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 in 1915, 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 phenomenal 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.”
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In the early 1960s, Whitlock moved to Universal Studios to head its matte department. There he expanded the importance of matte painting, as it became a tool in filmic 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 were “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” and “Dune.”
On movies including “The Learning Tree,” “Bound for Glory,” “The Sting” and “History of the World Part One,” Whitlock made dust storms and tornadoes operate on cue, and brought the past to life.
Whitlock was a former governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and an associate member of the American Society of Cinematographers.
He is survived by his wife, June; sons John and Mark; and two grandsons.