'You Are Walking Onto A Soundstage': 'Behind The Scenes' Presents A Dozen Classic Film Backdrops
“It’s an exhibition designed for a pandemic, I suppose; we can bring audiences back into our theater and actually onto the stage in a socially distanced way,” says Karen Maness of Behind the Scenes: The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop. The exhibition is on display now on the stage of the Bass Concert Hall, which had been largely vacant for the past year or so. Now, though, the stage has temporarily become a giant gallery, displaying 12 painted backdrops from classic MGM films of the ‘40s through ‘60s.
These paintings were originally used to create backgrounds for films, giving the illusion of practical settings for films shot on Hollywood soundstages. They’re far too large to be displayed in a standard art gallery, so the empty stage of the Bass was really the only viable option to show them to an audience. Having stage lights available also makes it possible to show the backdrops as they would have been used and illuminated for film production. “The unique aspect of exhibiting these on a concert hall stage is that we are able to display them to their full effect,” Maness says. “Almost all of the paintings that we have from this collection were painted to show time-of-day change or have windows light up or chandeliers light up from behind. And so we’ve set up the exhibition in a way for our audience to see the front and come to the back to see exactly how it was painted on the front side and the back side to create that illusion. We have a lovely lighting design created by third-year graduate student Bill Rios and he has designed the lights in a way [that] if you stay in the space long enough… it will slowly shift from day to night.”
Maness says it’s hard to get a real feel for the scale of these backdrops until you see them in person. “When you walk on the stage, it’s just astounding,” she says. “It’s really interesting because you are the size of the actor now. You are walking onto a soundstage, essentially. You’re stepping into these environments and they’re big. Whether you’re in Rome, whether you’re in England, whether you’re in Damascus, or off the coast of California, it’s pretty cool.”
For Maness, Behind the Scenes comes as the result of nearly a decade of work. “It is essentially… the physical manifestation of the research I’ve been doing since 2012 with the Art Directors Guild,” she says. “I was part of their efforts to chronicle the contributions of Hollywood motion picture scenic artists… interviewing the last best scenic artists in Hollywood alive, and then digging back through their stories to learn about their mentors and their mentors’ mentors. That research culminated in a book called The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, cowritten by myself and… Richard Isackes from the Department of Theatre and Dance.
“I’ve been working the Art Directors Guild’s archives on their backdrop recovery project that ended with the recovery of 207 historic backdrops from MGM,” Maness says. “And UT Austin ended up with 50 of them. And to have the chance to have these exquisite backdrops not only here for our students to learn from but now accessible to the public for the first time has been amazing.”
The exhibition is currently available to view in person by appointment only with masking and social distancing protocols in place, and Texas Performing Arts is also offering a virtual guided tour of the show on its website. Visitors to the exhibition are welcome to use the backdrops as originally intended, and take photos or videos of themselves in front of them. “Selfies welcome,” Maness says. “Just keep your mask on.”