COLOR FILMS have now been on the screens of the world for twenty years. How many of them do we remember for the esthetic pleasure they gave us? Two—three—four—five?
Possibly five—but probably not more.
Romeo and Juliet just manages to be among these—after Olivier’s Henry V and Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell. Olivier got his ideas for his color schemes from the illumined manuscripts of the period. Kinugasa got his from the classical wood-engravings of his people.
Except for these three films there have been only attempts to accomplish things with color. These attempts are best exemplified by Moulin Rouge, where the smoke-filled room, right at the beginning, compelled admiration. The rest of the film, so far as color is concerned, was mediocre. Why? In the other scenes the director did not have Toulouse-Lautrec to hold on to. Huston is a great director, but as a painter Toulouse-Lautrec was greater.
So, in twenty years’ time there have been three or four esthetically satisfying color films. A modest yield.
Apart from the amusing and surprising color effects that are to be found in filmusicals, a rather plain taste has dominated the use of color in motion pictures. This may be due to a fear to depart from the firm fundament of naturalism—firm, but boring. There can be poetry, of course, in the colors of daily life, but color film does not become art by even a sincere imitation of nature’s own colors. When a film colorist is merely imitating nature, the audienee is merely appraising how well or ill the colors come out.
Indeed, we have so often seen the grass green, and the sky blue, that sometimes we wish we could see a green sky and blue grass—just for a change. Also, there might be an intention of an artist behind it. Let us not forget that color in film can never look exactly like the colors of nature. The reason is simple: in nature, color nuances are endless, and the human eye cannot distinguish them all from one another.
The tiny color differences, the semi-tones, all those nuances the eye receives without discrimination, are missing in color films. To demand that color in color films should be natural is to misunderstand all that is involved. Indeed, the spectator can have a much greater esthetic experience because color in film differs from that in nature.
Color is a valuable help to the director. When colors are chosen with due regard to their emotional effect, and selected to match each other, they can add an artistic quality to a film that black-and-white lacks. But it must always be borne in mind that color composition is as important in color film as composition is in black-and-white.
In black-and-white films light is set against darkness, and line against line. In color films surface is set against surface, form against form, color against color. What the black-and-white film expresses in changing light and shade, in the breaking of lines, must, in color films, be expressed by color constellations.
There is also the matter of rhythm. To the many other rhythms in films, it is necessary now to add the color rhythm.
While a color film is being made the problem of how it will be cut—i.e., edited—must be a constant concern. The slightest shift can change the balance between the color planes and cause disharmony.
It must never be forgotten that because persons and objects constantly move in motion pictures, the colors in color films constantly slide from one place to another in changing rhythms, and, when the colors collide, or melt together, very surprising effects can occur. The general rule about this is: use the smallest possible number of colors, and use them in conjunction with black and white. Black and white are too little used in color films. They have been forgotten in the childish rapture over the many bright colors in the paint-box.
All this makes the director’s task more difficult—and more attractive too. Creating a scene in black and white is a fight, as every director of integrity knows. Colors do not make this fight easier, but they do make the victory, when won, sweeter. And the victory will be much bigger when the director succeeds in breaking the vicious circle which confines color films to naturalistic ideas. The color film can be a really great esthetic experience—in regard to colors—when it has been freed from the embrace of naturalism. Only then will the colors have a chance of expressing the inexpressible, i.e., of expressing that which can only be perceived. Only then can the motion picture encompass the world of the abstract, which, hitherto, has been closed to it.
The director must not see his pictures in black and white first and then think of color. The colors for the scenes must be in his mind’s eye from the beginning. The director must create in colors. However, color feeling is not something one can learn. Color is an optical experience, and the capacity to see, think and feel in colors, is a natural gift. We may presume that painters, in general, have that gift.
If there are to be more than just four or five artistic color films in the next 20 years, it will be necessary for the film industry to get assistance from those who can help—that is to say, from painters, just as the film industry has had to get help from authors, composers and ballet-masters. The director of a color film will have to add a painter to his already large staff, and the painter, in cooperation with, and responsible to, the director, must create the color effects of the film. A “color script” should parallel the actual script, and the painter’s drawings in this “color script” should abound with details.
People may object: the director has his color technicians. These advisers are, and will undoubtedly remain, immensely useful to the director, for their knowledge of chromatology and color theories can save him from many traps. But, with all due respect to their efficiency and sense of responsibility, a good painter has one important quality they do not : he himself is a creative artist and fetches impulses from his own artistic mind. Incidentally, it will help the color technicians also to have a professional painter at hand.
Let us take a purely suppositious case. Suppose Toulouse-Lautrec were alive and had worked on Moulin Rouge from the beginning to the end, not merely during the opening scene, but in all the scenes. Wouldn’t these then have been at the same high level as the opening scene, which was based on an actual color composition by Toulouse-Lautrec? And would not Moulin Rouge, instead of being a promising attempt, have turned out to be a really great color film? The director would not have been lessened thereby. It is not his job to do everything himself, but to guide everything, and keep it all together and force the parts into an artistic whole.
The wish underlying what I have written here is for the color film to get out of the backwater in which it is and sail forth on its own. As it is now, the color film seems to aim no further than to “look like” something—it is not. Henry V tried to resemble a medieval illuminated manuscript, and Gate of Hell, a Japanese print.
It would be ever so beneficial for there to be a color film which bore throughout the hallmark of a colorist of today. Then the color film would no longer be mere film with colors, but an alive art.
Reprinted by permission from the April 1955 issue of Films in Review.