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What's the link between modern movie sets and historical art

01:00 Mon 01st Apr 2002 |

A.� Today's movies with digital technology and hand-held cameras is the closest we have ever come to cinema that walks and talks (and pretty soon, smells). Mainstream film-makers strive to make dinosaurs as live as possible and painfully realistic family dramas.

Other directors, less well-known, have relished the opportunities to use colourful, camp painted sets.

The tradition of hand-painted cinema is one that should have died out years ago. Hollywood has long been searching for ways to make people accept the fantasy world before their eyes, to be transported to the Wild West or ancient civilisations of Babylon.

Q.� How did painters make their mark on cinematography

A.� Visual art has long been crucial to film-making. Directors today owe much to the studied, detailed naturalism of 19th century academic painting: the meticulous early American creations of the past such as Charlton Heston's Ben Hur are indebted to painters such as Jean-Leon Gerome, who wowed 19th century audiences with realistic recreations of ancient Rome. The conventions of realistic film are those of Victorian painting with glossy spectacular reproductions of historical scenes.

Mainstream cinema owes as much as ever. Ridley Scott's Rome in Gladiator is full of precise 19th century realist-spectacular painting - his Senate and Colosseum sets are directly influenced by painters such as Gerome and Thomas Couture.

Painting was always integral to the studio system and legions of artists worked on the backlots in the classic studio era to create painted Camelots, New Yorks, Atlantas and last chance saloons.

The painted world of American cinema aspired to deceive audiences as directors wanted viewers to believe what was before them was real.

Frankenstein's laboratory as visualised by James Whale is a beacon of screen artifice; Val Lewton's chiller Bedlam stars Boris Karloff in a recreation of William Hogarth's painting The Rake in Bedlam.

Q.� What about European directors

A.� Avant-garde film-makers in Europe in the early 20th century rejected the idea of Victorian naturalist painting. Instead, they were influenced by modern art and made the painted sets more obvious, and more explicit. The most dramatic example of this is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the 1920 German silent horror film involving doubles and somnambuism is staged in an unreal world of painted sets from the German Expressionist era.

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By Katharine MacColl

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