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.

 

Mozart Wasn’t A Hummer

Quote

Sketch for Rosemary's Baby by Richard Sylbert

Sketch for Rosemary’s Baby by Richard Sylbert

“When I began working in the industry, you made all the illustrations, you drew up the plans, you decorated the sets, you picked all the locations. Today most designers on a big production will have dozens of people working for them. The most I ever had is six. Imagine Mozart saying to somebody, ‘I have a great idea for a piece of music, but I don’t know how to play the piano. Let me hum it for you.’ The fact is Mozart was the finest pianist of his day.  Most production designers today are hummers.  They have ideas but can’t draw a 1/4 inch plan. They have no idea how to commit to details.”

Richard Sylbert, Production Designer – Chinatown, Reds, The Manchurian Candidate, The Graduate, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Just Shoot It

Quote

Scene from Days Of Heaven - Production Designer Jack Fisk

Scene from Days Of Heaven – directed by Terrence Malick – Production Designer Jack Fisk – cinematography by Nestor Almendros

“It’s one of those foolish truisms that a lot of what is perceived as great cinematography actually is really good production design or really good location choice. Often it’s that easy – it’s so damn good, just photograph it.”

Stuart Dryburgh , Cinematographer