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For Earthquake, Whitlock had 12 weeks to complete paintings for 40 different scenes. Working closely with director Mark Robson, Whitlock insisted on creating the effects on original negative that was of exactly the same technical quality as that used to film the live action. He had a very keen sense of the audience’s visual sophistication. In composing the matte-painting shot, the live-action inset was always shot first, and Whitlock was always on the set when it was being filmed. With the area that was to be painted blacked out, only the live-action area was recorded on the first pass through the camera. Being there during filming gave Whitlock "the opportunity to visualize the complete final scene," and the assurance of creating a workable composition.

Whitlock also worked very closely with the director of photography in order to make his paintings match the rest of the picture. When shooting the painting later, he always worked with the same f-stop used to film the live action. That way, the density of the two elements matched. This kind of precision required shooting 200 or 300 feet of test footage with the matte in; typically, Whitlock would not get too far into the complete painting before making the first test shot. With the composition roughed in, he could make his first determinations on key lighting, which he found critical. If the original live-action exposure was a bit low, he would paint the matte on the low side so it would have the same look.

"In shooting the paintings," Whitlock wrote, "I always work to a set lighting. If my first test indicates that the painting is too light or too dark, I make a radical change right then in the key of the painting. However, if you get too much done on the painting [fall in love with it, so to speak] before you make your first test, and it turns out to be the wrong key, you can be in trouble."

When the printing lights on the original photography came back, Whitlock knew whether or not it was in the middle of the scale. If it was, "I have a pretty good idea of what kind of painting I have to do," he wrote. "Making such judgments is something instinctive, a kind of ’feel’ you acquire after long experience."

Because Whitlock always worked with the original negative of the live action, it was neither developed nor printed after being shot. It was brought back to the studio and kept in a refrigerator because it would not be completed until the painting was also exposed onto it. When the original scene was shot, it was common practice to set up a B-camera to cover a duplicate of the action so that the editor would have something to work with while the painting was being shot to complete the scene.

As Whitlock’s matte cameraman, Taylor was responsible for ensuring the safety of the original negative. "When you’re working on original negative, you can’t afford to have a mechanical failure," Taylor emphasizes. "We always had very rigorous procedures. For example, we would always do a hand test, trim a little piece of film from the head end of the take with film still threaded in the camera and develop that into black-and-white so we could see the painting double-exposed onto the live action. We could see that there wasn’t any dirt on the frame line that visibly flew into the frame during the take, and we could see whether the split screens were working."

Whitlock shot his test footage with the matte painting in, and then without the matte. When the test came back with its printing lights, he knew whether the matte was printing high or low. By shooting without the matte, he could see the whole scene as it was and take his key from the piece without the matte. This method also gave him a source-light direction. There were always objects in a scene that cast shadows, and he could duplicate those shadow angles in his painting.

While a knowledge of photography was vital to his work, Whitlock did not delve too deeply into that subject. "If I want something shot in a certain way," he wrote, "I might say to the cameraman, ’Give me high contrast and good speed.’ I know the potential of film and the requirements thereof, and I leave it at that."

Whitlock’s long career in the motion-picture industry began in London in 1929, when, at the age of 14, he began working as a "fetch-and-carry fellow." He built sets and scenery and worked as a grip. Trained as a sign painter, Whitlock began a career-long association with Alfred Hitchcock by doing all of the signs for The 39 Steps (1935), after first assisting the miniatures expert on the director’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).

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