Brush with Greatness: Peter Ellenshaw’s Matte Paintings for ‘Spartacus’


Peter Ellenshaw was a British matte artist who got his start in the industry in the 1930’s and worked for more than 15 years as an uncredited assistant before he ever saw his name onscreen. But once it was up there, it stayed there. Ellenshaw quickly became the go-to matte artist and for live-action Disney films of the 50’s and 60’s, lending his considerable talents to such iconic productions as TREASURE ISLAND, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, MARY POPPINS, THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE, a couple DAVY CROCKETT films, OLD YELLER, DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, POLLYANNA, SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, THE GNOME-MOBILE, THE LOVE BUG, and the ZORRO series. In all seriousness, that’s the best possible live-action Disney resume you can have. Ellenshaw was nominated for four Oscars in his time, winning one for his effort on MARY POPPINS.

Ellenshaw retired in the late 60’s, but when it came time for Disney to take a stab at some STAR WARS dollars with THE BLACK HOLE (which didn’t work; they’d have to buy Lucasfilm 35 years later to get in on that action), executives coaxed Ellenshaw out of retirement to help with the effects. The result was a mixed film, but another Oscar nod for Ellenshaw. Furthermore, he stayed out of retirement for a couple more films: SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, and Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY adaptation.

But despite all the commendable films listed above, we’re here today to discuss the one flick in Ellenshaw’s filmography that stands out from the others, not just because it isn’t for kids or it isn’t Disney, but because it was made by director Stanley Kubrick.

In 1960, Ellenshaw was commissioned by Kubrick to make a single matte painting for the background of Rome. It would be the only time Ellenshaw worked with the famous director, but it was a memorable experience as decades later he was still telling the story.

And we’ve got that story, thanks to a video found by Eyes on Cinema. It’s an interesting opportunity to learn not just about the reclusive, perfectionist director, but also the process of being a matte artist. It’s also bite-size, so makes learning easy and fun. Bon appetit.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist