The Magic of Matte

The release of "Saving Mr. Banks" on BluRay and DVD last week has reignited my appreciation and love for a little known art form. Matte Artistry.

Mattes are used in film making to make a scene seems more grandiose or magical. One of the most famous matte artists of all time is a British fellow by the name Peter Ellenshaw. These artists would paint onto a very thin sheet of glass placed strategically between the actors and the camera. The art of mattes is primarily found in the ability to take advantage of a perspective. has compiled a list of The 50 Greatest Matte Paintings of All Time which I encourage anyone to check out. It includes such amazing films as Ben Hur, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Treasure Island, The Red Shoes, The Love Bug, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Mutiny on the Bounty, Citizen Kane, Dick Tracy, Vertigo, The Adventures of Mark Twain, Gone with the Wind, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mary Poppins. The list is extensive to say the least. Over time, like everything in the world, matte artistry has evolved and is handled in a much different way these days. Here is a basic image of what Peter Ellensaw would have done while working on Disney's Treasure Island

Essentially these artists were hired to enhance the magic of films. There is nothing more magical than the first time you saw Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews dance with penguins in Mary Poppins. Peter Ellenshaw, along with his team, made that memory a reality for many of us. Peter had a prolific relationship with Walt Disney. If Disney could dream it, someone would have to make it actually happen. He was one of those guys. 

Peter moved to the United States in 1953 after working for his mentor, W. (Walter) Percy Day, in Europe. He was a World War II veteran and had a serious knack for imagining things that seemed "more than of this earth" as I have heard one woman describe his paintings. Peter worked on 18 films in his lifetime. He was nominated for four Oscars (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Black Hole, The Island at the Top of the World) and won his one and only oscar for his work on Mary Poppins.  

It is probably because of his Oscar win, but most of his work is under appreciated compared to his work on Mary Poppins. While I adore Poppins, I am personally a huge fan of his work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Once Peter retired for film making he traveled the world with his wife and focused his work on Fine Arts. We have a Peter Ellenshaw Landscapes Gallery at the museum that I work in, but most Disneyphiles, cough -Seven of Nine- cough, will know him from his Disney Fantasy Fine Art Paintings. He was inducted into the Disney Hall of Legends in 1993. 

Peter Ellenshaw passed away in 2007 leaving a legacy of magic in our memories. If you are more interested in learning about Peter or his works you can always check out a six-part documentary about his life on YouTube.

P.S. We also have him to thank for his son, Harrison Ellenshaw, who worked for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic and helped make Star Wars and The Empire Strikes back. He is truly on the Nerd Girls team. Harrison now also focuses on Fine Art and creates Disney Fantasy Fine Art paintings as well! I mean, any surprise there? He did learn from the best!


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