<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="CP_ACP"%>Dances With Walls : Decorative Artist James E. Todd : Article 2



The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, North by Northeast Section. Sept. 9, 2001, p. 4.


Making the Scene

Imagine painting something so no one will notice it.

When Welcome to Collinwood was filmed in Cleveland this summer, several multi-talented local artists matched brushstrokes with scenic artists from Los Angeles to do just that.

"I always felt as if I was in a circus act," says first-time movie painter Chris Dugan, a Clevelander more accustomed to faux finishes than making gutters, buses, mailboxes and alley poles look older. "There's nothing we don't paint," she says.

That includes leaves, old soft-drink cans and crumpled newspapers in street scenes.

"A lot of times it seems goofy, but it's all necessary," says Ruth Lohse, a Clevelander who also worked on the movies Double Dragon, Telling Lies in America and My Summer Story. She "aged" about 25 fire hydrants and all the bolts for a boiler room scene in Welcome to Collinwood.

But the highlight was painting underpasses.

"Here we are filming a movied based in a city and we're painting out graffiti," says Lohse, who has painted theater sets, sculptures at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and even the old Channel 3 news desk set a curly maple veneer. Once the graffiti was gone, the artists painted the concrete to look old again. That meant re-creating urban grime.

"Rust and dirt, that's us," Lohse says with a laugh.

Although scenic artists will spruce up a scene (Lohse added gold trim to the corners of an apartment when the production designer felt the room needed a little "oomph"), they are more concerned that the little items in the background not appear too new or too clean. For Welcome to Collinwood, these items ranged from framed paintings to flags, laundry to grass.


The story is set in the fall. When the director of photography checked an outside softball scene, the fluorescent spring shoots caught her eye.

"The grass was just too green," says James Todd, a Clevelander who has worked on more than 10 movies here and in San Francisco, including Mrs. Doubtfire, Sister Act 2, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Final Analysis and The Joy Luck Club. So he used a garden sprayer and "aged" the grass with yellowish-brown paint.

"On my first movie [Raising Cain, in 1991], my boss taught me to make it look like you've never been there [after you leave]," he says. "You pull from memory everything you can remember about how something looks."

Then you try to replicate it with paint -- like rust dripping down metal, grime on interior doors and walls, a shadow and bird droppings on a fake windowsill.

"I always tell people it's a movie about things I painted," says Todd, the standby artist during filming, who, like Lohse, has painted theater sets and the Australian Outback at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Every job had to be done, and dry, in a half-hour or less -- usually much less. It didn't matter if it was aging two dozen prison-visitation mouthpieces made of kitchen funnels or a painting that actor Isaiah Washington would hold, or even repainting an entire room. It had to be done before filming started. (The artist used latex paint, shellac, tints, waxes and powders -- and a hair dryer -- to achieve this.)

In all but one case, Todd was finished and cleared away before the cameras rolled. "Look for the paint roller pole in Toto's shack," he says a bit sheepishly.

Considering how much the pole was used, it probably just blends into the background.

--Michelle Ramage



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