ARTIST WARREN NEWCOMBE: A Lifetime of Special Effects
By Victoria Chick, Artist and 19th & 20th Century Print Collector
Realistic computer generated scenery and effects have become commonly used both in totally animated movies and in movies with live actors. Prior to computers, generations of movie-goers accepted what they saw on the screen during a time when set designers manually created believable spaces in which the actors operated, as well as engineered many of the special effects that made movies thrilling to watch.
Early movies were filmed in warehouse type buildings, so all locations had to be built or made to seem real by combining art with photography. The set designer had to create illusions of space ranging from rooms, to city streets, even to distant spaces when stories required outdoor settings. Matte paintings were made by artists using paints or pastels on large sheets of glass for integrating with the live-action footage.
Matte painting shots most people are familiar with include Dorothy’s approach to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, and the tractor-beam set of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
One of the early set designers and special effects men was Warren Newcombe, who began working in the fledgling film industry, not in Hollywood, but in New Jersey.
Born in 1894, Newcombe had his early art training from Joseph Decamp, a respected portrait painter in Boston. Newcombe then did commercial art in New York before using his art skills for motion pictures. When the movie industry shifted to California prior to WWI, Newcombe went along. By 1923, he was working for D.W. Griffith at Mamaronek Studios. He was hired by Louis Mayer in 1925 to do title art, illustration, and use his photographic skills as a matte artist. His broader art talents were recognized and he eventually became head of Special Effects for MGM, making 175 movies between 1925 and 1957.
Several companies developed the ability to combine sound with motion pictures, which had been silent until 1926. The introduction of sound made many types of movies possible. For instance, without sound, the “musical” genre could not have been made. Sound contributed to the special effects’ repertoire of tools. Warren Newcombe worked on a number of musicals, the most famous of which was Singin’ in the Rain, starring Fred Astaire. The most talked-about special effect in this film had Astaire dancing up a wall.
Sound also contributed to the realism of sets in war movies. Newcombe did the special effects for 30 Seconds Over Tokyo so that audiences had the realistic illusion of being in the cockpit of an airplane during wartime. Wizard of Oz, made in 1939, is a classic movie appreciated by both adults and children. Warren Newcombe was in charge of all the painted sets for this fantasy musical.
Newcombe’s long career in special effects resulted in many Academy Award nominations. He twice won the Academy Award. Once, winning for special effects in the movie Green Dolphin Street and again, for photographic effects in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. All the time Warren Newcombe was involved with the movie industry, he continued painting and lithography for his private enjoyment. He showed his work in museums and galleries in southern California.
Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at www.ArtistVictoriaChick.com