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Painted Skies - A Celebration Of Fake Backgrounds

Monday 13 November 2023, by Judy Harris

As a child, Bruno Savill de Jong was captivated by the charming fakery of films such as The Wizard of Oz, Batman and Singin’ in the Rain. Now, a student at the National Film and Television School, he is curating the Painted Skies film season at the Cinema Museum in London. Judy Harris spoke with him about film’s relationship to artifice, Mario Bava and the inventiveness of old school special effects.

You describe Painted Skies as a season celebrating ‘fake’ backgrounds – what interests you about film’s relationship to artifice and fakery?

Today, almost all cinematic images are fake. Even directors like David Fincher, who you don’t associate with vfx-heavy films, use tons of digital touch-ups and CGI wizardry, which I recognise is its own artistry. The difference in the films I’m screening is that the artifice is deliberate and pushed to the forefront. Of course, some people argue that cinema is about the truth and don’t want it to engage in this kind of fakery. Now, I love neo-realism as much as the next person, but it’s frustrating when people think that social dramas and neo-realism are necessarily the most important kind of films to make. What I love about film is how versatile it is - film can be anything, we shouldn’t think of live action or realism as the only thing that film can do.

When films are older e.g. The Wizard of Oz, this kind of artifice is more readily accepted, especially if it’s placed in a childlike, fantasy world. Even The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is set in a kind of fairy tale storybook world and that allows for more explicit non-truthfulness in its style. For me, seeing the strings in these films is charming. I like to see how a film is made. I love the creativity and inventiveness on display in the work of filmmakers such as Zeman and Méliès. It was so laborious to make films back then, yet they still found a way to be so playful with it.

What is the difference between a matte painting and a painted background?

A painted backdrop is literally just a background that is painted and filmed. A matte painting is a process of combining a painted image with a live-action one, the ’matte’ being the flat image which is composited with the other elements.

Are matte paintings used around the world?

There are some amazing resources out there that have taught me a lot about the history of matte paintings, but most of what I found focuses on the U.S. and Britain. However, there are Japanese films that use matte paintings, such as Kwaidan or Female Prisoner #701, which have other-worldly painted skies. I also love the films of Obayashi, and his film House is very interesting in this sense because Obayashi was a pioneer of blue screen and green screen technology, as well as matte paintings and painted backdrops. There’s a great scene where a woman’s head is moving around the screen cut off from her body. His later films are experimental green screen films. There’s one where the actors are in front of a village, but you get the sense it may fall down any moment. There are certainly many other examples from around the world that I don’t know about yet.

What are some of your favourite films with matte paintings?

I’ll give just two of my favourites:

Black Narcissus – this film is shot entirely inside a studio and has amazing landscapes and sunsets. The matte paintings are by Walter Percy Day who worked with Powell and Pressburger. There’s an amazing scene with a view of a bell tower and a dramatic cliff face which retains its dramatic tension, even though you can tell that half the image is live action and half is painted. But for me the heightened reality of the aesthetic only adds to the themes of the film.

Danger: Diabolik – this is an Italian comic book film which is like an insane episode of the 1966 Batman series, but more hippyish. It’s a spectacular world with lots of matte paintings. I don’t even know if it’s a good film, but it’s an experience! The director, Mario Bava, actually began his career as a matte painter in fantasy films and did his own matte work in the films he directed.

I think matte paintings are paradoxical – they are both expansive and constrained. They can create a very closed kind of space, yet the sky is the limit when it comes to your imagination.

What, if anything, has been lost in the transition to digital effects?

The issue for me isn’t the use of digital technology per se but the way it’s used, which is usually as a quick fix. What I think is being lost is a sense of experimentation and playfulness, along with the feeling of looking at something tangible. Matte paintings are fake, but to me they feel more authentic and crafted than CGI and green screens, even though those techniques are crafted things too.

For example, I’m a fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing because I love bodily transformations. I really enjoy the metamorphosis of the creature and all the goopiness. Of course, you can do transformations so well with CGI now, but the old analogue techniques are often so much more appealing and inventive. Even the shrivelling up of the title at the start of The Thing – they did that by putting the title behind a fish tank, wrapped up in a garbage bag which was then lit on fire.

However, the film Speed Racer (above) is an example of how CGI could be used in a more interesting way. It has impressionistic backgrounds and while it still has a very digital look it’s strange and has its own style. So digital effects could be used in interesting ways, but so often they’re not.

What is the status of matte painting today?

While matte painting isn’t thriving, I think it is being maintained in certain ways. There are a few big-name filmmakers who have an interest in studio filmmaking and old school effects, as we can see with films like Barbie, Asteroid City and Poor Thing. And matte painter Leigh Took still has a company making models for Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, however, the technical knowledge of all these practices is dwindling away.

Why did you choose these films to be part of the season?

I had a long, long list of films so it took a while to select these four. Ultimately, I wanted to select films that would show a range of different ways to use matte paintings and painted backdrops.

Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty,1990) is the most mainstream film in the season and is a great looking movie. It’s set in a comic book world and some legendary matte painters worked on it including Harrison Ellenshaw, Michelle Moen, Paul Lasaine, Michael Lloyd and David Mattingly

Perceval le Gallois (Éric Rohmer, 1978) is an experimental film by Rohmer, whose other films are all much more naturalistic. It’s totally studio bound, like a Western where you can see the flimsiness of the sets – it’s really cranked up to be obviously artificial. It’s very flat, like a medieval manuscript and this mirrors the experience of the hero who is trapped in a closed world, going in circles.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman,1962) is, I think, an extraordinary film. It’s very playful with a wood carving style (it’s very Czech!) and Zeman is using all the possibilities he can, it feels like he’s revelling in his creativity.

You The Living (Roy Andersson, 2007) is extraordinary in a completely different way. Anderson’s films are all made inside, they’re totally insular and statically shot and this film is reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s paintings in its framing, though it’s a comedy. There’s a great documentary on the making of this film called Tomorrow is Another Day which I highly recommend and hope to screen one day.

Painted Skies – A season of film celebrating fake backgrounds is on at the Cinema Museum 19th Nov – 8th Dec. Tickets available here:

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