Paint and Effects

‘Anyone can paint’ is a term all too frequently used in the film industry when trying to cut labour costs, and to delegate to runners or production assistants. However, it is not until a skilled painter is seen graining a pine door or introducing a damp patch on a ceiling that their skills become apparent, and an important complement to any good art department. As an art director painting is generally contracted out to a specialist. However there have been and still will be many occasions where, because of time or money, we need to get down and do it ourselves, or we have to understand the technique well enough to explain to an impatient producer how long the process will take. One also has to deal with the paint suppliers, as paint needs ordering prior to painters being contracted. I once telephoned through a Pantone reference number to a paint supplier who claimed to be able to match any colour requested. When I arrived on set to see pink, instead of red, I was not best pleased. The suppliers’ pantone chart had been hung on a wall in their shop for over six months and had faded in the sun. Though the number was correct they kindly decided to forego the six hundred pound paint bill!

The remarkable thing about painting scenery is that it can easily deceive and indeed, this is one of the reasons why I wanted to pursue film as a career. Paint is the most important material to enable this, and I am often surprised at how little the medium is utilized to its fullest extent.

I must admit to being initially surprised when seeing a painter start a project in seemingly the wrong colour, then walk off for a break while it dries. It is only when you see the final top colour and treatment that you realize what his intention was in the first place. Painters’ skills have been learnt through apprenticeships from an earlier era and are only occasionally passed on.

It’s also worth noting that too much work on certain effects can be detrimental. I once was attempting to paint some vacuum formed stonework and got very carried away doing ‘dark in the hollows’ and ‘light on the peaks’ in all the right colours but the final result looked very flat and theatrical. It was far too overworked, and I might as well not have bothered with the vacuum formed sheets in the first instance!

Paint brings scenery alive, and if used correctly, can save thousands off the budget. Water-based mediums are preferred due to drying times being quicker. However an occasional mix with oil paint or spirit based paints can have marvelous results when creating marbling and similar effects.

There are many books available on the techniques involved which describe the subject in greater detail than I can do in one chapter, but virtually all are for permanent results. Film painters often use shortcuts, due to time and budgetary constraints, and this is the specific area I will cover. These techniques are not designed to last, but are more than adequate for short term use and filming. A selection of progression photos concludes the chapter.

Laying In/ Priming:

As with all painting, the finished surface is dependent upon the material to be painted, so time spent filling and sanding is well spent for a good overall effect. A chemically cured filler (like car filler) is often better than a water based one as it has a quicker drying time, and is a lot more durable and easier to sand down. It is common for scenery to be moved and transported once painted, and water based fillers tend to crack and fall out when manhandled.

Sheet materials have been transformed with the use of MDF (medium density fibreboard) owing to its ease of cutting and smooth surface. However, this is usually fixed with pins, screws or nails all of which require initial filling, essential for high gloss finishes. Newly painted canvas, for say cycloramas or ceiling pieces requires priming, usually in white, prior to scenic work or top coat. This should ideally be undertaken with a brush or large roller to flatten the ‘weft’ otherwise the cloth will dry patchily, due to the canvas strands drying inconsistently. Spray guns or ‘Airless sprayers’ should only be used over a primed canvas for the same reason.

If painting plasterwork, or PVC, it should be coated in Shellac Varnish often known as ‘Button Polish’ which though smelly, will dry quickly and act as a good bonding coat for water-based paints. This is also useful for preventing stains (like coffee cup rings) seeping through the topcoats on studio floors etc. This is also good for painting onto newly cut stencils as it prevents the paint being absorbed into the paper stencil, therefore extending its life. Further reading from this chapter can be found in ‘Createascene’ the book.