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Artist Warren Newcombe
A Lifetime of Special Effects
By Victoria Chick, Artist and 19th & 20th Century Print Collector
Realistic computer generated scenery and effects have become commonly used both in
totally animated movies and in movies with live actors. Prior to computers, generations
Early movies were filmed in warehouse type buildings, so all locations had to be
built or made to seem real by combining art with photography. The set designer had
to create illusions of space ranging from rooms, to city streets, even to distant
spaces when stories required outdoor settings. Matte paintings were made by artists
using paints or pastels on large sheets of glass for integrating with the live-
One of the early set designers and special effects men was Warren Newcombe, who began
working in the fledgling film industry, not in Hollywood, but in New Jersey.
Born in 1894, Newcombe had his early art training from Joseph Decamp, a respected portrait painter in Boston. Newcombe then did commercial art in New York before using his art skills for motion pictures. When the movie industry shifted to California prior to WWI, Newcombe went along. By 1923, he was working for D.W. Griffith at Mamaronek Studios. He was hired by Louis Mayer in 1925 to do title art, illustration, and use his photographic skills as a matte artist. His broader art talents were recognized and he eventually became head of Special Effects for MGM, making 175 movies between 1925 and 1957.
Several companies developed the ability to combine sound with motion pictures, which
had been silent until 1926. The introduction of sound made many types of movies possible.
For instance, without sound, the “musical” genre could not have been made. Sound
contributed to the special effects’ repertoire of tools. Warren Newcombe worked on
a number of musicals, the most famous of which was Singin’ in the Rain, starring
Fred Astaire. The most talked-
Wizard of Oz, made in 1939, is a classic movie appreciated by both adults and children. Warren Newcombe was in charge of all the painted sets for this fantasy musical. Newcombe’s long career in special effects resulted in many Academy Award nominations. He twice won the Academy Award. Once, winning for special effects in the movie Green Dolphin Street and again, for photographic effects in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.
All the time Warren Newcombe was involved with the movie industry, he continued painting and lithography for his private enjoyment. He showed his work in museums and galleries in southern California.