You ever watch an old movie? Not like black-and-white, pre-talkies era, but forties or fifties-era flick. You know, color, but early color, surprisingly regular inclination to break into song and dance?
It was a thing.
Anyway, if you’ve ever sat down and watched one of these older flicks with friends, family, or even on your lonesome, it’s likely that at some point during the runtime of the film, a comment similar to the following was made:
Hey, you! Don’t walk into the backdrop!
For those of you among my readers that are younger, or perhaps haven’t watched a lot of older movies, this comment comes about because in older films, they didn’t have the amazing special effects we have today, where different scenes can be easily stitched together with computer composites and the like. No, in the old days there were much more difficult tricks for creating certain shots. If you wanted to have your characters come around a road and into view of an ancient city, for example, you couldn’t just throw together some awesome CGI and call it a day. That just wasn’t an option. Nor was building a real “fake” ancient city from scratch (though a few over-the-top productions did their best to get close).
No, what these old movies had to do was find another solution. A popular one was using a model (if you’ve ever seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a certain line may be coming to mind right now lampshading this effect). The studio crew would make a detailed model replica of the ancient city, and trick photography would be used to place the actors in front of it at an angle that made everything line up correctly (or they’d use an early form of “green screen,” there were many methods of pulling this trick off).
Of course, a model costs money. And so for many, a much cheaper, easier solution was used, one which had served stage plays for centuries: the painted backdrop.
It was pretty easy to do. Get a large cloth and a bunch of painters, describe the scene and the angle at which it’ll be shot, and then hang it in the back of the scene. Have your actors walk around in front of it and act as if it’s the real deal, and boom, problem solved.
Well, almost. As you can imagine, it’s usually pretty obvious to the audience what the backdrop is. Any number of little details can set it off—and the lower the film’s budget, the more likely that you’ll notice them. The background rippling in some unseen breeze, for example, is a little telling. Or the fact that much of the film is three-dimensional right up until a certain point where everything becomes slightly flat. Or maybe it’s that the lighting isn’t right, and you can tell that the character is about to run into a “background”. It can even be something as simple as a backdrop of a bustling city that is—often without comment—completely stationary or suffering from sudden, jarring movements.
Now, my point here isn’t to disparage old films. They did what they could with what they had … even if sometimes it made it look like an actor who was “riding off into the sunset” was about to slam headfirst into it.
So then, some of you may be wondering, where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with my writing? Well, let me tell you a little story about this weekend.