The artist behind the iconic sunset in Titanic, the magic forest in Harry Potter and the Hoth planet in Star Wars, Steven Sallybanks is happily living and working in Budapest. Commissioned to work on the TV drama series Marco Polo in 2014, the UK backdrop painter is now enjoying his dream life here, working on his next upcoming blockbuster while spending his spare time painting for his own pleasure. Examples of his work are currently on display at an EAT Art exhibition at the Culinary Institute behind the National Museum. Sallybanks talks about the Hungarian film industry, that sunset backdrop and his favourite bars in Budapest.
Steven Sallybanks is alive and well and living in Budapest. His first visit, to work on hit series Marco Polo, was more than enough to convince him to stay. Coming back in 2019 to provide one of his classic backdrops for another TV drama, The North Water, sealed the deal.
After working in top studios around the world, Sallybanks would now never swap Budapest for anything: "I have never felt more at home than in Budapest, so I decided to stay here. It's a wonderful place," he begins. He's even gained residency to live and work here officially.
“I grew up in Borehamwood, right near Elstree Studios. My father was a mechanic, he sometimes fixed the art director’s car, and he used to take me along with him. I was about nine or ten years old. They’d just made the set for the film Where Eagles Dare, a war film starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. It was stunning. From that moment on, that’s what I wanted to do for a living.”
“I went to art college and from 1979 I served an apprenticeship under Ted Michel. Once he stopped working, I stepped in and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve now been in the business for 43 years.”
Painted backdrops are always essential in films. Sometimes CGI tries to steal the show, but in the end, it all comes back to the picture. Hand-created sketches and backdrops will always be part of film-making.
Sometimes last-minute ideas offer the best solution. For instance, Sallybanks created the backing to Harry Potter over one evening with designer, Stuart Craig. They went wandering around Black Park in Buckinghamshire with their special-effect colleagues. Sallybanks took a shot of the trees they had illuminated and he produced the mocks later used in all the Harry Potter movies.
Although Sallybanks loves painting for his own personal drawer, he created many other iconic scenes.
"For Titanic with James Cameron, I lived in Mexico for a year, on the beach in Baja. That was another experience I really enjoyed. Sunset on Titanic was pleasing to create. And it worked really well."
The next time you see Rose and Jack flying on the bow of the Titanic, you know who painted it.
Sallybanks is often inspired by nature. He might take a stroll or sit outside to take in the sunset if he wants to capture it just right. That's how the title of his Budapest exhibition became Sketches From Nature – and their Relation to Painted Film Backdrops. His works are currently on display at the Culinary Institute of Europe, open by appointment. All the works are for sale, including the ones created for EAT Art.
“Budapest was the one city that had eluded me," says Sallybanks. "I’d gone to many places but not Budapest. I was living in Australia at the time, working at Pinewood Studios in Malaysia, when I got the call to work on Marco Polo.”
“I used to spend most of my life on a plane. It seems strange, but after flying round the world so often, it’s actually quite nice not to have to get on a flight. So much of the film industry is here now. I’ve got no inclination to go anywhere else. There are a different set of challenges, of course, like the language.”
The Reading-born painter finds the Hungarian film industry well-developed: “The technicians, the carpenters, the crew, they’re really experienced and do a great job. Word of mouth counts for a lot in this industry, and so word goes round, and another film company chooses Budapest. The infrastructure’s set up for it. There are so many studios here, Korda at Etyek, Astra and they’re building new studios in Fót".
“They also work in a different way here. When a company takes on the work on the set, they provide the whole package. Everywhere else in the world, there are separate contractors for different parts of the set, painters, riggers, carpenters, and so on. The whole job is put out to tender, Hungarian companies give their quote, and that’s it."
"More productions should come to Hungary and more studios should use Budapest as a location. Its diversity can recreate every location in the world. The fact that Dune won an Oscar this year for Best Set Decoration is significant.”
Another great advantage is location: "Right in the centre of Europe, Budapest currently has three major productions going on at the same time and we can even accommodate more. We have more studios than Germany or the Czech Republic. The city also has everything a good film might need, from mountain scenery to plains. Certain parts of it can recreate China while others can be great for medieval Europe."
“When we were in Budapest filming that mini-series North Water, Colin Farrell told me how much he loved working here, the set and the crew made everything so much easier for him. They had transformed a converted old brewery in Budapest into 19th-century Hull."
This 2019 production brought Sallybanks back to Budapest. “I knew I was going to come back. I was asked to work on North Water, and that was it. I packed up in London, sold my flat and came here. I’ve got nothing in England any more."
Being a painter is a God-chosen vocation. Every painter has his own little world where he has his most self-reflexive works, but in today's world, you have to learn more than one trade if you want to earn your living from art.
Sallybanks was born to be a painter, and now his spare time is filled with this most beautiful artistic form of expression.
“Here, I can spend a lot of my time working on my own art and then go off to work at the studio. Of course, my favourite is what I do at my own little studio just for the pleasure of art. When I'm home I have to pick up a brush, that's who I am."
Sallybanks has also found his own circle of friends and fellow travellers: "My favourite places in Budapest? When I first came here to work on the Marco Polo series, I stayed at the Queen’s Court Hotel on Dob utca. I still like the Kisüzem bar on Klauzál tér, and go there quite a lot. Many artists and painters I know gather at the Fekete Kutya round the corner, there’s quite a scene there".
For more details of Steven Sallybanks' work and portfolio, see here.