Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Art of the Painted Backing - Golden Era Scenic Art

BLOG UPDATE:  After being trapped in Queenstown, a picturesque resort town in the deep south of New Zealand for a number of days beyond my intended holiday due to the serious ash fallout all over NZ blown here from the Chilean volcanic eruption I'm a bit behind with some blog material.  I have just added a few more interesting pictures to my previous article Matte Artists at Work, including a great image of Harrison Ellenshaw painting a glass shot for Disney's NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN (1976) as well as pics of Derek Meddings and Mike Trim painting for Gerry Anderson's fabulous THUNDERBIRDS tv show. 

I was going to include this selection of backings in the previous blog as many of the photos show the scenic artist at work, and a great many of these fellows eventually became matte painters such as Albert Whitlock, Peter Melrose, Emilio Ruiz, Brian Bishop, Jan Domela, Les Bowie, Cliff Culley and many more.

Although today's blog has some really interesting, and sometimes quite staggering imagery it's unfortunate that I can't place a title to many of these films, nor in most cases, authorship of the individual backings, most of which would have been joint efforts from large studio scenic departments.  My friend  and fellow matte shot enthusiast Domingo Lizcano has a wonderful site that many of you will already be familiar with, and among his archives is an excellent and well researched run down of many of the names and filmographies of notable scenic backing artists that is essential for those seeking more information on an area I'm not any where near as au fait with.  So with that in mind, what follows is a sample of some terrific old time painted backings and some behind the scenes pictures of the creative process.

I can't be sure but I think this is of the Warner Bros scenic backing department.
One of the 20th Century Fox backings, probably from the 40's.

The 1950 George Pal science fiction film DESTINATION MOON had significant input from highly regarded matte painter and astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell, who if I'm correct, actually painted this vast backing as well.

Backings to me have generally been something of a hit or miss affair, with so many awful ones over the years I'd tended to pretty much disregard the art form entirely, and it's really only in recent times I've come to better appreciate the art of the scenic painter, as many of these photographs will testify.
Rank's scenic dept furnished this backing for the Stanley Baker VistaVision road thriller HELL DRIVERS (1957)

Do my eyes deceive me??  A wonderful, though mystery studio backing, with artist.
George Gibson's cyclorama at MGM for FORBIDDEN PLANET.
MGM's vast and busy backings department, probably in the late forties.  Visual effects man Harry Walton recently told me of his visit to this department some years ago:  "When I was working at Sony Pictures Imageworks which was on the old MGM lot in Culver City, I visited the backing department which was the  called JC Backings. This was where all the huge painted backings were made for the MGM productions. I went into an elevator and went up 2 or 3 stories to where the main painting floor was.   A technician there showed me the operation, how these enormous paintings were raised up and down through a narrow opening in the floor so that the artist could easily reach all areas of the canvas. It was very impressive!    I wish I had taken some photos of the place".
Another example from Rank-Pinewood, from the film JACQUELINE  (1956)

An utterly sensational photo of these unsung heroes at work on an unknown film.

Either a backing or a process shot of a matte painting from the 1936 William Wyler film DODSWORTH.
Noted British scenic artist turned matte painter Brian Bishop painted this evocative backing for Derek Meddings vfx unit on BATMAN.  Pinewood matte cameraman Angus Bickerton recently told me: "Brian painted the big backing of Gotham City that was used as the BG to a FG miniature bridge with line light traffic and Black plastic sheet river and became the opening shot of Tim Burton's "Batman". He painted it on M stage at Shepperton with some assistance from Derek I think. As a man who used to paint all his own backings in the Gerry Anderson days, Derek had huge respect for Brian.   The design for the shot had come from a detailed pencil concept from Anton Furst. At least I always believed Anton Furst created the art but Nigel Phelps was then an Art Director for him and he may have been the artist.       Holes were cut into the canvas which I would estimate to be about 40' wide by 20' high and backlit for city lights.  As a junior I stood and watched as Derek's model unit shot this many times to get the timing right. Imight have had a hand in dragging the plastic sheeting. Then months later I duped the shot on our aerial image animation stand in the side building where Doug Ferris and Gerald Larn used to reside and supered the title "Gotham City". For more, click here.

A wonderfully revealing look at the early block in of just such a huge scenic backing at MGM. Note the slot in the floor where the huge canvas sheet may be raised or lowered as the artist requires.

Rick Rische's painted backing adds much to a natural light Skotack brothers miniature set up for TREMORS (1990)
One of the most recognised backings of the 70's, and one so often wrongly credited - the Wilshire Blvd view from EARTHQUAKE (1974) which contrary to popular folklore was not painted by Al Whitlock but in fact is the work of Filipino artist and effects designer Benjamin Abelardo Resella.  Resella contributed scenic backings to hundreds of films, with a significant number in Hollywood through the 60's and 70's.  I find this EQ painting to be flawless, but sadly the perspective doesn't correlate properly with the staging of the foreground action.
Alfred Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1944) had numerous imaginative dream sequences courtesy of surrealist Salvador Dali (pictured above with Hitch and by camera) some of which were Cosgrove shots of Dali art while some views utilised large painted backings.

Another excellent view of the scenic method in progress, as documented in a 1940's issue of LIFE magazine.

The exciting 1956 Powell-Pressburger film BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE at Rank-Pinewood studios.

A large painted backing at the rear of the Sersen tank at Fox for the film CRASH DIVE (1943)


Sensational photo realistic MGM backing from an unknown production.

Backing and set at Pinewood for the popular Dirk Bogarde-Brigitte Bardot comedy DOCTOR AT SEA (1955)

A large George Gibson backing as used for a special effects tank set up at MGM for A GUY NAMED JOE (1944)

Raymond Massey posing on the set at Warners of the visual fx extravaganza THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949) as the scenic crew install the spectacular painted backdrop of New York City.  Great film and matte showcase.

Many matte artists started off as scenic painters, and these two gentlemen, Hans (John)  Bartholowski and Hans Ledeboer are shown here working on a backing for Paramount's THE VAGABOND KING  (1930).  Ledeboer would go on to be a matte artist under Jack Cosgrove at Selznick studios, while Bartholowski would paint mattes under Byron Crabbe at Warner Brothers with Chesley Bonestell and Paul Detlefsen.

Stop motion maestro Ray Harryhausen who himself is a highly accomplished artist, is shown here finishing off a backing for what could possibly be Ray's unfinished early film EVOLUTION?

MGM's scenic art department under the control of George Gibson, who may be the fellow shown at right?

Les Bowie, the multi talented father of UK special effects, is seen here at work on a backing for an outdoors miniature shoot on MOSQUITO SQUADRON, with the photos below further demonstrating the application.

Bowie, Kit West, Neil Swan and Brian Johnson shoot the WWII miniatures against Les's scenic backing.

An unknown studio and production.

An unknown tropical backing from a Rank-Pinewood production of the 50's.

For Hitchcock's wonderful NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) the United Nations interior comprised of a Lee Le Blanc matte painting for the most part with a George Gibson backing for the mid portion where actors mingle.

Another Hitchcock gem - the excellent ROPE (1948) was an entirely one set indoor drama with much manipulation of the NYC views to suggest the gradual passage of time.  The backing was extensive and at the time something of a marvel, with partial forced perspective miniatures, cloud simulations and lighting schemes.
MERMAID STORY -  a little known Rank-Pinewood film of the fifties.

Frank Capra's 1941 classic ARSENIC AND OLD LACE was notable for the really amazing and realistic backings - often with smoke, lights and even two dimensional trains rolling by.  I'd like to see a behind the scenes picture of this lavish set as much of the plot takes place in this setting.

George Pal's WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE which combined Ivyl Burks miniatures and Jan Domela matte set extensions with these painted backings for the 'Noahs Ark' rocket launch set piece.



  1. Hey Pete,
    Great site! I just wanted to correct an attribution on the desert landscape backing for "Tremors"- I painted that for Robert and Dennis Skotak, the first job I did with their fledgling company, 4-Ward Productions back in July of '89. Somewhere, I have some photos of the stages of work done on that piece. I can dig em up and scan them if you want.

    Rick Rische

  2. Great post! Thank you so much for this site. I caught the opening of DODSWORTH a couple of weeks ago on TV and immediately came to your site hoping you had a post about it. You didn't then but now you do. Anyway, I could not figure out how the scene you have reproduced in this entry was accomplished. At first I assumed a backing was outside the window. However, the camera continuously moves during this scene and it truly looks like there is parallax shift in the background. Whatever they did- it was genuinely effective.

  3. Hi Rick

    Thanks for that. I've corrected that caption, and YES, I'd be extremely interested in any pix you want to share, be they TREMORS, DARKMAN or any other traditional matte shows you've painted on.

    Kind regards


  4. Hey..your blog is very amazing, I love to visit everyday..
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  5. I love your blog! I was suprised to read that the Wilshire Blvd. backdrop for EARTHQUAKE was not an Albert Whitlock painting but the work of Resella. Fantastic work.

  6. Both wonderful and sad at the same time - especially for us few remaining scenics trained at creating large photo-realistic scenic backings. Let's all ban the use of horrible translights please!

  7. Facinating images here, so realistic and the photos of the backdrops in progress are just incredible! Very different to the backdrops and scenic cloths we produce for the stage (Guildhall School of Music & Drama)but so intersting to these archive photos. I agree with Grahame- Bring back the photo-realistic scenic backings! Great blog, i'm passing this on to my students...

  8. Pete, I love the images you posted and would like to learn more about your research for a project I'm working on. Could you please contact me at Thanks very much, Rosemarie

  9. the shot of the railroad track I believe is from the MGM movie Outrage