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April 15
2024

ISSUE

Spring 2024

The Wizard of Matte

Image courtesy of MGM and Silver Screen Collection.

It would be difficult to single out one “most valuable player” for the classic, groundbreaking 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. After all, cinema is a collaborative medium. Yet, Scotland-born George Gibson is a major contender for that designation. He is one of filmdom’s major unsung heroes (see article this issue on contemporary unsung VFX heroes, which now number in the thousands for VFX-infused projects). As head of MGM’s Scenic Design Department. Gibson had a hand in the film’s artistic looks. Gibson was the head of the department for 30 years. He also created matte paintings for such films as An American in Paris and Brigadoon.

Born in 1904 in Edinburgh, he attended the Edinburgh College of Art and the Glasgow School of Art. He migrated to America, and his talent allowed him to become head of the scene painting workshop at MGM. One of his innovations there was to paint backdrops on movable frames rather than on fixed scaffolds. There was no sophisticated VFX in those days, so he supervised three months of secret backgrounds and hand-painted scenery for Oz. He claimed the Emerald City was born from his imagination. He lived to 96 and painted every day until his death. Back then, studios did not want the public to know that the actors were standing in front of paintings. Like many unsung heroes in movie history, he was not credited for his work.

According to Robert A. Welch, co-editor of The Wizard of MGM, the memoir of his grandfather, A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, Head of Special Effects for MGM Studio in its heyday, George Gibson worked in the Scenic Department, not under Warren Newcombe in Newcombe’s ‘secretive’ matte painting department. He says among the scenic artists on Oz were Harry Tepker, Duncan Spencer, Clark M.Provins, Art Rider, William J.Smart and George’s own brother, William (Bill) Gibson. There were many others. The personnel under Newcombe were not identified with a particular matte painting as many artists would contribute to them periodically. The Scenic Department and Newcombe artists were different departments. A look at IMDb.com, the Internet Movie Database site, reveals that many names were attributed to such departments as makeup, production, art, sound and special effects — but were listed as ‘uncredited.’ Such was the secrecy both in and outside the studio at the time. Unfortunately, much of the inner workings of the film’s production personnel may have been lost to history.



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