Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hollywood Backdrops: Illusion at a Cinematic Scale

A coffee table book called The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop showcases an art form that is often overlooked because it is designed to be invisible.

Photo: Warner Bros/Photofest
Backdrops, or "backings," as they are called in the industry, are huge painted panoramas that fill in the setting behind the live action. Unlike matte paintings, which are smaller-scale paintings that are optically combined with the action, backings are actually positioned on the back wall of the set.

Photo: Dennis Welch/Art Directors Guild Archives/Courtesy of JC Backings
Sometimes backings are used where you don't expect to see them, such as an interior setting, which can be easier than building a set or shooting on location. This painting is 13 feet tall by 20 feet wide, and was used multiple times as a rental from the inventory of Coast Backings Corporation.

Photo: Courtesy of JC Backings
Above, scenic artist Ben Resella paints a backing for Earthquake, (1974).

The book is organized into three parts: first, an introduction that explains the history and technique; second, a survey of the main artists and companies that dominated the industry; and third, an essay on the future of the hand-painted backing in film.

Even though backdrops have been largely replaced by CGI techniques, they're still used for productions that want to achieve an other-worldly look. Backdrops were used extensively, for example, in the 2004 movie Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

The book The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop is a lavish, oversize coffee table book, 324 pages, hardbound, slipcased, with huge photo reproductions that spill across its 11x14" pages.

One of the co-authors is Karen Maness, an atelier-trained painter who teaches at the U.T. Austin's Department of Theatre and Dance. Sheworks as a Scenic Art Supervisor at Texas Performing Arts, and recently co-founded the new Atelier Dojo.

Related titles: The Invisible Art, about the history and methods of matte painting, written by veteran matte painter Craig Barron.
Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, which features the diorama illusions of James Perry Wilson and Duncan Alanson Spencer, who painted background illusions both for movies and for museums.


Greg Prosmushkin said...
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Garrett said...

I believe there's still a "scenic" painters union in NYC where you have to take a painting test to qualify for work.. I think they're mostly employed for stagecraft these days.

Not completely related, but I have vivid memories of seeing an "Art of Star Wars" exhibit in San Francisco in the early 90's and was completely blown away by the matte paintings on glass. Since they're only intended to trick the camera, they don't look nearly as perfect in person- lots of strange brushwork to suggest detail that you wouldn't see in traditional painting. I think it's similar for scenic painting as well.

rock995 said...

I have "Invisible Art" and love it but, thanks to this Blog, I now will have "Hollywood Backdrops" Thank you so much for posting!