These Stunning Photos Reveal the Forgotten Art of Painted Movie Backdrops

<em>The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop</em> documents the artists whose work is central to classic films

The painted movie backdrop is a dying art, obviated by the rise of the green screen. But there’s still something enchanting about those old Hollywood matte paintings; they lent a theatrical tone and texture to the films that defined an era—though the artists who made them often went unacknowledged.

A new coffee table book, The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, is finally giving the art form its due. The book provides an oral history of the scenic artists behind the industry’s most ambitious backdrops, and it notes the ways the art form continues to be used in contemporary films. Most importantly, it’s packed with striking photographs of some of the most astoundingly detailed backdrops in cinema history. These are a few of our favorites.

North by Northwest

Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint on set in front of a painted backing for MGM’s North by Northwest (1959), directed by Alfred Hitchcock with production design by Robert F. Boyle

Photograph courtesy MGM/Photofest © MGM

Ceiling Zero

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

Photograph courtesy Warner Bros., Photofest ©Warner Bros

The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland (as Dorothy) in Munchkinland from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

Photograph courtesy MGM/The Kobal Collection at Art Resources NY

The Last Samurai

Scenic artist Don Hanson at work on a replica of an Albert Bierstadt landscape painting for 2003's 'The Last Samurai'
Scenic artist Don Hanson at work on a replica of an Albert Bierstadt landscape painting for 2003’s ‘The Last Samurai’

Photograph courtesy Jonathan Williams Collection


Harold Ramis (left), Dan Aykroyd (center left), Ernie Hudson (center right), and Bill Murray (right) in Columbia Pictures’ ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984), directed by Ivan Reitman with production design by John DeCuir. The nighttime scenic backing was painted by the Warner Bros. scenic art department under scenic art supervisor Ed Strang and lead scenic artist John Moffitt.

Photograph courtesy Columbia Pictures/Photofest ©Columbia Pictures

Die Hard

Bruce Willis in front of a nighttime backing in Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘Die Hard’ (1988), directed by John McTiernan with production design by Jackson De Govia, and scenic art by the Warner Bros. scenic art department under supervisor Ed Strang.

Photograph by Robert Isenberg courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness is available now.


Image from Art of the Hollywood Backdrop (Regan Arts) © 2016 by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness.

Thomas Harlander is a staff writer at Los Angeles magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. He recently wrote The Battleship USS Iowa Is Hosting an Unusual Sleepover for Adults.