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Those experiences were the foundation of a close personal and professional relationship between Whitlock and the director. Hitchcock was one of the artists biggest fans and utilized his talents on many features, including The Birds, Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Family Plot (1976). Whitlock recalled Hitchcock as one of a very few directors who could accurately explain the type of special effect he wanted in every picture. No special effect was ever created for a Hitchcock film unless it served to move the story along. "His understanding of these techniques was really much more profound than [that of] most movie makers," said Whitlock.
It was during World War II that Whitlock moved into doing matte work. The first glass shot he received full credit for was a ballroom scene that appeared in The Bad Lord Byron (1951). During these years, Whitlock apprenticed alongside artist Peter Ellenshaw under a matte painter named Pop Day, whom he characterized as "a better artist than any of us." Day was inclined to make his paintings too detailed, and the mattes drew attention to themselves. As a result of working with him, Whitlock gradually arrived at his philosophy that the painting should ideally not be noticed by viewers.
After moving to the United States in 1954, Whitlock began working for Walt Disney Studios, where his first job was designing the titles for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Ellenshaw had preceded him to Disney and had taken charge of the matte department, where he did much to advance the art of matte painting. He had a great influence on Whitlock, using a broad approach in creating imagery that would convey a general effect. He did this by building essential details into a design that was almost abstract.
Whitlock became one of the most proficient artists at Disney and successfully mastered his impressionistic technique there. He remained at Disney for seven years, and in addition to working on many films, he was involved in the design of Disneyland.
In 1961, Whitlock moved to Universal Studios, where he headed up the matte-painting department. While there, he expanded the importance of matte painting and demonstrated increasing sophistication with special effects. He also saved the studio thousands of dollars that it might have otherwise spent in production. For example, Whitlocks special effects on the $10 million feature The Hindenburg cost just $180,000. (By comparison, Paramount spent more than $20 million for the special effects on Star Trek: The Motion Picture four years later.) When Universal produced The Blues Brothers, whose budget ballooned to $40 million, Whitlock spent just $20,000 in order to blow up a Chicago hotel; his version of the hotel was made of cardboard and was destroyed using compressed air. Had a real hotel been destroyed, the cost to the studio would have been around $600,000.
Ultimately, none of the other studios retained their matte departments, so Universal frequently loaned out Whitlock and his staff of eight, even though they were under exclusive contract. While working for Paramount with director of photography Conrad Hall, ASC, Whitlock produced matte paintings for the climactic scenes of The Day of the Locust. "We used three cameras when we had the largest crowds of extras, and two cameras when we had fewer people," Hall wrote in the June 1975 issue of AC. "Al Whitlock filled in around our longest shots with matte paintings in order to provide a context of the old Hollywood, which would have been impossible to achieve any other way. I think its a terrific sequence. Its so real."
One of the finest special effects Whitlock ever created was the dust-storm sequence in Bound for Glory. The storm was created in Whitlocks studio with three large balls of cotton, mounted on cardboard and dyed to the color of the dust that had been blown over actors in previous shots. The cotton balls were rotated at different speeds, with a separate matte made for each one. Portions of each matte were half-exposed, once with dust moving toward the camera and once with it moving away from the camera, to produce the effect of eddying dust. A blue sky was exposed and allowed to "ghost" through the dust in different areas. The stunning result took weeks to achieve and lasted for exactly 7 seconds of screen time 10 feet of film.
Another stunning effects shot Whitlock created was a skyline of 1930s Chicago for The Sting. The skyline incorporated an elevated train, which provided the noise that awakened Robert Redfords character in the morning. The lower live-action part of the picture included traffic, buses and pedestrians. Director George Roy Hill called the shot "one of the best in the film." Whitlock felt it was an economical way to tell the story in that it opened the sequence and established both the time of day and the setting.
In 1977, Whitlock received the Pioneer in Film Award from the University of Southern Californias Delta Kappa Alpha cinema fraternity. On hand to present the award to his associate of 40 years was Hitchcock. "There is no question," the director said, "that he is by far the finest technician we have in our business today."
In January of 1982, Whitlock presented a day-long seminar on the art of matte painting at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was a rare opportunity for film buffs and students of special effects to learn techniques directly from the master. Both Taylor and Dutton joined him at the seminar. Others who served under Whitlock in the matte-painting department at Universal, including camera assistant Mike Moramarco, grip Henry Schoessler, rotoscoper Susan Rodgers, assistant painter Larry Shuler and Mark Whitlock, Als son, were also present.
Whitlock retired from Universal in 1985. Among his last films were Hugh Hudsons Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and David Lynchs Dune (1984). Speaking from his office at the studio, Whitlock said, "The last scene in Greystoke the jungle with a volcano in the distance was totally manufactured here."
Whitlock died in October of 1999. A former governor of the AMPAS and an associate member of the ASC, he was truly unique 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 and fill of the original photography the kinds of computations that are done today by highly complex computer software. Whitlock made such calculations in his head, and he knew what would work on the screen. "Hopefully, the camera does lie," Whitlock said, "because its looking at a painting that we are trying to convince people is the real thing."