Thursday, 7 December 2017

Forgotten Gems of Visual Effects Part Eight - JOAN OF ARC (1948)

I still enjoy many of those old 1940's and 50's epics that, when the budget permitted, saturated the screen in gorgeous 3-strip Technicolor splendor and lavish set design, while a thundering score by maestro's such as Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Elmer Bernstein or Alfred Newman splendidly punctuated the proceedings on screen making many a memorable viewing experience.

For todays blog I will be taking a trip down the proverbial cinematic backroad to 1948 where, under independent mogul-producer Walter Wanger and director Victor Fleming, star Ingrid Bergman and a cast and crew of thousands, a memorably grand, production was assembled.
The film - one of many to explore the same events - tells the story surrounding the popularity, strength and inevitable persecution of the fifteenth century Saint - an uneducated French peasant girl known as Joan of Arc who, during the 100 years war between France and Britain would lead armies and conquer territory in the name of her mother land, while at the same time antagonising the Religious and political establishment of the day, to her peril.  The events are supposedly based upon actual historical documents and apparently no expense was spared in creating as exact a narrative of events and the period as possible.

Interestingly, the film was not a Hollywood 'studio' picture at all and was actually an entirely independently financed production from Producer Walter Wanger.  Wanger had a solid track record while Producer at several studios in the thirties and early forties, and eventually went solo, and in doing so was responsible for such excellent pictures as Hitchcock's wonderful FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, Don Siegel's still chilling INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and the Susan Hayward disaster spectacular TULSA among many others. RKO would go on to release JOAN OF ARC but had nothing to do with the production itself.

Bergman with blimped Technicolor camera 
The film was, for several decades, only available in a severely truncated version running just 100 minutes, with almost 45 minutes missing.  I have both the annoying cut version - which tries so hard to cover the sprawling events via awkward narration to fill the many gaping holes - and the full length unedited version (sans voice over!) which is really the only way to go.
JOAN OF ARC though set in France and Britain was entirely filmed in California and at the old Hal Roach Studios, with extensive matte magic required to bring the shooting locations the appropriate 15th Century look (more about that later).  The picture was helmed by veteran top shelf director (and former Hollywood stuntman) Victor Fleming who of course had GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ under his belt to name but two from a long list of premium movies.  Sadly Fleming died shortly after completing JOAN OF ARC making this one his swan song.  The film was a veritable who's who of 1940's acting talent - some of whom were superb choices such as the always magnificent Ingrid Bergman, and some odd choices such as the scenery chewer extraordinaire that was Ward Bond!  Everybody's in this picture and unusually they all get full screen credit up front. 

Jose Ferrer in his debut screen performance as Charles VII King of France, in the first of many skin crawling characterisations (did Jose ever play a role with even a semblance of 'normal'?).  Bergman and Ferrer would both receive Oscar nominations for this show as did other categories, with both Cinematography and Costume Design winning that year for this film.  Speaking of talent in front of the camera, one of my all time favourite character actors, the great Francis L. Sullivan is there too, and as always is utterly compelling as he was in films such as David Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS.  Even respected Actor's Studio character icon of many a fine film, Jeff Corey (the Harry Dean Stanton of his era) turns up as a prison guard with a penchant for rape!

Star Bergman suiting up in armour.
Production wise, the film is right up there with the best of them and still looks great today.  The Special Photographic Effects consist of numerous matte paintings, some process work and a wonderfully executed action sequence involving rotoscope work.  In order to bring the visuals to life, Producer Walter Wanger and Director Victor Fleming each called in the services of technicians they had known and worked with previously, with Wanger signing up Photographic Effects maestro John P. Fulton, with whom he had worked on previous films such as the WWII Navy show WE'VE NEVER BEEN LICKED, while Director Fleming obtained the services of veteran Matte Painter and all round effects man Jack Cosgrove, with whom he had worked closely with on the gargantuan effects show that was Selznick's GONE WITH THE WIND some ten years earlier.  Cosgrove and Fulton had previously worked alongside each other at Universal during the early thirties on a few classics such as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN where Fulton was in charge of the (still) groundbreaking optical effects and Cosgrove painted the mattes.

Legendary matte artist and effects man Jack Cosgrove.
Both Cosgrove and Fulton remain two of my favourite trick shot practitioners from the Golden Era (and beyond).  Jack Cosgrove started off in effects work in the late 1920's and would be most acknowledged as a matte artist and something of a master of the artform.  Jack worked at Universal with fellow matte artist Russell Lawson for a few years then did some time at Columbia Pictures in their matte department as well as doing a few sideline independent matte jobs before joining David O. Selznick's small studio as chief of all Photographic Effects around 1936.  Jack masterminded trick shots on dozens of Selznick motion pictures, from split screen work on THE PRISONER OF ZENDA through to beautifully iconic matte shots on things as varied as the Technicolor THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, DUEL IN THE SUN, SPELLBOUND and THE GARDEN OF ALLAH to name just a few. 
Some years later Selznick's money man put the small studio into hiatus, Jack was to find work as contractor on the Charlie Chaplin classic THE GREAT DICTATOR followed by the role of Special Effects Director over at Warner Brothers on the famed Stage 5 where he would oversee trick shots on a ton of films such as the massive effects event, Michael Curtiz' PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE with it's incredibly intricate miniature set pieces and many matte shots and also noteworthy, the other Bogart war film  ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC.  Cosgrove would, for a time, work again on small independent productions such as INVADERS FROM MARS and others as artist for hire under Jack Rabin, Irving Block and Gene Warren on a string of cheesy 'B' movies like MONSTER FROM THE GREEN HELL before moving back with the big boys at Warner Bros for a period in the fifties where he painted period mattes of stately homes and a harbour filled with tall ships for THE SAN FRANCISCO STORY and some mattes of oil derricks for James Dean's GIANT.

From what I've been told, Cosgrove's life was really something.  His painting talents were envied by many yet his colleagues often found it hard to believe such superb mattes resulted from apparently slipshod working practices.  Matthew Yuricich outlined in his Oral History in my 2012 blog how Cosgrove would be slapping paint around with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, with ash frequently dropping into the wet oil paint, yet without a care in the world. 
The story goes that Jack would on occasion be pretty much drunk while on the job and teetering as if trying to keep his balance while rendering a matte, yet they all said the same thing; the final shot would look a million dollars on screen!  Jack's matte art was spontaneous, loose and instinctive - a far cry from most of the 'technical illustration' style so prevalent in the matte industry at the time. His longtime associate, Effects Cinematographer Clarence Slifer once said that Cosgrove had an innate ability to read through a script and immediately see where matte shots would benefit both the story and Jack's bank balance.  The more mattes Jack painted the more he got paid ... goes without saying.  Jack could envisage mattes where nobody else could, and films such as GONE WITH THE WIND are a testament to that.

One of the true legends of matte artistry, Jack Cosgrove, shown here with one of his matte painting set ups at the Selznick Studio during the production of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA in 1937, some ten years prior to his engagement by Walter Wanger on JOAN OF ARC.
The Co-Supervisor of Special Photographic Effects on JOAN OF ARC was another Hollywood legend, and one of the most insightful and creative forces in the field: John Phipps Fulton.  John was the son of Swedish born matte painter Fitch Fulton, whom I outlined in last month's blog on THE BIG TRAIL.  John got his start in the business around 1925 by working at the Frank Williams Laboratories - the only real optical effects operation available to budding film makers at the time.  Williams himself was a pioneer and had pretty much invented optical cinematography and the travelling matte system for black & white composites known at the time as the Williams Double Matting Process.  This was used on such films as THE LOST WORLD, KING KONG and THE INVISIBLE MAN and was the forerunner to all modern blue screen photo-chemical travelling matte techniques.  Fulton was a highly intelligent, focused though moody individual who soaked up everything around him and put this knowledge to good use when he got a job at Universal Studios as head of the Special Effects Department in 1931 which had previously been under the supervision of Phil Whitman through the 1920's and then Frank Booth.
Fulton with his three Oscars.
John would head the Universal FX Department for many years and created many of the most memorable moments of movie magic that so many fans of Golden Era genre movies can remember at a single sitting.  The unforgettable INVISIBLE MAN series, that still jaw dropping SON OF DRACULA optical set piece where the guy dissolves into wisps of thin smoke and drifts through the jail cell bars (much, much more impressive than it reads here!); the record setting number of trick shots John contributed to Hitchcock's fabulous SABOTEUR from ingenious miniatures, opticals, roto animation and many mattes in one of the biggest effects films of the decade (none of which seemed enough for Universal to even qualify Fulton a damned screen credit though! ... though I digress)
During the mid 1940's he would be employed by Samuel Goldwyn Pictures with the handshake 'promise' of being able to direct - a dream of John's that was never to be fulfilled.  Fulton did however gain notoriety with his work on a couple of Danny Kaye pictures, one of which, WONDER MAN, would win John the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  Fulton continued at Goldwyn for several years before taking on several assignments for Walter Wanger which included the Oscar nominated miniature work for TULSA and of course JOAN OF ARC.  Becoming disenchanted with his career prospects as they stood, Fulton took a job over at Warner Bros with Lou Litchtenfield where once again he would work with Jack Cosgrove.  John's biggest break would come with the untimely death of Paramount's long time chief of Special Effects, Gordon Jennings in 1953.  Paramount desperately needed an ace visual effects man and Fulton fitted the bill.  Among the hundred or so pictures John worked on at Paramount, two stand out.  Cecil B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS which won John another Oscar, and the George Pal bugs-on-the-rampage adventure THE NAKED JUNGLE which is one of my favourite special effects movies of all time.

The great John P. Fulton with his visual effects camera crew.

The famous ADDAMS FAMILY tv house by Luis McManus
Another key member of the Cosgrove-Fulton effects department on JOAN OF ARC was matte painter Luis McManus.  Luis was another old time title artist and matte exponent who had worked in the Roy Seawright Special Effects Department at Hal Roach Studios through the 1930's on such films as Laurel and Hardy's SWISS MISS and BUSY BODIES.  McManus would paint the interior of the vast French cathedral for the opening scenes of JOAN OF ARC and probably painted other shots too.  I presume Luis became involved due to the fact that JOAN was being made on the Hal Roach lot.  Later in his career Luis worked at Project Unlimited and supplied some additional mattes for both THE TIME MACHINE and JACK THE GIANT KILLER.  Among the television work Luis worked on were the series THE ADDAMS FAMILY (the famous house was a partial actual building with matte art extending the set and surrounds), and the show THE UNTOUCHABLES with McManus bringing his finished matte art into Project Unlimited for photography and compositing.  Jim Danforth mentioned meeting Luis in the early 1960's in his memoir Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama in which he described the UNTOUCHABLES painting:  "It was interesting for me to contrast the style of Luis with that of Albert Whitlock.  Luis's paintings were more detailed yet less realistic.  When Luis painted a brick building, he painted every brick.  In fact, Luis mentioned that he had calculated the number of individual bricks he had painted for that one UNTOUCHABLES shot."


Glorious saturated Technicolor frames with the perfectly cast Ingrid Bergman (who had wanted to make this for years) at top left; Jose Ferrer already showing signs of playing a career load of off-the-wall characters that you wouldn't want to spend a weekend in an isolated cabin with shown at top right; The great character actor Francis L. Sullivan at left in bottom left frame;  And at bottom right is Joan The Terminator, such is her passion for the cause.

An almost fully painted shot with just a patch of live action with the guys and the horse and cart.  Beautiful Cosgrove sky.

Part of the grand cathedral sequence which is wall to wall effects shots.  I'm not sure if this is a miniature (doesn't look it) or a matte painting with miniature bell matted in?  The next shot is a similar puzzler ...

Same sequence with this spectacular vista of the cathedral courtyard with a dozen bells a ringing.  Again, this shot has always puzzled me.  It's definitely a trick shot but just how it's been put together is a mystery.  Although the whole thing could be an elaborate miniature I'm more inclined to feel it's a large matte painting which has had a single live action bell element optically multiplied and printed in very skillfully by John Fulton.  John was after all a wizard on the optical printer and was never afraid of complex multiple superimpositions.

A full painting with candle flicker added optically.

The vast interior as a full matte painting by Luis McManus.  Effects man Jim Danforth knew McManus from the old Project Unlimited days and recalled Luis as being especially proud of this matte painting.  

A closer view of the wonderful Luis McManus cathedral matte art.  According to Jim Danforth, for purposes of shading McManus devised his own special neutral toning gray hue by mixing Alizarin Crimson and Phthalocyannine Green until it achieved a bluish gray and then added a touch of yellow to make the gray neutral.  "Luis said that this gray could be mixed with any colour to darken it without getting the unwanted colour effects that often occur when black is used to darken a colour." 
A full painting of some considerable magnificence.

An extensively painted Cosgrove shot where the demolished bridge, trees, landscape and sky are all matte art.  Just the water and the men on horseback are real.

Another mostly painted view with all of the frame just above the heads of the horsemen being artwork.

Approaching the town we have another example where most of the frame has been painted in by Jack Cosgrove.  The shot succeeds as it's so flawlessly composited with not a matteline to be seen in what must be a rather complicated blend.

This shot appears to be a complete painting.

The approach to the city of Vaucouleurs.

The court of Charles VII is a mostly painted shot with the matte commencing at the level of the flaming torches.  Classic Golden Era set extension to add in a ceiling.

One of those quick undetectable effects shots that nobody ever notices.  The top treeline of the hill along with the sky have been matted in by Jack Cosgrove.

A vast, sprawling vista combining a Southern Californian location shoot and a Cosgrove painted landscape.

The city of Orleans, prior to the bloody battle.  Love the sky.

Probably the best matte shot in the picture.  Everything here is painted with just a narrow strip of live action soldiers and a fluttering flag doubled in atop the battlements.  I like this one.

The Battle of Orleans.  I wonder whether director John Boorman got some of his extraordinary concepts and visual design for likeminded sequences in his masterpiece EXCALIBUR from this sequence?

Now this is a doozy of a scene.  During the brawl and mayhem a knight in shining armour backs his way across a flaming drawbridge while being defeated by Joan's army.  The bridge collapses mid way across and the knight is enveloped in an inferno.  Classic John Fulton trick shot here, and one which he used in various guises on several productions such as the James Whale FRANKENSTEIN and Hitchcock's SABOTEUR.  The set is a large scale miniature and the knight character has been rotoscoped meticulously amid the raging inferno with such finesse that flames seem to lick up and around the guy and the sides of the bridge have been hold out matted to allow the roto figure to fall behind it.  Brilliant!

Closer view of the roto optical work.

After the's all over bar the bleeding and wailing.  No Purple Hearts handed out here. Mostly matte art with just a small interior set where Ingrid Bergman goes about her business.
A minor matte painted 'top up' where pretty much all just above the heads of the foreground actors has been painted in, presumably due to sound stage limitations, rigging, lights and boom mike etc.
More cathedral matte magic courtesy of Jack Cosgrove.  Even in this longshot the indistinct Jose Ferrer exudes a sense of malevolence to all and sundry - BluRay viewers included.  They are about to decide the fate of a certain Joan of Lorraine, and a more shonky show 'trial' with a foregone conclusion you'd never see ... 

SPOILER ALERT ... the flick doesn't have a happy ending, though what would you expect for a Relapsed Heretic, Sorceress, Blasphemer, Idolatress and Apostate?  Astonishingly folks, these 'crimes' are still on the statutes and embraced as such some 500 years later in certain parts of the globe!!  :(

All eyes heavenward as Hugo Friedhofer's stirring Oscar nominated score wraps up the proceedings.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Forgotten Gems of Visual Effects Part Seven - THE BIG TRAIL (1930)


Pete's Editorial:

Hi there fellow fans of old time special photographic effects.  It's time for another examination of traditional hand made trick shot magic from days gone by, and in today's case, days VERY long gone indeed.

Just before we embark on today's dusty trail I'd like to put out a request on behalf of the family of former Selznick International Pictures matte artist, Spencer Bagtatopolis.  Spencer was active in the matte department from the mid 1940's and painted memorable shots on such high profile classics as DUEL IN THE SUN, THE PARADINE CASE, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (illustrated here), PORTRAIT OF JENNIE and others.  He also worked for RKO on several TARZAN adventures and later on for a time at 20th Century Fox in addition to being a well known gallery painter.
A book on Spencer is in advanced stages of completion, based largely upon letters and scrapbooks belonging to Spencer's widow, though the biographer tells me that the historic timeline largely dries up just before Bagtatopolis began his matte shot career, aside from several old photographs of some of his matte paintings. In the unlikely event that any of our readers have any information that could be of help please let NZPete know and I'll forward same to the biographer who would be most grateful.



Part of a special layout in Daily Variety for THE BIG TRAIL
I've forever been a great fan and follower of that most American of motion picture genre's: the western.  You just couldn't find anything else that's so quintessentially part of the fabric that makes up their identity.  I couldn't even guess at just how many cowboy pictures I've seen over the years, and continue to see. There have been so many great cowboy flicks over the past 80 odd years of Hollywood, with evergreen titles such as THE SEARCHERS,  JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HIRED HAND,  TRUE GRIT (the original of course), THE WILD BUNCH,  HIGH NOON, BAD COMPANY,  THE COWBOYS, SOLDIER BLUE,  THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE,  EL DORADO (a fave of NZPete) and a couple of recent titles such as Quentin Tarantino's wonderful THE HATEFUL EIGHT and another recent little known, though excellent, low budget Kurt Russell western with a genre twist, the utterly brilliant BONE TOMAHAWK which I can't recommend highly enough.  Rarely have I seen a film from this genre with such beautifully crafted dialogue and characterisations.  One for repeat viewing in my book.  See it, or face the eternal wrath of NZPete!

The Fox Studios went all out with promotion in 1930.
Today's retrospective looks at one of, if not the earliest of the epic western films Raoul Walsh's monumental THE BIG TRAIL produced by Fox in 1930.  The film is exceptional on a number of levels, not the least being the ground breaking use of the then revolutionary new wide screen process known as Grandeur which would see 65mm negative being utilised for one of the first feature length motion pictures.  It had been used experimentally on a couple of short subjects in 1929 and on one full length 'musical', which oddly was silent and had the lyrics etc on intertitle cards as the performers 'sang' their hearts out (!)  I'll talk more about the Grandeur Widescreen Process shortly.
A very young John Wayne with the very lovely Marguerite Churchill

As a movie, I'd regard THE BIG TRAIL as one of the best westerns ever produced.  It just hit's the mark for me on every level and even some ninety years on still seems relevant and barely dated (aside from the clunky direct sound recording unavoidable of the period).  The story revolves around a large wagon train of settlers crossing vast expanses of the American wilderness in search of a fresh life, complete with hardship, confrontation, betrayals, Indians, births and the inevitable deaths - the exact sort of narrative one might feel could be seen as 'cliched' but with the difference that this film did it all first.  The film succeeds in large part by an impressive ensemble cast where no one figure dominates the proceedings and all players get to shine in their own way with the many inter-relationships and much drama.  As a confirmed fan of John Wayne, it is a real thrill to see The Duke in his first lead billed role, though as I say, no one character takes precedence over the others, not Wayne who was yet to find true 'stardom' with John Ford a few years later.

Wide screen composition was an entirely new approach for cinematographers
THE BIG TRAIL is really one of the most honest and truthful westerns I think I've ever seen.  The entire two hour saga is told in an almost documentary fashion, with the Grandeur cameras merely observing the goings ons, and mostly in an unobtrusive manner.  I give director Raoul Walsh full credit here for bringing the proceedings together so well and so credibly,  The entire picture exudes a 'you are there' feel the whole way through, with barely a slack moment nor a wasted frame.  Anyone who enjoys a really good western should do themselves a service and see this film.

Technically the film is incredible.  The aforementioned Grandeur 70mm (sometimes known as Fox Grandeur) wide-screen photography is stunning.  Incidentally, the film was shot in dual formats - 70mm by cameraman Arthur Edeson as well as standard 35mm Academy ratio by associate cameraman Lucien Andriot - in order that Fox could ensure bookings at all movie houses regardless of projection equipment.  At the time of it's initial release there were only two venues in the US that could exhibit the Grandeur prints - Graumans Chinese in Los Angeles and The Roxy in New York.  Apparently the two versions as well as having the obvious compositional differences are also slightly different editorially.  I understand that later on Fox made optical reduction 35mm prints so as to retain the full 2.2:1 image to enable screening in any cinema.  Other studios experimented for a time with the large 70mm film format such as United Artists with the very strange THE BAT WHISPERS also that same year, though this variant was billed as 'Magnafilm'.

The original Grandeur 70mm camera

In the very interesting American Cinematographer article published in September 1930, cinematographer Arthur Edeson explained in detail the trials and tribulations of shooting on this new format.  Said Edeson:  "I had the typical conservative cameraman's attitude toward wide film. It might be alright as a novelty, but as a practical medium for serious artistic work it was impossible.  Everything, especially the new proportions of it's picture seemed absolutely wrong.  Since then I have spent more than six months photographing the 70mm version of Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL and in this time I have shot hundreds of thousands of feet of Grandeur film and the results have convinced me that I, and not the process, was wrong.  Now that the production is completed, I know that I shall find it difficult indeed to return to the cramped proportions of our present day standard film.  For 70mm photography has given me an entirely new perspective.  Instead of regarding things in the old, cramped Movietone frame, I now see them, photographically, as my eye naturally perceives them - in much the same proportions as the low, wide Grandeur frame".  The article goes on to explain the technical hazards that Edeson was confronted with:  "Another troublesome detail for which we found a sure cure was that of film curling and buckling.  A buckle in a 70mm camera is a terrible thing, for it not only ruins a large quantity of valuable film and often damages the camera, but it invariably makes the motor a total loss.  During our our first week's work on the picture we had several bad buckles - which meant new motors every time.  Naturally this was serious and it couldn't be allowed to continue.  So we spent all of our energies toward finding a cause for these buckles.  Eventually we found it to be caused by friction between the edges of the film and the magazines.  After that we took special pains in film loading, making sure that every roll of film used was absolutely true to it's spool, with no chance of touching the walls of the magazine".
Interestingly, neither Director Raoul Walsh nor Cinematographer Arthur Edeson saw so much as a single exposed frame of the film during production as the unit was constantly on the move across many locations and it would be some five months until either party could see any of the footage when the unit returned to Hollywood.  Not an uncommon aspect of shooting epics on far flung locales as I recall Director David Lean and Cinematographer Freddie Young experienced similar artistic hurdles when filming LAWRENCE OF ARABIA with both having to rely upon daily telegram reports from Technicolor Laboratories in London in order to know that the exposed footage was free of scratches or accidental fogging.

Veteran matte painter Fitch Fulton
As this is a special effects blog, THE BIG TRAIL is noteworthy as having a generous number of matte painted shots with scenic enhancements and moody atmospheric effects.  The film has no special effects credit though there is screen credit 'Settings by Harold Miles and Fred Sersen'.  Miles was an Art Director on many films while Sersen, as all of my readers will know by now was a legend in the visual effects community from the early 1920's through to the early 1950's having started off in glass shot work in the 1920's before becoming chief of all special effects at 20th Century Fox.  Just recently I was in contact with family members of Oscar winning effects wizard John P. Fulton and I was informed that John's father, Fitch Fulton - a well respected matte painter - worked on the matte shots for THE BIG TRAIL.  Fitch began as a scenic backing painter in vaudeville theatres and it was at the urging of his son John, who himself had just been given the headship of Universal's special effects department, that Fulton senior try out his artistic talents in the motion pictures.  Later Fitch would work again with Sersen as one of 20th Century Fox's regular matte department artists through the thirties and beyond and would also provide much wonderful matte artistry on films such as Fox's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY; David O. Selznick's GONE WITH THE WIND as Jack Cosgrove's primary matte artist where something of a record was set with the sheer volume of 3-strip Technicolor matte shots, and most of them being on original negative to boot;  CITIZEN KANE over at RKO, a stint with Larry Butler on the big Korda Studio's Rudyard Kipling adventure JUNGLE BOOK where Fitch painted many wonderful Academy Award nominated Technicolor mattes of steaming jungles and lost temples (for more on that topic, stay tuned for a special forthcoming blog on Painted Jungles with just about every matte I could find on the theme... Pete).
In the late 1940's Fitch headed the matte unit on what would become the Oscar winning effects showcase MIGHTY JOE YOUNG.  Odd fact:  Both John and Fitch had films up for the Best Visual Effects Oscar in 1949 - TULSA for John and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG for Fitch.  According to John's daughter, her father had something of a falling out with her Grandfather when Fitch's film took the effects Oscar over John's film that year (!)  Talk about family rivalry.  Fitch didn't even get the Oscar (nor was he expected to) as it was awarded to Willis O'Brien as overall special effects supervisor, and Fitch was but one of four matte artists on that big film...... though as usual, I digress. 

Effects artist Fred Sersen (centre) with his matte painters preparing in camera glass shots on the Fox lot probably in the early 1930's.  I've always wondered about this photo as the glass work closely resembles some of the shots seen in THE BIG TRAIL.
The mattes in this film look great.  Some are just 'top ups' to an existing location and others are full paintings.  I'm inclined to think that many may have been in camera glass shots, painted and photographed right on location such is the extraordinary clarity and high fidelity of certain mattes. These were certainly common at the time the film was made.  Others may be mattes in the true sense of the term whereby part of the frame has been masked off and a held take made with the cast, with the painted element added sometime later back at the studio.  Some shots barely exhibit a soft matte line while others are flawless blends of painted and real.  The visuals for the most part look original negative and must have looked terrific up on the big screen back in the day.  The BluRay edition looks magnificent.

So fellow Cowpokes, let's mosey on down to the ole' waterin' hole and see them thar varmits... (apologies to Yosemite Sam)

I'm a sucker for old time hand painted title cards. Absolutely a lost artform.

No effects credit, though I now know that Fitch Fulton was matte painter on this production and most likely worked under Fred Sersen - himself an experienced matte artist.

No, that's not the Tyrone Power you might think ... rather it's his father.

Never a truer word has been uttered...

Upper half of the frame is painted.  Trees, sky and moon.

This appears to be a matte as there is a soft line running across the scenery just above the wagons.

A stunning vista courtesy of Fitch Fulton and Fred Sersen.  Love that sky very much.

Distant hills and sky painted in.

Again, what seems to be a matte extension with entire horizon and sky added in.

Just look at the fidelity of that 70mm photography.

The rising dust from the horses passes behind the matte line or painted glass (I suspect the latter).
Although not at all related to this film I'm reminded of one of my all time favourite Duke Wayne lines, from THE UNDEFEATED made in 1969.  Right after Wayne suddenly guns down a slippery looking cowpoke, a very prim and proper Baptist lady utters:  "But why did you have to shoot that poor man?"  Duke's reply, in classic Wayne style:  "Well, the conversation kinda dried up".  Always cracks up NZPete.  Am I digressing?

Upper half painted.
A full painting with superimposed rising smoke element.

The photographic process may be called Grandeur but I think the matte artist adds just as much grandeur.

Not a visual effect, but the most beautifully staged and photographed sequence in the film, with opposing gunmen on either side of a fallen tree in the snow.  Pure poetry.

This stunt footage must have shaken up audiences back in 1930 with the near stampede of horses hooves right in the viewer's lap.

Not sure here but the sky is quite likely a painted augmentationSad sequence this as they bury their loved ones.

Nobody ever said this journey was going to be easy!  A beautiful matte shot that's so evocative of the thirties photographic effects style that NZPete is so partial to .... Love it!

As a comparison between the 70mm and 35mm prints, here's the former ...
... and this is the latter where this matte shot doesn't show up in the 70mm version for some reason?

Yes, yes ... I know ... any excuse to show the rather fetching Marguerite Churchill.  You don't like it? ... So sue me.

My favourite matte from THE BIG TRAIL ... Magnificent, moody and malevolent .

Matted in upper section of frame including tops of wagons, mountains and sky.

Great composition and integration of painted and real elements.

The frame grabs aren't very good but it's a doozy of a storm with animated lightning bolts and so forth.

Curious cloud design with one looking like a scarecrow in this dramatic skyscape.  Interestingly, in examining the matte sequences numerous times there isn't a one that has any evident matte line jiggle that I could detect (and I always look), not even when they cut away and come back.  Often in many shows I find that grabbing matte frames from the same shot either side of a 'cutaway' it's not unusual to toggle through the frames and see dramatic matte shift where the join or painting suddenly seem slightly out of register.  This isn't detectable usually when seeing the film in regular 24fps but is when viewing still frames as described here.  I've never figured out why this occurs??

My other favourite glass shot in the film.  So beautifully painted and above all blended with the live action with such crisp resolution that it just had to be a traditional foreground glass shot on location.

Mostly painted, and again, perfectly blended into the live action.  Give me this over the CG variant any day of the week friends.

And so endeth our cinematic journey along the big trail.

Two ace cinematographers side by side on location with their respective camera equipment.