Lisa Godwin, the Prop Artist Behind the Paintings in ‘Big Eyes’

Ever wonder who creates the paintings that are used as props in films? In the case of Big Eyes, it is Lisa Godwin. Lisa’s work was instrumental in the creation of a film that is all about art—Margaret Keane’s “Big Eye” paintings, to be exact. 

Lisa Godwin is an artist and prop maker who has been working in the film industry for over twenty years. She has worked on props for several incredibly popular tv series and films, including Once Upon A Time, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Most recently, her work was featured in two of the most talked-about series of the year, Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Avatar: The Last Airbender

Given her CV, Lisa clearly has a strong and specific sense of the worlds she is building with her props, as well as an eye for the mysterious and otherworldly. That’s why, when it came to Big Eyes, Lisa was the perfect person to call upon to fill the tall order of recreating Margaret Keane’s paintings. 

Big Eyes tells the true story of American artist Margaret Keane.

Big Eyes tells the true story of American artist Margaret Keane, famous for her distinctive paintings of people (especially children) with large, haunting eyes. The film’s plot focuses on her tumultuous relationship with her husband, Walter Keane, who claimed credit for her work, leading to a legal and emotional battle over artistic authorship and personal identity. 

Margaret’s unique perspective only serves to add value to her art, which is why it is such a tragedy that her husband claimed it as his own. According to FF2 contributor Anna Nappi, “When Margaret was a child growing up in Nashville (TN),  her eardrum was permanently damaged during an operation, leading to partial deafness. In order to better understand the people around her, Margaret learned to watch their eyes. This focus influenced her aesthetic as an artist across the length of her career and is visible in her portraits of women, children and animals.”

Though people did not always respect Margaret’s work, there is no denying that it has been extremely influential in the art world: as FF2 Contributor Amelie Lasker says, “Critics often dismissed the waif paintings as ‘kitsch,’ most sharply in the New York Times critic’s response to Tomorrow Forever, the famous mural of children she made for UNICEF. Yet Margaret’s work has made her one of the most successful living artists in the world starting in the early 1960s.”

When setting out to make Big Eyes, one of the biggest challenges the creators faced was how to faithfully recreate Margaret’s work without copying it exactly.

Leah Gallo discusses this challenge at length in her book Big Eyes: The Film, The Art, about the creation of everything from costumes to props in the film. According to Leah, “If keeping track of hundreds of paintings in a film shot out of chronological order without any pre-laid master plan doesn’t sound difficult enough, they also needed to incorporate the in-progress stages of paintings. To do this they hired artist Lisa Godwin.” Lisa is also quoted in the book, discussing this particular endeavor: “‘Regardless of how many children she actually painted she always did study after study after study of them, and she was very faithful to them. Production needed somebody who could show the transition from her mind and what she was trying to accomplish to the finished pieces.’”

Evidently, Lisa was able to accomplish just that. The works-in-progress she created for Big Eyes are filled with emotion (even at the early stages) and carefully-laid paint strokes and bits of shading, so that you can truly feel the presence of the artist behind them. 

As Leah discusses in Big Eyes: The Film, The Art, the other challenge in creating artwork for Big Eyes was creating pieces that seamlessly fit into the cinematic universe of the film. One of the biggest examples is the fact that Margaret often painted her daughter, Jane. The paintings in the film had to resemble the actress playing Margaret Keane’s daughter, rather than Jane herself. To do this, Lisa had to be able to master Margaret’s style so deeply that she was then able to create works capturing a new subject, works different than any Margaret had ever created herself. 

Mastering Margaret’s style took a lot of work.

Mastering Margaret’s style took a lot of work. As Lisa says in Leah’s book, “[it] took lots of practice, lots of sketching, and lots of painting. The biggest hurdle was getting it, having one of those same moments, only as an echo or a ghost of her.” 

There is so much magic that goes into the making of a movie, and in the case of Big Eyes, a large part of it came from Lisa Godwin. The way that Lisa was able to embody the spirit of Margaret Keane, all the while pouring her own soul into each painting, was just that—magic. 

© Julia Lasker (3/20/24) — Special for FF2 Media

PS from FF2 editor-in-chief Jan Lisa Huttner: Big Eyes was released in 2004, making this Big Eyes‘s 10th anniversary. FF2 Media is extremely proud to announce that Big Eyes is the focal point of our SWAN DAY SWEET SIXTEEN program on March 30th. Based at the SVA Theatre in NYC, the program will be livestreamed and available to all simultaneously as well as afterwards on YouTube. Click here for details on the SVA’s calendar page, and, if you are in Metro NYC, make a reservation here via EVENTBRITE. Our program is free and open to the public, but you must be on the reservation list to enter the SVA Theatre building. 

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Check out Leah Gallo’s book Big Eyes: The Film, The Art here. 

Read Margaret Keane’s SWAN of the Day Post here.

Read more about Margaret Keane here.

Read more about the importance of Big Eyes here.

Learn more about Lisa Godwin here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: In the film BIG EYES (2014), Amy Adams plays painter Margaret Keane. But, of course, Amy Adams is not, herself, a painter. All of the art work “created by Margaret Keane” in BIG EYES was, in fact, specifically created for the film by Prop Artist Lisa Godwin. In this scene, “Margaret” is alone in her studio, surrounded by sketches and paintings-in-progress (with director Tim Burton urging Amy on). Photo Credit: © THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY. Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2JGM44C

Middle Photo: One of the most heartbreaking sequences in BIG EYES (2014) concerns the work Margaret Keane did for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. This photo – by set photographer Leah Gallo – shows Lisa Godwin in the act of producing the sketches for this controversial painting. Copied from Leah Gallo’s book Big Eyes: The Film, The Art.

Bottom Photo: Amy Adams using Lisa Godwin’s work to “create” Margaret Keane’s Tomorrow Forever painting for the Hall of Education at the 1964 World’s Fair. Photo Credit © THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY. Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2JGM471

Poster-sized copies of many of Margaret Keane’s paintings are widely available. Order Tomorrow Forever HERE.

Tags: Amy Adams, Big Eyes, Big Eyes: The Film The Art, female artist, female painter, female prop maker, Leah Gallo, Lisa Godwin, Margaret Keane, prop maker

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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