‘Was the world all black and white when you were a boy Dad?’
I think he said yes and I think I believed him. I was living in a 70’s kodachrome world where as my dad came from a world that when someone (rarely) took a photograph of you, it was black and white and small.
The golden age of cinema wasn’t golden at all but black and white. Shadows and light, form and movement but no colour. White could shine with spectral luminosity. You could lose your soul in the dark shadows. But the only colour was the kind you added with your mind. Spilt blood on black and white stock has its own special redness.
Black and white film lacking the full spectrum of everyday life is now synonymous with a kind of grittiness, a version of reality which somehow gets closer to the truth (whatever that is). Kitchen Sink Drama? You’d feel cheated unless it was filmed in shades of grey. Can you shoot Noir in colour? Those shadows on the staircase just aren’t the same. You can bet if a director is making a black or white film today she or he is nudging you into thinking what she or he is up to is all very serious.
But colour (even with the world around us blazing in all its glory) was the go to for unreality. For dreams and fantasies. If you poured yourself a neat scotch for Double Indemnity then you were on a psychedelic trip for the Wizard of Oz. It’s the moment in the musicals when they start singing (for no particular reason), the set falls away and the row of chorus girls appears. It’s only when colour imagery became everything and everywhere that it lost its ability to play this magic trick. It’s not even a thought anymore. It’s just what we expect.
Discounting animation, and some film that used hand tinting, early colour film really arrived with Technicolor. This was a subtractive process using images shot under different filters. There are some early Technicolor films from the 1920’s such as ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Technicolor required bright lighting for its super slow speed film and this, coupled with a general lack of understanding of how to work with it in the industry with colour meant that uptake wasn’t as fast as you might expect. Eastman Kodak was the next big advance-using emulsions to make recording colour on one film strip possible. From there, you can fast track forward to the world of VHS and more recently, HD and see an ever evolving palette. Those colours colour our views of different time. 50s starlets living is pistachio green houses with super saturated red, red lips, the 70s in a kind of warm honey dripping world with sunshine and lens flare, the grey shift into the 80s shot on videotape and the super sharp hyper reality of digital imagery of the 21st century.
So come back with us in time to 1951 and the crazy world of ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’. Revel in colour as it once was in the hands of Jack Cardiff-the cinematographer and Man Ray-the Art Director. Join us. 16th February. 7pm The DaDA bar.