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.
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Contributions to the Timeline of Historical Film Colors
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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
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Brittany Gravely, Publicist, Harvard Film Archive
Clayton Scoble, Manager of the Digital Imaging Lab & Photography Studio, Harvard University
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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
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“Infighting aside, Jones, Mamoulian, and Kalmus all promoted a similar view of color’s function. Though Jones and Mamoulian appeared more willing to stylize color for conspicuous dramatic effects, they echoed Kalmus in their views that hue needed to be tied to the emotional tone of the narrative and that it should be carefully harmonized. Despite Jones’s busy palette for La Cucaracha, he warned, when discussing Becky Sharp, that “to think in terms of color… does not mean an abundance of color: this cannot be too strongly emphasized.”12 Mamoulian’s prescription was identical: “The cinema must not… go about color as a newly-rich. Color should not mean gaudiness. Restraint and selectiveness are the essence of art.”13 Moreover, like Kalmus and Jones, Mamoulian drew on broad color associations (“to feel blue, to be green with envy”) to establish that color could “increase the power and effectiveness of a scene, situation, or character.”14 If Kalmus was not directly responsible for Becky Sharp‘s design, the film’s colorists still propounded a rhetoric of dramatic control and moderation similar to hers. All three experts offered the same aesthetic responses to the demand that Technicolor demonstrate its worth to feature filmmaking.
Becky Sharp extends the demonstration mode to handle this feature-length narrative. The film’s color centerpiece is the Duchess of Richmond’s ball sequence, which takes place just midway through. These two reels stand out for the rigor with which color effects are tested and showcased. In a sense, the ball sequence is a demonstration film unto itself, something like La Cucaracha interpolated into a somewhat less adventurous feature. The sequence well deserves the attention that it has received from scholars and commentators, but before delving into its detail, we should attend to its context, the general principles of Becky Sharp‘s design.
As a whole, the film is somewhat less florid than La Cucaracha, but it still showcases color vigorously. In one sense, it follows Kalmus’s recommendations. The settings are generally held to a range of cool neutrals and browns, allowing the characters to introduce more assertive colors. Still, the palette is quite wide, and nearly every segment offers boldly contrasting hues or features some manner of color foregrounding. From the perspective of color theory, we might note that variation of hue dominates differences of value and saturation. The emphasis is not on the careful gradations of tones within a narrow group of colors, but on displaying striking splashes against more or less neutral backgrounds.
The designers associate the most prominent colors with the main players, which bespeaks an attempt to link, and subordinate, color to action. The choice of hues, however, and the techniques used to display them point to a countervailing tendency to demonstrate color and keep it conspicuous. In this respect, Becky Sharp departs, forcefully, from Kalmus’s prescriptions for guarding against intrusive design. The tension between subduing and flaunting color is important for most Technicolor design, but unlike films that follow in the mid-1930s, Becky Sharp leans strongly toward display.
We can get a good idea of the film’s standard procedure for handling color by taking a close look at the opening sequence. In it, the film stresses color as a mark of difference from black-and-white, and makes clear that color has been choreographed from shot to shot in order to display the technology and organize viewers’ attention. Before the action begins, the frame is taken up entirely by a silver-gray curtain, mimicking a black-and-white screen. Color is introduced in stages. First, one of Becky’s classmates at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Women parts the curtains and peeks through (in medium shot), bringing the flesh tones of her face into the field of gray. The moment briefly showcases three-color’s improved rendition of skin and facial features, but color is kept low-key. Then, she opens the curtains wide and reveals a group of young women huddled around her. In unison they shout “Amelia,” and the camera tracks back and pans left as they rush forward and surround their classmate. This action continues the steady revelation of hue. The foremost three students are clad in Smoke (gray slightly tinted blue), Iris (gray slightly tinted lavender), and Gray Sand (beige of very low saturation). As they pass the camera, they reveal a fourth student, who is wearing a relatively brilliant Crystal Blue (high-value light blue) dress. She provides a momentary surge of color as she passes, surrounded by other women in various shades of beige and gray. Staging and camera movement cooperate to phase color in, teasing the viewer while keeping hue at the forefront of our awareness.
The pan concludes once all the students (thirteen of them) encircle Amelia in a medium long shot. Amelia stands out by virtue of her lustrous brownish red (between Barn Red and Pompeian Red) satin hat, bow, and shawl. These are the film’s first reds; her Cream dress offers a more moderate contrast with her classmates’. Amelia’s close-up finishes the introduction of hue by bringing into frame the green leaves and tiny bright red flowers on a plant that her friends have given her: accents of red, green, and blue complete the palette.
Unlike the opening of La Cucaracha, which immediately introduces bold reds, greens, blues, and yellows, the first frames of Becky Sharp progressively reveal a more modest range of color. The set has been so largely confined to various shades of gray that the touches of color become conspicuous. It is as though traces of hue have been forced onto a black-and-white set. The first shots of Becky vividly illustrate this aspect of the design. The camera pans right from a high-angle shot of Amelia and her classmates to Becky sitting across the room beside a single friend. The shot pivots from one area of color (carried by Amelia’s bow and her blue clad classmate) to discover Becky with her Bachelor Button blue hat and neck bows. Between these two points, the camera scans a field of gray, broken only by a deep brown desk set on a matching throw rug. This kind of design fulfills Kalmus’s and Mamoulian’s prescription that designers avoid an “over-abundance” of color. But the distinction between the background and the touches of color is so pronounced that the hues leap forward. Like other aspects of Becky Sharp‘s color design, the scheme follows some of Kalmus’s basic rules, but in an overt, obvious way. The isolation of strong colors against strict neutrals gives the style a labored appearance. Color has been so cautiously deployed that it appears stylized.
This method of design is obviously intended to use color to steer viewers’ attention. For instance, when Becky and Amelia converse, their classmates’ costumes form a wash of grays and soft blues. Miss Pinkerton (Elspeth Dudgeon) wears a rather severe black and white dress that singles her out as a point of contrast without interacting with the colors of the two main characters. When Joseph arrives, he is in a generally neutral outfit of grays and browns, but also a Yolk Yellow (green-yellow) checked vest, a new color that helps mark him as a significant figure. In this way, more-active or more-assertive colors guide viewers toward the main characters. The eye can leap from accent to accent without fear of losing the story.
However, the strong distinctions between hues and neutrals also create challenges. Having introduced color highlights, Mamoulian and Jones must now juggle them to avoid distractions. Even the cool colors that Kalmus recommended for background players can, in this environment, grab attention away from the main action. In this scene, the Crystal Blue dresses of two classmates require careful handling. These dresses have clearly marked functions near the start of the scene: they give a burst of color as the students rush forward. The bright blue also supports a bit of comedy. In medium long shot, a student clad in dark blue-gray tries to read Amelia a poem while a student in Crystal Blue desperately tries to muffle the sound of her music box at frame right. The strong color behaves like the unruly music box, yanking our interest from the dreadful poetry. Later in the scene, these dresses become a liability. When Amelia greets her brother in long shot, the costumes trespass into the far left of the frame, stealing our attention. Miriam Hopkins, though, is spared such competition. Staging and composition ensure that Becky remains the only bearer of strong blue when she is on screen. In handling color details, Mamoulian and Jones attempt to balance foregrounding and restraint. Yet the strict contrast of neutrals and accents creates a game of chromatic cat and mouse in which areas of color can dart around and elude the grasp of narrative interest.
The relatively simple color scheme, with its pronounced contrasts, goes hand in hand with a method of lighting that gives equal weight to all details. Lighting in this sequence is typical of that in much of the film. General illumination is high-key, with directed head and shoulder light helping pick out the main figures. Flat, even lighting into the background ensures the proper registration of color and detail in the rather large set. Because there are none of the pronounced areas of highlight or shadow that might help discriminate among zones of action in a black-and-white film, color control is especially significant. In the main, light serves to accentuate hue and support the choices made in color design.
The strategies of the opening extend to the film as a whole. Becky Sharp incessantly plays bright, saturated accents against neutral backgrounds. While sheer repetition might tame this kind of design, making it familiar and therefore unnoticeable, Mamoulian deploys specific techniques of editing, camera work, and staging to underline the accents and sustain the demonstration. Of the film’s twenty-one segments, sixteen clearly employ color-foregrounding techniques. Usually he reveals a color, or some property of color, that has been momentarily suppressed. Seven segments open with tracks backward that unveil sources of pronounced hue (bouquets of flowers or colorful props) as the frame widens; camera movement draws attention to the new colors as they enter the field. Transitions between scenes also push the play of color to the fore. Dissolves are heavily used in Becky Sharp (all together they connect twenty-nine scenes), and they often deliver rather hard chromatic contrasts. When a shot of Amelia and William Dobbin (Colin Tapley), mourning her first husband’s death in a gray stone chapel, dissolves to Becky’s dinner party, color surges into the frame, announcing three-color’s contribution to the image and stressing Becky’s callow indifference to Amelia’s plight.
These methods of suppressing and revealing color will be retained by future Technicolor films because visual flourishes at points between scenes or at the start of a sequence are amenable to the classical style. Yet Becky Sharp lays unique stress on such moments. A design of bold color set against fields of neutrals grants individual hues remarkable graphic weight. The films of the restrained mode […] tend not to confer such power on hue, but to concentrate on tonal variations within families of color. Later films with assertive designs (such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, disussed in Chapter 6) return to an emphasis on hue, but their more complex palettes and body of conventions militate against the kind of emphasis on isolated accents (like the students in blue dresses) that Becky Sharp so readily exploits.
The demonstration mode also distinguished itself from later trends by extending foregrounding devices well beyond transitional passages. The combination of bold accents in virtually monochrome settings helps ensure that as characters enter a scene, a new set of hues will leap forward, prolonging the color parade. Kalmus’s rule of emphasis has been interpreted to mean that each major player should carry a conspicuous color. In a scene between Becky and Joseph, she wears high-value Lemon Drop yellow polka dots on a white dress, and he is in an Emerald jacket and Daffodil yellow tie. The shared yellow accents, the brightest and most saturated colors in the scene, echo one another so strongly that they call attention to their alignment. Just when these bold costumes have been displayed fully, Becky’s husband, Rawdon, enters, bringing onto the scene his Fiery Red coat, with its Citrus gold cuffs and collar, and his Azure Blue slacks. He completes the scene’s palette so that it presents accents from each of the major color groups: blue, yellow, red, and green. The staging of characters creates a near constant pageant before the camera.
Beyond these methods for maintaining color’s prominence, Becky Sharp‘s devotion to color showcasing is most powerfully demonstrated by the specific narrative situations that Mamoulian and Jones arrange to press hue. Even when they are fairly central to a scene’s dramatic development, these elaborate contrivances amount to color gimmickry. A most striking example occurs when Becky cuts out a silhouette of Amelia, who poses behind a white sheet. The scene opens on a black-and-white shot of Amelia’s shadow thrown on the muslin sheet. A track backward progressively reveals color. First, Becky comes into view on the left, cutting Amelia’s silhouette out of black paper. The strong American Beauty red trim on her white dress breaks the chromatic silence. Next, the shot reveals George, standing over Becky’s shoulder, in his Fiery Red officer’s coat with its deep Imperial Blue and bright gold (near Dandelion) accents. When the film cuts to the other side of the muslin to reveal Amelia, in a soft Cloud Pink dress, colors are once again muted. The silhouette screen foregrounds color in several ways. In addition to serving as a reminder of black-and-white, cutting around the screen presents the hard shift from saturated, strong red accents to an environment of pale pastels. Moreover, because it initially withholds the texture and color of Amelia’s image, the screen helps build the visual impact of her eventual appearance.
As the scene develops, Mamoulian milks the gimmick by having Becky rush behind the screen to give Amelia the cutout while George and Rawdon, also in his red officer’s garb, stand in the foreground. The staging flamboyantly inverts the principle that the key characters should carry the strongest colors. Here, the passive observers (George and Rawdon) hold the foreground with vivid accents of red, blue, and yellow, and the two women are reduced to colorless shapes. The silhouette screen does offer a nominal dramatic function, since it allows Becky to flirt with George literally in front of his wife, Amelia. But the screen also allows Mamoulian to work a game of hide-and-seek with color, giving the scene the appearance of a technological exhibition. Drama is a mere pretext for formal experimentation.
In a 1961 interview with David Robinson, Mamoulian recalled developing the color scheme for Becky Sharp across the film so that it would correspond to the dramatic climax: “My idea was to build up the colour dramatically. I wanted to start with black, white, grey; then ooze into colour. And I wanted the dramatic climax of the film to coincide with the colour climax, which would be predominantly red, because that is the nature of red.”16 One of the remarkable aspects of. Becky Sharp‘s design, however, is a general lack of just such a chromatic development. Despite Mamoulian’s intentions, the high degree of foregrounding tends to interfere with any clear pattern of color scoring. From the first, strong colors are set against neutral backgrounds, and this continues more or less unabated for the entire production.
Only in one brief stretch of the narrative does the design conform to Kalmus’s color vocabulary, which held that colors of lower saturation were more serious and refined. In the series of events during which Becky accepts money from her lover, Lord Steyne (Cedric Hardwicke), attempts to present it to her husband, Rawdon, and is eventually abandoned by him, her wardrobe color is depressed to match the dramatic tone. When she collapses on the floor after Rawdon’s departure, the composition is relatively muted: Becky is in off-white lace on an Ochre carpet with Oxblood Red and Tapestry Blue details. Even here, though, Becky’s Bachelor Button blue hair bow and belt inject jarring hues into the frame. Moreover, this stretch of the film also offers color foregrounding through vivid accents like the yellow roses in Becky’s parlor and the bright strawberries on Becky and Steyne’s dinner table. So even at its emotional and dramatic turning point, Becky Sharp continues the campaign to display color.
INTENSIFIED DEMONSTRATION: THE DUCHESS OF RICHMOND’S BALL
But if the color design does not develop in a meaningful way across the film, Mamoulian and Jones did implement color scoring within a particular scene. Nearly every commentator on Becky Sharp singles out the Duchess of Richmond’s ball as evidence of the film’s dramatic approach to color. The scene must owe a good part of this attention to Mamoulian’s promotion of the sequence as the pinnacle of Becky Sharp‘s design. In his paper “Some Problems in Directing Color Pictures,” the ballroom sequence provides the sole example of the proper, dramatic, and emotional use of color:
You will see how inconspicuously, but with telling effect, the sequence builds to a climax through a series of intercut shots which progress from the coolness and sobriety of colors like gray, blue, green, and pale yellow, to the exciting danger and threat of deep orange and flaming red. The effect is achieved by the selection of dresses and uniforms worn by the characters and the color of backgrounds and lights.17
Whenever he discussed color, Mamoulian would return to this scene, most notably in his interview with Anthony Slide and in his article “Colour and Light in Films” for Film Culture in 1960. When, as noted above, Mamoulian told Slide that he intended the “dramatic climax of the film to coincide with the color climax,” he was referring not to the end of Becky Sharp, but to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, a scene that occurs in reels four and five. The sequence is certainly the film’s most spectacular set piece, and so it follows that it should be an arena for the production’s most ambitious color design.
Close analysis of the sequence is complicated by the state of the preservation print at the University of California-Los Angeles, which I consulted. Indeed, the history of this sequence is a testament to the fragility of the medium. In 1943, Pioneer Pictures sold Becky Sharp to Film Classics, which shortened the film, released it in two-color Cinecolor, and junked portions of the negative.18 In the mid-1980s, with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute, film preservationists Robert Gitt (of the UCLA Film and Television Archive) and Richard Dayton (of YCM Laboratories) set out to reconstruct the film. Gitt and Dayton were faced with an incomplete set of materials. For reel four, which features the start of the ballroom sequence, there were no surviving yellow materials. Reel five, in which Napoleon attacks and the guests flee the ball, was missing important portions of the magenta record.19 To solve these problems, Gitt and Dayton printed the magenta record of reel four twice in order to simulate yellow, and printed the yellow record in portions of reel five twice to simulate magenta. In the resulting print, colors were compromised at the start and toward the conclusion of the sequence, full three-color occurring only in the middle. Gitt and Dayton described the shifting color with reference to Joseph’s jacket: “In the course of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, which takes place during reels four and five, Nigel Bruce’s costume changes from dark green to deep blue and then to a light blue, as we go from simulated yellow, to full three-color and then to simulated magenta.”20
Fortunately, additional preservation materials were retrieved from the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome late in 1984, and they were incorporated into the preservation print. According to American Film, that material was used to fine-tune the print’s overall color balance and to improve reel nine. My viewings suggest that the color in the Duchess of Richmond’s ball may have been evened out somewhat. A noticeable shift does occur at the break between reels four and five: Lady Bareacres’s (Billie Burke’s) dress changes from medium gray Blue Mist to light Pistachio Green.21 The end of the sequence, though, does not appear to undergo a radical variation in color. Gitt suggested to me that the sequence is mostly accurate, aside from the loss of purples and greens in a few shots of guests fleeing.22 Still, given the relatively unstable colors, my description relies on the full three-color portion of the scene (after the start of reel five and before the lighting change that occurs during the attack) for identification of the major colors, and I extrapolate to account for details in the surrounding portions.
Though Mamoulian suggested that he built color across the sequence as a whole, from subtle hues to a chromatic climax, analysis reveals a less unified, more eclectic approach. Indeed, Mamoulian’s most systematic color scoring is concentrated in the scenes of guests and soldiers fleeing the ball after the onset of Napoleon’s cannon attack, a relatively brief portion of the sequence. Before taking up the variety of experiments and effects presented by the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, we might first consider the portion that most closely accords with Mamoulian’s conception of dramatically organized color.
The director presented his most detailed discussion of the scene in the 1960 Film Culture article, and it is worth quoting at length. After describing the situation, in which news of Napoleon’s march stirs a panic at the ball, Mamoulian explains:
Now, in terms of realism, the officers who heard the news first and had an immediate duty to perform, would certainly leave the building first. Yet, visually, color-wise, it would have been wrong. All British uniforms of the period were red. Were I to show these in the first shots and then follow them with less striking mingled colours of the civilians, I would be decidedly building towards a chromatic anti-climax. So I went against plausibility and reason, and based this montage purely on colour-dynamics, believing that the rising excitement of just the colours themselves would affect the audience more strongly than a realistic procedure. I divided all guests into groups according to the hues of their costumes and photographed them, as they were running away, in separate shots; this, in order of the colours in the spectrum, ranging from cold to warm. This resulted in the officers leaving the building last instead of first. But the colour montage, from purples and dark blues to oranges and reds, achieved its emotional purpose of building up to the climax of the officer’s scarlet capes in flight.23
The play of chromatic highlights in this portion of the sequence is accentuated by a dramatic change in lighting. As the terror begins to spread, a gust of wind throws open the ballroom windows and extinguishes the candelabra. In a long shot of the dance floor, Mamoulian eliminates general overhead illumination, darkening much of the frame and leaving hard, bright pools of light. The effect eliminates most of the ambient neutrals, leaving strong hues highlighted against the darkness. Moreover, the combination of hard, directed light and a generally darkened background increases the apparent saturation of these remaining hues.24 For example, the Daffodil (strong yellow with a touch of orange) accents carried by a woman near the center of the dance floor seem to flare and glow as she moves against the darkness through a pool of light. The shift in lighting helps the filmmakers motivate stylized effects while generating a renewed emphasis on hue. In this environment, Mamoulian’s color patterning becomes more conspicuous.
The systematic arrangement of hue that Mamoulian described emerges during a montage of guests rushing through doorways and down stairs. In two very brief series of shots, extras are staged so that color progresses from cool to warm hues. The first series begins with a shot of the ball’s musicians, clad in black and white, racing away from the camera and toward a doorway. The composition momentarily depresses color, limiting the palette to blue-gray and black, broken by a single Dark Blue urn perched just inside the door. From here, the sequence rebuilds color. The next shot shows a line of guests rushing though one of the ballroom’s great windows, its Porcelain Blue curtains billowing at the left edge of the frame. After a musician and a few soldiers in deep blue or black, there appears a group of women with costume accents in Porcelain Blue, Parrot Green, Medium Blue, and finally Shamrock green and Dandelion Yellow plaid. The last figure to cross the frame is a soldier with a Meadow Green jacket and Fiery Red accents.
The organization of color from cool to warm continues with a cut back to the doorway that reveals a new throng of guests. The foreground is kept dim so that colors flash briefly as the guests reach a pool of light at the threshold. At the front of the group are a woman in Lavender and another in Rich Gold, but they are swiftly overtaken by five women in gowns ranging from Mars Red to Vivid Orange, and a sixth in Prism Violet. Across these three shots, then, Mamoulian has grouped the extras so that they present a chromatic development from near monochrome to cool hues to warm hues.
The next series of shots repeats this pattern. A new group of guests are framed in long shot as they rush leftward down a flight of stairs. Here, the rightmost portion of the frame is kept dark, so colors are highlighted as figures pass through the middle. At the front of the group are gentlemen in black and white, once again forcing the range of color down to a minimum. Following the men, a group of women in lighter colored gowns appear, and they immediately activate the field of light. The foremost woman wears a gown of Coral Blush pink and white, and she is directly followed by a woman in off-white with Red Violet accents, one in Porcelain Blue, and another in reflective Turtledove silver satin. Just before the cut, a woman in a Porcelain Blue gown and one in Pistachio Green enter the light. Mamoulian cuts away to a shot of Joseph and his young servant hiding behind a potted fern. When he returns to the scene on the stairs, the action continues from the point of interruption. A group of women in blue and green clear out of the frame as another group, lead by a woman in Vivid Orange and including others in Fiery Red and Mars Red, enters the light. Again, Mamoulian has arranged the extras in roughly from cool to warm hues.
In these six shots, color is carefully organized, though not in as sustained a manner as Mamoulian described. Given the speed of the action, it seems doubtful that the formal pattern would be recognized as such in a single viewing. Rather, the montage gives a general impression of a movement toward red while keeping color accents prominent through the groupings of extras and the lighting design. Further, the sequence presents not a single, uniform development of the palette but the repetition of an effect. Color twice pulses from cool to warm, visually accentuating the tumult. But if the color score is not as obtrusive as in the climax that follows, it is still remarkable for the intricacy of its design. Mamoulian has indeed shaped the montage around “colour-dynamics,” and his staging and costuming decisions have been determined by his interest in creating particular chromatic arrangements. True to the demonstration mode, color is given the highest stylistic priority.
As the sequence reaches its climax, however, Mamoulian presents much more overtly stylized color compositions. He shifts between bold blues and reds, culminating in a swell of brilliant, warm color. First, a line of soldiers in Sky Blue capes sweeps down a corridor in two shots. They are framed in a high-angle long shot, and then in a lower medium shot. Together, the compositions present a spectacular mass of blue streaking across the frame on a strong diagonal. A cut to outside the estate’s front door continues the emphasis on blue as the soldiers stream out. The interior compositions are then repeated with soldiers in Fiery Red capes charging through the corridor. Outside, two shots present the red-clad officers as they pour from the door. Then, the entire frame is washed in red light as a high-angle shot presents the soldiers running down the drive. A red street lamp in the corner of the frame motivates the colored illumination. After a brief shot of soldiers mounting their horses, the street-lamp composition returns, once again bathing the image in red as the soldiers’ capes billow in the drive below. Upon reaching this height of intensity, the red light tinting the entire image, the sequence continues to emphasize the red and blue contrast. Four shots of the red-caped soldiers mounting and riding off are followed by a high-angle shot of the front gate as first the blue- and then the red-caped soldiers thunder out. The montage closes with a low-angle shot of the red-caped soldiers storming through the gate.
This sequence of shots most closely approaches the organization of color described by Mamoulian. The development from the pronounced blues to the blaze of red clearly manipulates color for visual climax. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this color scoring is its forcefulness. Though Mamoulian suggested that the colors build up “inconspicuously but with telling effect,” the climactic juxtaposition of the blue and red capes, sweeping through identical compositions, is jarringly emphatic. As a demonstration of Technicolor’s emotional power, the sequence, rather than suggesting that color can complement established techniques, promotes three-color to a position of primacy. In seeking to use color dramatically, Mamoulian made it the dominant element, imposing the pattern of chromatic advancement onto the action.
In his discussion of Technicolor aesthetics, Richard Neupert uses the Duchess of Richmond’s ball as an illustration of how clumsily Technicolor designers aligned color with narrative function:
The suspense that builds as Napoleon’s cannon fire nears is paralleled so deliberately by the gathering of more and more red uniforms in the frame that the scene becomes comical. Either a character is the color of the potted plants, or else he is a soldier running around to add some contrasting red to the mise-en-scène. While such overly simplistic color schemes were meant to support the dramatic action, they actually detracted from it by calling attention to the clumsily fashioned color design (cool harmonious colors for the vulnerable people contrasted with the bloodred uniforms paralleling the rockets’ red glare).25
This description is not entirely fair to the sequence because it oversimplifies the color relationships. Indeed, the palette in the ball sequence is the most complex and varied of the entire film. Still, Neupert’s observation rings true. In trying to give color a clear dramatic function, Mamoulian resorted to a particularly deliberate mode of design. This kind of obvious manipulation would not offer a lasting approach for the use of Technicolor.
Most commentators on the ball sequence follow Mamoulian’s lead and focus on the passage described above. Broadening the analysis somewhat, however, reveals that the scene also employs a less systematic, more flexible model of color scoring. As news of Napoleon’s march begins to spread, jarring contrasts of hue broadly punctuate the moment. Here we find the seeds of a long-lasting method for binding color and drama, suggesting that the scene’s true influence lay in its less-pronounced color devices.
When the cannon fire first sounds, Mamoulian cuts among the responses of various guests. He cuts from a group of red-coated officers to Wellington, clad in Dark Blue with red and gold accents, to the gambling room crowded with redcoats, to a parlor with large gold table topped by a vase of lilacs and surrounded by women in red, blue-green, and yellow, finally returning to Wellington as he consults with an officer. The brief montage introduces locations to which the sequence will return as panic spreads, and it initiates the pattern of cutting that juxtaposes strong accents. Here the color swells with the intense reds of the gambling room and then diminishes with the shot of the parlor and the return to Wellington.
When the cannon fire continues, Mamoulian repeats the technique with two more flurries of shots. He moves from a master shot of the crowded ballroom, with its extensive range of accents, to a series of individual reactions. Each composition offers a new set of dominant hues. The first features a dancer in a Biscay Bay (medium blue with a touch of green) gown, flanked by women in orange. The second offers accents of Vibrant Orange and Arcadia blue-green. The third presents a dancer in Lemon Drop yellow, and the fourth returns to the woman in blue as she asks her partner, “What was that?” The final round of rapid cutting presents different sets of guests as they venture explanations for the rumbling (“cannon,” “thunder,” “artillery”). This time a shot of the gambling room, with its intense mass of red, closes off the exchange as an officer declares, “No, it must be a thunderstorm.” The speed of the cutting, in conjunction with the well-defined accents, generates a rapid barrage of hues, heightening the moment.
In these passages, Mamoulian draws on the scene’s diverse palette and channels it toward a general form of color scoring. Particular colors are not associated with particular emotions; rather, the juxtapositions of accents underline the moment with a dynamic graphic play. The red uniforms in the gambling hall augment this pattern, but the sequence does not seem to stress the literal associations that Mamoulian, Jones, and Kalmus were fond of promoting. Nor is the color as deliberately patterned as in the climax. The hues merely contrast; they do not progress. This level of color scoring, the deploying of conspicuous accents for momentary punctual effects, would prove a more durable means of making color expressive.
When Mamoulian does place more weight on red as an expressive element, he quickly reverts to the more general kind of punctual scoring. Staging, rather than editing, supports color when a distinct blast of cannon fire halts the dance, spurring officers, clad in red, to advance into the ballroom. The result is a flood of red as the officers pour into the cooler, less chromatically intense room, an effect amplified by the relative stasis of the other guests. Mamoulian’s staging coordinates red with the onset of the attack, exploiting what he called “the exciting danger and threat of deep orange and flaming red.”26
This conspicuous emphasis on red, however, is not long sustained. Nor is the color parceled out in a manner that builds toward a climax. Rather, it works as one bold hue among others. For instance, a shot of the gambling room as the officers rise and rush off left creates a sweeping mass of red. But it is followed by a view of the parlor, with the lilac bouquet in the center, as women rush from right to left. Here the costume colors are less unified, presenting vivid dashes of yellow, orange, and red, as well as blue and green. The scene marshals masses of hue and intense accents to achieve visual dynamism, but this is not the kind of precise progression that one might expect from Mamoulian’s description. Color presents a series of jolts, loosely supporting the urgency of the narrative, rather than an extended pattern of development.
When placed in this context, the treatment of the climactic sequence of soldiers rushing to battle appears as one approach among several. Mamoulian tries out different levels of engagement between color and narrative (punctuation, obvious patterning, emotional associations with a particular hue) and several methods for highlighting color as a presence (editing, staging, variations in lighting). Becky Sharp does not refine a specific color style so much as vigorously demonstrate Technicolor’s various possibilities.
Of all of Becky Sharp‘s innovations, the strategy of displaying color through the extension of establishing shots would prove one of its most durable contributions to Technicolor style. In such establishing sequences, as in other transitional passages, style can come forward more forcefully and with less risk of distracting from narrative development. Becky Sharp most fully realizes the method in the ball sequence. The film dissolves from a monochrome image of Napoleon’s shadow against a gray wall to a breathtaking overhead view of the ballroom. A torrent of hue follows the brief reduction to black-and-white. Seven more establishing shots offer the most ornate color compositions in the film. Officers in their Fiery Red coats and gentlemen in black tuxedos dance with women in gowns of deep saturated Meadow Green; lighter Tarragon Green; bright Flame Scarlet; somewhat deeper Chinese Red; Radiant Yellow orange; deep, almost purple, Olympian Blue; lighter, less saturated Cobalt Blue; white; and Turtledove silver. This opening shows off Becky Sharp‘s largest set, and the space is a field for the play of vivid color. It also introduces a motivation for color foregrounding that subsequent Technicolor films will thoroughly develop.
Once the scene returns to the major characters, the filmmakers both draw on and control this palette to guide and anchor attention. The first shot of Becky provides an example. After briefly framing the Duchess of Richmond in medium long shot, the camera pans and tracks to reveal a group of officers gathered in a semicircle farther down the stairs. The strong reds of their uniforms against the Stratosphere blue wall immediately mark them as the center of interest. The camera continues to arc, until it reveals Becky in the center of this semicircle. She wears a silvery White Swan dress with metallic Champaign Beige and Rich Gold spangles. Becky’s graphic prominence is guaranteed by the contrast between her relatively neutral outfit and the strong reds of the surrounding officers. The costuming choice makes sense in such a chromatically busy environment. Color contrast provided by the group of red coats guides attention within the frame and motivates a trajectory for the camera movement. Like La Cucaracha, Becky Sharp employs color more pragmatically in the midst of an ongoing display.
Mamoulian and Jones test another option for handling color during Becky’s meeting with Lord Steyne. Here, the filmmakers apparently intend to keep the broad palette boldly on display while staging important action. When Becky and Lord Steyne waltz, the range of color expands. The camera tracks their movements in medium to medium long shot as they pass before dancers and guests costumed in green, orange, yellow, red, blue, and pink. Mamoulian and Jones may well have expected that the contrast between Steyne’s predominately black-and-white outfit and Becky’s bright off-white dress would hold interest against the ever-changing accents. Placing simply colored costumes against a more assertive background reverses the film’s standard method of design, but it still might ensure that the key figures stand out adequately from their surroundings. Certainly such a transposition would well serve later Technicolor projects, as in Gone with the Wind‘s armory bazaar scene, where Rhett and Scarlett are clad in black before dancers in blue and red.27
The effect in Becky Sharp, though, is the continual introduction of distinct, vivid, potentially distracting accents behind the central characters. The generally flat illumination contributes to the effect, as does a shot scale that keeps the background figures fairly near the plane of focus. But the method of staging the background extras is most responsible for rendering them conspicuous. A close description helps capture the shot’s complexity and specify how color competes for visual interest. Background details are introduced one or two at a time within an otherwise neutral setting. First, Becky and Steyne pass a woman seated against the back wall and clad in a Royal Blue dress. Next to her sits another guest in a Blue Green dress, and beyond her, a table with a spray of Strong Blue flowers. As the camera tracks steadily leftward, these accents emerge and pass out of the frame. When the woman in green passes off frame right, a red-coated officer with a partner in Tigerlily red-orange sweeps through the background. Next, the shot reveals a woman in a Snapdragon yellow gown and, as she moves toward the right, a soldier in Imperial Blue and a woman in Vibrant Orange emerge from the left. Soon the background accents emerge more quickly and mingle. The couple in Vibrant Orange and Imperial Blue circle back to the left as another couple bring in Flame Scarlet accents and cross off right. Swiftly they are followed by a gentleman in a black coat and a woman in a truly horrible gown of Shamrock green and Dandelion yellow plaid. After a few similar passing accents, the shot concludes as a soldier in blue and a woman in extremely saturated Geranium red spin through the background.
The background accents are perceptibly choreographed. Rather than isolate the central characters against a generally colorful environment (as the problem is handled in Gone with the Wind), Mamoulian stages the action to reveal a series of well-defined and varied dashes of color. Each accent is clearly displayed before being pushed off to make room for the next. Once more, Becky Sharp‘s general mode of design results in the unusually conspicuous arrangement of color. Every new detail bursts forth against the blue and gray background. Greens and reds, oranges and blues follow one another and mingle as the foreground couple waltzes by. The filmmakers let color upstage the action.
The two reels of the ballroom sequence are a tour de force of experimental techniques for managing color, so it seems fitting that they should also present a more adventurous approach to lighting. Mamoulian and cinematographer Ray Rennahan attempt low-key lighting effects on the balcony set, where William comforts Amelia and where Becky has a rendezvous with Steyne. The scene is a test of how closely Technicolor could approach black-and-white standards. For example, when Amelia and William are framed on the balcony, the composition throws chromatic emphasis on the background while keeping the foreground figures in near silhouette. The foreground is kept dim, a touch of blue light highlighting the balcony’s railing and portions of the figures. A key light from the rear right provides just enough illumination to pick out the edges of the characters’ shoulders and portions of their faces. The left of each figure falls into darkness. The background, meanwhile, presents a blaze of light and color. Dancers in saturated red move back and forth before and behind the Porcelain Blue curtains and carpeted staircase that frame the dance hall. Mamoulian and Rennahan clearly labored to combine the lighting effects with pronounced color. The shot seems to proclaim that Technicolor can borrow the visual vocabulary of black-and-white without backing off the constant display of hue.
Nonetheless, the composition shows the limits of three-color’s flexibility with regard to lighting. […] Technicolor stock was not responsive enough to render areas of highlight and graded shadow as precisely as the film available to a black-and-white cinematographer. Though they achieve a low-key look, Rennahan and Mamoulian do not venture nearer to the characters than a medium long shot, and they lose most of the figures’ detail and texture. Later in the sequence, when they do offer medium shots and medium close-ups, the filmmakers pour in a good deal more light. Rennahan was able to achieve good facial detail only at the cost of complex modeling and without the convincing approximation of low-key offered by earlier compositions.
The Duchess of Richmond’s ball is Becky Sharp‘s most ambitious sequence. It crystallizes the film’s identity as a prototype or, to use Herbert Kalmus’s term, “proving-ground” for color production. Chromatically, the scene goes for broke, and it might well stand on its own as a demonstration of the process. This sequence, like La Cucaracha, reaches toward a bold conception of filmmaking that grants color a place of stylistic primacy. This is perhaps most obvious during Becky’s waltz with Steyne, when the incessant stream of accents challenges the central action. At the same time, though, Mamoulian and Jones introduce more modest uses of color, and they touch on a range of devices that would eventually blend with the classical system. The sequence’s establishing shots mark out territory in which color can safely become assertive. Similarly, the most obvious color scoring accompanies action that is somewhat tangential to the main line of narrative. Napoleon’s attack forms a spectacular background for Becky’s personal manipulation of Rawdon, George, and Steyne. As an occasion for spectacle, this event is relatively open to stylization. Finally, although some of the color scoring is peculiarly elaborate, Mamoulian also tests a more general, flexible kind of punctuation that involves momentarily heightening the play of accents. In its eagerness to try anything, to rush through a series of possibilities, scene is both an intensification of the film’s overall project and its centerpiece.28
12 Stull, “Help or Hinder?” 106.
13 Mamoulian, “Directing Color Pictures,” 151.
14 Ibid., 150.
15 The earlier adaptations, all entitled Vanity Fair, included a 1911 Vitagraph production, a 1915 feature distributed by the Kleine-Edison Feature Service, a 1922 British production produced by H. B. Parkinson, and another in 1923, distributed by Goldwyn. The most recent, released in 1932 and featuring Myrna Loy in the role of Becky, had been produced by M. H. Hoffman and distributed by Allied Pictures.
16 David Robinson, “Painting the Leaves Black,” Sight and Sound 30, no. 3 (Summer 1961): 126.
17 Rouben Mamoulian, “Some Problems in Directing Color Pictures,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, August 1935, 151. Mamoulian’s essay is also included in the Technical Bulletin of the Academy Technicians Branch, May 1935, 18-21; in International Photographer, July 1935, 20-21; and in Richard Koszarski, The Hollywood Directors, 1914-1940 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), 288-293. A condensed version appeared as “Colour and Emotion” in Cinema Quarterly, Summer 1935, 225-226.
18 Robert Gitt and Richard Dayton, “Restoring Becky Sharp,” American Cinematographer, November 1984, 100. My discussion of the reconstruction draws heavily on this thorough and detailed article. For a brief discussion of the Italian material, see “Lookin’ Sharp,” American Film, July-August 1985, 9. According to Gitt, a complete subtitled print was uncovered at the Netherlands Filmmuseum, but only after completion of the film restoration (Gitt, interview with the author, 2005).
19 Gitt and Dayton, “Restoring Becky Sharp,” 104.
21 The color change in reel four also noticeably affects the Imperial Blue accents on George’s collar, which can be seen clearly at the end of reel three, during the silhouette scene. When reel four commences, these blue accents have shifted to deep black.
22 Gitt interview.
23 Rouben Mamoulian, “Colour and Light in Films,” Film Culture 21 (Summer 1960), 74.
24 After an insert shot of a curtain blowing over a candelabrum, Mamoulian repeats the lighting change over a reverse angle of the dance floor. This time the effect is even more pronounced, as women with saturated blue, green, and red gowns catch the spotlighting.
25 Richard Neupert, “Technicolor and Hollywood: Exercising Restraint,” Post Script, Fall 1990, 27.
26 Mamoulian, “Directing Color Pictures,” 151.
27 Vincente Minnelli makes an even more striking use of this kind of reversal during the “Trolley Song” number in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). In that case, however, the palette is extraordinarily dense and varied, and it forms a much more consistent contrast with Esther’s (Judy Garland’s) predominately black outfit. Minnelli freely exploits the greater latitude offered by the musical to stretch the rules of emphasis that Kalmus recommended and Mamoulian echoed in his writing.
28 It remains one of Becky Sharp‘s great peculiarities that the chromatic centerpiece should come so early in the film, leaving little room for further development. Indeed, Mamoulian seemed to recognize this when he declared that the scene was the climax toward which he developed the palette, and then remained silent about any other portion of the film. In fact, this is indicative of the film’s terrible unevenness. It still seems astonishing that the same production could boast such intense attention to detail in the ball scene yet also contain what Anthony Slide called “surely the worst error in continuity ever perpetrated in the history of the cinema” (“Becky Sharp,” in Magill’s Cinema Annual 1982, ed. Frank Magill [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem, 1982], 406). In the final reel, Becky’s second-story apartment prominently features people passing by her window.
American Film. “Lookin’ Sharp.” July-August 1985: 9.
Eiseman, Leatrice, and Lawrence Herbert. The Pantone Book of Color: Over 1,000 Color Standards, Color Basics, and Guidelines for Design, Fashion, Furnishings, and More. New York: Abrams, 1990.
Gitt, Robert, and Richard Dayton. “Restoring Becky Sharp.” American Cinematographer, November 1984: 99-106.
Mamoulian, Rouben. “Colour and Emotion.” Cinema Quarterly, Summer 1935: 225-226.
–. “Colour and Light in Films.” Film Culture 21 (Summer 1960): 68-79.
–. “Painting the Leaves Black: Rouben Mamoulian Interviewed by David Robinson.” Sight and Sound 30, no. 3 (Summer 1961): 123-130.
–. “Some Problems in Directing Color Pictures.” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, August 1935: 148-153.
Neupert, Richard. “Technicolor and Hollywood: Exercising Restraint.” PostScript, Fall 1990: 21-29.
Slide, Anthony. “Becky Sharp.” In Magill’s Cinema Annual 1982, edited by Frank Magill. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem, 1982.”
(Higgins, Scott (2007): Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow. Color Design in the 1930s. Austin: University of Texas Press, on pp. 49-71.)
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.
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.
Two-Color Kodachrome Print (USA ca. 1925 to 1927, Anonymous). Credit: George Eastman Museum. Photographs of the Kodachrome two-color double coated stock from 1925 and 1927 by Olivia Kristina Stutz, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.