Building a Better Backdrop

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • Current Issue
  • February 2018
  • Inside Theater
• Created: February 16, 2018

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The windows glow in Beowulf Boritt’s backdrop for Young Frankenstein.

While more and more Broadway shows have been shifting from traditional scenery to video walls and more elaborate practical sets, the art of the painted backdrop appears to be slowly waning. But in reality, many scenic designers still rely on this familiar stage element to create dynamic backdrops, and they can create a heightened sense of perspective when used the right way. Scenic designers Beowulf Boritt, Anna Louizos and Kevin Depinet all shared stories about their experiences with traditional backdrops on various productions they have worked on over the years.

Beowulf Boritt’s bold blue backdrop from Young Frankenstein

‡‡         Back to the Flats

Beowulf Boritt recently worked on a production of Young Frankenstein in London that was comprised entirely of drops. The musical has approximately 30 locations that were crammed into the tight space of the Garrick Theatre, which is why the designer decided to use flat scenic elements. He adds that, as Mel Brooks wrote the show in a vaudeville/music hall tradition, “a very artificial, old-fashioned way seemed right. But I tried to use every backdrop trick I knew. Some locations were a series of multiple drops so that the layers of them created depth.”

He also built fiber optic stars into some drops, most of which were made partially translucent, allowing the crew to back light the skies or windows to make them glow. This created the illusion of depth and dimension that they sought.

A ghost moon hangs in one of Beowulf Boritt’s backdrops for Young Frankenstein.

“For a scene where the characters are in a cart driving down a Transylvanian road, I hung a plain white drop, and we put a roller with tree silhouettes upstage of it,” says Boritt. “The actors pretended to be moving — the cart was automated to rock side to side — and the roller with the trees spun, making the trees appear to move toward the cart, creating the illusion of movement. Still other drops had a small piece of physical scenery that played with them. The castle courtyard was a drop with translucent windows and sky, but had a three-dimensional door downstage of it, so that the monster could break down the door when he escapes from the castle.”

‡‡         Going Beyond Canvas

Upending the idea of traditional backdrop material, Kevin Depinet tried something different when working on Brigadoon at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2014, using strings rather than canvas for one backdrop. “It was fascinating how it worked,” he says. “We were able to project on them, and people were able to walk through them. It was [made up of] these very fine silk strings that were not even 1/16 of an inch apart. They flew in and basically became the backdrop for the whole scene, and we were able to project this chase scene on them, where they were chased through the woods. People could walk through the strings and it would look like they were in the woods. That was probably one of more interesting, unconventional backdrops that I’ve done in recent times.”

When Depinet worked on a recent production of Sweeney Todd, he and his team painted on clear plastic drops and had imagery projected on one side of them, with people visible on the other. When painted and lit from the front, the drops looked opaque. The plastic drops were painted on the front with a yellow-ish color to make them look like glass. Rear projections were shown on their back sides, and cast members could also be seen through them. To create this illusion, three layers of backdrops were used.

“It was really kind of astonishing because, depending upon how much you painted on that surface, you could determine the amount of opacity through the whole thing,” says Depinet. The imagery itself was more abstract than sharply defined. “It was a yellowed, kind of oily texture that we painted on each one of them, so when you looked through the different layers they became this textured kind of background. There was specific imagery, but it was a different texture on each one.

“It wasn’t ever intended to be a realistic thing. In the past, I have done multiple scrims, mainly with skies. We’ve layered those scrims together to form a sky with a lot of depth to it, which is a pretty cool trick. You know who is the master of that? Michael Yeargan. He did an amazing job on the revival of South Pacific [at Lincoln Center]. He did three or four layers of scrim on that way, which is a pretty amazing example of doing that technique.”

For Sweeney Todd, Depinet also used plastic flaps akin to those from a car wash as a backdrop. They were placed along and under the entire length of the raised platform that took over the upper half of the stage. “You could walk through them, and you could see through them,” recalls Depinet. “When you lit them from the front, they became opaque.”

The impressive illusion of depth with Anna Louizos’ bridge backdrop from In The Heights

‡‡         Translucent vs. Opaque

Anna Louizos has also used a translucent painted drop to create a beautiful urban landscape for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights back in 2008. There are good lessons to be learned from that.

“Painting a traditional translucent drop affords you a number of options to change how it looks — you can have a beautiful, glowing daytime sky above with a skyline of buildings below; but in order to transform the drop to sunset or evening and illuminate windows of buildings, you need good scenic artists who can paint the drops with varying techniques to achieve this — they are very skilled at dying certain parts of the muslin drop,” explains Louizos. “They use dyes because if you use paint, and it’s laid on too thickly, it fills the space between the fibers and result in a blotchy surface where light can’t penetrate. So, the technique uses very thinned out, watery dyes for the sky; for the tree tops and any buildings, scenic paint will be used, leaving the windows lightly dyed. Once the drop is dry, then the entire drop is flipped over and back painted (with a dark gray or black) in all the areas that need to be opaque (like the buildings and trees), carefully avoiding the windows or anything to suggest a light source, so they remain translucent.

“When you flip it back over and then you back light the whole thing, the windows will glow whatever color was painted in the dyes,” Louizos continues. “The sky will transform, and the lighting designer can change it from a daytime to a sunset sky, washing it with oranges and yellows. The windows will glow, but the buildings will remain silhouetted. That is how we did the skyline drop for In The Heights.”

The replica of the George Washington Bridge in the background, while looking like a perspective bridge, was actually a flat one-inch-thick wood cutout in perspective, with painted details, framed with steel tube and suspended with cables, hanging in front of the drop.

“You had the translucent drop with back painting — this flat, suspended cutout of the bridge — and the combined picture created the illusion that it was dimensional,” says Louizos. “On that bridge structure, I had little lights installed on the curved sweep of the bridge and little red lights on the towers to reflect the bridge at night. Then, suspended another couple feet downstage of the bridge, was a black scrim. The scrim is a wonderful thing on stage, because it helps you create a ‘gauzy filter’ to create distance. You don’t see all the hard details that are on the drop. It creates a soft filter so that the lighting designer can control how much of the drop you can see, based on how much light gets thrown on the drop.

“There are a lot of wonderful little tricks that people have developed over the years from doing this. The lighting designer even hit the scrim a little bit with these gobos that looked like clouds. You had this double layer — you had this texture on the scrim and this lit backdrop.”

Anna Louizos’ shadowy, back-lit drop from The Mystery Of Edwin Drood.

Louizos’ background designs for The Mystery of Edwin Drood on Broadway in 2012 were comprised almost entirely of painted drops. “I think it was really fun for the scenic artists, because they don’t get to do that a lot — old-fashioned, painted scenery,” says Louizos. She and her team played with translucency a lot, back painting certain areas and allowing certain parts of the drops to be translucent. Many of the drops had windows, which required back painting on the buildings. Locations like “High Street” and “Minor Canon Corner” played in both daytime and nighttime scenes, so translucency was key.


Anna Louizos’ gothic, backlit drop from The Mystery Of Edwin Drood

“The opium den was a dark place, so to create a mysterious, atmospheric scene, there were two drops — one, a cut out muslin painted to look like fabrics and rags hanging from above,” says Louizos. “Upstage from that was a painted drop that was also painted with a lot of rags and architecture, and a single window and an oil lamp. Those areas could be back-lit so you could see them, but the entire scene consisted of just two layers. Most of the time I just had two scenic layers for Drood. It was a portal or a border, and then a drop.”

When Louizos worked on the musical Minsky’s at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in 2009, she placed a backdrop all the way up stage, a street scene with storefronts, then various scenic elements played in front for each location. The “Cafe Bucharest” consisted of three layers: a partially hard, cut out framed cafe wall with painted perspective and architectural details.

“There was a window to the café and the ceiling of the café, but the ceiling was a coffered ceiling with panels in perspective that created the illusion of depth,” she recollects. “Then, behind the perspective squares, I had scrim so you could see the skyline drop through it. The light fixture in the ceiling was part of the flat cut out cafe wall in perspective, but then I layered the flat cafe wall piece with actual dimensional pieces (the dining counter, booth and tables) — so it created a sense of depth with just three layers. It felt like a real room, but it was flat.

“With the theater, you can do a lot of perspective tricks where the human eye ties these layers together and understands what the location is, based on how you play with perspective,” remarks Louizos. “Perspective is our friend.”

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