The late Albert Whitlock was one of movie history’s most skilled illusionists.

In a recent interview, director Robert Wise recalled accepting the assignment from Universal Studios to direct the 1975 film The Hindenburg. "My biggest problem was, could I make it work?" he said. "Before I accepted the assignment I had a meeting with Al Whitlock, a matte-painting specialist at Universal. I said, ’Al, can we do this? Can we show that giant aircraft outside the hangar in Frankfurt? Can we get her up in the air? Can we fly it across the ocean? Can we take it around by New York? Can we bring it into its hangar in New Jersey?’ He said, ’Yeah,’ and started to talk about how we could do it Then I went back [to the studio head] and said I would do it. I wanted to clear it with [Whitlock first]."

Wise was well-advised to seek Whitlock’s advice before accepting the project. For over a quarter of a century, from the early 1960s to the mid 1980s, Whitlock was the acknowledged master of matte painting in motion pictures, and his mastery of the discipline was unparalleled in the industry. Whitlock was able to seamlessly integrate his paintings with live-action photography, creating scenes that would have been impossible to construct in three-dimensional reality and saving producers and studios millions of dollars in costly set construction. His cinematic magic is seen but generally not noticed in more than 500 films and television shows, including The Birds (1963), Tobruk (1967), The Sting (1973), Funny Lady (1975), The Day of the Locust (1975), Bound for Glory (1976) and The Blues Brothers (1980).

In 1974, Whitlock won an Academy Award for his special visual effects work on Earthquake, and he won the same award the following year for The Hindenburg. Through-out his 50-year career, the unassuming Whitlock always referred to himself as a craftsman rather than an artist; he continually tried to demystify his work, stating that his craft was something that could be learned by anybody willing to make the effort.

Whitlock himself gave us the best capsule description of a matte shot in a 1974 Herald Examiner interview: "In simple terms, a matte shot is a need for an image that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist because either it’s too expensive to go shoot it, or it’s too expensive to manufacture by other means. What you do in effect is block out an area of a scene into which you put a painting. Now, my claim to fame is that I do that on the original negative instead of copying the film in order to do it, and I have all sorts of moving clouds and things that give it more life."

Bill Taylor, who was Whitlock’s matte cameraman from 1974 to 1984, says, "What was emblematic of Al Whitlock was that the quality of the pictorial result was the most important thing. He devised very careful procedures that all but took the risk out of many of the shots done on original negative. He created very complex animations on original negative that would have been daunting even on dupe shots."

Syd Dutton, who was a painter assistant to Whitlock for many years, is Taylor’s partner at Illusion Arts, a Los Angeles company that produces special effects for motion pictures and television. "Al taught me everything I know," Dutton says. "He would always quote the painter Constable, who said, ’The sky is an organ of sentiment.’ I remember one beautiful landscape Al painted that was supposed to be a whole bunch of weeds, chaparral in California. When I looked at it up close, it looked like Persian writing just squiggles but when you stood back, it looked just like chaparral. Al always said, ’Paint is the effect of light, not the object itself.’"

One could easily mistake Whitlock’s paintings for the work of an accomplished salon artist, except for the fact that they were painted on glass or plastic. They were painted for the eye of the camera rather than that of the beholder, made to fit the live-action footage that had been previously captured on film. The genre in which he created most of his paintings was the landscape, and if you were to place him within a particular school, it could be that of Impressionism.

In a November 1974 article for AC about his effects work on Earthquake, Whitlock characterized his style as "very close to French Impressionism, strange as that may seem. It’s much more like that than like academic painting. If you look at one of these paintings very closely, you will note that it’s not that carefully painted. With frequently only five hours to do a complete painting, I don’t have the time to do a highly finished job, but I’ve found out through experience that this isn’t necessary in order to get the result."

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