“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
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.
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.
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.