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Larger Than Life: Exploring the Art of Hollywood’s Most Iconic Backdrops

Scenic artist Karen L. Maness discusses her coffee table book examining the backdrops from "The Wizard of Oz," "North by Northwest," and "The Sound of Music."
November 13, 2016, 1:10pm
Photos by Chuck Grant

Before CGI created films' settings, directors relied on backdrops: massive wall-size paintings of Mount Rushmore, the Alps, and fantasy worlds like Munchkinland. Audiences have thought little about the life-size creations and the women and men who built them, but CGI's dominance has increased viewers' longing for man-made make believe.

A new book, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, examines the scenic paintings as art work. It reprints the backdrops, the same way a Taschen book displays paintings, alongside in-depth text by theatre professor Richard M. Isackes and painter Karen L. Maness.

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Maness teachers scenic painting at University of Texas, Austin, and the Art Director's Guild approached her about writing a book after the then-president Tom Walsh learned of her interest in West Coast scenic artists. "[They] said, 'We've been looking for somebody to write this story,' and they asked me to do it," she recalls. She and Isackes have since written a history of the art form, from backdrops' widespread use in the silent films to their rare existence in 21st century Hollywood movie's like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Over the phone, Maness discussed the groups of artists behind the backdrops, the backdrops that have been preserved, and backdrops' connection to theatre. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photos by Chuck Grant

BROADLY: Have readers begun appreciating backdrops as art since CGI backgrounds replaced them?
Karen L. Maness: Definitely. That was definitely the impetus behind this project and why it was so important to do now, as the youngest ones—the lucky lasts, who have been trained in this system—are in their 60s, and the work has slowed down to the point where the knowledge is not being passed from one generation to the next.

The excitement about the digital world has of course taken hold, and what has been possible has been spectacular. It's an incredible tool that I don't dismiss. I think it's amazing, but I know there's a longing for, with myself and in addition to others, that look of shooting something in camera. When something can be shot in camera and physically built, and tied into the digital world, I feel like the marriage of those two technologies is where so much magic lies.

Did earlier eras perceive backdrops as art?
I would say [they] almost never perceived them as art. They were so hidden in the entire machine that is Hollywood and producing these films. They were all artists and incredible craftspeople, but they were relatively unknown to the population.

How many backdrops did Hollywood studios preserve?
Many, many of them were destroyed. Most of them were destroyed. [Backdrop artists] Bill Jekel and John Coakley, as partners, ended up purchasing and acquiring a lot of the backdrops from the studios as they divested their assets. They have this phenomenal collection that they would then use to rent out from MGM, and it's [called the] JC Backings collection now. There's a collection of backdrops from Disney, from Columbia, from 20th Century Fox—all those drops got pulled into that collection. That big Mt. Rushmore painting [from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest] on the cover of the book exists—well, most of it exists. Somebody ripped off the top ten feet at some point.

How would you describe the studios' different styles?
MGM's [was] under the supervision of George Gibson. His era of golden age film was very much considered the ivory tower of scene painting in that he was very well-versed in painting, excellent colors, and excellent artists and technicians. He had beautiful work, and he ended up actually training John Coakley, who ended up taking over the scenic studios at 20th Century Fox. It was definitely the George Gibson-MGM that had an effect on what was happening at 20th Century Fox, but John Coakley, conversely, as opposed to George Gibson, [had a] that was a little more open and fluid.

Over at Warner Brothers, when I go back and research that, their roots were very much rooted out of theater. They also were incredibly adept, but they had a different hand and a slightly different aesthetic. Later in their time, [they] discovered how to simplify and change the old traditions to speed up the process. They were adapting and creating their new methods of painting. So by the 80s, they were a little more of a lean mean machine and could compete in a different way. They were producing their paintings faster.

Did backdrop painting function as a more blue collar art form?
They were definitely doing it for a living, but as far as I've seen from the scenic artists that I've interviewed in the histories we've uncovered, they were very well regarded and very well paid among the ranks of the people building these sets. They were recognized at least within that studio system as exceptional talent and having something great to contribute.

Did color movies make backdrops more popular?
I think it was more light and illumination and control of these spaces that made them more popular. When they could bring them into the sound stages, that's when it really happened. MGM was so busy creating so many backdrops in the space that they built. They built their paint prime space, or the scenic art studio, in the late 30s. They have four massive paint frames—a couple of them are over a hundred feet wide. They were painting in three shifts. They had to actually block out the windows because they had three cycles of painters in there that were so busy. They had to stop the light in the windows just so they could stabilize the color and the light choices and the paintings. If you paint in different lights, it's going to look very different.

What recent films have featured backdrops?
The one that had a lot of backdrops—I mean, they painted for a year—was Lemony Snicket in 2004. It was completely filled with backdrops. Also, more recent—this one was not made in Hollywood but definitely paid for by them—was Anna Karenina. Benjamin Button had backdrops—so many films. Even 2009 Star Trek had backdrops!

They're still being interspersed. One thing that became a bit of a surprise to me in this project, because I was coming from the outside world into this motion picture history, is that the backdrops were there but they were intercut back and forth sometimes. When they're not built entirely on a sound stage, say for Lemony Snicket or Sleepy Hollow where it's a completely built world, oftentimes they're used and interspersed in the film in a way you would never notice them. They do location shooting, and then they would fill in other shots in a more controlled space or on a sound stage with that same environment painted. You never would necessarily know when they were happening. Even Hateful Eight, the Tarantino film, had a backdrop in it recently.

What do you think was the biggest misunderstanding about backdrop painters and their art?
Recognizing that they were there at all! Not seeing them was a big misunderstanding… and [recognizing] how skilled they were. I know there's oftentimes a dismissal of the scenic artist as a magic elf, buzzing away like bees, not recognizing them truly as the artists they were. Often times it would be the production designer or the art director who would be credited for all of that world when there are hundreds, not just the scenic artists, but legions of people building, sculpting, finishing, creating these worlds. It's so exciting to me that these backdrop artists are getting their day.