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HomeCraftsArt DirectionThe Art of the Hollywood Backdrop Reveals Secrets Behind Movie Magic

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop Reveals Secrets Behind Movie Magic


lr-artofhollywoodbackdropThe Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, the new book by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness, takes readers behind the scenes of some of the most iconic movies ever made and offers unique insights on how they were made. A combination of essays (twelve in total) and gorgeous photography, the tome is both a history and illumination of the ‘art’ of background art.

The book starts with a broad yet specific sweep over the scenic arts, detailing the origins of the craft, and its forerunners, such as the World War II veterans hired at MGM, and how backings became an industry all its own while forced to change as Hollywood technology progressed. The volume transitions into a more structured treatise on the specific artists and families in the industry: George GibsonBen CarréDuncan Alanson Spencer, the Coakleys, and the Strang family– giants in an industry going as unnoticed by the audience (and Hollywood) as the backings themselves. Substituting melodic notes with captivating images, the book lovingly serenades the oft overlooked constructors of the fantasy worlds we indulge in at home and at the theater.

Ceiling Zero (1936) Directed by Howard Hawks  Shown: set with studio backdrop
Ceiling Zero (1936)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Shown: set with studio backdrop

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop guides the reader through every level of the profession. From sweeping floors and mixing paint as training in the master-apprentice tradition, to the creation and industry-level politics of competing backdrop companies. Via first hand accounts, the reader is submerged in a world of forced perspectives, foregrounds, and mise-en-scene, all supplemented with photos for the more visually inclined. One such picture is that of the set of Columbia Picture’s Lost Horizon, which was actually “built inside a Los Angeles refrigerated ice-making plant, enabling the snow to be real.” Studying the image challenges you to differentiate between what is real and what is painted onto the backdrop, which is harder than expected, the fore and background blending seamlessly — highlighting the skills the book aims to celebrate.

Until recently, scenic artists got little to no credit for the work they did for film, but this book is a good step in rectifying that. It’s one of those things you read, either out of respect for the craft or due to a general interest in Hollywood history, and find yourself knee deep in a whole world you never realized existed, expanding your lexicon and vocabulary without even realizing it, and emerging out the other side confident that you too can talk about scenery with the best of them.

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