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Featured Excerpt

Peeking Behind the Hollywood Backdrop

The backing viewed on film is no longer an indication—it is a substitution for the real intending to fool the eye of the audience.

The following is an excerpt from “The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness.

In theater, the terms backdrop and backing are often used interchangeably, although in film the most common term is backing. These giant images furnish a background for the scenic environment no matter the medium, and are important devices that support visual storytelling.

In theater, every person in an audience views the backdrop from a different vantage point, and so it is never confused with a real place. Rather, viewers accept the image as an index or reference to a physical or psychological location. The cinematic backing, on the other hand, is viewed from only one vantage point, the eye of the camera. The backing viewed on film is no longer an indication—it is a substitution for the real intending to fool the eye of the audience.

The cinematic backing is situated behind other scenic units and can be used for both interior and exterior settings. It can be a large expanse of painted fabric or flat cutouts that take the shape of buildings, mountains, or even the vast expanse of open sea. Backings extend the visual space of a scene far beyond what would be practical or even possible with fully constructed movie sets, allowing the audience to completely immerse themselves within the scene.

Toward the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Cary Grant, James Mason, and Eva Marie Saint play a scene in the crowded cafeteria of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Outside the window are the famous sculptures of the presidents. Although the scene looks completely real, the heads are part of a painted backing that was placed just outside the cafeteria setting. When the audience watched Cary and Eva lunch, they believed the film was shot on location, but instead, the Rushmore cafeteria existed only on a soundstage in Culver City, California.

(Credit: MGM:Photofest ©MGM)

If reality is the objective of film backings, why not use photographic images? Why bother to paint them? In fact, the majority of backings used today are digitally printed photographic enlargements and these are useful to a degree. But, paradoxically, the painted image often looks more realistic than the photographic image. Scenic artists can manipulate backings by adjusting light, color, and texture, helping to support the movie camera’s constructed image. Some information and details can be selectively accentuated, while others can be deemphasized. A photograph, on the other hand, is static and has a tendency to contradict the artifice of the rest of the setting. According to production designer Norm Newberry:

There are tricks like having reflected light in the shadows like it would really be in a building. And (the scenic artists) understand those things—they understand stone textures. They also understand that the caryatids that are on the top of the building should be soft and not clearly defined, as they would be recorded photographically.

Painted backings have another advantage—many films are set in fantastical or period locations that cannot be photographed because they do not exist. The production designer, in conjunction with the scenic artist, must render these worlds to be believable to the audience. Until the recent advent of computer-generated images (CGI), the painted backing and the matte shot—a technique where the first shot is combined with new information from a second shot to create a third image—have been the primary ways to accomplish such realism at the scale required by a fully developed movie set.

Integrating a backing into a set requires an intimate understanding of how the camera records the painted image. Artists must consider the distance between the backing and the camera; the greater the distance, the better the effect. Cinematographers, as a rule, will avoid shooting directly at a backing with nothing between it and the camera. Three-dimensional elements like trees or rocks are placed between them to break up the painted image and create a clear foreground, midground, and background. For example, in the movie Brigadoon, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse dance on a small, rock-shaped platform articulated with grass and heather. This unit is placed in front of a backing that depicts trees in the midground and the mountains in the distance. Kelly, Charisse, and director Vincente Minnelli avoided the problems of filming on location in the rugged wilderness of the Scottish Highlands by recording the ballet on a soundstage, which allowed for a constant atmosphere and the numerous takes required by single-camera shooting.

A scrim, or gauze, is often introduced directly in front of the backing to help soften the image. The backing is lit with one set of lights, the scrim with another. As the light on the scrim is increased, the image on the backing behind it begins to fade, replicating the hazing effect of dust and moisture in the atmosphere. Lighting instruments placed behind the backing are able to re-create the effect of the sun or moon, or small practical fixtures can be integrated into the backing to make it appear as if windows have real lights in them.

(Credit: JC Backings ©Nicola Goode)

Some backings, painted on both sides, leave areas of the surface opaque and other sections translucent. Lights are then placed both in front of and behind the drop. When the light shifts between the two, the backing radically changes appearance—a bright, sunny day can change to a nighttime sky filled with ominous storm clouds with a simple transfer of light.

Scenic artists quite often encounter difficult perspective problems. One of the most challenging is the curved 180-degree (or more) backing that can surround the scenery on a soundstage. Perspective images are usually rendered on a picture plane that is perpendicular to the viewer. When this plane is curved, the artist laying out the perspective drawing must account for the distortion created by the backing’s curvature.

For example, production designer Alex McDowell had to consider many complexities in designing the backing for Terminal. The backing was 600 feet long and 45 feet high and encircled the majority of the airport set. Based on photographic research from John F. Kennedy International Airport to ensure authenticity, the backing incorporated translucent elements and introduced three different perspective vanishing points to compensate for the curvature of the backing and to ensure the view worked from the multiple angles within the set.

Another issue is the integration of the two-dimensional backing with forced perspective three-dimensional scenic units that are placed in front of it. In the 1958 film Home Before Dark, director Mervyn LeRoy and production designer John Beckman created the effect of a long hallway in a mental hospital. The shallow set where the scene is played has sidewalls that are built in forced perspective and backed by a drop painted by artist Clem Hall that starts just behind the radiator on the left wall. The three-dimensional molding and the windows on these side units are angled so that they seem to converge at a horizon line on the backing depicting most of the depth of the setting. At the end of the hallway, the audience sees lighted double glass doors painted on the backing, the escape to the normal world. Without the expense of either money or space, LeRoy and Beckman achieved the frightening effect of a constrained and impersonal corridor where Jean Simmons is lost in a sea of closed doors, each more threatening than the next with the promise of hidden insanity.

(Credit: © 1965 Twentieth Century Fox, Courtesy Everett Collection)

Backings are also often used to represent exterior locations outside of windows and doors, and they can be used to reinforce the continuity of the location as the camera moves from one shooting position to another. Production designer Norm Newberry talks about how this process might be employed:

Someone enters a car, you shoot towards the building they’re coming out of and then they get into the car. When they get to the other side of the car, you shoot across the other direction. The background could be anything, just as long as it feels like it belongs in the neighborhood. So, that really works for backings since you’re never going to really see what was across there. The backing helps you.

The artists who painted these backings needed to command an entire repertoire of technical filmmaking skills that far exceeded the basic painting technique learned by the average studio artist. It is this combination of the artistic craft and the technical skill that defined their artistry.

(Top image credit: MGM/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY)

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