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I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colors: Richard Misek's "Chromatic Cinema"

One hundred years ago, cinema was colored by hand. First by painting on film itself, then by rows of women in factories using paints and stencils. Even Technicolor—what most of us think of when we think about film becoming color—involved dipping film into dyes and combining resultant layers to create a final color print. The early processes were all startlingly physical, some cumbersome; some simply economically unfeasible. Now, colors are manipulated digitally, in computer labs or on laptops, often mimicking the look of their more tangible predecessors but surpassing them in potential, speed, cost, ease-of-use and flexibility. Richard Misek’s Chromatic Cinema is an able survey of how cinema got from there to here: from the noisy French Pathé factory to the woman with her mouse, her Premiere and her virtual color wheel.

Color is a big topic. Chromatic Cinema is an overview. However, apart from several self-confessed omissions (the biggest being animation), the book touches on most of the important aspects of color cinema—from history to technology to ideology—and serves as an orientation course for a complex subject. It’s a gateway read, neither intimidating nor frustrating. For a beginner (like me), it presented a smattering of philosophical ideas, a grounding in the why and how progression of color use, and a primer on the science of color technologies. Its one misstep is also its lone excursion into attempted depth: a case study of the two versions of Psycho, one Hitchcock and black-and-white, the other Van Sant and color. It’s an interesting comparison, but I’d rather read it as a fleshed out article rather than a superficial post-script in an otherwise historical survey.

Structure is chronological. Misek moves from the primitive techniques of the late 19th century to the present day “digital aesthetic” through five chapters. In “Film Color”, he explores the first uses of film color (tinting, toning) and delves into the rise of Technicolor, explaining how its de facto monopoly allowed it to influence the use of color in Hollywood. The result was a mild and “natural” color, expounded upon by Natalie Kalmus, ex-wife of Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus, and policed by Technicolor assistants foisted upon both willing and unwilling producers. The chapter ends on a discussion of the reasons for Hollywood’s switch to colour in the 1950s (hint: TV).

Under “Surface Color”, the focus switches to Europe (and a bit of Japan), where black-and-white lasted longer than in Hollywood. According to Misek, European filmmakers and audiences were comfortable switching between black-and-white and color throughout the 1960s. Choice was based either on cost or aesthetic, but there was no established norm. References to painting by filmmakers such as Antonioni and Tarkovsky are interpreted as attempts to legitimize cinema as art; color obviously played a role. A short section on “unmotivated chromatic hybridity” (yes, I don’t like the jargon much, either) explores chaotic juxtapositions of color and black-and-white within a single film. The main example is Vera Chytilová’s Daises. Then, black-and-white is eulogized in the Soviet Union, where, because color stock was hard to come by and profit less an issue than ideology, it lived until 1975.

Black-and-white itself is dealt with in “Absent Color”. Although now a “technical relic” (ever since 1965 in America, the year TV went color), black-and-white films continued and continue to be made and Misek looks at reasons why. These are anchored in black-and-white’s associations: with fact, with reality and with the past. Nostalgia? Timelessness? Authenticity? Films that wish to tap into these associations or evoke these reactions may refrain from color. Also mentioned is the practical trouble of convincing producers to finance black-and-white films, which are perceived as liabilities and unmarketable. Hence, black-and-white in post-1965 America is argued to be of marginal importance and on the fringe of filmmaking. The same argument probably applies to Europe and the rest of the world, though time-shifted a decade or two.

“Optical Color” is about atmospheric color or the color of light. Whereas previous chapters dealt mostly with film color in the sense of color on film, this chapter describes a cinema whose interest is in capturing the color of light in films: natural light, colored lighting, fog and mist, shadows, light creating textures, the evocation of space between the camera and its subject. It begins with Newton’s Opticks and ends on a discussion of filtration and contemporary experiments in color by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Earlier examples are the films of Ingmar Bergman (with cinematographer Sven Nykvist), Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Dario Argento’s Suspiria and, as an extreme, Fassbinder’s Querelle. Misek highlights the 1970s and 1980s as the heyday of optical color and suggests that lack of realistic motivation accounts for its decline.

Finally, we come to “Digital Color”, with which we are most familiar through contemporary films. The anecdote is that Antonioni, while working on Red Desert, painted an entire forest grey; it rained, and the paint washed off. Now, by digitizing frames, turning them into pixels, and manipulating those pixels, forests can be “colored” on computers, which are indoors and safe from the weather. Effects can be intense, as in 300, or slight, as when digital color correction is used to give a film a specific and uniform look. Both rely on post-production. The evolution from old analogue to new digital cinema is technological. The film that straddles the border is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987). Its mix of black-and-white and color—especially within frames—predicted the capabilities of Digital Intermediate without relying on DI technology. Those capabilities realized? In 1998: 91% digital Pleasantville. By 2000: fully digital Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?.

It’s a fine question, but perhaps the better one is, “where to now?”

Maybe the angels know.

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