Saturday, September 24, 2011

Whatever Happened To Colour?

Those who know me well know that I am very much steeped in the popular culture of the 50's and 60's. In fact, most of my favourite movies were made in roughly that twenty year span. That's not to say that I believe movies were better overall from that era in terms of writing and direction, but when it comes to colour and sound then, yes, there's a wealth of pleasure for the senses to be found during that period.

Just the other night I put on my DVD of 4 For Texas, starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin alongside those fine Swedish and Swiss imports respectively, Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress. To be sure, it's a mindless piece of fluff that would never end up on any film critic's list of all-time classics, but it's a bit of fun and most importantly, it looks great! Like most films of that era, it is crisply lit and absolutely awash in lush colour. I know most of you likely value content in a film over style, but not me - I prefer style, critics be damned! (Of course, the goal should be to have both wonderful content and style.)

For me, a movie has to lure me through the senses - it must appeal to the eyes and ears. At one time, Hollywood used to knock itself out trying to do this, with lush Technicolor and memorable music scores. Cinematographers, art directors, costume designers - all were hired for their skill in bringing aesthetic appeal to meet with the director's vision. Scenes were beautifully lit in order to showcase the attractiveness of Hollywood's leading stars of the day, with their warm, tanned flesh tones and well-tailored wardrobes:





But not now...

Hollywood has decided that we can't have beautiful imagery anymore. These days, it seems that the default look for most (if not all) movies is like this - colours drained of all their bright hue and given an overall dull blue tinge:





It's bad enough when horror, sci-fi and fantasy movies seem to slavishly adhere to this unpleasant template, but even mainstream adult dramas like Up In The Air and Fair Game (both of which are films that I would otherwise like) are being drained of all their colour in post-production. This unfortunate trend in dreariness also lessened my enjoyment of last year's Best Picture winner, The King's Speech.

Recently, I did some searching on Google to find out whether others are equally disturbed by this ugly trend in today's films. Sure enough, I turned up this article that helps to explain what is going on. It's interesting to read the numerous comments afterward, as there are many, like me, who abhor this unpleasant trend, while others defend it as being true to the director's "vision". Though they may like to think of themselves as unique visionaries, most directors working today merely conform to one basic template of mediocrity that the Hollywood studios all decree must be followed. Because of this trend toward the drab and ugly, I find myself seeing fewer and fewer films with each passing year. Perhaps Hollywood should realize that many older moviegoers are used to far richer looking movies from the more glorious past - today's films just turn us off. BLECCHH!!

Here's a final parting shot. Compare the dreary, blue-tinged Russell Crowe 2010 Robin Hood to the lush 1938 Technicolor classic starring Errol Flynn:




(And if you want to see the warm, rich colours of gorgeous Ursula Andress, here's the trailer from 4 For Texas!)

37 comments:

Brett McCoy said...

You're not alone! I think everyone today wants the dirty, gritty look, but it gets tiresome when every movie has that overly color-graded look. Some of the most lush and beautiful color films are from the 30s (Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz).

Anthony said...

I think a lot of it has to do with try to make a "realistic look", and of course, everything then must be blueish gray.

It MAY be good used in the right context, but the problem is the constant abuse of this resource

Pete Emslie said...

But there's nothing "realistic" about it. I know what a room bathed in warm, incandescent light looks like. I know what a warm sunny day looks like. I haven't seen either of these two environments in a film in many years now. Contemporary Hollywood filmmakers seem intent on reducing everything in life to ugly, nasty, silvery blue dreariness. I shall withhold my moviegoing dollars until somebody gets back to creating warm, rich colour again. In the meantime, I will watch my DVD library of films from the glorious past on my HD TV.

Luis María Benítez said...

In color script you use color to represent a particular mood of the scene. Well, these color guys here must have thought that now everything is depressive. I don't know, it's a mystery why they're making such ugly combinations.

But it's not only the colors. Everything and it's not that I'm saying "those old days were better" like anybody who gets older. But, Hollywood stars back then were men and women. Today mostly kids. And movie posters? Oh they were gracefully illustrated and today you find a lot of 'tude guys and marble-like skin.

Daniel said...

It's because every movie has to look badass nowadays. Colors don't help a movie look badass. Grunge and desaturation do. That's why every five years when a Hairspray or High School Musical comes along everyone rediscovers color and has a friggin orgasm and subsequently over-rates those movies.

Emily Weber said...

I posted something about this a while ago at DeviantART and everyone was like, "What are you talking about?!".
I'm only 23 and I'm living in the fifties and sixties myself. Haha.

Jay said...

I've read your blog since it started, but have never learned to comment. I guess I've had little to say. But color is something I think about all the time, especially as it applies to this topic. Beautiful color seems to have faded away, quite literally!

In the Technicolor era, the color design was prepared before the film was shot—not merely because they had good taste and talent—but because the cameras would alter certain colors and the designers had to account for it.

The introduction of modern post-production tools has lessened the concern for pre-production color styling. This means that the people responsible for look of the film can no longer be burdened with it on-set. Why should they go to such trouble and bother everyone in the heat when they can do the work alone—months later—in a cool room with a cappucino maker?

Hans Bacher, in his excellent book on production design, says, "Color has to be styled. It's not enough to just go outside and shoot a movie."

But many of today's filmmakers do exactly that, and what they get is a mess of incongruous, 'unfilmic' colors. So, looking to the latest Oscar-winner for inspiration, they apply their Photoshop-filters in a reckless attempt to tie the chaos together into some sort of 'visual harmony'. The end result is that the entire film becomes a single-hued affectation.

Even amongst the filmmakers who once knew better, there's now the superstition that in order to create a film with a 'sensitive' or 'serious' tone, one should aim for ugliness and subtract as much color as possible.

As evidence to contrary, the whole history of painting.

All this is to say nothing of the more crucial picture-making elements, like compostition and value, which today are disregarded with equal or even greater frequency.

But color has unique features: it's easily seen and easily misunderstood. It's also the most seductive and infectious visual property, and because it's applied to all forms of media, when things go awry, it has a depressing, blighting effect on all of popular culture. You can see the influence everywhere.

At the risk overdoing it, I'll share a quote that should probably be hung on walls world-wide:

"I think that natural truths will cease to be spat at us like insults, that aesthetics will once more be linked with ethics, and that people will become aware that in casting out aesthetics that they also cast out a respect for human life, a respect for creation, a respect for spiritual values. Aesthetics was an expression of man's need to be in love with his world. The cult of ugliness is a regression. It destroys our appetite, our love for the world." — Anaïs Nin

alan Anderson said...

I too love color. Shows back in time were fun and left you feeling good. The dark color schemes today go with evil plots that leave you feeling creepy instead of happy. The music is the same.
I'm of the feeling that if they made some of these fun musicals today they would go over as big or bigger than in earlier years. People are dying for some happy, feel good shows again.

MTJ said...

I know that with a lot of movies, the director/cinematographer is just following the trend of bleached out colour schemes. They're supposed to look "gritty" or "bleak," but usually end up looking generic. But I will defend Up in the Air and Inception - Inception's colour palette was absolutely sumptuous in scenes other than the one you have photographed above; and I think the colour schemes in Up in the Air changed depending on where scenes took place. Scenes with a focus on intimacy and family were very warm, but scenes set in the workplace were deliberately drained.

Sometimes it can be a true stylistic choice!

www.feedittomygoldfish.com

Pete Emslie said...

Jay - Thanks for that knowledgeable comment and the great quote at the end.

MTJ - Admittedly I walked out on Inception, as I just couldn't follow what was going on, but I'm still leery of your assertion that "Inception's colour palette was absolutely sumptuous" in scenes other than the one I posted. I suspect that, even though it may not have been blue throughout, chances are that the colour palette was again just manipulated in post-production to some other overall hue (usually gold tends to be the main alternative).

My point is that nowadays nobody wants to create vivid colour the natural way, through good lighting and art direction - it's all faked in digital manipulation after the filming is done. The result is that flesh tones and other important elements come out looking ugly and unnatural. But I guess that the hipsters who are in control of Hollywood now all think that unnatural colour (or bleached out altogether) is real "cool" and "edgy". I'm afraid I'll just have to stick with my classics from yesteryear, thanks just the same.

Pete Emslie said...

Alan - I couldn't agree more! I just read your blog bio and share your love of classic movie musicals and credit Fred Astaire with inspiring me to have taken up ballroom dancing, a social pastime I've enjoyed for many years now. The entertainment from that era, whether movies, music, or TV shows - all were created to truly entertain and have long lasting value. Much of what is created today seems to shock or titillate more than genuinely entertain. There may very well be films today that are well written and directed, but they just don't appeal to the eyes and ears, in my opinion.

Tony DiStefano said...

Check out the solid beautiful color for The Beatles 1965 classic
HELP. A very funny movie also.

Alberto said...

I think bad color goes hand in hand with bad lighting since in the 40s, 50s, and 60s there were still lots of black and white movies being made and being able to understand both was crucial to maintain employment. It goes to show that people may not understand color as much as they understand tones (admittedly I have that problem myself at times). There were also lots of people that worked in stage lighting and direction on movies and brought what they had to offer in knowledge on screen.

Though orange does pop against blue, it may not pop tonally, I'm sure a lot of the newer movies in color once converted to BW wouldn't "pop" as well. I remember I saw a scene from the Shining that was converted to B&W so it couldn't be taken down and it still looked beautiful.

It's funny that this article on color appears because just the other day I saw "Black Narcissus" the other evening and the color and lighting are like nothing else in movies now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8qPt2TOkKE

It's actually really hard to find good clips of "Black Narcissus" w/o spoilers or different music juxtaposed onto it, so here's a clip of another sumptuous feast for the eyes done by the same director, cinematographer "The Red Shoes" it's interesting how there's color even in the titles. (Also second clip is in HD so don't deprive yourself)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NWn4nn7sL0&feature=related

I don't want to be that person that posts tons of videos but just one more just for kicks, crazy color starts at 4:40, this was one of the first cinemascope films so they pulled out all their guns on this one.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Flz89t5y3cg

Brett McCoy said...

Tony DiStefano --

Agree with you on HELP! One of my favorites since I was a little kid!

Pete Emslie said...

Alberto - Good points regarding tonal value and contrast, and I agree that this strange "teal against orange" fad is no match for an old black and white classic film that's beautifully lit to make the imagery read well in light and shadow. Thanks also for bringing up the Powell and Pressburger films, as they really are a "sumptuous feast for the eyes", as you so aptly describe. I recommend that others check out those YouTube clips you've provided the links to.

Richmond said...

So, how do we feel about the recent Speed Racer movie?


Interesting that this, pretty much the most colorful movie of the last few years, is also by the Wachowskis, who shoulder a lot of the responsibility/blame for the desaturation trend.

Pete Emslie said...

Richmond - Speed Racer is the other side of the same coin. It's also a movie where everything has been manipulated in the computer in post-production, only with colours being artificially over-saturated instead of desaturated and made monochromatic. The colours are not rich, but rather, are extremely garish to the point of resembling neon lights. More crap for the undiscerning masses.

On the other hand, take a look at that still of Marilyn Monroe in her bright magenta gown. That did not start out as a green gown that some silly director decided would look better in magenta and so selected the area and made it magenta with Photoshop or other such software in post-production. No, an art director conferred with the director and made that artistic choice, then a seamstress created the costume long before the cameras started to roll. The lighting technicians lit the set to make it pop and Technicolour film stock captured the richness of it set against the black tuxedos of her male suitors. Now THAT'S the art of making a movie.

pseudanko said...

There's plenty of crap from the golden age of Hollywood - you linked to a prime example and admitted it. The scripts weren't the only problems back then, they were frequently thought of as product, and produced that way, programmatically lit and exposed, and the result was often depressingly similar from picture to picture. Back then, garish colours were the vogue, and DOPs generally fell in line with the reigning aesthetic regardless of its appropriateness for the story. Now desaturation is the Hollywood vogue - same laziness at work.

What is fresh since the 60s is that film stocks have evolved to make astonishingly beautiful films like Barry Lyndon, or Wings of Desire and even this year's masterpiece Tree Of Life possible - films that possess a depth and beauty far surpassing the Hollywood studio heyday.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXRYA1dxP_0

Pete Emslie said...

Pseudanko - I'm still not sure you understand my argument. I'm not saying every film needs to be in warm hues and brilliantly lit throughout (as in "4 For Texas", a film that I grant you is no classic by any stretch). But art direction should be working out the problems beforehand, determining the mood of a scene, then creating that desired atmosphere in set design and colour, lighting, and appropriate music score. Alfred Hitchcock could vary the tone of his films from scene to scene, but used all of the tools of art direction to do so before the cameras started to roll. A humourous scene might employ more joyful colour and lighting, but the mood could turn to sheer terror through more intense contrast of light and shadow and mood lighting. The point is, Hitchcock never shied away from actual colour.

Today's filmmakers are lazy, in my opinion, as they seem to shoot the film, then figure out what they want in light and colour once it's run through the computer. This leads to colour manipulation that creates unnatural and (for me) highly unpleasant results. Personally, I think it's just as bad a practice as when they digitally colorize an old black and white film in the hope that it will be more acceptable to the mass market.

Tom said...

Really interesting. To answer the question though (~over simplification so apologies)

Old films = no control over colour palette of the films. Shot x film stock = x film stock colour you got

Films in digital (i.e. computer age) = complete control over colour palette. Can tweak scene by scene minute colour detail. Giving film makers that much more control over the tone of their movie.

jvwalt said...

Sometimes, the problem isn't production -- it's projection. Specifically, the common (and incorrect) practice of keeping 3D lenses in place when showing a 2D film. It results in dark, muted colors. Ty Burr, film critic for the Boston Globe, wrote about this a few months ago: http://articles.boston.com/2011-05-22/ae/29571831_1_digital-projectors-movie-exhibition-business-screens

Apparently, changing the lenses from 3D to 2D on the new digital projectors is a technical challenge beyond the capabilities of most multiplex staffers. So they just use the 3D lens all the time.

David said...

Tom wrote: "Old films = no control over colour palette of the films. Shot x film stock = x film stock colour you got"

Joking ?

Tom , have you ever really watched classic Hollywood films ? Do you think that the people who made films such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" , "Gone with the Wind" , "An American in Paris', "The Red Shoes" , "The King and I" or "North by Northwest" just to name a very few that leap to mind did not have control over the colour palette of their films ?

Brett McCoy said...

I daresay the creators of "The Wizard of Oz" very much had control over the color palettes of their film.

tesla said...

I have the answer to everyone's woes - forget contemporary Hollywood, and switch to Bollywood! Colour usage in that part of the world, especially in lavish dance sequences, is off the hook! Although, admittedly, Hollywood's predilection for "the darkness" is starting to filter through Bollywood, I don't think it will ever fully drown out the Indian infatuation with colour.

Indian vintage films are even more gorgeous - like Hollywood films, I guess it's the printing techniques of the time that make all the difference. In the same way, I prefer National Geographic magazines from the 1960s and 1970s to today's - the colour is so gloriously high key!

coNs Oroza said...

I honestly prefer a thousand times more the look movies have now. I don't like how colorful many of the 50s movies were. It feels so artificial to me!

Pete Emslie said...

I'm not suggesting that all movies be designed in the bright colour palette you're all equating with MGM musicals and such. What I am suggesting, however, is that movies get back to using the actual colour in the world around us, instead of sapping it all out and replacing it with their ugly monochromatic look of dingy blue. That's far more "artificial" by my definition of the word.

Tanya Q. said...

Congrats on being interviewed about this on CBC! I saw the report earlier, but can't find it online - seems they only put up the Toronto local news from six o'clock onwards, not the 5:30 PM segment that precedes it. :(

And of course your main point is correct. Another thing that makes the desaturation effect even worse is the dreadfully dark lighting that often goes with it - sometimes you can't even tell what's happening in a scene, especially one that's fast-paced. I always figured this was a cheat to hide sloppily done CGI, masquerading as an artistique choice.

Pete Emslie said...

Tanya - I'm surprised you caught that CBC piece, as it ended up as a very short segment indeed. The producer who set up the interview tells me that a longer version may still air on either Sunday or Monday as part of the national edition. Maybe on CBC News Network, I'm not sure. This blog post also received mention on Boing Boing, for better or worse...

ParticularlyEvil said...

I just stumbled upon this site from the Drawn! blog - very cool!

There is a surprisingly excellent post on Cracked about the use of color to "code" movies based on genre in Hollywood today. Just take a look at the posters for each movie listed: they are definitely attempting to inform the audience of a particular mood.

http://www.cracked.com/article_18664_5-annoying-trends-that-make-every-movie-look-same.html

Ricardo Cantoral said...

The other kind of cinematography I can't stand is the kind common in Micheal Bay films; It's a poor man's imitation of Ridley Scott's cinematography but even his stuff seems to be lacking these days.

As for that bland look of Christopher Nolan's Inception, this is again a case of imitating another film maker, Michael Mann. However, Mann's cinematography has never been exactly eye catching.

John Healey said...

I could not agree more. Most contemporary movies are unpleasant to look at from a purely artistic perspective with their drab, gray, washed out color. Compared to the gorgeous Technicolor films of the 1940's , 1950's, and 1960's they pale in comparison. Once studios started putting profits over quality, the decline was inevitable and the drab current movie lineup is the result.

Perhaps this is best exemplified by cinematic cartoons. Look at the gorgeous, high quality cartoon shorts of the old era. They have never been equaled, and never will. Perfect color, music, animation, and characterization. Oh, well. At least we can watch the old stuff on blu ray. That's pretty much what I do. I almost never go see current movies in the theater.

Austin said...

Although I agree in full on the situation of colour, I find that in SOME films its nessecary to maintain a certain emotion. Take Harry Potter. I could not imagine those films brightly lighted like "The Wizard of Oz". But I do see the problem. It seems as though once this trend was established, there was no looking back....Seeing as the trend of actual colours has left us, I find my self at the very age of 15 turning back to musicals of a later era......

Rather Grim said...

Wow, this is very odd. Being 21 years old, I suppose a lot of what I grew up with has been this way; teal and orange. Without even noticing it, a lot of the drawing I have done in the past few weeks have been teal and orange! Subconsciously I've picked it up, I suppose, though admittedly it has made my drawings look quite good by applying this cookie-cutter colour range, the ones with other colour ranges look better and more vibrant. Thanks for this post, quite interesting

Brandon Lyon said...

Hey Pete, I thought you might be interested in some photos I took over the summer on a hike in California. I tried to get the colors to match old postcards from the sixties (in photoshop). I'm hoping this is still somewhat on topic, haha. Anyways, I agree. I'm over most new movies anyways. I find more to discover in older films. http://typething.blogspot.com/2011/08/torrey-pines.html

Dave said...

Great post. Very interesting read. I'm not sure how available his movies are in Canada, but maybe Zhang Yimou's movies maybe worth checking out.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Personally, I always looked forward to Thursday nights when Elizabeth Montgomery would invite me to "stay tuned for 'Buh-witched'...next, in cah-lah."

To the best of my memory of college film classes, one of the reasons films cannot look the way they did is that the film stock has become more and more "natural" (which is to say, less and less "colorful") in an ongoing effort to recreate real life. Makeup and lighting techniques have changed too. It tool a LOT of light to illuminate the Yellow Brick Road in 1939. Today faster films and advanced lighting would make it easier (and less hot) but I'll bet if you filmed Dorothy and the gang with today's materials, they would not look the same.

Also, my college professor said that three-strip technicolor all but disappeared in the '70s and only one lab in England was still doing it. When you take that layering of color strip film away, there's a difference that digital technology tries to emulate but somehow cannot.

Star Wars and 2001 ushered in the color sci-fi fantasy film that was given a practically colorless palette. Apparently in Lucas' case, he was nodding to the black and white sci-fi serials of the past. The Indiana Jones films rendered all such in the genre a rusty tone.

And actors are no longer larger than life, they are supposed to be more like regular people (which in most stars' cases, they are obviously not). Audiences are used to seeing performers who resemble salespeople behind cosmetic counters and real estate agents.

The only people who seem to have exaggerated looks are soap stars, news anchors and Mitt Romney.

Landon said...

I HATE that trend in modern Hollywood, that overly gritty, dreary look that lacks color. It's fine for some things, but that kinda thing is not pleasant to look at all the time, and I am sick of it showing up and being abused in modern films. I don't know why it tends to have that look or how they managed to get it, but either way, I feel it needs to stop. Movies from the 20th century certainly didn't have that style, at least not as prominently, and that's part of why I tend to prefer media from the 20th century, not just 50s and 60s, but also 70s, 80s, and 90s, over most of the work of today.