Sunday, 11 November 2012

Painting Signs for the Film Industry

                                                                                                                  Working on the set of "Open Range"

  I thought I might revisit a post I did back when I first started my blog. It was about painting signs for film. I started in the industry back in 1987, with a show called " Return to Gunsmoke". It wasn't until the movie "Dead Bang" staring  Don Johnson, that I moved into the role of a Film Sign Painter. From that point on, I worked as both a sign painter, and scenic artist, on a number of different television productions and feature films. I then made the transition to Paint Coordinator ( Head Painter) overseeing all aspects of the Paint Department. Although I enjoyed the position, and the challenges it brought, my heart was really in painting the signs. The thing I really like is not so much the actual lettering, but the breakdown of the sign, making it look like its been there for a while. Don't get me wrong, I do love lettering, but find the aging and breakdown to be the big challenge.

Painting signs for a film production can be quite a challenge. First part is the high volume of signs that you are given, then the time frame that they have to be done in. Some of the shows I've worked on,  the crew is myself, and maybe other person, on a bigger show, I will have a larger crew. The process starts with the Art Dept. designing and supplying the artwork for us to follow, then the Construction Dept builds the sign blanks and buildings for us to letter. Depending on the show setup, either the painters paint the blanks, or we take it from the raw wood up. Personally, I like working from the raw wood stage, that way I can start the aging process from ground up. I recently watched a western from the early 90s , although the signs were well done (not sure if they were actually hand painted) the colors were not muted, and some of the white lettering was so bright, it competed with the actors and the action. Great for anyone watching for signs, not so great if your the actor in front of it. I personally like to paint them by muting the colors, so as to pull the contrast down. You'll still see the signs, but they fall nicely into the background. If you've ever done any landscape painting, you know to diminish the color value to create the illusion of distance and depth, the same rule applies to film sign work. Another thing to keep in mind is, it would be very unlikely that the same sign painter did all the signs in the town. Having a varity of styles, and trying to simulate different skill levels, helps to create a sense of reality. I will try to establish this with the Production Designer, or Art Director, by asking if they want a "Left hand" or "Right Hand" sign. By this, I mean a good quality, or bad quality sign. It's just the same as doing signs in the real world. Drive down any road that has stores and shops and you'll notice a what I'm talking about.

When painting signs for film, you have to be prepared for anything. One day you'll be doing sign blanks, the next day, building facades and windows, then wagons, vehicles and awnings, show cards, and so on. Depending on the time period, it could be anything. I work mostly with water based paints, but use what ever is needed to get the job done. This type of work helps to round out you lettering skills, not to mention your stress level., it's one thing to paint a few signs, try painting a few hundred in a given time frame. The show I'll be starting should be in the area of 200 to 400 signs.For this, I'll need a crew of no less that 5 sign painters, and more as needed. When I first hire someone who has never done film work, they're quite excited, then they see the task at hand, then you can smell the fear. But by the end of the show (if they make it) they fell a real sense of accomplishment, plus they get bragging rights. They can tell their family and friend  "If you look really hard, way in the background, That's a sign I painted." Over the years, the need for someone to actually hand paint signs has dropped, especially with the new technology in printing, but fortunately there are still designers that appreciate the look of a sign done by hand, that has style, and a soul.  Thanks for taking the time to drop by, hope you enjoyed the post. I'm sure a lot of you know this already, if you click on a picture, it will show as a larger version, you can also scroll through them in order by clicking on the photos.

This was a set from the TV series Lonesome Dove. It was an episode about Buffalo Bill, played by Dennis Weaver. We got to paint the canvas banners and a number of signs for his traveling show. I thought I had died and had gone to Sign Painter Heaven. It was also a bit of a challenge, due to the fact we had a week to pull it off.

 Here's a few on-set pictures from a show called "Magic of Ordinary Days. It wasn't designed to be a showcase for our sign painting skills, just a piece of background to help establish the time period of the show

A typical day of painting for two sign painters. This type of work is done mostly in the studio workshop,  then sent to the location to be installed. It's a great way to stay out of the weather, unfortunately it's not always the case. You have to be ready to work in all types of weather when you do this type of work. The show I'm about to start, will have a combination of studio, and location work, in the middle of a Canadian Winter, thank god I love what I do.

Here's a few pictures of wagons and tents. No western is complete without them. You also paint a lot of canvas banners. Hard on brushes.

This "Before and "After" is of a set from the movie "Brokeback Mountain." The Mexican set was the most fun to do, although we did get to travel around the country side, lettering towns as we went. Can't think of a better way to spend your day.

This is an example of covering up signs on a location. This was a show that used a historic park here in Calgary. We make blanks to cover existing signs and then add more signs to create the look. This is a very common practice when working on a location. The one issue I run into when doing location work is, them wanting me to paint a sign directly on to a wall or building. I use a different approach for this type of sign, as it has to be removed when we finish filming.

These are a few photos from "The Assassination of Jesse James" It was a big sign show, with over 300 signs hand painted. I had a crew of up to 7 sign painters at any given time to get the job done. These pictures are from the city of Winnipeg. They changed 3 city blocks over to look like Chicago in the late 1800s, complete with dirt roads and board walks. Although we painted a pile of signs, you would be hard press to see them. That's just the way this business works.

This is a picture of a facade that was built to cover a modern building. The wall sign in the background wasn't part of the shoot. Because the camera wouldn't be facing this direction, it was of no issue. But things can change in a hurry, so you have to be ready to paint it out with a minutes notice. on the edge. You won't get that kind of rush flipping burgers.

  Here's an example of  one of the window signs that had a little more detail than other signs on the street. There was a total of 4 of these. This was a painful job to do. The floor was 6" under the "Gents Clothing" copy , and the only way to do the lettering, was to lay on the floor. Not the most comfortable way to letter, but it had to be done. As I mentioned earlier, location work can have its challenges. Hope you enjoyed a little insight into the world of painting signs for the film industry. Take care.