Friday, 18 April 2014

Colour and film, a very brief history

In 1935 the first film photographed entirely in three-strip Technicolor was released, Becky Sharp, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and photographed by Ray Rennahan, a cinematographer who was closely involved with the development of colour cinema. The result is spectacular, as is Miriam Hopkins in the title role.

It became the big breakthrough for colour cinema and it is sometimes referred to as the first colour film, but that is of course not true at all. Colour was there from the very beginning, even though it was often added to the film strip after the film had been shot, by tinting or toning or hand colouring. This is what it could look like in 1896, with the film strip painted by hand.

And here is another French film, but a feature film this time, from 1903, La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ (Lucien Nonguet, Ferdinand Zecca).

In view of the fact that most of what is called "black and white" films was nothing of the sort the terminology we use is unsatisfactory. We should at the very least have three different categories, black and white films, such as The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949), films that are coloured, such as the ones seen above, and those that are in colour, such as those below. And films in colour, i.e. were actually shot in colour, came about already around 1909. One of the first companies that produced actual colour films was the British Kinemacolor, established in Brighton in 1906, and they made some films, and there was yet another process in Britain at that time, Biocolour. But it was the American colour process Technicolor that was to become almost synonymous with colour cinema. The first Technicolor film was the short The Gulf Between (1917), and the first feature film in two-strip Technicolor was The Toll of the Sea (Chester M. Franklin, 1922), set in China and with Anna May Wong in her first role. (The same year The Glorious Adventure (J. Stuart Blackton) was also released, a feature completely shot on Prizmacolor.)

It is probably no accident that The Toll of the Sea is set in China; colour was often associated with the exotic, with the "Orient", not least in British cinema during the time of the British Empire. Here is for example A Road in India (1938), shot by Jack Cardiff, one of the greatest cinematographer of all time, particularly famous for his work with Powell & Pressburger.

But to get back to 1922, the two strip system was not perfect and it was not possible to film indoors, because so much light was needed, so the system was still a work in progress. Process 3 was better and in the late 1920 and early 1930s a number of colour films were made. And then came Becky Sharp, in Process 4. It was only filmed indoors though. The following year Henry Hathaway made Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) outdoors and it worked well, and by now the studios were convinced that this was something that could work. The exceptional successes of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, William Keighley 1938), The Wizard of Oz (King Vidor, Victor Fleming, 1939) and Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, Sam Wood, George Cukor and others, 1939) made clear that it did work. On these, a many others, Natalie Kalmus was the Technicolor supervisor, and as such a very influential person in the development of the look of these films. She was also a person who frequently got in to fights with directors, such as Hathaway and Vincente Minnelli, who wanted to do more with the colours, experiment and be bold, than Kalmus felt was appropriate. But whereas many American feature films were made in full colour now, and some in Britain, in many countries is was not until after the Second World War that colour broke through. For example Sweden's first colour feature was Klockorna i Gamla sta'n (Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius 1946), shot on Cinecolor by the American cinematographer James B. Shackelford, and in Japan Carmen Comes Home (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951), shot on Fujicolor, was the first.

Carmen Comes Home

Back then whether a film was shot in colour or black and white did not necessarily mean anything, both ways were equally natural, and it remained so at least until the 1960s. But then it began to change. Since colour had taken over so completely from the late 1960s the use of black and white began to mean something; a signal of some kind, maybe "realism", "documentary" or "art", perhaps even a statement.

And a few films mix colour and black and white, as when Powell & Pressburger, and Cardiff, made A Matter of Life and Death (1946) in both colour, for the parts on earth, and black and white, for the parts in heaven. Considering its effectiveness it is perhaps surprising that it is not used more often, but it happens from time to time, like If (Lindsay Anderson 1968), or Pleasantville (Gary Ross 1998). Walter Hill has done so in a couple of films too.

The above was only a brief historical sketch, and there is a lot more to be said. There are also many theoretical issues involved with film and colour and there will be a post on that further on.

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