Even though special effects and superstars get top billing in most blockbuster movies, very little of what you see on the silver screen would be possible if not for the set designers and costume designers working when the camera isn’t rolling. These artists use fabric and makeup and wood and steel to create visual imagery that immerses the viewer in the experience. The painters on these crews are responsible not just for painting sets a specific color, but also for enhancing light and shadow, providing depth, and – above all – taking fake structures and objects and making them real.
So what goes into painting movie sets and actors themselves to bring a film to life?
Painters on movie sets are responsible for a wide range of duties and must call on their expertise to perform a variety of work. From recreating a historic background to painting faux wood grain and other fine details, most on-set painters are highly skilled artists called on to paint in great detail. Painting on movie sets includes coating far away structures and backdrops that are near-inconsequential to most movie viewers. At the same time, precision detail work is required for sets and costumes that are featured more prominently in the film itself.
In many cases, painting movie sets is done with the exact same types of paint used in home renovations or canvas painting. However, there are a number of exceptions. For starters, movie set paint is often fast-drying so that on-set touchups can be performed at a moment’s notice without disrupting the actual filming. Craft paint is also used because it is inexpensive and easy to mix, so that on-set painters can quickly create the color they need.
Scene paint made specifically for movie and television sets is manufactured to be flame retardant to offer more protection to cast and crew in the event that lighting or special effects cause a fire. Backdrops and large surface areas are almost always painted with flat or dull paint so as to not affect the stage or set lighting. Additionally, flat paint is better at hiding brush strokes so that the set piece looks more natural.
For special effects, acrylic and latex paint are most often used, as the texture of the paint will achieve the desired result while also blending well with the latex material commonly used in prosthetic devices. Many special effects masks and set pieces are constructed of latex or cast rubber, which holds latex paint well without absorption.
Working in television and film as a painter is not always dependent on your work history. Networking is equally important. Just as actors work to “break in” to the business by working on small productions in hopes of showcasing their talent and meeting other people in the industry, painters must follow the same path to success. More directly, if you would like to pursue painting in show business, volunteer for a small, non-union production and cultivate relationships with other set designers, carpenters, and painters. As with any paint business, high quality work and word of mouth are your two strongest tools when trying to earn more work within the movie or television industry.
Paint work on movie sets is more art than standardized process. As we’ve discussed in Chemistry Corner, many common paint tasks are being performed by robots and assembly lines. One of the last places that such replacement will happen is in movie, television, and stage sets. The custom nature of the work combined with the artistic detail and mix of mediums mean that skilled stage and set painters will stay busy as long as movies and television are popular. Click here to learn more about unique and amazing paint stories!