Recently TCM played two of the Gordon Parks films, Shaft (1971) and The Super Cops (1974). Both held up very well and you could see many creative influences they had on other early 70’s movies like Dog Day Afternoon and French Connection.
Among his other talents he also wrote songs and poetry. Like Stanley Kubrick he started as a photographer before becoming a director. That explains the great shots and cinematography in these movies.
While dismissed as “blaxploitation”, I think they should be viewed no differently than other action films of the era like the Dirty Harry or Death Wish series.
Given current events, his films, including The Learning Tree are as relevant today as then.
Below is a link to his Photos and many interesting videos.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of Jim Henson. I was working on Muppetvision 3D at Imagineering when he died. I was so excited that Disney was buying the Muppets and thought that Jim Henson was another Walt Disney and his creativity would take us in many new directions. Of course this was not to happen and Disney would not buy the Muppets until many years later. The original magic was lost. Here are some videos showing the work of a great man.
Jim Henson also used technology to great effect to tell stories, that is technology for storytelling. There are many examples in this episode of the Jim Henson Hour.
Gelmis: 2001 took about three years to make – six months of preparation, four and a half months of working with the actors, and a year and a half of shooting special effects. How much time will Napoleon take out of your life?
I still haven’t made a final decision, although there are several promising possibilities. Unfortunately, there are very, very few actual Napoleonic battlefields where we could still shoot; the land itself has either been taken over by industrial and urban development, preempted by historical trusts, or is so ringed by modern buildings that all kinds of anachronisms would present themselves — like a Hussars’ charge with a Fiat plant in the background. We’re now in the process of deciding the best places to shoot, and where it would be most feasible to obtain the troops we need for battle scenes. We intend to use a maximum of forty thousand infantry and ten thousand cavalry for the big battles, which means that we have to find a country which will hire out its own armed forces to us — you can just imagine the cost of fifty thousand extras over an extended period of time. Once we find a receptive environment, there are still great logistic problems — for example, a battle site would have to be contiguous to a city or town or barracks area where the troops we’d use are already bivouacked. Let’s say we’re working with forty thousand infantry — if we could get forty men into a truck, it would still require a thousand trucks to move them around. So in addition to finding the proper terrain, it has to be within marching distance of military barracks.
Aside from the Russian War and Peace, where they reportedly used sixty thousand of their own troops, has there ever been a film that used forty thousand men from somebody else’s army?
I would doubt it.
Then how do you expect to persuade another government to give you as many as forty thousand soldiers?
One has to be an optimist about these things. If it turned out to be impossible I’d obviously have no other choice than to make do with a lesser number of men, but this would only be as a last resort. I wouldn’t want to fake it with fewer troops because Napoleonic battles were out in the open, a vast tableau where the formations moved in an almost choreographic fashion. I want to capture this reality on film, and to do so it’s necessary to re-create all the conditions of the battle with painstaking accuracy.
How many men did you use in the trench battle of Paths of Glory?
That was another story entirely. We employed approximately eight hundred men, all German police — at that time the German police received three years of military training, and were as good as regular soldiers for our purposes. We shot the film at Geiselgesteig Studios in Munich, and both the battle site and the chateau were within thirty-five to forty minutes of the studio.
If you can’t use the actual battle sites, how will you approximate the terrain on the sites you do choose?
There are a number of ways this can be done an it’s quite important to the accuracy of the film, since terrain is the decisive factor in the flow and outcome of a Napoleonic battle. We’ve researched all the battle sites exhaustively from paintings and sketches, and we’re now in a position to approximate the terrain. And from a purely schematic point of view, Napoleonic battles are so beautiful, like vast lethal ballets, that it’s worth making every effort to explain the configuration of forces to the audience. And it’s not really as difficult as it first appears.
How do you mean “explain”? With a narrator, or charts?
With a narrative voice-over at times, with animated maps and, most importantly, through the actual photography of the battles themselves. Let’s say you want to explain that at the battle of Austerlitz, the Austro- Russian forces attempted to cut Napoleon off from Vienna, and then extended the idea to a double envelopment and Napoleon countered by striking at their center and cutting their forces in half — well, this is not difficult to show by photography, maps and narration. I think it’s extremely important to communicate the essence of these battles to the viewer, because they all have an aesthetic brilliance that doesn’t require a military mind to appreciate. There’s an aesthetic involved; it’s almost like a great piece of music, or the purity of a mathematical formula. It’s this quality I want to bring across, as well as the sordid reality of battle. You know, there’s a weird disparity between the sheer visual and organizational beauty of the historical battles sufficiently far in the past, and their human consequences. It’s rather like watching two golden eagles soaring through the sky from a distance; they may be tearing a dove to pieces, but if you are far enough away the scene is still beautiful.
Why are you making a movie about Napoleon?
That’s a question it would really take this entire interview to answer. To begin with, he fascinates me. His life has been described as an epic poem of action. His sex life was worthy of Arthur Schnitzler. He was one of those rare men who move history and mold the destiny of their own times and of generations to come — in a very concrete sense, our own world is the result of Napoleon, just as the political and geographic map of postwar Europe is the result of World War Two. And, of course, there has never been a good or accurate movie about him. Also, I find that all the issues with which it concerns itself are oddly contemporary — the responsibilities and abuses of power, the dynamics of social revolution, the relationship of the individual to the state, war, militarism, etc., so this will not be just a dusty historic pageant but a film about the basic questions of our own times, as well as Napoleon’s. But even apart from those aspects of the story, the sheer drama and force of Napoleon’s life is a fantastic subject for a film biography. Forgetting everything else and just taking Napoleon’s romantic involvement with Josephine, for example, here you have one of the great obsessional passions of all time.
How long a film biography are you contemplating?
It’s obviously a huge story to film, since we’re not just taking one segment of Napoleon’s life, military or personal, but are attempting to encompass all the major events of his career. I haven’t set down any rigid guidelines on length; I believe that if you have a truly interesting film it doesn’t matter how long it is — providing, of course, you don’t run on to such extremes that you numb the attention span of your audience. The longest film that has given consistent enjoyment to generations of viewers is Gone With the Wind, which would indicate that if a film is sufficiently interesting people will watch it for three hours and forty minutes. But in actual fact, the Napoleon film will probably be shorter.
What kind of research do you have going on right now?
The first step has been to read everything I could get my hands on about Napoleon, and totally immerse myself in his life. I guess I must have gone through several hundred books on the subject, from contemporary nineteenth-century English and French accounts to modern biographies. I’ve ransacked all these books for research material and broken it down into categories on everything from his food tastes to the weather on the day of a specific battle, and cross-indexed all the data in a comprehensive research file. In addition to my own reading, I’ve worked out a consultant arrangement with Professor Felix Markham of Oxford, a history don who has spent the last thirty- five years of his life studying Napoleon and is considered one of the world’s leading Napoleonic experts. He’s available to answer any questions that derive from my own reading or outside of it. We’re also in the process of creating prototypes of vehicles, weapons, and costumes of the period which will subsequently be mass-produced, all copied from paintings and written descriptions of the time and accurate in every detail. We already have twenty people working full time on the preparatory stage of the film.
What movies on Napoleon have you gone back to see?
I’ve tried to see every film that was ever made on the subject, and I’ve got to say that I don’t find any of them particularly impressive. I recently saw Abel Gance’s movie, which has built up a reputation among film buffs over the years, and I found it really terrible. Technically he was ahead of his time and he introduced new film techniques — in fact Eisenstein credited him with stimulating his initial interest in montage — but as far as story and performance goes it’s a very crude picture.
What did you think about the Russian War and Peace?
It was a cut above the others, and did have some very good scenes, but I can’t say I was overly impressed. There’s one in particular I admired, where the Tsar entered a ballroom and everyone scurried in his wake to see what he was doing and then rushed out of his way when he returned. That seemed to me to capture the reality of such a situation. Of course, Tolstoy’s view of Napoleon is so far removed from that of any objective historian’s that I really can’t fault the director for the way he was portrayed. It was a disappointing film, and doubly so because it had the potential to be otherwise.
Can you imagine yourself going down with just a cameraman and sound man and half a dozen people and shooting a film?
Sure I can. In fact, any contemporary story is best done just that way. The only time you need vast amounts of money and a huge crew is when you require complex special effects, as in 2001, or big battle or crowd scenes, as in the Napoleon film. But if you’re just dealing with a story set in modern times, then you could do it very easily with both limited funds and a limited crew.
In your own case, Lolita was set in America, and yet you shot it on an English sound stage. Couldn’t that film have been shot in this way, with just a handful of people on location?
Yes, it could certainly have been shot on location, although you’d still have needed more than a handful of people to do it.
Would you have done it that way if you were making the film now?
I would have done it at the time if the money to film had been available in America. But as it turned out the only funds I could raise for the film had to be spent in England. There’s been such a revolution in Hollywood’s treatment of sex over just the past few years that it’s easy to forget that when I became interested in Lolita a lot of people felt that such a film couldn’t be made — or at least couldn’t be shown. As it turned out, we didn’t have any problems, but there was a lot of fear and trembling. And filming in England we obviously had no choice but to rely mainly on studio shooting.
Obviously Napoleon wouldn’t permit you to shoot with a small crew and flexible conditions on location. But in the foreseeable future do you see yourself shedding the shell of the studio superstructure and working simply again?
Yes, if I could find a contemporary story susceptible to such an approach which I liked enough to do. But I would certainly enjoy filming primarily on location. If you have the right story, it’s a waste of time and energy to re-create conditions in a studio which exist outside. And if you make sensible arrangements, there are no technical difficulties about location shooting. Sound, which once presented problems, really doesn’t anymore, since with skirt mikes you get a favorable voice-to-noise ratio. And in any case, background noise just adds to the verisimilitude of the scene. It’s only when you’re doing a period film that causes difficulties; in Napoleon, for example, I’d hardly want a jet to fly overhead in the middle of the battle of Jena.
Your last film was about the twenty-first century. Your next film is about the nineteenth century. Do you think it’s significant that you aren’t very interested or satisfied with contemporary stories or themes of twentieth-century life?
It’s not a question of my own satisfaction or lack of it, but of the basic purpose of a film, which I believe is one of illumination, of showing the viewer something he can’t see any other way. And I think at times this can be best accomplished by staying away from his own immediate environment. This is particularly true when you’re dealing in a primarily visual experience, and telling a story through the eyes. You don’t find reality only in your own backyard, you know — in fact, sometimes that’s the last place you find it. Another asset about dealing with themes that are either futuristic or historic is that it enables you to make a statement with which you’re not personally blinded; it removes the environmental blinkers, in a sense, and gives you a deeper and more objective perspective.
In your last genuinely contemporary film, Lolita, you were frustrated in your efforts to make the movie as erotic as the novel, and there was some criticism that the girl was too old to play the nymphet of the novel.
She was actually just the right age. Lolita was twelve and a half in the book; Sue Lyon was thirteen. I think some people had a mental picture of a nine-year-old. I would fault myself in one area of the film, however; because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita, and because his sexual obsession was only barely hinted at, many people guessed too quickly that Humbert was in love with Lolita. Whereas in the novel this comes as a discovery at the end, when she is no longer a nymphet but a dowdy, pregnant suburban housewife; and it’s this encounter, and his sudden realization of his love, that is one of the most poignant elements of the story. If I could do the film over again, I would have stressed the erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nabokov did. But that is the only major area where I believe the film is susceptible to valid criticism.
At what point did you decide to structure the film so that Humbert is telling the story to the man he’s going to shoot?
I discussed this approach with Nabokov at the very outset, and he liked it. One of the basic problems with the book, and with the film even in its modified form, is that the main narrative interest boils down to the question “Will Humbert get Lolita into bed?” And you find in the book that, despite the brilliant writing, the second half has a drop in narrative interest after he does. We wanted to avoid this problem in the film, and Nabokov and I agreed that if we had Humbert shoot Quilty without explanation at the beginning, then throughout the film the audience would wonder what Quilty was up to. Of course, you obviously sacrifice a great ending by opening with Quilty’s murder, but I felt it served a worthwhile purpose.
Startling with Lolita, you’ve been making all your films abroad. Why?
Circumstances have just dictated it that way. As I explained earlier, it was necessary to make Lolita in England for financial reasons and to mitigate censorship problems, and in the case of Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers was in the process of getting a divorce and could not leave England for an extended period, so it was necessary to film there. By the time I decided to do 2001 I had gotten so acclimated to working in England that it would have been pointless to tear up roots and move everything to America. And with Napoleon we’ll be doing a great deal of the shooting on the continent, so London is a convenient base of operations.
Are there any specific advantages to working in London?
Next to Hollywood, London is probably the second best place to make a film, because of the degree of technical expertise and facilities you find in England, and that isn’t really a backhanded compliment.
Do you have any reluctance to work in Hollywood while the studio chiefs stand over the director’s shoulder?
No, because I’m in the fortunate position where I can make a film without that kind of control. Ten years ago, of course, it would have been an entirely different story.
You don’t consider yourself an expatriate then?
Not at all.
Why not? You’ve lived in England seven years and made your last three films there — even those which were set in America.
Yes, but there’s nothing permanent about my working and living in England. Circumstances have kept me there until now, but it’s quite possible I’ll be making a film in America in the future. And in any case, I commute back and forth several times a year.
But always by ocean liner. You have a pilot’s license but you don’t like flying anymore. Why?
Call it enlightened cowardice, if you like. Actually, over the years I discovered that I just didn’t enjoy flying, and I became aware of compromised safety margins in commercial aviation that are never mentioned in airline advertising. So I decided I’d rather travel by sea, and take my chances with the icebergs.
In your profession isn’t it a problem not to fly?
It would be if I had to hop about all the time from spot to spot like many people do. But when I’m working on a film I’m tied down to one geographic area for long periods of time and I travel very little. And when I do, I find boats or railroads adequate and more relaxing.
Dr. Strangelove was a particularly word-oriented film, whereas 2001 seemed to be a total breakaway from what you’d done before.
Yes, I feel it was. Strangelove was a film where much of its impact hinged on the dialogue, the mode of expression, the euphemisms employed. As a result, it’s a picture that is largely destroyed in translation or dubbing. 2001, on the other hand, is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.
Actually, film operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word, and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words. I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension. In two hours and forty minutes of film there are only forty minutes of dialogue.
I think one of the areas where 2001 succeeds is in stimulating thoughts about man’s destiny and role in the universe in the minds of people who in the normal course of their lives would never have considered such matters. Here again, you’ve got the resemblance to music; an Alabama truck driver, whose views in every other respect would be extremely narrow, is able to listen to a Beatles record on the same level of appreciation and perception as a young Cambridge intellectual, because their emotions and subconscious are far more similar than their intellects. The common bond is their subconscious emotional reaction; and I think that a film which can communicate on this level can have a more profound spectrum of impact than any form of traditional verbal communication.
The problem with movies is that since the talkies the film industry has historically been conservative and word-oriented. The three-act play has been the model. It’s time to abandon the conventional view of the movie as an extension of the three-act play. Too many people over thirty are still word-oriented rather than picture-oriented.
For example, at one point in 2001 Dr. Floyd is asked where he’s going and he replies, “I’m going to Clavius,” which is a lunar crater. Following that statement you have more than fifteen shots of Floyd’s spacecraft approaching and landing on the moon, but one critic expressed confusion because she thought Floyd’s destination was a planet named Clavius. Young people, on the other hand, who are more visually oriented due to their new television environment, had no such problems. Kids all know we went to the moon. When you ask how they know they say, “Because we saw it.”
So you have the problem that some people are only listening and not really paying attention with their eyes. Film is not theater — and until that basic lesson is learned I’m afraid we’re going to be shackled to the past and miss some of the greatest potentialities of the medium.
Did you deliberately try for ambiguity as opposed to a specific meaning for any scene or image?
No, I didn’t have to try for ambiguity; it was inevitable. And I think in a film like 2001, where each viewer brings his own emotions and perceptions to bear on the subject matter, a certain degree of ambiguity is valuable, because it allows the audience to “fill in” the visual experience themselves. In any case, once you’re dealing on a nonverbal level, ambiguity is unavoidable. But it’s the ambiguity of all art, of a fine piece of music or a painting — you don’t need written instructions by the composer or painter accompanying such works to “explain” them. “Explaining” them contributes nothing but a superficial “cultural” value which has no value except for critics and teachers who have to earn a living. Reactions to art are always different because they are always deeply personal.
The final scenes of the film seemed more metaphorical than realistic. Will you discuss them — or would that be part of the “road map” you’re trying to avoid?
No, I don’t mind discussing it, on the lowest level, that is, straightforward explanation of the plot. You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man’s first baby steps into the universe — a kind of cosmic burglar alarm. And finally there’s a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system.
When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he’s placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny.
That is what happens on the film’s simplest level. Since an encounter with an advanced interstellar intelligence would be incomprehensible within our present earthbound frames of reference, reactions to it will have elements of philosophy and metaphysics that have nothing to do with the bare plot outline itself.
What are those areas of meaning?
They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded.
Why does 2001 seem so affirmative and religious a film? What has happened to the tough, disillusioned, cynical director of The Killing, Spartacus, Paths of Glory, and Lolita, and the sardonic black humorist of Dr. Strangelove?
The God concept is at the heart of this film. It’s unavoidable that it would be, once you believe that the universe is seething with advanced forms of intelligent life. Just think about it for a moment. There are a hundred billion stars in the galaxy and a hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe. Each star is a sun, like our own, probably with planets around them. The evolution of life, it is widely believed, comes as an inevitable consequence of a certain amount of time on a planet in a stable orbit which is not too hot or too cold. First comes chemical evolution — chance rearrangements of basic matter, then biological evolution.
Think of the kind of life that may have evolved on those planets over the millennia, and think, too, what relatively giant technological strides man has made on earth in the six thousand years of his recorded civilization — a period that is less than a single grain of sand in the cosmic hourglass. At a time when man’s distant evolutionary ancestors were just crawling out of the primordial ooze, there must have been civilizations in the universe sending out their starships to explore the farthest reaches of the cosmos and conquering all the secrets of nature. Such cosmic intelligences, growing in knowledge over the aeons, would be as far removed from man as we are from the ants. They could be in instantaneous telepathic communication throughout the universe; they might have achieved total mastery over matter so that they can telekinetically transport themselves instantly across billions of light years of space; in their ultimate form they might shed the corporeal shell entirely and exist as a disembodied immortal consciousness throughout the universe.
Once you begin discussing such possibilities, you realize that the religious implications are inevitable, because all the essential attributes of such extraterrestrial intelligences are the attributes we give to God. What we’re really dealing with here is, in fact, a scientific definition of God. And if these beings of pure intelligence ever did intervene in the affairs of man, so far removed would their powers be from our own understanding. How would a sentient ant view the foot that crushes his anthill — as the action of another being on a higher evolutionary scale than itself? Or as the divinely terrible intercession of God?
Although 2001 dealt with the first human contact with an alien civilization, we never did actually see an alien, though you communicated through the monoliths an experience of alien beings.
From the very outset of work on the film we all discussed means of photographically depicting an extraterrestrial creature in a manner that would be as mind-boggling as the being itself. And it soon became apparent that you cannot imagine the unimaginable. All you can do is try to represent it in an artistic manner that will convey something of its quality. That’s why we settled on the black monolith — which is, of course, in itself something of a Jungian archetype, and also a pretty fair example of “minimal art.”
Isn’t a basic problem with science fiction films that alien life always looks like some Creature from the Black Lagoon, a plastic rubber monster?
Yes, and that’s one of the reasons we stayed away from the depiction of biological entities, aside from the fact that truly advanced beings would probably have shed the chrysalis of a biological form at one stage of their evolution. You cannot design a biological entity that doesn’t look either overly humanoid or like the traditional Bug-Eyed Monster of pulp science fiction.
The man-ape costumes in 2001 were impressive.
We spent an entire year trying to figure out how to make the ape-heads look convincing, and not just like a conventional makeup job. We finally constructed an entire sub-skull of extremely light and flexible plastic, to which we attached the equivalent of face muscles which pulled the lips back in a normal manner whenever the mouth was opened. The mouth itself took a great deal of work — it had artificial teeth and an artificial tongue which the actors could manipulate with tiny toggles to make the lips snarl in a lifelike fashion. Some of the masks even had built-in devices whereby the artificial muscles in the cheeks and beneath the eyes could be moved. All the apes except for two baby chimps were men, and most of them were dancers or mimes, which enabled them to move a little better than most movie apes.
Was the little girl Dr. Floyd telephoned from the orbital satellite one of your daughters?
Yes, my youngest girl, Vivian. She was six then. We didn’t give her any billing, a fact I hope she won’t decide to take up with me when she’s older.
Why was Martin Balsam’s voice as HAL, the computer, redubbed by Douglas Rain, the Canadian actor?
Well, we had some difficulty deciding exactly what HAL should sound like, and Marty just sounded a little bit too colloquially American, whereas Rain had the kind of bland mid- Atlantic accent we felt was right for the part.
Some critics have detected in HAL’s wheedling voice an undertone of homosexuality. Was that intended?
No. I think it’s become something of a parlor game for some people to read that kind of thing into everything they encounter. HAL was a “straight” computer.
Why was the computer more emotional than the human beings?
This was a point that seemed to fascinate some negative critics, who felt that it was a failing of this section of the film that there was more interest in HAL than in the astronauts. In fact, of course, the computer is the central character of this segment of the story. If HAL had been a human being, it would have been obvious to everyone that he had the best part, and was the most interesting character; he took all the initiatives, and all the problems related to and were caused by him.
Some critics seemed to feel that because we were successful in making a voice, a camera lens, and a light come alive as a character this necessarily meant that the human characters failed dramatically. In fact, I believe that Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, the astronauts, reacted appropriately and realistically to their circumstances. One of the things we were trying to convey in this part of the film is the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities who have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings, and who have the same emotional potentialities in their personalities as human beings. We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.
In the specific case of HAL, he had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility. The idea of neurotic computers is not uncommon — most advanced computer theorists believe that once you have a computer which is more intelligent than man and capable of learning by experience, it’s inevitable that it will develop an equivalent range of emotional reactions — fear, love, hate, envy, etc. Such a machine could eventually become as incomprehensible as a human being, and could, of course, have a nervous breakdown — as HAL did in the film.
Since 2001 is a visual experience, what happened when your collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke, finally put the screenplay down in black and white in the novelization of the film?
It’s a totally different kind of experience, of course, and there are a number of differences between the book and the movie. The novel, for example, attempts to explain things much more explicitly than the film does, which is inevitable in a verbal medium. The novel came about after we did a 130-page prose treatment of the film at the very outset. This initial treatment was subsequently changed in the screenplay, and the screenplay in turn was altered during the making of the film. But Arthur took all the existing material, plus an impression of some of the rushes, and wrote the novel. As a result, there’s a difference between the novel and the film.
To take one specific, in the novel the black monolith found by curious man- apes three million years ago does explicit things which it doesn’t do in the film. In the movie, it has an apparent catalytic effect which enables the ape to discover how to use a bone as a weapon-tool. In the novel, the slab becomes milky and luminous and we’re told it’s a testing and teaching device used by higher intelligences to determine if the apes are worth helping. Was that in the original screenplay? When was it cut out of the film?
Yes, it was in the original treatment but I eventually decided that to depict the monolith in such an explicit manner would be to run the risk of making it appear no more than an advanced television teaching machine. You can get away with something so literal in print, but I felt that we could create a far more powerful and magical effect by representing it as we did in the film.
Do you feel that the novel, written so explicitly, in some way diminishes the mysterious aspect of the film?
I think it gives you the opportunity of seeing two attempts in two different mediums, print and film, to express the same basic concept and story. In both cases, of course, the treatment must accommodate to the necessities of the medium. I think that the divergencies between the two works are interesting. Actually, it was an unprecedented situation for someone to do an essentially original literary work based on glimpses and segments of a film he had not yet seen in its entirety. In fact, nobody saw the film in its final form until eight days before we held the first press screening in April 1968, and the first time I saw the film completed with a proper soundtrack was one week before it opened. I completed the portion of the film in which we used actors in June 1966 and from then until the first week of March 1968 I spent most of my time working on the 205 special effects shots. The final shot was actually cut into the negative at M-G-M’s Hollywood studios only days before the film was ready to open. There was nothing intentional about the fact that the film wasn’t shown until the last minute. It just wasn’t finished.
Why did you cut scenes from the film after it opened?
I always try to look at a completed film as if I had never seen it before. I usually have several weeks to run the film, alone and with audiences. Only in this way can you judge length. I’ve always done precisely that with my previous films; for example, after a screening of Dr. Strangelove I cut out a final scene in which the Russians and Americans in the War Room engage in a free-for-all fight with custard pies. I decided it was farce and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film. So there was nothing unusual about the cutting I did on 2001, except for the eleventh-hour way in which I had to do it.
Strangelove was based on a serious book, Red Alert. At what point did you decide to make it a comedy?
I started work on the screenplay with every intention of making the film a serious treatment of the problem of accidental nuclear war. As I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself: “I can’t do this. People will laugh.” But after a month or so I began to realize that all the things I was throwing out were the things which were most truthful. After all, what could be more absurd than the very idea of two mega-powers willing to wipe out all human life because of an accident, spiced up by political differences that will seem as meaningless to people a hundred years from now as the theological conflicts of the Middle Ages appear to us today?
So it occurred to me that I was approaching the project in the wrong way. The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy or, better, a nightmare comedy, where the things you laugh at most are really the heart of the paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible. Most of the humor in Strangelove arises from the depiction of everyday human behavior in a nightmarish situation, like the Russian premier on the hot line who forgets the telephone number of his general staff headquarters and suggests the American President try Omsk information, or the reluctance of a U.S. officer to let a British officer smash open a Coca-Cola machine for change to phone the President about a crisis on the SAC base because of his conditioning about the sanctity of private property.
When you read a book like Red Alert which you’re interested in turning into a film, do you right away say to yourself, this character should be played by such and such an actor?
Not usually. I first try to define the character fully as he will appear in the film and then try to think of the proper actor to play the role. When I’m in the process of casting a part I sit down with a list of actors I know. Of course, once you’ve narrowed the list down to several possibilities for each part then it becomes a question of who’s currently available, and how the actor you choose to play one part will affect the people you’re considering for other parts.
How do you get a good performance from your actors?
The director’s job is to know what emotional statement he wants a character to convey in his scene or his line, and to exercise taste and judgment in helping the actor give his best possible performance. By knowing the actor’s personality and gauging his strengths and weaknesses a director can help him to overcome specific problems and realize his potential. But I think this aspect of directing is generally overemphasized. The director’s taste and imagination play a much more crucial role in the making of a film. Is it meaningful? Is it believable? Is it interesting? Those are the questions that have to be answered several hundred times a day.
It’s rare for a bad performance to result from an actor ignoring everything a director tells him. In fact it’s very often just the opposite. After all, the director is the actor’s sole audience for the months it takes to shoot a film, and an actor would have to possess supreme self-confidence and supreme contempt for the director to consistently defy his wishes. I think you’ll find that most disappointing performances are the mutual fault of both the actor and the director.
Some directors don’t let their actors see the daily rushes. Do you?
Yes. I’ve encountered very few actors who are so insecure or self-destructive that they’re upset by the rushes or find their self-confidence undermined. Actually, most actors profit by seeing their rushes and examining them self- critically. In any case, a professional actor who’s bothered by his own rushes just won’t turn up to see them — particularly in my films, since we run the rushes at lunch time and unless an actor is really interested, he won’t cut his lunch to half an hour.
On the first day of shooting on the set, how do you establish that rapport or fear or whatever relationship you want with your actors to keep them in the right frame of mind for the three months you’ll be working with them?
Certainly not through fear. To establish a good working relationship I think all the actor has to know is that you respect his talent enough to want him in your film. He’s obviously aware of that as long as you’ve hired him and he hasn’t been foisted on you by the studio or the producer.
Do you rehearse at all?
There’s really a limit to what you can do with rehearsals. They’re very useful, of course, but I find that you can’t rehearse effectively unless you have the physical reality of the set to work with. Unfortunately, sets are practically never ready until the last moment before you start shooting, and this significantly cuts down on your rehearsal time. Some actors, of course, need rehearsals more than others. Actors are essentially emotion-producing instruments, and some are always tuned and ready while others will reach a fantastic pitch on one take and never equal it again, no matter how hard they try. In Strangelove, for example, George Scott could do his scenes equally well take after take, whereas Peter Sellers was always incredibly good on one take, which was never equaled.
At what point do you know what take you’re going to use?
On some occasions the take is so obviously superior you can tell immediately. But particularly when you’re dealing with dialogue scenes, you have to look them over again and select portions of different takes and make the best use of them. The greatest amount of time in editing is this process of studying the takes and making notes and struggling to decide which segments you want to use; this takes ten times more time and effort than the actual cutting, which is a very quick process. Purely visual action scenes, of course, present far less of a problem; it’s generally the dialogue scenes, where you’ve got several long takes printed on each angle on different actors, that are the most time-consuming to cut.
How much cutting are you responsible for, and how much is done by somebody you trust as an editor?
Nothing is cut without me. I’m in there every second, and for all practical purposes I cut my own film; I mark every frame, select each segment, and have everything done exactly the way I want it. Writing, shooting, and editing are what you have to do to make a film.
Where did you learn film editing? You started out as a still photographer.
Yes, but after I quit Look in 1950 — where I had been a staff photographer for five years, ever since I left high school — I took a crack at films and made two documentaries, Day of the Fight, about prize fighter Walter Cartier, and The Flying Padre, a silly thing about a priest in the Southwest who flew to his isolated parishes in a small airplane. I did all the work on those two films, and all the work on my first two feature films, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, sound effects man — you name it, I did it. And it was invaluable experience, because being forced to do everything myself I gained a sound and comprehensive grasp of all the technical aspects of filmmaking.
How old were you when you decided to make movies?
I was around twenty-one. I’d had my job with Look since I was seventeen, and I’d always been interested in films, but it never actually occurred to me to make a film on my own until I had a talk with a friend from high school, Alex Singer, who wanted to be a director himself (and has subsequently become one) and had plans for a film version of the Iliad. Alex was working as an office boy for “The March of Time” in those days, and he told me they spent forty thousand dollars making a one-reel documentary. A bit of simple calculation indicated that I could make a one-reel documentary for about fifteen hundred. That’s what gave me the financial confidence to make Day of the Fight.
I was rather optimistic about expenses; the film cost me thirty-nine hundred. I sold it to RKO-Pathe for four thousand dollars, a hundred-dollar profit. They told me that was the most they’d ever paid for a short. I then discovered that “The March of Time” itself was going out of business. I made one more short for RKO, The Flying Padre, on which I just barely broke even. It was at this point that I formally quit my job at Look to work full time on filmmaking. I then managed to raise ten thousand dollars, and shot my first feature film, Fear and Desire.
What was your own experience making your first feature film?
Fear and Desire was made in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles. I was the camera operator and director and just about everything else. Our “crew” consisted of three Mexican laborers who carried all the equipment. The film was shot in 35mm without a soundtrack and then dubbed by a post-synchronized technique. The dubbing was a big mistake on my part; the actual shooting cost of the film was nine thousand dollars but because I didn’t know what I was doing with the soundtrack it cost me another thirty thousand. There were other things I did expensively and foolishly, because I just didn’t have enough experience to know the proper and economical approach. Fear and Desire played the art house circuits and some of the reviews were amazingly good, but it’s not a film I remember with any pride, except for the fact it was finished.
After Fear and Desire failed to pay back the investors, how did you get the money to make your next film,Killer’s Kiss?
Fear and Desire was financed mainly by my friends and relatives, whom I’ve since paid back, needless to say. Different people gave me backing for Killer’s Kiss, which also lost half of its forty-thousand-dollar budget. I’ve subsequently repaid those backers also. After Killer’s Kiss I met Jim Harris, who was interested in getting into films, and we formed a production company together. Our first property was The Killing, based on Lionel White’s story “The Clean Break.” This time we could afford good actors, such as Sterling Hayden, and a professional crew. The budget was larger than the earlier films — $320,000 — but still very low for a Hollywood production. Our next film was Paths of Glory, which nobody in Hollywood wanted to do at all, even though we had a very low budget. Finally Kirk Douglas saw the script and liked it. Once he agreed to appear in the film United Artists was willing to make it.
How’d you get that great performance out of Douglas?
A director can’t get anything out of an actor that he doesn’t already have. You can’t start an acting school in the middle of making a film. Kirk is a good actor.
What did you do after Paths of Glory?
I did two scripts that no one wanted. A year went by and my finances were rather rocky. I received no salary for The Killing or Paths of Glory but had worked on 100 per cent deferred salary — and since the films didn’t make any money, I had received nothing from either of them. I subsisted on loans from my partner, Jim Harris. Next I spent six months working on a screenplay for a Western, One-Eyed Jacks, with Marlon Brando and Calder Willingham. Our relationship ended amicably a few weeks before Marlon began directing the film himself. By the time I had left Brando I had spent two years doing nothing. At this point, I was hired to direct Spartacus with Kirk Douglas. It was the only one of my films over which I did not have complete control; although I was the director, mine was only one of many voices to which Kirk listened. I am disappointed in the film. It had everything but a good story.
What do you consider the director’s role?
A director is a kind of idea and taste machine; a movie is a series of creative and technical decisions, and it’s the director’s job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible. Shooting a movie is the worst milieu for creative work ever devised by man. It is a noisy, physical apparatus; it is difficult to concentrate — and you have to do it from eight-thirty to six-thirty, five days a week. It’s not an environment an artist would ever choose to work in. The only advantage is has is that you must do it, and you can’t procrastinate.
How did you learn to actually make the films, since you’d had no experience?
Well, my experience in photography was very helpful. For my two documentaries I’d used a small 35-mm hand camera called an Eyemo, a daylight loading camera which was very simple to operate. The first time I used a Mitchell camera was on Fear and Desire. I went to the Camera Equipment Company, at 1600 Broadway, and the owner, Bert Zucker, spent a Saturday morning showing me how to load and operate it. So that was the extent of my formal training in movie camera technique.
As a beginner, you mean you just walked cold into a rental outfit and had them give you a cram course in using movie equipment?
Bert Zucker, who has subsequently been killed in an airline crash, was a young man, in his early thirties, and he was very sympathetic. Anyway, it was a sensible thing for them to do. I was paying for the equipment. At that time I also learned how to do cutting. Once somebody showed me how to use a Movieola and synchronizer and how to make a splice I had no trouble at all. The technical fundamentals of moviemaking are not difficult.
What kind of movies did you go to in those days?
I used to want to see almost anything. In fact, the bad films were what really encouraged me to start out on my own. I’d keep seeing lousy films and saying to myself, “I don’t know anything about moviemaking but I couldn’t do anything worse than this.”
You had technical skills and audacity, but what made you think you could get a good performance out of an actor?
Well, in the beginning I really didn’t get especially good performances, either in Fear and Desire or Killer’s Kiss. They were both amateurish films. But I did learn a great deal from making them, experience which helped me greatly in my subsequent films. The best way to learn is to do — and this is something few people manage to get the opportunity to try. I was also helped a great deal by studying Stanislavski’s books, as well as an excellent book about him, Stanislavski Directs, which contains a great deal of highly illustrative material on how he worked with actors. Between those books and the painful lessons I learned from my own mistakes I accumulated the basic experience needed to start to do good work.
Did you also read film theory books?
I read Eisenstein’s books at the time, and to this day I still don’t really understand them. The most instructive book on film aesthetics I came across was Pudovkin’s Film Technique, which simply explained that editing was the aspect of film art form which was completely unique, and which separated it from all other art forms. The ability to show a simple action like a man cutting wheat from a number of angles in a brief moment, to be able to see it in a special way not possible except through film — that this is what it was all about. This is obvious, of course, but it’s so important it cannot be too strongly stressed. Pudovkin gives many clear examples of how good film editing enhances a scene, and I would recommend his book to anyone seriously interested in film technique.
But you weren’t impressed by Eisenstein’s books. What do you think of his films?
Well, I have a mixed opinion. Eisenstein’s greatest achievement is the beautiful visual composition of his shots, and his editing. But as far as content is concerned, his films are silly, his actors are wooden and operatic. I sometimes suspect that Eisenstein’s acting style derives from his desire to keep the actors framed within his compositions for as long as possible; they move very slowly, as if under water. Interesting to note, a lot of his work was being done concurrently with Stanislavski’s work. Actually, anyone seriously interested in comparative film techniques should study the differences in approach of two directors, Eisenstein and Chaplin. Eisenstein is all form and no content, whereas Chaplin is content and no form. Of course, a director’s style is partly the result of the manner in which he imposes his mind on the semi controllable conditions that exist on any given day — the responsiveness and talent of actors, the realism of the set, time factors, even weather.
You’ve been quoted as saying that Max Ophuls’ films fascinated you when you were starting out as a director.
Yes, he did some brilliant work. I particularly admired his fluid camera techniques. I saw a great many films at that time at the Museum of Modern Art and in movie theaters, and I learned far more by seeing films than from ready heavy tomes on film aesthetics.
If you were nineteen and starting out again, would you go to film school?
The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself. A three-minute short will teach him a lot. I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I’m doing now as a director and producer. There are a lot of noncreative aspects to filmmaking which have to be overcome, and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc., etc. It is rare to be able to have an uncluttered, artistic environment when you make a film, and being able to accept this is essential.
The point to stress is that anyone seriously interested in making a film should find as much money as he can as quickly as he can and go out and do it. And this is no longer as difficult as it once was. When I began making movies as an independent in the early 1950s I received a fair amount of publicity because I was something of a freak in an industry dominated by a handful of huge studios. Everyone was amazed that it could be done at all. But anyone can make a movie who has a little knowledge of cameras and tape recorders, a lot of ambition and — hopefully — talent. It’s gotten down to the pencil and paper level. We’re really on the threshold of a revolutionary new era in film.
I worked with Joe Herrington when I was at WDI from 1989 to 1994. Joe saved some of the old Jimmy Macdonald contraptions from being thrown out. I was designer of video systems but worked closely with the audio department doing post production sound. Here are some audio and video clips showing how theme park sound is done.
Theme parks have a way of transporting us to magical places, and sound is crucial in maintaining the illusion. From the most action-packed attractions to the background music playing between park areas, theme park sound designers have thought of it all. In this episode, we speak to Joe Herrington and Mike Fracassi, two Disney Imagineers who work to maintain the magic for guests of Disney Parks.
The SoundWorks Collection pulls back the curtain on the talented Imagineers who are responsible for the sounds and music of the Walt Disney theme park properties. In our exclusive video profile we explore the history and role of the audio team as they share their stories and creative challenges. We also take a visit through the original John James “Jimmy” MacDonald sound effects collection, which explores some of the classic Disney sound effects.
“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” – Walt Disney
Jimmy Macdonald was a one-man sound effects wizard. Over his 48-year career with Disney, he created and assembled one of the largest and most impressive sound effects libraries in motion picture history. Beginning in 1934, he added extra dimension to all of Disney’s animated shorts and features including even more current offerings such as the Mouseworks television series. He also worked on the soundtracks for most of the Studio’s live-action films up through the mid-1980s. But perhaps most notable to fans was his greatest role: that of Mickey Mouse, to whom Jimmy gave voice from 1946 until 1977.
Born John James Macdonald in Dundee, Scotland, on May 19, 1906, Jimmy came to the United States when he was only a month old. He grew up in the Philadelphia area and received a correspondence school degree in engineering before moving to California in 1927. His first job was with the Burbank Engineering Department.
In 1934, he was playing drums and percussion for the Dollar Steamship Lines when the band, in between cruises, was called to the Disney Studios to record for a Mickey Mouse short. Jimmy stayed on to work in the newly formed Disney Sound Effects Department, doing vocal effects and cartoon voices.
His voice repertoire included yodeling, whistling, and sneezing for the Dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, barks for Pluto, and, on many occasions, the excitable, high-pitched voices of Chip and Dale.
Rarely was there a sound Jimmy could not make with one of the more than 500 innovative Rube Goldberg-like contraptions that he built from scratch. He could create sounds as obscure as a spider web shimmering or a friendly bumblebee washing up before supper. Animator and Disney Legend Xavier Atencio once recalled, “If he couldn’t get a particular sound he wanted from one of those gizmos, Jimmy would do it with his mouth.”
In 1946, Walt Disney handpicked Jimmy to be his successor as the official voice of Mickey Mouse, beginning with the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” segment of Fun and Fancy Free. Jimmy provided the famed mouse’s familiar falsetto on all film and television projects up until the late 1970s.
On screen, Jimmy was the silhouetted figure of a timpani player in Fantasia. Four decades later, in 1982, he assisted conductor and Disney Legend Irwin Kostal in the digital re-recording of that film. As an original member of the popular jazz group, “The Firehouse Five Plus Two,” Jimmy played drums and made several Disney television appearances in the 1950s. In the live-action film arena, he supplied sound effects for everything from the Academy Award®-wining True-Life Adventures series up through The Black Hole in 1979. For the 1977 animated feature The Rescuers, he came out of retirement to provide sounds for the feisty dragonfly, Evinrude.
Jimmy Macdonald passed away on February 1, 1991, in Los Angeles.
I recently saw Hitchcock/Truffaut on HBO. It is a great documentary about two great filmmakers. It is highly recommended. Here are some background videos and the original audio interviews. I read the book in film school, where it is still required reading.
In 1962, French New Wave auteur François Truffaut, aided by translator Helen Scott, spent a week in Hollywood with his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, discussing the director’s rich and extensive body of work, including Psycho and Vertigo. The resulting 1966 book of interviews, Hitchcock, became a celebrated bible of cinema for generations of filmmakers.
Fifty years after its publication, Hitchcock/Truffaut brings this historic summit to life by combining rare original audio recordings and behind-the-scenes photos from the historic exchange. The film offers an eye-opening study of Hitchcock’s enduring genius and legacy, as the two men explore the technical, narrative and aesthetic questions at the heart of his work. The documentary also includes new observations from such acclaimed filmmakers as Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader. Bob Balaban narrates.
Hitchcock/Truffaut is directed by Kent Jones; written by Kent Jones and Serge Toubiana; co-produced and edited by Rachel Reichman; produced by Charles S. Cohen and Olivier Mille; associate producers, John Kochman and Daniel Battsek.
Director Kent Jones on Hitchcock, Truffaut and the Evolution of Cinema
In Hitchcock/Truffaut, director Kent Jones (My Voyage to Italy, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows) explores the landmark series of interviews between French New Wave director François Truffaut and the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. These conversations were later published and helped position Hitchcock as a film artist and inspired a new generation of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, David Fincher and Wes Anderson—each of whom appear in the film to discuss Hitchcock’s artistry and the impact of the book. Jones, who programs the New York Film Festival, took some time to share his views on Alfred Hitchcock and his secrets as a filmmaker.
HBO: The film offers a rare glimpse into Alfred Hitchcock the artist—one that clashes with his public image as an entertainer. Was that a conscious misdirection on Hitchcock’s part?
Kent Jones: The public persona was a way of protecting himself. John Ford had a public persona. So did Howard Hawks. They didn’t go around waving the flag of artistry in front of the studio heads. If they had, their careers would have been over in milliseconds. And in Hitchcock’s case it was a brilliant idea to turn himself into a personality.
HBO: Toward the end of the film, Hitchcock’s standing has risen in the critical community—yet he still seems troubled about his role as a filmmaker. At one point he sends a telegram to Truffaut saying he wished he could do anything he wanted to do. Couldn’t he have?
Kent Jones: There’s always this illusion that some people can do whatever they want. People say that about Steven Spielberg—there was this question about whether Lincoln would actually be released theatrically, and someone asked how this was possible, can’t Steven Spielberg do whatever he wants? The answer is no, he can’t. Nobody can. Neither can James Cameron or Michael Bay.
HBO: Why do you think Hitchcock doubted himself as an artist?
Kent Jones: An artist that great is going to be examining themselves and their work closely; they’re always going to be calling things into question. Couple that with the fact that he was working in a genre—actually created a genre—that was “disreputable,” and had gone unloved by critics and people who give awards. All those factors come into play. I was very moved when I came across that telegram because it’s a very basic expression of something common to all of us.
HBO: Do you have any thoughts on the third act of Hitchcock’s career? Did he fade away?
Kent Jones: I would think quite to the contrary. Brian De Palma has one assessment in which he says directors do their best work in their forties and fifties, and then in their sixties they start losing energy.
HBO: Some would say that Topaz (1969) is perhaps not his best work.
Kent Jones: We’re talking about a moment when all those guys from that generation were struggling. Hawks, Ford. For me, Hitchcock is the guy who easily came out on top. Topaz is the way it is, for various reasons. He wanted to make a different movie and he couldn’t. So he winded up doing this adaptation of this Leon Uris novel. But right in the middle of Topaz is one of the greatest sequences he ever directed, at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. Frenzy (1972) is a great movie. It’s just a great, great movie. And Family Plot (1976), you can talk about the Disney-ish aspects of it, but the last time I saw it I found it a very rich experience. So I can’t really agree.
HBO: I remember being very impressed by the energy of Frenzy, particularly at that time in his life.
Kent Jones: Frenzy’s an incredible film, and deeply, deeply uncomfortable. And it’s a movie
that remains absolutely shocking, I have to say. That rape-murder scene is almost unbearable to watch.
HBO: Did you have any other films that are particular touchstones for you?
Kent Jones: Over the years I’ve come to love Saboteur (1942) more and more. I have a special love for I Confess (1953). He goes so deep into the emotion of this guy who cannot share what he knows with anyone. The loneliness of Montgomery Clift’s character is really, really powerful.
HBO: Coming from the silent era, Hitchcock had an almost purely visual approach to storytelling. Is it even possible for a filmmaker like that to exist today?
Kent Jones: James Gray brings that up in the film; he’s very hard on himself and says, “We’re not that good.” But really, what you’re talking about is a different orientation. Arnaud Desplechin talks about it as the “lost secret.” Truffaut said the same thing. And it’s true, to a certain extent. Hitchcock thought that cinema didn’t have to evolve the way that it did. But the fact is, it did. So now we have people who are masters of a completely different kind, like Martin Scorsese, or Paul Thomas Anderson.
One of the things I liked about Zootopia was that it wasn’t a reboot or sequel. I enjoyed the story that had many of the best classic Disney elements, but still seemed fresh. The hat tips to the Monorail (above) and Skyway (below) were nice touches. Here are stories, videos and art work that shows the artistic and technical work that went into this movie.
Zootopia is a world where humans don’t exist. It’s a big, crowded metropolis where anthropomorphic animals drive cars, fight crime, eat ice cream and ride trains. Prey and predators of varying shapes and sizes coexist in harmony until their prejudices get in the way.
Judy Hopps, a tiny rabbit, can’t be a cop. The police force is a place for rhinos, wolves, elephants and other bulky animals. Nick Wilde, a quick-witted fox, can’t be trusted. He’s presumed to be running a scam, even when he’s not. In a movie about mammals and their stereotypes, creating a diverse range of species is a necessity. The creators of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest adventure combined months of research with custom-made software to create the verisimilitude of an animal-only habitat.
The team comprising directors, engineers and animators spent about eight months studying animals. They went to San Diego’s Safari Park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and all the way to Kenya to observe their movements and mannerisms. But to make the characters look like their real-world counterparts, they needed an up close and personal look. The crew ended up at a Natural History Museum, where they studied fur under a microscope and even brought in lighting setups to see how the strands reacted to light.
Simulating the texture and density of animal fur is a daunting task for any animation studio. The last time Disney worked on a furry character was in Bolt, eight years ago. While the studio managed to create a soft, white layer of fluffiness on the superhero dog, the same tools wouldn’t work for the 800,000 mammal variants in Zootopia.
To make the animals look realistic, Disney’s trusty team of engineers introduced iGroom, a fur-controlling tool that had never been used before. The software helped shape about 2.5 million hairs on the leading bunny and about the same on the fox. A giraffe in the movie walks around with 9 million hairs, while a gerbil has about 480,000 (even the rodent in the movie beats Elsa’s 400,000 strands in Frozen).
During the research phase, the team paid close attention to the underlayer of animal fur that gives it plushness in real life. But the same detailing couldn’t be recreated on a computer. “It’s not practical for production to do it,” said senior software engineer David Aguilar as he displayed iGroom at a Zootopia presentation in Los Angeles. “We created an imaginary layer with under-coding so the animators could change the thickness and achieve the illusion of having that layer to create the density of fur.” That kind of trickery made it possible for them to create characters like Officer Clawhauser, a chubby cheetah with a massive head of spotted fur on his face.
The software gave the animators a ton of flexibility. They could play around with the fur — brush it, shape it and shade it — to create the stupendous range of animals for the movie. “The ability to iterate quickly makes all the difference,” said Michelle Robinson, character look supervisor. “You can push the fur around and find the form you want.” From the slick pouf on the shrew’s head to the puffy, dirty wool on the sheep, the grooming made it possible for them to stylize the characters with quirky features.
Before this tool, animators had to work with approximation. When creating the silhouettes or posing their creatures they had to predict the way their characters would change with the addition of fur. “We have to wait hours and hours for renders to come back to see how the characters looked,” said Kira Lehtomaki, animation supervisor. “That works for one character but not for Zootopia. Animators are obsessed with posing and silhouette, so if the render changes shape, any discrepancy can ruin the performances.”
To keep the performances intact, the engineers turned to Nitro, a real-time display software that’s been in development since Wreck-It Ralph (2012).The animators were then able to see realistic renders almost instantly to make decisions on the fly. The tool sped up the process, making it possible to keep subtle expressions on the furry faces in the movie.
While the animals were getting ready to inhabit their virtual world, a team of environment CG specialists put together the backdrops that made their lives believable. The modern-world setting in the movie captures the essence of a city designed for animals. When a train pulls up at a crowded stop, tall mammals step off the train through high doors and tiny commuters scurry through little mouse doors. But the Zootopia zone has different districts to suit the peculiar needs of its many species. Tundratown supports polar bears, and Sahara Square is home to camels. While the rainforest isn’t marked by a specific species, the Amazonian density of the vegetation stands out.
Each environment was meticulously crafted on Bonsai, a tree-and-plant-generation tool that was first used for Frozen in 2013. Once the software learned how to make a tree, it regenerated many different variations to create a rainforest with intricately layered foliage.
It takes a powerful tool to create a universe of complex creatures and detailed environments. Disney’s secret animation weapon is the Hyperion rendering system. It’s an in-house software that has changed the way scenes have been simulated in the past couple of years.
What makes the image generator unique is that it traces a ray from the camera as it bounces around objects in a virtual scene before hitting a source of light. This allows the engineers to replicate the natural movement of light to create photorealistic shots. Disney first introduced the renderer with Big Hero 6 (2014). But with Zootopia, the engineers had to add a new fur paradigm to the existing software. So the renderer also followed the rays as they moved through dense animal fur.
“One of the problems before Hyperion was that you had no idea what the lighting in your scene was going to look like,” says Byron Howard, co-director of the movie. “Now, very early on, almost as soon as we have the layout of the scene with a camera set up, we can get an idea of what that scene is going to look like and do intensely complex calculations. It’s made making films at Disney so much easier.”
While I was at CineGear Expo, I met Michael Frediani at the SOC booth and thanked about about his research into Jerry Lewis and told him I would post his article on video assist. I also included an article from the 695 Quarterly about Jim Songer about his development of thru the lens video assist. There is a lot of debate on the topic of who “invented” video assist. Like most technical innovations there is no one single inventor, but many improvements from each contributor. Here is the earlier post about Jerry and video assist.
Jerry Lewis was an influence on Francis Ford Coppola.
Francis Ford Coppola later developed his own “electronic cinema” previsualization called Image and Sound Control.
As well as being an entertainer, “Jerry Lewis was a major innovator in motion pictures,” stated director Francis Ford Coppola. “His invention of putting a video camera next to the motion picture camera so he could play it back and direct himself, has been used for decades by every director in the movie industry. I watched him on the set of The Ladies Man in 1961 and was amazed by his groundbreaking innovation, the Video Assist.”
Video Village is a standard feature on the modern movie set. Producers, writers, clients and others can view the action clustered around a monitor far enough away from the set to stay out of trouble. Their segregation in the video ghetto allows camera people and others to go about their tasks without the distraction of people jockeying for position at the viewfinder. It also helps makeup and wardrobe personnel to see how their work appears on camera and it has become an essential tool for the director and continuity person. Even the sound crew benefits by having extension monitors to see the frame and position the boom microphone. All this is made possible by a video assist system perfected by Jimmie Songer, a Local 695 technician.The advantages of using a video camera as an aid to directing movies were apparent from the very beginning. Several directors began to set up TV cameras adjacent to the film camera so they could see an approximate frame. This became a common practice particularly on commercials where the placement of the product is crucially important. To match the view and perspective, assistants would carefully adjust the aim and image size to closely approximate the view of the film camera.
Of course, that isn’t really a video assist system. The image is useful for the simplest shots but not much help when the camera moves or the lens is adjusted. Every setup change or lens adjustment necessitates a recalibration of video camera position and exposure settings. To be a fully functional system, both the video and film cameras would have to view the scene through the same lens to avoid parallax errors and exposure sensitivities would have to track together. This presents a series of technical challenges.
It was a cowboy from East Texas with little formal education who took on the challenge and worked out all the engineering obstacles. Jimmie Songer grew up on a ranch in Burleston, south of Fort Worth, with a keen interest in how radio and television worked. He and his friend, Don Zuccaro, would purchase crystal radio kits, assemble them and string the antenna wire along his mother’s clothesline.
As a teenager, he took a road trip that would set up the course of his life. He and his friends traveled north as far as Bloomington, Indiana, when funds began to run out. Looking for a job to replenish assets, he applied to the RCA plant on Rogers Street. Ordinarily, his lack of formal training would have been an impediment but RCA was just then experimenting with designs for color sets and there was no established technology to learn. By diagramming from memory the circuit design of a popular RCA model, he demonstrated familiarity with the major components and was hired on the spot to be a runner for the engineers developing the new color system.
His duties at RCA consisted largely of gathering components requested by the engineers and distributing them. Along the way, he asked questions about the function of each element and how it fit into the overall design. He stayed about a year, not long enough to see the model CTC4 they were developing go on sale. That didn’t happen until a couple of years later in 1955. But, when he did move back to Texas, he had a pretty good understanding of how video, and color video in particular, worked.
Graduating from crystal radio sets, he and his friend, Don Zuccaro, made a mail-order purchase of plans for a black & white television. Components were not readily available at that time but Jimmie and Don were ingenious and purchased a war surplus radar set with A&B scopes and cannibalized it for parts. The task of hand-winding the tuning coil was simplified because Fort Worth had only one TV station so there was no need to tune anything other than Channel 5.
With skills honed from building his own set and working at the RCA plant in Indiana, Jimmie Songer quickly found work with appliance shops in the Fort Worth area that were beginning to sell television sets but had no one to set them up, connect antennas and service them when needed. This led to an offer, in 1953, to work setting up KMID, Channel 2, in the Midland Odessa area. After a few years with KMID, he worked awhile in the Odessa area and then returned to Fort Worth but he stayed only a year before setting out for Los Angeles in April 1963.
In Los Angeles, he worked at first for a TV repair shop in Burbank while he tinkered with his own experimental projects. Hearing that Dr. Richard Goldberg, the chief scientist at Technicolor, was looking for people with experience with color, he sought him out and secured a job calibrating the color printers. Dr. Goldberg was also developing a two-perforation pull-down camera for widescreen use. Songer became fascinated by the possibility of using that design at 48 fps to make alternate images, one atop the other, which might be used for 3D and built some experimental rigs to test the idea.
This work with Dr. Goldberg in the early ’60s brought him to the attention of Gordon Sawyer at Samuel Goldwyn Studios. Sawyer wanted him to help with an ongoing project for Stan Freberg involving simultaneous video and film recording. Freberg was using side-by-side cameras to create video records of film commercials. The side-byside positioning produced parallax errors but his commercials were mostly static. Generally, the results were good enough for timing and performance checks. But issues of accurately tracking motion would arise whenever the camera did move and Stan Freberg wanted a better system.
Under general supervision from Gordon Sawyer, the team first addressed the issue by adjusting the position of the video camera. They attached a small Panasonic camera to the mount for an Obie light. This put the video lens exactly in line with the film camera lens and only a couple of inches above it. Left-right parallax was effectively eliminated and the vertical alignment could be adjusted to match the film camera with only minimal keystone effect. By affixing a mirror just above the lens mount at a 45-degree angle and mounting the video camera vertically to shoot into the mirror, they reduced vertical parallax to almost nothing. Jimmie Songer addressed the keystone problem by devising a circuit that slightly adjusted the horizontal scan, applying an opposite keystone effect to neutralize the optical effect that was a consequence of slightly tilting the video camera to match the film camera image. Most of the time, this system worked well but there were still limitations. The video system needed to be recalibrated with every lens change. Even with careful adjustment, use of a separate lens for the video meant that depth of field would be different so the video image would only approximate the film image. Blake Edwards knew Gordon Sawyer and approached the team to design a system suitable for movies with moving cameras and frequent lens changes.
The limitations could only be resolved if the video camera used the very same lens used by the film camera. Accomplishing that would require exact positioning of the video lens and adjusting sensitivity of the system both to obtain sufficient light for exposure and to track with the film exposure. Jimmie Songer set about developing a system that could be built into a Panavision Silent Reflex camera (PSR) that used a pellicle mirror to reflect the image to the viewfinder. They left the image path from the lens to the film completely untouched but introduced a second pellicle mirror to reflect the image from the ground glass to a video camera they built into the camera door. This one design change eliminated many of the limitations of previous systems in one stroke. Since the video used the film camera lens and picked up the exact image seen by the film and the camera operator, issues of parallax and matching depth of field were completely eliminated. There was no need to recalibrate the system with every lens change and the video camera was configured to use the same battery supply as the camera. The introduction of a second pellicle mirror did flip the image but Songer corrected this easily by reversing the wires on the deflection coil. But the issue of having sufficient light for the video image still remained.
In one way, a pellicle reflex system is ideal for video use. Unlike a mirror shutter, the pellicle system delivers an uninterrupted image to the viewfinder so there is no need to coordinate the 30-frame video system with a 24-frame film camera. While there would be more frames in a single second of video, the running times would match and that was all that was important. Furthermore, the video image would be free of the flicker seen in the viewfinder of a mirror shutter camera. However, the pellicle mirror used in the reflex path deflected only about one-third of the light to the viewfinder. That was no problem when filming outside in daylight but there was insufficient light when working interiors.
Jimmie Songer needed to make three refinements to the system to address the exposure issue. First, he replaced the vidicon tube that was normally fitted to the camera with a newly available saticon tube that was more sensitive and also provided 1,600 lines of resolution. That helped but wasn’t enough. He then adjusted the optics so that the image, rather than being spread over the full sensitive area of the tube, was delivered only to the center portion. By concentrating on the image, he obtained more exposure and adjusting the horizontal and vertical gain allowed him to spread out the smaller image to fill the monitor. But, there are limits to how much can be gained by this approach. Even with a high-resolution saticon tube, the image will begin to degrade if magnified too far. There was still not enough light for an exposure but the video system had been pushed to its limits so Songer turned his attention to the film camera.
Recognizing that the ground glass itself absorbed a considerable amount of light, Songer contacted Panavision and asked them to fabricate a replacement imaging glass using fiber optic material. Although the potential of using optical fibers for light transmission had been recognized since the 19th century, the availability of sheets of tightly bundled fiber suitable for optics was a recent development in the 1960s. The fiber optic ground “glass” was the trick that made the system work, allowing the video camera function with the light diverted to the viewfinder.
Jimmie Songer and his assistant used the system, first called “instant replay” but now renamed “video assist” to avoid confusion with sports replay systems, on The Party in 1968 and then Darling Lili in 1970. It worked flawlessly, delivering the exact image of the main camera so Blake Edwards, the Director, could follow the action as it happened. It never held up production; to the contrary, Edwards said that it streamlined production because the certain knowledge of how the take looked freed him from making protection takes.
After Darling Lili, the key figures behind the project formed a company, Video West, to further develop the system. They met with rep representatives of the ASC to draw up a series of specifications for video assist systems. Don Howard was brought in to interface the camera with the playback system and operate it in the field. Harry Flagle, the inventor of Quad-Split viewing technology and one of the Ampex engineers who worked on the development of the Model VR-660 portable two-inch recorder, joined the team soon after.
They next used the system on Soldier Blue, directed by Ralph Nelson, and then Wild Rovers, again with Blake Edwards. It proved so popular with producers that Songer and Don Howard, his assistant who was primarily responsible for operating and cuing the video recorder, scheduled projects months in advance and went from film to film. The work was so tightly booked that they sometimes had to ship the camera directly from one project to the next without a return to the shop.
Jimmie Songer joined Local 695, sponsored by Gordon Sawyer, shortly after Darling Lili and continued as a member until his membership was transferred to Local 776 in 1997. In the course of his career, he obtained seventeen US patents for a variety of innovations in high-definition TV and 3D video imaging.
In 2002, he received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy for his work developing video assist. He lives today on a ranch near Fort Worth but continues to refine the video engineering work that has been his life.
A quote, attributed to Tacitus, claims that success has many fathers while defeat is an orphan. It’s just so with the invention of video assist which is claimed by several people. Jerry Lewis is often cited as the inventor and he certainly incorporated simultaneous video recording in his filming practices very early. He began development work in 1956 and first used a video record and playback system during the filming of The Bellboy in 1960. He used the system to view and evaluate his own performance immediately after each take. But the system he used on The Bellboy was the simplest version; a video camera was lashed just above the main lens and would be adjusted to approximately match the view of the film camera lens with each setup. Later, Jerry Lewis also worked to develop a system that would use a pellicle mirror to view the image through the primary lens.
The assertion that Jerry Lewis “invented” video assist is overstated. The original patent for a video assist system dates to 1947 and subsequent patents in 1954 and 1955 added the refinements of merging optical systems to eliminate parallax and adding a second beamsplitter to permit simultaneous use of video and film viewfinders. The integrated video systems that came into general use in films were the work of many individuals each building on the accomplishments of predecessors. Jimmie Songer’s contributions were many and essential as recognized in 2002 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Glossary for highlighted words
Deflection coil – In a CRT (cathode ray tube), the beam of electrons is aimed by magnetic fields generated by coils of wire surrounding the tube. Adjusting the electrical energy sent to different coils directs the electron stream.
Obie light – A diffuse light mounted very near the camera lens, typically just above the matte box, to provide soft fill on faces in close-ups. Lucien Ballard, ASC developed the light to photograph Merle Oberon after her face was scarred in an auto accident.
Pellicle mirror – A semi-transparent mirror used in optical devices. A pellicle reflects a certain percentage of light and allows the remainder to pass through. In the Panavision PSR camera, a pellicle mirror deflected approximately 30% of light to the viewfinder and passed about 70% to the film plane.
Saticon tube – A saticon tube is a refinement of the vidicon tube design that adds particular chemicals to the photosensitive surface to stabilize the signal.
Vidicon tube – A vidicon is one of the early image capture devices made for television cameras. An image focused on a photoconductive surface produces a charge-density pattern that may be scanned and read by an electron beam.
Panavision showed the new DXL 8K camera. The footage shown was very nice!
The best thing was seeing Vittorio Storaro ASC.
He talked about working with Woody Allen on his new film for Amazon Studios, Cafe Society.
This is Woody’s first digital feature and Vittorio used the Sony F65;
“I had seen that the Sony F65 was capable of recording beautiful images in 4K and 16 bit-colour depth in 1:2, which is my favorite composition,” Storaro said. “So when Woody called me this year asking me to be the cinematographer of his new film with the working title ‘WASP 2015,’ my decision was already made. I convinced him to record the film in digital, so we can begin our journey together in the digital world. It’s time now for the Sony F65!”
He spoke of the Technicolor IB process, light, shadows and color and said that digital makes it too easy.
He stated that a trend that has emerged with the use of digital cameras is that “people want to work faster or show that they can use less light, but they don’t look for the proper light the scenes needs. That isn’t cinematography, that’s recording an image. … I was never happy in any set to just see available light,” said Storaro, who has won Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor. “Even in very important films that take Academy Awards, you can record an image without location lighting. But that’s not necessarily the right light for the character. We have to always move a story forward, not step back.”
He elaborated on his work with Coppola and that he hasn’t used anamorphic lenses for many years. Sorry Mr. Tarantino.
The best and most important part though, was when he got even more philosophical. He mentioned Mozart, the Lumiere brothers, Newton, Caravaggio, architecture, and Plato and the Cave. From his website:
Ever since Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” we are used to seeing Images in a specific space. In Plato’s myth, prisoners are kept in a cave facing an interior wall, while behind them, at the entrance to the cave, there is a lighted fire, with some people with statues and flags passing in front of the fire. At the same time, their shadows are projected onto the interior wall of the cave by fire’s light. The prisoners are looking at the moving shadows in that specific area of the wall. They are watching images as a simulation, a “simulacre” of reality, not reality itself. The myth of Plato is a metaphor for the Cinema.
He believes that film is a collaboration as opposed to the auteur theoryand emphasized the importance of story.
“You need to find the balance of technology and art,” continued Storaro, who was inspiring and thought-provoking in his speech, also raising an argument against the use of the term ‘director of photography’ to define the role of the cinematographer. “That’s a major mistake. There cannot be two directors. … Let’s respect the director,” he asserted, saying that ‘cinematographer’ is the appropriate word, and adding that it’s not interchangeable with photographer. “Cinematography is motion, we need a journey and to arrive at another point. We don’t create a beautiful frame, but a beautiful film. That’s why I say ‘writing with light.'”
Since we are now going through a film usage renaissance, I thought a good historical overview of color film processes was in order. Technicolor and Eastman color color are just two of the many mentioned here (courtesy BFI). Most are now defunct, but of particular interest is tinting, used in The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger.
Do you know your Technicolor from your Kodachrome? The science of colour in film, which will be explored in a second annual event at BFI Southbank in March, has brought us many innovative systems over the past 120 years. Here’s an expert’s guide to 10 of the best.
This is an amended version of an article first published on 14 January 2015.
In early 2015, the BFI hosted Colour in Film, an enthusiastically received symposium held by the Colour Group, an interdisciplinary society bringing together experts in the field of colour. The event highlighted issues of colour film restoration, and how and where these related to the discipline of colour science, furthering the interaction between these two vibrant but thus far largely separated communities.
We are happy to announce that we can now embark on our next step to extend Colour in Film into a regular scholarly event to foster and grow the interaction between the colour film restoration and colour science circles. The international conference Colour in Film will begin on 2 March 2016, 14.00 at BFI Southbank with specially selected colour film screenings contextualised by expert introductions as well as an opening reception. It then continues with all-day presentations on 3 March, 9.00-17.00, at Friends House near London Euston Station.
Many of the colour systems featured in the conference appear in the below list, which we first published to coincide with the first Colour in Film session in 2015. Even within the year since this first conference, trends in film exhibition and restoration have shifted, so we have updated and amended the list below accordingly. Colour in Film is a joint initiative of the Colour Group, the British Film Institute and HTW – University of Applied Sciences, Berlin.
What IS colour? Colour is a sensation, a product of the human mind, as we shall learn in this year’s keynote address by Prof. Andrew Stockman. Yet it can be measured – or rather, derived from measurement – as we learned at the 2015 event and shall be reminded this year by Prof. Mike Pointer. Since the beginning of film and photography, attempts have been made to capture and reproduce colour. And some of these systems are especially beautiful where they do not reach their goal, ‘natural colour’, but rather achieve a heightened sensation of colour and emotion that we still struggle to understand and reproduce in restoration – the main, and vastly interdisciplinary focus of our event.
Such colour systems include:
So called LADs (Laboratory Aim Density charts) with ‘China Girls’ allow assessment of select defined colours as well as of skin tones in these Eastmancolor clippings Credit: U. Ruedel
Often maligned, perhaps in comparison to the ‘Glorious’ Technicolor it replaced, or for the fading of some materials, Eastmancolor and similar colour negative processes are often too easily dismissed, ignoring their revolutionary accomplishments. In the 1950s, they overcame the registration and fringing issues of Technicolor and, in this manner, made colour film ready for the widescreen revolution.
They developed the chemistry pioneered by Kodachrome reversal and Agfacolor negative stocks further by introducing the colour ‘mask’ that is responsible for the typical orange of colour negative films, making printing and copying in colour much more feasible. Under severe threat from digital projection nowadays, modern, analogue colour film still remains the top standard for any large-screen colour moving image experience, especially on the large 70mm film stock, just so gloriously revived by Quentin Tarantino for his The Hateful Eight (2015).
A Colour Box (1935), Dufaycolor reversal colour positive Credit: BFI National Archives. These and other colour treasures were documented by Professor Barbara Flueckiger in a joint project with BFI for her Timeline of Historical Film Colors
With its mosaic of red, green and blue colour areas known as a réseau, Dufaycolor was an additive system, that is, one creating colour in the same manner as, say, the modern red, green and blue pixels of a computer monitor. It’s even tempting to see its mosaic colour pattern, which blends at sufficient viewing distance into the intended colours, as a precursor of the modern colour pixel.
This complex process emerged in 1933, though was soon to become outdated due to more effective subtractive systems such as Gasparcolor, Technicolor, Kodachrome and, eventually, colour negative film. But this was not before making some of the most beautiful British colour films possible, including the famous abstract films by animator Len Lye, such as 1935’s A Colour Box, seen in the above frame grab. Significant progress in the restoration of Dufaycolor has been made within Prof. Barbara Flueckiger’s DIASTOR project, and will be showcased in the 2016 Colour in Film screenings.
Principle of colour separations, starting from an Eastmancolor LAD (digital simulation) Credit: U. Ruedel
It bears repeating that the most stable colour records are those separated into black-and-white film strips, representing the three primary colours, each as a black-and-white master positive or negative. Technicolor produced its negatives on three black-and-white film strips or (for animation) as three successive images on one strip, in each case separately recording and rendering three basic colours. They still hold up breathtakingly, copied onto modern film or remastered to the latest DCP or high-def formats. Gasparcolor used the same approach for its negatives, and to this day, copying colour materials onto three separate silver gelatin, black-and-white images remains the most durable colour record for moving images ever invented.
7. Two-color Technicolor and Two-color Kodachrome
Much like Technicolor’s revolutionary colour system in the 1920s, the earliest Kodachrome (related to the later, better-known reversal process one by name only) used only two primary colours, red and green-blue, with its respective photographic emulsions on two sides of a single film strip. Both systems are somewhat similar in their photographic-chemical approaches, if not in detail, and their limited colour rendition might not accurately represent the scene photographed, but could beautifully render skin tones in a glowing, sometimes nearly marble-like beauty.
Technicolor’s implementation (in two different versions known as Technicolor No. II and No. III) enjoyed quite some success in 1920s cinema, more often than not for select sequences highlighted by their ‘natural’ colour, like the religious scenes in Ben-Hur (1925). Famous features entirely shot in the process include Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1926), preserved at the BFI in its proper colours resembling period book illustrations, and Michael Curtiz’s pioneering early colour horror films, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). For the definitive history of two-color Technicolor, look no further than James Layton’s and David Pierce’s magnum opus published by the George Eastman Museum.
Ship of the Ether (1934) Credit: BFI National Archive. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Admittedly short-lived after its 1933 introduction, but vibrant and pioneering, Gasparcolor was a so-called dye destruction system, requiring extensive exposure. Animation scholar William Moritz described the system by its “perfect hues for animation,” and it was this way it was used by artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and George Pal. For a while it was the only technically serious competitor to Technicolor. For the most recent restoration study, consult HTW graduate Andrea Krämer’s master thesis (in German), available through the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.
Introduced in 1935, the Kodachrome reversal process was the first successful colour system employing what we know today as colour development, using so-called couplers that create the dyes within a film upon photographic development. Available as a reversal material only, it entered the amateur movie market while the cinema market was only slowly moving towards Technicolor.
Most Kodachrome films are vibrant (even a national park, Utah’s Kodachrome Basin, has been named after the system) and quite stable, and thus home or non-theatrical movies shot in the format can provide rare historic colour images such as those of the Second World War or the lives of ordinary people.
Developed in Germany in the 1930s, but tainted by its emergence in the state-controlled cinema of the Nazi era, Agfacolor was the first successful colour negative material, and as such, a major innovation and a technical predecessor of the American Eastman colour negative introduced in the 1950s.
In the post-war era, the material’s typical pastel hues offered a beautiful alternative to America’s more candy-coloured Technicolor and Eastmancolor materials for the national cinemas, say, of Scandinavia or Germany, and its equivalent East German successor Orwocolor (renamed in 1964) has similarly recently been re-appraised, such as in the 2013 Emulsion Matters series at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. One of the most important – and problematic – Agfacolor films is Veit Harlan’s Opfergang (1944). Extracts from the ongoing restoration of the film by Murnaustiftung will for the first time publicly be shown by Prof. Flueckiger during the 2 March Colour in Film screenings.
Opfergang (1944). Excerpts of the new restoration of this Veit Harlan film will be premiered during the 2016 conference, Colour in Film Credit: By courtesy of Murnaustiftung, Wiesbaden. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Die verwitterte Melodie (1943). Orwocolor safety print of this Agfacolor film Credit: U. Ruedel
3. Tinting and toning
Even in the earliest silent movie era, the majority of films were in colour, though colours were subsequently applied to the black-and-white image rather than naturally photographed. Tinting would literally bathe the entire image in colour dyes, resulting in subtle or saturated, vibrant, incredibly transparent colours that often are still impossible to fully match with today’s photographic or digital imaging methods.
Colour in Film offers the unique opportunity to see extracts of German silent films films chemically tinted following the historic processes. These will be screened on 2 March in comparison with modern analogue and digital restorations, presented by Anke Wilkening (Murnaustiftung) and Prof. Ulrich Ruedel (HTW Berlin). We will also be treated to the most recent restoration techniques to best digitally approximate the look of tinting, in Der Märchenwald, ein Schattenspiel (1919), presented by Prof. Flueckiger.
Der Märchenwald, ein Schattenspiel (1919), which will be screened during the 2016 conference, Colour in Film Credit: By courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Der Märchenwald, ein Schattenspiel (1919) Credit: By courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Toning, in contrast, would replace the black-and-white silver image with one equally crisp and defined, but comprised from inorganic pigments such as the well-known sepia brown or Prussian Blue. These chemistries were measured and their palettes will be explored in depth in Prof. Ruedel’s 3 March presentation.
Tinting and toning could also be evocatively combined, yielding two-colour, yet artificial images of particular beauty, such as in the brand-new restoration of Fritz Lang’s melancholic masterpiece Destiny (1921), freshly restored by Murnaustiftung and to be explored by Anke Wilkening in depth in her 3 March talk.
Dänische Landschaften [Danish Landscapes] (1912) Credit: Joye Collection, BFI National Archive. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Essentially a silent film technique, tinting would also occasionally be applied in the sound era, perhaps most recently in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) to suggest the heat experienced on the Earth as it drifts to the sun. For our recent sci-fi season, the film was digitally restored by the BFI, drawing on this rare original tinted print (note the typical image squeeze, meant to be stretched to CinemaScope dimensions on the screen) as a colour guide.
Tinted frame for The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) Credit: BFI National Archive
Adapting an approach well known for, say, photographic postcards from the 19th century (but dating back even to prehistoric cave paintings), hand and stencil colours were made from solutions of synthetic dyes applied to films shot on black-and-white materials, much like in tinting but selectively, thus to create the first ‘colour’ films.
The Cascades of the Houyoux (Province of Liège, Belgium) (1911) Credit: Joye Collection, BFI National Archive. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
The version done frame by frame, by hand, copy per copy, would be the most laborious, but soon French production company Pathé would establish its semi-automated stencil colour system, where, once stencils were cut for every colour for a given film, they could more easily be brushed onto numerous copies, and benefit from very concise outlines. Artificial but also incredibly beautiful, whether lavishly applied or selectively, naturalistically or fantastically, these colours still exert their magic spell on an audience after more than a century.
In the year of the 100th anniversary of the company that developed it through the years (‘Glorious Technicolor’ is actually the fourth Technicolor system, with two-color Technicolor systems No. 2 and 3 its most important predecessors, see above), Hollywood’s first enduring colour system easily makes the number one spot on this list. With prints that are essentially made in a lithographic, ‘dye transfer’ process, its vibrancy is reminiscent of the earlier, ‘unnatural’ applied dye colours, yet it was the first system to offer full ‘natural’ colour photographic moving images.
The Red Shoes (1948) Credit: BFI National Archives. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Hollywood classics like Gone with the Wind (1939) are unthinkable without the systems, but there were also, in their aesthetics, distinctly European and British implementations of the system, such as The Red Shoes (1948). Even after the bulky Technicolor camera had to succumb to the use of Eastman colour negatives in conventional film cameras, Technicolor printing remained the preferred way to ensure vibrant prints even from Eastman negatives, well into the 1970s, for everything from spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror. This may be the subject of a future Colour in Film edition.
Want to know more? Consult the Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Timeline of Historical Film Colours
The BFI National Archive’s vaults are home to a host of treasures reflecting the international history of film colour, including British contributions ranging from early colour systems such as Friese-Greene to the unique aesthetics achieved with American Technicolor by cinematographers such as Jack Cardiff.
In film restoration, rendering historical colours faithfully in modern photographic or digital copies remains a substantial challenge. Improvements have been made both within the analogue realm and by the extended possibilities digital restoration offers. Still, many existing copies only to a limited extent reflect original colour appearance, and even in brand-new restorations, the colours of originals can turn out to be beyond the range of modern films or digital colour spaces. Thus, ‘passive’ conservation to protect original materials for the future in state-of-the-art film store facilities remains of the highest priority, but so does further research and documentation on the colours of 20th-century motion pictures towards improved understanding and more faithful restoration.
The BFI has always been engaged with these problems, ranging from issues related to the very earliest colour films to the authentic colour rendering in major BFI restoration projects, with scientific research and outreach informing such endeavours. Recognising the quantum leap towards documentation of historical colour systems facilitated with her Timeline of Historical Film Colors, the BFI’s conservation managers and curators were thus delighted to welcome the University of Zurich’s Professor Barbara Flueckiger to the J. Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre in March 2014. In a joint project and with help from the conservation and collection teams, various colour systems evidenced in the rich collections were to be visually documented for dissemination within the Timeline website.
During two days on site, Professor Flueckiger thus captured numerous high-quality, colour-calibrated digital images of a carefully selected, yet extensive number of historic colour prints, often on volatile nitrate stock, from the BFI’s vaults. The high-quality images thus generated now form part of the BFI’s Collections and Information Database and are available both to specialists and the public through the galleries in the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.