How Hand-Painted Backdrops Helped Create Movie Magic

The backstory on Hollywood movie backdrops
Credit: CBS Sunday Morning
Explore the history of the Hollywood backdrop.

If backing artists did their jobs right, you probably never noticed their work. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate the artistry put into set backdrops, or backings, which once helped studio sets expand into beautiful, complex worlds. These hand-painted pieces were used on film and TV sets to match locations (say you glimpsed an exterior through a window or door) or create new settings entirely (like strange planets).

In today's productions, set decorators have the ability to create photographic backings, which might be easier and more realistic. Take ILM's StageCraft technology for example. And of course, green screen sound stages can take a story anywhere. But something almost ethereal is lost when a filmmaker opts for photorealism over the matte or fabric backdrops that were used before digital effects took their place.

Over the weekend, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story exploring the history of studio backings and what is being done to save them. Check it out below!

Preserving backings

It's incredible to think that this Hollywood history was just waiting to get tossed out in the wake of the digital revolution and the fall of the studio system.

But Lynne Coakley at JC Backings has helped collect and preserve some of the most iconic studio backings. She continues a legacy of film artists since her great-grandfather was scenic artist John Coakley.

The company snatched up pieces from MGM, Fox, and Disney when the studios started cleaning house in the 1970s. Several of the company's backings are still rented out and used in projects today. For example, one backdrop of ancient Rome used in Ben Hur was later seen in Hail, Caesar!

Sound of Music backing
Credit: CBS Sunday Morning

According to a recent Los Angeles Times interview with Coakley, when JC Backins was moving spaces a couple of years ago and needed to trim down its collection, she reached out to production designer Tom Walsh, who was familiar with that world.

Together they started the Art Directors Guild "Backdrop Recovery Project" to catalog and find homes for some of the company's extremely rare backings, like the one used in the "Fit as a Fiddle" number from Singin' in the Rain, seen below.

Singin' in the Rain backdrop
Credit: MGM

After a few weeks of cataloging and moving, many pieces went to museums or universities. (Hopefully, we'll be able to see some of them in person soon at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures!)

It's important to remember, even as film gives us dazzling visual effects and magically de-ages actors decades, there is still value in analog effects, too, which can result in beautiful, 90-foot paintings that are just as gorgeous now as they were in the 1950s.

What's next? Learn more about props and set design

Here's how to achieve cinematic set design. Try these five tips for working with props. Then build a movie set in your garage    

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2 Comments

Such amazing history, artistry and craftsmanship! Thanks for sharing!

February 11, 2020 at 2:47PM

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Tom Doherty
Filmmaker
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We can't thank those people enough for their works in preserving and giving a second life to those amazing artworks.
I'll buy the book as soon as I can.

February 12, 2020 at 6:55AM

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