Albert Whitlock - Hollywood Matte Artist

Whitlock matte for The Sting (1973)
Whitlock matte for The Sting (1973)

One of the greatest matte artists in motion picture history, Albert Whitlock was born in Central London, England in 1915.

Whitlock’s film career began working as a grip at Gaumont Studios, "a fetch-and-carry fellow." He trained as a sign painter, and began a career-long association with Alfred Hitchcock by doing all of the signs for The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), after first assisting the miniatures expert on Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).

Those experiences were the beginning of a close personal and professional relationship between Whitlock and Hitchcock. Whitlock worked on many of Hitchcock’s films including The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Family Plot (1976). Whitlock recalled that Hitch was one of the few directors who could accurately explain the type of special effect he wanted in his pictures. "His understanding of these techniques was really much more profound than that of most movie makers," said Whitlock.

The Birds (1963)
The Birds (1963)

Whitlock moved into doing matte work during WWII. The first glass shot in which he received full credit was for a ballroom scene in the film The Bad Lord Byron (1949). He moved to the United States in 1954 and began working for Walt Disney Studios. His first job was designing the titles for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

British born Peter Ellenshaw was one of the great matte artists and had preceded Whitlock to Disney and had taken charge of the matte department, where he did much to advance the art of matte painting. He was a great influence on Whitlock, using an approach in creating detailed imagery that would convey a general effect that was almost abstract.

Whitlock became one of the most proficient artists at Disney Studios and successfully mastered his impressionistic technique there. He worked at Disney for seven years creating glass shots on many films, and he was also involved in the design of Disneyland.

Earthquake (1974)
Earthquake (1974)

Whitlock moved to Universal Studios in 1961, becoming head of the matte-painting department. While there he demonstrated increasing sophistication with special effects and expanded the importance of matte painting. He also saved the studio thousands of dollars that it might have otherwise spent on production design. For example, Whitlock’s academy award winning special effects for the $10 million feature The Hindenburg cost just $180,000.

One of the most effective effects shots Whitlock created was the skyline of 1930s Chicago for The Sting. The shot included an elevated train, and the lower live-action part of the picture included traffic, buses and pedestrians. Director George Roy Hill was very happy with the result calling the shot "one of the best in the film."

In 1977, Whitlock received the Pioneer in Film Award from the University of Southern California’s Delta Kappa Alpha cinema fraternity. Alfred Hitchcock presented the award to his associate of 40 years. "There is no question," Hitchcock said, "that he is by far the finest technician we have in our business today."

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Whitlock won the Academy Award for Special Achievement in Visual Effects for two films – Earthquake (1974) and The Hindenburg (1975). In 1977 he provided matte art for the Mel Brooks comedy High Anxiety and he also had an acting role in the film as Madeline Kahn’s father Arthur Brisbane. He also appeared as a “Used Chariot Salesman” in Mel Brooks’ History of the World p.1 (1981).

Whitlock created matte paintings and designs for over 140 films at Universal Studios until retiring in 1985, though he did contribute the occasional glass shot for various studios until the early 90’s. Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke – The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and David Lynch’s Dune (1984) were among the last films he worked on at Universal.

Albert Whitlock died in October of 1999 following a lengthy illness, he was 84. He was a master painter with the precise mind of a photographer. He would paint in f-stops and light his images according to the key lights of the original photography. Whitlock made all the calculations in his head, and he knew what would work on the screen. "Hopefully, the camera does lie," he said, "because it’s looking at a painting that we are trying to convince is the real thing."

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
Albert Whitlock working on a matte for The Sting (1973)
Albert Whitlock working on a matte for The Sting (1973)
The Sting (1973)
The Sting (1973)
The War Lord (1965)
The War Lord (1965)
The Way West (1967)
The Way West (1967)
Dracula (1979)
Dracula (1979)
Greystoke (1984)
Greystoke (1984)
Cat People (1982)
Cat People (1982)

A selection of films Albert Whitlock worked on :

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959)
Pollyana (1960)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1960)
That Touch of Mink (1962)
Captain Newman MD (1963)
The Birds (1963)
Marnie (1964)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Mirage (1965)
Ship of Fools (1965)
The War Lord (1965)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Beau Geste (1966)
Tobruk (1967)
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
The Way West (1967)
The War Wagon (1967)
Funny Girl (1968)
Hellfighters (1968)
Topaz (1969)
Colossus The Forbin Project (1970)
Catch-22 (1970)
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Big Jake (1971)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Frenzy (1972)
The Train Robbers (1973)
Cahill US Marshall (1973)
Papillon (1973)
The Sting (1973)
Earthquake (1974)
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
The Hindenburg (1975)
Family Plot (1976)
Swashbuckler (1976)
Two Minute Warning (1976)
Bound for Glory (1976)
Airport 77 (1977)
Exorcist II The Heretic (1977)
MacArthur (1977)
High Anxiety (1977)
Dracula (1979)
The Blues Brothers (1980)
History of the World P.1 (1981)
Ghost Story (1981)
Cat People (1982)
The Thing (1982)
Psycho II (1983)
Greystoke (1984)
Dune (1984)
Spaceballs (1987)
Coming to America (1988)
Millennium (1989)
Gremlins 2 (1990)
Chaplin (1992)

Whitlock working on a matte painting for Dune (1984)
Whitlock working on a matte painting for Dune (1984)
Dune (1984)
Dune (1984)
Star Trek - The Cage (1966)
Star Trek - The Cage (1966)
Star Trek - Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966)
Star Trek - Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966)
The Time Tunnel (1966)
The Time Tunnel (1966)
History of the World P.1 (1981)
History of the World P.1 (1981)

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Comments 14 comments

Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

I'm in awe of Albert's work in Dune and Andromeda Strain.Thanks for sharing Steve.;)


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England Author

David Lynch's Dune is one of my favourites, or should I say guilty pleasure favourites? Few people seem to like it, even the director hates it. I've watched it countless times.

I've always been fascinated by the work of matte artists, all the big Hollywood films of the past had glass shots all over the place, Gone With the Wind was full of them. Castles in Robin Hood, shipyards in Mutiny on the Bounty etc :)

Thanks for commenting.


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

I've watched Dune over a 100 times.;)


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England Author

Muad'Dib Muad'Dib! It's good to know there's someone else here who likes Dune as much as I do. Frank Herbert's epic novel was a big favourite in my youth. I even have the audio book. :)


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

I was not even aware of the work of Albert Whitlock. So first thanks for continuing my movie education. Wow....the matte on John Carpenter's The Thing fooled me, I actually just put The Thing in the DVD player to get a closer look at the matte painting...very impressive. I also think it is impressive that Whitlock and Hitchcock were able to keep their working relationship in tact after all those years....from 1934 to 1976....excellent hub as usual...voted up and awesome.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England Author

Thanks Cogerson. There's a shot in The Birds I really like, an aerial view of the town which is mostly a Whitlock matte and than a seagull flies in and than another until the shot is filled with them, very effective.

George Lucas wasn't averse to mattes, the original Star Wars trilogy was full of excellent matte paintings. Nowadays it's probably all done in computer. Entire movies are done in computer! :)


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

You know Steve to make this an even better hub....I think it needs a link to your Hitchcock cameo hub....lol.

http://hubpages.com/entertainment/Hitchcock-Cameo

I was looking at your Top 20 movies on your profile page...all quality movies....they only one I do not like very much was Battle of Britian.....I wanted to like that one, it has a ton of stars including one of my favorites(Michael Caine)...but the action is very confusing....I was not even aware that Caine's character died until I went back to figure out why is character was not in the movie anymore.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England Author

Haha! Well it does have a Hitchcock connection. Cheers.

I've found this link to another Hitchcock hub if fans of the director are reading -

http://hubpages.com/hub/Alfred-Hitchcock-Movies-Be...

I've been a fan of Battle of Britain since I was a kid. Still love it. Half the film is taken up with aerial battles which is where people might get bored or confused.

There are matte paintings in BoB, to tie it in with this hub, during the big Hitler speech and the blitz over London.


A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

Awesome artist, unique work. I like John Carpenters "The Thing" painting the best. Thank you for sharing.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England Author

And it's my favourite John Carpenter film too.

Thank you Zavala.


Boomer Flicks profile image

Boomer Flicks 5 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

Another great hub, Steve! I was more aware of matte painting in animation than in films. The matte I know best is the one they made for 'Butch Cassidy' where Butch and Sundance supposedly jump from the cliff to the raging rapids below where "the fall will probably kill you."

Speaking of John Carpenter's 'The Thing,' I watched this a couple of weeks ago and I was thinking how it was a direct precusor to 'Alien.' It's that good.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England Author

Thanks Boomer Flicks. Maybe you're thinking of the original 1951 Thing? Carpenter's Thing was released in 1982, 3 years after Alien. Both films are still very effective 30 years later and modern classics.

Btw there is a prequel to Carpenter's The Thing coming up later this year. It'll be interesting to see if this CG'd Thing is as good as Carpenters creature.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

I wasn't aware that matte paintings were part of movies so this hub is a real eye-opener. I've got the Thing on DVD so I'm digging it out to have a look for this scene. Interesting hub, nice to see this sort of 'mixed media' explained. You're right about movies made on computers though I don't necessarily always think it's a bad thing, depends what they're using the computer for - soft focus lense photoshop tricks for plastic surgery gaffes (Mickey Rourke among others) but sometimes, used for effects, you can tell it's all fake and I dislike that.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England Author

Thanks for the comment, a lot of the matte work done on computers now are photorealistic so most of the time you can't tell the buildings or clouds are fake. Matte paintings have been around since silent cinema and it has saved the studios a lot of money they would have wasted building the tops of castles, lavish ballrooms, futuristic sets etc etc

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