The University of Texas at Austin

Behind the Scenes: The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

Behind the Scenes: The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

Guided virtual tour by curator Karen Maness, Scenic Art Supervisor for Texas Performing Arts, is available on-demand.

For Educators: Teachers interested in using the Virtual Tour with their students, contact Brenda Simms, cce@texasperformingarts.org.


About the Exhibit

UT Austin now owns the most extensive educational collection of Hollywood Motion Picture backdrops in the world. Created in the guarded secrecy of MGM's studio system and designed to transport audiences to far off locations, these backdrops have never been accessible for public viewing. Discover the "Below the Line" artists who shaped cinematic history. Step onto Bass Concert Hall stage and surround yourself in the masterworks of artists who painted The Wizard of Oz (MGM 1939), An American in Paris (MGM 1951), Singin' in The Rain (MGM 1952), and North by Northwest (MGM 1959). You will be astonished by these monumental illusions.

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Scenic artists do not merely translate a design to a larger scale; they imbue a scene with personal style and experience, creating environments that linger in the mind's eye and leave lasting impressions on our culture. In a discipline undergoing rapid evolutionary change, tools and techniques reshape quickly. The work of the scenic artist maintains a bridge between tradition and revolution. When confronted with the challenge of emerging technology, the painter Edvard Munch declared, "The camera will never compete with the brush and palette until such time as photography can be taken to Heaven or Hell." We are grateful to the scenic artist who, through ingenuity and invention, assures the presence of the human touch.

Backdrops act as supporting characters, transport us to distant locals, and connect us to the stories told through the alchemy of film making. Every detail is considered, from the camera position, time of day, the direction of cast shadows, quality of light, the horizon line in relationship to the built setting, and the performers. A master scenic artist must possess a complete command of architectural drawing, atmospheric perspective, and in-depth knowledge of geological, botanical, cumulous forms. The Hollywood motion picture scenic artists were among the highest-paid members of the studio system's arsenal of craftspeople. MGM's scenic art department was considered the best among its peers.

Exhibit Sponsors

HEB St. David's Health Care


The Backdrops
Behind the Scenes: The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop features 12 of the 50 backdrops housed by Texas Performing Arts and provides the first public view of these highly guarded studio assets.


1. Tip on a Dead Jockey (MGM 1957), exterior panorama of a rooftop in Madrid in the 1950s - 18’-9” x 12’


2. National Velvet (MGM 1944), exterior of small cottage - Opaque Technicolor 13’-11” x 9’-4”


3. Young Bess (MGM 1953), exterior high-angel view of Westminster Abbey in the 1950s - 40'-0" x 22'-2"


4. Young Bess (MGM 1953), exterior of Hampton Court in the 1550s - 35’ x 15’-6”


5. Two Weeks in Another Town (MGM 1962), interior of a hotel lobby in Rome, Italy, in the 1960s - Translucent 30’ x 19’-10”


6. National Velvet (MGM 1944), snowy suburban home in the small town of Sewels in Sussex, England in the late 1920s - Translucent 39’ x 32’


7. The Prodigal (MGM 1955), a view of a pagan idol inside a temple in Damascus in 70 BC - Opaque Technicolor 22’-2” x 16’


8. The Prodigal (MGM 1955), exterior temple courtyard and tents in the Gardens of Pleasure of Damascus in 70 BC - Opaque Technicolor 24’ x 22’


9. The Student Prince (MGM 1954), interior of a German cathedral in fictional Karlsburg near the turn of the 20th century - Back Painted Translucent 35’-2” x 20’-3”


10. Two Loves (MGM 1961), exterior view of a trailer park in Pennsylvania in 1961 - Back Painted Translucent 41’ x 30’


11. The Outrage (MGM 1964), a view of southwestern United States, the Sonoran Desert, in the 1870s - Back Painted Translucent 30’ x 93’


12. The Glass Bottom Boat (MGM 1966), a view of Avalon, a city on Santa Catalina Island, in 1966 - Translucent 35’-10” x 19’-10”

Press and News

‘The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop’ show paintings at work - Sightlines
Bass Concert Hall invites audiences back after being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic - CBS Austin
"The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" Provides a Close-up on Cinema's Scenic Paintings - Austin Chronicle
University of Texas Professor Helps Acquire MGM Movie Backdrops for Students - Spectrum News
Historic Hollywood backdrop paintings to go on view at Bass Concert Hall - Sightlines
Film backdrops from Hollywood's golden age get first public display at UT - Austin360
Rescuing scenic backdrops from Hollywood's Golden Age - CBS Sunday Morning
Hollywood backdrops, rescued from obscurity, become a teaching tool at UT - UT News
Another Place and Time - Alcalde
How 200 historic Hollywood backdrops were saved from the dumpster - Los Angeles Times

Behind the Scenes The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop from Texas Performing Arts on YouTube.

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