What does a scenic artist do?"We call ourselves 'liquid magicians' and 'paint wizards,' or sometimes 'stunt clown acrobatic speed artists,'" says Bridget Duffy, whose credits include Daddy Daycare with Eddie Murphy and Showtime with Robert De Niro, as well as television's acclaimed Mad Men.
We create illusion with paint. We work on all kinds of surfaces, in all kinds of situations and places. We cover props, scenery and backdrops with a great range of finishes aimed at fooling the eye into seeing what isn't there -- not cardboard or canvas, but real wood or marble, a leafy forest, a smoking building, a fiery volcano. We don't do the designs ourselves, but we carry out -- alone or with a crew of as many as 12, depending on the size of the job -- the art director's instructions. We climb scaffolds and dangle way high up from lifts. We're gymnasts, we're acrobats, we're contortionists. We squirm into nearly-inaccessible areas high, high above the set -- holding onto bucket, paint-brush, spray-gun or roller with one hand, and working with the other.
What qualifies a scenic or graphic artist?
Generally, a background in graphic arts. I got my B.F.A. from UCLA, and studied further at Los Angeles' Art Center College of Design. I haven't stopped studying since.
What were some of your more memorable happenings? I've yelped at a passerby for help in moving scenery and had Richard Chamberlain rush over and pitch in. Once I was painting scenery next to where Kenny G. was being interviewed, and he planted his foot right in the area where I was working at the exact moment my white brush came down. He ended up with one black shoe and one white! But he was totally nice about it!
Then a friend who worked at a television station told me how much better the pay was if you got into the union. The union told me to find work with a union shop for 30 days, and then I could join.
Once, at midnight, I was working absolutely alone at Los Angeles' KTTV, painting a playhouse prop for Different Strokes. It was a completely soundproof stage, with one-foot-thick doors -- when suddenly I saw the entire massive full-length 15-foot velvet curtain begin to undulate and sway. As if someone were there -- but the stage was empty! -- I was the only person around and no one had entered or left. The hair on my neck stood on end -- I ran! "Oh yeah," my boss told me casually next morning, "I forgot to mention the visiting ghost on that stage! We shouldn't have sent you there alone!" He added that numerous crews had reported unexplained sounds and accidents on that stage at night -- with no imaginable causes. Gee... thanks a lot!
Explain a bit more about "stunt clown acrobatic speed artists."
I was referring to the insane time frame given to us to produce our work, the impossible positions we have to contort ourselves into in order to reach almost inaccessibly high areas, and the innovative ways we create and invent tools to achieve the unusual paint effects needed to blend our art with actual props. We continue painting during rehearsals of explosions, fight scenes near us, animals charging, fog machines turned on, trap doors revealed, stage lights dimmed, actors running lines, bands cranking up and dancers kicking their heels inches from us as we rush to finish before the cameras are on us! I've painted many a time with cameras directly over my head or narrowly missing me as I hurried to finish the job. I feel fortunate to have survived for over 30 years in this zany business!
What do you enjoy about your work?
I love its amazing variety, artistically and emotionally. Like re-creating Monet's "Water Lilies," the Mona Lisa, Vermeer's "Lady With Pearl Earring," Papua-New Guinea art, Jurassic Age backdrops -- and working the Oscars numerous years. Or silly moments like a Japanese reporter asking "How many buckets of color have you painted today?"
I felt honored to be on stage at the Oscars when Itzhak Perlman and Michael Crawford were rehearsing, or at the American Music Awards when Prince and Cher were working or hearing Sir Elton John belting it out at CBS. Or being at a CBS fundraiser for New York City the night after 9/11. At that moment I felt that we in entertainment don't merely entertain, but sometimes make a difference in the world.
And then, now and then, from behind the curtain, or back in the wings, I look out and see the joy in people's faces, the laughter, the tears, the whole panorama of human emotions that our efforts evoke. And I love being part of that fabric of life! And thank God for the unions, that stand behind us and maintain the level of respect and financial reward commensurate with our efforts!
But above all, I enjoy the passionate act of applying wet paint to canvas, to muslin or any surface to create illusion -- and will continue to do so until I can no longer hold a brush or see the color of life before me!
Linda Casady, the first woman to become a scenic artist, attended Chouinard and Otis Art Schools in Los Angeles, and then began working by painting murals and other decorations on hospital and restaurant walls. Her many eventual film credits would include All the President's Men, Man on the Moon, Miss Saigon, Phantom of The Opera and Imposter.
How did you get your first film job?
Well, I'd heard the pay in television and film was much better than I was earning, and one day I happened to pass through the production area at ABC. I'd never seen so much paint, such color, huge frames that could go up and down with the push of a button! I was sold. I even asked one of the painters "D'you really get paid to do this stuff?" He said, "We don't hire women!"
But Linda "knew I could out-paint and out-draw any man! So I walked into ABC and asked to see the boss who hired scenic artists. "We don't hire women," he repeated, "but when you're laid off your next job, come back." Well, one day my sister talked me into going to the races with her -- and who do I run into in the club house but the same boss from ABC. "My God," he said, "you followed me to the horse races? You start tomorrow!" After that, I never stopped.
What do you enjoy about the work?
Every day is an adventure. The biggest stars walk up and want to know what you're doing -- Peter Falk, Gregory Peck, Liz Taylor, Julie Andrews.
Once I was standing between Neil Diamond and Warren Beatty, waiting for an elevator from the basement to the set. I was flustered already, and then we got on, and there was Paul Newman! I nearly collapsed! In addition, I was splattered all over with black paint from the work I'd just been doing -- and it reminded me of the time my crew had accidentally splashed paint all over Warren's briefcase, his Levis, his shoes. He'd been completely understanding, but still I hoped he didn't remember! Between the three gorgeous guys and the paint, I was so completely rattled I pressed the wrong button and we ended up on the wrong floor.
You learn funny things about people, too -- like Michael Jackson changing his clothes at least three or four times a day. And making up different names for himself every time he called you. But he was truly a wonderful person. Once he got to know you, he'd ask lots of questions. One day he said he wished he could draw and paint. I said "Michael, you're not so bad at what you do!" He laughed."
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