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Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow

Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow
Color Design in the 1930s

The first scholarly history of Technicolor filmmaking, as well as a thoroughgoing analysis of how color works in film.

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November 2007
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312 pages | 6 x 9 | 85 b&w illus., 32 color photos on 8 pages |

Like Dorothy waking up over the rainbow in the Land of Oz, Hollywood discovered a vivid new world of color in the 1930s. The introduction of three-color Technicolor technology in 1932 gave filmmakers a powerful tool with which to guide viewers' attention, punctuate turning points, and express emotional subtext. Although many producers and filmmakers initially resisted the use of color, Technicolor designers, led by the legendary Natalie Kalmus, developed an aesthetic that complemented the classical Hollywood filmmaking style while still offering innovative novelty. By the end of the 1930s, color in film was thoroughly harnessed to narrative, and it became elegantly expressive without threatening the coherence of the film's imaginary world.

Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow is the first scholarly history of Technicolor aesthetics and technology, as well as a thoroughgoing analysis of how color works in film. Scott Higgins draws on extensive primary research and close analysis of well-known movies, including Becky Sharp, A Star Is Born, Adventures of Robin Hood, and Gone with the Wind, to show how the Technicolor films of the 1930s forged enduring conventions for handling color in popular cinema. He argues that filmmakers and designers rapidly worked through a series of stylistic modes based on the demonstration, restraint, and integration of color—and shows how the color conventions developed in the 1930s have continued to influence filmmaking to the present day. Higgins also formulates a new vocabulary and a method of analysis for capturing the often-elusive functions and effects of color that, in turn, open new avenues for the study of film form and lay a foundation for new work on color in cinema.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: The Challenge of Technicolor
  • 2. Forging a New Aesthetic: From Opera to Color Consciousness
  • 3. A Feature-Length Demonstration: Becky Sharp
  • 4. Unobtrusive Design: Introducing Three-Color to Conventional Production
  • 5. Delicate Expansions: Designing in the Restrained Mode
  • 6. Broadening the Palette: The Adventures of Robin Hood
  • 7. A Fully Integrated Design: Light and Color in Gone with the Wind
  • 8. Beyond the 1930s: The Legacies of Three-Color Aesthetics
  • Appendix 1: Types of Prints Consulted and Variables in Color Reproduction
  • Appendix 2: Chronological Filmography: Three-Color Features of the 1930s
  • Appendix 3: Pantone Numbers for Color Names
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Scott Higgins is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.


Watching a Technicolor film from the classical era is a perceptual luxury. We are impressed with the abundance of color, and we sense that it has been carefully organized, shaped into compositions that feel complete, polished, and dramatically nuanced. Compared to our contemporary experience of color as a necessary, automatic, and all-too-often mundane aspect of the moving image, a Technicolor production engages us in the unfolding of a complex and determined design. Color is an active and significant visual element, ebbing and flowing across the film. Yet the system of color design, though sensed, remains just out of reach. Immersed as we are in the classical narrative's forward momentum and deluged with shifting visual cues, we probably find it nearly impossible to track color's moment-by-moment contributions or to grasp its overarching orchestration.

This book aims to capture color's undeniable role in shaping our experience of the classical feature film by detailing Technicolor aesthetics during the crucial era of the 1930s. In the following pages, I seek to answer several questions: What functions did color serve during the classical era and how did these functions develop? How did commercial imperatives, stylistic norms, and technological constraints shape filmmakers' options for designing in color? How does color work, generally and specifically, to guide the viewer and tell the story? Most basically, I strive to articulate the "Technicolor look," that quality of design that helped make images feel perfectly organized, correct, and inevitable. The 1930s present a crucial intersection for addressing these questions because color was so carefully attended to and so openly discussed and debated. The period gives us a window onto the process by which color was brought into contact with America's most popular visual medium. The conventions developed in the 1930s had consequences for later cinema and our visual culture at large.

Of course, efforts to join color to the moving image are as old as cinema itself. Three-color Technicolor's precursors set the stage for the 1930s. Spectacular hand coloring was an important aspect of the magic-lantern tradition, and filmmakers had been painting frames at least since the release of Edison's Annabelle's Dance in 1895. Georges Méliès achieved astonishingly intricate hand-colored effects, most famously in Le Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904), which offers four hues in at least ten shades and tints simultaneously on screen. The importance of color as an effect, and the labor involved in achieving it, are on ready display in costume details, including narrow stripes of alternating color. Pathé Frères rationalized the technique with the refinement of stencil tinting between 1905 and 1908. Prints were mechanically colored through a series of stencil cutouts, one for each hue. Though largely limiting such effects to trick films and prestigious historical subjects, Pathé continued stencil coloring until the 1930s, achieving a look that resembled hand-tinted postcards. Color in these films is an extravagant embellishment; it captures the eye and inspires wonder because of its obvious artifice. Tom Gunning aptly describes color in early cinema as a "superadded feature" aimed at "sensual intensity" rather than realism. As we will see, these are associations that three-color Technicolor design will both seek to exploit and overcome.

By far the most common method of bringing color to cinema before the Technicolor era involved tinting and toning. Common estimates hold that between 80 and 90 percent of all prints were tinted or toned by the early 1920s. Both processes achieved more or less uniform coloring by running release prints through baths of dye or toning agents. Tinting involved dyeing the gelatin of a release print so that the entire image was veiled in color, while toning replaced the silver image so that highlights remained clear. Less spectacular than hand or stencil coloring, tinting and toning varied the viewing experience, and colors were quickly codified. By 1914 the standard conventions were in place: blue signaled night, red indicated fire and passion, magenta designated romance, green was used for nature and gruesome scenes, amber indicated lamplight, and so forth. The prevalence of these techniques decreased with the coming of sound because the dyes interfered with the optical sound track, but in the late 1920s Eastman Kodak introduced Sonochrome release stock, which allowed the practice to continue. As late as 1937, MGM released The Good Earth in 500 prints toned red-brown.

Tinting, especially, was fairly inexpensive, and during the silent era it became absolutely standard. At their height, tinting and toning likely became a transparent convention, going relatively unnoticed by the casual spectator. This formed another inherited context for the Technicolor look; the dominant kind of color cinema in the silent era had achieved familiarity and a clear semantic function. Three-color Technicolor designs strove to remain "new" while maintaining a margin of familiarity that would allow the fact of color to fade into the background of the viewer's experience. Moreover, they attempted to capture and enhance some of color's power to code dramatic events.

While artificial color dominated the silent era, natural, or photographic, color processes also vied for adoption. The successful commercial use of these processes remained rather rare until the late 1920s, and so they tended to crop up as briefly lived novelties. The earliest photographic color processes were additive, meaning that white light would be created by adding various densities of red, blue, and green. Additive processes included Gaumont's Chronochrome (an experimental three-color system in use between 1912 and 1913), and Technicolor Process Number One (in use around 1917). The most resilient and earliest additive process was Kinemacolor, a British venture successfully exhibited between 1908 and 1915. All additive systems required specialized projection equipment that could mix the colors of two or more distinct images on the screen. This requirement, as well as severe technical deficiencies such as color fringing and low illumination, doomed additive color to the status of a "special attraction." The films, most of them documentary subjects, might thrill audiences as technological demonstrations, but they never successfully crossed over into the mainstream.

Much more successful were two-color subtractive systems, of which Technicolor Process Number Two (1922-1927) and Number Three (1928-1932) were the most lucrative. The Technicolor Corporation was formed in late 1915 by Herbert Kalmus, Samuel Comstock (both graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and W. Burton Westcott. The three had previously formed an engineering consulting firm (KCW), which received a slew of patents, developed commercial processes, and launched at least three profitable corporations that, according to Kalmus, "enabled us to stick with Technicolor through years and years of experimentation." The Technicolor Corporation, taking its name from Kalmus and Comstock's alma mater, was formed specifically to produce an engineering solution to the problem of color in motion pictures. The first Technicolor process was an additive system that required special projectors. It failed after the release of only a single Technicolor-produced feature, The Gulf Between (1917), but the experience convinced Kalmus to undertake the development of subtractive color technology.

Subtractive color systems solved the problem of special projection by layering some combination of cyan (greenish blue), yellow, and magenta (hues that create color when they are filtered or subtracted from white light) on a single piece of release stock. Since these films could be shown on any standard projector, they were more easily accommodated by mainstream distribution channels, and this adaptability facilitated the production of full-length color features (including The Toll of the Sea [1922] and The Black Pirate [1926]) as well as black-and-white films with color sequences (Phantom of the Opera [1925], for example). Before three-color Technicolor, or Technicolor Process Number Four, the subject of this book, subtractive systems were limited to reproducing a narrow slice of the spectrum. Based on two colors, usually cyan and magenta, these processes translated the mise-en-scène into compositions of bluish green and pinkish orange. Flesh tones and saturated primary hues were problematic. However, extremely careful and clever color designs could work within the process for beautiful effects. Technicolor's Toll of the Sea, in particular, balances pastels with soft browns for subtle and gently graded compositions. During one stunning sequence, in which Anna May Wong's character meets her lover in a rose garden, strong red flowers in the fore- and background complement the green of her dress in center frame. The image is strongly stylized as romantically glamorous, and careful composition lends it a sense of completeness—it militates against the feeling that something is missing.

The overwhelming bulk of two-color productions, though, exploited color as a temporary novelty. This was especially the case during the brief boom in two-color Technicolor production that coincided with the transition to sound. Musicals like the Paul Whiteman revue The King of Jazz (1930) managed a series of brilliant color effects, but they never developed schemes for integrating color into the basic vocabulary of narrative filmmaking.

Before the 1930s, color tended to offer novel embellishment or, as in the case of tinting, a simple and expedient method of signification. Color was very much present in both artificial and photographic forms, but none of these processes launched the far-reaching attempts to harness color to narrative that three-color Technicolor did. This book takes up the story of color cinema at the critical historical juncture when Technicolor became a significant option for classical filmmaking. During the 1930s, filmmakers and studios tempered color's novelty and developed practical methods for managing it. Studio personnel labored to balance the loss of flexibility entailed by the technology against the added resources of color. They found methods and motivations for foregrounding or restraining color and assigned it specific tasks to perform. This is the period in which color was defined as a cinematic device and assimilated into the classic system. Many Technicolor conventions seem obvious or common because we have inherited them, like so many aspects of our moving-image culture, from the era of classical Hollywood cinema's dominance.

But getting a grip on color requires an approach to film form that allows us to seek functions and patterns and avoid the pitfalls of random observation. My methods are broadly informed by neoformalism, an approach based on the work of Russian formalist theoreticians, including Boris Eikhenbaum and Victor Shklovsky, and best exemplified by Kristin Thompson's volume of film analysis Breaking the Glass Armor. Chief among the Russian formalists' contributions was to view form as constitutive of art rather than as merely instrumental in its communication. Our contact with an artwork is our experience of its form, as opposed to an abstracted understanding of "content" delivered by form. This view places a quality like color at the center of an artwork's identity rather than as a superfluous embellishment of a more fundamental message.

As described by Thompson, the neoformalist approach assumes that films are artificial constructs that engage viewers in nonpractical perception and function to defamiliarize, or transform, material that has become habitual or routine. The goal of art is to renew perception, but different art forms work at different levels. In the case of classical Hollywood cinema, stylistic devices are apt to perform functions that support narrative. In this book, I take color to be a formal device, and I offer a detailed account of how functions were assigned to this device within the systems of classic style. In this framework, we might say that 1930s filmmakers feared color would so challenge narrative's dominance that it would shift the game of defamiliarization away from story and toward the image as a graphic. Color, rather than story, might govern the viewer's attention. One goal was to make color in cinema more "familiar," or transparent. At the same time, Technicolor designs almost inevitably announce their novelty, engaging us in perceptual renewal.

Like all aesthetic works, the classical Hollywood feature is an artificial construct, but one designed to mask its construction. Neoformalism uses the concept of motivation to explain how works justify their devices. In a Hollywood movie, motivation tends to cover over the arbitrariness of devices, providing the viewer a rationale for accepting the formal choices. Roughly, an element within a classical Hollywood film can be motivated as necessary to the development of the story (compositional motivation), as plausible for the story world (realistic motivation), or as conventional for a particular genre (transtextual motivation). Neoformalism also allows room for devices that do not appear so easily justified, that call out as displays of technical virtuosity or spectacle. In this case, we may conclude that the element helps draw attention to the artfulness of the work (artistic motivation).

One benefit of this typology is the way it highlights classic filmmakers' reasons for choosing color and color effects. A tightly crafted color design could show off a film's production values generally (artistic motivation), and genre might justify a degree of color stylization (transtextual motivation), but such rationales were tempered by a devotion to story development and plausibility. In the 1930s, justifying the use of color was especially important because it was an obtrusive device in a world of black-and-white filmmaking.

Finally, neoformalism contains an important historical implication for the study of film form. The approach holds that both functions and devices shift historically, but that devices are inclined to change more rapidly. The classical Hollywood cinema tended to sustain a set of narratively oriented functions for film style, but favored different devices at different times. In the 1930s, color was a new device, but the functions it performed were time tested. In instances where lighting, composition, or music might have highlighted a dramatic development, color could now be counted on as well. The task of neoformalist analysis is to unweave the patterns of function and motivation in the artwork. In this book, the approach gives us a consistent set of questions to ask as we chart historical change. Developments in technology and in Technicolor's market position conditioned the functions with which color was entrusted. Further, filmmakers were engaged in a historically bounded program of trial and error in which functions and motivations were tested and abandoned or revised according to reigning aesthetic norms.

By working from a neoformalist perspective, I in no way wish to deny the value of other frameworks that have been used to approach color in cinema. Questions of ideology, realism, and the split between spectacle and narrative are certainly worthwhile with regard to color, and this book will cover much shared ground. My main concern, though, is to probe color's contribution to the moving image with new precision and to place it in a technological, industrial, and aesthetic context. A historically sensitive neoformalist approach offers tools and ideas specifically suited to the task of close analysis. Questions of how filmmakers have used color, of which kinds of palettes and designs came to prominence, or of how the components of color (hue, value, saturation) were controlled and varied for specific effects are well served by talking about devices, functions, and motivations.

This book will illustrate that the basic trajectory of Technicolor in the 1930s was toward integration and assimilation, toward the construction of norms for binding color to the tasks of style in the classic paradigm. Though filmmakers worked quickly to develop a Technicolor style, the path to assimilation was neither direct nor easily traversed. As we will see, the earliest three-color films attempted to so load the device with functions that color became intrusive, and it was judged too strong a player among the elements of form. Yet this served a more proximate goal for Technicolor: it helped introduce the potentials of color to a reluctant industry. Similarly, color's generic range was in development during the 1930s. Though musicals (The Goldwyn Follies) and adventures (The Adventures of Robin Hood) formed an important strain of production, three-color was also tested in contemporary drama (A Star Is Born) and in rural, "outdoor" melodrama (The Trail of the Lonesome Pine). This was a decade of experiment and exploration, and the paths not followed can tell us much about the pressures that shaped film style in Hollywood.

The Prospect of Historical Color Analysis

Given the importance of color to cinema and the significance of Technicolor in shaping the norms of design, we might ask why the topic has received such scant attention. In fact, film scholars are not alone in more or less neglecting color's contribution to form. Art historians, particularly John Gage, have only recently sparked a contemporary dialogue about the problems and potentials of color. In the mid-1990s, Gage's groundbreaking volumes Color and Culture and Color and Meaning gave renewed attention to the historical determinants and characteristics of color in painting. If we have lagged in studying color in the cinema's comparatively brief history, it may be partly because color itself is such a slippery subject and partly because we lack adequate methods for capturing the complexities of the moving image. This book is a study of Technicolor design, but I hope it is also a step toward meaningfully analyzing film color, an attempt to answer color's challenge.

In writing about color in art, it has become tradition to begin by acknowledging its elusiveness, its resistance to study. Joseph Albers opened his seminal volume Interaction of Color by proclaiming that color is "the most relative medium in art" and that "color deceives continually." Similarly, in his foreword to Augusto Garau's treatment of color harmony, Rudolf Arnheim acknowledged that "the serious study of color, as compared with that of shape, faces almost insurmountable difficulties." More recently, Charles A. Riley II began his investigation of color theory, Color Codes, with this apparently discouraging assessment:

The first thing to realize about the study of color in our time is its uncanny ability to evade all attempts to codify it systematically. . . . Color behavior does not conform to one paradigm, chart, or episteme. The topic of color has become a watershed for thinking about models and about art that is created by systems simply because it is such a devourer of models and systems. It has attracted and ultimately confounded systematic innovators in philosophy and psychology, as well as writers, painters, and composers who attempt to use precompositional systems.

Color has repeatedly proved one of the most challenging elements of art to theorists and historians. It throws up obstacles to description and to the uncovering of a system or logic of design. Yet writers like Gage, Albers, Arnheim, and Riley, to name a few, have found the challenge of color provocative and inspiring. The rewards of coming to terms with color far outweigh the difficulties of study.

Art historians and artists recognize several challenges to the detailed study of color. Albers identified two issues: "First it is hard, if not impossible, to remember distinct colors. . . . Second, the nomenclature of colors is most inadequate. Though there are innumerable colors—shades and tones—in daily vocabulary, there are only about thirty color names." The imprecision of color memory and vocabulary is compounded by the fugitive nature of the object itself. Arnheim termed color "a capricious medium" and pointed out the "false testimony" of reproductions. The colors of original artworks are subject to deterioration and change. Finally, the sensual immediacy of color poses a particular challenge to the historian. Gage notes: "I may recognize from the style of the work that it belongs to a particular time which is not ours but how can I say the same for its colours? Is not red the same whenever and wherever it is seen?" To understand color historically, Gage concluded that he "had to look at artifacts and at the colour-language of the periods in question." The task is stimulating. Gage's work repeatedly demonstrates that different historical eras mapped and understood color in strikingly different ways. Artists of Greek and Roman antiquity, for example, granted more prominence to value than hue; luminosity and luster carried more weight than the spectral identity of a color. Our contemporary perspective, which emphasizes difference of hue, might fail to grasp artworks based on such a system. The historical analysis of color involves not only determining the artwork's original properties, but also in ascertaining how the artist conceived of color and how that conception influenced the choices the artist could make.

Though movies are hardly as old as the paintings that Gage discusses, film scholars also have the opportunity for historical reconstruction of color choices and effects. In most cases for films of the 1930s, the original artwork, as presented at the time of its release, no longer exists, and what remains is a compromised form. The history of Gone with the Wind (1939) strikingly illustrates how precarious the color image can be and how changing aesthetics can influence a film's look. A victim of its own success, Gone with the Wind underwent a long line of reissues and rereleases, all of which sought to "improve" on earlier versions. For this book I studied two noticeably different versions of the film: MGM's 1954 reissue, approved by producer David O. Selznick, and Warner Bros.' Technicolor restoration, released in 1998. Neither version can claim to re-create the colors of the 1939 original; each is a creature of its aesthetic context.

Richard May, Warner Bros.' vice president of film preservation, explained that each reissue attempted to increase the saturation and vividness of the production's color in order to keep up with audience expectations. If a contemporary audience were presented with a print that duplicated the 1939 version, he speculated, "I think they would see that absence of color and ask what we did to the picture." For the 1954 version, in keeping with the then-current standards of spectacle, MGM released the film in "widescreen." Several key compositions were cropped, and projectionists masked the film so that it appeared to have a CinemaScope aspect ratio. The handling of color, though, in this version is not without merit. Robert Harris, the film restoration expert renowned for his work in color and large-format films (most famously Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo) calls the 1954 version "the Rosetta stone for Gone with the Wind." This version was processed to emphasize the design's rich, warm reds and browns. Scarlett's prayer dress in the opening scene, for instance, is reproduced in a sumptuous pearl white, very warm, with a soft near-yellowish cast. One effect of this printing choice is to accentuate the warm glow of simulated candlelight that Selznick had worked so hard to achieve in 1939. The fact that Selznick also supervised and approved this version of the film lends authority to its look.

The 1998 Technicolor reissue renders colors quite differently. This version was derived from a 1989 Eastmancolor restoration. May explained that the 1989 restoration team timed the new print to achieve good flesh tones and neutrals, and that the colors probably approximated those of the original scenes as staged before the Technicolor camera. Scarlett's dress, in that version, is a crisp, clean white. The aim, May suggests, was to create a print that would meet contemporary standards of color rendition and quality. The look clearly departed from the 1954 version and almost certainly was different from the 1939 original. In all, the colors are cooler and clearer, and perhaps they are truer to the original staged scenes. This technical polish raises questions, however, if we assume that GWTW was designed with the capacities of the 1939 Technicolor process in mind and that Selznick may have viewed that process as a creative tool to help stylize the film.

The 1989 restoration was fairly well received, but the 1998 Technicolor release met with harsh criticism. The film was meant to be a showcase for Technicolor's reintroduction of dye-transfer printing, a system that hadn't been used in the United States since the 1970s. Unfortunately, Technicolor distributed a set of reels with registration defects (errors in keeping the yellow, cyan, and magenta components properly lined up), and had to recall them. Technicolor's president, Ron Jarvis, pointed the finger at Warner Bros. for relying on the 1989 restoration as a source, which "contaminates the color because you're now introducing another process: Eastmancolor." Even the areas in which this version is said to excel can cast doubt on its accuracy. Jarvis touted Technicolor's new work by claiming that "the colors, the contrast, the blacks, the shadow detail, the lack of grain are big improvements over the '39 original." Improvements, of course, amount to imposing current standards on the historical artifact, and they chip away at aesthetic credibility.

If technology stands between the historian and the film's original look, so too does culture. Hardly anyone was satisfied with the 1998 version, because it departed from expectations. Some critics complained that the colors were too intense, others that they were too muted. The reactions said more about the variety of preconceptions of how GWTW should look than they did about the film itself. These preconceptions, though, were rarely grounded in history or in an understanding of color's status in a 1930s motion picture. Rather, critics measured the film against its reputation as a "Technicolor classic" and against their own previous viewing experience, likely limited to videos and prints from the 1970s and 1980s. Technicolor, for contemporary viewers, has come to mean bright, saturated, garish color. A historical reconstruction of the aesthetic context demonstrates that nothing could have been further from the truth during the 1930s.

The case of GWTW magnifies a historiographic issue that affects all fine-grained analyses of color film style. This book is based on an examination of the best available materials, including nitrate studio prints. Even so, cultural, economic, and technological pressures continue to shape our contact with color. As in most historical practice, we must be aware of the bounds of our knowledge as we pursue our subject. Acknowledging obstacles need not mean giving in to them.

A full discussion of the kinds of prints that I studied, and their status with regard to color reproduction, is included as an appendix. Video, however, deserves special consideration here, since it is the viewing medium available to most readers. Indeed, standard-definition DVD and videotape are the primary media through which these works are experienced today. Unfortunately, standard video is a notoriously unreliable record, so it is important to understand exactly how its images differ from those of film. The relative poverty of image information in an NTSC (National Television System Committee) video image, as compared with that in a 35 mm print, has been widely recognized. One recent estimate suggests that 35 mm positive film presents color resolution equivalent to over 2,000 video scan lines, whereas domestic video can offer a maximum of 525 lines.

Video introduces particular problems for color. Color film is a subtractive medium; that is, color is generated by placing a filter (the film) before a white light source. Video, by contrast, uses additive color. In a typical CRT (cathode-ray tube) television set, three electron guns scan discrete red, blue, and green phosphors that line the inside of a video monitor's screen. This mosaic of phosphors generates color by adding together various quantities of these primaries. Yellow, for example, is created by the juxtaposition of green and red phosphors.29 Look closely at your television and you will see the separate elements that, at a greater distance, optically mix to form the hue. While televisions can yield highly saturated primaries by activating one set of phosphors, they have trouble rendering very saturated secondary colors like cyan, magenta, and, especially, yellow. Put simply, film reproduces a far greater range of colors than video. Video also has trouble producing hard separation between colors. Saturated reds, especially, can appear to bleed over the boundaries of the object that carries them. Similarly, the boundaries between adjacent hues may seem to vibrate. My experience has been that video versions of Technicolor films tend to average colors, flattening out the finer distinctions of value and saturation in closely related hues.

A brief example can illustrate how colors translate from print to video. Consider a single frame from the Munchkin sequence in The Wizard of Oz (1939). The image frames two figures in highly contrasting costumes. At the left stands a man in a high-value, saturated Fuchsia Purple waistcoat over a shirt with white and Stratosphere blue-gray stripes, and a blue-gray cummerbund with a pure Lemon Drop yellow daffodil (the capitalized terms refer to official Pantone colors, described below). The woman next to him wears a mid-value Cobalt blue blouse with a dark Deep Lake blue-green hat. She holds a piece of Flame Scarlet ribbon. On the video monitor, these colors can shift considerably. When color and tint controls are set in the middle position (which renders good flesh tones), the man's waistcoat appears soft Violet, losing its strong red-purple bias. The woman's blouse and hat, contrasting blues in the print, take on a uniformly soft, Capri blue-green appearance. The purer colors of the Flame Scarlet ribbon and the Lemon Drop yellow flower fare better at this setting. Increasing the tint and color controls to near maximum brings the man's coat closer to Fuchsia Purple and restores some of the contrast between the woman's hat and blouse. The yellow flower, on the other hand, takes on a distinctly green cast, and the red ribbon gains saturation to the point of bleeding and obscuring details on its surface. Flesh tones become orange.

The Munchkin sequence, with its dynamic play of color, is an unforgiving test for video, but this is a general problem for those of us analyzing color in film. Careful manipulation of tint and hue controls can render an image that roughly approximates some of the key colors in a scene, but other colors are likely to be compromised. Video transfers of Technicolor films provide only an approximate sense of color design, of how color was generally handled in a production. They are certainly useful for teaching and learning about films that are otherwise impossible to screen, and for checking composition, editing, and camera movement. Indeed, I hope that this book will motivate readers to look at these films afresh, and video allows that. However, viewers should be aware that video and film provide distinct experiences of color.

Given the vagaries of film color, we are fortunate that 1930s Hollywood saw a thriving discourse on the subject. Nineteen-thirties film artists' ideas about color are undeniably less alien to us than, say, the color concepts of Greek and Roman antiquity explored by John Gage. Yet as the case of GWTW suggests, the historical procedure is much the same. Contextual research—an understanding of the color language of the time—can help restore color's historical specificity. The 1930s were a watershed because color was so openly and thoroughly debated. The industry's trade and technical presses provided a forum for color consultants, directors, cinematographers, and critics to discuss the proper and effective uses of color in film. This discourse on aesthetics, shaped by technological and industrial concerns, provides the foundation for a historically sensitive analysis. We can anchor our viewing in the terms by which the filmmakers themselves understood their engagement with color. Aesthetic discourse provides a map to help navigate the uncertainties of color reproduction.

Color Concepts and a Vocabulary for Analysis

Challenges of color memory and notation affect all considerations of color in visual culture, but confronting them opens up a vastly fascinating realm of study. Human memory is notoriously poor when it comes to color, and in everyday use, our color categories are rather crude. Prevailing estimates are that humans can distinguish between seven and ten million colors. However, good observers can identify only around thirty colors when they are not given a reference standard for comparison, and our everyday color vocabulary contains about ten general terms. Our ability to recall colors also seems relatively unreliable. Cognitive research suggests that color attributes are harder to remember, or retrieve, than other characteristics of an object. Shapes tend to stick better in our memories, probably because color information is not required for many categorical or recognition judgments. Remembered colors generally tend to be brighter and more saturated than those in the original stimulus, and they gravitate toward the colors most typical for the object in question. Again, shape takes precedence over color.

The facts compel us to find a more precise way of talking about color. We need tools to help us retain, describe, and communicate some very complex perceptual material. Since 1905, when Albert Munsell first published A Color Notation to combat "the poverty of color language," modern industry has developed a range of color notation systems. Some, like Munsell's, specify colors by alphanumeric codes, which, though precise, are rather unwieldy for capturing the intricacies of a Technicolor composition. Color names, on the other hand, tend to be vaguely defined and fail to draw clear distinctions between closely related colors. Film analysis calls for a middle ground, a method of designating colors with precision while retaining some of the legibility of color language.

To specify important colors in the analyses that follow, I rely on names from The Pantone Book of Color. The Pantone Matching System was developed in 1963 to specify gradations of printer's ink. To serve other fields, such as fashion, industrial, interior and set design, the company developed the Pantone Professional Color System, consisting of 1,225 color standards. The Pantone Book of Color collects 1,024 of these colors and identifies them by their Pantone number and a unique color name. The names draw on common descriptive language, and are designed to be easily visualized by the reader. Moreover, they allow the particularly obsessive among us to look the color up in a Pantone Professional Color System publication. In this text, names from the Pantone Book of Color are capitalized. When it has been necessary to supplement the Pantone names with conventional color terms, those terms have not been capitalized. A list of the Pantone numbers that correspond to the color names is provided as an appendix.

Admittedly, this is an imperfect solution. Printed inks are more limited than even video in the range of hues they can reproduce, and the gamut of colors in a Technicolor film would certainly overwhelm the list of Pantone standards. Still, the Pantone system significantly increases our descriptive vocabulary. It enables distinctions to be made between relatively similar colors, and it provides a way to compare colors as they appear across a film. The Pantone standards certainly do not guarantee the definitive identification a film's original colors. Nonetheless, they do offer a somewhat higher level of descriptive precision. Where there is dispute about a particular color, at least the Pantone names provide a concrete reference about which to argue.

Analyzing color is not simply a matter of naming hues; we can reach a far greater understanding by considering the various components of colors and the relationships between them. Here, the ideas and terminology of conventional color theory help tremendously. Technicolor designers, particularly Natalie Kalmus, referred to traditional color theories when defending and explaining their aesthetic, and even a cursory overview of color theory provides insight into how filmmakers control and systematize color. Since the rest of this book is invested in color analysis, we should familiarize ourselves with this concept set. A brief discussion will illustrate the leverage that color theory grants us for analyzing cinema.

Color is generally understood to have three characteristics, formalized by the widely adopted Munsell color system as hue, value, and chroma (or saturation). These variables establish three dimensions of color relationships. Hue refers to a color's characteristic wavelength as designated by a common color name, such as red, blue, green, or yellow. The lightness or darkness of a color is its value: the addition of white generates a higher value, or tint, while black decreases value to create a shade. Saturation indicates the purity or intensity of a given color. Often, this quality is described in terms of the amount of gray in a given hue. Roughly, colors can be said to converge or contrast according to variations in these three qualities. Moreover, these variables are interrelated. For example, different hues reach maximal saturation at different values. Yellow is most saturated at a very high level of lightness and quickly loses purity when it is darkened—a quality that led Johannes Itten to dub it "the most luminous of colors." Purple and blue, on the other hand, become most saturated at low values. Differences in hue can be accentuated by attendant contrasts of saturation and value. These characteristics were important to Technicolor designs that sought to maximize contrasts of saturation and value around a scene's major players.

The most common way of representing relationships among hues is a color wheel. There are various methods of arranging color wheels, but the dominant Western tradition uses the "painter's" or "pigment" primaries of red, blue, and yellow. A circle of twelve hues based on these primaries has been taken up as standard in works as diverse as Johannes Itten's Art of Color (1973), The Pantone Book of Color (1990), Faber Birren's Principles of Color (1969), and Walter Sargent's popular color primer of the 1920s and 1930s, The Enjoyment and Use of Color. Hollywood color designers also relied on the system, and when commentators within the industry discussed specific color relationships, they derived their observations from this basic arrangement.

This ordering of hues generates the familiar color terms. The primaries are so called because they are not mixtures of other hues, and they can combine to form all other colors on the circle. They mix to form the three secondary colors: green, orange, and purple. Mixtures of primaries and secondaries render the tertiary colors: yellowish green, green-blue, yellow-orange, and so forth. Complementary colors are those set directly opposite each other on the wheel. When juxtaposed, complementaries present a maximal contrast of hue, and when mixed, theoretically, they should create a neutral gray because, together, they combine all three primaries. Finally, the wheel may be split down the middle into warm and cool colors, with red-orange and blue-green as the respective poles. Generally, and this is a central assumption in Technicolor design, warm colors are held to advance, appear nearer the viewer, or be active, whereas cool colors are said to recede, appear more distant, or be passive.

These terms and ideas are probably already familiar to the reader as basic principles. Yet even this rudimentary vocabulary helps us discuss color style with some precision. For example, Natalie Kalmus, head of Technicolor's Color Advisory Service, recommended designs that centered maximal color contrast on the key narrative elements of a scene. Most often, this meant placing warm accents against cool backgrounds, but the warm-cool opposition left considerable room for variation. A significant development in Technicolor design involved a shift in the kinds of color contrasts that were favored. As Chapters 2 and 3 illustrate, early productions in three-color Technicolor employed broad palettes that consistently emphasized bold contrasts of hue. As filmmakers sought to subordinate color more fully, and to develop a restrained mode of design (considered in Chapters 4 and 5), they underplayed differences between hues and began to emphasize gradations of value and saturation. Broadly, we can specify a change of color style by tracking the set of color variables that designers chose to take up for contrast.

In conventional color theory, questions of how colors behave in combination are dealt with through the concept of harmony. The canonical ideas of color harmony, based on the red, blue, and yellow primaries, trace back to the work of French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, who published De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l'assortiment des objets colorés (The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours) in 1839. Chevreul observed that complementaries seem to reinforce each other, each making the other appear more brilliant. Based on his findings, he specified the types of color combinations that resulted in "agreeable impressions." These combinations, or harmonies, were grounded in either closely related or strongly contrasting colors. Chevreul's assumptions inform long-held conventions of color harmony.

For a concise summary of conventional color harmonies, we can turn to Paul Zelanski and Mary Pat Fisher's primer for artists, Color. They describe traditional color schemes, based on similar or dissimilar hues, which have generally been held to produce satisfactory combinations. Arrangements that depend on closely related colors include monochromatic and analogous schemes. While monochromatic combinations employ single hues with variations of saturation and value (sometimes broken up by neutrals and browns), analogous schemes are built out of hues lying next to each other on the color circle. This definition of analogy depends on the number of divisions on a color circle, but it remains a useful way to characterize varied yet relatively low-contrast combinations. Chevreul offered another possibility for low-contrast harmony, suggesting that a common tint injected into an array of colors would give the impression that they were viewed "through a slightly coloured glass." Artists can also reduce contrast by toning down colors or reducing their saturation.

It becomes apparent in Technicolor design that low-contrast options such as these were generally preferred as a means for subordinating color. Natalie Kalmus warned against a "super-abundance" of color and recommended neutrals to provide a "foil for color," ideas that will be discussed in Chapter 2. These prescriptions point toward a conception of harmony as the avoidance of high contrast. By the same token, the practice of repeating similar colors to coordinate costumes and other mise-en-scène elements draws on a definition of harmony that favors combinations of like colors. As we will see, analogous color schemes proved particularly important to the restrained mode of design.

Yet Chevreul famously proclaimed: "In the harmony of contrasts, the complementary assortment is superior to every other." The equation of successful combinations with a balance of dissimilar colors forms an equally important trend in thought about harmony. Standard schemes based on high contrast include complementary, split-complementary, and triad combinations. Complementary schemes draw on hues directly opposite each other on a color circle. Like Chevreul, Zelanski and Fisher note the power of this combination. Complementary hues "hold each other in equilibrium" while they "intensify each other's appearance." Equally powerful are triad combinations, which array hues lying equidistant on the circle: red, blue, and yellow, for example.

Contrasting harmony assumes that colors work well together if their combination presents a balance of the primaries. Johannes Itten suggested, "The idea of color harmony is to discover the strongest effects by correct choice of antithesis." Toward this end, he laid out possible "color chords," combinations of two to five colors on the color wheel (including complementaries and triads), which, by presenting elements of all three primaries, could generate "harmonic equilibrium." Thinking along similar lines, but from the perspective of Gestalt psychology, Rudolf Arnheim wrote that the "completion attained by complementarity" involves "not only maximal contrast but also mutual neutralization." Arnheim argued that "the eye spontaneously seeks out and links complementary colors" and that painters could connect portions of a painting via this response. Both authors were writing after the era of Technicolor design. However, in developing their observations from the premises of the red-blue-yellow color circle, Arnheim and Itten articulated ideas about the power of complementarity that were inherited from Chevreul and that held some force for Technicolor designers as well.

In the main, Technicolor features of the 1930s favor harmonies of similar colors and depend on general contrasts of warm and cool, light and dark, or of a hue against a neutral, to offset key areas. In the restrained mode especially, the careful balancing of primaries does not appear to be an operative principle of harmony. When Kalmus discussed complementary contrast, she did so as evidence that designers must practice restraint. Still, as we will see, filmmakers did draw on complementaries, triads, or other "color chords" for momentary, punctual effects. After 1938, combinations of contrasting hues become particularly important. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), a film with a highly dynamic color design, relies more heavily on complementaries and triads as tools for guiding attention and delivering graphic flourishes. Chapter 6 suggests that many choices in this film follow from the notion that harmony could be achieved through a balance of chromatic contrasts. Both conceptions of harmony, whether founded on combinations of similar colors or strong contrasts, advance our grasp of color design in the cinema.

As might be expected, the notion that there are rules of color harmony has been severely criticized and, more or less, rejected by artists and scholars.] I must, therefore, emphasize that my intention is not to resurrect an embattled theory of absolute harmony. Rather, I hope to introduce a set of terms that seem useful for describing color motion pictures and to indicate some general conventions that inform Technicolor design. In fact, as the critics of color systems might expect, Technicolor designs rarely embody textbook principles. A hallmark of Technicolor design as it developed in the 1930s was that it did not betray a rigid or fixed system of harmony. If anything, the aesthetic draws on conventional ideas of harmony to fashion rather broad and flexible guidelines. Still, traditional color ideas offer a way to begin untangling the guiding principles of color design in Hollywood cinema.

Case Studies and Modes of Design

I argue that as filmmakers began to integrate color into their repertoire during the 1930s, they worked through a series of related modes of design. Each mode was a flexible set of conventions for handling color, conditioned by industrial, technological, and aesthetic currents. I identified these modes by closely studying all available Technicolor features produced during the period, being guided by contemporaneous aesthetic discourse. The reader will find references to diverse films of the decade, including Ramona (1936), The Garden of Allah (1936), God's Country and the Woman (1937), Wings of the Morning (1937), Vogues of 1938 (1937), Jesse James (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and, of course, The Wizard of Oz (1939), but this book is structured around close analyses of seven case studies. By this method I hope to rectify the overly general view of Technicolor that histories have thus far offered. While film scholars have provided technological surveys and broad-spectrum discussions of style, we have generally shied from the problems of how color is handled moment by moment, what specific duties it serves with respect to narrative, and how it helps shape visual perception. Only case studies, supported by extensive background viewing, can afford the opportunity to examine precise details of color style and to consider how color develops across films in their entirety.

The selected case studies represent both key aesthetic and technological turning points in the 1930s and the norms of more routine productions. Chapters 2 and 3 examine the first three-color short, La Cucaracha (1934), and the first feature, Becky Sharp (1935). These prototype films, produced in close cooperation with Technicolor, demonstrate and test the possibilities of three-color technology. Robert Edmond Jones, color designer for La Cucaracha, Rouben Mamoulian, director of Becky Sharp, and Natalie Kalmus argued for an aesthetic that would make color an integral and expressive element of film style. These demonstration films employ color in particularly forceful ways, displaying the process's chromatic range and drawing attention to its potential for underscoring drama. They are films inspired by a fleeting belief that color would usher in a bold new form of cinema.

After 1935, Technicolor designers searched for a more conciliatory aesthetic, one that would help color cooperate with other stylistic devices. The result was the restrained mode, a subtle and nuanced approach to color that assisted Technicolor in developing a market with the major studios. The driving goal was to make Technicolor production practices, and color itself, approach the standards of black-and-white filmmaking. Chapter 4 details how cinematographers attempted to handle the technological constraints of three-color and how color designers sought to subordinate color. The restrained mode of design reduced hue contrast in favor of an emphasis on tone and value. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the first major-studio three-color feature, well illustrates how the restrained mode helped open a space for color in classical Hollywood style. Chapter 5 examines how restraint informs two markedly different films, Selznick International's drama A Star Is Born (1937) and Samuel Goldwyn's musical comedy The Goldwyn Follies (1938). These productions stretch the limits placed on color and build on its capacity for amplifying drama without veering far from the ideals of tasteful moderation. At its best, the restrained palette was a finely tuned instrument, capable of directing attention and underscoring action with minute adjustments.

Hollywood's color landscape shifted once again in 1938 when Warner Bros. used three-color for their top-budgeted film, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Increasing commercial acceptance of Technicolor corresponded with a loosening of restraint. Chapter 6 explores Robin Hood's premiere of the assertive mode of design. The palette is unshackled, reinstating hue as the key player in color design. But the assertive mode is not a simple reversion to the demonstrations of Becky Sharp or La Cucaracha. Rather, Robin Hood deftly handles a rich mosaic of color by extending and broadening methods founded in the restrained mode. The sheer variety of color may overwhelm some of Technicolor's subtler effects, but Robin Hood shifts the way color functions across the film, allowing both bold display and nimble underscoring. Spurred by the film's ornate complexity, this chapter, more than any other, delves into the fine grain of color's contribution to the cinema.

My final case study is of Gone with the Wind, perhaps the most popular and successful classical Hollywood Technicolor feature. Selznick's 1939 production did not inaugurate a new mode of design; rather it was something of a laboratory for exploring the possibilities of Technicolor's new film stock. Chapter 7 examines how GWTW took advantage of technological advances to produce a higher cooperation between color and the tonal elements of light and shadow. GWTW was both the culmination of the 1930s trend of emulating black-and-white cinematography in color and an audacious experiment in color cinema. By pushing the process's limits for handling low-key lighting and by exploiting new possibilities of precise facial modeling, the cinematographers of GWTW helped close the distance between monochrome and Technicolor style. At the same time, they manipulated color temperature and employed colored lighting to fundamentally extend color's expressive reach.

The concluding chapter synthesizes observations about the nature of color in the classic style and looks beyond the 1930s. To a large extent, the 1930s set the terms under which Hollywood would engage with color. Modes of the 1930s were sedimentary, each becoming a viable option for films of the '40s. The restrained and assertive modes lived on, but rather than distinct styles, they formed loose bodies of conventions and guidelines that filmmakers played with. The lessons and techniques of Technicolor design didn't fade with end of the studio era. The advent of digital technologies for manipulating color has once again brought the problems of color design to the surface. I end this book by suggesting how its methods and arguments can shed light on the most recent developments in color technology. My hope is that this work will bring color's contribution to the moving image within our reach, making tangible what has previously been only sensed.


“ essential volume for anyone interested in how the use of color shapes the films that we make and see.”
American Cinematographer Magazine


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