that I found both enjoyable and technically dazzling. A huge special effects show that required the services of two matte painting providers – Illusion Arts and Matte World – with the latter responsible for the dramatic shot illustrated here. Premier matte artist Michael Pangrazio is shown finalising his spectacular, vertigo inducing downview painted NYC skyscraper for a pivotal moment in the picture. I’m hopelessly afraid of heights myself – even matte painted heights – so this struck a chord with this author. Pangrazio, after dabbling in low budget work briefly, entered the matte industry proper just in time to work on George Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back and continued on as one of the finest painters of his generation, creating astonishing matte work on scores of pictures over the next 15 years before moving into digital work and of late, into production design and visual effects art direction for Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital, right here in New Zealand. Mike’s a remarkable, intuitive talent that the industry is fortunate to have nurtured.
18. SEA OF GRASS (1947)
Dir: Elia Kazan
An okay Spencer Tracy – Katherine Hepburn vehicle set in New Mexico made interesting by a couple of unusual matte shots. The shot I’ve included her is an amazingly bold example of just what a good matte artist can achieve. The sequence involves a funeral of a key character with director Kazan requiring a wide shot that extended beyond the very small set already constructed on a stage at MGM. Enter Warren Newcombe who’s adept matte team fabricated not only the broader expanse of scenery and surrounding structures but also the majority of the mourners present at the burial! Incredible draftsmanship here, with even a few of the apparent ‘people’ being part real-part painted, with a pair of characters legs being painted onto the bodies of actual extras - yet blended perfectly by supervising matte photographer Mark Davis! They did two mattes for the sequence but as fate would have it, both ended up on the cutting room floor…. But I include the work anyway just for the sheer audacity.
17. COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963)
Dir: Jacques Tourneur
The highly amusing Poe-esque horror spoof starring Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone features this excellent, yet hard to detect matte shot of the proverbial haunted mansion. Although the matte work remains uncredited on the film, I’m fairly sure that this is the work of Albert Whitlock who freelanced quite a lot during that period on a number of films. Although I can’t verify it, the matte has all the hallmarks of Whitlock’s painting style – soft silhouette backlit mansion, the sky, style of foliage and most of all the classic Whitlock soft split screen matte blend which runs across the screen where the marriage of real setting and painted setting are joined confidently whereas other matte painters might have opted for needlessly complicated hard line matte division that would trace around tree tops or bits of scenery. Albert was never afraid of just pushing the matte join straight across a shot in a very matter of fact fashion knowing well his cameraman, Ross Hoffman, after 30 plus years of experience, could bring the elements together successfully. The shot also appears to be an original negative composite, which virtually no other matte exponents were doing at the time.
16. DAVE (1993)
Dir: Ivan Reitman
An audience friendly, lightweight little comedy of identical lookalikes and mistaken identities, Dave caught the eye of the visual effects community through it’s clever motion control split screen effects with Kevin Kline playing dual roles as both Mr regular guy and The President of the United States. What not many viewers are aware of though is that Dave was a major matte painting exercise for Buena Vista Visual Effects, who were tasked with providing various views of The White House and other Washington DC landmarks where actual filming was not possible. Paul Lasaine was assigned several key matte shots such as the one shown here, which he achieved with remarkable speed and level of accuracy. In fact, all of the views of this building from different angles were Lasaine mattes. Lasaine would go on to not only paint many great mattes, often for Disney, but also was a key collaborator with Peter Jackson as conceptual artist on the Lord of the Rings trilogy with Paul’s pre-production paintings proving pivotal to the look of the many visual effects set pieces, much as Ralph McQuarrie did much earlier on Star Wars.
15. THE SEVENTH CROSS (1944)
Dir: Fred Zinnemann
An engrossing WWII story of escape and survival told in a very matter of fact style by a director who would go on to even greater things. With much of the production of this and most films in general taking place on studio lots at that time, especially given the real life war time circumstances of the day, the matte artist really came into his own. A rudimentary and often used section of MGM backlot exterior set has been expanded considerably through the brushwork and ability of yet another in a long line of unknown matte artists. Being an MGM matte shot, the painting has been rendered with fine pastel crayons on thick artists card. This, and a great many other vintage MGM pastel mattes do still survive, and most in remarkably good condition given the fact that pastels are so susceptible to smudges and handling damage that I am gob smacked that they’ve stood the test of time and all seem to look so pristine some 70 years later. This particular matte was recently sold at auction along with many others.
14. HOOK (1991)
Dir: Steven Spielberg
A tedious and top heavy film, though not one without its own charm amid all of the excess padding and sugary going’s ons. Nominated for best visual effects that year, Hook does hit bullseye in the trick shot department with Industrial Light & Magic really pulling out all the stops. Matte art featured prominently in several set pieces, notably the Neverland Island and environs. The matte chosen here is a particularly beautiful painting that I am constantly in awe of. Mark Sullivan is an extremely talented artist, animator and all round effects guy, whose traditional matte shot work has been showcased time and time again in many films through the 1980’s and 90’s before mark succumbed to The Digital Demon and made the transition to CGI. This magnificent painting is so briefly on screen that we barely get a good look at it. The blackened area at lower right will have a live action element of the kids still to be added.
13. SON OF KONG (1933)
Dir: Ernest B. Schoedsack
It’s hard to believe that the mighty King Kong could spawn such an unfortunate sequel. Not only did audiences feel cheated but many of the key production crew felt hard done by too. Trick shot designer and director Willis O’Brien was rushed along to get the film out quickly and the finished film’s pacing is seriously lacking with nothing much happening until two thirds of the way in. Anyhow, despite the pressure loaded upon O’Bie and his close knit crew the visual effects, animation and glass shots by and large, look great. The frame shown here is an atmospheric glass shot for the return to Skull Island. I actually prefer this matte over the one painted for a similar scene in the original film and feel it’s much more effective. Matte artists were Byron Crabbe and Mario Larrinaga.
12. THE TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935)
Dir: Jack Conway
One of the greatest films of all time, and undoubtedly the finest cinematic adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic of revolutionary France. Ronald Colman is perfect here, as are the entire supporting cast. Wonderful Cedric Gibbons art direction and sets as well as a large number of lush, mood inducing matte shots. No effects credit so the trick shots would probably have been overseen by British born James Basevi who headed up all the special effects at MGM at the time. As to who actually painted the mattes is anybody’s guess. MGM’s mattes were all carefully coded and archived for several decades, with everything from rough layout through to the highly finished paintings themselves being stored in the Art Department. This all changed in the mid 1970’s when the studio changed hands and vast chunks of the three large backlots were sold off, a lifetime of props and rare artifacts sold off or destroyed, and departments such as the once famous matte building being demolished willy nilly with all of the magnificent artwork thrown wholesale into dumpsters. But it didn’t end there. Thankfully a large number of those matte paintings were saved, at the last minute, from the LA county tip and given a safe home. Many have since resurfaced and have been sold at auction or donated to museums or special collections. I myself have a couple of old ones.
11. ROBOCOP 2 (1990)
Dir: Irvin Kershner
Matte artist Rocco Gioffre was a force to be reckoned with creatively, with an enviable catalogue of terrific matte and other visual effects shots under his belt throughout the traditional matte shot era. While Rocco’s mattes in the first Robocop were sensational, it’s this matte from the immediate sequel that blew my socks off, and after much deliberation between the matte effects in the two films I’ve selected this shot for the list. I always like to think that I can spot a matte shot, if not the first time around hopefully the second viewing. Not the case with this shot as it always slipped by me without me suspecting anything tricky was afoot. In fact it wasn’t until Rocco himself sent me photos of the painting some time back that my jaw hit the floor and I realised I’d been ‘had’ all this time! Not so much an epic shot, nor an especially essential one, but one that in no way draws attention to itself, which is the key to good special effects work. Beautifully painted and photographed on original negative for maximum resolution and clean match of colour hues and tone.
10. THE CROSS OF LORRAINE (1943)
Dir: Tay Garnett
Another wartime production which for obvious reasons wasn’t in any way able to be shot in Europe, let alone in a Nazi concentration camp! Although several mattes sadly landed on the cutting room floor, this is one of the remarkable matte painted shots that survived the editor’s scissors. The shot is totally convincing on screen and the viewer wouldn’t think for a moment that a special effect had been perpetrated. Also shown here is an identical painting representing the same scene in daylight, which unfortunately never made the final release prints of the film. You can show me all the so called digital matte shots you like, created with pixels and tablets and bytes etc, with not a one coming near to the sensory pleasure of observing, studying and appreciating one of these old time hand painted mattes.
9. THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)
Dir: John Huston
Rudyard Kipling’s sweeping, rousing ‘boys own’ adventure is still a winner some 40 years after the fact, and a film I never tire of. Michael Caine and Sean Connery are pitch perfect as soldiers of fortune in mythical Kafiristan. A perfect film in every sense, with the matte shots just the icing on the cake. There are a number of mattes in the film, with all but one being rendered by Doug Ferris and Peter Wood at Wally Veevers’ facilty at Shepperton Studios in England. The other matte, which I’ve featured here, is by Albert Whitlock, who was sought after by the director when several attempts to achieve his particular vision with the Shepperton matte unit failed to meet Huston’s expectations. Whitlock’s matte is one of his most famous, and most quickly rendered, supposedly painted in a single day non stop. According to Whitlock’s cameraman Bill Taylor, there were one or two other mattes painted by Albert, though as is often the case, these were lost to the film editor’s scissors.
8. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)
Dir: William Dieterle
A timeless classic with many a cinematic adaptation, the Victor Hugo story benefits largely from Charles Laughton’s sensitive performance in the title role. Much money was spent to construct vast sets of Medieval Paris at the RKO ranch in Malibu though the photographic effects department under Vernon Walker were still needed to expand that grandeur beyond what was physically possible with the construction teams. There are quite a lot of great matte shots in the film and I’ve chosen this one as my best choice, a dizzying birds eye vantage point over Paris. Brilliant perspective and layout here, with Chesley Bonestell likely being the artist responsible with Russell Cully photographing and compositing same.
7. BUGSY (1991)
Dir: Barry Levinson
Warren Beatty is pretty effective here as the notorious Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel – the gangster who created Las Vegas. High production values throughout and some impressive mattes by Mark Sullivan and Jim Danforth. The matte shown here is a gob-smackingly good Mark Sullivan painting which transforms modern day Los Angeles El Centro Avenue into the appropriate 1940’s time period for the narrative. This is yet another of those top shelf matte shots that I was never sure even was a matte shot initially, until mark confirmed it to me by kindly sharing the original before and after photography and his wonderful painting. I’ve included a close up detailed image to illustrate Mark’s painting style which exactly matches the original plate in terms of hue, shadow, colour temperature and perspective.
6. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
Dir: Richard Marquand
The last of the ‘proper’ Star Wars pictures, Jedi was the most polished in regard to its special visual effects and fully deserved it’s Oscar in that respect. The many ILM matte shots, supervised by Michael Pangrazio, were excellent. Fellow artists Chris Evans and Frank Ordaz joined the team and produced a quantity of matte shots each, with effects cameramen Craig Barron and Neil Krepela photographing and blending the mattes into their final composites. The shot shown here is an impressive one indeed. Artist Frank Ordaz, on his first matte painting job ever I believe, painted this complex view of the Millenium Falcon docked in a hangar as a full painting which in turn was used as a background plate for a blue screen shot with the actors in the foreground. Terrific matte.
5. MOVING VIOLATIONS (1985)
Dir: Neal Israel
An eminently forgettable 80’s teen action comedy notable for very early screen appearances of young future stars Don Cheadle and Jennifer Tilly. However, the film isn’t entirely without its merits, hence its well deserved inclusion here at a healthy number 5 ranking. I am hard pressed to think of such beautifully integrated matte paintings where you’d least expect to find them, and in an otherwise non-effects movie to boot. The small two man company Matte Effects, operated by Ken Marschall and Bruce Block, were contracted to supply a half dozen highly detailed matte shots for a couple of sequences in the film, essentially the big parade sequence where an entirely fabricated urban cityscape was painted and flawlessly matted into a small live action plate, complete with subtle matte painted cheering crowd effects gags which bring an already convincing matte to life even further. The shot shown here is one of three mattes shots from different vantage points from the sequence and is a superb representation of Ken’s enviable mastery with the paintbrush and Bruce’s skill with the matte camera.
4. WILLOW (1988)
Dir: Ron Howard
George Lucas once again turned to the fantasy realm with this not too bad children’s fable that is loaded with wonderful Industrial Light & Magic visual effects shots that reached the peak of what was possible using the traditional photo-chemical methods. Willow is exceptional in the matte painting aspect with a dazzling array of beautifully executed shots by ILM artists Chris Evans, Mike Pangrazio, Sean Joyce and Caroleen Green. The scene pictured here is a wonderful tilt down matte composite painted by Mike Pangrazio and photographed by Craig Barron. Many of the mattes were assembled using the tried and true Whitlock technique of latent image or original negative to ensure maximum image quality, and the finished shots look great as a result. I’d regard Willow as probably ILM’s best all round visual effects show, and one which received an Oscar nomination in that very department.
3. OKLAHOMA CRUDE (1973)
Dir: Stanley Kramer
George C. Scott and Faye Dunaway star in this rollicking, boisterous Columbia Pictures western centering around greed and oil barons. In order to authentically depict the period oil fever townships and the vast oil fields laden with drilling apparatus, director Stanley Kramer turned to Albert Whitlock over at Universal Studios to create the necessary landscapes on glass with mere oil pigments and brushes. Whitlock was often loaned out by Universal to other studios when film makers found themselves tasked with problematic shots, and in fact a chief executive at Warner Brothers called Albert “Universal’s secret weapon”, such was the high regard held for his ability. For Oklahoma Crude, Whitlock painted four mattes, one of which is demonstrated here. All of the classic Whitlock trademarks are evident here in this wonderful shot, from Albert’s much loved late in the afternoon backlight and atmospheric haze, his foreground silhouettes as well as a great deal of intricate animation of operational working oil derricks and double exposed inlays of smoke etc. Effects cameraman Roswell Hoffman worked for years with Whitlock and understood just how to maintain a crisp, first generation quality to Albert’s matte shots, even whilst executing complex multiple exposures upon the same original negative. Pure magic!
2. THE GREAT SINNER (1949)
Dir: Robert Siodmak
Gregory Peck was rarely better than in this film as a pathological gambler. The film’s concluding sequence features some amazing matte work as Peck comes to terms with his unstoppable addiction, with this stunningly designed and executed tilt up matte shot in a cathedral. An incredibly moving scene made all the more potent with this superbly crafted trick shot. Being an MGM picture the matte work was supervised by Warren Newcombe and ultimately assigned to one of Warren’s staff matte artists. Incidentally, all of MGM’s mattes were known as ‘Newcombe Shots’, despite the fact that Newcombe himself supposedly rarely, if ever so much as picked up a brush according to artists such as Irving Block, who worked under him for years. That’s Hollywood!
1. SPARTACUS (1960)
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Although more or less disowned by Kubrick, who was more or less a director for hire on the project, Spartacus is in fact a great film with an intelligent script by Dalton Trumbo, good lead work from Kirk Douglas, excellent support work from Charles Laughton and much grand spectacle. The films effects were an unusual affair with all of the mattes, bar one – the one featured here – being painted and shot by Universal’s long time artist Russell Lawson. The Universal mattes weren’t as effective as they could have been unfortunately, and I assume Kubrick was well aware of the fact as the one other non Universal shot illustrated here is a different story altogether and stands head and shoulders above the rest in a class all of its own. For the main money shot of Rome, Stanley turned to Disney Studios for help. Disney had a well established and highly regarded matte department that had been set up in 1954 by Peter Ellenshaw for the studio’s first major live action feature, 20’000 Leagues Under The Sea, and had continued on ever since under its own steam with an ever growing staff of artists and technicians as Disney turned more and more to live action melodramas and adventures. Apparently Stanley – never a 9 to 5 kind of guy - used to phone Peter at 3 in the morning for progress reports and suggestions during the preparation of this painting. Ellenshaw completely understood just what to paint and importantly, just how much to paint in order to sell a shot as convincing, without the need for laborious photo realistic detailing of every aspect of the matte. Kubrick was absolutely blown away by this matte and would remind Ellenshaw of the fact years later. The matte is unquestionably Peter’s finest work and is thankfully one that survives to this day as part of the permanent collection of the Motion Picture Academy, courtesy of Peter’s family. A fitting submission for number one in this poll.
*For more matte painting information and interviews with the artists responsible visit my site: www.nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com
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