Peter Ellenshaw, the Oscar-winning visual effects pioneer and matte artist who worked his magic on such classic Disney live-action films as Mary Poppins, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Treasure Island, and The Black Hole, passed away at his home in Santa Barbara on Monday (2/12) at the age of 93. As a hand-picked member of Walt Disney's creative team, Ellenshaw was called upon to create a wide variety of visual effects for the Studio's films, and even painted the iconic first map of Disneyland that was featured on all the early postcards and souvenir booklets. Ellenshaw began his association with Walt Disney in 1947, when he was tapped to work on the Studio's first live-action film, Treasure Island (1950), and continued working there until his retirement in 1979 following The Black Hole.
Commenting on Ellenshaw's passing, Roy E. Disney said, "Peter was a Disney legend in every sense of the word and played a vital role in the creation of many of the Studio's greatest live-action films from the very beginning. He was a brilliant and innovative visual effects pioneer who was able to consistently please my Uncle Walt, and push the boundaries of the medium to fantastic new heights. From his incredibly beautiful and effective matte paintings for films like 'Mary Poppins,' 'Treasure Island,' and '20,000 Leagues...,' to his landmark painting of the iconic Disneyland map, he was a true master of his art. Outside of the Studio, he was a fantastic painter in his own right, and I always loved his Irish paintings and felt that he did the best seascapes in the world."
Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin added, "Long before the era of modern special effects, Peter was working his magic in Disney films. People never knew how he accomplished his visual feats. 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People' remains one of the most amazing, eye-popping achievements in all of film history. And when you think that 'Mary Poppins' was made without anyone ever setting foot outside a soundstage -- let alone visiting London -- you get some idea of what he was able to pull off."
Craig Barron, president of Matte World Digital and co-author of the book The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Paintings, observed, "Ellenshaw's matte work was truly the stuff that movie magic dreams were made of. He took audiences on cinematic journeys to the most incredible places like Captain Nemo's volcanic island from '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' or the fairy mountain cave of 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People,' or a tour of London's magical rooftops for 'Mary Poppins.' His matte painting work belongs to that unsung craft that's now virtually disappeared. With only a small crew, he created, almost single-handedly, incredible movie making locations with just the sublime artistry of brush strokes -- literally the 'art' in movies that generations of audiences have appreciated unawares, thanks to the skill of this great-departed movie artist."
Born in Great Britain in 1913, Ellenshaw began his film career in the early 1930s, when he apprenticed for visual effects pioneer W. Percy (Pop) Day, O.B.E. He worked on such productions as Things to Come, Rembrandt, Elephant Boy, Sixty Glorious Years, A Matter of Life and Death, and the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger classic Black Narcissus.
After a stint as a pilot in the RAF during World War II, Ellenshaw created matte paintings for MGM's Quo Vadis. In 1947, his work caught the attention of an art director for the Walt Disney Studios. Disney was in the pre- planning stages of his very first live-action film, Treasure Island, which would be produced in Great Britain, and the art director inquired if Ellenshaw would be interested in the project. Thus began a professional collaboration and friendship with Walt Disney that would span over 30 years and 34 films.
Ellenshaw regarded Walt Disney as a source of inspiration, a wonderful executive, and over the years, a good friend. "Walt had the ability to communicate with artists," observed Ellenshaw. "He'd talk to you on your level -- artist to artist. He used to say, 'I can't draw, Peter.' But he had the soul of an artist, and he had a wonderful way of transferring his enthusiasm to you."
Among his many projects at Disney, Ellenshaw made major artistic contributions to the television shows Davy Crockett and Zorro, and such classic feature films as The Sword in the Rose, The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Third Man on the Mountain, Swiss Family Robinson, The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and The Black Hole. He officially retired from the Studio in 1979 but returned years later to paint several matte paintings for the 1990 film, Dick Tracy. He was designated a "Disney Legend" in 1993.
In addition to his career in the motion picture industry, Ellenshaw became known as one of the finest marine artists of the past century known not only for his dramatic seascapes but his elegant Irish landscapes and vivid oils of the Himalayas and Monet's garden at Giverny.
Ellenshaw's beloved wife of 58 years, Bobbie, passed away in 2000. He is survived by his two children, Lynda Ellenshaw Thompson (an industry veteran visual effects producer), and Harrison Ellenshaw (a visual effects artist who was an Oscar nominee for The Black Hole, matte supervisor on Star Wars: Episodes IV and V and visual effects supervisor for Tron), as well as his two grandchildren, Michael and Hilary.
Funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Direct Relief International, Santa Barbara, California.