Truth in Illusion: Peter Ellenshaw

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

By James Crowley

Those people who elect to go behind the camera often do not get the recognition they so richly deserve. These are the people who set themselves the tasks of bringing the world to life through set design, music, or special effects. In the latter category, there was essentially one man who brought worlds and timelines to life in the films of Walt Disney, most times through simple brushstrokes on a pane of glass. This man was Peter Ellenshaw, a humble and reserved former street artist from London, who became the champion of visual effects for Disney from 1950 to 1979. Highlights of his best work includes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and an establishing shot of Rome in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Ellenshaw was the master of the matte painting, in which (its simplest terms) a painting on a large sheet of glass is placed in the foreground of the lens with the partial set in the background. Optical combination is involved as well for the flip side when actors are in front of the painting, and when blended well, the audience suspends its disbelief thoroughly. Sometimes entire shots are devoid of real elements and we are left with impressionistic representations of life, such as the beautiful matte shots of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, which Peter Ellenshaw was the head visual effects supervisor.

The essence of Ellenshaw as an artist is no better highlighted than this film in particular. The shots of London, from Big Ben and Parliament to the rooftop chimneys are nothing short of a masterstroke (no pun intended) of establishing the mood and atmosphere of the story. These shots are impressionistic for the simple reason that extreme detail would be realistic to a fault, but artistically it creates a warm inviting atmosphere for the viewer. Ellenshaw understood this concept very well and paid close attention to not just his painting, but if the lighting was consistent between the live action set and the effects department, as well as some simple mechanical and set design. His dedication was rewarded in an Oscar statuette in 1965 for Mary Poppins and the respect of his contemporaries and artists who study and create special effects in modern day. This is a man who was given the opportunity to use his best skills to make the films he worked on far better in the long run. This is one of the people behind the scenes who helped spark my love of cinema and my desire to create worlds that are both believable and inviting.

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