Peter Ellenshaw

I just learned of the death of a Hollywood great you’ve probably never heard of, but whose contribution to classic cinema cannot be underestimated. Peter Ellenshaw was a special-effects master whose specialty was a now-defunct art called “matte painting.”

A matte painting was used in the pre-CGI days to expand sets or place actors in landscapes that don’t really exist, or which would’ve been difficult or impossible to actually shoot in. Today, that sort of thing is done with computers, of course, but up until about 15 years ago, it was accomplished by painting landscapes on a sheet of glass, with cut-out areas where actors, miniature models, or physical sets would be superimposed during post-production. These glass paintings didn’t offer the same kind of flexible three-dimensionality that modern CG techniques do, obviously — because the image was static and lacking in depth, the camera could not move through the scene like it can now — but when done properly, the illusion could be just as seamless as anything done today.

For example, consider the shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which the Pan-Am Clipper that ferries Indiana Jones from San Francisco to Nepal is preparing to take off. The viewer sees a seaplane bobbing at dockside as its engines start to turn over, with a 1930s industrial shipping port behind it. It’s an utterly convincing recreation of the period… and the only things that are real in the shot are the airplane itself and the water beneath it. Everything else is just paint on glass. The famous warehouse shot at the end of the film is another matte painting, in which the only real element is the narrow strip of floor along which the guy is pushing the boxed-up Ark. When this sort of sleight-of-hand works, it’s both elegant and brilliantly effective; your eye tends not to notice the static quality of the painted environment because it’s following the movement of the “live” elements.

Peter Ellenshaw did not work on Raiders, but if you’re a fan of classic Disney movies, you’ve seen his paintings. He contributed to dozens of titles, including Treasure Island (the London harbor), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Captain Nemo’s volcanic hide-out), The Love Bug (various San Francisco backgrounds), and Mary Poppins (the London skyline, the park where Mary takes the children). In later years, he did more fine art than film work, but he still lent his talents to a couple of my favorites, namely The Black Hole and his final film, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy in 1990. (While I consider both of those guilty pleasures, I still think the latter is vastly misunderstood and underappreciated.)

It makes me especially sad when we lose somebody like Ellenshaw, who practically personified a magical art form that modern filmmakers have largely turned away from in favor of the new, shiny, technological methods. There are cases where matte paintings didn’t work for various reasons (there’s one in the original, unaltered version of The Empire Strikes Back, for example, where the camera angle was wrong and the resulting image looks flat), and, as I admitted, they’re not as flexible as CGI solutions, but I’ve always been fascinated by the effective examples, like the ones in Raiders as well as so much of Ellenshaw’s work. He, as much as any single person, is responsible for the charming, storybookish look and feel of Disney’s live-action classics. And I just don’t believe that look and feel will ever be reproduced using ones and zeroes.

Peter Ellenshaw died Tuesday, at the age of 93. Here is a fairly detailed obit, and here is a blog tribute that demonstrates what a genuinely decent human being Ellenshaw must’ve been, in addition to his prodigious talents.

Incidentally, here’s an interesting trivia note for you: Peter Ellenshaw’s son Harrison has done some matte painting as well, working with his dad on The Black Hole and solo on a number of lesser Disney titles from the ’70s. Oh, and then there was that little science fiction flick that I saw as a kid, that one that nobody remembers…