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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Rationing the Rainbow, Part 1 (originally published 10/98)

When moving pictures first became a reality in the 1890's, black and white film, or, more precisely, monochromatic film, was all that was available. By and large, filmmakers were content to live within that limitation, ultimately turning it into a virtue by elevating black and white cinematography to an art unto itself by the end of the silent film era. Even so, right from the beginning there were occasions when adding a splash of color here or there seemed desirable. In the very early days, a few enterprising filmmakers actually hand colored the 35mm frames of their short films one at a time. A less arduous, more widely used alternative was to add color to scenes by tinting the print. The film might be tinted blue for a night scene or amber for a daytime scene, for example. This wasn't true color, of course. It was still monochrome, substituting black and amber or black and blue for black and white.

True color film didn't appear until the late teens, when the Technicolor Corporation introduced a process for capturing two of the three primary colors on film. This allowed reproduction of most, but not quite all, of the colors in the spectrum. The result was a convincing, if not quite perfect, color image. By the mid-thirties, the capability to reproduce all three primary colors had been perfected, allowing filmmakers to light up the silver screen with all the colors of the rainbow if they so desired.

The moviemakers did not, however, immediately commit to all-color production. The process was cumbersome and expensive, and audiences seemed to like black and white movies just fine. Still, from that point on, filmmakers did have a choice about whether to use color or black and white. That choice still exists, of course, but nowadays black and white is rarely chosen, largely because of the resistance of television networks, an important secondary market, to purchasing black and white product. If you're going to shoot a major studio release in black and white these days, you'd better have a gimmick.

That's exactly what the producers of "Pleasantville" have got. They've come up with a way to use both black and white and color as the very basis of their fantasy premise. Obviously, this isn't the first time black and white and color have been used in the same film; everybody knows that "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) used that same trick to good effect. You might be interested to know, however, that there have been dozens of other examples down through the years. In fact, although color film was available during the last decade of the silent film era, only a couple of silent films were shot entirely in color. A much more common practice was to shoot only one or two sequences in color. If you're curious to see how this approach worked, look for these silent film titles on home video.

"The Ten Commandments" (1923). Cecil B. DeMille, whose name has become synonymous with epic filmmaking, was a natural candidate for interpolation of color scenes. In telling the story of Moses and his liberation of the Israelites from bondage, DeMille shot the scenes depicting the Exodus in two-tone Technicolor. The Paramount Home Video release includes the original color footage. It's a bit faded, but still recognizably in color.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1925). Lon Chaney, a master of eccentric character makeup, was the screen's first Phantom. The most elaborate scene in the film is the masked ball that is held at the opera house. The phantom attends in the costume of Death, wearing a death's head mask and a flowing red robe. The scene works beautifully, an ideal marriage of color, spectacle, and costuming.

"The Wedding March" (1928). Erich Von Stroheim was known for his extravagance as a director, so it seems only natural that he should have availed himself of the Technicolor process. In this story of Teutonic decadence, an impressive early set piece is the elaborate Corpus Christi ceremony, with elegantly attired soldiers on horseback passing in procession, row on row. Von Stroheim enhanced the spectacle with Technicolor.

By the mid to late thirties, the trend of shooting only part of a film in color began to diminish. It did not, however, vanish entirely. Next week we'll look at some part-color productions from the talkie era.

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