The Paintings Behind the Films: When Fine Art and Filmmaking Collide


The sight of massive steel-skinned robot jagers whaling on skyscraper-sized kaiji isn’t meant to necessarily elicit visions of the timeless works published in countless art history textbooks. After all, "Pacific Rim" is brainless popcorn fun, a flick simply meant to make our basest senses go aflutter when one big thing hits another big thing to make other things go boom.

Director Guillermo Del Toro cast such sentiments into doubt, however briefly, when he mentioned in a Huffington Post interview that the immense size and scale of the film’s combatant creatures were directly informed by a well-known work of art. He cited “Colossus,” Francisco Goya’s 1808 painting of a towering giant dwarfing a village, as a core inspiration going into the project, making the piece an improbable but ultimately indelible part of his creative process in creating “Pacific Rim.”

That’s the funny thing about inspiration: it can come from the most unlikely of sources, even those that can seem far-flung in relation to the project at hand.  With this in mind, here are a few films that found inspiration or pay homage to key visuals, moods or aesthetics derived from the vast world of fine art.


1.     “The Black Paintings” by Francisco Goya / “After Earth” (2013)

Director M. Night Shyamalan mentioned on a recent edition of the Empire Podcast that he drew from the dark palette and hopeless climate of Goya’s “The Black Paintings” when conjuring the bleak atmosphere of the ravaged titular planet of "After Earth."

With their images of cannibalism, death and destruction, Goya’s “Black Paintings” have long been a muse for artwork meant to communicate despair and dread. The series of 14 enigmatic works from the later years of the artist’s life depict scorched landscapes and shadowy, husk-like figures in assorted states of agony, holding viewers in awe of their abject bitterness, terrifying visuals and haunting mood. Considering their origin (the artist painted them on the walls of his Madrid home as he suffered and eventually died from an unidentified debilitating illness), it’s no wonder that Goya’s dark and death-obsessed latter day works has been a touching point for generations of doom-inspired artists, heavy metal album art and filmmakers.


2.     “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth / “Days Of Heaven” (1978)

For the romantic drama “Days Of Heaven,” set in the vast, desolate prairie lands of Texas, director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Nestor Almendros drew inspiration from the muted tones and isolated feelings evident in painter Andrew Wyeth’s work. The painting “Christina’s World” in particular, which features a polio-stricken woman helplessly crawling through a seemingly endless green field under a slate-blue sky, directly informs the color choices and textures of the movie’s early 20th century Texas panhandle setting.

Although the film polarized critics upon its release, there was almost unanimous praise for “Days Of Heaven’s” sweeping, rich simplicity of the films imagery.


3.    “New York Movie” by Edward Hopper / “Road To Perdition” (2002)

Replete with shadowy fedora wearing gangsters and art deco flourishes, Sam Mendes’ noir crime film “Road To Perdition” employs a rich 1920s setting that becomes a menagerie of snapshots of a depression-era United States. To capture a detailed yet obscured aesthetic of the time, Mendes found influence in the paintings of Edward Hopper, specifically in paintings like “New York Movie,” which capture the dark, ominous climate he successfully conveyed throughout the film. He didn’t only draw from Hopper’s noir-friendly works. His paintings of lakeside and seaside houses also provided a guide to the serene, hazy look of the film’s final scenes as Michael Sullivan reaches his final destination.


4.    “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967,” by Diane Arbus / “The Shining” (1980)

All that’s needed is a fleeting glimpse at Arbus’ famous photograph featuring the steely stare of two identical twins to register an instant pang of recognition in any horror genre geek. Sure enough, director Stanley Kubrick referenced the image’s creepy, almost supernatural aura when crafting the look of the iconic Grady sisters of “The Shining.” Their summons to playtime (forever, and ever, and ever) haunt big wheel aficionado Danny Torrance throughout the film, with the sisters’ sameness of their pose and identical outfits adding to the menacing undercurrent cribbed directly from Arbus’ photo.


5.    “Ascending and Descending,” by M.C. Escher / “Inception” (2010)

With layers of reality and blurred perceptions both surreal and literal taking center stage in the mind-bending caper “Inception,” it’s no wonder that director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister looked towards surreal artists such as Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher for thematic and visual inspiration for the film. This is most evident in the scene where Arthur (Josh-Gordon Levitt) navigates Ariadne (Ellen Page) through a closed loop of penrose stairs which seem to perpetually ascend. The look of the set is directly inspired by Escher’s own “Ascending and Descending,” a famous illustration that has adorned just as many dorm room walls in poster form as it has art books. The viewable paradox, as well as the secret for communicating such a visual trick, is demonstrated in all of its glory through special effects in a way that could only be realized previously in static mediums.


6.    “House By The Railroad” by Edward Hopper / “Psycho” (1960)

Edward Hopper’s work pops up on this list again due to its enormous influence on Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film “Psycho.” The director personally credited the inspiration for the ominous, towering look of the Bates house to “House By The Railroad,” one of Hopper’s most famous works. His works’ recurring theme of people being trapped by their own design, whether it is through framing his subjects in windows or the recurring imagery of buildings in his paintings, completely echoes the confined, isolated existence of Norman Bates. Stare at the painting long enough, and you can easily fool yourself into thinking that mother is peering out from one of those top windows right back at the viewer.


7.    “Jutta,” by John Kacere / “Lost In Translation” (2003)

As a film that places paramount importance on its visual elements to communicate a wealth of information, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” eloquently expresses the undercurrent of sexual tension of its main characters, as well as the bustling yet personally isolated setting they exist in. An early example of a visual cue Coppola utilizes to acquaint the audience with the sultry character Charlotte is a dead-on shot of Scarlett Johansson’s rear as she idly relaxes alone in her hotel room. This shot is cribbed directly from John Kacere’s 1973 painting “Jutta,” in which a similarly scantily-clad derriere is posed in the same fashion.

As if to cast any doubt aside as to the inspiration for the butt-first angle, the painting itself makes an appearance on the wall in Charlotte’s hotel room, cementing the fetishized visual as a strong communicator of Charlotte’s allure, as well as her loneliness.


8.     “The Country Dance” by William Hogarth / “Barry Lyndon” (1975)

After abandoning the extended research and development of a planned biopic of Napoleon, director Stanley Kubrick ultimately elected to use his research on that time period to tackle an adaptation of the book “Barry Lyndon.” To convey the elegant candlelit interiors of the period, he was determined not to repeat the artificial light utilized for costume dramas in the past, opting instead to use period paintings of the time such as William Hogarth’s 1745 painting “The Country Dance” as source material for the look and lighting of his scenes.

In typical obsessive Kubrick fashion, he went to great lengths in order to achieve his goal of lighting some interior scenes only by candlelight. He experimented with different film stock and lens combinations until arriving at a successful mix that included a lens developed for NASA for use during the moon landing. The resulting flickering glow, evidenced throughout Hogarth’s work, is represented throughout “Barry Lyndon,” lending a well-deserved feeling of authenticity to the films proceedings.


9.    “The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough / “Django Unchained” (2012)

While doing press for “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino often expounded on the enormous influence the spaghetti westerns of yesteryear had on his own revenge western. However, he remained mum on a different influence on a particular costume choice that the newly freed slave Django chooses at the beginning of his travels. While riding on horseback to a plantation run by the villainous “Big Daddy” (Don Johnson), Django is revealed to be sporting a bright blue outfit that would seem more at home in 18th century Britain in the antebellum South. Although the outfit is played for humor in the film, it is very closely reminiscent of the subject’s attire in Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait “The Blue Boy.”

Why Tarantino would cite such an unusual reference in his film outside of aesthetic purposes remains a subject for debate. Some fans posit the theory that the painting’s influence on well-regarded German film producer Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s debut film “Der Knabe in Blau” may provide a deeper clue to the normally outspoken director’s true motives.


10. “The Tower Of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder / “Metropolis” (1927)

The overarching influence of Fritz Lang’s iconic dystopian silent film “Metropolis” has been long established through many decades of film history, with itself being an influence on countless movies, especially those within the science fiction genre. With filmmaking in its infancy, Lang and his contemporaries found their inspirations through other media entirely, stacking the building blocks for modern cinema as we know it throughout the process.

Using biblical references as fodder for many of the set pieces, Lang looked to Bruegel’s “The Tower Of Babel,” with its impressive, sky-dominating height and breadth providing the perfect attributes for his own film setting of the same name. The movie’s own Tower of Babel updated the buildings facade with a few nods to the Art Deco aesthetic that pervades the film, but aside from those changes, the building’s form and visual dominance in the frame follows Bruegel’s painting from centuries earlier to a T.

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