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AICN Bids Farewell To The Great Peter Ellenshaw

As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated the art of visual effects. I love the entire history of how special effects have developed, and growing up, I remember sitting in theaters, reading every last credit at the end of a movie, fascinated by how many people worked on a movie, wishing I could talk to the people who created these amazing images. One name that I saw a lot when I was young was “Ellenshaw.” It shouldn’t really be a surprise that his was one of the first names that registered with me since, like many people of my generation, I was weaned on Disney films, both animated and live-action. Peter Ellenshaw was one of those guys who had his hands in every part of the effects process, and when I was mainlining movies like DARBY O’GILL & THE LITTLE PEOPLE or THE BLACK HOLE or SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON or, most notably, MARY POPPINS, it was the wizardry of Ellenshaw that gave those films their unique visual signature. He was nominated for a total of four Oscars, two for Art Direction (ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD and BEDKNOBS & BROOMSTICKS) and two for Visual Effects (THE BLACK HOLE and MARY POPPINS). It was POPPINS that won him his only Academy Award, and for good reason: the film remains one of the purest pieces of film magic to ever carry the Disney name. He was also an accomplished matte artist, and continued working all the way up through DICK TRACY, the last film for which he contributed matte paintings. That’s a bit of a lost art today in the traditional sense, with computer artists having successfully staked their claim on the field, but there’s nothing like a perfect matte shot from the golden age of Hollywood. It’s amazing to me that Ellenshaw’s career actually began in the ‘30s. He worked on films like THINGS TO COME, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, THE RED SHOES, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, and BLACK NARCISSUS. After he came to Hollywood, he worked on films like QUO VADIS, TREASURE ISLAND, and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. And if all that wasn’t enough, this is the guy who painted the very first published map of Disneyland. Ain’t it cool, indeed. Each year, it seems like we perfect some new technique that allows us to push effects even further, but we’re all just standing on the shoulders of giants like Peter Ellenshaw, guys who could do everything, and who invented much of the vocabulary that we simply expand upon now. His contribution to the art of film can’t be overestimated, and he will be missed. More importantly, he will be remembered. He was 93. His daughter Lynda Ellenshaw Thompson and his son Harrison Ellenshaw are both still active in the effects community. Our condolences go out not only to them, but to all the others who had the opportunity to work with him or know him over the course of his remarkable life.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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