Painted Backings – Part II

A scenic lays out a backing at Ealing Studios in London in 1939 for the film "Young Man's Fancy". National Media Museum

A scenic lays out a backing at Ealing Studios in London in 1939 for the film “Young Man’s Fancy”. National Media Museum

In my last post on painted backings I mentioned that they had some definite advantages over photographic backings but I didn’t go into details.

Here’s some of the things they have in their favor:

1. “Softness” – Painted backings have a much more atmospheric feel to them visually. This could be enhanced by adding a “haze” to the canvas or hanging bobbinette, white or black, in front of them to soften them further. Many cinematographers hated the photographic backings when they were introduced because they were too sharp, which made it hard to try and have believable depth-of-field with a backing that was supposed to imply a distant object.

2. Canvas backings can be enhance with elements to simulate a more realistic setting: L.E.D. or miniature bulbs, cellophane strips that simulate light reflecting off water features, etc. You could do that to a Translite but it’s hard to repair the holes you’ll make in it.

3. Painted backings can be altered easily to reflect changing seasons. You can paint over a backing to create, snow, leaves, remove architectural elements and restore it back to it’s original form where you would need entirely different photographic backings in each case.

4. A painted backing has infinite possibilities, any angle, and location. There’s no need to have to get a camera at the point of view you want the scene to be shot from. No need to worry you’ll get strange perspective lines from a Photoshopped image.

And for those who don’t believe a painted backing could ever look as realistic as a photographic one, I’ll offer up this little story:

Years ago I was working on a feature that involve a 160′ long backing of a coastline and ocean view. It had to match a location which was a modern house with floor to ceiling glass panels. The designer suggested a painted backing would be better for many reasons.

One of the producers scoffed at the idea saying that since we would see so much of the backing he couldn’t believe it would look realistic enough. Because the painted backing was actually going to be cheaper he was overruled on the decision. He would walk on to the stage sometimes while it was being painted and just shake his head. “They’ll be sorry”, he said.

Several weeks later he walked into the Art Department with the writer and walked up to my drafting board, pointing to a photo on the wall of an ocean view, the sun glowed in the background and the light was glinting off the water.

“You see that. That’s what they’re trying to recreate with a painted backing!” he laughed.

I interrupted him. “That is the painted backing. I shot that yesterday after they hung and lit it.” I pointed out a studio light hanging just inside the top of the frame.

He got quiet and leaned in closer, studied the photo, and then just turned and left. He never mentioned it again.

Remember, it doesn’t matter what scenery looks like to your eye. It’s all about how the camera see it.

A painted backing seen outside the set windows

A painted backing seen outside the set windows

Here are some more photos from the JC Backings / ADG event:

Brigadoon

Backing from the film Brigadoon

Backing from the original Battlestar Gallactica TV show

Backing from the original Battlestar Gallactica TV show

Painted Backings – Film’s Best Kept Secret

“In 1903, Pathé (the first Pathé studio in Vincennes) had two cameramen [who were] paid 55 francs a week. The designers/painters, much better paid, began at 90 francs a week. A week then was 60 hours and payment was made every Saturday in gold.”

Gaston Dusmenil, Bulletin de l’ A.F.I.T.E.C., no. 16  (1967)

“The scenery [ in early 1900‘s France ] was painted flat, like stage scenery. The canvas (about 20 x 30 feet) was tacked to the floor, and after applying a coat of glue size and whiting, the designer drew the design in charcoal. For complicated architectural sets a small sketch was made and squared for enlargement. Since the size paint was used hot, a scale of grays running from black to white was prepared in advance in small flameproof buckets. The scene painter worked standing, walking on the canvas (in rope shoes or socks) and using very long-handles brushes: straight lines were drawn with the aid of a long flat ruler, similarly attached to a handle. To judge the whole, in order to accentuate effects if needed or to remove unnecessary details, the artist had to mount a ladder. The completed canvases were attached either to wooden frames to form flats, or else, to vertical poles so they could be rolled up.”

Léon Barsacq, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions

Mèliés' Montreuil Studio

Mèliés’ Montreuil Studio

Painted backings have been a staple of filmwork since the very beginning. Georges Méliès was the first to recognixe the possiblilites of incorporating painted backings in his films which he realized could be a vehicle for creating a dramatic narrative and not just for recording real-life as the first short films had.

Even today, with the current trend of green screens and digital effects, audiences are often unaware that the view outside the windows of a set are actually hand-painted backings. While photographic backings, basically photographic images greatly enlarged and printed on heavy mylar or polyester fabric, are the norm in backings these days, the painted backing still has not only a definite place but even distinct advantages over their photographic competitor.

J. C. Backings, who make their home in the historic Scenic Painting Building on the old MGM lot in Culver City (now Sony Studio) recently hosted a Historic Backings event along with the Art Directors Guild here in Los Angeles. They pulled a number of backings from their collection of over 5000 backings, along with several from the Warner Bros. collection and displayed them on the six paint frames where the backings were painted originally.

The storage racks for backings at J.C. Backings

The storage racks for backings at J.C. Backings

Along with the backings were displayed a collection of smaller scale studies, paint notes, research photographs and examples of the backing design process as well as numerous photos of backings from their archives.

Usually only seen in partial focus and in the background, it’s wonderful how realistic most of these backings are even when seen up close and out of context.

The Scenic Painting Building on the Sony Lot (formerly MGM)

The Scenic Painting Building on the Sony Lot (formerly MGM)

Backing from The Sound Of Music

Backing from The Sound Of Music

Backing from South Pacific. Notice the inset close-up of the brush work

Backing from South Pacific. Notice the inset close-up of the brush work

Sample of photo reference for a backing along with notes and a small preliminary paint study for the final backing

Sample of photo reference for a backing along with notes and a small preliminary paint study for the final backing

small painted comp for a backing for a corridor of the first Star Trek film in 1978

small painted comp for a backing for a corridor of the first Star Trek film in 1978

Paint rack with Hudson sprayers and roller mandles

Paint rack with Hudson sprayers and roller mandles

Art Directors Guild's Associate Executive Director John Moffit in front of one of the many backings he painted while Head of the Scenic Department at Warner Bros. Studio

Art Directors Guild’s Associate Executive Director John Moffit in front of one of the many backings he painted while Head of the Scenic Department at Warner Bros. Studio

Large backing in progress on the large paint frame

Large backing in progress on the large paint frame

Still from a Life Magazine article of the same space when it was the MGM scenic shop in the 1950's.

Still from a Life Magazine article of the same space when it was the MGM scenic shop in the 1950’s.

1950's photo of a backing layout in progress.

1950’s photo of a backing layout in progress.

And finally, here’s a time-lapse video of a street scene backing being painted by scenic Donald MacDonald at J.C. Backings. Note how the canvas is back-painted so that it can be rear lit for a night shot.

 

Comparing Cinema Lenses To Still Camera Lenses

A lot of people take shots of sets and wonder how the focal length of their still camera lens compares to cinema lenses. Even if the capture format is 35mm film or a digital camera with a 35mm size sensor, the angles of view are not the same as with a 35mm still camera.

The reason is that the the film runs horizontally through a still camera instead of vertically as through a cinema camera, resulting in a larger frame in the still camera which in turn results in a wider angle of view with a similar focal length lens.

The lens angle chart below is similar to the traditional AOV acetates used in Art Departments for decades but this one has the equivalents for still lens focal lengths next to the cinema lens angles. (You can print out a pdf of this below, just have it printed on clear acetate.) Beside each cine focal length you’ll see the equivalent focal length with a full frame DSLR. If you are using a camera with a crop frame factor this will of course be closer to the cine focal length. In fact if you shoot with the Nikon D40 or similar, it will be almost identical in focal length numbers to the cine lenses.

Angle Of View Comparison Chart

On the chart I’ve drawn a full size outline of each sensor/frame size so that you can see the difference between the two mediums. You can use this chart on any size scale plan and it will give you a very close approximation to what you’ll see with a given lens. If you want to use it on elevations you’ll need to divide the angle by 1.33 to get the vertical angle.

For those of you who use iPhones for stills, you can download a AOV chart for the iPhone below, print it on acetate and compare in to the 35mm lenses.

 

Cinema_Super 35 AOV Comparison

iPhone Angle Of View

Your Next Phone May Be A Real-time 3D Scanner

In February Google launched what they call “Project Tango”. They have developed a smartphone which is also a 3D scanner that can map the surrounding area and build a visual map of it. Processing over 3 million reference points a second, the device can build a virtual, scalable model of a room in the time it takes to walk through it.

Schematic of how the Tango device works

Schematic of how the Tango device works

They have currently hand-picked 200 developers to create applications for the device which as of now only runs on Android devices. Imagine what this would do to those never-ending time-consuming location surveys. Would you ditch your iPhone if you could have an Android phone that did this?

 

Can’t wait that long? If you’ve got $4500 and want the latest in room scanners, go over to Matterport and watch their demonstration video of their room capture camera system.

 

 

What Lens Is It? Comparing Apple Device Cameras To 35mm Lenses

A lot of times when you’re using your smart phone camera to take a shot of a set or location it would be nice to know what the equivalent view would be with a 35mm cinema / video lens.

I ran the numbers for most Apple devices and came up with the following equivalent focal lengths for both 35mm still cameras (full frame) and Super 35mm size sensors. Remember that although both formats are based on 35mm film stock, the frame for a still camera is a 1.5 aspect ratio with a frame width of about 1.417 inches. A Super 35mm frame is a 1.35 aspect ratio and the frame width is .980 inches.

Why only Apple? Well, the company readily makes their devices lens and sensor data available and it was easy to calculate. In the next post I’ll show you how to measure for your devices’ angle of view if the exact focal length isn’t published.

Please note in the following table the focal lengths for the given device have been rounded up to the nearest whole number so the equivalent lengths given are approximate.

Apple device lens comparison chart

Atmospheric Theaters – When The Theater Was Part Of The Show

Loews-Valencia-Jamaica-Queens-Movie-Theater-Untapped-Cities-After-the-Final-Curtain-005

In the United States the period of the ornate Movie Palaces lasted from around 1915 to the 1940’s. In that short period thousands of ornate theaters were built all over the country. Of the several genres of architecture that were created during that period, the Atmospheric theaters came the closest to blending the new media of film with theaters’ stage drama roots.

Architect and Designer John Eberson

Architect and Designer John Eberson

The Atmospheric movement was created by John Eberson, a stage designer and architect who immigrated from Europe. Having studied electrical engineering in Dresden, he took an apprenticeship with a theatrical designer in St. Louis and worked as a set designer and scenic painter. His first theater design was for a ‘picture house’ in Hamilton, Ohio. By 1926 he had perfected his ‘atmospheric’ concept with the creation of the Majestic Theater in Houston, Texas. Earning the nickname “Opera House John”, he would design over 500 atmospheric movie palaces by the end of his career.

 

Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926

Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926

For the average American, spending an evening in one of these theaters was as close to a trip to Europe as they could ever hope to have. Usually designed with European themes, Eberson’s designs featured large coved ceilings that gave the illusion of sitting outside in a courtyard with facades on either side. The ceilings were painted sky blue and a projector called a Brenograph was used to project moving clouds and stars on the deeply coved ceilings.

Eberson's drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago

Eberson’s drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago

Most of the facades detail and ornament were executed in traditional staff of plaster and hemp fiber, painted and gilded.

Saenger Theater, New Orleans

Saenger Theater, New Orleans

As with most popular trends, the atmospheric theme was quickly picked up by others and expanded throughout the country where the palaces were built even in small rural towns. One such theater is the Holland Theater in Bellefontaine, Ohio, built in 1931. The theater is the only known theater with a 17th century Dutch motif and features a twinkling star ceiling and turning windmills. Turned into a 5 screen multiplex in the 1980’s the theater was hut down in 1998. In 2009 the theater was reopened as a live theater venue and the interior is slowly being restored back to it’s original look.

Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it's painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades

Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it’s painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades

 

Sketchup / Layout For Set Design – June 7

mansionOur first class in our new space will be a one-day intensive on using Layout for creating working drawings from Sketchup models. If you do most of your models in Sketchup there’s really no reason you have to use another piece of software to create you working drawings. With the Layout package built into Sketchup Pro you can create a lot of different looks whether you want a plain black on white drawing or one that incorporates a lot of color, textures and photo reference. You can even include hand drawn elements on the same sheet.

Using a pre-modeled set, you’ll learn the most efficient way to create sections, arrange scenes and import them into your drawing documents. You’ll also get pre-made drawings templates created specifically for set design drawings as well as a scrapbook of film-specific icons and symbols to speed up your drawing time.

This is not for beginning Sketchup users. You should have at least an intermediate-level understanding of Sketchup and will need your own computer or laptop, a three-button mouse and a copy of Sketchup™ Pro 2013 or 2014. You can download a trial version of the Pro version which is good for 8 hours of use.

The class size is limited to 20 participants. If the class is full, please contact us to learn when the next Layout class is scheduled.

The class will be from 9am to 5pm Saturday June 7 and the costs is $75. You can sign up for the class at the Inside The Frame website. Our new location is 89 E. Montecito Ave. in the Montecito Arts District of Sierra Madre, CA, just a few miles from Pasadena.

Here are some of my recent drawings which were made entirely with Sketchup/Layout. No other software was used.

 

Sibley House

balcony 2

practical Gaol set

practical Gaol set

fireplace detail

fireplace detail

bunker doorprison doorsprison doors det.catwalk1school box1school box2school box3