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Remembering Peter Ellenshaw : 1913 - 2007

Remembering Peter Ellenshaw : 1913 - 2007

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We lost one of Hollywood's true visual effects wizards yesterday.

By that I mean: Peter Ellenshaw could do what only a handful of artists could do. Which is take a piece of glass & a few tubes of paint. And then he'd create these impossible places & things. A long-forgotten Viking colony that was hidden high up in the Arctic. A leprechaun's throne room that was piled high with gold. A secret seabase that had been built inside the caldera of a long-dormant volcano. This elegant long spacecraft that was parked at the edge of an immense black hole.

All of these places exist in Disney films because Peter Ellenshaw was an absolute master of matte painting. He could take these rough bits of film that Walt or Bill Walsh or Robert Stevenson would hand him and then -- with just a few flicks of a brush -- extend a half-built set. Or make a miniature seem downright enormous. That way, Mary Poppins would then have a proper looking English park to take Jane & Michael Banks to. Or Eglantine Price would then have a properly moody English moor on which to battle Nazis.

So much of the magic that we took for granted in those Walt Disney Productions of the 1950s, 1960s & 1970s was a direct result of Ellenshaw's talent & artistry. His ability to take those blank bits of screen and make them seem real. Which is why we believed that Jim Douglas & Tennessee Steinmetz actually did live in an old San Francisco firehouse with Herbie the Love Bug. Or that Jim Hawkins & Long John Silver really did drop anchor at Treasure Island.

But you know what else was great about Ellenshaw? In spite of his obvious talent & given all that he'd accomplished in life, Peter was still this incredibly humble, very accessible guy. I was lucky enough to get the chance to chat with this man at a few VES events. And even though I was just this lowly dweeb who wrote for the Web, Ellenshaw was still incredibly generous with his time. Telling me all these great tales about what it was actually like to work for the Mouse while Walt was still alive.

And you know what struck me about Peter? That even then -- literally decades after Disney had personally invited Ellenshaw to come work at his studios, because Walt had recognized what a huge talent Peter was -- Ellenshaw was still grateful that Disney had taken a chance on this poor artist from the U.K.

Which perhaps explains why -- when Walt was at his absolute lowest, as he lay dying in St. Joseph's hospital in December of 1966 -- Peter wanted to do something to try & comfort his boss. As he recounted in his excellent memoir, "Ellenshaw Under Glass" :

"I tried to see (Walt) in the hospital, but his secretary told me he would see no one. I decided to do a little painting of a desert smoke tree, knowing how much he loved the desert, hoping I would be able to give it to him.

I called his secretary, Tommie Wilck, who told me, no, (Walt) didn't want anyone to see him in the condition he was in, but she would take it to him. Later, she told me it was hung on the wall so he could look at it, and he would proudly tell the nurses how one of his boys painted it for him."

To me, that one act of kindness, using his paintbrush to try & bring a little comfort to Walt Disney while he lay on his deathbed ... That just spoke volumes about Peter's true character. What a genuinely kind & caring guy he was. Which is why -- out of all of the great images that Ellenshaw created over his lifetime -- I chose that particular painting to illustrate today's tribute.

Anyway ... If the world seems a little less magical today ... There's a reason. We lost a great artist as well as a good & gentle man yesterday.


JHM - as well as the entire Disneyana community - mourns the loss of Peter Ellenshaw. We also extend our sympathies to his family in their time of sorrow.

Special thanks to Peter Emslie for providing the caricature that appears with today's piece

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  • He was very talented and sounded like such a nice man.  May he rest in peace.

  • Let him rest in peace. A true Legend.

  • After 40-50 years, Mr. Ellenshaw's work still blows 99% of the CGI stuff out of the water.  In every field there are always those few who tower over everyone else, and Mr. Ellenshaw was truly a giant in his.    

    I believe I will be watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, May Poppins, and The Black Hole tonight to remind me of the mastery of Mr. Ellenshaw.

  • I just finally finished watching the "walt" DVD, and found Ellenshaw's commentary and comments on Walt to be some of the most intriguing and genuine of the bunch.

    Well, his work will continue to live on.

  • Very nice tribute Jim.

    Thank you.

  • Very nice, Jim. Thank you.

  • Back in the early days of The Disney Channel there was a wonderful series called "Disney Family Album" that showcased various longtime creative personnel. There were still seven of the Nine Old Men still around at that time and all of them were covered on this show. But artists from other realms would be showcased too, including an episode that profiled Peter Ellenshaw and his son, Harrison.

    Much of Peter's fine work was shown in clips from the live-action films he had contributed to, and it was amazing to me just how much of what was on the screen was a painting! I recall from seeing all of these films when I was young that I always had sensed a certain lush, painterly quality to the grand vistas on display, but I never knew that the reason for that rich quality was the hand of a master artist like Mr. Ellenshaw's at work.

    The other thing that struck me while watching the "Disney Family Album" show was how quick and sophisticated a wit Peter had. In fact, both he and Harrison joked with each other in such a manner that it was obvious that there was a real affection between father and son, in addition to their admiration for each other's achievements. In short, Peter Ellenshaw came across as a thoroughly likeable and delightful man. He has left an incredible legacy on film and he will be much missed.

  • I have always enjoyed Mr. Ellenshaw's work. His talent and personality will be greatly missed.

    Rest in peace.

  • Thank you Jim.  The Company portal has yet to make any mention of Peter Ellenshaw's passing.  It is amazing how difficult it is to communicate to many of my co-workers at the studio the importance of Disney legends when they die.  It is shocking and very discouraging to know that so many of the people who work for Disney now do not have an appreciation for the company's history.   And they do not realize were it not for these pioneers and legends they would not have jobs with Disney themselves.

    Oh well, once again with the passing of another of Disney's finest I have the opportunity to educate those that I work with everyday.

  • You might like to read my own little tribute to Peter Ellenshaw on <a href="http://briansibleysblog.blogspot.com/2007/02/glass-worlds-of-peter-ellenshaw.html">Brian Sibley - My Blog</a>.

  • Sorry...

    Try:

    http://briansibleysblog.blogspot.com/2007/02/glass-worlds-of-peter-ellenshaw.html

  • How nice to have Brian Sibley pop in here for a visit! His book, "The Disney Studio Story" is one of my favourite Disney reference books. In fact, it often gets a good workout when I'm looking for film stills to refer to when I'm illustrating a project for Disney merchandise. Now that I know Mr. Sibley has a blogsite too, I'll be checking that out quite regularly from now on. I've just looked at a couple of his archived articles and I'm happy to see he's a fellow Ronald Searle fan.

  • He was, simply the best.

  • In 1996, I was fortunate to have met this outstanding artist and person.  I celebrate his and his fellow artists’ creative works, and I shall always celebrate their legacy as well as what they stand for.  Great artists don’t go away, they just glow brighter.  Respectfully RM

  • Whoa...  At first glance, I thought that picture with the trees in the desert was a photograph!  And, I absolutely loved the backstory behind it, where he painted it for Mr. Disney.

    I had not heard of Mr. Ellenshaw before this day, but from this article, I can tell that he was a kind and hard-working man.  I only wish that more people in the world were like him.

    Next time I watch some of those old classic Disney live-action movies, I'll have to pay careful attention and try to find some more of Mr. Ellenshaw's excellent works.

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