The magical techniques of movie and tv special Effects Part IX: The Matt Artist. An interview with P.S. Ellenshaw from the June 1978 issue of Starlog magazine.
THE MAGICAL TECHNIQUES OF MOVIE AND TV SPECIAL EFFECTS
Part IX 'The Matte Artist: An Interview with P. S. Ellenshow Series. Edited by DAVID HUTCHISON
The successful matte painter is the "closet artist" of the film industry-a man whose work remains invisible to the movie-going public; a skillful blend of what is and what is not, creating a single cinematic reality. By DAVID HOUSTON
"If l ever become famous for my matte paintings, it'll mean I'm a"failure," says P.S. Ellenshaw. the young director of the matte department at Wall Disney Studios. Disney-where some of the world's most sophisticated blends of live action and painting are accomplished, where mattes abound in even the most "realistic" motion-picture ventures ... °If people came to see me and say how much they enjoyed my work in such and such a movie, I get worried. Matte painting is supposed to be invisible, supposed to blend in with the live· action footage."
Ellenshaw has headed the Disney matte department for the past four years and has overseen work on numerous pictures (most recently Return From Witch Mountain and The Cat From Outer Space); but ask him to name the project that personally excited him more than any other and he will quickly smile and announce: "Star Wars".
When people claim that during post production, every studio in town had a hand in the making of Star Wars, don't be quick to doubt it. Not only did Ellenshaw paint the mattes, free·lance, but Disney studios itself was contracted to do much of the matte photography. P .S. Ellenshaw (in person one might call him Peter, but not in print; Peter Ellenshaw is the professional name of his father, who headed Disney's matte department at one time himself and in more recent years has established himself internationally as a fine artist) is a friendly, talkative type in his explanations. He will tell us about his work in Star Wars, show same of the actual mattes (such as the one on the cover of this issue), explain the matte process and how Disney techniques differ from those of other studios and artists, and share aspects of his personal life that led him to his career choice and the perfecting of his art.
STARLOG No. 13 introduced the fundamentals of matte painting, but for the benefit of new readers or for review, a matte is an element of a movie scene or shot which blacks out unwanted portions of a picture; a matte painting is the artistic replacement for the blacked out portion; the live-action portion of the picture is the plate. "About three years ago, I was asked by Nicholas Roeg to work on The Man Who Fell To Earth. Normally there's enough work here at Disney, and the matte department has not become involved in outside work, But I was kind of intrigued by the project, and I squeezed it in my spare time. Then word got out that I would do outside work, and a few inquiries began to come in. I turned down most of the work. "Then, I guess about two and a half years ago, I was contacted by Gary Kurtz. Star Wars had not been filmed yet, but they brought me Ralph McQuarrie's sketches-and I said, 'This is super; God,l'd like to work on this!' "McQuarrie's paintings really sold that film. I mean, if it weren't for his production illustrations they never would have got the financing from 20th Century Fox. Anyway, they asked me to do the matte shots and I said, 'I'd love to; give me a call when you're ready to shoot them.' They said they were on their way to London and would contact me later. Then I heard nothing. "Normally, the film company does not come and say, we have this can of film, and we want you to put the castles or big trees or whatever in the back· ground or the foreground. I'm always there when the film is being shot, because I have to make sure the camera is tied off, that the people don't walk into where the painting is going to be, that the lens they're using isn't too wide-because you may have to reduce the image. A lot of little things.
"So when I read in the L.A. Times that they were shooting in London, I figured they had got somebody else to do the mattes. Too bad-but just one of those things.
"Then, a year ago last fall, Jim Nelson (with the Star Wars company) called me and said, 'Well, we're getting in some footage, you wanna come look at it?'
"I made up my mind to put up a fight-you know, that I had not been there when they were shooting, all that kind of stuff. But George Lucas really is an excellent director; he understands so many facets of film-making that every single matte shot worked out. It couldn't have been better. So I did the mattes for Star Wars. ..
According to Ellenshaw, there are 17 matte shots in Star Wars, utilizing 13 paintings. Same of these were not terribly spectacular-like the addition of a distant Sandcrawler as seen from C3PO's point
of view, and an establishing shot in the Cantina where the task was to paint in a wall section to mask off some unwanted people. But other shots involving matte paintings were among the most spectacular in the film.
Consider the shot of Ben Kenobi walking along the precarious platform aver the "infinitely" deep power shaft on the Death Star. To have constructed that set-just as the audience sees it would have been prohibitively expensive. ..Actually," Ellenshaw explains, "Guinness was approximately three feet off the floor. " The tractor beam control unit, the platform, and pieces of the surrounding walls were built. The rest is a painting by P.S. Ellenshaw. Another view of the power shaft was painted to add depth and vastness to a shot just prior to Luke and Leia's swing across the chasm.
Consider the interior of the hangar deck on the Death Star. Only half of Han's pirate ship was actually construeted, the other half (as seen by Luke and Leia from a port above the floor of the hangar) is a matched photograph of the model of the pirate ship, with painted-in areas to facilitate the blend and correct for the slight differences between the full-scale mocked-up half and the model. The "pit" in the floor leading to lower decks is also painted.
In the wide shot establishing the vast Throne Room at the conclusion of the film, not. even all the people are real: the soldiers in the dark, toward the sides, are "attentive" because they're a painting! The rear wall with its super-high bright windows is part of the same painting.
As Ben and Luke look over the floor of the desert to Mos Eisley, they are "looking" into a painting of the spaceport over a photograph of Death Valley.
A matte artist can be involved with more than paints and brushes. Ellenshaw dealt with other sorts of combination pictures. In the Throne Room, for instance, there were only a few hundred extras in the assembly. That group was photographed three times, standing at three different distances from the camera; then the three shots were combined, and Ellenshaw painted in transitions between the groups. And in the Rebel's headquarters, in the shot that shows numerous X-Wing and Y-Wing fighters with their crews and pilots that shot was also made up of numerous exposures of the same mock-up-the only X-Wing they had. Ellenshaw's task was to combine the pictures believably and paint out whatever overlapped or didn't belong there.
There are other instances of matte work in Star Wars (see if you can detect them next time you see the film), but the purpose of the above list is to indicate the extent to which vastness, spectacle, beauty, and design are dependent upon matte art in films-and the extent to which the eye of the beholder is led to accept the impossible as real. How is the combining of live action and painted portions accomplished? Ellenshaw tells how it's done at Disney; the basic principles are the same everywhere, but the Disney techniques are more versatile, and getting more so all the time.
First, the "plate" is prepared; this is a black and white piece of film showing the scene as it actually was shot on the sound stage, or wherever. AI Disney, the plate is rear-projected onto the back of a large framed piece of glass on which the painting will be done. "We're the only studio that does that. Rear projection has advantages and disadvantages. One of the big advantages is that you can change the size of the plate, you can move it up to the left-hand corner or wherever you want it, and, of course, you can see it and actually paint right on it" If there is a fear that during the scene an actor had walked into the to-be- painted area, the whole moving scene can be rear projected, to check the integrity of the plate-right on (he glass where the painting will be done.
"The rear projection material is just a piece of acetate which has been sandblasted on both sides to make it transIucent. We stick it right to (he glass; static electricity makes it stick just fine.
"Then you paint. In the case of the scene of Ben Kenobi turning off the tractor beam, the plate was positioned a little higher than center so we could show lots of depth at the bottom. Then I painted extensions of the lines of perspective of those lights in the wall; I dimmed the base of the tractor beam thing-they never had a name for it and continued the lines of perspective on down. . and down."
The paint typically used is acrylic-a fast-drying flexible paint with hues that are bright and pure due to the c1ear plastic medium (oils tend to be yellowish; temperas tend to be powderish).
"Of course the place where the plate is rear-projected is left blank, clear glass. When we photograph it, we remove the rear-projection material, substitute a piece of black velvet, and photograph it from the front. In this case (there are other methods too) we rear·projected the plate and combined it with the matte in the camera." This prevented an accumulation of
grain due to adding a "generation" of film copying.
"You don't photograph in color. You separate the elements into blue, red and green masters. Thai way you can vary the light on each of the separate elements to make sure your matte painting matches the production footage in color. Of course you can't change the plate too much; it has to look real, but just to change it a touch helps you to match. There's always a critical element to match. In this case, it was the color of the lights on the walls."
Another advantage to the Disney rear-projection system is the ability to use more than one plate for a given matte painting or composite shot. In combining the many shots of freighters in the Rebel base hangar, "I could have used as many plates as I wanted. I used one plate twice; I could nave used three or more."
Strictly "in-house" work done at Disney-where the original production footage is shot in preparation for film has other advantages, one of which is still the envy of the industry: the use of sodium mattes, rat her than the more common blue-screen techniques.
A major disadvantage in using any kind of photographic or optical special effect is that the final production is a picture of a picture of a picture, and resolution quality is lost. This makes the SFX shot stand out in the film because it is of poorer quality than the unprocessed scenes. The most common method of preparing for an effects shot is blue-screen-in which a matte, or black masking, is created on a separate piece of film. This matte is then combined optically with the other pieces of film to insure that the superimposed image is opaque and there is no resultant double image. The scene is shot against blue, and the blue is turned to black becoming the matte.
Disney has a sodium-matte camera. Instead of blue, a sodium yellow is used as a background. In the camera, a specially made prism divides the incoming light and sends all but the narrow band of sodium yellow to a strip of color film-while the sodium band is shunted off to a separate piece of black and white film that is filtered to register as black; that becomes the matte. Thus the plate and matte are made simultaneously, in the camera, requiring no additional optical work and preserving the quality in the ultimate combination of real and inserted images.
Why don't others use sodium process?
"Everyone else would love to have it, but nobody can make the damn prism. In fact, Disney tried to have another prism made, and it was not as successful. Other people have tried, but not even the man who made the first prism has been able to do it again successfully."
Disney Studios also uses two "three-headed printers."
"We might be the only ones; bUl I suppose there could be others in use by now." With a one-headed printer, each picture element added means quality loss; with a two-headed printer, two elements can be added in a single generation of film; with a three-headed printer, "you can add tons of information on the same piece of film. That's how we got away with so much special effects work in Mary Poppins. ., That film utilized special mechanical effects, special Optical effects. matte paintings, and mixtures of live-action with animated figures. Much of that was added in a single exposure with the three·headed printer.
Disney Studios will shortly add yet another device to their matte department: a computerized "moving matte" camera.
"lt's not unlike the computerized things built recently for model photography in Star Wars and Close Encounters. It's under development now in our machine shop, and when it's put to use, I guarantee it's gonna make matte work in films much tougher to detect than it is now, The camera will be able to pan on the matte, move in and out, do anything you like-while keeping the plate fixed perfectly in place relative to the 'hole' in the matte. A computer will instruct the camera in movements that will be recorded on film frame-by-frame."
With such extraordinary SFX capabilities, it's a shame that Disney Studios so seldom puts them to work in science-fiction films. But the studio is on the verge of remedying all that.
"The upcoming space film that we're doing here will be my first chance to work with my father-and I'm very excited about that. He is production designer of the project. He's been working on it for the past 18 months. It's called Space Probe-at least that's its Current working title-and we're planning a tremendous number of effects. It takes place in space; there are black holes, novas exploding-all sorts of things happening. We'll have many of the same problems that had to be solved for Star Wars.
"We're taking a slightly different approach in that we're not going to do the majority of the scenes with sodium or blue-screen, but we hope to be able to shoot a lot of it live-so that what you shoot is what you get. The big advantage there is that you don't lose any quality by going to further generations, and you see what
you've got the next day.
"We hope to start on the miniatures and effects first-which is a big advantage. You make the miniatures and effects as good as they possibly can be, and then match the production footage to it, rat her than vice-versa. My father has done a lot of effects on a lot of films, and generally, that's the way he likes to work."
Ellenshaw, the eider, came to Disney, and America, from England-where he had already made a name for himself in the film industry. Walt Disney brought him over to do the matte work on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
.. At the time, they were having a great deal of difficulty making the miniatures look real. Walt, I'm told, had a habit of walking the halls, dropping in on people working on a project, giving advice, saying 'That's just great,' and so on. He walked by my father's office one day and saw his sketches, thought they were terrific, and asked him to go down to the miniatures department to see if he 'could help the guys out.'
.. It took some tact and diplomacy, but he was able to contribute . .. I guess I'm prejudiced, but I think the effects looked pretty good. All of those effects were done live-because at that time blue-screen or sodium process was not that well refined. One matte he did I remember very well, because it was quite large, was looking down into the crater, right at the end of the movie, the crater that James Mason eventually blew up. All that crater around the Nautilus was a matte painting. A lot of the matte painting for that movie was shot live - what we call 'glass shots' with the painting right there on the set and the camera shooting through it. I remember that one very well, because I went out with him to film it. I was seven or eight then. Little did I know."
It seems an obvious connection to make, but in closing the interview, we wonder how P.S. Ellenshaw got into the matte painting business.
"It's not as obvious as you might imagine. I went to school, majored in psychology, got my degree, went into the Navy, got out of the Navy, and looked for a job. Jobs were tough to find; I searched around for six months with not too much satisfaction. My father, who had done matte paintings and worked in the industry for almost 35 years, had never said anything to me, never indicated at any time, during my youth or my life in the Navy or after I got out of the Navy, that he wanted me to become a matte artist.
"Really, I had avoided it-because my father had been so successful, and it's tough to come up to that. So the heck with it, I was going to do my own thing and make a success for myself in another area."
He had been painting on the sly, secretly developing artistic skills to be put to use one day. He was a little surprised, during a time of unemployment, when his father mentioned that there was an opening at Disney. in the matte department.
Alan Maley was head of the matte department then (he recently did the matte work for The Spy Who Loved Me).
"My father said, 'You know, Alan is looking for an apprentice, and he hasn't been able to find somebody who's satisfactory.' I said,'Well, okay, I'll give it a try.' I reluctantly came to see Alan and said, 'Alan, I have no experience.' He said, 'Well, I'm desperate. Why don't we give it a try for six months.'
..Alan turned out to be an excellent teacher, as well as being a lot of fun to be around, and after six months I loved it. Coincidentally, unbeknownst to me at the beginning, Alan was anxious to leave. He wanted to work on his own as an artist. This is something that never happens to very many people-to go in just as the boss is wanting to leave. Usually. a boss will want you to fail a little so he can keep you down there. But he was very anxious for roe to succeed. After four years, he left, and I took over the matte department. A lot of people said,'Gee, isn't he a little young'-l was 27-but the studio had no one else and didn't have a heck of a lot of choice in the matter. They said, 'We'll give it a year and see what happens.' Luckily, things worked out."
Luckily for all of us. P.S. Ellenshaw continues a great family tradition. Not only does he follow his father; his step-grandfather was Percy Day-a pioneer in the use of mattes and supervisor far the matte paintings in Things To Come, a film that would have been less than the masterpiece it is without the use of mattes. When that film was made, matte artists were hidden in closets, seldom given any screen credit at all. Hopefully, those dark ages are gone for good, and matte artists-whose best work we never realize we are seeing can be acknowledged for their invaluable contribution to imaginative film-making.