Now In Print – The Art Of The Hollywood Backdrop

The Art Director’s Guild sponsored a book signing event at their gallery space in North Hollywood yesterday, with co-author Karen Maness on-hand to sign copies of the new book, The Art Of The Hollywood Backdrop.

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The book is a cooperative project between the authors, Karen Maness and Richard Isackes and the Art Director’s Guild. With a focus on hand-painted rather than photographic backings, the book traces not only the history and development of backdrops through Hollywood films but the artists who have developed the techniques used and who have passed along that knowledge to successive generations of scenic artists.

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The event was well attended by not only Guild members but by members of the Strang family and the Coakley family of J.C. Backings, the two families which have not only dominated the field in Hollywood but have been the biggest promoters and curators of the art form.

The Coakley family and fellow artists of J.C.Backings

The Coakley family and fellow artists of J.C.Backings

 

 

Co-author Karen Maness graciously signed books all afternoon.

Co-author Karen Maness graciously signed books all afternoon.

This is a big book, and I say that in every sense of the word. Larger than a quarto format at 11 x 14 inches, the hard-cover and cased edition is 352 pages long and weighs in at 13 pounds. Filled with crisp images of both black and white and full-color backings, the photos show the backings not only in a straight-on form but in the environment that they were meant for.  It’s filled with stills from the original films as well as set stills showing them in relationship to the sound stages and the companion scenery.

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dsc_0032This book will definitely appeal to film lovers who have very little understanding of film scenery and stagecraft as well as film professionals who have many films to their credit.

It is available for order through the publisher’s website and will soon make it’s way into bookstores. If you are still making that holiday gift list, this is definitely a book that will have huge appeal to anyone who loves movies. Read an excerpt here, and you can order the book here from Regan Arts.

 

The Original Pre-Viz Tool – A DIY Lens Angle Calculator

 

Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.

Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.

 

 

Pre-vis Before Previs

Before the term “Pre-visualization” ever existed, there was the lens angle template. These were a staple of any Hollywood studio Art Department and were used when laying out a set to determine camera angles, backing sizes needed, rear projection screens and planning back-projected set illustrations for the producer and director to approve sets long before there were 3D computer programs.

There was a time when a basic knowledge of optics and lenses was considered mandatory and was necessary not only because the Art Director would design the sets to be shot in a specific way but this information was needed when designing effects shots such as forced perspective sets, glass shots and the like.

Todd AO template

A template for a 100mm to 300mm zoom lens in the Todd AO format. Todd AO was an early 70mm film format with an aspect ratio of 2.20.

The templates were for a single lens, usually a prime lens, and were made using 1/8″ or 1/4″ thick plexiglas. The projection lines were scratched or engraved into the acrylic, sometimes by a Set Designer but other times they were made by the studio sign shop. Some of my examples are obviously done with a hand held engraving tool while others have been done with a lettering template and have inked letters.

Todd AO lens template

Each template had two sets of projection lines, one set for the horizontal plane (for use with a plan view) and another for the vertical plane, for use with scale room elevations. Most are made for use with 1/4″ scale drawings but they are accurate for any orthographic drawing because the angle is unaffected by the scale. Most will have markings to note the distances from the lens entrance pupil in 1/4″ scale.

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The “Quick View”

By the 1990’s, there were so many different formats and lens combinations most of us in the Art Department in Hollywood carried thick manila envelopes of acetates of the various focal lengths, but I always seemed to be missing one that I needed and I found some were inaccurate from being cloned so many times. In 1998 I designed a device that had all the available formats and prime lenses  so you could just dial up the one you needed. I redesigned it in 2008 to include the digital formats but sold out of them a year ago.

I stopped having them made since they were expensive but hated to see them become obsolete since they are still so useful. For a director, they are the perfect way to see if a shot is possible at a location or see the limitations of a particular lens on a set when you can’t rely on wild walls.

Making A Quick View

Yours won’t be on Lexan like the originals were but will be sturdy enough plus cheap enough to replace if it’s damaged or lost. Download the files below and take them to your nearest copy center and have both the dial and the nomen printed on clear acetate. They don’t have to be printed at exactly 100% but they should be at the same scale to each other. Then you just line up the center marks and use a compass point or push pin to pierce the centers, creating a pivot point in place of the brass rivet as in the photo above.

The diagrams from the original instruction manual will explain how to use them. You’ll note that I’ve added a feature that wasn’t on the originals, a protractor which will tell you the angle of a selected lens.

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Quick View II User Manual_3

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20 Films To Watch For Armistice Day

It’s been 100 years since the start of World War I. On this Armistice Day (Veteran’s Day in the U.S.) it’s a good time to reflect, or learn about the first ‘modern’ war and it’s horrible legacy which still has a hold on us today, as seen in this article in the Telegraph about excavations at the Flander’s battlefield.

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The world’s film industry was quick to turn stories from the war into movies, starting in 1917 when the British government invited D.W. Griffith to come to Europe and gave him access to the from lines where he shot footage for Hearts Of The World, a Paramount picture designed to change American attitudes about the war and encourage the public to push the country to become involved in the war.

Here are a list of my 20 favorite films about the conflict, in the order they were released. They are from different countries and reflect different parts of the war but they all have in common a goal of trying to look at the war from a human level, stripping away the glorified attitudes that started and perpetuated the conflict for 4 years.

  1. J’accuse – France 1919  (director Abel Gance shot footage during the war resulting   in realistic and haunting scenes)
  2. The Big Parade – USA 1925
  3. Wings – USA 1927   ( the first film to win an Oscar for Best Picture )
  4. Four Sons – USA 1928
  5. All Quiet On The Western Front – USA 1930
  6. Westfront – Weimar Republic 1930
  7. Niemandsland – Weimar Republic 1930
  8. The Dawn Patrol – USA, 1930
  9. Berge In Flammen – France, Weimar Republic, 1931
  10. Grand Illusion – France 1937
  11. What Price Glory? – USA 1952
  12. Paths Of Glory – USA, 1957
  13. Lawrence Of Arabia – USA, UK 1962
  14. King Of Hearts – France 1962
  15. Oh! What A Lovely War – UK , 1969   ( has an amazing cast)
  16. Johnny Got His Gun – USA, 1971    ( inspired the song “One” by Metallica )
  17. Gallipoli – Australia, 1981
  18. Capitaine Conan – France, 1991
  19. Joyeaux Nöel – USA, France, UK, Germany, Romania, 2005
  20. Das Weisse Band – Germany, 2009

 

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

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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

 

Obsessed With Film

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Carpenters building scenery at the UFA Studios in Berlin, 1928. (Photo by E. O. Hoppe

Carpenters building scenery at the UFA Studios in Berlin, 1928. (Photo by E. O. Hoppe

“I have to admit in all modesty that it would never have been possible to make these films if superb set designers, film directors, cameramen, and architects had not been available. I am realizing more than ever that Ufa’s success came about because it was possible to create teams. Film is an art species, or an art-related species that cannot be accomplished by a single man but only by artists in close daily cooperation. It can only be accomplished by people who are obsessed by film.”

Erich Pommer, Producer – Metropolis, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, Die Niebelungen, Tartuffe, Faust, The Blue Angel, Liliom