Albert Whitlock - Hollywood Matte Artist
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.
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.
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."
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."
A selection of films Albert Whitlock worked on :
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1960)
That Touch of Mink (1962)
Captain Newman MD (1963)
The Birds (1963)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Ship of Fools (1965)
The War Lord (1965)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Beau Geste (1966)
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
The Way West (1967)
The War Wagon (1967)
Funny Girl (1968)
Colossus The Forbin Project (1970)
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Big Jake (1971)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
The Train Robbers (1973)
Cahill US Marshall (1973)
The Sting (1973)
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
The Hindenburg (1975)
Family Plot (1976)
Two Minute Warning (1976)
Bound for Glory (1976)
Airport 77 (1977)
Exorcist II The Heretic (1977)
High Anxiety (1977)
The Blues Brothers (1980)
History of the World P.1 (1981)
Ghost Story (1981)
Cat People (1982)
The Thing (1982)
Psycho II (1983)
Coming to America (1988)
Gremlins 2 (1990)