By the late 1940s Hollywood was confronting several threats to box office sales: the new medium of television, the effects of the Paramount Decree (the popular name for the Supreme Court antitrust decision that led to the dismantling of the studio system), and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings into an alleged Communist Party presence in Hollywood. Technicolor and other color technologies became vital selling tools, providing viewers with an optical experience that could not be obtained outside the movie theater. Beyond Dorothy's ruby slippers, one can name countless unforgettable objects of color on the screen: Gene Kelly's red carnation in the ballet in An American in Paris (1951) or the one Gael García Bernal grips in his teeth in Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education ( La Mala Educación , 2004); Ripley's orange cat in Alien (1979); the sunset into which Luke Skywalker gazes as he resolves to go forward to meet his future in Star Wars (1977); the yellow fumes coming out of the smokestack at the end of Antonioni's Il Deserto rosso ( The Red Desert , 1964); the Emerald City; Peter O'Toole's famous blue eyes in Lawrence of Arabia (1962); the purple flowers Rock Hudson buys for Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk, 1954), or the brilliant fuchsia walls of the Miami Beach hotel in Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956); the pink panther; the Blue Meanies. Color also described people, scenes, and moments as objects: the swarthy brownness of Natalie Wood when pallid John Wayne and not-so-pallid Jeffrey Hunter discover her at the end of The Searchers (1956); avocado green Jim Carrey in The Mask (1994); the mauve atmosphere of Wyoming in Shane (1953); the subtle and rich palette of browns and beiges that describe the desert love dream of Zabriskie Point (1970); the intoxicating green apartment in Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2003).

Although the history of cinema has been inscribed by numerous exceptionally talented cinematographers (working with brilliant designers, costume designers, makeup artists, and lighting technicians—all of whom necessarily collaborate in the production of screen color), nevertheless the decision to use a color stock for the purpose of shooting a motion picture does not guarantee that the color onscreen will play a significant role in the film. A color film can fail to function in, even if it is shot in, color. Color film stock guarantees that there will be color onscreen, technically speaking, but nothing more. When we come away from the film and think back on it, very often we remember no object or scene or point of concentration in which color is the determining variable. In Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1984), for example, there is one moment when a large amount of viscous and extremely dark red—almost plum red—blood oozes across a floor. That is a true color moment in a color film, but it is the only such moment in that film, all of which is shot in color. Nicholas Ray (1911–1979) was an architect before he was a filmmaker, a man who saw the world as form-in-space; in Party Girl (1958), for example, he dresses Cyd Charisse in a spangling red dress and has her extend herself anxiously but beautifully along the length of an orange velvet sofa. The tension between the color values of that dress and that sofa creates an electricity that energizes the entire film.

A similar, albeit considerably more expensive, application of this same process is to be seen in a long sequence in the black-and-white film, Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). A little girl in a red overcoat wanders through the streets in the face of an augmenting chain of Nazi atrocity, marching soldiers, and an overall atmosphere of bleak despair. Finally, she is seen dead, her red overcoat a pungent reminder that she was once a discriminable, sovereign person. Here, the effect is obtained through frame-by-frame computerized tinting—photoshopping the coat while leaving all other aspects of the sequence, and the film, in what now appears to be stark and passionless black and white. When a computer process rather than an artist's hand technique is used to color frames, consistency between frames is obtained mechanically and thus a quality of continuous color is achievable. In Pleasantville (1998) computer colorization and optical printing together make possible the gradual infusion of color into specific parts of a black-and-white environment. The effect of mixing color and black and white in that film might appear to reflect what was done in The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy opened the door of her little house and stepped out into a fully Technicolored Oz, but in Wizard a sequence of sepia-tinted black-and-white film was joined to a sequence of full-color film to produce the startling effect.

At the end of Schindler's List , the narrative leaps forward to the present day in Israel, as remaining survivors of the Holocaust saved by Schindler gather in Jerusalem to remember him. This sequence is shot in full color, rendering everything that preceded it as neutral in retrospect as a desiccated historical record, certainly important factually and yet bleached of the thrilling color of "present" reality. In the black and white The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), a radically different effect is produced by shooting the culminating parade sequence in full color. All through the film a "solid gold Cadillac" has been invoked in the dialogue, but we have been denied the opportunity of seeing it directly; now, at the end, Judy Holliday and Paul Douglas are seen riding in this vehicle while crowds cheer all around. The goldness of the car is made especially intense by virtue of being visible directly in color; it is an especially "golden" golden car, because in comparison to the black and white by means of which we have been learning about it, it is seen now in the relatively "golden"—that is, valuable—medium of Technicolor.

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953) offers a bold use of color.

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