Friday, 7 July 2017

Forgotten Gems of Visual Effects Part Two - FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1943)


 
The cumbersome Technicolor blimped camera

In this, the second part in my series examining a number of motion pictures overlooked and in many cases largely unknown to today's generation of multi-plex weened film audiences, we will be taking a look at the special photographic effects work from one of the biggest films of 1943, Sam Wood's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.  While the film itself is well known - based upon the immensely popular story of partisan fighters in the Spanish Civil War by Ernest Hemingway - and was a huge hit with audiences at the time, the technical aspects of the movie probably slipped by most fans of the film.  The three million dollar epic was headlined by two of Hollywood's greats, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman - both favourite actors of mine though I feel quite miscast in this instance.
Personally speaking, although I've never really read any of Hemingway's prose aside from something back in high school in the mid 70's, pretty much every motion picture adaptation of a Hemingway story has left me cold.  I simply don't get the guy. As popular as he was - and still is no doubt - that Hemingway headspace, mindset and especially his use of the English language (at least in the many movies I've seen over the years based upon his writings) in getting his narrative across remains completely lost on me ... period.  Generally, films based upon Hemingway's works are, for me, interminable and very much an acquired taste.

Gordon Jennings
A huge film in all respects, not least in it's mammoth near three hour running time, FWTBT was a very big visual effects showcase for Paramount's trickshot department headed by Gordon Jennings, with dozens of matte painted shots required to transform the Californian Sonora locations into 1930's period Spain with numerous miniatures utilised in the action sequences and often times split screened into painting/live action combination shots. While the many visual effects were generally effective and well integrated, the back projection shots tended to let the show down considerably, with process shots in general in most pictures rarely ever coming off with any degree of success when filmed in Technicolor at the time, despite the advances with high intensity illumination and multiple band projection.  It would be many years until colour rear projection shots would look acceptable.

Devereaux Jennings
Paramount's special effects department had had a number of chiefs over the years, with Roy Pomeroy, Oren 'Bob' Roberts and Farciot Edouart running things at various times before Gordon Jennings took over the role in 1933.  Gordon started in the industry as an assistant cameraman in 1919 before eventually shifting into trick photography.  Jennings would hold that post for twenty years until his sudden and untimely death in 1953 during a game of golf soon after completing the arduous effects work on George Pal's WAR OF THE WORLDS, from whence Paramount's visual effects would then be under the management of John P. Fulton.  The big, soft spoken Jennings was much liked by his close knit team at Paramount and would be the recipient of three Academy Awards and was lined up to provide visuals on Cecil B. DeMille's epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS - and was widely known as DeMille's favourite trick shot man - but fate stepped in and it sadly wasn't to be.
Gordon's older brother Devereaux Jennings had also joined the Paramount effects department in 1933 as VFX cinematographer and would work alongside his brother on many films for the next 19 years, shooting miniatures mostly.

Brothers in arms, and artistry - Irmin and Oren 'Bob' Roberts at work photographing various Jan Domela matte paintings for films such as THE EMPEROR WALTZ and THE GREAT GATSBY in the late 1940's.  *Many thanks to Irmin Roberts jnr and his wife Janet for this and other rare photos.


FX cameraman Irmin Roberts, upper middle.
Irmin Roberts was another key member of the photographic effects unit, having joined the studio in 1926 working off and on with his brother Oren, who for a time was head of the department.  With expertise in effects and matte photography, Irmin worked on hundreds of pictures made by the studio such as SPAWN OF THE NORTH for which he earned an Academy Award for it's special effects in 1938, FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (see further below), WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to name but a few.  Late in his Paramount tenure Irmin would be ace 2nd unit cinematographer on memorable films such as the 1953 hit film SHANE where Oscar winning D.O.P Loyal Griggs stated in his awards ceremony acceptance speech that the statuette really belonged as much to Irmin Roberts for his wonderful 2nd unit photography.  Roberts also invented several photographic effects procedures, one of which has become a mainstay even to this day in mostly thriller type pictures, the so called 'Vertigo' shot (dolly out while very carefully zooming in) distorted reality viewpoint that Hitchcock  dazzled audiences with in VERTIGO and Spielberg used brilliantly in JAWS many years later. Irmin would continue behind the camera for what would be a very long career, culminating in 2nd unit work in AIRPORT and effects camerawork for L.B Abbott and Ray Kellogg on TORA! TORA! TORA in 1970 which deservedly won the best visual effects Oscar that year.

Matte artist Jan Domela on the backlot.

Matte painter Jan Domela (the 'Jan' is pronounced 'yawn') hailed originally from Holland and like long time associate Irmin Roberts would have a very long career in matte work, having joined Paramount around 1927 and remaining with the studio through to the early 1960's when they closed down their special effects department.  Domela painted mattes for literally hundreds of films and tv shows, principally for Paramount, though later assignments in the 1960's would see Jan freelanced at MGM, 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Film Effects of Hollywood on a wide variety of projects from epics such as THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY through to smaller things like THE MAN FROM UNCLE television series.
Jan gradually got into the movie business after meeting fellow Hollander Hans Ledeboer while painting at the Panama Pacific Expo of 1915 in San Francisco.  Ledeboer would go on to become a movie scenic artist and matte painter at several studios such as Paramount and later Selznick International.


Jan Domela in his studio at Paramount, probably from the late 1930's.
As far as I know, Domela, by and large, painted virtually all of the matte work for Paramount single handedly, though noted artist and close friend Chesley Bonestell did work with Domela in the 1950's on at least two George Pal pictures providing mainly astronomical matte art.  Future art director Al Nozaki was also, for a time, employed in Paramount's matte department.  According to Jan's daughter Johanna, Jan tried to organise a training scheme for apprentice matte artists in the 1950's but the notoriously tight fisted studio wouldn't hear of it and he even attempted some weekend training off his own bat but it didn't take off.  Jan certainly had his workload cut out for him with this picture, with some of the mattes looking, understandably, quite rushed.

Matte painter Jan Domela (left) with longtime associate effects cinematographer Irmin Roberts (right) on the Paramount lot with a scene requiring matte work being masked off.
Miniatures supervisor Ivyl Burks
Miniaturist Ivyl Burks was another longtime Paramount effects staffer, though I have no real details as to when he started.  Burks was certainly active through the 1940's and 50's.  Burks would provide excellent miniatures for THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI, SAMSON AND DELILAH, WAR OF THE WORLDS, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and one of my all time favourite effects films, the sorely under rated Byron Haskin ants-on-the-rampage adventure THE NAKED JUNGLE - an 'A' Grade effects show if ever there was one - to name a few.  Other model makers at Paramount were Art Smith and Harry Reynolds, though these men worked on the lot in the 1930's and may not have been active in subsequent decades.

Farciot Edouart wins 1941 Oscar

The studio's process department was run by Farciot Edouart who was at one point actually in charge of the entire special effects department.  Early in his career Edouart dabbled in glass shots as well as early variations upon rear screen projection.  Farciot made numerous developments to the science of process projection including multi-strip projection rigs with dual or even triple screens to good effect, at least when used in black & white pictures such as I WANTED WINGS which saw Edouart receive the visual effects Oscar (shown at left receiving 1941 VFX Oscar from Darryl F. Zanuck) for his highly creative application of process and gimballed, highly mobile fighter planes that swoop and dive with very realistic results.  Really impressive stuff even now. Edouart knocked out some great process shots in his time, with probably the last being seen in SHIP OF FOOLS.  Unfortunately, process projection of the 30's through to the 50's was more often than not a dismal failure when it came to colour, with washed out plates, inexcusable hot-spots and colour mismatch - though this wasn't a problem unique to Farciot's unit at Paramount and was a common liability across the industry.  Travelling mattes may have had fringe or bleed through issues at times but at least the elements were crisp and controlled when compared with bad back projected process .

Edouart was yet another long-stay career employee of Paramount and only 'retired' when the studio chiefs actually 'found' him.  The story goes that Farciot would deliberately go out of his way to make himself scarce, if not invisible whenever the cost cutting hatchet men were on the prowl and apparently he would literally hide from them, to their continued frustration in an effort to stay on the payroll!  Out of sight, out of mind I guess?
Edouart apparently had a flair for rubbing people the wrong way.  Irmin Roberts' family told me that Edouart was an arrogant man who always wanted to take the credit for everything. The esteemed miniature trick shot wizards, brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker had a notorious run in with Farciot at a screening of effects reels for Academy consideration in the 1940's where the Lydeckers' ran their superb shots from the John Wayne war picture FLYING TIGERS, whereby Edouart, who was on the voting committee, vocally dismissed their work outright as unworthy and a waste of his time!


A good view of the juggernaut that was Technicolor 3-strip.
 Cinematographer Wallace Kelley was Edouart's regular process cameraman with, among other assignments, a mammoth workload on De Mille's TEN COMMANDMENTS and the George Pal sci-fi pictures, Kelley  would later go on to become a regular director of photography and became Jerry Lewis' first choice of D.O.P on his films.

Just before we take a look at FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, I would like to include this marvellous photograph (below) that was recently sent to me by the family of Irmin Roberts detailing the shooting of an elaborate in camera special effects scene utilising a large hanging miniature and partial painting from the Paramount film FRENCHMAN'S CREEK made in 1944.  It beautifully sums up the sort of specialty work carried out at the time, applied in various forms in many movies of the Golden Era, a time honoured cinematic trick that I think was also utilised in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.

For the film FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (1944) several sequences involved action in and around a stately mansion, which didn't actually exist.  As the action required fluid camera pans and push ins following horse and carriage, effects supervisor Gordon Jennings assigned the sequences to visual effects cameraman Irmin Roberts to execute.  A quite large partial miniature, partial painting of the homestead was mounted and photographed in camera to excellent effect - so excellent in fact that when the bigwigs at the studio's head office in New York saw the footage they had a fit, and demanded to know how much the director had spent building that god damned mansion!  In the rare photo is cameraman Roberts (in white shirt) demonstrating the trickery to his amazed young son, Irmin jnr, while daughter Capitola and wife Nelle watch on.  Irmin jnr told me that it was indeed a special treat to be on the set while his dad worked, and a very rare thing indeed to even learn about his father's work as it just wasn't something he ever really cared to discuss.  *Many thanks to the family of Irmin Roberts for this photo.
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Special Photographic Effects:                            Gordon Jennings
Special Effects Cinematographer:                     Irmin Roberts
Matte Artist:                                                        Jan Domela
Miniatures:                                                          Ivyl Burks
Mechanical Effects:                                            Walter Hoffman
Process Photography:                                         Farciot Edouart

Vintage era trailer, the like of which we'll never see in this modern era.

Director Sam Wood will always get my vote for directing two of the funniest movies ever made - The Marx Brothers A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES ... absolute side splitting masterpieces that never age!

It's good to see the actual effects guys getting a name credit as well as the head of department for a change.
The epic opens with a dramatic sequence with a sabotaged train wreck.  Sadly, the excellent miniature work is utterly wasted through awful rear projection where the plate is completely lost in the shallow depth of field of the process photography - probably down to impossibly slow film stock when shooting in Technicolor.  Completely inexcusable in my mind and surely a blue screen comp would have far better suited the scene.

The urban landscape of the Spanish Civil War of the mid 1930's courtesy of a Jan Domela matte shot where everything on the right side of the post is artwork.

I think this shot is pretty good, and I wonder if it might be a Domela glass shot made on location?

Split screen with location rapids, probably in the Sierra Nevada mountains, with the buildings, logs and roadway all painted in at left.
Two of many top up mattes where additional mountains, night sky and rocky outcrops have been painted in.

Multi element matte shot with our principal actors on a stage at Paramount, an actual river and a fabricated valley and bridge.  I'm wondering if the bridge itself could be a miniature, though all else is clearly matte art?  Possibly an elaborate combination effects set up to provide depth?  It wasn't uncommon at the time for studios such as Warner Bros in Hollywood and Rank in the UK to layer effects shots with miniature components and various painted glasses.

This one too has me baffled... possibly miniature with painted extensions (lower left foreground rocks and background scenery?).  I'm not sure, but my money's on a combination trick shot tied together in camera through clever design.

Two more quick matte shots that extend the location by adding in high peaks and snow covered trees.

The great Gary Cooper (Super-Duper I hear you utter?) with matte painted mountains and detail added.  Much of the film takes place at night, hence the dark frames, some of which I've lightened up slightly to see them.

Partisans are partial to parties, but not many people know that.

A second wider cut from the shoot out sequence with most of the scene a Domela painting.

Very subtle matte extensions here that nobody notices with the upper rock face, sky and tree painted in just above the performers heads.
Left upper corner of shot is a Domela matte.
Skullduggery by moonlight.

Interesting multiple element effects shot.  A Domela painting matted with live action horse etc is then used as a process plate for a Farciot Edouart projection shot with a tilt down and follow focus onto a sleeping Bergman.

An effects shot yes, but I'm not sure how it was made.  Possibly miniature set matted into live action crowd?

Half matte art, half location plate as 'Coop' sets off down the path.
Left, location with matted in vista.  Right, a split screen shot with planes firing upon soldier in trench both as separate elements flawlessly combined.
Not sure here.  Certainly a painted vista behind Cooper, though maybe a scenic backing or a process plate of a Domela painting due to shallow depth of field.

A virtually full painting here with a small rectangular section of live action at bottom right (note the blend between the actual ground and Domela's painted ground).  Interesting too as we can see what appears to be specks of dust caught in Jan's paint that have become small specs of light when illuminated during Irmin's matte compositing.

Extensive matte extensions painted in at left, while subtle stone wall painted in at right. Small shots such as this can be spotted when I grab several frames and toggle back and forth, spotting a jiggle.  Sometimes, when grabbing frames from such a matte which has been intercut with other shots and back again I discover major shift in matte line up, often staggeringly the case.  A Whitlock matte in CHAPLIN with the Statue of Liberty and period NYC is one such where the painting suddenly 'jumps' noticeably out of register, though when viewed on screen in sequence it's not visible due to cross cutting to Robert Downey jnr, but when viewed as stand alone screen grabs it's jarring.  Sometimes fun to spot these things.

Day for night live action matted against Domela's evening valley and mountains.

One of a number of interesting shots in the extended sequence where the Spanish Infantry rolls on toward the bridge.  Live action here with matted in cliff face artwork.

The extent of the armed convoy is fully revealed in this complex effects shot.  Live action upper foreground, matte painted terrain and miniature convoys doubled in down in the valley.

Another multi part composite with live foreground, painted mountain terrain and miniature convoys in the distance.

An extensive Jan Domela matte shot with live action dirt road and top side of the bridge.

Half actual setting, half matte art.
Our hero clambers up the bridge steelwork to set the explosives.  A fascinating shot that I just can't figure out.  Definitely a trick shot, but how I wonder?  Bridge tends to look like a miniature to me, with the rapids below either real or also part of the miniature set.  The rocky background and lower foreground seem painted, yet Cooper and friend are flawlessly combined as part of the shot.  I wonder whether this could be a foreground miniature set up, matched up carefully with the actors performing on a limited bridge set in the distance, with Domela painted scenery in place to tie the illusion together, all filmed in camera as a one off composite?

The unsuspecting army approaches the trap.  Top left, an extensive Domela matte shot.  Top right, partial location married with more Domela matte painting of the bridge superstructure.  Lower left, miniature set complete with tanks and trucks.  Lower right, exterior with painted in block wall extending down the gully.

A wide shot of the fast approaching convoy.  Virtually all a Jan Domela matte painting with only a very small slice of live action traffic doubled in.

Another great trick shot that has me scratching my head.  Gary Cooper sets the detonators upon what appears once again to be either an almost completely matte painted bridge and locale, or some sort of painted, model, live action combination.  The composite and blending is perfect once again as with the other bridge shot.

The moment of truth.  A large miniature set, complete with tanks and soldiers comes crashing down.  Explosives expert Walter Hoffman did the mechanical effects for the film and later on Harry Barndollar came from Warners and worked at Paramount for a time in the fifties.
Another intriguing shot where some flaming tanks topple into the abyss.  Presumably large scale miniatures, though the live action seen in the background in the first frame is baffling.  Maybe they shot the miniatures as forced perspective with actual live action purposely in view?  May even have been life sized mock up tanks?

Miniature mayhem.
One of those blink and you'll miss it trick shots... full scale action has been made all the more daring with matted in collapsed road in the foreground, probably a miniature or 2nd unit plate that has been carefully blended in.
Another flawed process shot that could have been achieved better using other approaches.  A large miniature set in ruins has been rear projected by Farciot Edouart behind foreground action.
"Oh don't forsake me oh my darling..."  - Sorry, wrong Gary Cooper picture.  Composite shot with Jan Domela matte painted canyon and live action horsemen riding off, with this being used as a process plate behind Cooper in it's usual washed out fashion seen in colour movies of the period.


Jan Domela gave this painting to Ivyl Burks during the making of FWTBT, and the Burks' family have always believed it to be a matte from the film, though I doubt it.  It's almost certainly one of Domela's many gallery pieces, though it is interesting to examine the technique none the less.



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