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Larger Than Life : Ed Strang and his crew of Warner Bros. scenic artists could stop traffic with their giant-size works.

April 23, 1993|RAY BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Bennett is a Van Nuys writer.

Ed Strang likes to paint big.

One of his canvases, a landscape of a cemetery with gray skies and mountains in the background, is 520 feet long by 35 feet high; a cityscape showing Century City viewed from atop the Fox Plaza stretches 370 by 45.

Don't look for his artwork in any gallery, though. Ed Strang paints for the movies.

You'll see the cemetery scene in "Addam's Family Values" in November. And remember in "Die Hard" when Bruce Willis was fighting the bad guys on top of the burning skyscraper and looking down at Century City? Well, he was really on a sound stage on a 12-foot-high mock-up looking out at Ed Strang's 360-degree painting.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Strang runs the Scenic Art Department at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. With his team of 11 other artists, he paints backdrops and fine artwork for motion pictures produced by Warner Bros. and the other major studios.

On screen, their work blends into the mix of production design. Unless it's a picture such as "Toys," where the artwork is everything, Strang says, "If audiences notice what we do then we haven't done it right."

Movie fans driving through Burbank these days, however, can't help noticing Strang's work in a big way. Besides the regular billboard display of current movies on the studio walls, there is an added attraction. At the junction of Pass and Olive avenues at Maple Street, there's a 1,200-foot-long barricade surrounding the construction site of Warner Bros.' new Triangle building.

Completely covering the barricade, Strang and his team have painted a black-and-white mural of sidewalks and bus stops populated with more than 70 life-sized stars from the studio's past, from Marilyn Monroe and James Dean to Groucho Marx and Rin Tin Tin.

"Traffic definitely seems slower and I see people walking around the barricade all the time," says Rob Friedman, Warner Bros. president of worldwide advertising and publicity. "We get calls every day from people wanting to know who's who. You've got to be a pretty good film historian to be able to pick all of them out. I didn't get 100%."

Ed Strang gets calls too. He dug out the stars' poses from old movie books and some of them are represented at a younger age than many of today's fans are familiar with.

"They look different," Strang acknowledges. "A lot of people don't spot the young Lucille Ball sitting with Groucho Marx. And Boris Karloff is better known from when he was much older than we show him."

The studio elected to depict only historical stars on the mural not only to avoid quarrels over which current stars to choose, but also, Friedman says, "because we believe that our future is very much a part of our past, and we're very proud of our past."

Strang designed the mural and his entire team of artists worked on it over a period of two months. The painting was done inside the scenic art department's 3,000-square-foot space. The barricade is made up of 8-foot-by-4-foot panels of paper-coated plywood. The artists used acrylics and finished with a varnish to protect the work from graffiti and ultraviolet light.

Originally, the design included spaces for bus stop shelter poster displays so that Warner Bros. could tout its current releases. According to Friedman, studio chairman Bob Daly looked out his window as the barricade progressed, decided that they distracted from the mural and ordered the displays removed.

"One day they were there," says Strang, "next day they were gone."

That fate is routine for the six 29-foot-by-22-foot posters for current movies that Strang and his artists regularly paint on the outside walls of the studio. Four semi-permanent posters also depict the studio's TV shows.

The current billboards are promoting "Unforgiven," with a huge image of Clint Eastwood; "Boiling Point," with Wesley Snipes; "Dave," with Kevin Klein in front of the White House; "Made in America," with two huge images of Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg; "Point of No Return," with Bridget Fonda, and "This Boy's Life," which has a large image of the boy's face inset with smaller images of Robert DeNiro and Ellen Barkin.

Friedman says that most of the 25 to 30 films the studio puts out each year are featured on the walls. How long each poster stays up varies. "If a film is actively performing and we don't need the space for the next movie, then it can stay up," he says. "Obviously, if it's an Academy Award picture, it stays up as well. It's a juggling match, but we can pretty much accommodate all of them."

Strang painted the poster for Eastwood's Oscar-winning "Unforgiven" three times over the last year.

Like the barricade, the six billboards are made of paper-covered plywood, but while Strang uses water-based acrylic house paint for the mural and movie backdrops, the posters are oil paintings.

Friedman's creative vice presidents Michael Smith and Joel Wayne supervise design of the original movie posters--one-sheets, as they are called--and Strang bases his billboards on the one-sheets.

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