Monday 21 October 2013

Albert Whitlock and Alfred Hitchcock (more matte paintings) - part one

As you might remember (from this post or this post), I'm a big fan of matte paintings, the artform where a painting on glass extends, exaggerates or hides elements to make the image more arresting.  An integral part of cinema since 1907, the artwork produced was often staggering and - a lot of the time - invisible to the eye.  Matte painting is still a key component of film production now, of course, but it's all digital these days which creates a different atmosphere to the old oils on glass technique.

This is part of an ongoing series of posts, where I'm going to blog about various artists and the films they created work for.  "Return Of The Jedi" was the last one, this time I'm going to discuss Albert Whitlock and his long association with Alfred Hitchcock, one of my favourite directors, who made extensive use of matte paintings in most of his films.

Albert Whitlock (1915 - 1999) began work as a page at Gaumont Studios in London in 1929, before moving up to build sets.  After training as a sign painter, he worked on Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) creating miniatures for it and “The 39 Steps” (1935) and began working as a matte painter during World War II.  Finding work with Disney, he relocated to the US in the early 1950s and stayed with Disney until moving to Universal in 1961, where he headed up the matte department and resumed his close working relationship with Hitchcock.

He created over seventy paintings for “Earthquake” (1974) and won an Academy Award for his work.  He won another Oscar the following year for “The Hindenberg”, in which he re-created the airship and it’s final voyage.  As well as film work, Whitlock is also famous as the matte painter for the original series of “Star Trek” (though, sadly, his work was replaced by CGI replicas in the remastered DVDs).

He retired in 1985.

1975 - Oscar for Visual Effects for “Earthquake” (shared with Frank Brendel, Glen Robinson)
1976 - Oscar for Visual Effects for “The Hindenburg” (shared with Glen Robinson)
1985 - Emmy for Visual Effects for “A.D.” shared with Syd Dutton, Mark Whitlock, Bill Taylor, Dennis Glouner, Lynn Ledgerwood

His first film back with Hitchcock was "The Birds" (1963)
Probably the most famous shot of the film, this extensive matte then had seagulls composited onto it.

 Everything above the shoreline (masts, hills, the sky) is a Whitlock painting

Whitlock's view of the bay

 The bleak - and terrifying - final shot
This is the original Whitlock painting, which was produced much lighter than would finally be used.  The blacked out area is for the live action - the car, driving away - and the foreground tree, fence and birds were shot as live elements and later composited into the shot.
This is a great image and is on screen for a long time.

Marnie (1964)
 The only real part of this is the girl, the car and the bit of the car park

The only live action element here is Sean Connery, Tippi Hedren and the small area they are walking on

Torn Curtain (1966)
 Paul Newman, the pavement and the columns to the first 'knuckle' are real

 A superb shot, that just gets better the more you look at it.  On the left, the final image of Paul Newman.  On the right, the only part that was actually shot live.

Another substantial painting, with the image on the left being the live action element.  From the final frame on the right, you can see that the floor pattern was finished, columns added and additional floors at the side.

End of part one

Part two (which you can find here) 
includes 'Frenzy', one of my favourite Hitchcock films

with thanks to NZ Pete, for his superby researched and lavishly illustrated blog Matte Shot - a tribute to Golden Era special fx and also to the Whitlock Archives at Galeon.


  1. Fascinating post, Mark. I never knew about the Matte painting of scenes.

  2. Thanks Sue. The next post, if I do say so myself, will be even better with matte paintings from 'Frenzy' including a completely painted Covent Garden!