Magazine article American Cinematographer

Making the Unreal Real with Matte Paintings

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Making the Unreal Real with Matte Paintings

Article excerpt

A bit of paint and a whole lot of imagination can add tremendous scope to a motion picture, but painting the matte is only a small part of the operation. Getting it onto film is the real challenge.

No man has ever seen a black hole, but that did not stop Harrison Ellenshaw from creating one at Walt Disney studio for their epic $20 million deep-space adventure, THE BLACK HOLE.

Making the unreal, real is old business for Ellenshaw. In 1974, Nicholas Roeg asked him to do the matte work for THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. George Lucas approached him in 1976 with an idea for a then highly speculative, little known film called STAR WARS. Ellenshaw remembers that Lucas originally planned seven mattes, but was so taken with the results, that he upped the number to thirteen.

On Disney's THE BLACK HOLE, the number is 150. As a result, Harrison hired every available matte artist and trained new people. The Disney studio now has the largest matte department in Hollywood, employing half the artists in town, working double shifts daily.

Harrison's original career plans did not include the movie industry. His father, Peter Ellenshaw, is an Academy-Award winning matte artist, production designer and director of special effects. Young Ellenshaw took a psychology degree in college and then joined the Navy. After discharge, the only job of interest was in the matte department at Disney under Alan Maley. Maley taught Harrison the fundamentals of painting and matte work and when he retired in 1974, Harrison replaced him as head of the department.


QUESTION: Why are there so many matte shots in THE BLACK HOLE?

HARRISON: The Cygnus was designed with few corners in it and it was very long-one main corridor extended the entire length of the ship, 1,000 feet. Obviously, something this size could not be constructed as a full set. But the story demanded it, and it allowed us to have a big dogfight with the robots.

A good 70 feet of set was built and we extended it with mattes to the full 1000 feet. So just in the main corridor alone, we had some 30 matte shots in addition to transitional shots and chases in other corridors.

The second reason is the black hole itself. It is a combination of many elements and effects. The main element, the center, was done in a large tank and shot 15-times normal. We took that, looked at it and it was still going too fast, so we tried to double frame it, but it was too jerky. So we experimented and found that a cross dissolve worked out very well. We shot the footage twice, half-exposure each time through. The first time, we exposed the first frame and then the second frame for the next three successive frames, then the third frame for the following three frames, etc. The second time we exposed the first frame for three frames, then the second frame for three frames, the same pattern, only slipped two frames. The result was one pure frame, then two frames of cross dissolve, then a new pure frame. Amazingly enough, though I didn't think it would work, it did. It was David Mattingly's idea and it gave the whole thing more scale.

We rear projected that and added a painting of the stars. On the edges, there were three other burn-ins, white painted on black velvet and projected with color filters. The end result, to make the black hole plate, consisted of separation masters of the black hole, cross dissolved, burn-ins, the painting and even a little diffusion on the outside of the black so it is soft and moving. Eight elements all together.

QUESTION: Did you do that for each black hole?

HARRISON: We used it as a completed plate in some cases. It was photographed in VistaVision. We made separation masters from that. It is another generation, but the quality held up quite well.

There were times where we couldn't do that, we had to get a closer shot. …

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