The apple did not fall far from the tree for visual effects wizard Harrison Ellenshaw, son of Academy Award-winning effects pioneer Peter Ellenshaw. Having gotten his start as a matte painter at Disney Studios, Ellenshaw ventured out on his own to provide photographic effects work on the David Bowie sci-fi cult classic "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976). It was, however, his contributions to George Lucas' space opera "Star Wars" (1977) that altered the trajectory of his burgeoning career. Returning to Disney, Ellenshaw worked alongside his father on the visually impressive galactic adventure "The Black Hole" (1979), prior to taking the lead of the matte painting team on "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). Ellenshaw continued to work as a visual effects supervisor, even as he associate produced the computer-generated sci-fi fantasy "TRON" (1982) and assistant directed "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987). After making his directorial debut on the indie comedy "Dead Silence" (1989) Ellenshaw was chosen to head Disney's Buena Vista Visual Effects division. There, he oversaw work on films like "Honey I Blew up the Kid" (1992) and "Escape from L.A." (1996) before leaving to pursue more personal artistic interests. Although he had firmly established his own stellar reputation apart from his revered father, Ellenshaw also warmly embraced his elder's influence and experience in a career that delivered the best of true movie magic for more than 30 years.
Born Peter Ellenshaw on July 20, 1945 in Harrisburg, PA, he was the son of Bobbie and William "Peter" Ellenshaw. Although born in the United States, Ellenshaw soon returned to his father's home country of England following the end of the Second World War. Even at the age of four, young Ellenshaw was enamored by the work of his father, a respected visual effects artist and painter, who would go on to win an Academy Award for his special effects work on Disney's beloved fantasy film "Mary Poppins" (1964) after moving the family to California some years earlier. Despite the fact that he was an accomplished artist in his own right by his teens, Ellenshaw initially sought to distance himself professionally from the senior Ellenshaw's field of endeavor. After earning a degree in Psychology from Whittier College and serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy, Ellenshaw, at his father's suggestion, took on work as an apprentice matte artist. In what was initially intended to be a mere temporary position, Ellenshaw began his profession under the tutelage of Oscar-winning artist Alan Maley at Walt Disney Studios. Credited as "P.S. Ellenshaw," he honed his skills as a matte artist on family films like "The Castaway Cowboy" (1974) and "No Deposit, No Return" (1976).
It would not be long before Ellenshaw ventured out on his own, employing his love of photography to handle the special photographic effects on director Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976), a hauntingly enigmatic science fiction tale starring pop icon David Bowie (in his first starring role) as an alien sent to Earth on a mission to bring water back to his dying home world. In one of the more fortuitous moves of his career, Ellenshaw joined filmmaker George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic effects team to provide matte work for the film that irreversibly changed the landscape of Hollywood - "Star Wars" (1977). Maintaining his ties with Disney, he continued to work in the same capacity on features like the car comedy sequel "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo" (1977) and the live action-cartoon hybrid "Pete's Dragon" (1977). When Disney sought to produce an outer-space epic on a scale similar to "Star Wars," it came as no surprise that they asked Ellenshaw and his father to help craft the desired jaw-dropping visuals. Having dropped the "P.S." in favor of "Harrison" on his credits (a nod to his Harrisburg, PA birthplace) for "The Black Hole" (1979), Ellenshaw's work alongside Peter earned the father and son team an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects.
After helping redesign a spectacular final sequence for Disney's supernatural thriller "The Watcher in the Woods" (1980), starring Bette Davis, Ellenshaw was elevated to overseeing the matte department on Lucas' heralded sequel "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). Soon after, he picked up the first-ever visual effects supervisor credit on the arcade game adventure "TRON" (1982), a visually ground-breaking sci-fi fantasy on which Ellenshaw also served as associate producer. In a bit of professional serendipity, he was later employed by both Disney and Lucas to lend his expertise to the theme park movie experience "Captain EO" (1986), starring Michael Jackson as the high-stepping leader of a rag tag crew of space adventurers. The following year, he served as visual effects supervisor and assistant director on the critically and commercially disastrous "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987), a project hamstrung by the budgetary constraints imposed by its overextended studio, Cannon Films.
Ellenshaw later called his father out of retirement to help him on "Dick Tracy" (1989), a colorful live-action adaptation of the classic comic strip, starring Warren Beatty as the square-jawed crime fighter. That same year, he directed his one and only feature film, the independent comedy "Dead Silence" (1989) then went on to act as a visual effects consultant on the supernatural romance blockbuster "Ghost" (1990). At about this time, Ellenshaw was named as the head of Disney's special effects division, Buena Vista Visual Effects, housed at the studio's Burbank production lot. During his impressive six-year tenure with the organization, he oversaw efforts like the sequel "Honey I Blew Up the Kid" (1992), the presidential comedy-romance "Dave" (1993), and the bizarre comedic fantasy "Cabin Boy" (1994). Two years later, Ellenshaw stepped down from his position at BVVE after completing work on the John Carpenter sequel "Escape from L.A." (1996). After working as an effects supervisor on several episodes of "Xena: Warrior Princess" (syndicated, 1995-2001), Ellenshaw concentrated the majority of his efforts on more personal projects, such as a series of Disney giclées (another collaboration with his father) and an ongoing series of fine art paintings, featuring landscapes and cityscapes from around the globe.
By Bryce P. Coleman