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.

 

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

 

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

Wayne Manor Was A Remodel – Delineating Set Walls on Drawings

Often when sets are designed there is either an advantage or a mandate to using existing flats for a set’s construction. Sometimes a standing set is revamped or stock set walls are pulled from storage to either save money or time or both, particularly in Television where there is never enough of either.

Universal Studios was famous for revamping sets to the point that some sets were merely repainted and dressed for a TV series when a show required numerous sets. I spent my first years in television at Universal and the Production Designers there were experts at reusing stock units from the large stock sheds on the lot. In recent times some designers resist the idea of reusing scenery but audiences rarely ever notice when they are seeing a stock set. The practice was much more widespread in the early days of TV when there were actual studios in existence who saw the value in having large amounts of stock scenery and made efforts to catalogue and maintain it.

The problem from a Set Designer’s perspective is how to delineate the different walls on the drawings to communicate what is what. Each studio had a slightly different nomenclature, as I learned on my first show at Universal on Murder She Wrote. One day the foreman called from the stage. “Where the hell are all these stock walls you’ve got on this drawing?” he asked. I was confused until I realized they used a different delineator symbol than what I’d always used.

Some of the nomenclature was universal (no pun intended). A thin line on the plan meant the wall was existing and standing in place. it was rarely dimensioned on the drawing. A thick line at most studios meant it was a stock wall and was accompanied by it’s stock number. At 20th Century Fox, this line was also pochéd (shaded). A hatched line denoted new construction except for drawings done at MGM and Universal Studios where it meant the wall was stock. A thick line to these art departments denoted a new wall.

At 20th Century Fox Studios when they were planning a television version of Batman in 1965, the producers were on a limited budget to make the pilot. As the show required numerous sets and the Batcave interior was going to take a big chunk of the construction budget, they cruised the stages on the lot to see what sets might be standing that they could reuse, particularly something that would stand in for Wayne Manor as the script called for a well-appointed mansion.

According to Ed Hudson, long-time manager of the Art Department, the producers heard that the TV series 12 O’clock High was going to be using one of their main sets less, a reproduction of an English Tutor mansion that stood on Stage 18 and was used as the headquarters of the squadron. The network had decided the show didn’t have enough action scenes to keep the young crowd engaged and planned to shoot more of the show ‘in the air’ with scenes in the planes and less talkie scenes on the ground.

Shown below is a copy of the original plan and elevations showing the various wall types, dated September 1965. For those of you wondering, the Bat poles are at Elevation H.

The set drawing for the Wayne Manor interior for the pilot episode.

The set drawing for the Wayne Manor interior for the pilot episode.

Plan detail showing walls at Elevation A. Note shaded and hatched walls.

Plan detail showing walls at Elevation A. Note shaded and hatched walls.

Elevation A showing the three types of walls clearly marked.

Elevation A showing the three types of walls clearly marked.

The table beside the title block clearly lists all the stock walls, their position on the plan and their stock number.

The table beside the title block clearly lists all the stock walls, their position on the plan and their stock number.

Once the network accepted the pilot, a permanent set matching it was built on Stage 24. With minor alterations, the original set was duplicated as seen in this November 1965 drawing below. Note that the walls drawn as ‘standing’ on the other plan are hatched for new construction.

Batman_Wayne Manor2_copy

The exterior of the house was an actual location, a house at 380 South San Rafael Avenue in Pasadena. It’s my guess that the location was chosen after the interior set was built.

Having a standing set influence the look of another permanent set is more common than you would think. The set for the 1993 comedy The Nanny, was a reused and slightly revamped stock set from a show called Sibs, which had been shot on the same stage and never made it past the pilot stage.

When the 2010 NBC series Parenthood started, the main characters house was based on a home in Malibu canyon where the exterior shooting was planned. The site was surveyed and had been reproduced on stage by the time the deal between the homeowner and the studio fell through. With no time to redesign, the producers were stuck with the houses look. When the exterior of the house was duplicated on the backlot at Universal the next year, it was a close copy of a house that was never shot for the series.

Original location of the house for the main characters of the series Parenthood.

Original location of the house for the main characters of the series Parenthood.

Parenthood cast in front of the exterior facade built on the Universal Studios lot which was influenced by the location house which was chosen but never shot.   photo by NBC Television.

Parenthood cast in front of the exterior facade built on the Universal Studios lot which was influenced by the location house which was chosen but never shot. photo by NBC Television.

One thing that producers aren’t is psychic, much to their dismay, and you never know if you have a hit or a flop on your hands until the public sees it, and even then you can’t be sure. When the pilot for the original Batman series was tested it tested worse than any other show the network had done. Considering shelving the series, luckily they decided to air it since so much money and already been spent on the show, not knowing it would become a cultural phenomenon.