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: https://blog.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.
Fifty years ago this month, production began on Becky Sharp; one of the most important films in the history of the American cinema, the first feature shot in the three-strip Technicolor process. The film gained immediate acclaim in its use of color for dramatic and emotional effectiveness. New York Times critic Andre Sennwald wrote, “It produces in the spectator all the excitement of standing upon a peak in Darien and glimpsing a strange, beautiful and unexpected new world. As an experiment, it is a momentous event … a gallant and distinguished outpost in an almost uncharted domain.” And yet, for more than 40 years, Becky Sharp has not been seen in the full-color version as its makers intended.
Critics and scholars have had to rely on inferior, two-color prints, which have drastically changed the color scheme; for example, Tom Milne in his definitive volume on Becky Sharp‘s director, Rouben Mamoulian, writes of Becky’s “demure pink” costume, which is, in reality, a brilliant yellow.
Becky Sharp‘s history has been a checkered one. It was financed by John Hay Whitney and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, who had taken an immediate interest in the three-strip Technicolor process, and produced what is generally described as the first three-strip Technicolor short, La Cucaracha. The Whitneys, along with their partner Merian C. Cooper, selected Miriam Hopkins as their star and Lowell Sherman to direct, but the latter died of pneumonia in December of 1934 after having worked little more than a month on the production. Rouben Mamoulian was subsequently brought in as director, and he completely re-shot the film. Luckily there was continuity between the two productions in the figure of prominent theatrical designer Robert Edmond Jones, who “designed” the look of the film.
“Color in pictures does not mean that the screen will be deluged with brilliant hues,” explained Jones. “Color is rather the ‘tone’ of the picture, or the underlying harmony of all tones. Each square inch of the picture must be related to every other square inch.” When Becky Sharp received its premiere in June of 1935, although critics were mixed in their reactions to the dramatic elements of the film, they were unanimous in their praise for the production’s use of color.
In May of 1935, Technicolor manufactured a total of 448 prints of the film, 259 for domestic use and 189 for foreign release. As far as can be ascertained, not one of those nitrate prints has survived. The Technicolor Company, itself, retained a print of only the first ten minute reel for color timing purposes. In 1943, the Whitneys and their company, Pioneer Pictures, sold all rights in Becky Sharp to Film Classics, Inc., and at the same time turned over all printing materials on the film. Probably for budgetary reasons, Film Classics decided to reissue the film, not in Technicolor, but in the cheaper to manufacture, two-color, Cinecolor process. Thus, 16mm prints, for non-theatrical purposes, were released of the full-length 84-minute version, while 35mm prints were cut to 66 minutes. In shortening the film, Film Classics removed and junked sections from the magenta and cyan negatives and from the soundtrack negative. When Film Classics went out of existence in the early Fifties, the film changed hands several times, and by 1958, when television prints were first made, Becky Sharp was only available in a black-and-white, 16mm cut version. Since then, miscellaneous reels of the surviving 35mm negative have been lost.
Among those who felt a sense of frustration at not being able to view Becky Sharp in its original form was Ronald Haver, who had tried to screen the film, in the early Seventies, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He impressed on Larry Karr of the American Film Institute Archives the need to restore the feature, but the Institute did not have the necessary funds available to pursue the project. In the meantime, National Telefilm Associates had acquired the rights to the production, and had placed various printing materials at the UCLA Film Archives. (Here the authors enter the picture. Robert Gitt, preservation officer of the UCLA Film Archives, became enthusiastic about the project, and his enthusiasm was shared by Richard Dayton of the YCM Laboratory.)
Aware of Becky Sharp‘s historical importance, YCM agreed to bring in the work for under $30,000, a figure which UCLA Film Archives could accept, using funds made available in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Larry Karr continued to support the project, and, on our behalf, contacted archives throughout the world in an abortive search for additional Technicolor material. Short fragments and brief scenes only, marred by superimposed foreign subtitles, survived in the Archives du Film at Bois D’Arcy, France, and at the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. The only vaguely useful print which was found to exist, and which was subsequently not utilized for the project, was a cut and worn 35mm Cinecolor print in the British National Film Archives. One promising lead which failed to materialize was was a report of a 35mm Technicolor print at the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome. Every effort was made to have this print shipped to the States or at least examined in Italy, but the final word came from a representative of the Cineteca who reported, “It is not possible to unwind it and measure its length. This is due to the fact that the print has a lot of joins made with scotch (sic), and this has melted and sticked (sic) the film.” Representatives have been sent to Rome, but no one has been allowed to see the cans, let alone the film, and we must reluctantly assume that the print at the Cineteca has either disappeared or disintegrated.
As we began the restoration process, we had available to us the following materials: a yellow negative of the full-length version, missing reels four and nine; all nine reels of the cyan negative, but edited to the short 66-minute version; the magenta negative, also edited to the short version, and missing reels two and nine; the nitrate soundtrack of the edited version, severely shrunken and showing signs of deterioration of reels five through nine, and a portion of reel four. Of the original Technicolor protection positive masters, we were missing the yellow entirely; we had a complete cyan of the original version and a magenta of the original version, missing reels five, seven and nine. Additionally, we had access to a 16mm TV black-and-white negative, a reduction of the magenta master positive, made in 1958, and edited to conform to the short version; a black-and-white positive 16mm print made from this negative; a 16mm two-color (red-orange and prussian-blue) print of the 84-minute version; and the one surviving Technicolor reel donated to the UCLA Film Archives by Technicolor Inc.
EXTANT MATERIAL ON BECKY SHARP. Note: Blank spaces indicate missing material. The cyan and magenta negatives and the track were edited for a 35mm Cinecolor release of the short version. The magenta and cyan masters were used for a 16mm full length Cinecolor version. The yellow master was completely lost.
Our first project was to tackle the soundtrack, which, interestingly, also had presented problems to Becky Sharp‘s producers. Preview audiences in the spring of 1935 complained of a “pumping” reproduction of the dialogue, bordering on unintelligibly. The RCA Photophone process, used to record Becky Sharp, was criticized at the time as being non-linear, although James G. Stewart of the RKO Sound Department, felt that the system was actually too linear and was picking up all of the variations in loudness and emphasis on certain words too accurately. The producers ordered the film’s release held up for a month while the entire soundtrack was re-recorded by “a new RCA process.” In actuality, this consisted of a desperate attempt to save the production by re-recording the photophone track on Western Electric’s rival variable density system, exposed and developed so as to photographically “limit” the audio peaks on the track. This was then re-recorded back to the Photophone process for the release prints. Unfortunately, the resulting audio, while undoubtedly an improvement, was still rather poor even by 1935 standards, and a strident, distorted “pumping” quality was evident, particularly in Miriam Hopkins’ voice.
We are usually wary of tampering with soundtracks when restoring films, for “improving” tracks by the overuse of filtering, limiting and compressing can actually make them sound worse than the originals. However, in the case of Becky Sharp it was felt essential to do some limiting in order to decrease the irritability factor. We transferred sections of the track derived from the 35mm positive print; six shortened reels of 35mm safety optical track printed from the original nitrate negative; two shortened reels of 16mm black-and-white track from the TV print; and eight sections of the cut sequences from the complete 16mm Cinecolor track. All these were put on mag film, with levels and equalization matched as closely as possible. Limiting was used on all the tracks, and the 16mm tracks were also processed with noise reduction, to gate out noise during pauses in the dialogue, and dynamic noise suppression. Clicks and pops were removed from the mag film with a razor blade, and and the tracks were edited into A & B rolls, synced with our “workprint” (in reality the cyan nitrate master). Finally we crossfaded back and forth for the final mix to ¼ inch sync tape, and to a new 35mm optical track negative.
With the soundtrack completed, the next step was to restore the 18 minutes of cut footage, restore as much of the full, three-strip color as possible, and produce a set of safety black-and-white separation masters and two release prints of the best possible quality, one for screening purposes and one for cold storage.
We wanted to avoid some of the mistakes which had been made in the past, in making Eastman Color prints from old Technicolor three-strip materials. One custom has been to make a CRI in an optical printer directly from the Technicolor camera negatives; the optical printer adds a certain amount of contrast, and the CRI stock is definitely of too high a gamma to copy three-strip negatives successfully, leading to the harsh, unpleasant colors often seen in reissues. Even though a wet gate may be employed, we felt it would be too expensive and, after examination of the negatives, probably unnecessary.
In other cases, labs have used Technicolor’s old nitrate protection masters and copied these on 5243 Internegative/Interpositive stock without realizing that the Technicolor masters are of a higher contrast (ie. gamma 1.35) than Panchromatic Separation stock (5235), which is designed to be used in conjunction with 5243, both having a gamma of 1.00.
Our initial inclination was to generate a new safety yellow master from the remaining reels of the uncut yellow nitrate negative, and marry this with the existing cyan and magenta nitrate masters, filling in some of the gaps in these masters with new safety footage where possible, and then to make a color internegative and two prints.
Initial tests showed that not only was our new yellow master far superior in terms of sharpness and grain to the nitrate cyan and magenta masters, but also that these existing nitrate masters had a field problem (uneven exposure across the frame) and they exhibited a pulsing appearance – a slight fading in and out of the colors caused by uneven development in the old rack and tank method. Using these masters for most of the footage might save us some money, but at a considerable loss of quality, and so we determined to go back to the original camera three-strip negatives as much as possible.
We wondered if it would be possible to make a registered release print directly off the three-strip negatives – a very unorthodox idea, but an intriguing one. Usually a specially modified printer, we made a test on Eastman 5384 stock, printing each Technicolor negative separately, with the appropriate filter to add the color. The results – beautiful and rich colors as well as delicate pastel shades with an over-all look approaching the old Technicolor IB dye transfer process – so far exceeded our expectations that we decided to make not only the preservation masters but also the release prints from the original YCM negatives wherever we had them. Our plan now was to make new safety dupe negatives for the missing sections of the camera negative, copying from the nitrate masters. Where all three nitrate negatives existed, we would use those; where a nitrate record was missing, we would replace all three records with new safety dupes of the safety yellow master and the nitrate cyan and magenta masters, thus keeping contrast under control and ensuring good registration. In this way, much of the footage in our release prints would be second generation off the camera negative, with the remainder being fourth generation.
Now, squarely, we had to face the problem of the cyan, which has the opposite emulsion position from the other two, because of the way in which it is photographed in the Technicolor three-strip camera. Traditionally an optical printer has almost always been used to keep the focus equally good on all three records, by refocusing or simply by relying upon the depth of the field of the lens. We have found, however, that keeping the cyan in perfect focus is not as important as has usually been assumed. The cyan image, as photographed by the three-strip camera, is the weakest of the three in terms of quality because it is the back part of a bipack in the camera and is photographed through the emulsion of the yellow negative. This causes the cyan negative to be very fuzzy, and keeping it in sharp focus is not only unnecessary, but, as the grain is far sharper than any image on the film, can actually be detrimental.
Our feeling was that printing the cyan through the base to make release prints does not lead to any appreciable loss of sharpness, since there is very little to begin with, and, if anything, it is an advantage in that it throws the grain slightly out of focus, especially reducing the graininess in flesh tones, which is most often the viewer’s focal point. Our technique yields excellent color, pleasing contrast and gives good registration except occasionally when there were problems with the original material. (The Technicolor camera was not infallible, and certain shots in Becky Sharp appear to have been photographed slightly out of register; in later years it was known that Technicolor had to adjust the register occasionally when making the dye transfer matrices because the camera negatives did not always exactly match.)
To generate safety masters and dupes of sections of the picture, we used an Acme standard contact printer, with a modified movement to handle shrinkage. A clip of leader was taken from a reel of Becky Sharp to determine how much modification would be required to the pins. We did not wish to change the registration pins in any way, but we had to adjust the pull-down-pin for shrinkage, along with the small pin opposite the register pin.
Though our ultimate release prints would be made with the cyan printed through the base, it was important to keep all other generated elements standard in every way, ie. printed emulsion to emulsion. In order to maintain register, we had to use – as did the Technicolor camera – a common hole for all three pieces of film, a hole equidistant from and with the same position in relation to the image in all three records. However, two different printer movements are needed in order to copy all three records, emulsion to emulsion. For printing dupes of the cyan, we had a second movement with the register pin moved to the opposite side of the gate. Consequently, one movement prints with the track area towards and the other prints with it away from the operator.
Tests were made to establish the correct exposure and contrast to match the original as much as possible. Thanks to today’s superior film stock, we succeeded to a greater extent than did Technicolor in 1935; indeed our dupes, cut into Becky Sharp, match the surrounding footage quite well, whereas the dupes made by Technicolor for effects are rather harsh and very grainy.
In making scene-to-scene color corrections, we relied upon the expertise of Pete Comandini of YCM Lab. Pete had to do the timing by trial and error since we did not have the old Technicolor timing information available, and it was not possible to use a Hazeltine since three strips of film are involved. All three negatives were placed on long shaft rewinds and viewed over a light box, in order to pick a scene which appeared to have a normal exposure; color tests were then made of this shot to establish the trims for exposing the three records, and this set-up would be used to make a test print of the entire reel. The test print was viewed over the light box, and plus or minus values were assigned to exposures of each of the three colors on every scene before making another print. Technicolor and cinematographer Ray Rennahan, ASC, had done their jobs well, and we found remarkably few exposure problems, especially considering the very slow stock at that time, which had an approximate ASA of 8-12. Becky Sharp is far superior in this regard than many later Technicolor three-strip features, for which we have examined the negatives, perhaps because Technicolor was being extra careful with its first feature and there were no exterior scenes about which to worry.
On reels four, five and nine, where portions of one of the three negatives were missing and we had no backup in the form of protection masters, we were forced to make some difficult decisions.
Reel four did not have any yellow material surviving, and, making do with magenta and cyan, we decided to experiment to see if we could simulate the look of three-color. We made what might be called an “imitation Cinecolor” effect by selecting filters to print the cyan image as prussian-blue and the magenta image as red-orange. Then we tried printing the reel with a simulated two-color Technicolor look, with the cyan printed as green and the magenta printed as red. Finally we decided to compromise by printing the magenta image twice, once as magenta and once as a false yellow, and leaving the cyan alone, resulting in a red-orange and green-blue combination. The reel was timed in the same way as the other reels, which was not easy, since the false yellow did not react as the genuine yellow negative would. However, very good flesh tones, hair coloring, reds, browns, blacks, and whites were obtained, with the only compromise being between greens and blues, all of which reproduce as variations of blue-green. The transition into and out of this particular reel works better than might be expected because the costumes of the performers – red uniforms for the soldiers and white satin and pale green dresses for the women – reproduce about the same in both genuine three-color and our imitation.
Reel five is a key reel, involving Napolean’s attack and the panic at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, a famous sequence in which Mamoulian and Jones use color psychologically, with the lighting and costumes accentuating the drama. Unfortunately, when the film was reissued, about two minutes of some of the best action sequences had been removed from the magenta and cyan negatives; we had a complete yellow negative and a complete cyan master, but the magenta master had not survived. We had available a 16mm Cinecolor print, and since the red-orange Cinecolor image had been derived from the original Technicolor magenta master, we decided to try blowing up this image, through a separation color filter, to 35mm and registering it with the yellow and cyan materials. Perhaps predictably, the results were ghastly, with the coarse grain structure of the Cinecolor print producing a very objectionable “boiling” of the grain in those parts of the picture in which the color red appeared. With considerable trepidation we tried a test in which the yellow negative was printed as both yellow and a false magenta, and to our surprise the results were quite watchable. Here also the scene helped us. Napolean has attacked and the doors to the ballroom have blown open, putting out the candles. As panic ensues and everyone rushes about, the lighting and costume become increasingly oriented towards red, and the sequence takes on a nightmarish quality. Our strange-looking footage fits in rather well, and we hope that, in the general pandemonium, everyone will overlook that Becky Sharp no longer seems to be wearing any lipstick and all the green plants lining the dance floor have turned black. (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.)
Reel nine was our biggest problem, with the only surviving 35mm material being the cyan negative and cyan positive. It looked as if this reel might have to be in black-and-white until we were given access by N.T.A. to the 16mm black-and-white television negative. We made a blow-up to a new 35mm magenta master, registered to the cyan master, and then made two dupe negatives (magenta and cyan) for printing, again using the magenta to produce a false yellow. The results, while far from good, are in many ways better than they have any right to be, considering the 16mm reduction negative was made on a standard printer without register pins. From time to time, the register does wander, and, more disturbing, the field of the 16mm negative was far from flat and there is more exposure in the center of the frame than at the edges, making our print more red in the center and more cyan at the edges. Most bothersome of all, the 16mm negative had been poorly developed and variations in density show up as color fluctuations or pulses in the final print. It is at moments such as this, that we hope that a 35mm Technicolor print of Becky Sharp, however incomplete, may still surface.
Comparing the one original surviving reel of 35mm Technicolor with our Eastman Color equivalent it appears that the blues and greens are very close, the reds and yellows slightly more tense, and the yellow hue is altered because Eastman Color does not reproduce the lemon yellows of the Technicolor process correctly. Our black level, while pleasing to the eye, is not quite as black as the original, and our restoration has a smoother and more attractive appearance than the coarse-grained IB print. Some of these differences can be explained by one unusual feature of IB printing. From 1933 until approximately 1945, Technicolor – in order to improve sharpness and obtain better blacks in the shadow areas – employed a black-and-white silver image, called the “key image,” along with the YCM dye transfers. Before transferring the dyes, this key image was printed photographically on the film along with the soundtrack. The negative used to print this image was known as the gray dupe and was of rather high contrast and quite heavy in density. It was usually copied from the magenta protection master, although in the case of Becky Sharp various clues indicate that the yellow master was used. Because a slight amount of gray does get into areas of the image where magenta (or yellow in Becky Sharp) dye is present, certain colors are dulled and the apparent graininess of the image is increased.
For the archival preservation of Becky Sharp a set of standard black-and-white separation master positives has been made. The stock is regular blue sensitive film, which is considerably less expensive than the panchromatic color separation stock needed to copy an Eastman Color negative. Copying these masters requires a lower contrast internegative stock, and in the course of making tests of each reel to check sharpness, color quality and registration, we found that Eastman Color camera film (5247), which has a gamma of .62, is ideally suited to the task. Should a large quantity of prints be needed, a color internegative can easily be made using this stock. In the meantime, we will continue to make Eastman 5384 color prints from the three-strip negative until it becomes worn or the nitrate starts to decompose, at which time those segments can be replaced with new dupes copied from the preservation separation masters.
In summation, our restoration has ensured minimum loss of quality, in terms of grain, sharpness and good highlight and shadow detail, through elimination, wherever possible, of additional print generation. The restored version of Becky Sharp utilizes three-color footage for a total of 64 minutes, two-color footage of good quality for ten minutes, and two-color footage of fair quality for ten minutes. With the problems of Becky Sharp behind us, we look forward to commencing work on Toll of the Sea (1922), the first two-color Technicolor feature using the subtractive process. The original negative of Toll of the Sea, starring Anna May Wong, was recently placed in the care of the UCLA Film Archives by Technicolor Inc.
Writing of “Some Problems in the Direction of Color Pictures,” back in 1935, Rouben Mamoulian commented, “So far the screen has been using a pencil; now it is given a palette with paints.” Hopefully our restoration of Becky Sharp has put back some of the colors on Mr. Mamoulian’s palette.”
(Gitt, Robert; Dayton, Richard (1984): Restoring Becky Sharp. In: American Cinematographer, 65,10, pp. 99–106.)
“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.
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.
American Film. “Lookin’ Sharp.” July-August 1985: 9.
Gitt, Robert, and Richard Dayton. “Restoring Becky Sharp.” American Cinematographer, November 1984: 99–106.
Koszarski, Richard. The Hollywood Directors, 1914-1940. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976.
Mamoulian, Rouben. “Colour and Emotion.” Cinema Quarterly, Summer 1935: 225–226.
–. “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.”
(Higgins, Scott (2007): Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow. Color Design in the 1930s. Austin: University of Texas Press, on pp. 58–60.)
Chris Challis was born on 18 March 1919 in Kensington, London and attended school in Wimbledon. He entered the film industry, working as a camera assistant on Gaumont-British newsreels before working at Denham Studios when three-strip Technicolor was introduced to Britain. Challis was an assistant on the World Windows travelogues shot by Jack Cardiff in the late 1930s and on other productions, including location work in India for The Drum (1938). He worked as a cameraman for the RAF Film Production Unit during World War II. In the post-war years he was camera operator on Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes before photographing The Tales of Hoffmann, Gone to Earth (1950), The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955) and The Battle of the River Plate (1956). During his long career he photographed many popular British films including Genevieve (1953) and Footsteps in the Fog (1955), and worked with British and American directors, most notably Stanley Donen, Billy Wilder, Joseph Losey, J. Lee Thompson and Ken Annakin. He became known for his ingenuity, reliability and expertise and is credited as cinematographer on major box-office successes including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Evil under the Sun (1981). He won a BAFTA for Best Cinematography for Arabesque (1966). He retired in 1985 after working on Steaming (1984), Joseph Losey’s last film. He died in May 2012.
Anon, ‘A Feature Cinematographer Photographs the Olympics’, American Cinematographer vol. 57 no. 4, April 1976, pp. 406–7, 458–9.
Brett, Anwar, interview with Chris Challis, ‘Reflections on a Golden Age’, Exposure, October 1998, pp. 16–17.
Challis, Christopher, ‘Hoffmann sets new pattern in film making technique’, American Cinematographer vol. 32 no. 5, May 1951, pp. 176–7, 194–6.
Challis, Christopher, Are They Really So Awful? A Cameraman’s Chronicles (London: Janus Publishing, 1995).
Film Dope entry on Challis, no. 6, November 1974, pp. 41–3.
Petrie, Duncan, The British Cinematographer (London: BFI, 1996), pp. 80–2.
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 17 OCTOBER 2008
INTERVIEWERS: SARAH STREET AND LIZ WATKINS
SARAH STREET: To start off broadly, we thought we’d ask you how would you define the role of Director of Photography?
CHRIS CHALLIS: I think it’s different on every film. It depends on the film, the style of the photography and very much on your relationship with the director. Some directors have a great visual sense, they know exactly how they want their picture to look and it’s an integral part of the way they’re going to direct it. That’s the ideal situation because it gives you a lead into what you want to do. Others who don’t have a visual sense, and they’re in the vast majority I think, then you’re in a bit of a vacuum because you don’t know which way to go with it. Now I think it’s [DOP] a very important part of the film and I admit that I’ve always felt that you are the director’s sort of paintbrush. He’s the artist, although you’re sort of carrying it out and doing the artist’s part of it, and it does differ from working in the initial stages and pre-production with the art director, the costumes and looking for locations. Of course it’s all changed now because of digital – it’s incredibly easy I think. You can photograph anywhere really – you could come in here and cover us talking to one another with these [domestic] lights. For Technicolor it’s different because it’s all arc lights and building a set, and the equipment was impressive, I mean physically impressive.
SS: When did you first become aware of Technicolor as someone who was keen to get into film and cinematography? Can you remember when you first heard of it?
CC: I started in the film industry with Gaumont British News. My father knew the managing director of Gaumont British News and Castleton Knight,1 and they were just starting to use live sound for doing interviews and things. They didn’t use sound normally and newsreel cameramen were like photographers. The cameras were quite small and they didn’t have assistants or anything like that. With the advent of sound they needed help to lug the gear around and everything like that and so I think I was one of the first people ever to get that job and I had a year or just over a year of covering all the sort of things that the newsreel seems to ply.2 They were a major part of cinemagoing; there were cinemas that just showed newsreels and there was great competition between the films. I happened to see or read that Technicolor were coming to England and doing the first colour film in Europe which was Wings of the Morning . It was made at Denham but Technicolor brought their own technicians. They took over a couple of machines in Humphries Laboratory in London, processed the negatives and made a black-and-white rush print, and then the negatives were shipped out to the States and the colour didn’t come back for four weeks and then it was only a pilot, it wasn’t a whole scene. It was a scientific process at that stage. I took myself down to Denham and the head of the camera department, George Kay, gave me a job. It was only loading magazines in the darkroom but I thought it was a step toward realising my ambitions. I suppose it was in a way but I spent most of my time loading these enormous magazines. At the end of the film the demand for colour was growing so rapidly that Technicolor decided to build a laboratory in Europe and they chose England in Harmondsworth on the Bath Road. So at the end of Wings of the Morning the laboratory was almost built – just the building because it didn’t have any of the equipment in it – because all the processing machines had to come from the States. They kept me on and so I was the first actual employee and I was very lucky because it was like going on a sort of university course.3 I went through every department as they were installing the equipment which came over without lenses. The lenses and the prism, which was the heart of the process, were made by Taylor and Hobson in England; I went through all of that and so I knew exactly how the process worked.
SS: Did they screen Wings of the Morning and have discussions about it because it was the first feature film? Do you remember anything of the reaction to that particular film?
CC: Do you mean during the making of it?
SS: Yes, during the process. I imagine everyone was intrigued to see this first British feature?
CC: Yes, of course they did, but it didn’t involve me, I was too busy loading the camera!
SS: Have you seen it since?
CC: I have, yes.
SS: Do you like it?
CC: Yes, and they were terribly impressed with it because Technicolor was a scientific process originated in California, where colours appear harsher and that’s the way they expected colour to be rather than how it was, particularly in the Irish locations that were a bit misty and hazy.
SS: It was quite soft, wasn’t it?
CC: There’s less contrast and everyone thought it was beautiful. The advent of colour had an enormous impact because people thought in terms of black and white.
SS: Yes, people seem to judge colour very harshly if it was seen to be not quite right.
CC: Technicolor retained a very strict control over what people did with it. Natalie Kalmus4 especially was in charge of colour control and she interfered with everything that our directors wanted to do, or the cameramen. They [the Color Advisory Service] didn’t like things like contrast and it was only later when it got into the hands of Jimmy Wong Howe5 and people like that that they started to experiment.
SS: Did you feel that the Color Advisory Service was something that took part in the production process? In reality, how did it impinge on people’s work?
CC: In the early stages it took a very big part because they vetted everything. There was no such thing as white and they dipped all the whites to a one- two- or three-grade dye because of the contrast which was a great problem. It was very difficult to get a good result because of the light levels. Dark colours went black and light colours [went] blue. There’s no such thing as having a pale blue or a pink because it would photograph white under certain conditions and you couldn’t see dark colours because they went black. So they tried to keep all the clothes the same, toward the middle range.
SS: So was that quite useful to some extent to prepare the production side?
CC: Yes, I think it was, so as far as the look of the picture was concerned it was very difficult to do anything unusual. They didn’t like low key lighting or anything like that.
SS: I’ve read about Natalie Kalmus developing charts for films. Is that true? Were you aware of a chart that was devised in these terms, because they don’t seem to be in the archives anywhere?
CC: Well if you were to see Natalie Kalmus you’d think she was the last person in the world to have anything to do with it because of course she dressed, well, she looked like an explosion in a paint shop.6
SS: Did you work with Joan Bridge because I get the impression that she was somebody who really knew about colour and was very helpful?
CC: Yes, she was very much better, much less aggressive than Natalie Kalmus, and she got along better with the artists. Joan Bridge was much more diplomatic. She only worked on the English films and became a colour consultant when they [Technicolor] opened up here. She had most of the contacts and during shooting she would come down once a week and maybe she would see the rushes and things.7
SS: We’re very interested in The Drum which was one of the early Technicolor British films.
CC: Oh yes, that was the first feature film made from the Technicolor laboratory in Harmondsworth.8
SS: Was Technicolor very helpful with advice about humidity controls and temperature or did you pioneer filming in a difficult location?
CC: They’d never done a location like that ever, and of course we didn’t shoot sound at all so the camera wasn’t quite as heavy.9 I was a trainee assistant [listed on Film Index International and IMDb as ‘focus puller’] and we had a unit if you could believe it; it was a major film. We didn’t take artistes [to India] but the unit consisted of a cameraman who was Osmond Borradaile10 and Geoff Boothby was the director. Henry Imus was the American Technicolor technician and I was his trainee assistant.11 I flew to India and yes, Technicolor did a lot of research on conventional film under extreme conditions such as heat leads to a build up of latent exposure; it’s like a fogging over which eventually ruins it. Also you can get static if the film gets very brittle and looks like lightening, and humidity affects it. So they did a lot of research in California and produced a whole series of recommendations about temperatures. Their thinking was that where we were going we would have the facilities that they had in California; in actual fact we hadn’t anything, there was no such thing as refrigeration. They had this idea of packing the film stock in drums, which was rather strange considering the film’s name! Each drum took what we termed two ‘groups’, and a group contained 1,000 foot screen footage but 3,000 foot linear footage of separate cans [because of the three records needed for three-strip Technicolor].12 The film was put in the drums with a silica gel which acted as a dehumidifier, and then tightly sealed and then soldered the metal drums. But of course when they [Technicolor] gave me a list of the film’s useful life at various temperatures, they were so unrealistic. I’d arrived in Karachi and had to go by train to Delhi across the Sinai desert and the temperature was well over 100 in the shade. I thought I might as well go home because I wasn’t even going to get to Delhi with the film let alone the rest of it, but thought we could try various ways of keeping it cool. The train didn’t have corridors so you had half a carriage with a shower and everything else but there was no air conditioning. They had galvanised tin baths in which they put eighty-pound blocks of ice. I had all the film stock in my compartment surrounded with these and covered with a tarpaulin sheet to try and keep it cool, and by the time we arrived in Delhi we had to renew the ice because it had gradually melted. The dust was colossal crossing the Sinai desert and so with all this water melting and everything I was in sort of two inches of mud. But finally the only check that I could develop was hand tests: I could break off a foot of film of each of the unexposed negatives, develop it and then see whether the fog level was building up.13
SS: But you wouldn’t be aware of how the colour might be affected?
CC: No, because we were dealing with three black-and-white images. The other interesting thing was that they had these camera report sheets which the assistant was responsible for and they were very, very extensive in their coverage; you had to record everything and they had this thing called a ‘lilly’. There’s three white cards, one at right angles, and two at forty-five degrees on either side, and you took a reading either side with a photometer so it would be whatever setting, 1,500 foot candles this way and 2,000 that way, 4,500 this, and all this had to be noted for each single shot and then you also had to give a brief description of the scene. If it was a close-up of you then I would have to describe the colour of your clothes and the settee behind you and the colour of your hair, and so they had all this data and they were really quite ridiculous about it. All this built up but for four months we’d had no contact; we couldn’t send any film back so we had it with us all the time.
SS: I wonder what happened to that kind of documentation because it strikes me that those kinds of records would be wonderful for researchers because British studios weren’t very good at keeping records.
CC: They went to Technicolor. They took the Technicolor cameras apart and I’m told that when we came back from India with what was the first film George Kay sat up all night reading all of my reports and he congratulated me. I got a rise and was made a qualified technician.
SS: So your notes would be very useful for other films, other texts?
CC: They would give a good lead, yes. When they printed the rushes they didn’t print in colour, they printed these pilots. Every shot you did a ten-foot or a fifteen-foot take with the ‘lilly’ in front and the colour chart and a greyscale, and that’s what they printed up. So we’d got the rushes in black and white and the colour pilot so we could see what it was like. They needed all these notes for the people who were to do the grading. When I became the Director of Photography I certainly sat in on all the grading and added my comments to everybody else’s. It was such a laborious process because once the negative had been cut – the final cut – they had a black-and-white print of it. The negative was handed over to Technicolor for negative cutting and they cut the negatives into this master, then they started printing in colour. Well of course when you saw it side by side cut together it was sometimes wildly different from how you thought it looked during shooting. This is when grading started. They would make a print based on the grading of the colour pilot, which they’d made originally, and then you would screen that and they might say ‘it’s too dark or it’s too blue and it was minus point this’, and they would make those corrections and make another print which took another two or three days and you’d see that and if that still wasn’t right, then you’d have to make more corrections. If you think you had to do this for every shot in the film then you can imagine how long it took. But Technicolor was a wonderful process because as a cameraman one had enormous control, not in the shooting but in the printing of contrast because the final colour print consisted of a black-and-white key which was printed from the blue record which was the sharpest of the three films. What defeated Technicolor in the end was definition, and they put this black-and-white key on to improve definition, contrast or reduce colour saturation. They used this idea in A Matter of Life and Death (1946).
SS: In the transition shots?
CC: Yes, they were all done that way, by increasing the black-and-white density and losing the colour. You could slowly do away with the colour and bring it back vice versa. I think, I believe Ossie Morris used it quite a lot to do some effects.
SS: Can you say more about blue being the particularly dominant register in the Technicolor process?
CC: Of course. The basis of the process was a prism and it reflected a third of the light and transmitted two-thirds approximately and you had two gates at right angles; in one of them ran the green record which was by itself because it had filters on the back. So the green record only recorded the subtractive colour, and on the bi-pack the two films ran emulsion to emulsion. The red record, which was the back one of the two, was photographed through the blue record so the definition on the red record was very, very poor. The blue record was a different type of emulsion so it was much sharper and that’s why they used that to make a black-and-white picture. If you hadn’t the least idea of how it worked you’d say of course that it can’t be done.
IN CHALLIS’S BECTU INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN GOUGH-YATES ON 11 OCTOBER 1988, HE GIVES SOME INTERESTING DETAIL ON TECHNICOLOR CAMERAS AND TECHNOLOGY WHICH IS INCLUDED HERE:
KEVIN GOUGH-YATES: Can you say something about the Technicolor cameras of this time?
CHRIS CHALLIS: There was only the one camera which was three-strip, it had three films running in it so it was large as you can imagine. It hadn’t got a turret – it had single interchangeable lenses in its mount and magazines had 3,000 foot and so were jolly heavy to cart around. It was a difficult camera to take on location because obviously the heart of the Technicolor process, which is still an engineering miracle to me, was that, it had two gates in the camera which were at right angles to each other and one was a single film and the other was a bi-pack. Two films running together, emulsion to emulsion, and the image coming through the lens was split, intensity-wise, allowing approximately a third of light through to the single film and two-thirds to the double. This was done by the means of a prism which had a spotted surface across the middle which allowed part transmission and part reflection of the image. The location of this prism was unbelievably critical. The images had to exactly coincide in the registers so when finally the thing was printed you could enlarge it up on a cinema screen and you could get reasonable definition. There was a degree of adjustment in the printing, but nevertheless it had to be as right as one could have it in the camera and it was adjustable by means of moving the prism, but it was a jolly difficult thing to do on location. I mean the reading of the register was done in the cameras when you were working in England – the camera came back to the laboratory every night and they went into the mechanical department and they were serviced and the register was checked and then you did a photographic check of the register every morning on the floor before you began to shoot. You photographed a chart which was read that evening under a toolmaker’s microscope so they could check the image size and the spread and [that] everything was within the tolerance to get the sort of definition they wanted in the final print. Well when you were away from home, a long, long way, you obviously couldn’t have a microscope check because there was nobody to do that, so you had to do it visually. And of course you were into all sorts of problems if you were out in hot countries because you had a jig in which you put two pieces of film and you drilled this with this special jig of five holes; one in the middle and one in each corner of the actual aperture and these I think were twelve-thousandths of an inch in diameter. Then you put the film into the camera, the strip of film that you’d drilled, and you put it down into the register so that you actually used the claws to pull it into the right position and the register pins would hold it just as the film would actually come down when the camera was being used. You took the pressure plates out of the gates and you put lamps so you were shining light through the back of the film and then you put the prism in and you looked through the lens with a telescope and then you could see these five holes one at a time. If they coincided as you were looking through the filters on the prism they were white, but if they didn’t you had a magenta or green fringe around it and you had to then adjust this prism on a rocker as it was on a sort of knife edge until you got the best distribution of error over the whole area. I mean it was never absolutely perfect but you had to get it as right as you could get it. It was an awful business doing this; we had to do it every night when you were away from home.
KGY: How did the equipment change over the years?
CC: Very little. It was incredibly advanced compared to any other camera when it came out. The lens mounts were just magnificent. They were on roller-bearings and they had a motor focus so the assistant could stand away with a slave motor and follow focus on it. It had a parallax corrector at a time when many other cameras, you know, the old Mitchells had the image upside down and no parallax corrector. It was a very advanced camera for its time and never really changed. The blimp was enormous; it had to be housed in all this to make it quiet. It had wonderful geared heads which have now become universal although they had them when nobody else had them. The geared heads were by Moy of England which is rather interesting [the geared head, which was operated with handles, fixed on to the studio dolly and made the camera easy to operate despite its weight]. To give you an idea of light levels, in the studio on Wings of the Morning and around that time you had to use 700 foot candles, wide open on the lens; you had to shoot wide open. It had to be an arc, basically because the process was balanced to white light or daylight. So there was no incandescent, no other coating of film that was compatible; it was all balanced to daylight, to white light. So anything that you used you had to balance, so of course arc was all right, it was slightly blue and you used a very pale straw-coloured filter. [CC notes that internal filters and effects were problematic in this system because of the high lighting levels required; CC gives an example of an internal filter in the camera which would cut the light by 35 per cent as problematic because with ‘700 foot candles you could just about light a head and shoulders’].
[REVERT TO 2008 INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT]
SS: Were you aware of other processes like Dufaycolor and Gasparcolor?
CC: Yes. Of course colour was available to amateurs long before it was professionally. They raked up a lot of that early film for this BBC series [The Thirties in Colour, BBC4, 2008].
CC: Technicolor had other processes before the final one. They had a bi-pack process where they stuck the two films together for the final print.
LIZ WATKINS: The colour on some of the World Windows films14 seems quite distinctive from what’s found in feature films and I was wondering if they were definitely filmed using the three-strip process?
CC: Oh yes, they were made fairly shortly after The Drum. Jack Cardiff photographed them. He was a camera operator on Wings of the Morning and he worked for Denham Studios. He was a very unusual sort of chap who wanted to be a Director of Photography (they didn’t call them that then, they called them cameramen), but this was a break for him and his contribution to the World Windows films was enormous. They came into being in a very strange way because Kay Harrison met Count von Keller and his wife socially.15 Count von Keller was German and he had escaped from Germany. He was a bon viveur, an extraordinary man, and he had this American heiress wife who had a lot of money. His great love was fast cars and I suspect fast women, but they’d also travel and Kay Harrison said to him, ‘Well, if you’re going to do all this travelling and go to all these places, why don’t you make films?’ To which he apparently said, ‘I don’t know anything about film.’ Kay replied ‘I can put you in touch with people who do’, and that’s how it all started. The first three were all made in Italy and an Italian named John Hanau who worked in the film industry was a partner with von Keller. We did one of the Rome Hunt [Fox Hunting in the Roman Campagna] which is the only fox hunt in Italy. The hounds were imported from Yorkshire. It’s quite unique because it’s very pictorial. You’ve absolutely got a conventional hunt that could be in England. Then we did one of Rome itself [Rome Symphony] and we did one of Vesuvius [The Eternal Fire]. They were so impressed with them because they were much better than any other travel films, different from the Fitzpatrick travelogues.16 Jack’s contribution was great I think visually and they became much more than simple travelogues. United Artists distributed the films and was very impressed and wanted more. So we went to the Middle East and it became more complicated because we wanted to be able to track the camera. We wanted a dolly, tracks and reflectors so we needed a camera car. We built a special Bedford truck which we took out to Palestine, drove it across the desert to Damascus and then down to the Persian Gulf. Then we made a whole series of them and the final lot were made in India. I went back to India and we made a whole series of films there. They would have gone on had it not been for the war.
LW: We were wondering if you could tell us about the lighting levels for exterior filming for Technicolor?
CC: We didn’t take any lighting equipment; it was all exterior shooting. We didn’t have electricians or anything like that with us.
LW: So that was sufficient light?
CC: Yes. We had this truck and we had a camera car which was Count Keller’s. He loved motor cars and he had a Packard shooting break camera car and two open Buicks for transporting people or anything like that. So it was quite a little convoy and we drove enormous distances. It was very exciting and they were lucky that they had Jack, who was very imaginative. He had ideas such as in the one about Petra [Petra], a rose-red city which is half as old as time; he had lovely shots of these steps that had been cut into the rock, going up them with the camera. Petra was a strange, enormous building. I think now there’s a Hilton you can go and stay in but when we went we had to stay in chaos in camps, and you went in through this gorge where you could either walk or ride on a donkey and you can really touch both sides and that’s the only way in.
SS: Had the films been scripted?
CC: They were scripted, yes. It wasn’t a tight script but the two directors who directed them [Hans Nieter and John Hanau], leap-frogged so while one director directed one, the other chap was preparing the second; he went there and got an outline to the script. The Arabian Bazaar was one of the second batch. We also did Jerusalem, Wanderers of the Desert, that’s the one with the Bedouins, and we did the one in Petra; that was quite a handful.
LW: In Wanderers of the Desert there’s a sequence that looks as though it’s shot at night. It has very intense blues, but the lighting levels would have been problematic?
CC: Well, that’s called ‘day for night’ photography. It was very phoney really but you couldn’t do it any other way than with a special heavy blue filter and neutral densities. It may look like night, I don’t know.
LW: [laughs] It was very blue.
SS: So because there were no lights you were using filters on the lens?
CC: No, no filters. I don’t think we did much in the early stages but later on I used to if one had a very bright sky. On a fixed, or static shot, I’d put a neutral density one on; I’d cut it more or less to fit so it would cut down on the exposure on the sky without affecting anything else. You didn’t use colour filters unless you wanted to for an effect. We cameramen, Jack certainly, and to an extent myself, had filters made for us by a couple of ladies who used to make them by hand; graduated colour filters and things like that for special effects.
SS: I suppose with the camera being different it wouldn’t be the kind of filter that would be current?
CC: It wouldn’t be used for anything else, that’s right.
SS: Would you perhaps be putting filters on lights sometimes instead?
CC: Yes, but of course you couldn’t for something like World Windows, you’d just cut the exposure down for the night [scene]. To give you an idea of the light levels, the Technicolor process was colour-balanced to daylight, to the colour temperature of the daylight. The only light source that matched daylight was arc, so it was all arc lighting. Well the arcs were enormous and they gave off a lot of fumes so if you had a big set with a lot of arcs you very quickly built up a haze in the studios and you started to see the beams of all the lights. Of the conventional incandescent lights, the biggest one listed in those days was five kilowatts and you could direct it to the colour temperature of daylight with a blue filter. If you had that largest incandescent light available with the blue filter on you could just about light a seated figure in a domestic interior and daylight from a window, two or three metres away. But that’s all it would give enough light for. So you could imagine what it was like lighting a big set. On The Tales of Hoffmann, which was shot on a silent stage, it was the old shape of things to come because we recorded at Worton Hall studios, Isleworth, for all the model work. They moved to Shepperton and it was known as the ‘silent stage’, the biggest in Europe but it was not soundproofed. We shot the whole film on that stage because it was shot to playback. Sound didn’t bother us and so we had the space and light.
SS: Shall we talk about The Tales of Hoffmann because we’ve read that one of your favourite memories is working with Powell and Pressburger?
CC: The art director was Hein Heckroth. Hein came from the background of opera; he was art director of the state opera in Hamburg and also a very good painter. But when they made the ‘Red Shoes ballet’ which was a film which was within a film [The Red Shoes], it was such a success Micky said, ‘Well we’d better do a complete opera and that’s the way we’re going to do it and we’re not going to do many special effects in the laboratory. We’ll have to do everything in the camera’, so we did most of the effects theatrically as you would do them on the stage; we did a lot of work with gauzes. As you probably know if you have a black gauze, paint something on it and light it from the front, it becomes more or less solid so you can paint a backdrop. If you take the light off the front and light from behind it disappears and you can do a tremendous change. Now that’s the theatrical side of the thing but of course light levels in the theatre are nothing and the human eye adapts so well, whereas we were doing the same thing with enormous light levels and changing had to be done with dimmer shutters because you can’t fade an arc light like you can with a resistor electric light. If you’ve got a lot of them then they have to be mechanised so they all worked electrically, then they all stuck and jammed and it was an absolute nightmare. My favourite sequence was the Venice sequence.
SS: Did you feel able to have ideas accepted and that you were very much part of the collaborative team?
CC: Oh yes, terrifically so. In fact we had one wonderful thing where the silent stage was built quite a little way off from the main studio buildings at Shepperton and Micky had the idea that after we’d seen the rushes we’d want to discuss them and talk about what we were doing. So he had a marquee put up by the silent stage and we used to have lunch brought out to us there so we didn’t have to go to the studio restaurant. It was a lovely idea really and it worked jolly well. Micky’s films were exciting because he was a great, efficient director and he had enormous energy. They were the most extraordinary unconventional couple; I mean, you would never have thought that they would ever work together. They had really nothing in common. Emeric was a mid-European Jew; Micky was a 100 per cent English. Emeric spoke with a heavy Hungarian accent, and they were a wonderful team. I knew them both very well as friends as well and I worked for them for years and I never, never heard either of them run the other one down which is pretty unique in the world of entertainment. They were great, great friends and welded together as a wonderful team. Either Micky or Emeric told me that they had been in America for the premiere of I Know Where I’m Going! (1945). They came back on the Queen Mary and Micky said that on the first night at dinner they were just talking about things and Emeric said to him, and I can’t do his accent, ‘Michael, would it not be a good idea if we made a film in heaven and on earth and earth was in colour and heaven was in black and white?’ and Micky said straight away that it was a great idea. Now Emeric didn’t know whether it was technically possible, and Micky said that when they got off the boat five days later they had an outline of the working script of the film which they took to Rank and they got the go-ahead. It was a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
SS: Oh yes, so imaginative with the colour composition.
CC: It was pure cinema, as much as Disney.
SS: Am I right in thinking that the black-and-white sequences were actually, in the transition scenes leading up to when the film flips from black and white to colour, filmed with the Technicolor cameras but then not processed for the Technicolor printing?
CC: Yes that’s right because they needed the three negatives.
SS: I’ve read that that was supposed to be less jarring than if it had been filmed with a conventional black-and-white camera?
CC: Yes with all the transition scenes.
LW: So you could print a black-and-white film from the three-strips of Technicolor negatives without any problem?
CC: Yes, it would come out in black and white.
LW: So the printing process introduces the problem with contrast and colour?
CC: The definition was fine, as good as straight black and white really, but then colour had an enormous impact as much as sound. They were the people that I liked to work with. My favourite directors were Micky and Stanley Donen, who was very, very similar. He grasped suggestions that I had and Joe Losey was good to work with.
SS: Did you have much contact with what went on in the lab?
CC: Yes, not initially but in the final printing.
SS: It can seem like a somewhat mysterious process of what actually went on in the lab, and maybe Technicolor sought to impose colour control at that stage? We’re fascinated by the whole process but with the lab stage being so important, we wondered how much intervention you were able to have?
CC: Well you had it at the end in the final printing but not during the actual shooting because the rushes were processed at night, you got them the next day and it was a fait accompli with Technicolor in the early stages. They were very conscious of anything they thought was a technical defect because the process hadn’t made the grade. There was one wonderful thing on Black Narcissus when it all fails and the nuns come back and there’s a shot of Sister Clodagh [Deborah Kerr] in her office in Bombay or something like that.
CC: Yes, Calcutta. There’s a big window and it’s pouring with rain. Jack did this close-up of her and lit her through a bit of glass but he had water running down it and so it had the effect of rain. Well this shot didn’t come back from Technicolor with the rushes; we got the rushes but minus this shot and everyone said, ‘What’s happening?’ They said, ‘It’s a problem with the printer. It’s not a very good print and we’re re-printing’. This went on for about four days and we never got it back. Eventually Frank Bush, who was the whipping boy of the mechanic department, came over and he told Micky and Jack that they’d had a problem in the lab and they hadn’t got it tied down and it looked as though we’d have to retake this shot. He said, ‘You know we’ve got this effect on it’ and Jack said ‘It’s supposed to be there!’. So they were trying to get rid of it desperately; that’s a true story.17
LW: That’s interesting the way an effect can be perceived differently. I was wondering if you could tell us more about The Tales of Hoffmann! Were you using blue gels which you would deliberately fade before using them?
CC: There were no really big incandescent lights in that period. Technicolor made a blue glass filter which was fitted into the lamp which we used rather than gels. Technicolor then made stock which was colour balanced to incandescent light so you didn’t need filters and it made the process faster. You didn’t need so much light and that changed everything enormously. You then had to put filters on the arcs because they were too blue. So basically you’d use arcs outside and as they made the bigger incandescent lights ten kilowatts you’d use those inside and they’d make lighting a bit easier. But it was a great process and good in the camera.
LW: We wanted to ask you about Footsteps in the Fog. Joan Bridge was colour consultant on that film as well and there’s a preponderance of browns and greys in the colour. Is that part of the design or something which occurs in filming?
CC: That was done in printing. You didn’t have to use filters if you wanted to have an overall warm tone on something that’s candlelit. I wanted it to be dark and murky and it worked quite well in the fog scenes.
SS: Could I ask you about The Battle of the River Plate?
CC: The picture was going to be in Cinemascope and I was actually working on another film while everything was being got ready. At the last minute John Davis fell out with Cinemascope and then we were landed with this awful VistaVision camera.18
SS: I think it looks wonderful.
SS: I was struck very much by that wonderful mobility and in the scenes in Uruguay, almost travelogue types of scenery.
CC: Well it looks all right on DVD and when it’s projected the same way it was shot. It’s not too bad when you see a reduction print but colour, well in black and white it doesn’t work well I don’t think. Then Technicolor converted their cameras to do the same thing and called it Technirama and they put an anamorphic lens on the front of it so it became enormous. We shot The Grass Is Greener (1960) that way.
SS: Are you often consulted when this remastering takes place? […] presumably it’s possible that there are […] instances when a remastered film can look different, even untrue to the original idea?
CC: Yes, but I never have been consulted, although I must say most of them have been pretty good. I mean, they have just made a DVD in America of The Small Back Room (1949), which was my second picture as a Director of Photography and my first film with Michael Powell. They interviewed me, which was included in the DVD and it looks absolutely great; so does Gone to Earth.
SS: Yes, it does. It’s a very fascinating film. Your work often seems to involve quite a lot of location work. The landscapes are very striking.
CC: Gone to Earth was shot again entirely with Micky. I loved making it and it did look quite nice with all the shots in the countryside and beautiful landscape. [David] Selznick was the co-producer and he’d just married Jennifer [Jones] and at the end he had the right to alter the production for the American market if he so wished. He wanted to do all sorts of things, have an extra scene. Micky wouldn’t do it so Rouben Mamoulian directed. They wanted me to photograph it and I said to Micky, ‘What am I going to do?’ and he said, ‘Well, you should go, you know, keep our end up a bit’. So I went and it was the funniest thing because Selznick was extraordinary. He used to be up all night writing scripts, changing the scripts and it went on and on and on and it was three weeks before we did anything. Eventually we shot it and we had an all-American camera crew who were very anti having this young limey coming over, which I think didn’t make any sense really. They got lots of work out of it but anyway there I was and Mamoulian had a pact with Selznick that he’d only do it if Selznick didn’t come on the floor when he was directing Jennifer. Selznick used to come on the floor and I’d hear this sort of ‘psst, psst’, and he’d be hiding behind a flat and he’d call me over. He said, ‘Suggest to Rouben that …’ [CC would reply]: ‘I can’t do that’. It was ridiculous and the American crew filled me with grim stories of Selznick, that no cameraman had ever completed a picture with Selznick and that he interfered on everything which he did and I was going to have a hard time. We had one new scene with Jennifer going to her room. I suggested candlelight with a candle and David talked to me about it and said he wanted it low key and that was fine. In the middle of lighting it he came on the floor and looked around and said, ‘You’ve got too much light! I want it dark.’ So I said, ‘I know you do, David, that’s why I’m doing it but we need more light than one candle’. [Selznick replied]: ‘Turn some of the lights off!’ It was ridiculous. So I said,
Look, David, let me do it. If you don’t like it tomorrow I’ll go home and I’m very happy to go home, I would like to go home. I’m fed up with being here – I would really be delighted to go back.
So he turned on his heel, walked off the floor and all the crew had backed away. They slowly came back and we shot it. And the next day at rushes it looked fine and at the end Selznick got up, turned around and he said ‘Chris, you’re quite right, I apologize.’ Arthur Fellows, who was his assistant, said, ‘He’s never done that before in his life’. He liked you to argue with him, and they all were terrified of him.
SS: So would he override people at Technicolor?
CC: Oh he’d have a go. He’d have a go at overriding everybody. But if you made your point as I think I did and it didn’t really bother me if I was going to get the sack. I wasn’t employed by him anyway; I was employed by Micky and Emeric and I was quite happy. He liked people to be like that. Micky was like that and could be absolute poison.
SS: Yes, his autobiography gives a little sense of that.
CC: I mean there’s a side to him which isn’t in the autobiography of extreme loyalty and kindness. I know many instances of that and I liked him a lot. I thought he was a great director and they were great movies. Now they’re all coming back including Peeping Tom (1960), which I didn’t like.
SS: We’d like to ask you what it was like to be in your profession as a cinematographer for so many years. You worked primarily as a freelance is that right?
CC: Except for one ghastly period when I was under contract to Rank and only because John Bryan who was an art director became one of the Rank producers. I made The Spanish Gardener (1956) with John.
SS: Did you feel you would just literally have to be doing whatever was thrown at you rather than have any choice?
CC: Well, apart from John, they were a pretty dead outfit. They had all second-rate pictures, dreadful things because I had to make a couple while I was under this contract. I actually got the sack in the end. They wouldn’t release me and there was some terrible hiatus where they had a huge programme and suddenly they hadn’t got anything. They had redundancies and everything else. The unions asked for a meeting with John Davis and I got co-opted onto the ACT.19
LW: Something we’ve read and would like to know more about is when the Technicolor lab was set up in the UK and American technicians came over to run training and to establish a working practice. Did that cause any problems you can recall? Was it possible eventually for British cinematographers to go and work in America?
CC: It wasn’t possible, really. When I went to do the extra scenes for Gone to Earth they had to employ an American cameraman who never came; he didn’t have to come and – he was paid more than I was. The unions were very strong – they wouldn’t let you train at all. Technicolor had all their own people for a long time. The three-strip cameras belonged to Technicolor. You couldn’t hire any other camera from any other process and the cameras went back to the lab every night and they were serviced. They had a big camera department and a service department and then the normal crew on a picture. On a Technicolor picture not only did they supply the camera but the equivalent of the first assistant who was known as a ‘Technicolor technician’ because on location he did very much more than a normal camera assistant inasmuch as he did the servicing of the camera.
SS: Can you tell us about Genevieve, a successful colour British film you worked on?
CC: The story behind Genevieve was quite annoying really. I was on holiday and I had a phone call from George Gunn who was in charge of the Technicolor camera department. He said,
Well, I’ve got somebody who is going to make a picture called Genevieve about the London to Brighton run and I think it’s a very good script and I’m trying to persuade him to make it in colour and he says no way, he can’t afford it, there just isn’t the money in the budget.
I half persuaded him that it was going to be a tough assignment whoever shoots it because you’ve got to shoot in any conditions really; literally any conditions. He said, ‘Would it interest you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but I’ll have to check with Henry [Cornelius]’. Henry said, ‘It’ll be nearly all on location because we can’t afford the studio rental.’ We were starting very late in the year – it was September or October when we shot it. Nothing matches anything else but strangely enough colour looks better in that dull light and if you can get the minimal exposure and you can sort of enhance it slightly with a bit of arc light to get a shine or something like that so when it comes to it, it doesn’t look bad really. Funnily enough I got some of the best reviews for photography I’ve had on Genevieve, so the rest of them must be awful!
SS: Do you think there were any particularly British conditions that made British Technicolor films made in the UK look a little different from those made elsewhere, experimentation aside?
CC: Yes, I do I think there is a different quality of light. I mean the soft sunlight that you get here a lot of the year where there’s a lot of moisture in the atmosphere is quite different from anywhere else. It’s different certainly from California which makes the colours hard, and Africa is hard and brash and even the South of France. I also think that we had some exceptionally good art directors and some good cameramen. You can almost thank Korda for that really because he brought Georges Périnal who was a wonderful cameraman from France and Harry Stradling from America. We learned from them quite rapidly and we had Freddie Young, who was marvellous and a great champion of our cause and a great cameraman. We built up a pretty good school of cameramen I think. There was Geoff Unsworth of course; Geoff was a fabulous technician at Technicolor and Douglas Slocombe was wonderful. Arthur Ibbetson was jolly good. Ossie Morris of course was excellent. And so I think that there maybe was a British school of cinematography which was slightly different. We went for softer light conditions and out of necessity we very often had to shoot without direct sunlight and we realised that it could look very good.
SS: Did you tend to discuss amongst yourselves? I’m imagining a group of fellow professionals who knew each other when they were working on a particular film who’d discuss the latest developments?
CC: Yes, yes.
SS: So you saw their latest film when it came out and there was a sort of community of cinematographers?
CC: Yes, very much so.
LW: Were there any particular colour effects at this time that you couldn’t get with Technicolor that you could with Eastmancolor or vice versa?
CC: Yes, colour reproduction was very far from being perfect for any process, Technicolor, Eastmancolor, Agfacolor or anything else. The areas of absolutely correct exposure are crucial. That’s why you have the theory about Technicolor not liking experimental colour because in dark areas, which are necessarily underexposed areas or bright areas which are overexposed, the colour rendition goes to pot a bit and that’s true of all colour processes. I don’t think there’s any way round that unless you accept having absolutely flat light, which is what Technicolor wanted, but it’s not suited chromatically for a lot of subjects. I mean I’m told that when Jimmy Wong Howe did The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) all the sequences that were in the cave and in Technicolor were terribly low key. He had a terrible row with Natalie Kalmus; they wanted that all flat lit and he wouldn’t do it. Of course it was a wonderful sequence. The colour was probably quite wrong but it didn’t matter because dramatically it was terrific. So I think the answer is you know you can’t reproduce every colour perfectly but the compromise is fine, depending on how it’s used and that’s true of all processes.
1 L. Castleton Knight was the overall ‘producer’ of the Gaumont British News from 1934 to 1958.
2 Kevin Gough-Yates’s BECTU interview with Challis (11 October 1988), tape no. 59, includes reference to Challis showing Castleton Knight some 16mm footage he’d shot for a school project.
3 In his BECTU interview Challis also praises the grounding he gained from Technicolor, commenting that: ‘They didn’t let anyone out to be the equivalent of a first assistant until they’d done a lot of work in the laboratory and knew a bit about it.’
4 Natalie Kalmus (1892-1965) was head of Technicolor’s Color Advisory Service, in the 1930s and 1940s. She is credited as advisor on all Technicolor productions until 1949.
5 James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was a celebrated Chinese-born Hollywood cinematographer. He worked at Denham on three black-and-white films in 1937.
6 It was common for cinematographers to claim that Natalie Kalmus knew little about colour on the basis of their dislike for her wardrobe.
7 Joan Bridge (1909-2009) worked with Natalie Kalmus when she was in the UK. She is credited on many British films as colour consultant. She had studied Dufaycolor, and had useful contacts for Technicolor when operations began in the UK.
8 Challis only worked on the Indian location shoot.
9 The blimp needed for filming with sound made Technicolor cameras extra cumbersome, so greater mobility could be obtained if sound was added in post-production.
10 Borradaile was responsible for location shooting in India; the rest of the film was shot by Georges Périnal.
11 Henry Imus (1908-81) was an uncredited camera operator on Wings of the Morning.
12 This detail also features in Challis’s BECTU interview. For greater clarity the following sentences are an amalgam of the detail provided in both interviews.
13 In the BECTU interview Challis recalls that during shooting the drums were kept in pits dug in the ground that were packed with blocks of ice.
14 The World Windows short travelogue films were shot in Technicolor during 1937-40 by Jack Cardiff in a number of locations, including India, Italy and Israel.
15 Kay Harrison (1895-1962) was managing director of Technicolor Ltd.
16 The ‘Fitzpatrick Travel Talks‘ were an American series of Technicolor films made by James Fitzpatrick and distributed by MGM.
17 There is no such shot in Black Narcissus. This ‘missing’ scene is discussed in Sarah Street, Black Narcissus (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005), pp. 59–60.
18 Challis also discusses widescreen techniques in the BECTU interview, confirming problems with VistaVision.
19 John Davis (1906-93) was managing director of Rank, and the ACT was the trade union, the Association of Cine-Technicians.”
(Street, Sarah; Watkins, Liz (2013): Interview. Christopher Challis. In: Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (eds.): British Colour Cinema. Practices and Theories. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 10–30.)
“A film is like a child, and when you see a print fading away, the wrong colors and out of focus, it hurts you as it would hurt a parent. Suddenly you sit there, years later, and the thing comes back, and you see your child the way it was. I can’t tell you how happy and most grateful it makes me.” The speaker is Rouben Mamoulian, and the film about which he is talking is Becky Sharp, restored almost to its former self after three years of laborious and painstaking work by Robert Gitt, director of preservation at the UCLA Film Archives, and Richard Dayton, of the Burbank-based YCM Laboratory, which specializes in archival work.
Why is Becky Sharp so important? Because it is the first three-strip, or full color, Technicolor feature. As The Literary Digest (June 8, 1935) commented, there had been two distinct phases in the history of the motion picture industry. The first came with The Birth of a Nation‘s transforming entertainment into art, the second came when The Jazz Singer brought sound to the screen, Becky Sharp heralded the third phase – color. Of course, there had been earlier color processes and an earlier Technicolor two-strip process, and, certainly, full color had been utilized for shorts such as Flowers and Trees (’32) and La Cucaracha (’34) and for sequences in a number of features – The Cat and the Fiddle (’34), The House of Rothschild (’34) and Kid Millions (’34). But Becky Sharp was the first feature to be shot entirely in full color, to utilize the full color spectrum, and the first to demonstrate the dramatic possibilities of color. (For a good, succinct history of Technicolor, see Rudy Behlmer’s article in the June-July ’64 issue of FIR.) To Andre Sennwald in The New York Times (June 14, 1935), “It produces in the spectator all the excitement of standing upon a peak in Darien and glimpsing a strange, beautiful and unexpected new world. As an experiment, it is a momentous event, and it may be that in a few years it will be regarded as the equal in historical importance of the first crude and wretched talking pictures. It is a gallant and distinguished outpost in an almost uncharted domain.” (Coincidentally, Becky Sharp‘s producer, Kenneth Macgowan, saw the new Technicolor process as the industry’s strongest weapon against television, which in ’35 was seriously worrying film executives, Macgowan expounded his theory in the May 31, ’35 issue of the Technical Bulletin of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and in the July 6, ’35 issue of Commentator).
The two major figures behind the production of Becky Sharp were Merian C. Cooper and John Hay “Jock” Whitney Cooper, the former head of production at RKO, impressed his enthusiasm for the Technicolor process on young playboy millionaire Whitney and the two formed Pioneer Pictures to produce Technicolor films, with Whitney also purchasing an estimated fifteen percent of the stock in Technicolor. For its first production, La Cucaracha, Pioneer hired the noted stage designer, Robert Edmond Jones (at $1,000 a week), and spent $65,000 on a two-reel short, with no star names, at a period when the average short cost $15,000.
The contribution of Robert Edmond Jones to the artistic success of three-strip Technicolor cannot be underestimated. “Color in pictures does not mean that the screen will be deluged with brilliant hues,” he explained. “Color is rather the ‘tone’ of the picture, or the underlying harmony of all tones. Each square inch of the picture must be related to every other square inch.” He experimented by filming a scene of John Barrymore in Hamlet, and he tried shooting various scenes with actress Nan Sunderland with “mood lights” played upon her. Andrew R. Boone reported on Jones’ work in the May ’35 issue of Popular Science:
“Twenty boys, each manning a ‘gelatin,’ or colored spot light, stood off-stage when the camera began to grind again. Jones called for first one combination of lights, then another. At first the actress was enveloped in cold, tragic blue. This drab color literally painted her in gloom as she contemplated the loss of her lover. Then she heard footsteps and turned expectantly, hoping for his return. As she smiled the screen changed to the colors of dawn, her face flooded with rose and yellow.”
These tests still survive, and are exactly as reported.
Pioneer considered a number of projects for its first feature-length production, including Peacock’s Feather (to star Ann Harding), The Last Days of Pompeii (which Cooper was scheduled to produce to wind up his RKO contract) and The Miracle. However, the ultimate choice was Becky Sharp, an adaptation of Langdon Mitchell’s 1899 play (which had starred Mrs. Fiske), and which, in turn, was adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair. Helen Gardner first played Becky Sharp on the screen in the 1911 production of Vanity Fair, Mrs. Fiske made a film version in ’15, Mabel Ballin played the character in a ’23 version, and in ’32 Myrna Loy starred in an atrocious modern-dress version, directed by Chester Franklin.
As Becky Sharp‘s producer, Whitney and Cooper selected Kenneth Macgowan, whose work on the stage with Eugene O’Neill was exemplary and who had coauthored a ’22 book – Continental Stagecraft – with Robert Edmond Jones. The latter shot a variety of costume tests with various performers, including Mrs. Leslie Carter (who was presumably to have played the role eventually portrayed by Alison Skipworth), Elsie Ferguson (who was, perhaps, considered for the part of the Duchess of Richmond), and Zita Johann (in the Frances Dee role). The Hays Office gave its approval to the script on November 19, ’34, at which time Jospeh I Breen wrote Macgowan that, “We believe it vitally important that the heroine should be played as a Nineteenth Century golddigger but in no sense, and at no time, should there be any suggestion that she is a loose woman sexually.” The film was shot at the RKO-Pathé Studios, later known as the Selznick Studios, and now Laird International Studios.
Miriam Hopkins was the company’s choice for Becky Sharp, and Lowell Sherman was signed to direct. Production officially began on December 3, ’34 – although Jones had been shooting tests since November 28 – and continued without problems until Sherman developed a severe cold. He continued filming with a nurse on the set until December 27, when he was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. He died the following day of pneumonia, the same day as Universal was scheduled to preview his last production, Night Life of the Gods.
Production was temporarily halted until January 7, 1935, when John Hay Whitney’s choice as Sherman’s successor, Rouben Mamoulian took over direction. It was initially announced that he would retain the footage that Sherman had shot, but on January 19, Daily Variety reported that following a meeting between Whitney, Macgowan and Mamoulian, it was decided to remake the earlier sequences.
According to Mamoulian, he demanded certain changes in the script by Francis Edwards Faragoh, and also questioned Jones’ contract which gave him responsibility for the color coordination. Mamoulian recalls, “I said, ‘Look, if he’s in charge of colors, what do you want me for? My only interest in this would be to work with colors. I’ve worked with them on the stage all my life.’ Well, Mr. Jones – he was an exceedingly nice man – said to me, ‘I’ve watched your productions on Broadway and I think in this case I would be quite willing to give up my right to be in charge of color, and I’ll just do whatever you want me to do as a set designer’.”
With the use of colors such a crucial reason for Becky Sharp‘s appeal, it is unfortunate that one must act almost as a judge and jury with regard to whether the credit goes to Mamoulian or Jones. Certainly, according to an interview in the June ’35 issue of New Theatre, Jones worked for four months prior to shooting making color sketches of key scenes, planning the dominant colors to be used in each sequence, and even the transitions from one shot to the next. “He worked out a plot for the progression of color throughout the entire film, beginning with low values so that the color is almost unperceived in the opening shots, and building climactically to bright posteresque color harmonies in the scenes of dramatic action.”
The most impressive use of color occurs at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, which reaches its climax with news of Napoleon’s proximity at Waterloo. Mamoulian recalls in great detail devising the color coordination for that sequence, building up to red as the climactic color. Certainly there is a dramatic intensity to the sequence not apparent in the extant tests of the ball scenes shot by Jones. It was Mamoulian also who claims to have cast Willaim Faversham for the small, but dramatically important role, of the Duke of Wellington, and who also requested Doris Lloyd for the part of the Duchess – she had also been in his first play, The Beating on the Door (’22).
If Mamoulian had no problems working with Jones, the same is not true of the best known member of the Technicolor family. “I came on the set the first day and I saw this lady, telling the electricians how to light it. I said, ‘Pardon me, what are you doing?’ She said, ‘I’m Mrs. Kalmus, I’m in charge of color.’ Everybody’s in charge of color! So I went to Jock Whitney and Kenneth Macgowan and said, ‘Look, tomorrow, either she is not there or I am not there.'”
Miriam Hopkins added to the production’s delays by also being taken ill with pneumonia, and spending ten days – January 18 to January 28 – off the set. […]
Becky Sharp must surely be one of the most ill-ridden productions in the history of the cinema. Aside from the death of its first director and the illness of its star, there were problems with the sound, so much so that a preview audience complained that some of the dialogue was unintelligible, and the entire soundtrack had to be electronically rerecorded. Also the workprint of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball sequence caught fire in the projection room, and it took weeks for the editors to reconstruct the reel from whatever written notes had been retained.
With an eventual cost estimated at $1,000,000, Becky Sharp received its world premiere at Radio City Music Hall on June 13, ’35. Critical reaction was mixed, ranging from the New York Herald Tribune‘s pronouncement that Becky Sharp was “the most important cinematic experiment since moving shadows first became articulate,” to the New York Mirror‘s view – which seemed to be the general consensus – that “Its pictorial beauty compensates for its lack of action, depth and suspense.” The only negative comment concerning the color came from George Lewis in New Theatre (August ’35), who wrote, “In many respects the new color has the appearance of an animated commercial colored photograph of the kind now adorning magazine back covers in the interests of cigarettes. It has that brash, noisy overemphasis, which, while necessary to capture attention in an advertisement, is hardly a recommendation for the development of an art form.”
In ’43, the rights to Becky Sharp were acquired by Film Classics, which reissued the film in the inferior, but far cheaper, Cinecolor process. At the same time, Film Classics cut all the 35mm release prints from 84 minutes to 66 minutes. By the late Fifties, the film had been acquired for television by National Telefilm Associates, which made it available only in 16mm black-and-white cut versions (Columbia also planned a remake in 1946).
Of the 448 prints originally made of Becky Sharp by Technicolor none are believed to have survived, and the Technicolor Company retained only a 35mm nitrate print of the first reel. Working with this one reel as a color guide, Robert Gitt and Richard Dayton have restored the film to its original three-color look for 64 minutes of its length, to good quality two-color for a further ten minutes and to acceptable two-color for the remaining ten minutes. Their task is an extraordinary one, fully documented in the November ’84 issue of American Cinematographer, involving working with incomplete negatives, protection masters, and 16mm negatives and prints. Registration of the three colors – yellow, cyan and magenta – was a major problem due to shrinkage of original nitrate materials, and an even greater problem when some elements were missing altogether.
Whatever one’s feelings towards the film, praise is due to Robert Gitt and Richard Dayton for having restored it so closely to its original form. […]
A Pioneer production, released June 1935 by RKO Radio Pictures.
Producer: Kenneth Macgowan
Director: Rouben Mamouhan
Designed in Color by: Robert Edmond Jones
Screenplay: Francis Edwards Faragoh, based on the play by Langdon Mitchell
Photography: Ray Rennahan
Technicolor Color Director: Natalie Kalmus
Associate Art Director: Wiard Ihnen
Assistant Director: Argyle Nelson
Musical Director: Roy Webb
Dance Director: Russell Lewis
Chief Electrician: Bert Wayne
Properties: George Hazenbush
Recorded by: Earl A Wolcott
Film Editor: Archie F Marshek
With Miriam Hopkins (Becky Sharp), Frances Dee (Amelia Sedley), Cedric Hardwicke (Marquis of Steyne), Bilhe Burke (Lady Bareacres), Allison Skipworth (Miss Crawley), Nigel Bruce (Joseph Sedley), Alan Mowbray (Rawdon Crawley), G. P. Huntley, Jr. (George Osborne), William Stack (Pitt Crawley), George Hassell (Sir Pitt Crawley), William Faversham (Duke of Wellington), Charles Richman (General Tufto), Dons Lloyd (Duchess of Richmond), Colin Tapley (William Dobbin), Leonard Mudie (Lord Tarquin), May Beatty (Briggs), Charles Coleman (Bowles), Bunny Beatty (Lady Blanche), Finis Barton (Miss Flowery), Olaf Hytten (the Prince Regent), Pauline Garon (Fifme), James “Hambone” Robinson (Sedley’s page), Elspeth Dudgeon (Miss Pinkerton), Tempe Pigott (the charlady), and Ottola Nesmith (Lady Jane Crawley)”
(Slide, Anthony (1985): The Return of Becky Sharp. In: Films in Review, 36, Mar., pp. 148–153.)
“The major form of color in silent cinema was applied color, colors not achieved by photographic processes, but applied to the positive print. In the most common process, tinting, a black-and-white positive print was immersed in a translucent dye. Thus the lighter areas of the image were colored, while the darker, and especially the entirely black areas, remained unchanged. A tinted image could be described as black and red (or black and green, or blue, or yellow, etc.). Toning, less frequent but still common, involved a process of printing and processing in which the actual chemicals that created the range of grays and blacks in the image were colored. Thus instead of a black-and-white image toning produced a blue and white one (or orange and white, red and white, green and white, etc.). In the era of shorter films some filmmakers colored areas of the image with a variety of colors, either by hand or with the aid of stencils, often with a realistic effect such as green trees, blue water, red flames, golden armor, or blue dresses. Tinting or toning were common practices from the feature era, appearing in most films until at least the mid-1920s.
However, color prints from the silent era were rarely screened until recently, leading to the distorted view that color film emerged gradually during the sound era awaiting the technical perfection and industry adoption of color photography. This was mainly due to archival policy. Until a few decades ago, color film stock was vulnerable to decay and deterioration and less suitable as an archival preservation medium than more stable black-and-white stocks. Applied color appears only on positive projection prints, not on negatives, and not on all prints of a film. Silent films were primarily printed on nitrate stock, whose chemical instability demanded their transfer to more recent stocks for preservation. Should an archivist copy a colored nitrate print onto color stock in order to preserve its tints, knowing that the color stock would itself eventually fade, or should she transfer it onto more stable black-and-white stock? Official policy of film archives until recently recommended duplicating nitrate prints onto black-and-white stock, an entirely defensible decision given the necessary trade-off that all preservation involves.
Certain archives screened nitrate prints with original tints publicly. I remember the excitement when MoMA would screen their tinted prints of Intolerance (D. W. Griffiths, 1916) or Broken Blossoms (D. W. Griffiths, 1919). Scholars realized that color, especially tinting, formed part of the silent film aesthetic. But that color appeared in most silent films was not widely realized until the 1980s, when archivists’ attitudes towards color changed, partly due to more stable color stocks. The decision not to preserve silent films in color came from practical preservation concerns, but it also reflected an attitude towards color that has cultural and aesthetic roots. Tints were considered secondary to the photographic aspects of the film. Color remained a supplement. Film scholars often viewed color as an add-on rather than an essential aspect: tints were applied after the production and directors may have had little or nothing to do with the process, instead leaving them in the hands of technicians. Some critics claimed that tinting was vulgar and obscured photographic qualities, a claim sometimes made by critics in the silent era as well. This viewpoint reflects a strain of chromophobia that runs through Western culture, often directed towards popular arts with their loud carnival colors. Philosophers held that color was not a primary, but, according to Descartes, a secondary accidental quality; certain forms of Puritanism claimed color was a sign of vanity and a cause of distraction; while some schools of painting suggested that color offered only a minor aesthetic quality compared to drawing which outlines essential forms (Batchelor 2000).
Awareness of color in silent film has come full circle with a new fascination in color processes and the effects (and affects) of color in cinema generally. But problems from the preservation side remain. Archivist Giovanna Fossati surveyed color prints made from nitrate originals in the collection of the Nederlands Filmmuseum (Fossati 2009: 83–89). Fossati found colors rarely strictly corresponded. The reasons were multiple. Photographic duplicates from applied color original prints involve a process of translation and unintended transformation. As anyone who has studied photographs of paintings knows, color photography is always selective and particularly responds differently to colors placed in close juxtaposition. But even if the photograph were strictly accurate in the reproduction of the original, neither color system is totally stable. The applied dyes in silent film are always in a process of fading or transforming. Even an accurate photograph will only capture one moment in this process. Color in film remains transitory, subject not only to changes wrought by time, but changes as it migrates through different film stocks and modes of processing. Attempts to preserve colors produced by different processes means those changes can be immense. Video not only offers new tools for the control of color, with its millions of differentiated colors, but also new problems in reproducing them yielding the old joke about the meaning of the initials NTSC – the video standard set in the US by the National Television System Committee – that they actually indicate “never the same color,” still applies (Fossati 2009: 45–49).
All of these aspects indicate the headache color presents to archivists and historians of film stylistics. While one inevitably regrets the loss of aspects of an artwork, some archivists have decided to acknowledge and even embrace the inevitable ephemerality of our medium. Paolo Cherchi Usai in his work as archivist, theorist and filmmaker has embraced this inevitable death of cinema and the role historians and filmmakers play in constructing requiems willing to acknowledge the mortality of film works (Cherchi Usai 2001). Such filmmakers include Pieter Delpeut in Lyrical Nitrate (1991) or Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002), and the filmmakers who have used colors obtained by unconventional chemical processes, such as David Gatten in What the Water Said (1998-2007) and Peggy Ahwesh in The Color of Love (1994).1 Color belongs to the material side of film. While it may be stored as digital information, its dynamic unstable chemical nature balances the serendipity of alchemical transformation with the inevitability of decay. This inherently unfixed nature of color combines with its unique perceptual and emotional effects to create a power foreign to either Cartesian certitude or the Platonic ideal eternity.
From the perspective of archiving and preservation, film color remains uniquely vulnerable and its relative absence from earlier accounts of silent film history may derive less from suspicion or ideological suppression than from the nature of color itself, elusive and ungraspable, as eager to appear to us as to flee from us. But what I am calling the suppression of color refers also to our incomplete understanding of another aspect of the history of color in silent cinema: less the prevalence of color during most of the silent era, now widely acknowledged, but the near total disappearance of applied color by the 1930s, which has rarely been remarked upon – even though everyone recognises it! The true mystery of color in film may lie in the emergence of black-and-white in the 1930s through the 1950s as the standard of cinema. Because the preservation of applied color in silent prints remains spotty, the nature of this transformation remains unclear. Was it abrupt, and did it basically coincide, as has often been supposed, with the coming of sound or did it occur gradually, as some preliminary evidence seems to indicate, with a reduction in colored prints during the late 1920s? It has often been claimed that the disappearance of tinting had a technological basis since the dyeing process interfered with the soundtrack. While this sounds plausible, given that some early sound films were tinted, it needs to be questioned and subjected to further investigation. Could the addition of a soundtrack offer a different sort of explanation, more aesthetic and stylistic, as synchronized sound and dialogue clashed with, or somehow rendered redundant, the addition of color? For example, it is useful to recall that early talkies often eliminated the continuous musical accompaniment that had defined silent film, or restricted it to opening and closing credits. It is most likely that streamlining the production of projection prints with sound played a major role, since applied color processes added a complicated stage in the preparation of prints. But why did the aesthetic addition of color at this point seem no longer worth the effort? Histories of laboratory and print preparation may well hold the answer to our question, although aesthetic effects must also have been a consideration. Whatever the explanation may be, this literal suppression of color in the 1930s or late 1920s remains a stylistic change that has basically been taken for granted.
How was black-and-white film viewed during the silent era? Was it a stylistic alternative to color, a seemingly random variation, or was it rarely seen at all? Undoubtedly this question needs to be asked in terms of specific periods (e.g. pre-1907; 1908-1913; 1914; 1919; 1920-1924; 1924-1929); for different national cinemas; and for genres (was tinting and coloring more common in dramas than in slapstick, in fiction than in newsreels?). In how many films did tinting appear only in a few sequences and what sort of scenes were these (to what extent was tinting limited to blue night scenes, red fires, or did it operate as stylistic markers within otherwise black-and-white films)? The lack of tinting was remarked upon in the admittedly limited showings of the Expressionist film Von Morgens bis Mitternacht, Karl Heinz Martin’s 1920 adaptation of George Kaiser’s expressionist play. Recent restorations of classic Weimar films reveal the expressive possibilities of tinting in such films as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922) and Orlacs Hande (Robert Wiene, 1924).2 But if Von Morgens bis Mitternacht avoided tints, was this for expressive motives? Did stark black-and-white make the film seem closer to the severe woodcuts of the early German Expressionist group of artists, Die Brücke? […]
Issues of archival restoration of color also raise stylistic considerations. However, when a modern photographic color print is made of prints originally using these processes, these distinctions tend to blur. The blacks of a tinted print lose their integrity, while the whites in a toned print tend to merge with the dominant color. To address this problem The Royale Cinémathèque of Belgium introduced an alternative called the Desmet process (Fossati 2009: 89–90). Instead of simply photographing the original colored print onto color stock, a black-and-white print is flashed into color in order to preserve the original dark blacks, preserving the original tonal contrast.
1What the Water Said was a series of films made by David Gatten from 1998 to 2007.
2 Contemporary critics remarked on the lack of tinting in the Expressionist film Von Morgens bis Mitternacht, Karl Heinz Martin’s 1920 adaptation of George Kaiser’s Expressionist play (although the film had admittedly very few screenings).
Batchelor, D. (2000) Chromophobia, New York: Reaktion.
Cherchi Usai, P. (2001) The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age, London: British Film Institute.
Fossati, G. (2009) From Grain to Pixel: the Archival Life of Film in Transition, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press.”
(Gunning, Tom (2013): Where Do Colors Go at Night? In: Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (eds.): Color and the Moving Image. History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive. New York, London: Routledge, pp. 81–92, on pp. 82–86.)