Please access detailed information on over 250 individual film color processes via the classification system on this page, display the Timeline of Historical Film Colors in chronological order, search via the tag cloud at the end of this page or directly on the search page, or see the contributing archives’ collections on the header slides.
This database was created in 2012 and has been developed and curated by Barbara Flueckiger, professor at the Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich to provide comprehensive information about historical film color processes invented since the end of the 19th century including specific still photography color technologies that were their conceptual predecessors.
Timeline of Historical Film Colors was started with Barbara Flueckiger’s research at Harvard University in the framework of her project Film History Re-mastered, funded by Swiss National Science Foundation, 2011-2013.
In 2013 the University of Zurich and the Swiss National Science Foundation awarded additional funding for the elaboration of this web resource. 80 financial contributors sponsored the crowdfunding campaign Database of Historical Film Colors with more than USD 11.100 in 2012. In addition, the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Zurich University of the Arts provided a major contribution to the development of the database. Many further persons and institutions have supported the project, see acknowledgements.
Since February 2016 the database has been redeveloped in the framework of the research project Film Colors. Technologies, Cultures, Institutions funded by a grant from Swiss National Science Foundation. Since 2016, the team of the research project ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors has been collecting and adding written sources. All the members of the two research projects on film colors, both led by Barbara Flueckiger, have been capturing photographs of historical film prints since 2017.
Follow the links “Access detailed information ›” to access the currently available detail pages for individual processes. These pages contain an image gallery, a short description, a bibliography of original papers and secondary sources connected to extended quotes from these sources, downloads of seminal papers and links. We are updating these detail pages on a regular basis.
In June 2015, the European Research Council awarded the prestigious Advanced Grant to Barbara Flueckiger for her new research project FilmColors. Bridging the Gap Between Technology and Aesthetics, see press release of the University of Zurich and short abstract on the university’s research database.
Subscribe to the blog to receive all the news: http://filmcolors.org/ (check out sidebar on individual entries for the “follow” button).
Contributions to the Timeline of Historical Film Colors
“It would not have been possible to collect all the data and the corresponding images without the support from many individuals and institutions.Thank you so much for your contribution, I am very grateful.”
Experts, scholars, institutions | Sponsors, supporters, patrons of the crowdfunding campaign, April 23 to July 21, 2012
Experts, scholars, institutions
Prof. Dr. David Rodowick, Chair, Harvard University, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies
Prof. Dr. Margrit Tröhler, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Jörg Schweinitz, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Christine N. Brinckmann, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
PD Dr. Franziska Heller, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Dr. Claudy Op den Kamp, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Anton Rey, Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Zurich University of the Arts
Dr. Haden Guest, Director, Harvard Film Archive
Liz Coffey, Film Conservator, Harvard Film Archive
Mark Johnson, Loan Officer, Harvard Film Archive
Brittany Gravely, Publicist, Harvard Film Archive
Clayton Scoble, Manager of the Digital Imaging Lab & Photography Studio, Harvard University
Stephen Jennings, Photographer, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library
Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, Senior Curator, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Jared Case, Head of Cataloging and Access, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Nancy Kauffman, Archivist – Stills, Posters and Paper Collections, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Deborah Stoiber, Collection Manager, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Barbara Puorro Galasso, Photographer, George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film
Daniela Currò, Preservation Officer, George Eastman House, Motion Picture Department
James Layton, Manager, Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art
Mike Pogorzelski, Archive Director, Academy Film Archive
Josef Lindner, Preservation Officer, Academy Film Archive
Cassie Blake, Public Access Coordinator, Academy Film Archive
Melissa Levesque, Nitrate Curator, Academy Film Archive
Prof. Dr. Giovanna Fossati, Head Curator, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam, and Professor at the University of Amsterdam
Annike Kross, Film Restorer, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, Curator Silent Film, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Catherine Cormon, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Anke Wilkening, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, Wiesbaden, Germany
Marianna De Sanctis, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna
Paola Ferrari, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna
Gert and Ingrid Koshofer, Gert Koshofer Collection, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany
Memoriav, Verein zur Erhaltung des audiovisuellen Kulturgutes der Schweiz
BSc Gaudenz Halter, Software Development Color Film Analyses, video annotation und crowdsourcing platform VIAN, in collaboration with Visualization and MultiMedia Lab of Prof. Dr. Renato Pajarola, University of Zurich, (Enrique G. Paredes, PhD; Rafael Ballester-Ripoll, PhD) since 07.2017
BSc Noyan Evirgen, Software Development, in collaboration with Visualization and MultiMedia Lab von Prof. Dr. Renato Pajarola, Universität Zürich (Enrique G. Paredes, PhD; Rafael Ballester-Ripoll, PhD), 03.2017–01.2018
Assistants Film Analyses:
BA Manuel Joller, BA Ursina Früh, BA/MA Valentina Romero
The development of the project started in fall 2011 with stage 1. Each stage necessitated a different financing scheme. We are now in stage 3 and are looking for additional funding by private sponsors. Please use the Stripe interface to pay conveniently online or transfer your financial contribution directly to
Account IBAN CH2509000000604877146
Account holder: Barbara Flueckiger, CH-8005 Zurich, Switzerland
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Bank: PostFinance AG, Mingerstrasse 20, CH-3030 Bern, Switzerland
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Read more about the financial background of the project on filmcolors.org.
The author has exercised the greatest care in seeking all necessary permissions to publish the material on this website. Please contact the author immediately and directly should anything infringe a copyright nonetheless.
Virages sur mordançage, Rouge-Orangé (red-orange mordant toning) backlight, Swiss collector’s copy. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Rund um die Welt in 2 Stunden (na). Credit: Deutsches Filminstitut DIF. Photographs of the tinted and stencil colored nitrate film by Barbara Flueckiger.
Edge mark: Pathé (1911 onward), thin italic letters, on one edge, PATHE FRERES 14 RUE FAVART PARIS and on the other, EXHIBITION INTERDITE EN FRANCE EN SUISSE EN BELGIQUE ET EN ITALIE (partially visible). Cf. Ill.PM.6: Brown, Harold (1990): Physical Characteristics of Early Films as Aids to Identification. Brussels: FIAF, on p. 9.
View Quote on Page: Edge Codes and Identification
“C’est ainsi que Mizoguchi tourna ses deux seuls films en couleurs en 1955 (il mourut en 1956), l’un pour des raisons de coproduction avec Hong Kong (L’Impératrice Yang Kwei Fei, photographié en Eastmancolor par Kohei Sugiyama, et qui est considéré au Japon comme une estampe sans intérêt alors que la critique française le plaça au rang des autres chefs-d’œuvre de l’auteur), et l’autre parce qu’il était un épisode d’une trilogie historique planifiée par la Daiei, Le Héros sacrilège (Shin Heike monogatari)1. Aucun des deux ne lui parut satisfaisant en tant qu’expérience en couleurs, même si Kazuo Miyagawa réussit à conférer une splendeur esthétique certaine à plusieurs scènes du Héros sacrilège, comme l’ouverture ou la traversée de la forêt par les moines soldats armés de flambeaux: “Le Héros sacrilège était le premier film en couleurs que Mizoguchi et moi faisions ensemble, et pour moi, c’était même mon premier film en couleurs en tant que chef opérateur (…). Au tournage, Mizoguchi se servait de la couleur comme élément de mise en scène. Par exemple Kiyomori, avant de partir au combat, est très en colère: à ce moment, la porte derrière lui est d’un rouge féroce. Les grands bûchers aussi sont d’un rouge intense. Le rouge était la couleur de la colère. Le bleu [celle] de la tristesse, ainsi que le noir.2”
1 Les deux autres parties, également en couleurs, adaptées du roman d’Eiji Yoshikawa, Heike monogatari, étaient: Trois Femmes autour de Yoshinaka (T. Kinugasa, 1956), et Shizuka et Yoshitsune (Koji Shima, 1956).
2 Extrait de l’entretien avec Y. Yoda et K. Miyagawa paru dans les Cahiers du cinéma n° 158 (1964), et repris dans le numéro spécial, “Le dossier Mizoguchi” (hors-série).”
(Tessier, Max (1992): De la couleur dans les films japonais. In: Yann Tobin: Dossier. La couleur du cinéma. In: Positif, 375–376, May, pp. 121–158, on pp. 152–153.) (in French)
The Phantom of the Opera (USA 1925, Rupert Julian)
“Early Technicolor was similarly imbricated with a hybrid colour aesthetic that is reminiscent of prior intermedial relations. Its persistence was influenced by the race for perfection in photographic colour systems that sought to complement or even displace established applied conventions. The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian,
Universal, 1925/1929–30 sound reissue), for example, combined various colour looks and techniques, including tinting throughout most of the film, toning, Handschiegl, and Technicolor’s first subtractive two-colour process, Technicolor No. 2, used for the ‘Bal Masqué de l’Opera’ sequence and other scenes that are now lost. The ‘Bal Masqué’ sequence was originally planned in Prizma Color, but Technicolor was able to win over Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, for the final contract (Riley 1999, 56). Several versions of the film have been preserved, including one with sound, and the most complete version is Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s 1996 reconstruction through Photoplay Productions. Brownlow and Gill drew primarily from a George Eastman House preserved, safety copy of a 1930 international release print; however, for the Technicolor sequences, they used a separate nitrate copy discovered by David Shepard of the film from the 1929–30 re-release, and this material – though shot in Technicolor No. 2 – was reprinted in 1929 through Technicolor’s imbibition, dye transfer process (Technicolor No. 3).3
The surviving Technicolor footage is stylistically effective in the scene, and occurs approximately 49 minutes into the film and is broken into two sequences, the first of which lasts for four minutes and the second for one minute, divided by a four-and-a-half minute sequence on top of the opera house. (The second Technicolor sequence in fact does not survive on film, and Brownlow and Gill colourized the footage.) Especially as the Technicolor scenes are preceded entirely by tinted scenes, a more intricate colour look is immediately signalled at the beginning of the scene; first through the Technicolor title card announcing the Bal Masqué in twocolour flourishes of reds and greens, and then by the ensuing shots of the grand staircase of the theatre’s foyer. Beginning with a dramatic extreme long shot that tilts down to showcase the grandeur of the staircase, the scene is populated with rushing, masked figures dressed in red-, black-, and green-accented costumes. Closer shots allow fuller appreciation of the costumes as the crowd – caught in a frenzy of excitement as the disguised try to identify each other – appears to be waiting for something momentous to happen. The title: ‘Into the midst of the revelry, strode a spectral figure, robed in red’ cues the audience for what is to come. The people make way as a figure – the Phantom, unknown to the revellers – descends the stairs and a medium cut-in permits full sight of his red costume, black- and red-plumed hat and skeletal masked face. To complete this terrifying appearance, the contrasting green cane held by the Phantom is topped by a small skull being pecked by a bird’s beak. The contrast between the grey death’s-head visage and bright red costume is striking, revealing Technicolor in a richly layered image that intermedially connotes opera, theatre, melodrama, and horror all at once.
The Photoplay reconstruction also illustrates tinting effects for particularly atmospheric scenes such as the Phantom’s shadow in purple (keyed throughout the film to backstage and underground scenes) as he manipulates the chandelier high above the stage as it shakes, falls, and sabotages the performance 25 minutes into the film. Later, this version of the film displays shots of the Phantom in his red cloak on the roof of the opera house that were achieved originally by the Handschiegl colour process, though Brownlow and Gill have again reconstructed this footage through colourization. These shots are in the middle of the Technicolor sequences, and this time the Phantom’s deep red cloak is foregrounded against a blue-toned background for maximum impact, drawing attention to the depth of colour achievable with the particular process. Max Handschiegl was a craftsman from St. Louis who specialized in lithography and photoengraving, and he collaborated with Cecil B. DeMille, Alvin Wyckoff, and Loren Taylor to develop the colouring process (Yumibe 2012, 133–135). Handschiegl was used in a number of motion pictures between 1916 and 1927, by itself or often intermixed with Technicolor and other colouring processes. The process was complex and labour intensive, functioning like the chromolithographic process. Dye-transfer printing matrices were prepared for each colour to be applied in a sequence. The matrices were developed from duplicate negatives, and each section to be coloured was chemically treated to absorb dye. Once prepared, the matrix would then be pressed in registered alignment against the final, positive print of the film to transfer the dye to the print. (Technicolor would later develop a similar method of dye transfer known as imbibition printing for its Nos. 3 and 4 processes.) Other high-profile films that used Handschiegl included Joan, the Woman (the first film showcasing the process, in 1916), Greed (shots of golden props, such as a tooth and coins, 1924), Volcano (1926), The Merry Widow (1925), The Big Parade (1925), and The Lights of Broadway (1925).
The prevalence of colour hybridity meant that The Phantom of the Opera‘s layered, almost painterly, look invited audiences to appreciate its textures and distinguish new developments in colour technology. Introducing Technicolor and Handschiegl to punctuate particularly dramatic moments had a double impact, both as announcing key narrative moments and as impressive colour spectacles with broad associations. The concentration of red invited the audience to relish chromatic density and, particularly with Handschiegl, a deeply textured saturation. The film inspired the US Textile Color Card Association to develop ‘Phantom Red’, a new shade that adorned numerous products including shoes, lipstick, hags, hats, slippers and gowns. The trade press reported on how ‘Phantom Red Becomes the Rage’ as commercial tie-ins accompanied the film’s exhibition in the USA and beyond (Universal Weekly 1925). In this way, the film image was far from being closed off from other medial influences. As the Handschiegl shots attracted the eye to experience textures and a tactile sense of colour, at the same time the effect was redolent of other media, drawing the viewer both inwards and outwards at the same time as colour hybridity invited comparison with paintings, with clothing, with stage sets and opera.
Just as The Phantom of the Opera‘s most dynamic colour scenes occur in lushly decorated interior and exterior scenes, a number of other films from the 1920s continue this trend, connecting colour cinema intermedially to contemporary developments in architecture, interior design, and modernism.
3 We are grateful to James Layton of George Eastman House for further details on the colour sequences in the film. Also see Tsiantis 2004.”
(Street, Sarah; Yumibe, Joshua (2013): The Temporalities of Intermediality. Colour in Cinema and the Arts of the 1920s. In: Early Popular Visual Culture, 11,2, May, pp. 140–157, on pp. 149–151.)
La Vestale (FRA 1908, Albert Capellani). Stock date 1910. Credit: Courtesy of BFI National Archive. Photograph of the nitrate print by Barbara Flueckiger.
Edge mark: Pathé (1909 onward), on one edge, PATHÉ FRÈRES 14 RUE FAVART PARIS and on the other, EXHIBITION INTERDITE EN FRANCE EN SUISSE ET EN BELGIQUE (partially visible). Cf. Ill.PM.5: Brown, Harold (1990): Physical Characteristics of Early Films as Aids to Identification. Brussels: FIAF, on p. 9.
View Quote on Page: Edge Codes and Identification
“The history of Gone with the Wind (1939) strikingly illustrates how precarious the color image can be and how changing aesthetics can influence a film’s look. A victim of its own success, Gone with the Wind underwent a long line of reissues and rereleases, all of which sought to “improve” on earlier versions.20 For this book I studied two noticeably different versions of the film: MGM’s 1954 reissue, approved by producer David O. Selznick, and Warner Bros.’ Technicolor restoration, released in 1998. Neither version can claim to recreate the colors of the 1939 original; each is a creature of its aesthetic context.
Richard May, Warner Bros.’ vice president of film preservation, explained that each reissue attempted to increase the saturation and vividness of the production’s color in order to keep up with audience expectations. If a contemporary audience were presented with a print that duplicated the 1939 version, he speculated, “I think they would see that absence of color and ask what we did to the picture.”21 For the 1954 version, in keeping with the then-current standards of spectacle, MGM released the film in “widescreen.” Several key compositions were cropped, and projectionists masked the film so that it appeared to have a CinemaScope aspect ratio. The handling of color, though, in this version is not without merit. Robert Harris, the film restoration expert renowned for his work in color and large-format films (most famously Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo) calls the 1954 version “the Rosetta stone for Gone with the Wind.”22 This version was processed to emphasize the design’s rich, warm reds and browns. Scarlett’s prayer dress in the opening scene, for instance, is reproduced in a sumptuous pearl white, very warm, with a soft near-yellowish cast. One effect of this printing choice is to accentuate the warm glow of simulated candlelight that Selznick had worked so hard to achieve in 1939. The fact that Selznick also supervised and approved this version of the film lends authority to its look.
The 1998 Technicolor reissue renders colors quite differently. This version was derived from a 1989 Eastmancolor restoration. May explained that the 1989 restoration team timed the new print to achieve good flesh tones and neutrals, and that the colors probably approximated those of the original, scenes as staged before the Technicolor camera. Scarlett’s dress, in that version, is a crisp, clean white. The aim, May suggests, was to create a print that would meet contemporary standards of color rendition and quality. The look clearly departed from the 1954 version and almost certainly was different from the 1939 original. In all, the colors are cooler and clearer, and perhaps they are truer to the original staged scenes. This technical polish raises questions, however, if we assume that GWTW was designed with the capacities of the 1939 Technicolor process in mind and that Selznick may have viewed that process as a creative tool to help stylize the film.
The 1989 restoration was fairly well received, but the 1998 Technicolor release met with harsh criticism. The film was meant to be a showcase for Technicolor’s reintroduction of dye-transfer printing, a system that hadn’t been used in the United States since the 1970s. Unfortunately, Technicolor distributed a set of reels with registration defects (errors in keeping the yellow, cyan, and magenta components properly lined up), and had to recall them.23 Technicolor’s president, Ron Jarvis, pointed the finger at Warner Bros. for relying on the 1989 restoration as a source, which “contaminates the color because you’re now introducing another process: Eastmancolor.”24 Even the areas in which this version is said to excel can cast doubt on its accuracy. Jarvis touted Technicolor’s new work by claiming that “the colors, the contrast, the blacks, the shadow detail, the lack of grain are big improvements over the ’39 original.”25 Improvements, of course, amount to imposing current standards on the historical artifact, and they chip away at aesthetic credibility.
If technology stands between the historian and the film’s original look, so too does culture. Hardly anyone was satisfied with the 1998 version, because it departed from expectations. Some critics complained that the colors were too intense, others that they were too muted.26 The reactions said more about the variety of preconceptions of how GWTW should look than they did about the film itself. These preconceptions, though, were rarely grounded in history or in an understanding of color’s status in a 1930s motion picture. Rather, critics measured the film against its reputation as a “Technicolor classic” and against their own previous viewing experience, likely limited to videos and prints from the 1970s and 1980s. Technicolor, for contemporary viewers, has come to mean bright, saturated, garish color. A historical reconstruction of the aesthetic context demonstrates that nothing could have been further from the truth during the 1930s.
The case of GWTW magnifies a historiographic issue that affects all finegrained analyses of color film style.27 This book is based on an examination of the best available materials, including nitrate studio prints. Even so, cultural, economic, and technological pressures continue to shape our contact with color. […]
Video, however, deserves special consideration here, since it is the viewing medium available to most readers. Indeed, standard-definition DVD and videotape are the primary media through which these works are experienced today. Unfortunately, standard video is a notoriously unreliable record, so it is important to understand exactly how its images differ from those of film. The relative poverty of image information in an NTSC (National Television System Committee) video image, as compared with that in a 35 mm print, has been widely recognized. One recent estimate suggests that 35 mm positive film presents color resolution equivalent to over 2,000 video scan lines, whereas domestic video can offer a maximum of 525 lines.28
Video introduces particular problems for color. Color film is a subtractive medium; that is, color is generated by placing a filter (the film) before a white light source. Video, by contrast, uses additive color. In a typical CRT (cathode-ray tube) television set, three electron guns scan discrete red, blue, and green phosphors that line the inside of a video monitor’s screen. […] While televisions can yield highly saturated primaries by activating one set of phosphors, they have trouble rendering very saturated secondary colors like cyan, magenta, and, especially, yellow.30 Put simply, film reproduces a far greater range of colors than video.31 Video also has trouble producing hard separation between colors. Saturated reds, especially, can appear to bleed over the boundaries of the object that carries them. Similarly, the boundaries between adjacent hues may seem to vibrate. My experience has been that video versions of Technicolor films tend to average colors, flattening out the finer distinctions of value and saturation in closely related hues.
The 1930s were a watershed because color was so openly and thoroughly debated. The industry’s trade and technical presses provided a forum for color consultants, directors, cinematographers, and critics to discuss the proper and effective uses of color in film. This discourse on aesthetics, shaped by technological and industrial concerns, provides the foundation for a historically sensitive analysis. We can anchor our viewing in the terms by which the filmmakers themselves understood their engagement with color. Aesthetic discourse provides a map to help navigate the uncertainties of color reproduction.
20 For a detailed criticism of various attempts to restore GWTW, see Craig S. Cummings, “Tampering with Tara: The Desecration of Gone with the Wind,” Big Reel (January 1999), 122.
21 Richard May, interview with the author, Los Angeles, Calif., July 18, 1996; also quoted in Bill Desowitz, “GWTW: Is Brighter Better?” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1998.
22 Robert A. Harris, interview with the author, Bedford Hills, N.Y., March 24, 2004.
23 Desowitz, “Frankly, My Dear, You’re a Bit Blurry,” Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1998.
26 Desowitz, “Is Brighter Better?”; Cummings, “Tampering with Tara,” 122; Glenn Lovell, “Frankly, My Dear, This Is No Improvement,” Variety, June 22-28, 1998, 51.
27 In ascertaining a general sense of Technicolor design, I have been aided by reference to the Tom Tarr collection of original 35 mm Technicolor frames held by the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Los Angeles). This extensive collection consists of slide-mounted frames that Technicolor maintained for reference purposes. The frames were especially useful in providing background information about films that have not survived.
28 David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 30–31. Other estimates suggest the difference is even greater. Mathias and Patterson propose that color negative film (as opposed to the positive print referred to by Bordwell and Thompson) would have the equivalent of 3,048 scan lines (Harry Mathias and Richard Patterson, Electronic Cinematography [Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1985], 57).
30 This description assumes that red, blue, and green function as primaries in the video system. As we will see, these are not the same as the “painter’s” or pigment primaries used in basic color theory.
31 Zelanski and Fisher offer a CIE (Commission Internationale d’Éclairage, or International Commission on Illumination) chromaticity diagram that compares the chromatic ranges of film and video. Whereas video can actually achieve more saturated blue than film, and near identical saturation in red, green falls far short. The greatest divergence between the two appears in the ranges of cyan, yellow, and magenta (Color, 80–81).”
(Higgins, Scott (2007): Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow. Color Design in the 1930s. Austin: University of Texas Press, on pp. 9–13.)
As can be seen in this photo only every second frame is stencil colored, due to the large stenciling area. Rund um die Welt in 2 Stunden (na). Credit: Deutsches Filminstitut DIF. iPhone photo by Barbara Flueckiger.
„Auf Jodsilber getonte Positive, Agfa-Rot für Virage“ (toning on silver iodide, Agfa red for tinting), toplight and backlight. Source: (ca. 1925): Agfa Kine-Handbuch. Berlin: Actien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation. View Quote
Rouge, red tinting. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. View Quote
“Just as Hitchcock’s visual expressionism in his black-and-white Hollywood films supervenes on the conventions of classical cinema with regard to the representation of space and the placement of character within it, so to, Hitchcock’s expressive and symbolic deployment of color is wholly congruent with the constraints of photographic realism. Thus the set of Rear Window conveys a plausible sense of the rear of a block of redbrick Greenwich Village apartments whose inhabitants can be glimpsed through white-framed windows. At the same time, this realistic set doubles as a quasi-surreal world where men entertain and act on desires to murder their wives and where the red brick evokes against the white window frames at once danger and desire.
Earth tones in Hitchcock’s films signify both redemptive femininity and redemptive nature that provides safe haven and emotional sustenance. […] When Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) transforms herself into the helper of L. B. Jeffries (James Stewart) in Rear Window and retrieves the wedding ring from Lars Thorwald’s apartment, she combines female agency with a reassuring image of redemptive femininity embodied in a “new look” dress of autumnal floral design on a white background. […]
Hot colors: the warning series
The “warning series” consists of bright, saturated, and solid yellow, orange, and red either individually or in sequence or combined in the same image to indicate progressively greater degrees of danger. Often Hitchcock’s use of these colors, especially red, is highlighted in the image via a contrast with white and sometimes blue. By using hot colors to convey caution or danger, Hitchcock is obviously drawing upon deeply embedded cultural associations that draw on the relationship between red and blood and yellow and red and fire. The basic significance of this color patterning is to create warning or danger posed within the world of the film to the central protagonist, and its use in this respect is a ubiquitous feature of Hitchcock’s color design. […]
The colors of the warning series may pervade the image, but there is also a very specific way in which Hitchcock incorporates these colors into his overall visual design. Slavoj Žižek has drawn attention to an aspect of Hitchcock’s style, first identified by Pascal Bonitzer, in which an object or detail in the mise-en-scène serves as what Žižek, after Lacan, calls a stain in the visual field that serves to reveal the spectator’s presuppositions about the world that is presented in the visual field as an illusion (Žižek 1991: 88–106). A signal illustration of the use of color to register the Hitchcockian blot takes place in Rear Window where Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the suspect in a murder, lights up his cigarette in an otherwise darkened room and thereby reveals to L. B. Jeffries (James Stewart) and Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) and the audience that he is purposely hiding from view. His menacing presence is signaled by the red glow of his cigarette butt in the otherwise empty black “frame” formed by his window.
Žižek, S. (1991) Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.”
(Allen, Richard (2006): Hitchcock’s Color Designs. In: Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price (eds.): Color. The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 131–144, on pp. 132–138.)
Virages sur mordançage, Rouge (red mordant toning). Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
The Thief of Bagdad (GBR 1940, Ludwig Berger; Michael Powell; Tim Whelan). Credit: Academy Film Archive. Photographs of the Technicolor dye-transfer safety print by Michelle Beutler, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.
“For Suspiria our first shot was the only sequence with daylight. Two actors sit on a bench, talking about witchcraft. Then all the externals, and, first and foremost, the beginning of the story. An excellent opportunity in fact to define right from the start the ABC of the film’s colour. As we know, transatlantic flights to Europe arrive in the morning, but Dario, very shrewdly, postponed till evening the arrival of Suzy Bennet, a young American dance student, giving me an extraordinary chance. I immediately decided to make that place the borderline between reality and abstraction. I imagined that the passengers unwittingly had to cross through a violent red light, created by an intended over-exposure, immersing them, together with the young American, in a world of extreme colours and unnaturally – supernaturally – coloured rain, with blinding and mysterious chromatic variables.
I sought to achieve a solid exposure, right in the middle of the sensitometric curve. As a consequence, I had a properly exposed negative, which means a great deal, since in most cases I had made it a rule not to shoot with full aperture. Actually, like most of the league of major photographers, I dislike using out-of-focus.
The technique used on location at Munich airport was to have a lot of sidelights and to colour with gelatine not only our own lights, but also those of the airport itself. I coloured the airport to such an extent that – I was told – on landing one alarmed pilot asked the control tower “What’s happening? Is it a fire? An explosion? We have different codes… Whatever sort of code is this… It’s not in our manuals…”. “Calm down… This is Code Suspiria!” the flight controller is said to have replied. Needless to say, I found this little story highly gratifying!
The first step was to colour the great indicator board for departures and arrivals. An image of an affligeant banality, as the French say, which can’t be more neutral, so I decided to make it abstract and colour it, just as I did immediately afterwards with the airport exit and the passengers, with a flood of red. Why colour this banal indicator board? Why a red light, multiple and over-exposed, unreal? Because I thought that not a single shot should be without the mark of that witch Suspiria. In the case of the indicator board, I used an oblique red light and, for contrast, a bluish one. Furthermore, the airport had a lot of ordinary neon lights and we couldn’t switch them on and off entirely. I had to compromise by entering the airport just a maximum of 50 metres. On this side of that line however, Munich’s airport became the airport of Suspiria.
In this sequence what stands out is the use of the wide-angle lens and, obviously, the lighting of the rain and the presence of coloured lightning flashes
We made selective use of lenses, with a preference for dollies rather than zooms. I also amused myself with the rain, which is always difficult to film. Once we had decided that our rain was going to be coloured, I found myself free from the obligations of realism! There’s one shot that’s particularly successful, the one in which Suzy comes out of the airport, amidst wind, lightning and rain providing a not particularly auspicious welcome! This scene gives us the first flashes of lightning, which then reappear at the end of the film, in an orgy of colours. In cinema a flash of lightning is by convention white, just as moonlight must be blue. In actual fact, the reflected light of the moon is grey and not blue, and the lightning flash has a colour that varies while it lasts. On one occasion, for a French film, I experimented with frame-by-frame, at night, for several hours, instead of going to bed, and in the end I realised that the night lighted by the moon is essentially grey. A beautiful grey, extraordinary. In cinematographic convention, however, it remains blue.
The close-up of Suzy inside the taxi was shot later, at the studio. The complexity of this frame is easy to imagine, with the richness of colours that outline the actress’s face truly beyond any possible realism
The close-up inside the taxi was really too complicated to do in real life as regards the lights I wanted to use. After rapid consultation with Dario it was decided to shoot it later at the studios in Rome. Once there, I constructed drums of plywood, with a radius of three metres each and a height of one metre and a half, with a fixed white light inside. I placed them one on one side and the other on the other side of the car, and made slots in them. In each slot, I fixed an intensely-coloured gelatine, using different colours. These two cylinders turned and, as they turned, the light changed colour, filtered by the different gelatines. The red gelatine produced a red light on Suzy’s face, the blue gelatine a blue light, and so on. The light changed at random. We added the rain and made the car shake slightly to suggest it was moving. Of all my films, this is the least conventional lighting ever achieved for a close-up. We were greatly helped by the look of fascination in the actress’s eyes, very large eyes everlastingly amazed. Jessica Harper’s skin was very clear and the light reacted very well on it. Sometimes a face rejects a certain colour. Jessica’s face was always ready for them all.
These images of Suzy’s face in the taxi, owing to their beauty and their significance in the film, have become key iconic images in any reading of Suspiria
If I’m allowed to mention a name compared to which I’m merely a tiny grain of sand, Vincent Van Gogh used to say, “Je me suis foutu carrément de la vérité de la couleur” (“I never gave a damn about the truth of colour!“). I wanted simply to play with lights on that innocent face, without any realistic obligations.
It is raining and the rain is red like blood. One begins to perceive danger looming.
It’s the first symbolic frame in Suspiria. When you see the coloured rain, especially the first blood-red downpour, you understand that we’re in another world, far from so-called reality.
How did you shoot the rest of the sequence?
We started with a camera car, followed by a tank truck that shot rain over the taxi. Along the route I had prepared coloured lights, so that the rain appeared red and green. There are colour effects even in the wood, aimed at making the frames more interesting, conferring a sense of anxiety and mystery, until we reach the school’s red façade, the red building that becomes the protagonist of the film.
In the first overview of the school entrance from inside, intentionally without shadows, I tried to create depth, enhancing in particular the geometric wedge-shape that almost weaves into the door at the centre of the set. This sufficed to give great depth to the sequence. In this room and in that of the predestined girl-victim, I used lights like the future Kinoflo ones, i.e. commercial neons, with the support of some reflected light from above, off-set. In the whole sequence I never once used a directional Fresnel projector. Suspiria is a film of extremes! Either Brutes with a complex system of frames in front of them, or else simple commercial neon tubes. If I had used Fresnel projectors, which produce shadows, I would have introduced a theme of contrast between light and shadow, and would have produced a total clash with the set design, which I would define as “tonal”, flat, clear geometric surfaces. The images of the girl, so luminous, with a very clear dominant, were obtained using neon tubes very close to her face. The electricians, with these lights in hand, moved around the borders of the field in harmony with the camera, perfectly intuiting the limits of the frame. It was a sort of elegant dance with three protagonists. The actress, the camera and the lights!
I then discovered that if the camera moves, the light can also be moved, which provides a certain freedom, especially if you haven’t got a mania for realism, verisimilitude. In each film the rules change, every time the rules negate themselves in order to be reborn. In that sequence, I wanted to give the images an abstract look, because usually the light doesn’t follow the actor, unless the actor is carrying a torch. At the moment when the girl’s face is crushed against the glass, the lights – placed outside and at angles, so as not to reflect in the glass – emphasise the terrible deformation of her face. I never had problems with light sources. The light had to reflect the altered world of Suspiria.
What do you think of the principle that light “acts” according to people’s psyche?
I like the idea of a girl bearing within her some sort of predestination and the colour of her face expressing a premonition of her tragic destiny. In particular, I am thinking of that frame where she comes to the window carrying the table lamp. She’s a predestined victim, so sophisticated and beautiful! I liked that girl very much and I lighted her as though she had a phosphorescent light coming from inside, from her soul. The hand-held neon lights followed her as she followed her destiny. There was no shadow in which she could take refuge. There was only that black hole of the window, so disquieting, so attractive. Her disturbed mind was magnetically attracted by her destiny. The annihilation of female beauty has always poisoned history.
In the sequence of the Red Room used as a dormitory, there is an interesting play of shadow puppets. The space is multiplied by what is behind and in front of the screen, managed from different points of view and characterised by the colour red, which makes this sequence the core of the film. The result is a girl-witch dualism. Can you tell us how you constructed it?
I’ve been fortunate in working with directors with precise views on framing, who liked managing it themselves. I stood beside Dario, I watched, I listened. In Suspiria as in the other two films we made together, it was quite naturally Dario who designed the frames, movements, the position of the actors. I have always found that quite normal. On the other side, there’s freedom in lighting, in the exposure of the negative, in the cinematography of the film, in short. In the dormitory sequence, I had the not-easy task of transforming an enormous room, by means of hanging sheets, into a disquieting world, with monstrous presences and laments. I was on a loose rein. I would light a lamp and Dario knew in what direction I intended to move.
Why does everything go red when the lights are switched off?
Quite simply for variation as compared to the blue nights in the film. ‘Simply’ seemed to be right. There’s a lot that’s instinctive in Suspiria. The idea of the dead white of the half-shadow bothered me, also because it’s very difficult to photograph. White is beautiful if it’s over-exposed, everything in different tones of white, as often so masterfully done by the American photographer Harry Callahan. Usually, on set, to avoid the fear that white may be ‘striking’, white fabrics are soaked in tea. The specialists had already prepared the magic tea potion to attenuate the white of the bed-sheets, but I said, “Don’t use anything… leave the white as it is… I’ll colour it myself… I need maximum transparency“. No one was happy about this decision. In such cases, I withdraw and shut off communications, focusing on the idea of light and colour that’s working in my head. For me, those white sheets were a magnificent screen for projecting shadows and (my) colours. Then it became a single colour, albeit with many variations of intensity: red, again paying tribute to the principle that dullness doesn’t belong to the world of Suspiria. Creating an interesting and blurred backlight was not so difficult. What was very interesting is what Dario added to the sequence with the soundtrack.
The sequence of Sarah’s flight establishes itself as one of the great moments of using colour for emotional and narrative purposes.
It’s one of my favourite sequences. There’s the opening, seen from below, in which Sarah opens a hatch between red walls, with an extraordinary chromatic effect. It opens a ceiling of colour. If I had to do it again, I doubt I’d be able to give that extreme vibration of the two colours spreading over the whole image, modifying the physical margins of the images. I’ve often tried to remove physical borders from colour, the frame that imprisons it. We were photographing a real setting in a natural manner, with its precise angles and three-dimensional forms, but in the picture the angles no longer appear. They become pure chromatic material, pure vibration. This was the colour cinematography I had been dreaming of for years. Ernst Haas, with his extraordinary work on blurs – first with Kodachrome film and then with Ektachrome – had greatly influenced me even then, suggesting to me that the essence of colour is not that of a surface, but of an infinite world to be discovered. In Haas the blur produced a loss of detail. Since then, I have always attempted, within the limits given by the film I was making, and in Suspiria to the highest degree, to push to colourto the utmost as a tendentially blurred element that, rebelling against its preordained confines, expands like oil over actors and set. A colour that in some way becomes a stream of lava, a blurred colour but also extremely incisive. Practically a contradiction, besides being a highly difficult mixture, very seldom experimented with.
The light from the small window in the wall is also very particular
Sarah takes refuge in an attic room, from which she tries to escape by piling up the old trunks to reach the little window. There’s a dominant cut, an absolute key light: blue, cold (a 10KW incandescent Fresnel filtered with heavy blue gelatine), for once at right angles to the wall, and therefore essentially flat, with the beam cut by flags or humps of black plywood creating strips of shadow and light spaces. From the small window comes a warm, reassuring light, whereas the setting dominated by blue anticipates the cold steel of the blade that fatally arrives. Sarah climbs, terrorised, tries to clamber toward this small window. The girl jumps into the next room where terrible coils of steel wire await her, imprisoning her inexorably, torturing her. An image on its own is worth ten treatises on the subject of panic. The idea of this warm light from the little window as a symbol of possible salvation that turns out to be illusory is a perfect example of what Michelangelo Antonioni calls the dramaturgy of colour. Colour as the protagonist of the story.”
(Stagni, Piercesare; Valente, Valentina (2018): On Suspiria and Beyond. A Conversation with Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Artdigiland Edition, on pp. 67–80.)
An American in Paris (USA 1951, Vincente Minnelli)
“An American in Paris was the title of George Gershwin’s famed musical suite written when the late composer returned from a stay in France. It was the decision of the Producer, Arthur Freed, and the director, Vincente Minnelli, to combine this music and the style of famous French painters into a Ballet. The intimate pooling of ideas by these men plus the enthusiasm of choreographer Gene Kelly started the formula of “No Formula” for this seventeen minute number. Supervising Art Director Cedric Gibbons, costume designer, Irene Sharaff, and I set to work to plot the various scenes.
From the Avenue, Gene Kelly danced into the Place de la Concorde, again the inspiration of Dufy. His Caligraphic style was projected into a third dimension by the use of third dimensional forms such as the obelisk and the fountain. The crew of draughtsmen and scenic men used to execute this deserve great credit. George Gibson with the latter, accomplished some very wonderful pieces of art. Henry Greutert and his modelers and sculptors did a fountain for us of which Mr. Dufy would be proud. The technique of the various painters had to be studied to the nth degree from the brush strokes on Renoir’s “Pont Neuf” – to the palette knife technique of Utrillo. Color wise the artists themselves dictated the palette. Dufy, red, white and blue or Van Gogh with his yellow and white as used on his Sunflowers.
From the Place de la Concorde, there was a dissolve to a flower market on the Left Bank done in the style of Renoir. “The Pont Neuf” inspired this setting using the colors from that painting to set the artificial and real flowers on the set. From this we went to the streets of Montmartre as only Utrillo has painted them. The damp, moldy walls, the dirty alley, rows of disreputable houses, his version of romantic Montmartre.
The “Sleeping Princess”, tropical foliage and his “Notre Dame” set the pattern of a Carnival in a Park by Henri Rousseau, the customs official.”
(Ames, Preston (1951): The Ballet (An American in Paris). In: Production Design, 1,11, pp. 6–9, on pp. 6–8.)
L’Antre infernal (FRA 1905, Gaston Velle). Credit: Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film. Photographs by Barbara Flueckiger.
Edge mark: PATHÉ FRÈRES PARIS 1905 (partially visible). Cf.: Ill.PM.3: Brown, Harold (1990): Physical Characteristics of Early Films as Aids to Identification. Brussels: FIAF, on p. 9.
View Quote on Page: Edge Codes and Identification
L’Antre infernal (FRA 1905, Gaston Velle). Credit: Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film. Photographs by Barbara Flueckiger.
Edge mark: PATHÉ FRÈRES PARIS 1905 (partially visible). Cf.: Ill.PM.3: Brown, Harold (1990): Physical Characteristics of Early Films as Aids to Identification. Brussels: FIAF, on p. 9.
View Quote on Page: Edge Codes and Identification
Virages sur mordançage, Rouge-Orangé (red-orange mordant toning). Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
“The new thinking is that color, particularly as it is applied to family and social melodrama, must be re-conceptualized. The consistent note struck in interviews with Sirk, Preminger, George Cukor, and – overseas – with Renoir and Max Ophüls, is that color must be expressive. These directors grow interested in deliberately discordant or arbitrary color combinations, taking colors out of familiar contexts in order to draw attention to them.
Sirk in particular, had great ambitions for color in melodrama. When properly applied, he claimed, color had therapeutic, healing power. It could be used to manipulate the emotions as effectively as music – help generate tears, soothe, and exhilarate.32 And in a genre often synonymous with emotional duress, it’s unsurprising that the leading directors would suddenly want to search for color’s melodramatic possibilities.
The idea that colors have emotional values that an artist may manipulate is a very old one that extends at least to Goethe, the German Romantics, and the Theosophists. Kalmus herself intertwined color’s emotional power with its symbolic associations [i.e., “Yellow and gold symbolize wisdom, light, fruition… but also deceit, jealousy, [and] inconstancy in its darker shades, particularly when tinged with green… Magenta is very distinctly materialistic. It is showy, arrogant, and vain.”]33
But by the start of the 1950s the psychological claims for color had grown even more extravagant. Among psychologists themselves there was [and remains] common agreement that color has neither an absolute perceptual base nor an absolute emotional meaning.34 But professional skepticism notwithstanding, fascination with color psychology reached across a broad range of technical, and popular journals. It can be argued, in fact, that the 50s became the last decade in which the public shared a widespread interest in color theory, color therapy and color ideology. In the sciences, the medical profession acted directly on many such claims. For the first time, color was installed in hospital rooms to speed recovery: red chambers for depressives, yellow for hysterical paralytics, blue for the violent.35 Doctors experimented with prescribing green or blue eyeglasses for patients suffering certain nervous disorders. [Fig 42]
Hospital clinics replaced white with bluish green surgical smocks and theatre walls on the grounds that it helped improve the concentration of doctors. In the medicine cabinet, pills and capsules were color coded to improve identification. Children’s medicine was being colored to help create emotional associations with candy.
Working along similar lines, school boards experimented with yellow chalk on green blackboards, while in factories engineers were painting colors onto moving machine parts to diminish fatigue and improve industrial safety.36
And where science and psychology led, could business enterprise not follow, seeing in color a hidden persuader with mysterious psychic power? A new profession emerged: the color engineer who could be hired to show department stores, magazine publishers, retail manufacturers, the appliance industry, and supermarkets how to increase sales.37 [Fig 43]
Detroit hired color designers too, on the same theory that color made cars more alluring and more sensuous. By the mid-50s the all-black car was all but dead, according to Business Week, with sales down from 25% in 1950 to less than 5% in 1955. The country had entered the era of the two-tone, cherry red, and angel white.38 [Fig 44]
Perhaps inevitably, color entered the realm of clinical psychology where, it was claimed, personalities could be categorized according to color preferences. This notion had already penetrated the popular press by the end of the First World War, but by the 1950s had been incorporated into various psychology tests.39 [Fig 45]
It was in this atmosphere that film directors, assuming that color would soon be as pervasive as it was inevitable, cast about for new color applications in their films.
In Ivan the Terrible‘s color sequences, Eisenstein had already experimented with Expressionist colors to hint at inner states of mind, drawing directly on Disney’s early color experiments in his Silly Symphonies series.40 In the 50s Hollywood started creating color mood swings of its own. When Captain Queeg panics during a typhoon in The Caine Mutiny (Columbia, 1954), red/blue color shifts indicate danger/fear. [Fig 46; Fig 47]
When playboy Robert Stack tells Lauren Bacall about the psychic damage his sister has caused him in Written on the Wind; the light on his face turns reddish. [Fig 48; Fig 49]
By the mid-50s, Expressionist color effects were common enough that they became subject to parody. Norman McLeod acknowledged the convention’s cartoon origins in a Bob Hope comedy called Casanova’s Big Night (Paramount, 1954), turning the fake Casanova’s face red and then purple as he is being strangled. [Fig 50; Fig 51]
In Bell, Book, and Candle (Columbia, 1958) we learn that Kim Novak is a witch when with the help of color filters her face turns frost blue. [Figs 52; Fig 53]
But it is John Huston who develops this line the furthest in Moulin Rouge (Romulus, 1952) when Toulouse-Lautrec returns to his garret with the idea of killing himself. The scene calls for the painter to climb out of his depression without uttering a word as he wanders around his room, turns on a gas lamp, and then sits in a chair waiting to die. He gazes up at an unfinished painting (La Goulu) and, distracted from his suicide attempt, reaches for his paints to color in the final details. [Fig 54; Fig 58]
The gas lamp, a source of artificial light that he opens to poison himself, is connected to the clinically “unhealthy” color combinations of harsh blues, greens, and pinks. But as Toulouse-Lautrec starts to contemplate his painting, unnatural filter combinations give way to the brighter, sanative palette of the artist’s own work [bright yellows, vibrant reds, pure greens] which in turn seems to draw out the natural light of the sun. Morning sunlight falls on his paints and his easel, finally flooding his garret with natural, refreshing light.
In Lola Montes, Ophüls works out a similar scheme of clinically jarring color combinations in the phantasmagorical circus sequences to capture Lola’s response to her commercial objectification.
But this strain of expressive color was only one of several directions in which 50s color went. By the end of the decade, using colors to set the tone of a scene had become a commonplace. Huston and Oswald Morris famously muted the colors in Moby Dick by superimposing a black and white negative over a desaturated color master to create a somber scheme devoid of reds and yellows.41 The effect – highlighting steel greys and mud browns – was meant to externalize Ahab’s monomania by extending the bleak tone to the severity of nineteenth century whaling life. [Fig 59]
But directors were also foregrounding colors that did not provide clues to, or mirror, the psychological states of the character, or even reinforce in any obvious way the tone of a scene. William Wellman’s Track of the Cat provides the extreme example. Although shot in color, Track of the Cat was processed entirely without hue and saturation except for the pinprick of Robert Mitchum’s red woolen coat. The effect is to suggest an obscure allegory, putting into the spotlight an otherwise non-signifying garment worn by a supporting character, the protagonist’s brutish older brother. [Fig 60]. Although still operating within the context of a narrative film, Wellman’s red color spot challenges what Edward Branigan has called “the tyranny of the center of the frame” achieving a certain formal independence highly unusual in Hollywood films – competing for attention with the narrative focal point by wandering off to the margins. The red becomes a non-narrative element that neither enhances Barthes’ ‘reality effect’ nor makes any obvious psychological point. Self-conscious and mannered, Track of the Cat is the closest Hollywood gets, as best I can determine, in opening the gap between color and object.42
Meanwhile, Elia Kazan and his cinematographer Ted McCord devised a highly unorthodox color plot for Kazan’s first color film, East of Eden, built around principles of what may be called “psycho-chromatics,” the arresting idea that some colors, like human behavior, contain opposing and conflicting impulses, depending upon context. For Kazan, the Oedipal director par excellence, green became the master color, an integral part of the psychological texture of the film. [Fig 61]
Green is sometimes considered the great neutral, the color of repose, of pacifism. But it is also connected with envy. It combines associations of growth, with immaturity – the refusal to grow up. [Fig 62]
In our culture it is also the color of money and luck. But above all for Kazan, it contains the associations with both rebirth – freshness – and decay, sickness [“green around the gills”], weakness. And the final scene is keyed to absorb all those contradictions. Whereas the color plots of Technicolor musicals and swashbucklers tended to culminate in festive kaleidoscopic pageantry, East of Eden ends in monochrome – in a room, seen only at the end of the film, dominated by luminous green walls, unevenly lit and crossed with achromatic, graded shadows for an eerie, iridescent effect. Raymond Massey, James Dean’s father, is dying, disillusioned and alone, while Dean, as his son Cal, tries his best to tend to him. [Fig 63]
Kazan called the green room “death’s version of [the old man’s] valley,” the color of vegetation turned into sea-green sickness.43 But the room is also the nacreous site of Cal’s reconciliation with his father, and Abra’s reconciliation with Cal.
With East of Eden we enter a phase of color development in Hollywood film where colors can be indexical, iconic, or simply tied to their symbolic function in a particular culture. But I want to end on perhaps the most interesting colorist of all: Douglas Sirk who, along with his cinematographer, Russell Metty, created an utterly transgressive color system. The melodramatic style that has made him the favorite of directors ranging from Fassbinder and John Waters to Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodovar is grounded in his quirky relationship to his material. In a famous sequence from All That Heaven Allows (Universal, 1955) widow Jane Wyman is in her bedroom getting ready for a dinner date with a middle-age admirer when her two college age kids drop in to visit. [Fig 64]
The dialogue and blocking suggest a satiric scene saturated in irony. Wyman’s daughter Kay [Gloria Talbot] plops herself down on her mother’s queen size bed, solemnly lecturing her mother on Freud and the sexual anxieties that accompany aging, only to be startled when mom appears, prepared for a date, bare-shouldered in red. Kay recovers, mindful that modern society no longer buries widows with their dead husbands as they did in ancient Egypt. Mother, older and wiser, murmurs her doubts about the modern world’s acceptance of liberated widows.
But how to connect Russell Metty’s stylized blocks of color and all that odd back lighting to the conversation? The blue swatches feel entirely cut off from the referenced world, operating entirely within the framework of what Karla Oeler has called genre pastiche.44 The scene starts with a close-up of a mirror, the most traditional trope for artistic mimesis. But as Oeler has argued in a much different context, genre pastiche does not believe in direct mimesis, and here the mirror introduces a scene defined by layer upon layer of self-reflexivity. [Fig 65]
The colors operate to create a self-contained Camp universe where, to use Sontag’s language, everything is now bracketed off in quotation marks. The room becomes “the room;” the self-important daughter “the daughter.” Most remarkably, light itself – especially the blue filtered light that streams from the window when Jane Wyman opens the shutters – is “light” only in an approximate sense – an approximation of sunlight and an approximation of reading light.
It would be one thing if this were black and white film and the back lighting that casts the two women into shadows and silhouettes created simply a sinister, noirish atmosphere, appropriate to the talk about tombs and suffocating social pressure. But the color adds a perversely playful aspect to the display. The unnatural blue, red, and gold filters turning this 50s home and garden suburban bedroom into something bizarre, vibrant, and strange.
32 Michael Stern, “Interview,” Bright Lights 6 (Winter, 1977–78), 33; Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Noames, “Entretien avec Douglas Sirk,” Cahiers du Cinema 189 (April 1967), 23, 25. Cf. Mike Prokosh, “Imitation of Life,” Douglas Sirk, eds. Laura Mulvey and Jon Halliday (Lancashire, England: Edinburgh Film Festival 72/ NFT/ John Players & Sons, 1972), 90.
33 Natalie Kalmus, “Color Consciousness,” The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers [hereafter SMPE Journal] (August 1935), 144; revised as “Colour,” in Behind the Screen, ed. Stephen Watts (London: Arthur Barker, 1938). For a history of color psychology in modern painting, John Cage, Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1999.
34 For scientific accounts of how the brain processes different frequencies of light in order to interpret color, Jacob Beck, “The Perception of Surface Color,” Scientific American (August, 1975), 64–75. Hans Wallach, “The Perception of Neutral Colors,” Scientific American (January, 1963), 107–116. Semir Zeki, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, Oxford University Press, 2000.
35 Neil Harris, “Color and Media: Some Comparisons and Speculations,” Prospects 11 (1987) 7–28; reprinted in Harris, Cultural Excursions (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 318–336.
36 The attention paid to color in industry was widely reported. As early as 1941, Reader’s Digest reprinted “Meet the Color Engineer,” (June, 1941), 134–35, describing the work of Faber Birren, a color specialist living in New York. By the 1950s, Birren’s career had taken off, publishing books that encouraged innovations in color management in the factory, the restaurant, the hospital, and the schoolroom. He also described how color could be an effective marketing tool in self-service stores such as supermarkets, automobile dealerships, and liquor stores, where customers often made impulse decisions. Related articles include “Color in Industry,” Fortune, vol. 43 (June, 1951) 122–128. A.A. Goldsmith, “Putting Color To Work,” Photography, 34 (May 1954), 62–65. Mary Davis Gillies, “Our Color-Happy World,” McCall’s (Oct 1954), 38–43. “Getting Final Word on Color,” [on color and carpets], Business Week, 14 December 1957, 124–129.
37 Faber Birren, Selling Color to People (University Books, 1956), 164. “Reading Minds Thru Color” Design, 54 (March, 1953), p. 132. “Shirts to Match Blue Mondays, Pink Fridays,” Science News Letter, 70 (8 Sept 1956), 152.
38 “All-black Car is a Dying Breed,” Business Week (18 June 1955), 130. This was especially good news for teenagers, because police departments were the among the last holdouts against the color revolution, making their cars especially easy to identify in rear view mirrors. Teens in Greenwich Connecticut, where I spent my adolescence, were unusually blessed. There the cops used black and white Edsels for their unmarked cars.
39 For popularized accounts of these studies: Clifford B. Hicks, “Your Color Type and How to Live With It,” Popular Mechanics, Vol. 93 (February, 1950), 97–106; “What Color Suits You Best,” House and Garden, vol. 108 (September, 1955), 78–87. Faber Birren works this line in Creative Color (Reinhold Publishing, 1961), 21ff.
For earlier writings on color psychology: “Emotions Due to Colors,” Literary Digest 85 (April 25, 1925), 25, a discussion by Matthew Luckiesh, then director the Lighting Research Lab of General Electric. “Making People Do Things by Wall Colors,” Everybody’s 34 (March, 1916): 398–99.
For a recent article making the similar assumptions, Kim Anderson, “The Power of Color,” (TC)2Bi-Weekly Technology Communicator (June 2005) http://www.techexchange.com/thelibrary/powerofcolor.html
40 Eisenstein himself compared Vladimir’s famous “blue blush” in Ivan the Terrible Part II to Flower the Skunk’s turning red in Bambi; the debt is analyzed in Anne Nesbet, Savage Junctures (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), 194–195. The convention’s origins can be found in Disney’s Three Little Pigs, Lullaby Land, The Flying Mouse and other Silly Symphonies. Cf. Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman, The Silly Symphonies (Gemona, Italy: Cineteca del Friuli Press, 2007), passim.
41 Derek Hill, “Moby Dick Sets New Style in Color Photography: On Oswald Morris’ Cinematography,” AC, 37/9 (Sept, 1956), 534 ff.
42 Edward Branigan, “The Articulation of Color in a Filmic System,” Wide Angle 1/3 (1976), 28–29 shows how Godard transforms this strategy into a full-blown radical system. My analysis of Track of the Cat derives from Branigan’s study.
43 Kazan to Michel Ciment in Ciment, Kazan on Kazan (New York: Viking Press, 1974), 123.
44 Karla Oeler, A Grammar of Murder University of Chicago Press, forthcoming. Cf. Sirk to Stern in Bright Lights, op. cit.: “Throughout my pictures I employ a lighting which is not naturalistic. Often the window will be here and the light from there. With color, too, I did this, to attain a lighting that is almost Surrealistic. As Brecht has said, never forget that this is not reality… The distanciation must be there… You have to shoot it through a dialectic.””
(Merritt, Russell (2008): Crying in Color. How Hollywood Coped When Technicolor Died. In: Journal of the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia, 3,2/3, pp. 1–16, on pp. 8–13.)
Blanche Fury (GBR 1948, Marc Allégret). Credit: BFI National Archive. Photographs of the Technicolor dye-transfer nitrate print from 1947 by Michelle Beutler and Olivia Kristina Stutz, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.