Special Effects Technician. Nationality: British. Born: London, England, 24 May 1913. Military Service: Royal Air Force during World War II. Family: Married c. 1942, son: the special effects man Harrison Ellenshaw. Career: Worked as special effects man for Alexander Korda from mid-1930s; worked for Walt Disney from early 1950s, until 1953 in England, then in the United States: also worked on Disney television films and Disneyland rides; also a painter: regular exhibits at Hammer Gallery, New York. Awards: Academy Award, for Mary Poppins, 1964, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971.
Films as Special Effects Technician:
The Thief of Bagdad (Powell, Berger, and Whelan)
A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) (Powell and Pressburger)
Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger)
Treasure Island (Haskin)
Quo Vadis (LeRoy)
Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (French)
20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Fleischer); Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (Foster)
The Great Locomotive Chase (Lyon)
Johnny Tremain (Stevenson)
The Light in the Forest (Daugherty)
Pollyanna (Swift); Swiss Family Robinson (Annakin); Spartacus (Kubrick)
The Absent-Minded Professor (Vitarelli) (co)
In Search of the Castaways (Bolton)
Son of Flubber (Stevenson) (co); Summer Magic (Neilson)
Mary Poppins (Stevenson) (co)
The Fighting Prince of Donegal (O'Herlihy); Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N. (Paul) (co-hairstylist)
The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (Neilson); The Gnome-Mobile (Stevenson); The Happiest Millionaire (Tokar); Monkeys, Go Home! (McLaglen) (co)
Blackbeard's Ghost (Stevenson); Never a Dull Moment (Paris) (co)
The Love Bug (Stevenson)
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Stevenson)
The Island at the Top of the World (Stevenson)
The Black Hole (Nelson)
By ELLENSHAW: books—
Peter Ellenshaw: Selected Works, Nineteen Twenty-Nine to Nineteen Eighty-Three, Shreveport, 1983.
By ELLENSHAW: articles—
Ecran Fantastique (Paris), no. 14, 1980.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1980.
Screen International (London), 19–26 January 1980.
Films Illustrated (London), March 1980.
Film Review (London), April 1980.
Filme (Berlin), January-February 1981.
On ELLENSHAW: articles—
Culhane, John, "The Remarkable Visions of Peter Ellenshaw," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1979.
Movie Maker (Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire), March 1980.
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Peter Ellenshaw made a career out of mixing fantasy with reality to make make-believe worlds come to life and also, conversely, mixing reality with fantasy to allow the real world to enter into animated or make-believe environments. He began his career in 1934 as a matte artist and was an assistant to W. Percy Day, an early advocate (and possibly the inventor) of matte painting in Europe. Ellenshaw worked for several British directors—including Michael Powell—painting fanciful backgrounds that would have been too expensive to build as sets. He provided the matte painting and the hanging miniature that represented the blue and pink city of The Thief of Bagdad and the matte painting of the heavens in A Matter of Life and Death. He also worked on all of Alexander Korda's films.
Because Disney Studios had a large sum of revenues in England which they were not able to transfer stateside, they decided to open a production company in England. In 1948, when they established their British branch, Disney began to make period feature movies with English actors. Their first films were Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose, and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue. Ellenshaw, joining Disney at this time, worked on all four. He began as a matte artist and special effects artist, and later in his career became a production designer. It was the start of a long association. Over the next four decades, Ellenshaw worked on the largest and most-challenging projects the Disney studios made—and won two Academy Awards for his work.
When Disney decided to make 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Ellenshaw moved to Hollywood to work on the film. This was Disney's most ambitious film thus far. The story called for spectacular special effects, underwater filming, and location shooting far from the studios—not to forget the most important special effect, the designing and building of the giant squid.
While Ellenshaw continued to work on other well-known films such as Pollyanna, Swiss Family Robinson, and even the blockbuster, Spartacus, it is his work on Mary Poppins that is the best known. Filming Mary Poppins was a feat only the Disney studio could accomplish. First, the Disney creators were coming from the world of animation and they had a different slant on storytelling. Second, they had a history of successful special effects. For Mary Poppins, they incorporated wonderful adventures in flying or racing that defied logic and merged the worlds of dream and reality. Ellenshaw's special effects became one of the great delights of the film.
Ellenshaw's special effects are an intrinsic part of the Mary Poppins story. For the gravity-defying special effects, the flying effects used for The Absent-Minded Professor, a black-and-white movie, were adapted to color film. The flying effects enabled fantasy to enter the real world as Mary Poppins arrives from somewhere above with an umbrella keeping her aloft, as the wind blows hard and carries away all the other nannies; Ed Wynn floats to the ceiling every time he laughs; and pieces of paper float up the chimney. All seems effortless and real, indeed a mix between fantasy and reality. The real mixes with fantasy as Dick Van Dyke dances with cartoon penguins, and carousel horses come to life to run a race which, of course, Mary Poppins wins. The mattes used to create the rooftop scenes to the "Step in Time" sequence are breathtaking. For his work on this film, Ellenshaw won his first Academy Award.
Ellenshaw later won his second Academy Award as art director for Bedknobs and Broomsticks and was also nominated for another Academy Award as production designer on The Island at the Top of the World. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was filled with special effects and many critics felt that they were the redeeming factor of the movie. Many of the special effects were similar to those in Mary Poppins: a bedstead flies like a magic carpet, animation is nicely mixed with live action, and the characters ride into seven fantastic worlds.
The Island at the Top of the World is a story set in 1907. An Englishman commissions a spaceship to take him to a mythical, arctic Shangri-La. Ellenshaw produced splendid visual effects for the authentic looking Viking settlement and mysterious valley on the edge of the volcano. Many critics again felt that the special effects redeemed the movie.
For Disney's super-production The Black Hole, Ellenshaw was asked to come out of retirement to be the production designer and special effects director. This was the largest project attempted up till that time by Disney. It was also important work for Ellenshaw who would later see his work on The Black Hole as part of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The sets are eye-catching, almost distracting. For the interior of the Spaceship Cygnus, Ellenshaw achieved a dated modern look by borrowing from Chagall and Mondrian. Inside, it is comfy, not austere. There are big picture windows replacing the usual small portholes. Bunks beds have space art hanging on the walls. The ambience is friendly and inviting.
Ellenshaw exclusively used mattes in The Black Hole—simple mattes as well as complex running mattes—and his son executed all 150 mattes, a world record. The special effects work on The Black Hole is considered to be technically superior to Star Wars, Star Trek, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, although The Black Hole did not attract the same box-office attention. The design of the movie is considered to be a point of departure from Star Wars. The Black Hole was Peter Ellenshaw's last movie and a fitting close for someone who was described as one of the screen's masters of visual effects, and the film garnered him another Academy Award nomination, for best visual effects.