The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop From Munchkinland to Mount Rushmore

Backdrops - The Wizard of Oz - 1939 - One Time Use -H 2016
MGM/The Kobal Collection

A new book pays homage to the trompe l'oeil that created some of film's most iconic settings as great canvases still can get a second chance ('Hail Caesar!' borrowed from 'Ben-Hur') amid today's special effects.

In an era of eye-popping VFX illusions, hand-painted film backdrops, also known as backings, seem quaint to the point of cliche. But painted scenery enabled some of the most iconic settings in cinema — like Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest and Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz — and remains a vital resource for filmmakers. Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness, who both teach in the department of theatre and dance at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrate the history and heroes of the craft in their November book, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop (Regan Arts, $100). Not only are backdrops virtuosic works of art, Maness tells THR, but they also are economical, collectible and, in some cases, recyclable (2016's Hail Caesar! used Rome backings from 1959's Ben-Hur). And for the filmmaker, she explains, "The non-virtual setting allows the designer to see the image they are creating and promote a cohesive visual vocabulary."

While the craft saw its heyday in the Golden Age of Hollywood, when as many as five scenic artists would paint for a month on muslin to create a backdrop, there was "a renaissance in the '80s when films stopped being shot on locations and came back to the soundstages," says Maness. Today backdrop painters are specialists who often work solo and still create on muslin — with paint, digital tools or both. Production designer Scott Chambliss (Star Trek Into Darkness and 2017's Guardians of the Galaxy sequel) sees "the perfect marriage of digital and painted backing" in such contemporary films as Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Perfect Storm. "I've yet to encounter a director or an actor who isn't thrilled when he or she has a large-scale or in-camera environment to work in," he says. "The fun for an art department can be creating something so impressive in-camera that the benumbed brain can’t distinguish what is real and what isn't."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.