Thursday, 15 February 2007

THE GLASS WORLDS OF PETER ELLENSHAW

One day in the late 1940s, Walt Disney was walking through London when he came across a young Englishman drawing chalk pavement pictures. He was so impressed with the artist’s brilliance at creating realistic scenes, that he immediately offered him a job and took him off to Hollywood where he lived happily ever after creating special effects for dozens of Disney movies.

It’s a nice story, but total baloney! However, that’s the story that Walt Disney used to tell about Peter Ellenshaw (right) who died on Monday in California, aged 93.

Ellenshaw was one of the last great practioners of the now-lost art of matte painting - a special effects technique which involved making highly realistic paintings on plates of glass that, when placed in front of the camera while filming a scene in a movie, extended the physical settings in which the actors were filming to create elaborate interiors or dramtic and fantastic landscapes.

Born in Essex in 1913, Peter Ellenshaw learned his trade under Britain’s foremost special effects artist, W. Percy (‘Pop’) Day, assisting on such legendary movies as Things to Come, The Thief of Bagdad, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes.

After serving with the RAF during WWII, Ellenshaw retuned to the movies providing superb matte paintings for a quartet of live action features made by Walt Disney in the UK: Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue. Then, in 1953, Ellenshaw went to Hollywood to work on Disney’s lavish adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.


With one or two exceptions - he made uncredited contributions to Quo Vadis and Spartacus - Ellenshaw worked exclusively for Walt Disney on almost three dozen movies including such family classics as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, Pollyanna, Swiss Family Robinson, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and the film that won him an Oscar for his stunning London panoramas, Mary Poppins.


The moment when Mary Poppins, Bert and the Banks children, having climbed the smoke staircase, look out across the vista of chimneys, spires and domes as the sun sets and the street lights twinkle on is surely one of the most magical scenes in a magical movie.


In 1979, I had the privilege to host a Guardian Lecture with Peter Ellenshaw at the National Film Theatre when the artist came to London to promote The Black Hole - a truly terrible picture for which he was, nevertheless, justly Oscar-nominated for his powerful visual effects.

During the lecture he revealed that, in addition his extraordinary pictorial contributions to Poppins, he had assisted with the music and choreography, by first suggesting (and then demonstrating) to Walt Disney and composers, Richard and Robert Sherman, the Cockney song-and-dance called ‘Knees Up, Mother Brown’ which would provide the inspiration for the chimney sweeps’ ‘Step in Time’ number on the rooftops.

Then, grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the safety of my interviewer’s chair, Peter insisted that I join him in doing a knees-up for the audience - one of the most humiliating moments in my media career!


Of course I forgave Peter Ellenshaw for the embarrassment he caused me, because he was a truly formidable talent - not just for the extraordinary visual creations he brought to the cinema screen (work done nowadays using a computer), but also for the strikingly beautiful landscapes and seascapes that he painted for his own satisfaction and which now hang in many public and private collections.






As Bert, that other pavement artist working near Cherry Tree Lane, observes:

"Today, I'm a screever, and as you can see,
A screever's an artist of 'ighest degree,
And it's all me own work
From me own memory..."



Visit the Ellenshaw Family website to learn more about Peter Ellenshaw and his son (and fellow artist) Harrison Ellenshaw and their work inside - and outside - the House of Mouse.

11 comments:

Scrooge said...

Some teriffic paintings there Mr B.I remember seeing some matte paintings made for the Hitchikers Guide series which was made in 1980 so at least the art survived until then.

Good Dog said...

While it's so much easier to do it all digital now, somehow there's a little bit of the magic missing amongst the bytes.

The work of Peter Ellenshaw and that other marvellous matte painter Albert Whitlock is sorely missed.

I guess the work on P&P's A Matter of Life and Death must have included the phenomenal monochrome heaven sequences.

Brian Sibley said...

That great courtroom in the clouds which is one of the most extraordinary scenes in cinema...

Good Dog said...

Just seen that the National are going to stage an adaptation of A Matter of Life and Death. Might be interesting.

Ah! The pull back from the court to the giant galaxy in space.... Such an incredible visual flair and imagination!

And then The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus and.... well, it's obvious what my desert island movies would be.

Brian Sibley said...

At Peter Ellenshaw's Guardian lecture we showed that astonishing shot in BLACK NARCISSUS when the nun rings the convent bell on the very edge of that sheer, dizzying drop from the mountainside into a unfathomable abyss...

Stunning! And the entire illusion of place created on glass...

Good Dog said...

Did you go to the screening of The Red Shoes (after the archive had struck a new print) back in... I think it was 1987. Mr Powell made an appearance and because it was either his birthday or very close to, the audience sang "Happy Birthday" to him. Magical!

Brian Sibley said...

No, I wish I'd been there...

I find it tragic that Mr P and Mr P are underrated (or largely ignored) by today's movie nerds...

Michael Sporn said...

A beautiful gathering of paintings and shots. Those are excellent images from Mary Poppins and others. They excellently and effectively display the glass shots at work. Funny how the last image at Disneyland looks painted as well. Thanks for the great posting.

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you for coming by, Michael...

The last picture...? Well, yes, it is (as I'm sure you realised) another of Peter's paintings. It is called 'Walt's Magic Moment' and I included it because of the long association between Peter and the man of whom he said: "Walt Disney meant more to me than perhaps any other creative force in my lifetime."

Copies of this and many of Peter's paintings can be purchased on-line from the Ellenshaw family website to which a fine appreciation has now been added.

Andrew Glazebrook said...

I really loved his work on the Black Hole,the miniature FX were cool and Harrison Ellenshaws matte work was great also. Do you know if Harrison has retired from the industry as as far as I can see his last film was Escape from L.A in 1997 ?

Brian Sibley said...

According to his own biography (see link to the Ellenshaw family site at the end of the original posting) Harrison worked on 'Pelican Brief' and whilst he is not shown among the credits for that film, his sister Lynda (Ellenshaw) Thompson is, so maybe his contribution was uncredited.

The Ellenshaw site refers to Harrison's other work as an artist (including collaboration with his father on art for Disney special edition collectibles) and mentions that he is writing a biography of legendary British special effects artist, Percy W Day ('Pop' Day) with whom Peter Ellenshaw served his apprenticeship.

What is curious is that Day is referred to as Harrison's 'grandfather'... This was news to me. So, whether Peter married Day's daughter or was, in fact, Day's son and never spoke of the relationship in case it sounded like nepotism, I don't know...

If anyone can throw any light on this mystery, please do so!