The art of the painted backdrop, from Black Narcissus to Raiders of the Lost Ark

Realism be damned: painted skies and fake backdrops have cast a spell on audiences throughout film history, and continue to inspire filmmakers from Greta Gerwig to Wes Anderson.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Alfred Hitchcock once said “the beauty of a matte shot is that you can become God.” Hollywood extravagance is often associated with elaborate sets and huge locations. But the humble matte painting could transport filmmakers anywhere, be it a banal city skyline or impossible alien planet.

Indeed, some of the most famous shots in cinema history –  the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes (1968), the closing warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941), and even the original logos of Paramount and 20th Century Fox – were painted on canvas.

Planet of the Apes (1968)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Despite being created as a cost-cutting measure, matte paintings and other fake backgrounds still spark audiences’ imagination. Hollywood sound-stages were an inspiration for Greta Gerwig’s hermetically sealed plastic worlds in this year’s Barbie (2023). She drew from sources such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) and Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948).

Barbie (2023)
Brigadoon (1954)
The Red Shoes (1948)ITV Studios Global Entertainment/Park Circus

Such old-fashioned set design is beautiful and lovely, yes, but perhaps its appeal also stems from being incomplete. There’s a charm in seeing the cracks in the construction – like when Wes Anderson’s recent Netflix adaptations of Roald Dahl tracks between the scenic art sets. Suddenly these impossible painterly worlds are immediate and tangible, products of practical craft alongside poetic imagination. To quote Brian Eno, “whatever you find weird, ugly and uncomfortable about a new medium will surely become its signature”. Whether or not filmmakers intended for their worlds to look ‘fake’, there is a creative joy in witnessing sets that don’t conform to our earthbound reality.

The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar (2023)

Like most elements of the craft of moviemaking, matte paintings were created as a simple tool. Alterations to photography were commonplace, and double-exposure had been used in films such as Georges Méliès’ Four Heads Are Better than One (1898) and Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), but creating an entire false environment was often achieved via matte shots. Their exact history is disputed, but the American director Norman Dawn is largely credited as inventing the ‘glass shot’ – painting on a glass window between the camera and real scene. Created for his documentary Missions of California (1907), such shots allowed Dawn to resurrect crumbling Californian churches; he placed down sandbags to stop the camera jiggle disrupting the matte line.

As technology progressed, so did the matte paintings’ complexity and possibilities. For example the sodium vapour process – made famous in Peter Ellenshaw’s matte paintings for Mary Poppins (1964) – reduced complications with optical printing. Trick shots could increasingly be achieved in isolation, putting such VFX work behind closed doors that enhanced its mysterious magic.

VFX artist Larry Butler created the first ‘bluescreen’ method for The Thief of Bagdad (1940), allowing actors to move ‘inside’ the vibrant storybook matte paintings made by Walter Percy Day (Peter Ellenshaw’s step-father). This also marked Percy Day’s first collaboration with director Michael Powell. He went on to make several matte paintings for Powell and Pressburger productions, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). 

Black Narcissus (1947)ITV Global Entertainment/Park Circus

Their later film Black Narcissus (1947) is an exemplar of the creative possibilities of matte paintings. Despite being set in a remote Himalayan convent, the film was shot entirely in the UK’s Pinewood Studios and adorned with painted backgrounds. The convent is both wild and cloistered, exposed to blistering orange sunsets and sharp mountains which might just be a reflection of the coloniser’s imaginations. This ‘fake’ world threatens to swallow up its unwelcome inhabitants. The camera even stares down a sheer drop, one entirely painted by Percy Day, almost daring the viewer to fall into this artifice.

So drawing attention to these wonderfully fake Technicolor worlds is nothing new. Consider how Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – two canonical pieces of Hollywood self-reflection – both stage romantic scenes in front of ‘phoney’ Hollywood backdrops. Even at the time of their release, these tactile dreamscapes were portals to adjacent dimensions; their painted sets a solid construction of cinematic escapism.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Of course the majority of visual effects – both in the past and present – are not meant to draw attention to themselves. This doesn’t diminish the tasks they’ve been given, or dismiss the high demands facing contemporary digital VFX workers, whose CGI wizardry is often unfavourably compared to the ‘practical magic’ of before. Green screen can also be used to stylised effect, as in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) or the hyperreal visuals of Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi. More often, however, like most matte paintings, it’s meant to faithfully reconstruct reality. 

Speed Racer (2008)

Among the recent Hollywood strikes, the VFX community’s decision to unionise due to being overworked and under-recognised stands out. After all – like their analogue matte painting predecessors – these artists’ CGI is considered most successful if we don’t notice it. Perhaps to truly appreciate the collaborative labour of film, we need to reach out into the backgrounds.

Painted Skies is a season of films celebrating fake backgrounds, taking place at London’s Cinema Museum from 19 November to 8 December. It features Warren Beatty’s bombastic last gasp of Hollywood matte painting, Dick Tracy (1990), Eric Rohmer’s bizarre studio-bound Arthurian legend Perceval le Gallois (1978), Karel Zeman’s surreal Czech classic The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) and the absurd indoor sets of Roy Andersson’s You, the Living (2007).

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, on BFI Player and with the free, major exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror (from 10 November, BFI Southbank).

The Red Shoes is back in cinemas from 8 December.

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