Disney Artist Peter Ellenshaw Finds the Ultimate Backdrop: a Museum

updated 11/19/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/19/1979 01:00AM

As a movie matte (or backdrop) artist, the British-born Peter Ellenshaw painted scenes that will play forever in the Movieola of fans' minds. The pink-and-azure jewel of a city behind The Thief of Baghdad (1940). The sybaritic Rome of Nero for Quo Vadis? (1951). The colossal crater HQ of Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954). The magnificent leprechaun kingdom in Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959). The fog-and soot-shrouded turn-of-the-century London of Mary Poppins (1964).

Ellenshaw's rewards were an Oscar (for Poppins) and sufficient money to retire five years ago at 61 to paint for himself and live in his sea-commanding dream houses in both Kerry, Ireland and Santa Barbara, Calif. It didn't quite end up that way. Throughout his career, Ellenshaw's Medici—his creations are as much art as commerce—was Walt Disney. So when Ron Miller, Walt's son-in-law and successor in charge of studio production, besought Ellenshaw to come back as special effects director of his $20 million The Black Hole, Disney's most expensive film ever, Peter responded: "How can I refuse?"

The box office reading on Black Hole—an intergalactic rescue yarn starring Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins and Joseph Bottoms—awaits its opening just before Christmas. But Ellenshaw can't lose. New York's Museum of Modern Art has already displayed advance sketches from the movie and honored his 45-year career with the first solo show ever granted a film artist. Meanwhile, last week, four blocks away, the Hammer Gallery opened an exhibit of Ellenshaw landscapes and seascapes. Walt Disney had shrewdly collected them in his lifetime for much less, but Ellenshaws now fetch up to $20,000. Observes Walt's heir Miller: "Peter is really not a matte artist anymore. He's way beyond that."

Matte art is easier to appreciate than understand. It begins with a painting (landscape or interior) on a sheet of glass, leaving certain sections clear as windows. Then film of the actors performing in their roles is projected onto the unpainted areas, completing Ellenshaw's glass "canvas." Finally, the composite image is refilmed, and the illusion is achieved.

Like the duality in his mattes, Ellenshaw's life has mixed what he describes as "the lonely world of the artist with the gregarious world of the film studio." The son of a London inventor and his artist wife, Peter remembers making his first sketches as a 3-year-old crouched under the kitchen table during a World War I bombing raid. His father died the next year, and by the time Ellenshaw was 14, he had to quit school and take a job as a grease monkey in a garage.

Painting watercolors, Peter assembled a sizable portfolio of old-master-style works over the next few years. At 20, he felt bold enough to hold a little one-man show for Royal Academy-trained artist W. Percy Day, who had moved in up the street. Day took him on as an apprentice, and in no time Peter was turning out mattes for Day's major patron, film producer Sir Alexander Korda.

Ellenshaw was soon sought out by Disney to paint some mattes to cut the location costs on Treasure Island. The studio followed up with an invitation to Hollywood, which Peter recalls as "a ticket to heaven." "Most people were scared to death of Walt," recalls Ellenshaw. "But he had such a tremendous enthusiasm for ideas—he was like a flame." Thirteen years after Disney's death, Ellenshaw still has dreams about his old boss, and Mickey Mouse is depicted not only on the wristwatches he and wife Bobbie wear but also in a stained-glass window in the bathroom of their Santa Barbara house.

With The Black Hole almost finished, Ellenshaw says he is ready for a second retirement with Bobbie, a Pennsylvania-born nurse he met in 1942 while serving in the Royal Air Force. He will devote more hours to swimming and his landscapes. But Ellenshaw leaves the film industry someone able to carry on the name. His 33-year-old son Harrison, besides assisting in the mattes for The Black Hole, painted all 13 used in Star Wars.

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