COLOR AND SOUND
Long before Technicolor revolutionized the look of movies, color appeared in movies through a number of different methods. One of the first narrative movie directors, Georges Méliès (1861–1938), known for his early special effects and camera trickery, used color on occasion to accentuate spectacle, such as bursts of yellow flame and the like. In order to achieve this effect, he had individual frames hand-painted, a laborious and expensive practice. Tinting and toning were more popular, if only because the process was easier and cheaper, though admittedly less dramatic in effect. Tinting involved dyeing the entire emulsion in one color, so that shots of sky or twilight would appear blue and fire scenes red, for instance. Toning, on the other hand, was the chemical coloring of the silver portions of the image, which changed the normally black areas of the frame into colored ones. Early directors such as England's Robert William Paul (1869–1943) and James Williamson (1855–1933) made extensive use of both techniques, which would continue in popularity throughout the nickelodeon era and beyond.
In 1908 Charles Urban (1871–1942), an American businessman and motion picture enthusiast, patented the first functional color film process, called Kinemacolor. Unlike later color processes that would become the standard, this one was a two-strip additive system. In an additive color process, the camera produced two pairs of red and green exposures simultaneously, thus requiring superimposition in the projection of the final product (Cook, p. 254). Urban and his partners quickly began making films with Kinemacolor in several countries, including England and the United States. It was mainly used on shorter films, which kept the budget down, but by the early teens it was appearing in longer features as well. Because of patent litigation and technical problems with the process, Kinemacolor disappeared several years later. Additive color methods were generally short-lived because they required faster shooting, more illumination and film stock, and tricky equipment for projecting in superimposition, which the exhibitors resisted. In spite of its brief run, Kinemacolor was very popular in its time and established the foundation for future color processes, including Technicolor.
The next legitimate color process was developed by Technicolor in the 1920s. Herbert T. Kalmus (1881–1963), Daniel F. Comstock, and W. Burton Wescott had started the firm in 1915. Like Urban and others from this period, they began with an additive process, but once that failed, Kalmus sought to invent a subtractive process that would allow the colors to print on positive stocks and thus eliminate the superimposition of negatives. In 1922 Technicolor patented the first such color process, but the high cost made it untenable for most studios. A few years later, as talkies were emerging, Technicolor was using a two-strip subtractive process that attracted the studios' attention. Warner Bros., the most adventurous of the five major studios, was one of several companies to try it out on a limited basis. After several years into the Depression, however, the high cost again proved prohibitive for studios. Making it even less attractive were deficiencies inherent in a two-strip process, namely the lack of color range in the product (it had been proven in the nineteenth century that the full color spectrum could be achieved with combinations of only three primary colors: red, green, and blue).
In 1932 Technicolor came back with a three-strip method that included a "three-color beamsplitter and a third strip of film, so that each matrix—red, blue, green—had its own separation negative" (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, p. 353). With the aid of a mirror and prisms, the image was rendered simultaneously onto three different emulsion film strips. One strip, sensitive to green, was placed behind the lens, while the other two—one sensitive to blue and the other to red—were back to back on a separate track and at a 90-degree angle from the first. Because the light was split by the prism and mirror, so that all three strips could register the image, shooting in three-strip Technicolor required a great deal more lighting on the set. Yet the result was a fuller, richer spectrum of colors on film, as is evident in the films that featured it, including Disney's animated Three Little Pigs (1933) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), as well as Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939).
With each year, Technicolor improved its color process, which became faster and finer-grained, offering richer colors. The process still had its drawbacks, however, namely its high cost. Shooting a film in Technicolor could add in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual film budgets, so studios were not ready to make most or even a quarter of their productions in color. In addition to the need for more lighting, the three-strip Mitchell cameras, owned and leased by Technicolor, were expensive, large, and heavy, making for difficult on-location shooting. The lack of competition at this time also made Technicolor more in demand and thus pricier. Further increasing the price tag, the company often required that studios rent one of its trained cinematographers. As director Alfred Hitchcock learned during the production of his first color film, Rope (1948), this was not necessarily a bad thing. A notorious perfectionist, Hitchcock was disappointed with the sunset sky's red-orange colors, which he felt smacked of a "cheap postcard." He brought in a Technicolor camera technician to reshoot the last five ten-minute takes of Rope . As this story suggests, filmmakers (not merely directors and cinematographers, but also costume designers, art directors, and set designers, and makeup artists), long accustomed to black-and-white aesthetics, underwent a necessary period of adjustment. Three-strip Technicolor remained the best and only color film method until it was updated and made obsolete in the 1950s, when single-strip color processes would emerge and television would provide legitimate competition. Only thereafter would the industry's conversion to color be nearly absolute.
Just as the idea of movies in color had its roots in the earliest recorded history of the motion pictures, so too did the notion that movies could and should talk to us. Indeed, as long as motion pictures have been projected, they have rarely been without sound and even synchronized sound, in rhythm with the images on screen. During the silent era, live organists, pianists, and symphonic orchestras accompanied the projection of movies in theaters both big and small. On occasion, live actors would stand behind the screen to speak the lines. In other countries, such as Japan, a narrator ( benshi ) would sometimes provide commentary on the action. By the mid-1920s, however, advancements in recording and audio technology ushered in the era of "talkies."
At first, synchronized sound systems were often on-disc, meaning that the film's audio (lines, foley sounds, and/or score) would be recorded onto a recordlike disc. Then, as the film projected, a disc player would play the audio in synchronization with the images on screen. In the United States, Vitaphone successfully used this process in the years after World War I. This method was flawed, however, and was often unsatisfying for viewers because the synchronization of sound and image was tenuous, easily disrupted. Across the Atlantic, German engineers concomitantly developed a means of recording the soundtrack directly onto the film, such that sound and image were truly wed during projection. This method, which was called the Tri-Ergon Process, converted sound into light beams, which were first recorded onto the film strip and then reconverted to sound in the projection process. In the early 1920s, Dr. Lee De Forest (1873–1961) was promoting a similar sound-on-film method in the United States. What gave De Forest the advantage over his counterparts was his ability to make sound audible to an entire audience with the aid of his patented Audion vacuum tubes, which were able to amplify sound coming out of a speaker without the usual distortion of the time.
In spite of these early sound-on-film innovations, the first talkies in Hollywood used a sound-on-disc system contracted by Vitaphone (owned by Western Electric). The major studios of the time, including Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), were not willing to take the risk on what would require such a costly overhaul of production and exhibition equipment. However, Warner Bros., a small but growing studio, anxious to compete with the major studios that threatened to squeeze out smaller competition, gambled by purchasing exclusive rights to Vitaphone in 1926. Warner Bros. started by making a program of talkie shorts before producing two features, Don Juan (1926) and The Jazz Singer (1927), both directed by Alan Crosland. Don Juan featured merely a scored soundtrack, so it still resembled a silent film. Like many films of this transitional period, The Jazz Singer was part silent and part talkie; it included several scenes with players speaking, but it otherwise used a prerecorded on-disc music score. Warner's gamble paid off handsomely nonetheless: the films did very well at the box office and only encouraged Warner Bros.—and the rest of Hollywood—to continue in the direction of talkies.
By 1929, most of Hollywood had made the conversion to talkies, implementing sound-on-film systems that allowed for the mechanical synchronization of image and sound. Much of Europe followed in the year or two after. Problems abounded during this initial phase of talkies for several reasons. Since the cameras of this era were so loud, they needed to be encased during shooting so that the sensitive microphones on the set would not pick up their audible hum. This made for a rather static kind of cinema, particularly in light of the precedents set by the highly mobile camera work of silent film masters such as F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) and Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968). Arc lights, which had become standard by this time, also were loud enough to be picked up by the microphones. Hollywood switched soon thereafter to tungsten light sources, which, according to film historian Barry Salt, did not overly change the look of the films. In addition, the industry struggled at first with dialogue, which often came off as forced, unrealistic, and clichéd. Lastly, the industry discovered quickly that not all of its best silent stars were able to make the transition to the age of sound.
As several noted film historians have suggested, however, these growing pains were relatively few and short-lived for such an extensive industry-wide conversion. The industry solved most of these problems in time with developments in audio and recording technology. For instance, before long studios were using multiple audio tracks on films, looping in dialogue, music scores, and foley sounds during postproduction. Quieter cameras and more directional microphones also freed up the camera and increased the quality of sound. By the early 1930s, only a few years since the inception of the conversion to talkies, directors such as Fritz Lang ( M , 1931), Lewis Milestone ( All Quiet on the Western Front , 1930), and Hitchcock ( Blackmail , 1929) were using sound and dialogue in complex ways, proving Soviet film theorist-director Sergei Eisenstein's (1898–1948) assertion that synchronized sound could be employed as audio montage and/or counterpoint. With the conversion to sound, purists throughout the world proclaimed that the advent of talkies would be the death knell of cinema as they knew it, a singularly visual art. It was not long before film industries and individual filmmakers silenced these critics.