Albert J. Whitlock, Oscar-winning visual effects artist, died Oct. 26 in Santa Barbara following a lengthy illness. He was 84.
Born in central London, he began his career in British film studios as a young teenager. His artistic abilities brought him studio jobs in sign and title lettering, then scenic painting, and finally matte painting: the art of seamlessly combining realistic paintings with live action photography.
In the early 1950s, his skills caught Walt Disney’s eye while Whitlock was working on one of Disney’s English productions. Disney encouraged him to move his young family to America, hinting at a job offer.
After an anxious period as a billboard artist in San Francisco, Whitlock was finally hired at the Disney studio. His first assignment was lettering the titles for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
In the early ’60s, Whitlock moved to Universal Studios to head its Matte Dept. There he expanded the importance of matte painting, incorporating it as an active participant in storytelling.
At Universal, Whitlock created matte effects and designs for more than 140 films, but he was best known for his close association with Alfred Hitchcock, particularly for his work in “The Birds,” “Marnie,” “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz.”
Hitchcock declared Whitlock to be “the finest artist working in films.” Along the way, Whitlock won back-to-back Oscars for “Earthquake” and “The Hindenburg.”
He stayed at Universal until his retirement in 1985; among his last films at the Studio were “Greystoke” and “Dune.”
On movies from “The Learning Tree” to “Bound for Glory,” from “The Sting,” to Mel Brooks’ “History of the World: Part 1,” Whitlock made dust storms and tornadoes operate on cue, and brought the past to life.
Whitlock was a former governor of the Motion Picture Academy and an associate member of the American Society of Cinematographers.
He is survived by his wife, June, two sons and two grandsons.