By William Kallay
Harrison Ellenshaw has had the pleasure of working
with some of the biggest names in the movie business. Darth Vader.
Herbie the Love Bug. Tron. Dick Tracy. Captain EO. Xena. In a roundabout
way, he's even worked with the Academy Award-winning visual effects
artist, Peter Ellenshaw. Incidentally, Peter is his father. The younger
Ellenshaw is no slouch when it comes to having an impressive roster of
credits. He has worked in and supervised the matte painting and visual
effects departments on many films, including "Star Wars: Episode IV - A
New Hope" (1977), "Pete's Dragon" (1977) and "The Black Hole" (1979).
It was on the film "The Black Hole" in which I first saw Harrison Ellenshaw's name during the end credits. As one of many children of the visual effects era of the late '70s, I used to scan the credits for who did the effects on a particular sci-fi or fantasy film. There were the usual suspects. John Dysktra was a hero, due to his work on the original "Star Wars." Douglas Trumbull sounded familiar at the time, though I couldn't pinpoint who he was exactly. Turns out, he worked on "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" (1977). He was a hero, too. But who was this Harrison Ellenshaw?
Ellenshaw, as I learned, worked in the medium of matte painting. Combining the artistry of painting on glass and live-action photography, mattes could create the illusion of a swirling, ominous black hole in outer space, or the vast Cloud City chamber in which Luke Skywalker confronts Darth Vader in "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). His work, and the work of other matte artists like his father ("20000 Leagues Under The Sea," 1954) and Albert Whitlock ("The Birds," 1963), was photo-realistic, yet, had a human touch. I found it amazing that such detail and realism could be made from the hand of a skilled artist. Ellenshaw's signature work includes the Death Star's seemingly miles-deep power shaft, the Mos Eisley spaceport and Rebel Throne Room mattes, all featured in "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope."
During the 1980s and 1990s, Ellenshaw worked as a visual effects supervisor on a number of films, including the afore mentioned "Tron" and "Captain EO." It should be noted that Disney, for a number of years, experimented with a variety of film formats in feature and special venue filmmaking. CircleVision-360, in which nine 35mm cameras shot images and then projected them via nine projectors in a theatre, a specially modified 65mm 3-D format, VistaVision, Technirama and Super Panavision 70. With the exception of CircleVision-360, Disney often made 70mm prints from those formats.
After his work on "Dick Tracy" in 1990, Ellenshaw took over Disney's effects facility, Buena Vista Visual Effects (BVVE) until 1996. In addition to feature effects work on over 40 films, BVVE also maintained the Park Films division and Library Restoration program for the studio. This gave Ellenshaw an opportunity to work in a number of varied film formats. He recently spoke about his involvement not only in visual effects, but work in large format and digital cinematography. He was also kind enough to give FSTD readers an insight into his background in visual effects.
William Kallay, From Script To DVD: How did you become involved with being a visual effects supervisor?
Harrison Ellenshaw: I started many, many years ago as an apprentice matte artist at Disney Studios, working for Alan Maley, a gifted artist, who became my mentor. Alan had a tremendous enthusiasm for the movies, and during the four years that I worked for him I not only learned a lot about painting and visual effects, but I developed a great appreciation for the power of the narrative film. In the '50s, Disney had begun to use VistaVision for effects plates. So when I went to work there in the '70s, they were the only studio in town using this large format. When Alan retired, I took over as matte department head. The department continued to work on Disney films and television shows, but considering the rather mediocre quality of the Disney product in the '70s (they were still doing “Herbie” sequels and some rather uninspired and insipid family films), I yearned to do effects for outside films. In 1975, I got my first chance to work on a non-Disney film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring David Bowie. This was followed by an incredible bit of luck as I was asked to do some matte paintings for a highly speculative science-fiction film called “Star Wars.” Ironically, the decision had already been made by [writer-director] George Lucas to shoot the visual effects plates in VistaVision. That was the good news; the bad news was the old converted Technicolor cameras were notoriously unsteady. This unsteadiness was not an issue with most of the blue screen photography, but for compositing with paintings this created a real problem, since one could easily see a misregistration of the live-action plate with the held painting. We had to go to great lengths to disguise this jiggle. In the end, I suppose we were relatively successful. I never got any letters, and the film seemed to do okay at the boxoffice!
FSTDVD: I can imagine that “Star Wars” was probably a nice addition to your resume.
Ellenshaw: Working on “Star Wars” was a big boost to my career, even though I worked on only a small number of shots. Though I had expanded responsibilities on the next picture, “The Black Hole,” I was only a department head. My father, Peter Ellenshaw, was the visual effects supervisor on that film and it was very exciting to work for and with him. We had never really worked directly together before, although he was the production designer on Disney's “Island At The Top Of The World” (1974). At that time I was still a very lowly assistant in the matte department washing brushes, and trying to soak up as much as I could about matte painting and visual effects from Alan Maley. I didn't even get a credit on "Island," but all things considered, that's something I certainly don't regret. After “The Black Hole,” I was again very fortunate to be asked to be matte department head for “The Empire Strikes Back.” This turned out to be the last film for which I would do matte paintings exclusively.
FSTDVD: How did you go from supervising mattes to supervising visual effects?
Ellenshaw: When I started as an apprentice matte artist, the artist always went to the set or location to supervise the plate photography for the shot. Alan Maley would sometimes take me along when he went to supervise the live action. It was an incredible experience. You had to know enough to know what lens to use, where to put the camera, how to stage the action for continuity, how to back up the action with something “safe” to paint to, etc. There were so many things to think about it was very intimidating. Within a year or two I got my first chance to supervise a plate shot on my own. Sure enough the camera assistant had loaded the VistaVision camera with the film emulsion facing away from the lens. This made the shot unusable and I was pretty embarrassed at dailies. Needless to say the shot had to be reshot. But I had tasted my first experience of taking the responsibility for the plate and ultimately the shot. There was a rush of satisfaction when everything finally worked. Probably made all the better by the fact that not every shot did work perfectly. But when it did I just wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment again and again. It was addictive, so becoming a visual effects supervisor seemed the natural thing to do. And my first visual effects supervisor job was “Tron.” Talk about being thrown into the deep end!
FSTDVD: What are some of the duties you performed in the position of visual effects supervisor?
Ellenshaw: The role of a visual effects supervisor is basically two-fold: (1) to understand the director's/writer's vision, and (2) to find effective ways to implement this vision. Establishing a trust with the filmmakers is key, but not always easy to achieve. Few people understand visual effects. Sometimes the trial and error aspects of the process can lead to misunderstandings and a high level of anxiety while waiting for the first shots to come together. Thankfully, the immediacy and flexibility of digital image processing has made this all a lot easier. But it still takes some patience (on the part of all parties) as the visual effects supervisor is usually told at the beginning, "We want to see something no one has ever seen before? Just don't spend a lot of money!"
FSTDVD: Which large format film systems have you worked with during your visual effects career?
Ellenshaw: VistaVision, 65mm and Dual 65mm-3D. For Disney Park Films, we were involved in lot of formats including Imax, CircleVision and a custom format developed by Ub Iwerks for the “Hall of Presidents.”
FSTDVD: How was your experience on “Captain EO?”
Ellenshaw: “Captain EO” was an incredible experience. It was a real pleasure to once again work for [executive producer] George Lucas. It had been five years since I had worked on “The Empire Strikes Back,” and I was thrilled to be asked to supervise the effects on this very ambitious project starring Michael Jackson. Our intrepid director, Francis Ford Coppola, was also quick to embrace the 3D medium, stating that he wasn't going to just push the envelope of 3D effects; he was going to break it! When I heard that, I knew it was going to be an entertaining project in more ways than one. The cameras that were used were on a rig that had been modified and improved since its initial use on a previous Disney 3D park film, “Magic Journeys” . The effects on that show were remarkable, and we were fortunate enough to build on their experience.
FSTDVD: What were some of the challenges working with the twin 65mm-3D cameras?
Ellenshaw: Well, in addition to many other effects challenges due to large format 3D photography, a huge amount of 3D effects animation was required on “Captain EO.” So it was with great anticipation that we waited to see if the first test done by our animation supervisor, Barry Cook, would have any 3D to it. Well, it did! In fact, it was spectacular. He had designed a grid system for the effects animators to utilize so that they could draw the left eye animation to correspond to the right eye animation in proper perspective. Shooting miniatures in 3D can also be complicated, since the very small interocular distance required on the camera can be so small, that a slight wobble in the projection of the film may result in an overlapping of the image, causing it to flatten out. But since “Captain EO” would be presented only in Disney park venues, the custom-designed Disney projectors projected a very steady image. I was adamant about using 65mm for all effects shots. But this meant that we could not use most motion control systems in town, as they were set up with VistaVision cameras. So we modified the Disney ACES motion control system using the camera platform as the model mover, while placing a 65mm camera on a motion control tilt and pan tied-off head. However, the model mover became so loaded up with heavy lights and a very large model (needed to maintain depth of field and a reasonable interocular distance), that it literally bogged down, and would stall during the long exposures required during hours and hours of shooting with very small aperture settings on the lens. We had also decided not to use blue screen, since no aerial head 65mm optical printers were available. Therefore, many extra passes of motion control photography were required to shoot backlight mattes for compositing. And all passes had to be done twice, with slight offset for left eye and right eye.
FSTDVD: The production had a few hurdles to overcome, didn't it?
Ellenshaw: There was a lot of pressure with such high-powered luminaries associated with the film. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells had just taken over Disney; Jeffrey Katzenberg was in charge of the studio. So there was a lot at stake with this project. And the scope of effects work kept growing. Originally, the 16-minute film was going to have 40 effects shots, but we ended up doing over 160, and all for original budget, I might add. Then deep into post-production, George Lucas indicated that he was unhappy with the design of Captain EO's spaceship (this, after models had been built and photographed), and so a new ship had to be designed and built. Running out of time, we asked ILM to shoot the new ship and composite the related shots. This they did, using VistaVision, since they had no 65mm equipment available, but by using fine grain film stock and careful optical printing, they managed to closely replicate the resolution of 65mm.
FSTDVD: Over the years since the release of “Tron,” there have been different reports on which format the principal photography and visual effects were shot. Do you mind clarifying which formats were used for the live action and visual effects sequences?
Ellenshaw: Original photography for “Tron” -- both the real world and electronic world -- was shot in 65mm. In the electronic world, EACH frame of 65mm black-and-white (Double-X) negative was enlarged onto 16 x 20 Kodalith cels. There were about 75,000 of these enlargements made. Then, each of these enlargements were used to make additional contact (same size) Kodalith cels and from these, hundreds of artists rotoscoped onto 16 x 20 clear animation cels thousands of isolation mattes. All these Kodaliths and rotoscoped mattes (over half a million) were photographed on animation stands with VistaVision cameras. Hence, the cut original negative for “Tron” consists of BOTH 65mm AND VistaVision. From this cut original negative, an interpositive [IP] and internegative [IN] were made in both 65mm and 35mm anamorphic formats for the production of theatrical prints. By the way, the special 20th anniversary DVD of “Tron” is a transfer I helped supervise directly from the 65mm and VistaVision original negative.
FSTDVD: Why was it decided to shoot “Tron” in 65mm?
Ellenshaw: For two reasons: (1) the larger negative area, and considering that we still had to blow up each frame onto 16 x 20 Kodaliths, we needed the extra resolution. (2) We didn't go with VistaVision because none of those cameras were blimped for sound; the 65mm Super Panavisions were.
FSTDVD: Was VistaVision used for the effects work in “The Black Hole?”
Ellenshaw: You bet. Disney had a VistaVision production camera that they had bought from Paramount; the big ones with the 2,000-foot magazines that Mitchell had built in the early '50s. My father had it for the matte department when he was running that in the '50s and early-'60s. Though the purchase and idea of using VistaVision and rear projection of separation masters was probably Eustace Lycett's. Anyway, when I first got in the business Alan Maley had upgraded the existing VistaVision camera with Leitz 9Leica lenses. I remember testing them in the early-'90s and they were better than Nikkors or Canons and we got a Leicaflex body to use with the Leitz lenses for taking stills for reference. For “The Black Hole” we used the VistaVision camera a LOT with those fabulous Leitz lenses to shoot plates. We had it on the set all the time and shot at least one or two set-ups a day with it.
FSTDVD: Before the release of “The Watcher In The Woods” in 1980, Disney News magazine ran a short promotional article on the film. In the text, it included a reference to 70mm. Were any 70mm or large formats used for any portions of the production, and do you recall if there were any 70mm release prints struck in 1980, or for the 1981 re-release?
Ellenshaw: I cannot recall if 70mm prints were made, but they probably were. In those days, the big benefit from 70mm was related more to the improved sound quality than the picture. 70mm had magnetic stereo sound applied individually to each print; a real improvement over the optical tracks on 35mm prints. I was only involved in the re-shoot of the end sequence of “Watcher In The Woods” for the re-release. All effects shots were originated in full aperture 35mm [commonly known today as Super-35].
FSTDVD: As a matte artist on films such as “Star Wars” and “The Black Hole,” did you have to compose your mattes for large format and/or widescreen photography?
Ellenshaw: Yes, I had to compose my matte paintings for widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio [aka 2.35:1 and 2.39:1], which is the aspect ratio George Lucas has used for the “Star Wars” series. “The Black Hole” was also shot in 35mm anamorphic with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. It is much easier to compose for this aspect ratio than it is for 1.85:1. The 2.40:1 aspect ratio, when projected properly, shows the audience the 35mm frame in its entirety. Since many TV versions are broadcast letterboxed, this also allows the viewer to see all of the image. With 1.85:1, the theatrical audience may see only a portion (albeit a large percentage) of the image, even though it is composed for this aspect ratio. This is because these films record more image top and bottom for use in foreign theatrical presentations, as they utilize a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Therefore, international viewers usually see more image area than those in the U.S. and Canada. However, the same logic doesn't apply to the TV aspect ratio of 1.33:1, since that is typically a much-reduced TV safe extraction from within the 1.66:1 area.
FSTDVD: “Dick Tracy” was
considered to have been filmed in 65mm. Some tests were filmed by
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, as I recall, but ultimately, the film was
shot in 35mm, then released with a number of 70mm prints. Still, was
there any large format visual effects work in this film?
Ellenshaw: I didn't begin my work on “Dick Tracy” until the film was in post-production. At that time, I was told that it was the intent to compose all shots for 1:33:1 AND 1:85:1. No one could explain to me how such impossibility would be achieved. But since Disney had no interest in spending extra money to create special 1:33:1 aspect ratio release prints (something the filmmakers probably should have considered when they discussed film formats initially), the issue appeared resolved. Most of the plates for the effects were shot in VistaVision, except for a few shots which utilized sodium vapor traveling matte photography, a dual film strip 35mm system for which Disney owns exclusive U.S. rights. It was a huge challenge to composite matte paintings and opticals using elements shot without a definitive and clear idea of what the final aspect ratio should be. In addition, Storaro had convinced Warren Beatty and the studio that all the prints should receive an ENR treatment, which makes the blacks richer, but desaturates the color. With such a vibrant color design created for the film, this along with the wacky aspect ratio decision seemed to make little sense to me. I do not recall if there were any 70mm prints made of “Dick Tracy,” I don't believe so. I think I would remember, as that would have only made matters worse if we would have had to consider a third aspect ratio.
FSTDVD: Indeed, there was quite a large run of 70mm prints made for “Dick Tracy.” Some were even combined with the first commercial use of digital sound, Cinema Digital Sound (CDS).
Ellenshaw: Thanks for refreshing my memory. I wonder if those 70mm prints were "ENR'd" or not? I just don't remember seeing any of them. If they were not "ENR'd," then the color must have been really spectacular.
FSTDVD: My recollection is that the blow-ups were in a side-matted 1.85:1 ratio and that the color was quite vivid. Do you think 65mm and VistaVision should be used in today's visual effects films, or has digital technology rendered them obsolete?
Ellenshaw: There will always be a place for large format photography. Film as an image-recording medium will eventually be completely replaced by CCD chips and then even newer technology. But just like pieces of halide crystal, the more pixels you can assign to an image, the better. Hence, large formats will always yield better resolution and quality than small formats.
FSTDVD: Do you have a preference of which format to use when you're involved with a film project?
Ellenshaw: It all depends on the presentation of the piece. What will be the type of screen? CRT? LED? LCD? White canvas? Perforated screen? Or...? What will be the aspect ratio? What will be the size of the screen? But if cost were no object, I would use a 60 frame-per-second, progressive scan digital camera with the biggest CCD chip available. And with digital projection, of course.
FSTDVD: You’ve worked in nearly every filmmaking format available. But you’re also a forward thinker in terms of new technology. What do you like about digital cinematography and digital projection?
Ellenshaw: I won't miss the dirt and scratches that are all too common with film. Digital storage is getting cheaper and smaller all the time, as opposed to film that will remain the same physical size indefinitely and the cost of film will always rise over time. With digital, there’s no more reloading (unless you're using tape and that's almost gone). There is no waiting for dailies with digital like there is with film. To have to send in your storage/recording media and have it developed and printed in order to see an image will seem almost insane in a very short period of time. Think of still cameras. Do you know anyone who goes to the camera store or drug store and orders prints from film anymore? And digital projection? What's not to like about a steady clean image that is equal in film in terms of color fidelity and resolution? And it will only get better.
FSTDVD: A lot of matte painting today is done on a computer. Are any mattes done via hand and brush today, and have you worked with digital mattes?
Ellenshaw: After the live-action plate has been shot I believe the best way to create a good matte painting composite is to layout/block in the painting with brush and paints first around the plate. Not many people do this because they lack the ability to paint and a true understanding of perspective -- which can take years to master. Regretably, digital has provided the means to skip this step. However, the problem with skipping the "blocking in with paint" step is that the matte artist never gets a sense of the geography of the image. An effective image in a narrative sequence of moving imagery is a result of many things including composition. Often misunderstood and usually underrated, composition is an important key to great art. Most artists spend their life struggling to create good composition. It is what guides the eye; it is what gives weight to certain areas of the image; it is what tells the story. The process of drawing or painting is nothing like cutting and pasting. There is a flow, a rhythm -- unconscious choices of how to block in the image -- a kind of zen-like push and pull of elements that if done properly creates a successful image. It is impossible to describe fully in words. A mouse and a monitor do not adequately allow the artist to create his or her composition with the same organic flow that doing a painting does.
What the digital aspect of matte painting does today is provide the means to make perfect matches of color and texture between the live action plate and the painting. As well as composite and render the final image with high resolution. These are all very good things and I do not mean to minimize their importance. But to create a really excellent matte painting composite all the tools must be used properly.
FSTDVD: If you’ve worked with digital mattes, was there a difficult learning curve for you coming from painting on glass to painting with a mouse?
Ellenshaw: I haven’t found it too difficult to work on matte shots in digital. Photoshop is an amazingly powerful and friendly piece of software.
FSTDVD: You directed a film in 1989 called “Dead Silence.” Can you tell us a little about your experience on that film?
Ellenshaw: I learned that being a director can be the loneliest job on earth. I don’t think I’ll ever direct again; too much waiting and too frustrating, especially for a control freak.
FSTDVD: Can you tell our readers about some of the painting you’ve done recently?
Ellenshaw: I still enjoy painting outside of visual effects. My work is shown in different galleries in a number of different cities. I have just returned from Japan, where I am fortunate enough to have gained a following. I sometimes collaborate on paintings with my father. We do paintings of scenes from Disney films and publish giclées of these paintings which have become quite popular. We’ve been very fortunate.
FSTDVD: Thanks, Harrison.
Ellenshaw: My pleasure.
Special Thanks to Harrison Ellenshaw
*Ellenshaw was nominated for an Academy Award for his work. The other Visual Effects nominees on "The Black Hole" were Peter Ellenshaw, Art Cruickshank, Eustace Lycett, Danny Lee and Joe Hale.
Houston, David. The Magical Techniques Of Movie And TV Special Effects; Part IX; The Matte Artist: An Interview With P.S. Ellenshaw, Series Edited by David Hutchison, Starlog Magazine, June 1978
Smith, Thomas G. Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects, Del Rey, 1987
This is a revised version of an interview originally posted in 2002 at www.widescreenreview.com.
Originally posted here on September 27, 2004
Photos courtesy of Harrison Ellenshaw