TIME movies

These Painted Backdrops Brought Life to Classic Hollywood Scenes

A new book shows how the often-maligned Hollywood backdrop is an art form worthy of reconsideration

To jaded movie goers of a certain age, Hollywood backdrops induced eye rolls and snickers. As painted scenery rolled by outside a moving car or an eerily still vista floated behind an actor, viewers in the know might applaud themselves for seeing the backdrops for what they really were: a two-dimensional world, an optical illusion, proof of a bygone era’s artifice, a reminder on billboard scale that these scenes of the great outdoors were really shot in studios. But as the golden age of Hollywood grows more distant, it’s easier to appreciate the best of these backdrops for the works of art that they really were.

In their new book The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness celebrate the masterpieces that brought whimsy and gravity to epic films, from the fanciful settings in The Wizard of Oz to the spooky majesty of North by Northwest.

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop book cover.
Regan Arts

Some contemporary movies still rely on backdrops to pull viewers into the fantasy world of the film—for example, in recent years, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and Interstellar have used backdrops—but the photos in this book pay homage first and foremost to a bygone era when every trip to the movies was a spectacular escape, thanks in no small part to the talented artists who painted actors into another world. They may be artificial, but it’s all part of the movie magic.

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