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.
“For example, the colors in The Black Swan (Henry King, 1942) do not now seem particularly extreme, even when digitally “restored” on DVD. The only overt optical color in King’s film occurs during a brief early morning scene bathed in bright, diegetically motivated yellow light. Yet despite the fact that director of photography Leon Shamroy won an Academy Award for his work on the film, Technicolor executives expressed dissatisfaction at the result (Douchet 1963: 34). As no cinematographer could afford to ignore Technicolor’s “law of emphasis” if he wished to continue working in color, Shamroy subsequently moderated his use of colored lighting.”
(Misek, Richard (2010): Chromatic Cinema. A History of Screen Color. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, on p. 126.)
“Leon Shamroy, whose work on Forever Amber, starring Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde, followed his previous award-winning efforts (The Black Swan, 1942; Wilson, 1944; Leave Her To Heaven, 1945), was a master of the color camera and highly acclaimed for his highly individualistic style of “painting with light.” Unlike many other cinematographers of the day who believed that only white light should be used for Technicolor, Mr. Shamroy employed colored light to great effect, infusing a warm tone here, a cooler tone there, until he achieved the correct emotional pattern of the scene. Like Rouben Mamoulian, he admitted to being inspired by the works of famous painters: Rembrandt, Ruben, and others.
The photography of Forever Amber was enhanced by the use of “the ultimate lamp,” the Type 450 “Brute” Molare introduced in 1946, which offered a hard, clean streak of light (at double the intensity) that could be employed from a relatively long distance to produce a “single shadow” impression. It enabled cinematographers to turn their attention, more than ever, toward lighting for mood and dramatic effect.
As Technicolor pictures grew in stature during the 1940s, the cinematographer gained new respect within the industry. Now officially titled Director of Photography, his select group included a number of newcomers to the color field – though hardly new to motion picture cinematography. Ray Rennahan, W. Howard Greene, William V. Skall and Allen M. Davey were among the most respected veterans of their craft. To this group was added such names as Shamroy, Jack Cardiff, Charles Rosher, George Barnes, Robert L. Surtees, Winton Hoch, Robert Burks and Harry Stradling.
“As a Director of Photography,” Mr. Rosher recalled, “my main concern was achieving on film the complete realism envisioned by director Clarence Brown. In my first discussion with Mr. Brown, I learned of his decision to dispense with all artificial make-up. It was a bold step and a photographic challenge. It meant that the normal control over flesh tones possible with make-up, a very important factor in color, would be removed. Although I had more than an inkling of the difficulty involved, it was something I had long wanted to do … to show skin color and texture as they really are.
Maintaining constant color values in the faces of the principal players was not easy. Claude Jarman, Jr., who played the character of young Jody, was made to wear a large straw hat when away from the cameras to keep his delicate complexion from tanning (Florida was in the midst of a drought and heat spell during much of the company’s stay). As Pa Baxter, Gregov Peck’s naturally ruddy complexion had to be treated frequently with iced chamois skin to hold the redness down. The situation was reversed for Jane Wyman. Her role as the drab Ma Baxter was a complete departure for the star who had, until then, made a career of playing snappy, modern career girls. Miss Wyman spent fifteen minutes a day under a sunlamp to achieve the outdoorsy look associated with backwoods life.
(Basten, Fred E. (1980): Glorious Technicolor. The Movies’ Magic Rainbow. South Brunswick: Barnes, on pp. 130–131.)
“As early as 1935, C. W. Handley had suggested that cinematographers use tungsten incandescent units for effect-lighting.17 Technicolor film stock was balanced for daylight, so incandescent light registered as orange. Cinematographers relied on daylight-balanced arc lights as the default norm for Technicolor, but cinematographers quickly realized that they could take advantage of this difference in color temperature to improve certain lighting effects. In interiors, an incandescent might be used to add an orange glow to candlelight, gaslight, and fireplace effects. In exteriors, an incandescent light could suggest the warm rays of a sunset.
When combined with a blue gel, an arc light could create a very compelling beam of moonlight streaming through a window. One popular technique was to combine blue and orange lights within a single shot, suggesting a candlelit room with moonlight streaming through the window. Meanwhile, cinematographers learned how to take advantage of the arc light’s hardness, which made it a great tool for producing cast shadows. As an example of their experimentation, cinematographers even began to create cast shadows in unusual ways, using “doubles” to produce the shadows. For instance, in For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood, 1943), Ray Rennahan photographs Gary Cooper with a cast shadow in the background – but closer observation reveals that the shadow has been created by someone else, copying Cooper’s gestures to create the illusion that the shadow belongs to Cooper. Although this is a somewhat unusual example, it suggests the degree to which cinematographers were willing to use crafty lighting effects for pictorial purposes.
Perhaps the most common lighting effect in Technicolor was the silhouette. Ever since filmmakers like Maurice Tourneur had popularized the technique in the silent period, the silhouette was seen as a simple way to add a dash of spectacle to any film. Color heightened the spectacle even more, and the image of a silhouette situated against a vividly colored sky became a Technicolor cliché, appearing in a wide range of films, such as Gone with the Wind and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949). While all of these conventions are merely variations on established black-and-white norms, they interpret those norms in a particular way, placing a special emphasis on spectacle, foregrounding the artistry of Technicolor without necessarily sacrificing the story.
At first glance, we might think that it was easy to adopt Hollywood’s genre/scene conventions in the Technicolor context, since there are clear similarities between Natalie Kalmus’s theory of “color consciousness” and the ASC’s concept of the right-mood-for-the-story. However, there were a few complications involved in the transition. First, filmmakers had to determine if color was a good option only for certain genres, or in fact for all genres. In other words, some filmmakers believed that dramas and melodramas were more effective in black-and-white, while noting that color could be a good resource for the musical or the period picture. Meanwhile, other filmmakers believed that all films would eventually be shot in color. They saw no reason why Technicolor could not be adapted to the somber style of the drama, or the stark style of the melodrama.
Here we should remember that the genre conventions could be applied at two levels: that of the film, and that of the scene. On the level of the film, it is certainly true that Technicolor was often confined to specific genres. Of the twelve films that won the Academy Award for cinematography during the period 1939–1950, eleven could be described as period pieces. (The only exception is Leave Her to Heaven, John Stahl’s color-noir from 1945.) However, when we look at the level of the scene, we see that filmmakers were trying to make use of Technicolor in the full range of established genre/scene conventions. For instance, in Down Argentine Way (Irving Cummings, 1940), Ray Rennahan and Leon Shamroy employ gentle leaf patterns during a romantic scene. In the bullfighting drama Blood and Sand (Rouben Mamoulian, 1941), Rennahan and Ernest Palmer follow the melodramatic convention of casting shadows on a wall during a fight scene. We can even find mood lighting in the middle of a sunny MGM musical. An example from the end of the period under study in this book, Summer Stock (Charles Walters, 1950), features a wonderful image of a despairing Joe (Gene Kelly): the dim foreground looks even dimmer when compared to the magenta background […]. A few moments later Joe steps out of the shadows and begins a dance routine; his move from the shadowed area in the foreground to the more colorful area in the background embodies the scene’s movement from sadness to joy.
It should not surprise us to learn that cinematographers were eager to apply the existing black-and-white conventions to the color context. After all, the discourse of the ASC placed a great deal of emphasis on the expressive power of the genre/scene conventions. However, we have seen that Natalie Kalmus encouraged cinematographers to do something more: to use color itself as an expressive technique. To what extent did filmmakers seek to codify the emotional effects of certain hues? Did they always use red for scenes of anger? Did a yellowish green become the color of jealousy? The answer to all of these questions is probably “no.” […]
Nevertheless, we should note that filmmakers did not abandon the idea that graphic qualities could produce fairly predictable emotional associations. While they may have rejected associations at the level of hue, they probably accepted associations on other levels. A happy scene might have a variety of hues, at a high level of saturation, whereas a somber scene might employ a single desaturated hue. Charles Vidor’s Cover Girl (1944) implicitly comments on this strategy: for the happy scene when Rusty models for the first time, a montage shows her being illuminated with a variety of colorful lights. […] A few minutes later, the mood becomes more serious, and a dramatic scene is played entirely in dull shades of brown. […] In these two scenes cinematographers Allen Davey and Rudolph Mate are simply applying the same principles that David O. Selznick had advocated during the filming of Gone with the Wind. Before the war, Tara looks bright and vivid; later, when Scarlett returns to Tara and finds that her father has gone insane, the colors have muted, becoming dull and gray.
The control of saturation and hue was also an important factor in composition. Here the challenge was to balance a variety of functions: creating, the illusion of depth, keeping the audience’s attention on the story, and taking advantage of Technicolor’s ability to produce beautiful images. Most cinematographers believed that Technicolor was very well suited to creating the illusion of depth. As Arthur Miller once said, “What makes it easy in color is if you put green against blue, you’ve got separation. In black and white, you have to create these separations with your lighting; that’s what separates the men from the boys.”18 In other words, in Technicolor a cinematographer did not have to worry about backlighting every detail, as he would with black-and-white. Instead, he could rely on differences in hue to separate the planes. To facilitate this process, Technicolor consultants like Natalie Kalmus often recommended using neutral backgrounds, allowing the more saturated costumes of the performers to pop. Still, in order to direct attention, cinematographers typically returned to the black-and-white convention of lighting the foreground a bit more brightly than the background during a dramatic scene. For a more spectacular scene, such as a musical number, the cinematographer might flood the set with light, dispersing the audience’s attention across the frame. […]
In exterior shots Technicolor posed a new problem for composition: How should the cinematographer photograph the color of the sky? The temptation was to enhance the pictorial beauty of the shot by photographing the blue skies at a high level of saturation. Unfortunately, this choice ran the risk of upstaging the actors, as even the most gregarious scene-stealing ham could not compete with the vivid blue background. Some filmmakers chose to err on the side of spectacle, as in For Whom the Bells Tolls, where the distracting blue skies serve as an overly pretty background for a somber war story. Other filmmakers preferred a more restrained approach, using filters and framing to produce desaturated skies, thereby allowing the actors to command the greatest screen presence.
Of all the conventions, Technicolor may have had the most impact on those of figure-lighting. To be sure, some historical norms were preserved. For instance, most cinematographers continued to use frontal keys for women, while employing cross-frontal keys for men. This technique would model the features of the man, while smoothing the features of the woman. However, technical constraints made it difficult to adopt the preexisting conventions without a revision of technique. Technicolor film stock was very slow, requiring high levels of illumination. As J. A. Ball pointed out, some cinematographers would make the mistake of flooding the set with light, thereby destroying the modeling.19 In addition, cinematographers had to take color temperature into consideration. For reasons of efficiency, Technicolor cinematographers relied heavily on arc lights, but these units were harder than incandescent lights, which were the more common choice for black-and-white filming. The hardness of an arc light could be an advantage when photographing a rugged male star, but it was a disadvantage when photographing women. A cinematographer might need to compensate by using more diffusion, either on the lamps or on the lens.
More important, Technicolor required cinematographers to rethink a topic that they often took for granted: skin tone. In black-and-white films, cinematographers usually took white skin as the norm, employing lighting and laboratory practices that could reliably produce a certain image of whiteness. As Richard Dyer has persuasively argued, “In the history of photography and film, getting the right image meant getting the one which confirmed to prevalent ideas of humanity. This included ideas of whiteness, of what colour – what range of hue – white people wanted white people to be.”20 The resulting conventions were often split along the lines of sexual difference: men could look somewhat tan, but women usually had glowing alabaster skin. […]
These conventions simply did not work in Technicolor. J. A. Ball explains the situation that cinematographers were facing:
In color photography, all very full exposures tend to bleach out to white, and all low exposures tend to drop into black. A highlight upon a face in black-and-white photography can, in the final print, be merely the bare celluloid, and the result will be still entirely satisfactory; but if, in a color print, such a condition exist, the delicate flesh tint will, in that area, be bleached out to white, and the face will look blotchy. All areas of the face should, therefore, be reproduced in such a manner as to yield a good flesh tint.22
On one level this is a technical problem. Because Technicolor did not have the latitude of black-and-white stock, cinematographers had to be particularly careful with their exposures. However, Ball’s solution to this technical problem involves a shift in representational ideals, to one favoring healthy-looking saturated skin tones over purified white skin tones.
Whereas the ASC usually left its assumptions about skin tone unspoken, the Technicolor Corporation actively promoted its new approach to skin tones as a selling point. Even during the two-strip period, L. T. Troland had argued, “Undoubtedly the greatest ‘lack’ of color, at least for the male members of an audience, consists in the value which it adds to the delineation of feminine beauty. All pretty girls in black and white are pale and consumptive.”23 Technicolor promised to deliver a new perspective on female beauty, offering the image as a spectacle to be appreciated for its own sake. Later, three-strip Technicolor films would flaunt the process’s ability to capture a wide range of skin tones. From La Cucaracha (Corrigan, 1934) to King Solomon’s Mines (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950), filmmakers relied on “exotic” subject matter to put the technology’s skills on display, turning racial diversity into pictorial spectacle.
Technicolor had to balance its interest in racial diversity as a form of pictorial spectacle with its commitment to narrative clarity – a commitment that required a certain amount of racial homogeneity. Winton Hoch, a Technicolor cinematographer, explains:
If one will note the varying complexions of people, he will readily appreciate that if three or four persons were lined up side by side to be photographed, it would be highly desirable and probably very necessary to correct the flesh tones and greatly reduce the tone spread. This must not be interpreted as meaning that all flesh tones should appear alike. Variations of tone are very desirable. It is the extremes that are undesirable. Obviously a white man with a heavy tan who photographs like an Indian is not a very convincing white man.24
On the one hand, Hoch wanted to capture certain variations in skin tones, thereby demonstrating Technicolor’s ability to render details that a black-and-white cinematographer could not even consider capturing. On the other hand, certain narratives demanded that the race of each character be clearly marked. Hoch suggested that each race be represented with a stable set of nonoverlapping tonalities in order to do so.
In short, the technical problems of Technicolor were also ideological problems. It was not simply a matter of translating the black-and-white figure-lighting conventions into the terms of color cinematography. Rather, the technical resources of color had to be used to create patterns of similarity and difference – patterns that were often defined by social categories like race and gender.
Looking at the above examples of lighting conventions, it is tempting to conclude that Technicolor had been contained by a process of conventionalization. The new technology represented a threat to the Hollywood norms; Hollywood responded to that threat by assimilating it. While there is some truth to this account, it must be qualified in an important way. The Hollywood norms were never stable. They were created by a variety of competing institutions, and each institution interpreted those norms in slightly different ways. Because the Technicolor Corporation wanted to do business with Hollywood, it necessarily adopted some of Hollywood’s ideals. But the addition of a new institution to our pattern of overlapping circles inevitably shifted the center of the pattern. Technicolor gave cinematographers a new way to think about the art of lighting. They were still committed to storytelling, but they could support the story in a whole new way: calling attention to an essential plot point with a burst of red, or establishing atmosphere with a flickering orange fireplace, or expressing joy with a splashy display of hues. Technicolor provided a new set of tools that stimulated creativity, reminding cinematographers that storytelling could be spectacular.
Still, most Technicolor cinematographers were classicists, finding compromise solutions that allowed them, as ever, to balance a wide range of potentially competing goals. For instance, most cinematographers would never shine a garishly colored light on an actor’s face. To do so would violate the demand for appropriate skin tones. At the same time, cinematographers did not want to abandon the option of using colored gels, a valuable item in the creative toolbox. A popular compromise solution was to use balanced tight on the actor’s face while using a colored gel on the backlight. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, one scene shows Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman facing each other while standing next to a fireplace. Rennahan uses a golden flickering backlight on both characters. This solution is not entirely logical, since there is only one fireplace and it could not possibly light both characters from behind. However, this small sacrifice in continuity allows Rennahan to preserve the skin tones of both performers while adding the artistic detail of the flickering fireplace effect. […]
Cinematographers could also combine storytelling and pictorial beauty by saving their most striking shots for key dramatic moments. Indeed, Technicolor was a superb medium for the strategy of selective emphasis. For instance, in The Yearling (Clarence Brown, 1946) Charles Rosher uses a remarkably restrained color palette throughout, favoring a tasteful mixture of browns and greens to portray the family’s austere forest home. This visual restraint makes it all the more effective when he reveals some of his bluest sides during the joyous scene when the boy first gets the faun. Going in the opposite emotional direction, in Captains of the Clouds (Michael Curtiz, 1942), Sol Polito relies on a colorful high-key for the bulk of the film, saving his darkest shadows for some somber moments during the final battle. By manipulating the color palette, a cinematographer could build a significant macro-structure based on the decisions made at the micro-level of the scene or even of the individual shot.
As in black-and-white cinematography, the selective emphasis strategy carried certain risks: used poorly, it might appear artificial and distracting. The strategy is particularly obvious in films that combine Technicolor with black-and-white, as in The Little Colonel (David Butler, 1935), which employs a short Technicolor sequence at the end to emphasize the happiness of the conclusion. Even films that are shot entirely in Technicolor can provide some rather aggressive transitions. Becky Sharp provides a well-known example. After a series of scenes with relatively restrained color, the film shifts to a much bolder palette during the Waterloo sequence. Characters rush across the screen in primary colors, such as blue and red, while a low-placed light casts their shadows on a background wall. The tension between dramatic emphasis and pictorial display is very strong in this scene. […]
Most filmmakers preferred subtler solutions, using a gradual shift to ease the transition. In Gone with the Wind the filmmakers opt to use heavy shadows for the scene in which Scarlett and Rhett take Melanie and her newborn baby to the carriage. Rather than cut directly to an image with the darkest possible tonalities, the filmmakers steadily shift the tonalities, moving subtly from semidark shadows to nearly impenetrable darkness. The scene has all the expressivity of the Becky Sharp scene, but the gradual progression keeps our attention on the highly dramatic events in the unfolding narrative, rather than luring our attention with a parade of garish costumes.
In addition to manipulating the lighting, a cinematographer could create a gradual shift in tone by asking the laboratory to brighten some scenes and darken others, thereby creating more nuanced transitions between shots. Taking both black-and-white and color cinematography into account, Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus had this to say on the subject:
There is the same problem in black and white photography, namely, if scenes very close to the light end of the printing scale and scenes very close to the dark end of the printing scale come eventually to be cut together in the same reel, it may well be that one or the other of them will have to compromise in the final printing with consequent possibility of the loss of a very fine effect. The remedy for this is to avoid a too extreme level of lighting in either direction and to allow for a little adjustment to be effected in the printing in the creation of effects or moods.26
These challenges were particularly severe in the case of three-color Technicolor stock, which had less latitude than black-and-white stock. However, the solution was essentially the same in either case. A skillful cinematographer would provide the laboratory with a thick negative, giving the laboratory more options in printing, allowing for some remarkably subtle transitions in tone.
In short, Technicolor may have shifted the balance of Hollywood ideals by moving pictorial spectacle closer to the center, but it did not prevent filmmakers from finding classical solutions to the problem of conflicting conventions. Films like Gone with the Wind and The Yearling are masterpieces in the art of balance, using attractive figure-lighting, nuanced lighting effects, and elegant compositions to tell their stories with a mixture of clarity, mood, and pictorial beauty. Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that all Technicolor films look the same, perfectly integrated with the Hollywood system. Many cinematographers were fascinated by the new possibilities of Technicolor, and they took the opportunity to experiment, creating a bold new style of Technicolor pictorialism. Leon Shamroy is a case in point. Shamroy was certainly capable of crafting works with a classical sense of balance; for instance, his somber photography for Wilson (Henry King, 1944) is perfectly suited to the film’s serious dramatic subject. However, in films like The Black Swan (Henry King, 1942) and Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945), Shamroy takes Technicolor lighting in a mannerist direction, pushing the pictorialism to the point where it dominates all the other functions.
Shamroy won his first Academy Award for The Black Swan, a pirate story with Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara (who would eventually come to be known as the Queen of Technicolor). In figure 8.10 (color section) Jamie Waring (Power) shares a room with Lady Denby (O’Hara) aboard a pirate ship. Shamroy takes advantage of the setting to create some remarkably complex effect-lighting. A blue arc light creates a window pattern behind O’Hara, and the window pattern jostles up and down to suggest the movement of the seafaring ship. Strictly speaking, this window pattern does not make a lot of sense, since we see the moon clearly located behind Power’s head. This moon effect motivates a second blue window pattern, moving up and down on the right. Also on the right side, Shamroy has added a yellow light, to mimic the effect of the candle. This candle motivates the warm skin tones of Power and O’Hara. The shot is already pretty complex, but Shamroy adds one more touch: the shadow areas are illuminated by a light that appears to be reflecting off water, suggesting the presence of the sea. When we consider these effects individually, they are thoroughly conventional. Moonlight was typically blue, candlelight was typically orange or yellow, window patterns were typically created by arc lights, ship scenes typically had lights moving up and down, and ocean scenes typically had water effects. What makes the scene unusual is the fact that Shamroy has arranged all of these effects in concert. The result is an extraordinarily dynamic shot, with interesting visual details scattered all over the frame.
Shamroy’s own account is a good example of the mannerist sensibility, which rejects some Hollywood ideas while embracing others:
I remember when I was making The Black Swan, I wanted to dispense with the usual Technicolor man from Kalmus, and to emulate the old masters, men like Van Dyke and Rembrandt, and I’d say to Zanuck, “When you’re shooting a sunset, use yellow light instead of white light, and ignore realism, make a deliberate mistake.” And Mrs. Kalmus went to Zanuck and said, “That isn’t the way a color picture should be photographed.” Zanuck stepped on me, but I still was the first black and white man to win an Oscar for color – with that picture.27
Shamroy’s rhetoric is confident and rebellious, but we should also remember that he was a consummate company man who worked at Fox until the sixties. He is not a maverick trying to break every rule in the system. He breaks rules strategically, following some suggestions but not others. Shamroy hopes to break free from Kalmus’s insistence on realism and restraint, but he does not call for a radical modernist aesthetic. Instead, he hopes to paint with light, proposing Rembrandt as a model in the same way that Cecil B. DeMille had proposed him almost thirty years before.
[…] Technicolor had adopted many of the rhetorical strategies of the ASC, and most cinematographers began to think of Technicolor as an opportunity to exercise, even flaunt, their artistic talents. Some cinematographers did so by practicing the art of balance, carefully crafting a multifunctional style. Other cinematographers, like Shamroy, proved their artistic worth by pushing the limits of one particular aesthetic function.
Hal Mohr once said that he did not distinguish between color cinematography and black-and-white cinematography. We should not take this to mean that Technicolor was simply assimilated unthinkingly into the precolor Hollywood norms. The Technicolor Corporation worked hard to make that assimilation happen, and to make sure it happened on their terms. The end result may have been a convergence of styles, but that convergence was the result of years of strategy and struggle.
17 C. W. Handley, “Lighting for Technicolor Motion Pictures,” JSMPE 25.6 (Dec. 1935): 429. See also Handley, “The Advanced Technic of Technicolor Lighting,” JSMPE 29.2 (Aug. 1937): 173.
18 Quoted in Leonard Maltin, The Art of the Cinematographer: A Survey and Interviews with Five Masters, enl. ed. (New York: Dover, 1978), 69.
19 J. A. Ball, “The Technicolor Process of Three-Color Cinematography,” JSMPE 25.2 (Aug. 1935): 134.
20 Richard Dyer, White (New York: Routledge, 1997), 90.
22 Ball, “Technicolor Process,” 133.
23 L. T. Troland, “Some Psychological Aspects of Natural Color Motion Pictures,” TSMPE 11.32 (Sept. 1927), 687.
26 Herbert Kalmus to Henry Ginsberg, April 24, 1936, Selznick Files, The Garden of Allah – Technicolor, David O. Selznick Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.
27 Quoted in Charles Higham, Hollywood Cameramen: Sources of Light (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 33–34.
28 Quoted in Higham, Hollywood Cameramen, 34.”
(Keating, Patrick (2010): Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir. Columbia University Press: New York, on pp. 208–221.)
“When in ’35 Eastman introduced the new Kodachrome, a monopack color reversal process for the amateur market, Technicolor began to work closely with Eastman trying to adapt Kodachrome to the requirements of a 35mm monopack for professionals. By ’41 flying shots in Dive Bomber were photographed with a standard black-&-white camera using a specially prepared 35mm Kodachrome. In ’42 additional aerial shots were so photographed for Captains of the Clouds. The climactic forest fire in Paramount’s The Forest Rangers (’42) was shot with this multi-layer film, as were the exteriors of MGM’s Lassie Come Home (’42). In ’44 it was used for exteriors and interiors in Thunderhead, Son of Flicka. Shooting King Solomon’s Mines (’50) in Africa would not have been practical with 3-strip Technicolor.
Although monopack was a major advance, the results with it did not equal those of the three-strip method, particularly with interiors, and Technicolor continued to dominate color feature-film photography. Cinecolor, Magnacolor, Trucolor, etc., were never serious competitors. Ansco was perhaps better, but no real threat.
Some Technicolor productions of the ’40s that were particularly noteworthy were Paramount’s Dr. Cyclops (’40); Korda’s Thief of Bagdad (’40), which proved that trick films involving rear projection, mattes, and other complicated techniques, could be handled adroitly in Technicolor; Blood and Sand (’41), in which Mamoulian and cinematographer Ernest Palmer drew upon Spanish masters to enrich composition and coloring; Leon Shamroy’s beautiful Black Swan (’42); Forever Amber (’47); and Black Narcissus (’47), one of the most visually thrilling treats ever seen (cinematographer: Jack Cardiff).
During and immediately following World War II Technicolor acquired a reputation in Hollywood for being “difficult”. Its process was much in demand, but the company, zealous about maintaining quality, avoided “rush jobs”. The ’45-46 strikes reduced print service to a serious extent. Technicolor was also mindful that an improved reversal monopack-type film and/or a single-strip color negative was inevitable and that its consultants, cameras, processing, printing, could become obsolete overnight.
In May ’47 the US Government filed an anti-trust suit against Technicolor and Eastman Kodak, charging restraint of trade and monopolization of professional color cinematography. The court proceedings, as to Eastman, ended in ’48 with a consent decree, and, as to Technicolor, in the same way in ’50.
The Government’s decrees, and the background of the proceedings, can be found in two papers and an appendix written by George S. Frost and S. Chesterfield Oppenheim for the 1960 spring and summer issues of The Patent, Trademark and Copyright Journal of Research and Education, which is published by George Washington University. I quote from their summary: “It is concluded in the present report that none of the compulsory licensing decree provisions has had substantial effect on the professional color motion picture industry, that the key development since the decrees (Eastmancolor) occurred without regard to the decrees, and that research and development in the industry has a much greater effect on market competition than the anti-trust decree provisions.”
In ’49 Eastman Color single-strip negative and printing film stock were introduced for professional motion pictures. It was the most far-reaching breakthrough since Technicolor’s three-strip process in ’32. Within five years the Technicolor camera was a thing of the past. Eastman Color negative, in a standard black-&-white camera, was the universal tool. The WarnerColor, MetroColor, De Luxe Color, Pathe Color, etc., that appeared in film ads and on credit titles are all Eastman Color stock. The different “names” refer only to the studio and/or processing plant that did the developing and printing.
The perfection of Eastman Color, and the advent of CinemaScope (’53), radically altered Technicolor’s entire modus operandi. It began to do color negative processing and color positive printing, and to “diversify”. It also promoted such wide-screen developments as Technirama and Technivision-70.”
(Behlmer, Rudy (1964): Technicolor. In: Films in Review, 15,6, pp. 333–351, on pp. 348–351.)
“The first suggestion, that the development of colour cinematography is being hampered by the fact that Technicolor is a “secret” process, seems very wide of the truth. I have constant recourse to that monumental work Colour Kinematography, which Major Cornwell-Clyne wrote just before the war, and it is clear to me that he is capable of extracting any information which he might reasonably demand about the Technicolor process from their very considerable patent literature. There is nothing secret about the principles involved, and Colour Kinematography includes diagrams of the beam-splitter camera and summary details of numerous patents covering the imbibition system of printing.
Passing on to the second point, it is true to say that the activities of Technicolor’s Colour Control Division need to-day to be far less strict than in the two-colour days. Before 1935, only Natalie Kalmus knew what colours the process could cover adequately, and a measure of control was essential. To-day the work of the Division is of a much more supervisory character and likely to be welcomed rather than resented when decisions have to be taken on décor and colour treatment. At any rate, Technicolor’s Colour Control Division (Natalie Kalmus and her helpers; Henri Jaffa, Morgan Padelford and Richard Meuller, in America; and Joan Bridge in this country), can congratulate themselves on the artistic successes of recent years in such films as Heaven Can Wait, Gone With The Wind, Blood and Sand, Hello, Frisco, Hello, Colonel Blimp and The Great Mr. Handel, while they cannot feel too depressed about the successful launching of all the lovely low-brow musicals, the swashbuckling dramas and the tender romances, the colour in which has done so much to cheer and brighten the wartime years. Anyone who has followed recent Technicolor developments cannot but have noticed the way in which Technicolor are now prepared to delegate responsibility to producers’ cameramen, and to give directors more freedom in their use of the medium. The result has been the winning of an Academy award by Leon Shamroy, and a series of most striking experiments by such directors of photography as Ernest Palmer in America and Georges Perinal over here. Monopak Technicolor, when it becomes generally available, will give even more freedom.
The need for some kind of colour control was nowhere so well illustrated as in the one brave attempt at a feature film in Dufaycolor made just before the war stopped their work. I have some colour stills before me as I write which serve to remind me of Sons of the Sea, and of the lack of coordination between its variable exterior shots and its studio scenes in which the colour is interjected into the sets and costumes without any deducible underlying plan.
The idea of making a monochrome colour film comes up as a great discovery from time to time. The suggestion is usually made in a spirit of perversity, by someone who either wants to say a “smart” thing, or who is unwilling to confess that he has no better idea as to what to do with colour. Major Cornwell-Clyne is not alone in this crusade. I have already recorded in Colour Enthusiast similar ambitions by Major William Wyler (of Mrs. Miniver fame), and by the producers of the forthcoming Noel Coward film, This Happy Breed. The thoughtful cinemagoer laughs at such ideas. Life itself is seldom colourless, although we habitually disregard the subtler manifestations of its hues; but those who have been making colour films for years, and who have been painstaking observers of colour in everyday life, know when to make colour truly expressive by reducing it to the minimum. For example the whole of the wartime sequence in the middle of Colonel Blimp was in this vein. Several people have told me that this section was in sepia monochrome, and have had to be taken to the cinema again to see such subtleties as red lips, blue eyes and red tabs against the carefully contrived general overall khaki drabness of the period. There is a similar brownness over large parts of the opening sequences of Gone With the Wind, as can be verified from specimens which are before me as I write, showing that even four years ago the use of subdued colour was well understood and practised.
As to the effect of television in colour, it is perfectly true that this post-war development is likely to have a great effect on popular appreciation of colour. Instead of colour entertainment being restricted to a few visits to colour films, probably not more than a dozen on the average each year, colour isolated on the television screen will be a constant feature of our home life. This is more likely, I think, to make the man in the street sensitive to colour, and appreciative of the fine qualities and artistic merit of colour films as they are developing to-day, rather than to lead to any particular demand for a change in the way in which that development is taking place.
Major Cornwell-Clyne hints at the development of a screenless direct-printing negative-positive process, which most people will agree to be desirable, so long as it can compete with imbibition printing. It is probably significant, on the cost consideration however, that Technicolor in their Monopak system still use imbibition printing as the cheapest method of making release prints. Finally, in the last words of his article, Major Cornwell-Clyne renounces his vow of restraint by looking forward in most low-browed fashion to seeing on the screen in 1944 the record of victory processions in “truly glorious Dufaycolor.” To that wish we can only say: “Speed the day!””
(Tompkins, E.S. (1944): In Defence of “Glorious” Colour. In: British Journal of Photography, 3 March, p. 74.)
“After using an expressive, somber style for Wilson, Shamroy returned to the mannered approach for Leave Her to Heaven. With a femme fatale protagonist and a plot featuring bizarre twists of fate, the film is sometimes described as a film noir in color. I think it is equally useful to see the film as an extension of the pictorial approach Shamroy had developed in The Black Swan – a decidedly un-noir film, despite the presence of the word “black” in the title. For instance, the trial scene reuses some of the set design details from figure 8.11, but Shamroy creates variety by using a new land of window pattern: a trapezoidal pattern cast from above. In the New Mexico sequence, Shamroy experiments with orange gels, creating vividly colored light without necessarily motivating it as the light of a fire or candle. Most Technicolor cinematographers agreed that getting appropriate skin tones was their number-one priority. This is why the figure-lighting in figure 8.12 is so remarkable. Not content with restricting the application of an orange gel to the backlight, Shamroy emblazons the left side of Gene Tierney’s face with an orange cross-light, flagging off the top to keep her forehead in shadow. Then he uses a strong top-frontal fill light, smoothing the features of her face while clearly defining her jaw-line and cheekbones. The image is certainly glamorous, but it is very unusual, placing two different color temperatures on Tierney’s face. Shamroy could have made the image more conventional by insisting on a clear motivation for the orange light. While the film does establish the presence of a light source in the other room, the motivation is ultimately very weak for such an unusual effect. As in The Black Swan, the primary motivation seems to be pictorial, with Shamroy flaunting his ability to create new combinations of color.”
(Keating, Patrick (2010): Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir. Columbia University Press: New York, on pp. 219–220.)
“Many cinematographers were fascinated by the new possibilities of Technicolor, and they took the opportunity to experiment, creating a bold new style of Technicolor pictorialism. Leon Shamroy is a case in point. Shamroy was certainly capable of crafting works with a classical sense of balance; for instance, his somber photography for Wilson (Henry King, 1944) is perfectly suited to the film’s serious dramatic subject. However, in films like The Black Swan (Henry King, 1942) and Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945), Shamroy takes Technicolor lighting in a mannerist direction, pushing the pictorialism to the point where it dominates all the other functions.
Shamroy won his first Academy Award for The Black Swan, a pirate story with Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara (who would eventually come to be known as the Queen of Technicolor). In figure 8.10 (color section) Jamie Waring (Power) shares a room with Lady Denby (O’Hara) aboard a pirate ship. Shamroy takes advantage of the setting to create some remarkably complex effect-lighting. A blue arc light creates a window pattern behind O’Hara, and the window pattern jostles up and down to suggest the movement of the seafaring ship. Strictly speaking, this window pattern does not make a lot of sense, since we see the moon clearly located behind Power’s head. This moon effect motivates a second blue window pattern, moving up and down on the right. Also on the right side, Shamroy has added a yellow light, to mimic the effect of the candle. This candle motivates the warm skin tones of Power and O’Hara. The shot is already pretty complex, but Shamroy adds one more touch: the shadow areas are illuminated by a light that appears to be reflecting off water, suggesting the presence of the sea. When we consider these effects individually, they are thoroughly conventional. Moonlight was typically blue, candlelight was typically orange or yellow, window patterns were typically created by arc lights, ship scenes typically had lights moving up and down, and ocean scenes typically had water effects. What makes the scene unusual is the fact that Shamroy has arranged all of these effects in concert. The result is an extraordinarily dynamic shot, with interesting visual details scattered all over the frame.”
(Keating, Patrick (2010): Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir. Columbia University Press: New York, on pp. 218–219.)
Perhaps the most important precedent for [Douglas] Sirk’s [color] work is John Stahl’s 1945 Technicolor melodrama/noir Leave Her to Heaven with cinematography by Leon Shamroy. Shamroy, a noted master of colored lighting, balances blue tinged backlight against amber lamplight to lend an uneasy elegance to Ellen’s (Gene Tierney) family home. As she seduces Richard (Cornel Wilde) in the first act, Stahl gives the whirlwind romance a disconcerting undercurrent through performance, dialogue, and lighting. Ellen and Richard begin in the dark, a low-key effect evoked by the steely sidelight with which Shamroy dapples the set [web illustration 31].2 As she begins to politely but insistently question Richard about his romantic life and family, Ellen takes control of the mise-en-scène and snaps on the end-table lamp, motivating a warm key light from off left. The new key glamorizes and centers the female star but also motivates chiaroscuro modeling on Richard, contrasting with the coolly lit back wall [web illustrations 32-34]. Ellen chillingly extols the pleasure of shooting wild turkeys that “are so big and clumsy that they hate to take wing … it’s a lot of fun” and invites Richard to join her hunt. She leaves him just as he realizes that she had carefully arranged their meeting, and he pauses in silence after snapping off the light [web illustrations 35-36]. The scene has an uncomfortable and disquieting quality, a love scene played in moody shadow with the characters separated by luminance and temperature. By 1945, this was a conventional, if beautiful, expressive use of a diegetic element. Colored lighting had nearly become a “fact of mise-en-scène,” a term Lea Jacobs uses to describe the developing conventions of artificial lighting in the teens when it ceased to require strongly marked motivation and became an accepted expressive device (Jacobs 1993: 416).
2 Full color illustrations for this essay are available online at: http://shiggins.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2012/03/ll/chromo-drama-innovation-and-convention-in-douglas-sirks-color-designs/
Jacobs, L. (1993) “Belasco, DeMille and the Development of Lasky Lighting,” Film History 5 no. 4: 405-418.”
(Higgins, Scott (2013): Chromo-Drama. Innovation and Convention in Douglas Sirk’s Color Designs. In: Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (eds.): Color and the Moving Image. History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive. New York, London: Routledge, pp. 170-178, on pp. 173-174.)