Dream Landscapes – The Mountain

by Graham Edwards

“The kinds of landscape I try to find in my films exist only in our dreams” – Werner Herzog

Throughout human history, the mountain has stood tall as a home of spirituality, as a challenge to physical endurance, or simply as a vision of breathtaking beauty.

It was on Mount Olympus that the gods of Greece decided the fates of mortals; Moses received the Ten Commandments on the peak of Mount Sinai; in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay captured the world’s imagination by becoming the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, whose Tibetan name Qomolangma carries meanings including “goddess” and “mother”.

Mountains stand tall in the history of cinema too: monumental examples of Werner Herzog’s idealised “dream landscape”, and guardians of a lethal realm in which spectacle and peril are balanced precariously over the abyss.

But consider the challenge of elevating an entire film crew – not to mention a cast of fragile actors – to the top of a remote and snowbound peak. Little wonder the art of visual effects has played such a large part in putting these high sierras on the screen.

"Black Narcissus" was shot at Pinewood Studios in England. Its spectacular Himalayan backdrops were provided by matte painter Walter Percy Day.

“Black Narcissus” was shot at Pinewood Studios in England. Its spectacular Himalayan backdrops were provided by matte painter Walter Percy Day.

Take Black Narcissus, the 1947 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, in which a group of nuns establishes a convent high in the Himalayas. Even as they struggle to adjust to the precipitous surroundings, their fellowship is torn apart by simmering sexual tensions and haunted by echoes of the past.

Much of the uneasy mood of Black Narcissus is created by the edgy performances – not least a tour de force turn by Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth. However, the film also relies heavily on its Himalayan setting to evoke an atmosphere of entrapment in isolation. In short, it’s the mountains that make the movie sing.

For all its Asian airs, Black Narcissus was shot entirely in England, mostly on sets built at Pinewood Studios. The expansive Himalayan vistas were conjured by an extraordinary series of matte paintings designed by art director Alfred Junge and executed by Walter Percy Day.

For more examples of Walter Percy Day’s amazing matte work on Black Narcissus, visit Peter Cook’s Matte Shot blog.

In 1982, Herzog himself made symbolic use of a mountain, not to evoke feelings of alienation, but to represent man’s hubris. In Fitzcarraldo, the title character (Klaus Kinski) drives a team of Amazonian natives to transport his steamship up and over a steep wooded slope, only to see the vessel plunge headlong downslope and into the river beyond. Unlike Powell and Pressburger, however, Herzog eschewed the use of special effects altogether and staged everything for real (although debate continues about several shots during the rapids sequence in which the good ship Molly Aida looks suspiciously like a miniature).

Matte artist Rocco Gioffre touches up a mountain painting for Renny Harlin's "Cliffhanger"

Matte artist Rocco Gioffre touches up a mountain painting for Renny Harlin’s “Cliffhanger”

Michele Moen touches up a massive “Cliffhanger” matte painting while matte camera operator Alan Harding prepares for a take.

Michele Moen touches up a massive “Cliffhanger” matte painting while matte camera operator Alan Harding prepares for a take.

Fitzcarraldo’s jungle peak is tiny compared to the Rocky Mountains, presented in all their vertiginous glory by Renny Harlin in his 1993 film Cliffhanger. In the film, mountain climber Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) is drawn into a race against time to recover $100 million stolen in a heist.

Once again, the spectacular scenery is the background against which the lead character faces ghosts from the past – in Walker’s case, the fateful day when he watched fellow rescue ranger Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) plunge to her death. And, while Stallone performed a number of climbing scenes on location in the Rockies, some of the film’s most spectacular sequences come courtesy of Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios.

To achieve dizzying pull-back shots showing Stallone ascending seemingly impossible cliffs, Boss employed their elevator rig: a vertically configured motion control camera cantilevered precipitously out from mountainsides in the Italian Dolomites. Footage from the rig was rear projected into matte paintings, with foreground miniatures used to add extra depth and scale.

Schloss Adler - the Austrian castle created in miniature at Borehamwood Studios for "Where EAgles Dare"

Schloss Adler – the Austrian castle created in miniature at Borehamwood Studios for “Where EAgles Dare”

As well as landscapes in which to search the soul, mountains are also obstacles to be surpassed, strongholds to be penetrated – perhaps even targets to be destroyed. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo’s band of adventurers are thwarted by cruel Caradhras, a malevolent alp represented by New Zealand locations, studio sets and the ever-reliable digital matte painting. In Where Eagles Dare, the imposing castle Schloss Adler was doubled by the Austrian Burg Hohenwerfen, but also re-created in miniature on the MGM backlot at Borehamwood. The old-school was honoured in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for which a mountain fortress was constructed in miniature by New Deal Studios … and then summarily blown up.


New Deal Studios created this one-sixth scale mountain fortress miniature for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”

Action aside, the movie mountain has ever been a place of the soul – a thesis supported by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), in which the title character (Ben Stiller) literally climbs a mountain to find not only the man he’s been searching for – Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) – but enlightenment.

Live action plates for Mitty’s vistas were shot in Iceland, with LOOK Effects and Hatch FX teaming up to create digital extensions, based on Himalayan photography provided by Alex Nice and laid out by matte artist Deak Ferrand.

As well as being a classic “dream landscape”, the mountain is also the perfect metaphor for the filmmaking process … and within that the task of the visual effects artist. In every worthwhile creative endeavour, there is a mountain to climb. At its peak there may lie enlightenment, or exhaustion, or both.

But the peak is only the destination. In fiction, as in life, the real value of the mountain experience lies in the journey. The truth behind all imaginary landscapes – mountains included – is this: those sights which make us gasp in awe are won only by tremendous toil, undertaken one slow step at a time. The toil of the climber, yes. But also the toil of the artist who opens our eyes to scenes we might otherwise never experience.

“In a sense everything that is exists to climb. All evolution is a climbing towards a higher form. Climbing for life as it reaches towards the consciousness, towards the spirit. So we climb, and in climbing there is more than a metaphor; there is a means of discovery.” – Rob Parker, Explorer and Mountaineer

“Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life.” – Werner Herzog

“Cliffhanger” photographs copyright © 1993 by Carolco Pictures, Inc. Boss Film still photography by Virgil Morano. “Inception” photograph copyright © 2010 by Warner Bros. Pictures and courtesy of New Deal Studios. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” photographs copyright © 2013 by 20th Century Fox. 

2 thoughts on “Dream Landscapes – The Mountain

  1. Lovely blog, Graham. “Black Narcissus” is an extraordinarily beautiful. I bought the Criterion release as a birthday present for Don, back when I was telling him about my favorite British films. An amazing film, and an extraordinary accomplishment.

    In 1994, I made a pilgrimage to my favorite dream mountain — driving a giant loop from my home in Burbank, California, through ten states in ten days, and spending a couple of days camping at the foot of Devils Tower in Wyoming.

    That’s a breathtaking sight, especially on the long winding approach road that snakes for miles through a lot of gentle rolling prairie north of Gillette. Then, much like Richard Dreyfuss’ character sees in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” you round a bend past a hill and suddenly you see this giant igneous extrusion, like God’s toothpaste tube squirted up out of the countryside. The geological theory is this was once a volcanic vent that became plugged up and then, over thousands of years, the countryside around it eroded away, leaving this massive column of sedimentary rock. The locals had a theory that a giant bear had chased a warrior up on top of the mountain and scored the sides with its huge claws. Both are pretty wonderful to imagine, and it is inspiring to witness first hand.

    Years later, I met production designer Joe Alves and he told me how he toured America looking for Spielberg’s mountain. And then Doug Trumbull, matte artists Matthew Yuricich and Rocco Gioffre, and modelmaker Greg Jein all immortalized it in various visual effects for Spielberg’s film. I’ve stood in front of Rocco and Matthew’s matte paintings, and seen some of the model pieces Greg made. None of them can compare to actually being there, staring up at this improbably feature in Wyoming. It’s just surreal, and a magical place, especially at nighttime.


    • Thanks, Joe. As a Powell and Pressburger diehard, I have to agree with you about the sheer beauty of “Black Narcissus” – just a stunning film to look at. Now excuse me while I book an excursion to Devil’s Tower. Wonder how long it’ll take to get there from the UK …

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