Cinefex Vault #7: Ray Harryhausen – An Animated Life

Cinefex Vault - Ray Harryhausen - An Animated Life

Following Don Shay’s review of Peter Ellenshaw’s autobiography, Cinefex presented an online review of another literary property by a visual effects giant, the first exhaustive authorized volume in which Ray Harryhausen discussed his own life and work – resurrected here at the Cinefex Vault as another one for the ages.


Adventures in Fantasy – book review by Joe Fordham

Stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen performs a touch-up on the Kraken during production of his final motion picture, Clash of the Titans. In addition to numerous short subjects, Harryhausen provided stop-motion and other visual effects for 16 feature films spanning six decades.

Stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen performs a touch-up on the Kraken during production of his final motion picture, Clash of the Titans. In addition to numerous short subjects, Harryhausen provided stop-motion and other visual effects for 16 feature films spanning six decades. Photo copyright © 1991 by Titan Productions.

“What is there to be said that is new about Ray Harryhausen?” asks writer Ray Bradbury in his forward to the current book by his life-long friend. The answer, as chronicled by stop-motion legend Harryhausen and film historian Tony Dalton in Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, is quite a lot – 304 glossy pages crammed with text, photographs, film posters, diagrams and sketches – many previously unpublished from Harryhausen’s personal archives.

The book, which appeared last November in the United Kingdom – where Harryhausen has resided for decades – has now been released in the United States with considerable fanfare and a full-blown book tour by the author. This is Harryhausen’s second book, following the slim, technically deficient Film Fantasy Scrapbook – which first appeared in 1972, with revisions in 1974 and 1981 – a mostly-pictorial guide to creatures that have populated the effects maestro’s films. An Animated Life towers over that. The book is part confessional – revealing techniques never previously divulged by their creator – and part love letter to a craft that Harryhausen describes in meticulous prose as ‘dimensional animation.’

Ray Harryhausen's first feature work was on the original Mighty Joe Young, in which he produced most of the film's animation under the supervision and tutelage of his mentor, Willis O'Brien. Photo copyright © 1949 by RKO Radio Pictures.

Ray Harryhausen’s first feature work was on the original Mighty Joe Young, in which he produced most of the film’s animation under the supervision and tutelage of his mentor, Willis O’Brien.
Photo copyright © 1949 by RKO Radio Pictures.

Bradbury sets the tone in his spirited introduction. Tony Dalton’s preface continues in similar vein, recounting his 30-year friendship with Harryhausen – almost half the length of time Bradbury has known him – and outlines his journey into the archives of the British Film Institute, where much of his research material was obtained. The book is an exhaustive historical study, five years in the making, covering the production of every one of Harryhausen’s films, written by the man himself with the support of close contemporaries.

While fans may be familiar with the films described, Harryhausen is quick to shoot down frequently printed fallacies, such as the origin of the material used to skin his first animated creature, the title character in Cavebear in 1935 – not purloined illicitly from his mother’s favorite fur coat! He also goes to pains to place his peers in context – tracing how his first employer and mentor, Willis O’Brien, made the transition from sculptor in a San Francisco marble shop to the creator of King Kong – and outlining his own lineage.

In 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Ymir -- a creature from Venus -- hatches from an egg and grows to monstrous proportions. For a sequence in which the Ymir confronts an escaped circus elephant on the streets of Rome, Harryhausen animated both creatures and a fleeing human. Photo copyright © 1957 by Columbia Pictures.

In 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Ymir — a creature from Venus — hatches from an egg and grows to monstrous proportions. For a sequence in which the Ymir confronts an escaped circus elephant on the streets of Rome, Harryhausen animated both creatures and a fleeing human. Photo copyright © 1957 by Columbia Pictures.

Fred and Martha Harryhausen are pictured as the loving parents of a strange, but talented only child in pre-World War II Los Angeles, assisting their son in fabricating miniature costumes, props and creature armatures, as long as their manual dexterity remained. Harryhausen lists other early influences – including the fiction of H.G. Wells, the art of Gustav Doré, John Martin and Charles R. Knight – touchstones that remained with him his entire career, as illustrated in atmospheric pencil and charcoal creature concepts, from his earliest student renderings to Force of the Trojans, an unrealized project that was to have followed his 1981 swan song, Clash of the Titans.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad represented Harryhausen's first venture into color, a factor which necessitated the changing of many effects techniques he had developed over the years. It also represented a shift away from contemporary times and single-character animation to episodic confrontations between human protagonists and a variety of mythological creatures. Photo copyright © 1958 by Columbia Pictures.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad represented Harryhausen’s first venture into color, a factor which necessitated the changing of many effects techniques he had developed over the years. It also represented a shift away from contemporary times and single-character animation to episodic confrontations between human protagonists and a variety of mythological creatures. Photo copyright © 1958 by Columbia Pictures.

Unrealized projects abound in the back pages of the book, which contains a catalogue of 53 ‘Lost Worlds,’ including some titles now in development by present-day filmmakers. Harryhausen relates how he decided J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was not suitable for a live-action/dimensional-animation treatment, then adds: “How wrong I was!” Harryhausen also recalls how, following The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, he and producer Charles H. Schneer discussed, and rejected, the idea of doing an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: “We felt the story simply wasn’t strong enough.” Harryhausen states the unrealized project he most wanted to pursue was The War of the Worlds, retaining H.G. Wells’ Victorian setting. The book contains illustrations of Harryhausen’s proposals for the film, which he submitted to producer George Pal in 1950, before learning that Pal had already been in discussions with Paramount to mount a contemporary adaptation.

The Valley of Gwangi, a prehistoric drama set within the framework of a western, was based on an unrealized Willis O'Brien project that had been in preproduction, then abandoned, nearly 30 years earlier. Photo copyright © 1969 by Warner Bros.

The Valley of Gwangi, a prehistoric drama set within the framework of a western, was based on an unrealized Willis O’Brien project that had been in preproduction, then abandoned, nearly 30 years earlier. Photo copyright © 1969 by Warner Bros.

A chronological filmography follows, listing Harryhausen’s short films, television commercials, documentaries for the Army Signal Corps and 16 feature films. Harryhausen and Dalton then supply a glossary of filmmaking terms, which are quite poetic in their descriptions of photochemical and stop-motion paraphernalia. Digital artists should take note as Harryhausen reveals methods by which he rigged saucers to fly in his 1956 production Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers – physically hand-painting wires prior to exposing every frame to render them invisible. Unfortunately, the book then concludes without an index to provide easy reference for this compendium of a lifetime’s achievement.

For Jason and the Argonauts, considered by many his magnum opus, Harryhausen created a fiendishly complex sequence in which live characters battle seven skeleton swordsmen. On some of the shots, Harryhausen was able to average only 13-14 frames per day -- less than a second of screen time. Photo copyright © 1963 by Columbia Pictures.

For Jason and the Argonauts, considered by many his magnum opus, Harryhausen created a fiendishly complex sequence in which live characters battle seven skeleton swordsmen. On some of the shots, Harryhausen was able to average only 13-14 frames per day — less than a second of screen time. Photo copyright © 1963 by Columbia Pictures.

But Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life is a rare entity. Despite its considerable bulk, the book is immensely readable, a hoot from front to back, as well as a treasure trove of imagery and reference material. As anyone who has stood in line to meet the man will attest, Harryhausen is a bright and witty storyteller, with a craftsman’s passion for film and an intolerance for interfering producers. All the anecdotes are here — the ‘sixtopus’ from It Came From Beneath the Sea and, at last, the real story of how he choreographed seven sword-fighting skeletons. Throughout, the narrative enthralls and captivates.

Cinefex Vault #6: The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Cinefex Vault - The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

While tracking down the artists responsible for the effects of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, visual effects supervisor Louis Morin confided to me, ‘You’ve got the wrong man. The real magician here is Michel Gondry.’ Normally, the production’s visual effects supervisor is a good barometer for a film’s artistic and technical effects; but Louis was not being disingenuous. As we spoke about the film, it became apparent what a vivid and fantastic imagination the director had, and it would have been fascinating to track down monsieur Gondry, the rock and roll maestro of the avante-garde – another day, perhaps. But time was our enemy, and in fact I had to hand my transcript to my editor, Jody Duncan, due to another pressing deadline. Here is our joint effort, unearthed from the Cinefex Vault, attempting to describe the magic tricks of this unique and charming film.


Random Access Memory – article by Jody Duncan and Joe Fordham

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play Joel and Clementine, a couple coming out of a failed relationship, who decide to undergo a questionable medical procedure to erase all memories of each other. Midway through the procedure, Joel realizes he is making a terrible mistake, and attempts to thwart the erasure by hiding memories of Clem where they cannot be found.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play Joel and Clementine, a couple coming out of a failed relationship, who decide to undergo a questionable medical procedure to erase all memories of each other. Midway through the procedure, Joel realizes he is making a terrible mistake, and attempts to thwart the erasure by hiding memories of Clem where they cannot be found.

In director Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman plumbs a consciousness-bending story about a man, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), who attempts to ease the pain of a breakup by undergoing a procedure that will erase all memories of the relationship from his mind. Joel’s attempts to interrupt the erasure mid-procedure – all from within his subconscious – set the story in a world that is part reality, part waking dream.

That surreal world was the stuff of visual effects, more than 100 realized by Custom Film Effects. Buzz Image Group took on only 16 shots, but each was a critical depiction of Joel’s altered mind as, one by one, his memories of Clementine (Kate Winslet) are deconstructed, abstracted and, finally, erased.

The memory abstractions are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle. In a sequence early in the film, Joel – in his car – follows Clementine as she walks angrily down a sidewalk. “This was a hand-held, non-effects shot,” said Buzz visual effects supervisor Louis Morin, “but in the scene, Jim Carrey says a line about everything falling apart – and Michel wanted to emphasize that feeling.” To visually support the idea of a world falling apart, Gondry suggested removing one of Clementine’s legs in the scene. “I said: ‘Okay, it’s possible – but this is a swish-pan, and it is going to be so fast, nobody will see it.’ But he wanted to try it; so we replaced Clem’s real legs with CGI legs, did 3D tracking and remodeled the sidewalk she was walking on.”

Determined to limit the number of visual effects in the film, director Michael Gondry used in-camera trickery wherever possible. For a scene in which Joel transports Clem into his childhood memories, production built a forced-perspective kitchen set to render Jim Carrey child-size.

Determined to limit the number of visual effects in the film, director Michael Gondry used in-camera trickery wherever possible. For a scene in which Joel transports Clem into his childhood memories, production built a forced-perspective kitchen set to render Jim Carrey child-size.

The first attempt at the shot bore out Morin’s initial concerns. “Nobody could see it,” said Morin, “because it was so fast. I asked if they had a longer take of Clem walking, and they did – but in that one, she wasn’t turning her head properly. So we combined takes in the swish-pan, tracked the head from the first take onto Clem in the longer take, and put in a whole CGI background.” In that background, a car crashes behind a fence, unnoticed by Clem. “That was a CGI car and a CGI fence. It was a shocking event to keep the audience on their toes, to say, ‘Look – some pretty unusual things will be shown to you in this movie.'”

Joel jumps out of his car and runs up and down the block – his car, magically, situated at both ends. The shot required two months of Inferno time at Buzz. “We had to track all the shots,” Morin commented, “four takes, going from one side of the street to the other. Everything was shot hand-held, so we had to use 3D tracking, and then create transitions. There’s a lamppost and a mailbox there, and we switched from one take to the other, flipping the image so it was a mirror effect as he was running back and forth. It was partly a morph, switching speed, retracking shots into one another. It’s not 100% seamless, but pretty close, considering that everything was shot hand-held and the perspective was off. We had to freeze-frame the shot, track it manually and reposition camera projections. We also erased signs and interiors of the stores along the street using matte-painted projections.”

The street scene ends with Joel falling down, only to bounce up, rewind-style, onto a sofa in his apartment where he eats takeout Chinese food with Clem. Buzz took reverse footage of Carrey falling from a sofa, filmed on the street, and combined it with an element of Carrey seated on the same sofa in the apartment set. “We used an Elastic Reality morph for that,” said Morin. “We also had to add CG chopsticks in his hand. He had actually held real chopsticks in the plate with Clem; but for this shot, we had to remove them and put in CGI ones that would match the chopsticks in his hand when he initially falls.”

For a metaphoric scene in which a beach house, meaningful to Joel and Clem, crumbles and collapses, Buzz Image Group created a 3D replication of the house and animated its falling apart. The wintertime shot was enhanced with snow elements sliding from the roof.

For a metaphoric scene in which a beach house, meaningful to Joel and Clem, crumbles and collapses, Buzz Image Group created a 3D replication of the house and animated its falling apart. The wintertime shot was enhanced with snow elements sliding from the roof.

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In another scene, Joel and Clem sit in a car, watching a drive-in movie from outside the establishment’s fence, inventing their own dialogue for the characters on the screen. As the memory is erased, Clem and the car flicker in and out. The fence then disappears, slat by slat, chasing after Joel and Clem in the animation style of Norman McLaren’s National Film Board of Canada. Carrey and Winslet were shot in a real car – once with Winslet inside and once without, to capture elements for the flicker effect. Buzz then replaced the car with a CGI car as the characters run out of the vehicle. “We modeled different parts of the car,” said Morin, “then sliced away the 3D objects, like an MRI brain slice.” Buzz also created the fence animation by removing the fence in the live-action plates and replacing it with matte paintings rendered in Photoshop and projected onto 3D geometry.

Buzz’s biggest shot is near the end of the film, when a house on the beach in Long Island – the setting of a pivotal moment in the couple’s relationship – crumbles, a visual metaphor for Joel’s losing grasp of Clementine. Buzz began work on the shot based on Gondry’s first directive to create a stop-motion look; then revised the approach to include more real-time elements such as animated bricks falling from the chimney, tracked into a CGI house. “Michel thought that was going in the right direction – but he wanted more,” said Morin. “So we found some reference footage of real houses collapsing, and then animated the whole house with hard-body dynamics. What you see is a house collapsing in four seconds – all CG.”

The surreal images in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – digital effects sprinkled with in-camera and forced perspective gags, all achieved without the use of bluescreen or motion control – sprang from a filmmaker who approaches visual effects more as a magician than a technician. “A magician makes you look at one place while the trick is happening somewhere else,” said Morin. “Michel does that with effects. You expect an effect at one point in a shot, but the effect is already done by the time you get there. He fools you – and that’s part of his cleverness. Everything is possible in his mind.”

Photos copyright © 2004 by Focus Features.

Cinefex 147 Cover Reveal

Cinefex 147 Cover - The Jungle Book

The time has come to release the cover of our upcoming June edition into the wild. It boasts an up close and personal shot of Shere Khan, the villainous tiger of Walt Disney Studios’ live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and if we say so ourselves, it looks rather stunning.

As well as Joe Fordham’s in-depth article on the making of director Jon Favreau’s epic jungle tale, Cinefex 147 also features extensive coverage of Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Packed with behind-the-scenes stories and exclusive images, it’s the perfect way to start your summer.

Cinefex Vault #5: Monster

Cinefex Vault - MonsterThe Cinefex Vault of online articles contains some curiosities, including some accounts of films so off the beaten track they might not at first appear to contain any special effects. Such was the case with director Patty Jenkins’ Monster, which – despite its title – contained no creatures of fantasy. Instead, the title referred to a stunning performance by actress Charlize Theron who slipped completely into the skin of a convicted psychopath, earning her ‘Best Actress’ at the 2004 Oscars and Independent Spirit Awards. A key collaborator in Theron’s transformation was makeup designer Toni G, who in the run up to the 2004 awards season reflected here on her experience helping to transform one of cinema’s great beauties into the face of brutal killer.


Skin-Deep Monster – article by Jody Duncan / interview by Joe Fordham

Among those nominated for the best actress Academy Award this year is Charlize Theron, whose chilling turn as serial killer Aileen Wournos in Patty Jenkins’ Monster has garnered ecstatic critical reviews – many of which note how thoroughly Theron disappears in the role. Gone is the svelte, creamy-skinned, blue-eyed beauty; in her place is a near-perfect re-creation of Wournos, complete with ravaged hair and skin, crooked teeth and dumpy body.

Makeup artist Toni G deglamorized actress Charlize Theron for her role as executed serial killer Aileen Wournos in writer-director Patty Jenkins' motion picture, co-starring Christina Ricci.

Makeup artist Toni G deglamorized actress Charlize Theron for her role as executed serial killer Aileen Wournos in writer-director Patty Jenkins’ motion picture, co-starring Christina Ricci.

Historically, Oscar has honored beautiful women who have shed their vanity for the sake of a juicy role. Elizabeth Taylor as the frumpy Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won the best actress statuette, as did Hilary Swank playing the boyish, gender-confused Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, and The Hours’ Nicole Kidman, whose natural beauty was obscured by a prosthetic nose. If Theron continues that trend with a win on Oscar night, she is likely to acknowledge the contribution of Toni G, the makeup artist responsible for her startling physical transformation.

Recommended to Theron and Jenkins by Rick Baker’s Cinovation Studio, Toni G met with the actress and the director well before the start of filming to devise an overall approach to the makeup assignment. “When they first called me,” Toni G recalled, “I thought that Charlize Theron as Aileen Wournos was a bit of a stretch. But when I met with Patty and Charlize, I realized that it was definitely achievable. Charlize was so completely inspired, she inspired me! I thought, ‘Yes, this is possible.'”

At that first meeting, Jenkins and Theron made it clear that they wanted to pursue a non-prosthetic approach. “Prosthetics weren’t even considered,” Toni G said, “mainly because there wasn’t the budget to do that. But I never thought prosthetics were necessary, anyway.” The plan was to have Theron gain 30 pounds – which, in itself, would go a long way toward changing her appearance – and then implement the other changes through straightforward makeup and hairstyling techniques. As a start, Toni G researched a wealth of archival material on Wournos. “There were so many great photographs of Aileen and so much video coverage, it was a dream. I had a plethora of research material.”

In the days leading up to the shoot, Toni G applied test makeups on friends in her garage, arriving at a final makeup that emphasized Wournos’ key characteristics. Among the most crucial were her misshapen eyebrows and dry, over-bleached hair. Rather than wear a wig, Theron gamely endured a day-long hair-frying and hair-thinning session with hairstylist Katie Swanson. Her eyebrows also took abuse. “Charlize’s eyebrows needed to be completely changed to frame her face differently,” Toni G noted, “so I took off all the outside part of her eyebrows, and also bleached them. Eyebrows are an amazing representation of what people go through in their lives. You can see an angry person, a happy person, a gentle person, all through the eyebrows. Aileen’s eyebrows had a tendency to angle upward towards her forehead, which created an angry expression.” Contact lenses further altered the actress’ eyes, changing their color from blue to brown and giving them a deeper, more haunted look.

Wournos’ crooked, stained and rotting teeth were another distinguishing feature. Toni G covered Theron’s straight, white teeth with prosthetic dentures, which also served to push out her mouth slightly, making it appear wider. Toni G hired Yoishi ‘Art’ Sakamoto, with whom she had worked at Cinovation, to make the dentures. “Art took a dental impression, and then came up with some prototype dentures, painting on the discoloration and detail. We discussed what needed to be changed, and went from there. It was important that the dentures be thick enough to look realistic, but thin enough not to impede Charlize’s speech. We got a practice pair out to her as soon as possible – about a month before they started shooting – so she could get accustomed to speaking with them. It takes time for a person to learn how to speak properly with prosthetic dentures, so that they don’t distract from the performance.”

Theron (left) and Wournos (right).

Theron (left) and Wournos (right).

Even with the excess weight, damaged hair, crooked teeth and bleached and over-tweezed eyebrows, Theron’s beauty shone through. “We had all those things together,” Toni G recalled, “but she still had this creamy, poreless, gorgeous skin. With makeup, I had to create the years of abuse to her skin – all the freckles and capillaries and sun damage – either through hand-painting or working with an airbrush.” The makeup artist used an alcohol-based, makeup-industry ‘tattoo ink’ to create layers of translucent washes, building up the skin damage to suggest depth and dimensionality. A sealant called ‘Green Marble’ was applied to create additional texture, and was also used liberally to prevent the makeup from running off in a scene in which Wournos appears in the shower.

With practice, Toni G got the makeup application time down to a single hour. “I remember the first day we did the whole makeup on Charlize. It gave me goose bumps. She walked out of the trailer, lit a cigarette – and Charlize was gone.”

A symbiotic fusion of Toni G’s makeup and Charlize Theron’s extraordinary performance resulted in a stunning on-screen representation of the troubled Aileen Wournos. “If Charlize had given a brilliant performance, but still looked like Charlize,” Toni G concluded, “that would have been very distracting. But if not for her brilliant performance, the teeth, the makeup, the hair – none of it would have worked.”

Photo copyrights © 2003 by Newmarket Films.

Cinefex Vault #4: Hidalgo

Cinefex Vault - HidalgoSeeing Hidalgo at Walt Disney’s art deco cinema palace, the El Capitan in Hollywood, was fitting. My parents were in town, and I wanted to treat them to an old fashioned night at the movies, so we loaded up on popcorn and we were not disappointed. It was a rousing, romantic adventure about a man and his mustang, cut from the same cloth as director Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer, albeit with more horseplay and fewer rockets. So I was happy to cover the film, chatting with ILM’s amiable visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander, and I’m happy to resurrect the story here from our online Cinefex Vault.


Horse Sense – article by Joe Fordham

Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander oversaw the visual effects work on director Joe Johnston's sprawling adventure, Hidalgo. Photo by Sean Casey. Courtesy of ILM.

Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander oversaw the visual effects work on director Joe Johnston’s sprawling adventure, Hidalgo. Photo by Sean Casey. Courtesy of ILM.

At age 32, Tim Alexander is one of a generation of artists at Industrial Light & Magic whose date of birth approximates the studio’s founding date. A digital compositor since his early twenties, Alexander drew upon that bedrock experience as he assumed the role of visual effects supervisor for director Joe Johnston’s Hidalgo. “I tend to look for a 2D solution before considering 3D,” Alexander observed. “There were quite a few sequences in Hidalgo where we could have gone with either 3D animation or a 2D composite, and we decided to go with 2D.”

The film focuses on Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), an ex-U.S. Cavalry dispatch rider who accepts the challenge of a wealthy sheik (Omar Sharif) to enter his favorite mustang, Hidalgo, in a 3,000-mile Arabian horse race. Settings spanned from 1890’s American Wild West to the far reaches of the Sahara. The latter was represented by locations in Morocco, where Alexander and his small crew spent six weeks capturing scenic digital stills and advising on technical issues. “It was grueling,” Alexander recalled. “We were working with dust storms and animals – and everybody got sick! One night, I had a temperature of 107 degrees.”

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his mustang, Hidalgo, pitted against some of the world's foremost thoroughbred horses, outrun a fearsome sandstorm during a 68-day, 3,000-mile endurance race across the Arabian desert.

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his mustang, Hidalgo, pitted against some of the world’s foremost thoroughbred horses, outrun a fearsome sandstorm during a 68-day, 3,000-mile endurance race across the Arabian desert.

Johnston limited time at the harsh location by using visual effects for a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the sheik’s daughter by vaulting across Moroccan rooftops. “We were supposed to shoot above a mosque,” related Alexander, “but Joe asked us to re-create the environment against bluescreen in LA. Luckily, he had established the scene at ground level so the tops of the buildings weren’t visible and we could take some liberty with architecture. We shot a ton of stills; then, back at ILM, we built a 2½D background, mapping stills onto rough geometry to create multiplane and parallax effects.”

For an establishing shot of Hopkins arriving at the port of Aden, a set representing the front the ship was shot in Los Angeles. The rear of the ship was an ILM digital extension. The camel train and people disembarking were filmed in the desert in Morocco, while the water, small boats and background wall were photographed at a coastal town in Morocco. ILM digital compositor Tory Mercer assembled the shot.

For an establishing shot of Hopkins arriving at the port of Aden, a set representing the front the ship was shot in Los Angeles. The rear of the ship was an ILM digital extension. The camel train and people disembarking were filmed in the desert in Morocco, while the water, small boats and background wall were photographed at a coastal town in Morocco. ILM digital compositor Tory Mercer assembled the shot.

Horse trainer Rex Peterson supplied five mustangs to represent Hidalgo. The only animal animation involved a pair of leopards that menace Hopkins and a companion during the race. The digital work proved necessary when the performances of real leopards – shipped to the location and later split-screened into scenes with horses – were found lacking. “It was very difficult to make the leopards look aggressive,” said Alexander, “because they knew they were going back to their cage to eat at the end of every day. So, for some shots, we chose to re-create the leopards in CG.” The CG leopard was modeled from reference of the leopards on set and from animal motion studies. “Very early on, we did a couple of tests using motion capture data of dogs, which we had used for Hulk. But when we applied that to the leopards, they just looked like dogs, so we abandoned that idea.” ILM revisited the live leopards and shot video of them performing various actions from six different angles. Animation director Sylvia Wong and her team then rotoscoped the video to the CG leopard. “That gave us fluid and organic-looking behavior – but the leopards still didn’t look aggressive enough. So we used that as a starting point and key-framed everything from there.”

A tsunami sandstorm -- created with volumetric particles -- overtakes many of the riders early in the race.

A tsunami sandstorm — created with volumetric particles — overtakes many of the riders early in the race.

Another action sequence featured a sandstorm that chases Hopkins and Hidalgo into an abandoned desert mosque. During principal photography, special effects supervisor Bruno Van Zeebroeck used air mortars to create a blast of sand impacting the desert location. ILM created the wider views in post. “Sandstorms in real life are very amorphous and undefined,” observed Alexander, “but Joe decided it would be more effective to see a wall of sand.” ILM generated the sandstorm in RenderMan, using volumetric particles. “We wanted it to feel like the storm was sucking up the desert like a vacuum cleaner. The front edge pulled debris off the ground, whipped it up the wall, then it slowed near the top, creating a sense of speed and scale.”

A plague of locusts obscures the sun. Over plate photography shot in Morocco at sunrise, ILM created the locust swarm as particles with a locust model attached. Locusts closest to camera were rendered at higher resolution than those in the background, allowing many more particles to be created.

A plague of locusts obscures the sun. Over plate photography shot in Morocco at sunrise, ILM created the locust swarm as particles with a locust model attached. Locusts closest to camera were rendered at higher resolution than those in the background, allowing many more particles to be created.

Digital matte artists enhanced the scope of the production with matte paintings that referenced the work of 19th-century ‘Orientalist’ painter Jean-Léon Gérome – particularly Gérome’s The Call to Prayer – for an urban Moroccan vista. “We embellished the landscape and placed a guy in a big tall tower in the background, exactly as it was in Gérome’s painting,” said Alexander. “For a lower angle, where a steamship was parked at the dock and the camera panned to reveal a camel train, we piecemealed the shot together. Half the boat was practical, shot in Los Angeles, and the back part was CG. The water came from Morocco. The right of frame came from the desert in Morocco, nowhere near the ocean. It was quite a blend.”

Frank Hopkins runs down a sand dune as the swarming locusts overtake him.

Frank Hopkins runs down a sand dune as the swarming locusts overtake him.

The ending of the film, set in the United States, involved a spectacular stampede of mustangs, enhanced with 2D effects. “They had 500 horses out on location in Montana,” said Alexander, “but when they released them into the wide-open spaces, it looked like nothing! We replicated the horses and made 2,500 out of the 500.” Shot from a roving helicopter perspective, the horse release was an unrepeatable event, which tested the skills of ILM matchmove and compositing artists. “We couldn’t shoot multiple takes, and the horses could only run the course once or twice a day; so we ended up using bits of other footage and tracking horses into the earlier environment with dust effects.”

For a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the kidnapped daughter of a powerful sheik, rooftop scenes were shot on a foreground set in front of a bluescreen. Background structures, mountains and sky were photographed as still images and mapped onto a 2½D matte painting to permit perspective shifts on moving camera shots.

For a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the kidnapped daughter of a powerful sheik, rooftop scenes were shot on a foreground set in front of a bluescreen. Background structures, mountains and sky were photographed as still images and mapped onto a 2½D matte painting to permit perspective shifts on moving camera shots.

The lengthy and demanding production resulted in 216 effects shots, yet ultimately proved a painless experience for Alexander and his team due to the involvement of ILM alumnus Joe Johnston. “We spent 118 days on location in Montana, South Dakota, Morocco, the deserts of California, all over,” stated Alexander. “But if ever we couldn’t be there, Joe shot all the elements we needed. He really knew what he was doing, and that definitely helped.”

All other photos copyright © 2004 by Disney Enterprises. Courtesy of ILM.

Cinefex Vault #3: Ellenshaw Under Glass

Cinefex Vault - Ellenshaw Under GlassWeighing in at nearly eight and a half pounds, Ellenshaw Under Glass – the handsome autobiography of matte artist Peter Ellenshaw – was a mighty tome. This was not a book to read in bed, or sitting on a bus. Rather, it required a lectern to hold it open, particularly if the reader had been lucky enough to acquire the Deluxe Edition with plexiglass cover and 3D lenticular image of Peter perched atop a cloud, above Mary Poppins’ London. Spectacular, personable and occasionally quite moving, this was a fantastic read about one of the effects industry’s most gifted artists, a true gentleman with an impish sense of humor. Read on to learn more about this landmark book in Don Shay’s review from the Cinefex Vault. The book is still available at the link below.


An Artist’s Journey – book review by Don Shay

For the grand opening of Disneyland, master matte artist Peter Ellenshaw painted an aerial view of the park, which appeared on the first Disneyland postcard and souvenir guidebook. A fixture at the Disney studio for decades, Ellenshaw contributed visual effects and/or production design for nearly all of the Disney live-action films produced during Walt Disney's lifetime.

For the grand opening of Disneyland, master matte artist Peter Ellenshaw painted an aerial view of the park, which appeared on the first Disneyland postcard and souvenir guidebook. A fixture at the Disney studio for decades, Ellenshaw contributed visual effects and/or production design for nearly all of the Disney live-action films produced during Walt Disney’s lifetime.

Like most aspects of visual effects, the art of movie matte painting has been transformed by technology, to the point that ‘before digital’ and ‘after digital’ techniques and end products seem only distantly related. Today, a matte painting can be a full environment – a three-dimensional collage of images and textures over, through and around which a camera, without film or lens, can be flown with total freedom. Not all that many years ago, a matte painting was … well, a painting.

Matte paintings were among the earliest visual effects tools; and for decades, filmmakers used variations on the theme to affordably alter and expand movie settings, both interior and exterior. The era of traditional matte painting was comprehensively and elegantly chronicled in The Invisible Art, by Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron, published in 2002, a must-have volume for anyone with a love for the art and history of visual effects.

A companion volume now exists. Peter Ellenshaw, one of the Michelangelos of matte painting, has produced Ellenshaw Under Glass – a mammoth coffee-table book filled with photographs and artwork and recollections spanning the entirety of his 80-plus years. Ellenshaw suggests that his love of painting dates to his World War I childhood, when he and his sisters were hustled under a kitchen table, with paper and crayons to amuse themselves, whenever German zeppelins made bombing runs over London. Having taught himself to paint by copying the old masters, Ellenshaw eventually approached the only artist he knew of – pioneer matte painter and effects artist W. Percy Day. Ellenshaw spent seven years with the curmudgeonly master, learning the art and craft of visual effects on high-profile Korda productions, before setting off on his own. Eventually his work caught the eye of Walt Disney, who hired him to do matte paintings on his first live-action films, produced in England. The artist recalls creating 62 matte shots in 27 weeks for one of them. With no firm prospect of employment, Ellenshaw moved his family to the United States, where he soon made a career for himself within the Disney organization, working closely with the studio’s gruff patriarch, who took an almost fatherly interest in the ambitious young artist.

On his first Disney project, Treasure Island, Ellenshaw transformed an empty harbor with a single vintage sailing ship into a crowded 19th-century seaport.

On his first Disney project, Treasure Island, Ellenshaw transformed an empty harbor with a single vintage sailing ship into a crowded 19th-century seaport.

image_03Ellenshaw Under Glass is not a technical treatise on matte painting, or even a comprehensive account of Ellenshaw’s considerable body of work, but rather a personal memoir. He does, however, explain the fundamentals of matte painting, from vintage on-set glass paintings to dupe-negative optical composites to original-negative matte shots – citing a near disaster on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in delineating the risks of the latter approach. He also explains – and illustrates with details from a painting he created for Spartacus – the impressionistic art of incorporating just enough detail into a matte painting. Too much is as bad as too little.

Ellenshaw offers fascinating chapters on his early work with ‘Pop’ Day, and provides anecdotal, if not comprehensive details on such Disney classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Mary Poppins. Photographically, the book is a marvel – 334 pages of matte paintings, concept art and behind-the-scenes photos, seasoned with personal photos and mementos. Happily, Ellenshaw was not one to throw things away.

One of many concept paintings Ellenshaw created for The Sword and the Rose. In only 27 weeks, he produced 62 matte shots for the period film. A fast and prolific artist, Ellenshaw often rendered color sketches in just a few minutes, and full eight-foot-wide matte paintings in as little as three days.

One of many concept paintings Ellenshaw created for The Sword and the Rose. In only 27 weeks, he produced 62 matte shots for the period film. A fast and prolific artist, Ellenshaw often rendered color sketches in just a few minutes, and full eight-foot-wide matte paintings in as little as three days.

Bruce Gordon and David Mumford – who collaborated with Ellenshaw on the book – explain in an afterword that the original intent was to have Ellenshaw write only a outline, which they would then flesh out into book length. By the time he finished with it, however, Ellenshaw’s ‘outline’ was so rich with detail that it was already book length – and it needed only to be shaped and polished. Ellenshaw writes with a clipped, short-hand style. Thoughts and memories cascade onto the page. He talks to himself in italicized asides – often self-deprecating. Incomplete and run-on sentences abound. Setups and segues are sparse. Though the style is jarring at first, the text is endearingly conversational – as if the reader is sitting in Ellenshaw’s living room listening to him reminisce while he pages through a lifetime’s worth of scrapbooks. As a writer, Ellenshaw has a singular, if unconventional, voice – and Gordon and Mumford are to be commended for not ‘improving’ upon it.

Peter Ellenshaw won an Academy Award for his work on Mary Poppins. An initial concept sketch for a shot of Mary and her charges exploring the rooftops of London -- and the final matte painting for the scene, with empty areas for live-action elements.

Peter Ellenshaw won an Academy Award for his work on Mary Poppins. An initial concept sketch for a shot of Mary and her charges exploring the rooftops of London — and the final matte painting for the scene, with empty areas for live-action elements.

image_07Whether recollecting his childhood in England, his early days in the movie business, his wartime experiences as a pilot, his long and fruitful years at Disney, or his second career as a fine art painter, Ellenshaw flavors his text with warmth and wit. A man of artistic temperament and conviction, Ellenshaw was ever forthright in his views and not averse to butting heads with his professional elders – but never with Walt Disney, whom he clearly revered. In the end, Ellenshaw Under Glass is a valentine to the artist’s longtime employer and friend, and to his beloved wife Bobbie, his muse and mate of 58 years, whose death, before this book was completed, broke his heart – but not his spirit.

Ellenshaw Under Glass is available in two editions – standard and deluxe – the latter being a slipcased edition with a novel cover that provides a fitting visual pun for the book’s wry title. Copies of this limited-edition work may be purchased online at www.ellenshaw.com.

As production designer and miniature effects supervisor on The Black Hole, Peter Ellenshaw shares a light moment with his son, Harrison Ellenshaw, who served as matte effects artist on the film.

As production designer and miniature effects supervisor on The Black Hole, Peter Ellenshaw shares a light moment with his son, Harrison Ellenshaw, who served as matte effects artist on the film.

Photos copyright © Disney Enterprises.