Right now I'm gearing up to record an unofficial audio commentary for Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 thriller The Birds for CommentariesOnFilm, with my buddy Dennis Rosenfeld. Part of my research was going through the film, trying to spot the work of Albert Whitlock.
Mr. Whitlock is a matte painter and visual effect wizard.
With nothing more than a piece of glass and some paint he has created some of the most impressive visuals in cinema history. Often, though, his work will go completely unnoticed, because it's so damn good. Even 50 years later, with the enormous advances in visual effects, some of these shots still hold up. They are, quite simply, flawless.
This post is partly for my own benefit - to get an overview of Mr. Whitlock’s work on The Birds. At this point I should acknowledge the help of Peter Cook, from the Matte Shot blog (more on this later). Without his help this post would not have been possible.
So, without further ado, here is what may or may not be a complete rundown of the matte paintings of The Birds.
This beautiful shot establishes the sinister mood of the film, as Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren) drives to the town of Bodega Bay. The sky and the top of the mountains have been added by Mr. Whitlock.
The town of Bodaga Bay was created by combining several locations. This view, for example, did not exist in real life, so Mr. Whitlock had to lend a hand. Only the middle section of the image is real.
Melanie takes a boat across the bay. In both of these shots, the sky and the town have been added.
This nighttime shot includes painted sky, birds on the wires, and hills.
In this follow-up shot the entire background is an Albert Whitlock painting.
For the gruesome demise of a local farmer, Mr. Whitlock added hollow eyes to enhance the makeup.
Here’s the same shot, without the painted portion:
For this epic God’s eye view of the doomed town, only the parking lot and the fire in the center are real. The rest of the town is painted. Separately shot birds were added on top of this, to complete the illusion.
Mr. Whitlock reportedly painted the backgrounds to this sequence as well.
Once again the town, the hills, and the sky have been added to the shot.
The final haunting shot of the family leaving Bodega Bay features 32 elements, including a painting by Mr. Whitlock. Only the road and the car are real.
And finally, Peter Cook caught this painting, which I never in a million years would have spotted. The town in the distance and possibly the two last poles seem to have been added with a painting.
Also notice the artifact in the top left of the frame. This is a reflection in the glass used to create the painting, and when the image is in motion, you can make out a person moving past the camera.
Going through an old film like this, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the work these talented filmmakers accomplished. With no computers, mind you. The art of matte painting is especially fascinating and probably worthy of a dedicated post in the future.
For more information about Albert Whitlock and his impressive body of work, visit Peter Cook’s Matte Shot blog. Here you can also see some before-and-after stills from famous matte shots, and pictures of Mr. Whitlock working.
It’s my desire to post more about old school effects in the future, so stay tuned for that, and head over to CommentariesOnFilm to subscribe to the podcast.
Until next time, watch out! The Birds is coming.
PS: I’ll update this post if I come across additional information.