Disney Legend Peter Ellenshaw Dies
Oscar winning visual effects master-artist-painter was 93
Santa Barbara, CA - Peter Ellenshaw, a visual effects pioneer and matte artist who left an indelible mark on the Walt Disney Company and won an Oscar for Mary Poppins, died Monday in Santa Barbara. He was 93.
Officially designated a “Disney Legend” in 1993, in a ceremony presided over by then CEO Michael Eisner and Roy E. Disney, Ellenshaw earned additional Oscar nominations for visual effects for The Black Hole and for art direction for Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Island at the Top of the World.
U.K.-born WWII vet begins 30+ year Disney
run in 1940s with Treasure Island
Born in Essex, England, Ellenshaw began his film career in the early 1930s as an apprentice to Royal Academy-trained visual effects pioneer W. Percy (Pop) Day. Under Day’s tutelage, Ellenshaw worked on such movies as Things to Come, The Thief of Baghdad, Elephant Boy and the classic Black Narcissus, a collaboration of British filmmaking legends Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
As Ellenshaw explained on his website, “Matte shots are realistic paintings done on glass of extended sets or fantasy locations, which are combined with scenes of actors in real sets.”
After World War II service as a pilot for the Royal Air Force, Ellenshaw returned to the film industry as a matte artist for MGM’s Quo Vadis. In the late 1940s Walt Disney approached Ellenshaw to work on the studio's first live-action feature, Treasure Island. Thus began a professional collaboration and friendship that spanned more than thirty years and thirty-four films.
In 1953, Ellenshaw and his family moved to California to work on the subaquatic Disney epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. At the time, the Walt Disney Studio was also in the pre-planning stages for Disneyland. Ellenshaw contributed to many of the new theme park’s attractions, including the first Circlevision theater show, TWA’s Rocket Ship to the Moon and X-1 Satellite View of America. He also painted the first map of Disneyland, which was featured on early postcards and souvenir booklets.
Ellenshaw officially retired from Disney in 1979, but returned years later to contribute several matte paintings for the 1990 film Dick Tracy, starring and directed by Warren Beatty.
Ellenshaw’s other feature films include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Spartacus, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, Swiss Family Robinson and The Love Bug.
He also worked on the television series Disneyland, and such programs as Davy Crockett and Zorro.
Prolific fine artist, popular with collectors
In addition to his film and television work, Ellenshaw was a prolific fine artist. After relocating to California he became entranced by the ocean and began painting seascapes along the Pacific coast. His artwork became popular with collectors, and he enjoyed a long association with the Hammer Galleries in New York City.
In 1970 Elenshaw and his wife, Bobbie, moved to Ireland, where he painted the rugged Irish coast. Many of these works were displayed at a special exhibition at the American Embassy in Dublin, and today reside in exclusive collections throughout Ireland.
Other subjects he committed to canvas included the Himalayas, Giverny, France, the Mojave Desert, San Francisco and New York cityscapes, America’s Cup yachting and noteworthy golf courses throughout the world.
Ellenshaw is survived by a daughter, visual effects producer Lynda Ellenshaw Thompson; a son, visual effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw; and two grandchildren.
Ellenshaw Talks with the Archive of American Television
In September 2003, Peter Ellenshaw granted the Archive of American Television (AAT) an in-depth interview, describing his long association with the Walt Disney Studios and much more.
He discussed the craft of the matte artist and how a matte is incorporated into a film. Plus, Ellenshaw talked of Disney’s foray into television with the Disneyland series and mentioned his work on such segments of the show as Davy Crockett. More B-roll consists of Ellenshaw voicing-over descriptions of mattes done for various projects, as well as a few photos from his Disney years.
Ellenshaw's son, Harrison Ellenshaw, a special effects artist of note himself, sat with AAT for an additional thirty-minute interview. He talked about his father as well as effects work that he has done for such features as Star Wars and more.
Both interviews are available for viewing at the AAT office, located on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences plaza in North Hollywood. Contact the Television Archive at (818) 754-2800 for more information.
To learn more about the life and works of celebrated artist Peter Ellenshaw online, please visit
the Archive of American Television Update blog.