To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
With some people, it’s hard to describe their career in brief. That’s certainly true of Harrison Ellenshaw. By turns, he’s worked as a director, visual effects supervisor, associate producer, matte artist, second unit director, title designer, supervisor of film restoration and preservation … the list goes on. As for his screen credit highlights, where to begin? If we just listed Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Tron, Ghost and Dick Tracy, we’d be skipping over The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Black Hole, Honey I Blew Up the Kid and many more. Perhaps we should just get on with the interview.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Harrison?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Truthfully, my first big break was being born into a family of filmmakers and artists! I grew up in England, where my father, Peter Ellenshaw, worked as a matte artist for Walt Disney Productions, MGM and Warner Brothers. When I was eight years old, we moved to Sherman Oaks in California, so my father could continue working for Disney, at the studio in Burbank.
I attended Dixie Canyon Elementary School and then Harvard School for Boys – now Harvard-Westlake – in North Hollywood. After that, I went to Whittier College in Whittier, California; its most (in)famous alum is Richard Milhouse Nixon. I graduated in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
In late 1970, I had just finished a three-year stint as a junior officer in the Navy. I was looking forward to getting back to the ‘real world’ and perhaps enjoying a successful career in advertising or marketing, living in Connecticut in a large house with a big lawn, a rose garden and two well behaved golden retrievers named Goldie and Murphy, and two cats named Fred and Ethel. It was either that, or moving to Australia and managing a self-storage facility in Perth.
Then, I changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to move, and started looking for a job in L.A. However, although my father and my grandfather, Walter Percy Day, were both visual effects artists, I had no desire to follow in their rather large and intimidating footsteps. I wanted to make a name for myself, on my own.
Soon reality reared its ugly head. The country was in a recession and jobs were hard to find, even for a psychology major. The only work available was in social services or selling life insurance. Not exactly my thing. But I was not about to panic – at least not right away. After a few more months of no job offers and a dwindling number of interviews, I was running low on cash and self esteem.
I started collecting unemployment and watching daytime soap operas. With little hope of meaningful employment, I was bored, depressed and slowly going out of my mind! Even Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns couldn’t raise my flagging spirits. Then, within a couple of months, Alan Maley, head of Disney Studios’ matte department, called and offered me a job as an apprentice matte artist. My take home pay would be $68 a week.
I took the job.
It was pretty obvious that my father had asked Alan, his former assistant, to take pity on me, promising him that I would happily wash brushes and take out the trash in the matte room without complaint. I considered it just a temporary job – certainly not the beginning of a career path I had ever really contemplated.
Nevertheless, Alan became my mentor, teaching me to paint, showing me how to load a VistaVision camera and – most important – how to run a Moviola without scratching the work print. Soon I was immersed in the world of film emulsions, f-stops, edge numbers, bi-packing, separation masters, and the joys of perspective, composition and acrylic paints. I had become seduced by the process of making ‘movie magic.’
I was at Disney less than four years when Alan, unexpectedly, decided to retire and hand over the reins of the matte department to me. The Disney execs were a bit stunned by his sudden decision and started to panic when they realized that Alan’s hand-picked successor had very little real experience in visual effects. But Alan assured them that if I couldn’t do the job, he would come back to run the department again.
I think I did okay, because Alan never came back.
I stayed at Disney for five more years. Working on all their live-action films, I even found time to take on some ‘outside’ projects, including The Man Who Fell to Earth, Star Wars and Big Wednesday.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: I loved shooting miniatures. I also loved stealing shots – which means guerrilla filmmaking without getting required permits – and playing wiffleball with the effects animators and staff in the parking lot of Olsen Lane & White, the independent effects facility we created from scratch in 1986 to do effects on Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Every new project was a different challenge, and I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the luminaries and legends in the business. Most of all, I’ve been fortunate to work with dozens of talented men and women who always made me look good. That is what really makes me grin!
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Visiting the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Three immediately come to mind. The first is Tron – we accomplished something spectacular that had never been done or seen before.
The second was dealing with the infamous Cannon Films and its owners, Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, who produced Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Those guys were double DDs – delusional and dysfunctional. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films. A cautionary tale to be sure.
I once had a meeting with Menahem in his suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London, where he insisted that I had to add dripping blood to the fingernails of Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), Superman’s nemesis in Superman IV – even though it wasn’t in the script. Menahem had seen a billboard on his way in from Heathrow for an Iron Maiden concert with band members showing off bleeding fingernails. Of course, Menahem had never read the Superman IV script – he bragged that he never bothered reading any scripts! Additionally, he never bothered paying any of his bills either. It took me over a year, with many irate phone calls and the threat of law suit, to finally get my back salary. When I did, sure enough, the check bounced! The positive side about that whole rather unfortunate experience was that I had the opportunity to work with Christopher Reeve. Great guy. A real class act.
But perhaps my biggest challenge came in 1996, when I was trying to hold Buena Vista Visual Effects (BVVE) together as the Disney execs were determined to dismantle it and lay-off 60-plus people. It was an ill-conceived idea, since we were making a profit – something few effects facilities can accomplish – as well bringing in a lot of outside work. Go figure.
At least I was able to delay the shutdown.
Fortunately, BVVE had signed contracts, approved by the Disney legal department, to produce visual effects for two Paramount films – The Phantom and Escape from L.A. – so we could keep the facility going for an additional three or four months past the scheduled shutdown. There’s more information on that in the article Escape from L.A., Hasta La Buena Vista in Cinefex 67.
Through the summer of 1996, BVVE stayed in business – just barely – keeping the wolves away from the door. The higher-ups at Disney were having their own issues including the exit of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the brief tenure of Michael Ovitz and stockholder lawsuits galore – it was a management in deep crisis. My reporting structure kept changing, almost daily. For a brief time, I even reported to the company’s general counsel, a senior lawyer who had no experience trying to understand visual effects or even movies.
After more shuffling, I ended up reporting to the manager of studio operations. A decent guy in charge of the commissary, the gardeners and the transportation department. His day consisted of making sure the paper towel dispensers in the restrooms never ran out of paper towels, and answering a peeved exec’s question about why there was not enough won-ton in the won-ton soup from the commissary. True story – I’m not making this stuff up!
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: The Man Who Fell to Earth, my first non-Disney movie, was pretty weird. In fact, very, very weird. A script that made no sense and a film that made even less sense. I’d fly out every few days to the location in Alamagordo, New Mexico, and there were entire days when the cast and director never showed up on set since they were probably still stoned from the night before!
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: The rise in the number of ‘specialists’ needed to create an effects shot – rotoscoper, compositor, color corrector, visual effects coordinator, visual effects supervisor, visual effects producer, visual effects accountant, previs artist, IT person, assistant IT person, assistant to the assistant … and so on. Even the interns now have assistants!
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Better on-set safety for cast and crew. No shot is ever worth endangering life or limb. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Be careful what you wish for. Nevertheless, do what you love and love what you do. Bottom line – the effects business is not going to be what you think it will be. The good news is: it may be better. The bad news is: it can be worse.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: My four favorites are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Brazil and Top Gun. They are all on my list because the effects in each movie were an integral part of the story. Though, in the case of 2001, I’m not really sure if there was a comprehensive story anywhere in the film.
Two favorite sequences stand out for me, both from 2001. The shuttle docking with the spinning space station, and the Pan Am stewardess plucking Dr. Heywood Floyd’s pen out of mid-air then exiting the rotating cabin.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
HARRISON ELLENSHAW: I don’t take snacks into a movie theater. I go there to watch a movie, not to eat. Besides, Red Vines get stuck in my teeth.
CINEFEX: Harrison, thanks for your time!
- The Ellenshaw Family official website
- Ellenshaw Under Glass – autobiography of Peter Ellenshaw
- Harrison Ellenshaw at IMDb
Photographs courtesy of Harrison Ellenshaw.