Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman fall in love while driving along the Champs-Élysées in the film “Casablanca.” Judy Garland skips through a land she finds over the rainbow in “The Wizard of Oz.” Clark Gable walks away from Vivien Leigh into a distant Southern horizon in “Gone With the Wind.”
Except none of these actors and actresses was where he or she seemed to be. They were moving, loving and vanishing in front of backdrops painted during the golden age of Hollywood film in the early to mid-1900s. The artists who created these works emulated the highest standards of classical painting and realized specific techniques that were designed to trick the eye.
Since that time, Hollywood backdrops have evolved. They still find their way into films by directors such as the Coen brothers, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Jon Favreau and Steven Spielberg, just to name a few. But modern backdrops, more often than not, are digitally designed and printed. Today, scenic artists who understand hand-drawn and painted perspectives that transform two-dimensional spaces into three-dimensional worlds can be more difficult to find.
Karen Maness, a lead instructor of scenic art at The University of Texas at Austin and the scenic art supervisor for Texas Performing Arts, is a national authority on the subject of Hollywood backdrop painting. In 2012, the Art Directors Guild for the motion picture industry chose Maness to interview and document some of its members whom she calls the “lucky last” — painters with knowledge of this art form who were working at the top of their industry in the final years of Hollywood motion picture backdrop painting. She conducted her interviews at J.C. Backings, a family-owned backdrop rental company, in the historic MGM Studios. It was here she first came into contact with hundreds of backdrops, many of which made their way into the book she co-authored, “The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop.”
Two years after the book was published, Maness received a call. J.C. Backings was leaving the MGM scenic studio and releasing many famous and obscure film backdrops from their inventory. A race was on to preserve these pieces of film history.
Texas Connect spoke with Maness about her 30 years of work as a scenic artist, her passion for recovering and preserving these historical backdrops and how she strives to instill students at The University of Texas at Austin with fluency in both digital and analog scenic art production. Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.