Peter Ellenshaw – Matte Artist Genius

The art of Matte Painting in films really fascinates me.

Imagine a location which had open fields and a hill with horse riders going up the hill. The story calls for a castle on the hill BUT there is none – so a castle is painted on to a glass in front of the camera and exactly and painstakingly matched up to the action below. The result on screen is that we see the riders heading up hill toward the castle which we see as a wonderful shot when half of the picture or more is painted.

Above: Matte Shots by Peter Ellenshaw on ‘Darby O’Gill’ – a film with astonishing special effects set in Ireland – Filmed in Hollywood.

Being able to marry painted backgrounds on glass to real action foregrounds opened up a new world to film makers.  To get it right this is a very complex operatioin requiring  hours of painstaking labour with many retakes to obtain perfection.

Peter Ellenshaw was the Matte genius that Walt Disney signed up on a lifetime contract to work on his films starting with Treasure Island in 1950. He made a career out of mixing fantasy with reality to make make-believe worlds come to life

Walt Disney began to make period feature movies in England – from funds which were effectively ‘locked in’ to this country after the war.   He used English actors in his films  Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose, and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue.  Peter Ellenshaw joined Disney at this time and  worked on all four. He began as a matte artist and special effects artist, and later in his career became a production designer. It was the start of a long association with Walt Disney.  Over the next four decades, Ellenshaw worked on the largest and most-challenging projects the Disney studios made—and won two Academy Awards for his work.

He was born in England  in 1913.   A neighbour Walter Percy Day a famous matte artist of his time, discovered Ellenshaw’s talent and took him on as an assistant. Mattes are realistic paintings done on glass and then matched to live action shots – the result can be breathtaking – see below The Black Narcissus which was done by Percy Day



Above – The incredible matte painting on Black Narcissus done by Percy Day.

During his amazing film career, Ellenshaw has been nominated for four Academy Awards.

Ellenshaw regarded Walt Disney as a source of inspiration and a wonderful friend.         “Walt had the ability to communicate with artists.” Recalls Ellenshaw. “He’d talk to you on your level – artist to artist. He used to say, ‘I can’t draw, Peter.  ‘ But he had the soul of an artist, and he had a wonderful way on transferring his enthusiasm to you.”

In 1964Peter  Ellenshaw won the Best Special Visual Effects Academy Award  for his astounding matte work in Walt Disney’s beloved line-action musical-fantasy Mary Poppins  and in this he created some beautiful vistas of Victorian London which gave a wonderful style to the film.

On Mary Poppins above – the top picture shows the small segment of the picture  that had  David Tomlinson walking on a wet studio floor BUT the lower one shows how we saw the film on screen – he is walking through a London Park – Thanks to a matte painting and we never knew !!!


In 1993, Ellenshaw was officially designated a “Disney Legend” by The Walt Disney Company.

Black Narcissus    –   The above shots just shows how good this process was – The top picture shows how the film was shot in the studio and below – the matte painting around the action then takes us to a Himalayan Convent with the wind whistling around us –  Astonishing but so real.

Percy Day.

Maybe I should have the title to this post  Percy Day – Matte Artist Genius because he certainly was and taught Peter Ellenshaw  all he knew. Percy Day had worked on silent films and found some fame here.    Much later he worked for Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger on such films as  ‘I know Where I’m Going’ (1945) which contains a sequence in which the hero and heroine’s boat gets sucked into the Corryvreckan whirlapool.   In his autobiography Powell recalled that Day created the whirlpool out of plastic material resembling gelatine, mounted on an eccentric arm which could be whirled around at varying speeds in a tank of water filmed with a high-speed camera running in reverse.

Incredibly Black Narcissus ( 1947) was shot entirely on the Pinewood Studios backlot with matte of the Himalayan mountain range painted by Percy Day and his assistants and illustarted above.

Black Narcissus was voted in a 2005 poll organised by The Times newspaper as the best British film of all time.

 Another matte above – Anyone like me with a fear of heights would go dizzy on viewing this on the large cinema screen.

These films were enhanced by this wonderfully thought out process.

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