Ten years ago, director Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator won five Academy Awards, including an Oscar for cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC. In many ways, the film was a unique homage to Technicolor’s glorious 2-color and 3-strip dye-transfer processes from the 1920s and the period from 1935 through the early 1950s — accomplished through a close collaboration of cinematography, visual effects, production, costume and makeup design; along with a unique creative nexus of photo-chemical and digital finishing techniques supplied by Technicolor’s LA-based laboratory and digital color-scientists.
Led by Mr. Scorsese and his protean editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, ACE, the film is emblematic of the fundamental challenge Technicolor has faced (and successfully addressed) for nearly its whole century-long history: how to facilitate the creative wishes of our clients within certain well-defined technical parameters. It’s almost axiomatic that filmmakers want to push the creative envelope, challenging themselves and their creative teams to find new approaches to facilitate their narrative storytelling. Throughout Technicolor history, this has been the case; underscoring the company’s ability to successfully reinvent itself. Using contemporary color-science, The Aviator recreates a long-lost color palette – one directly informed by the Technicolor of the ‘20s.
In the 1920s, one of the company’s most celebrated customers was actor-producer Douglas Fairbanks. His 1926 hit, The Black Pirate, was an early example of pushing the technical and creative boundaries. In a new article authored by Rutgers University film scholar John Belton, the backstory of the creation of the look of The Black Pirate is presented – and can be found here:
Fairbanks worked with Technicolor for a full six months before the start of principal photography, developing his ideas with the help of new laboratory processes to create his desired look: “a more limited palette [by] using primarily brown and green shades and avoiding the brilliant greens or reds that were possible…” with early 2-color Technicolor. The dilution of colors created something of an internal debate within Technicolor, between the company’s brilliant camera engineer Joseph Arthur Ball, and Dr. Leonard T. Troland, the company’s equally brilliant chief engineer. The solution Ball and the color-science team in Hollywood arrived at (to attain the desired look) required the introduction of “blackened dyes” into the printing process. And in the process, Technicolor experimented with an entirely new printing solution, called “imbibition” – that which became the bedrock of Technicolor release printing for the next half century. More importantly, the company realized that its future was contingent upon the own ability to successfully address the changing and very specific needs of its clients.
Every generation of filmmaking witnesses the emergence of unique individuals who push the edges of the envelope, those on whom posterity shines its light on as having achieved the high watermark of cinema.
Just over 22 years after the release of The Black Pirate, a different group of remarkable filmmakers, working from London, created a masterwork of modern cinema, The Red Shoes; in this case driven by director Michael Powell and his cinematographer Jack Cardiff, along with Powell’s set and costume designer, Hein Heckroth, and an incredible group of actors and dancers. Powell, in his seminal autobiography, Million Dollar Movie, details his basic challenge to all involved in the production – to throw out the existing playbook and come up with something entirely new and fresh. Powell’s intent was made abundantly clear when he told everyone, “The war’s over, boys – shoot the works.”
Which brings us back to Mr. Scorsese and a plate of blue peas, from a key scene in his Howard Hughes drama, The Aviator. The scene reveals an early glimpse of the onset of Hughes’ dementia, over a dinner one night with actress Jean Harlow. The blue peas “look” was just a small example of the kind of creative innovations the company was able to provide Mr. Scorsese and his team… and one that was also very emblematic of Technicolor’s creative commitment.