|Syd Dutton and mentor Al Whitlock|
For the majority of Universal's effects history, all matte and optical photography requirements were the domain of Roswell Hoffman - right the way through from THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933 to EARTHQUAKE in 1974, with much outstanding trick work accomplished along the way under a quartet of noted, highly creative photographic effects supervisors.
Bill Taylor, grew up with a life long fascination of trickery - both the on stage sleight of hand form as well as, later on, the cinematic varieties such as Ray Harryhausen's magical fantasy adventures. Taylor told me: "When I saw 'Jason and the Argonauts' in the summer of my freshman year at Pomona college I was inspired by Ray Harryhausen's example to look for a career in the visual effects field. I was thunderstruck to realize that here were visual illusions on an enormous scale. Up til then (and unlike virtually all of my contemporaries in the effects world) I had not been especially interested visual effects or even in photography, but since my artistic abilities were nil, it at least seemed that a life in the movie business as a technician was possible". Bill's visual effects career would commence in the early sixties with a chance placement with Ray Mercer's optical house in Los Angeles.
Bill and Al became good friends with Bill being invited not only into Al's close knit matte shop to observe the creation of classic mattes for TOPAZ and TORN CURTAIN, but also invited into Al and wife June's home. Upon the retirement of long time effects cameraman Ross Hoffman in 1974 Taylor would step in to the role and prove to be a solid 'right hand man' to the increasingly busy Whitlock as his director of photography.
Syd Dutton on the other hand, came onto the scene under quite different circumstances, which according to some reports suggest that he started off at Universal in the mail room around 1974 and by chance took on the newly created role as 'assistant' to Albert around 1975, just as pre-production was getting under way on THE HINDENBURG. By Whitlock's own admission "...I could make jokes about having to whip him into shape, but Syd Dutton showed promise right from the very start." and quickly expanded and adapted his traditionally trained artistic skills to meet the rigours of cinematic special effects.
The Universal matte department would consist of Whitlock, Taylor and Dutton with added support staff Mike Moramarco who had been Ross Hoffman's matte camera assistant; optical cameraman Dennis Glouner (the son of veteran Columbia effects cameraman Donald Glouner); Larry Schuler as key grip; Millie Winebrenner as rotoscope artist (a tenure dating from the Fulton years) and Henry Schloessler as assistant grip. Later on Al's own son Mark would join the unit as camera loader and in time himself would assume some matte painting assignments. Several of these individuals would carry on their roles with the formation of Illusion Arts in 1984.
All good things must come to an end it seems, and the Whitlock unit was an expensive boutique operation that, despite it's many accolades the studio wanted closed down - especially as practically all studio 'departments' had long ceased to exist, with all personnel hired on a film by film basis. After years of unparalleled success the department did shut down when it's resident master finally retired in 1984 - shortly after the completion of GREYSTOKE. Not to be easily discouraged, Taylor and Dutton having long known the clock was ticking regarding the demise of their big studio visual fx careers arranged to purchase all of the soon to be mothballed Universal matte equipment and established a boutique visual effects company of their own, Illusion Arts Inc, specialising in the main in matte painted effects shots. The initial premises were in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, and it's to my eternal regret that I never took up the offer made to me by Syd Dutton during a chance meeting here in Auckland in 1986 to "come on by and pay us a visit next time you are in the States". I've written previously about that unforgettable occasion where I had the good fortune to view several of Syd and Al's before and after matte reels.
For the next 25 plus years Illusion Arts would be a force to be reckoned with in the visual effects community, with a commitment to carry on the Whitlock tradition of producing as much of their core output as original negative first generation visuals. While essentially a smaller scaled operation, which was as much a business decision of Bill and Syd as much as anything else who right from the germination of the company decided on the "no debts, no receivables" business plan whereby Bill and Syd were sole company directors and 50/50 creative team, without a board of directors, shareholders or some faceless parent company run by attorneys in New York to answer to.
Over time new team members would join Taylor and Dutton at Illusion Arts, namely the multi-talented Lynn Ledgerwood who would look after the growing miniature and matte gag requirements. Matte cameraman Mark Sawicki too would join the company and shoot some several hundred matte shots over the next few years. Matte painter Robert Stromberg was another vital creative force who came on board around the late eighties and would prove himself to be a superb self trained matte artist who would adopt much of the Dutton/Whitlock technique. Of late Stromberg has turned to art direction and recently won the Oscar for just that on James Cameron's AVATAR. Additionally, Catherine Sudolcan became their in house VFX producer. When I metioned the names Mark Freund and David Williams, Bill would comment: "I originally shot opticals on a VistaVision printer I helped to design during the Universal days. (The design won an Academy Science and Technology award) Mark Freund was our first staff optical printer operator (I moved away from opticals onto the motion control matte stand) and Dave Williams replaced Mark. Both were star optical guys; Mark became the top operator at Pacific Title and Dave made the transition to digital compositing, and became one of the very best there is".
The visual effects community in Hollywood would, over time, see a number of casualties with so many big operations simply unable to sustain themselves in an ever competitive climate. Names like Apogee, Boss Films, Buena Vista Visual Effects, Dream Quest Images, R/Greenberg, Van Der Veer Photo Effects and others all fell by the wayside with just a handful of the originals still opening their doors.
Sadly, as a sign of the times, Illusion Arts too would be forced to close it's once proud doors in 2009. In an over saturated US visual effects market only Matte World Digital really remain as primarily a matte painting supply house above all else. "When Illusion Arts folded, Zoic Studios created a new positon of Art Director for Syd, and one of our top 3D animators, Fumi Mashimo moved there with him. I hope Syd and I will soon be working together again on the film I am currently supervising in Georgia, directed by John Hillcoat".
|The maestro of mattes - Albert Whitlock 1913-1999|
|Effects Oscar winner THE HINDENBURG (1975) - Bill and Syd's first Whitlock project together.|
|AIRPORT 77 (1977) with some great miniature/painting/live action set ups.|
|Some miniature/painting combination shots from SWASHBUCKLER (aka THE SCARLET BUCCANEER-1976)|
|Making a matte shot - Mark Whitlock, Syd Dutton and Dennis Glouner.|
|Whitlock contemplating the hand painted photo blow up mounted on foamcore.|
|Syd Dutton's mood enhancing skies added for this shot in CAT PEOPLE (1982)|
|Again, Dutton's mastery of the brush and Taylor's keen photographic sense creates a zoo where there was none in an invisible trick shot for Paul Schrader's CAT PEOPLE.|
|Bill Taylor's blue screen composite against Syd Dutton's painted moonlit skies for CAT PEOPLE.|
|THE WIZ - an odd choice of film for the otherwise brilliant director Sidney Lumet who just passed away last week.|
|The 1979 Frank Langella version of DRACULA - moving clouds, smoking chimneys and the lot.|
|Syd's first solo matte painting for Hitchcock's FAMILY PLOT (1976)|
|A great many matte paintings were executed - some 24 in fact - for the 1981 GHOST STORY, yet most fell by way of the editors' scissors to the proverbial cutting room floor with few remaining.|
|A Syd Dutton full frame painting from GHOST STORY.|
|Incredible yet totally invisible Whitlock-Dutton collaborations from GHOST STORY.|
|Probably the last matte show Whitlock worked on at Universal - GREYSTOKE (1984)|
|The strange and misunderstood HEARTBEEPS (1981) with much painted matte work by Syd and Al.|
|The seriously unfunny HISTORY OF THE WORLD - PART ONE featured staggering matte work by the team.|
|Probably my favourite ever Dutton matte painting - and one executed so long ago for BUCK ROGERS in 1979. This exquisite painting took pride of place hanging upon a wall in the Illusion Arts facility for some time I believe.|
|More unquestionably terrific top shelf mattes from BUCK ROGERS with subtle animation and matte gags to sell the illusion. Just look at how Dutton controls his tones and has that inate sense of 'backlight' that his mentor loved so much.|
|Peter Sellers' misjudged mishap of a remake THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1979) featured many wonderful painted mattes and excellent twin Sellers blue screen hook ups by Bill. As far as the film goes though, give me the Selznick one any day.|
|More atmospheric manor home mattes from the 1985 movie CLUE.|
|I've always had a soft spot for the proverbial 'haunted house' type matte painting, especially with that classic lightning filled skies motif, and this CLUE shot is a winner.|
|The Mel Gibson-Sissy Spacek drama THE RIVER (1984)|
|Syd's evocative night skies perfectly composited travelling mattes by Bill for the rather good PSYCHO 2 (1982).|
|Matte effects coordinator Lynn Ledgerwood setting up the fabulous Geidi Prime matte shot.|
|Detailed area from Dutton's painting prior to photography.|
|Also from DUNE - Dutton at work on The Great Hall matte.|
|Final composite of the tilt up matte shot from DUNE (1985)|
|To the best of my knowledge, Al's son Mark had a fair bit to do with this matte and would paint on several other shows.|
|Magnificent mattes from a film of such unspeakable awfulness it beggars belief...RED SONYA (1984)|
|RED SONYA - did voters for the California Governor not see this turkey before casting their votes?|
|Detail from either a Whitlock or a Dutton painting for the tv series TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY (1983)|
|One of the many Dutton/Whitlock collaborations, with this from MASADA (1979).|
Illusion Arts - Bill and Syd's Excellent Adventure
|One of, if not the first Illusion Arts foray into effects shots is this extra large seven foot wide B1 painted fighter jet from REAL GENIUS (1984)|
|Two uncredited matte shots from the Robert Redford helmed MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR (1988)|
|Al posing in front of Syd's beautiful painted castle for Mel Brooks' SPACEBALLS (1987)|
|Another extensive Syd Dutton painting from SPACEBALLS.|
|A look inside the spacious matte room of Illusion Arts with retired Al Whitlock.|
|Robert Stromberg's 'sting in the tail' closing matte shot from FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996).|
|Richard Attenborough's bio-pic CHAPLIN (1992) features this mammoth pullback starting close on Kevin Kline sitting under the old 'Hollywoodland' sign of the twenties, and extending out for miles.|
|Syd at work on one of his quite astonishing pieces of gallery art.|
|The final piece, titled Canyon City.|
|A glowing tribute to the Hudson River School of painters is this Syd Dutton matte from STAR TREK V (1989)|
|The Sylvester Stallone action thriller DAYLIGHT had this matte as well as some excellent miniature shots by Bill Taylor.|
|Some of the bold atmospheric enhancements and cityscape manipulation painted by Syd Dutton for the Richard Pryor comedy CRITICAL CONDITION (1986)|
|A VistaVision 8 perf sideways mounted tiltdown matte comp from COMING TO AMERICA|
|The limited set and Dutton's finished, not yet composited painting.|
|The final composite from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. The effects were all shot on 35mm film whereas the production itself was a muddy videotaped affair - and it showed!|
|BEAUTY AND THE BEAST|
|Another great original negative matte from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST|
|Detail from Syd Dutton's wonderful Piranesi inspired gothic matte art.|
|One of four Robert Stromberg paintings created of the cliff and canyon for the fun monster film TREMORS (1990)|
|An excellent look at a multiplane matte set up - this being for the film MANNEQUIN 2 - ON THE MOVE (1991)|
|Subtle yet very effective CAPE FEAR (1991) partial prison set and moving split atmospheric sky addition, plus rotoscoped animation to allow actor Robert DeNiro to walk into the painted area.|
|Nice before and after shots from a television version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND made in the 80's.|
|Matte art and miniature multiplane effects shot by Syd Dutton for BATMAN FOREVER (1995)|
|Dutton with matte cameraman Mark Sawicki preparing the BATMAN FOREVER multiplane effects shot.|
|Syd Dutton concept art for one of the STAR TREK TV spinoffs.|
|Close end of significant pullout matte shot from a STAR TREK - NEXT GENERATION episode.|
|Wide end of big pullback matte.|
|Illusion Arts staffer with STAR TREK matte painting, and final composite.|
|Robert Stromberg with his glass painting combined with miniature elements via motion control for STAR TREK.|
|A further wonderful selection of STAR TREK - THE NEXT GENERATION mattes.|
|Robert Stromberg blocking in colour masses.|
|Robert's final painting which would turn up again and again in various guises in STAR TREK - TNG|
|Syd proudly showing off one of his epic mattes for one of the TREK spinoff series - which, I don't know.|