The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: They Painted The Town Believable

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Boy oh boy, do I want this book! Hint, hint

A new book, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, has just been released and as soon I saw my pal Will McKinley’s tweet about it, I immediately wondered why this essential aspect of silent and Classic Hollywood filmmaking (and beyond) hasn’t been given this treatment before.

The painted backdrop for Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)

Painted backdrops not only helped filmmakers transform a sound stage into a city, a jungle, a desert, an alien landscape, a vista of menacing birds as far as the eye could see, or the slippery stone slopes of Mount Rushmore, they helped us as film-goers suspend disbelief and surrender to the story.

And make no mistake, these were masterful artworks, and from what I understand (please feel free to comment below), most were destroyed either as a matter of course, or lost in fires, but rarely re-used. I’m sure the book covers this part of their history so hopefully I can get my hands on a copy very soon.

Like many elements of early filmmaking, I am fascinated by the notion that such tremendous artistry was often bursting with color, and yet the films themselves were only ever released in black and white. What was it like to be a backdrop artist, set designer, costume designer, or hair and make-up artist during this era and know the audience would never see the color version? My thoughts get stuck on a loop once I start pondering this.

From The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, 2016.

Of course, these days, painted backdrops have been mainly replaced by CGI. As breathtaking and technically remarkable as these are, the idea that several talented people worked in silence up and down the length of a massive canvas, with the clock ticking, in an echo-y sound stage, probably accompanied by the sound of hammering and sawing as set makers worked away just in front of them, is something I really wish had been documented on film.

If you know of such a thing you get a very special prize!!

What I am always interested in are the individuals who helped make films come alive so I am really hoping that the actual artists behind these backdrops (no pun intended) are also featured in the book.


The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness, Regan Arts, 2016. Click here to peak behind the cover.

Note: Evidently there was an earlier book, The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting, 2004, but I hear it is out of print and used copies come up available now and again online for over $200.