Cinefex Vault #3: Ellenshaw Under Glass

by Joe Fordham

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.