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.

 

Exhibition Of German Expressionist Film Artwork Now At LACMA

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At the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art now until April is a special exhibition of artwork and posters from the German Expressionist period of the silent film era, 1919 to the mid 1930’s. Produced in association with  La Cinémathèque Française and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, the show features over 150 pieces of artwork from classic films of the German UFA studio.

Along with many posters are a large number of original set and costume design drawings which are seen together for the first time here. Most of which have not been on display here before and others only seen as small images in publications.

Of course artwork from the most well-known films are there; The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, The Nibelungen, but there are many others from more obscure films as well including Robert Hearlth’s original schematic of the forced perspective backings from Der Letzte Mann which were such a sensation.

One of Ernst Stern's drawings for Waxworks, which indicates the set design, platforming, camera position and lighting.

One of Ernst Stern’s drawings for Waxworks, which indicates the set design, platforming, camera position and lighting.

A watercolor and charcoal drawing for one of the sets for Dr. Caligari by Walter Röhrig

A watercolor and charcoal drawing for one of the sets for Dr. Caligari by Walter Röhrig

It was common during this period of German cinema for Art Directors to work in teams of two or three people, dividing the design duties among themselves as matched their individual abilities. A perfect example of this is the work of Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut on Fritz Lang’s The Nibelungen. Here is a drawing by Hunte of the dragon by the waterfall.

Gouache painting of the dragon for Die Nibelungen by Otto Hunte.

Gouache painting of the dragon for Die Nibelungen by Otto Hunte.

Being the more technically trained, Kettelhut elaborated on the design by drawing the technical requirements of the dragon to carry out the action called out in the script.

Technical drawing of the Dragon by Erich Kettelhut

Technical drawing of the Dragon by Erich Kettelhut

Kettelhut carefully described how the giant action prop was to be built and operated both with stage requirements as well as the on-board personnel’s responsibilities.

drawing describing how each part of the dragon was to be operated by stagehands.

Enlargement of Kettelhut’s drawing describing how each part of the dragon was to be operated by stagehands.

The size and depth of the recessed path required for the props operators.

The size and depth of the recessed path required for the props operators.

Kettelhut called out the length of the neck as well as the tension springs, framework, control cables and hoses required for the creatures fiery breath. He calls out "only rubber!" for the mouth area.

Kettelhut called out the length of the neck as well as the eye detail, tension springs, framework, control cables and hoses required for the creatures fiery breath. He calls out “only rubber!” for the mouth area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the scene from the film where Siegfried finds and kills the dragon. The effect is quite crude by our modern film standards but must have been thrilling for a public new to such spectacles. Imagine the lot of the half dozen stagehands stuck inside the big, airless prop as it bellows smoke from inside it. Notice the large forest and mountain sets created for the film, truly epic efforts for the time.

The World’s Oldest Film Scenery?

The title ends in a question mark because I’m not sure I have a definitive answer yet on my search for the the oldest existing scenery from a film. So, I’m asking everyone out there to help me with this quest.

The stage of the oldest intact film studio in Sweden, and maybe the world. photo by Reinhold Fryksmo

The stage of the oldest intact film studio in Sweden,  and maybe the world. photo by Reinhold Fryksmo

 

Let’s use this as a starting point: in Kristianstad, Sweden there is what is reported to be the oldest intact film studio from the silent period. Inside the studio museum (Kristianstad Filmmuseet) is a display in what was the original glass-walled studio space. It is dressed as a set from the 1909 film, Fänrik Ståls Sägner, one of three films made at the Kristianstad Biograf-Teater that year. The scenery appeared throughout the film apparently as the same space was used for a number of different scenes. The main element is a multi-panel theatrical style flat painted with a Trompe-l’œil design. If this is truly the original set piece then this is in excellent condition for a 105 year-old flat.

A closer look at the flats. photo by Lotten Bergman

A closer look at the flats. photo by Lotten Bergman

So is this the oldest film scenery in existence? I’d love to hear from other Art Department people out there from around the world with older examples.

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.