Ceiling Zero (1936)Directed by Howard Hawks Shown: set with studio backdrop
A sweeping sky backing painted for Warner Bros.’ Ceiling Zero (1936), directed by Howard Hawks with art director John Hughes, and scenic art supervisor Bill McConnell.Warner Bros.—Photofest
Ceiling Zero (1936)Directed by Howard Hawks Shown: set with studio backdrop
Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz in 1939
Ben Carre working on the early stages of a backing at the MGM scenic art department in 1942.
Clark Provins (left), John Harold Coakley (center), and an unknown scenic artist (right) painting at the MGM scenic art department c. 1950.
North by Northwest (1959)Directed by Alfred HitchcockShown from left: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint
The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer
A sweeping sky backing painted for Warner Bros.’ Ceiling Zero (1936), directed by Howard Hawks with art director John Hu
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Warner Bros.—Photofest
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These Painted Backdrops Brought Life to Classic Hollywood Scenes

Nov 01, 2016

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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