Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s recent Academy Award, for his stunning work on director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, brings to mind the role of camera movement as a major attribute of great filmmaking. For the second year in a row, Lubezki won the Oscar, having earlier brought home an Academy Award for his equally stunning camera work on Gravity. Both films shared the common denominator of seamless flowing cinematography…something Technicolor’s color-finishing team shared in, in both cases, having delivered their own measure of innovations to the films.
The “choreography” of the motion picture camera has been a constant challenge and attribute of great filmmaking since the earliest days of motion picture production. And as it relates to Technicolor history, it’s been something core to the company’s development, certainly since the introduction of sound in 1927, if not before. While the introduction of sound portended great things for filmmaking, it brought with it an equal measure of challenges – not the least of which was baffling the sound of the camera motors grinding away in close proximity to the film’s performers.
From that period in the late 1920s when producers, directors, and the Hollywood power brokers saw great opportunity by way of the introduction of the musical into their slate of projects, the introduction of sound coincided with the further adoption of Technicolor’s two-color process. Filmmakers like producer Samuel Goldwyn, actor-singer Eddie Cantor, and choreographer-director Busby Berkeley all integrated color into their musical productions.
But as quickly as the musical genre was introduced, it spiked and then almost disappeared. Upon reviewing those early color musicals, it’s quite apparent that most of those productions couldn’t incorporate flowing camera movement, almost defaulting to a “locked-off” camera that captured a proscenium stage with actors surrounded by dancers that more closely resembled a Las Vegas-style lounge presentation. This was a logical outgrowth of vaudeville, combined with ready-made Broadway-style narratives from an accessible pool of stories and talent (from the New York theatre, imported to Hollywood) but doing virtually nothing to advance the development of narrative storytelling.
It wouldn’t be until the mid-1940s that musicals entered the cinematic pantheon, joining those films that embraced production innovations – matched by the richer more fully realized Technicolor 3-strip IB dye-transfer release printing that had revolutionized the industry’s use of a more nuanced palette of color. At first this process was facilitated by the introduction of more capable camera rigs and dollies – that freed the filmmakers and their narratives from the earlier era of stage-bound entertainments. Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger brought together dance, movement, color, and deep psychological narrative with their post-war classic, The Red Shoes. The American industry followed suit, which led to a remarkable decade of musicals and dance films, evolving from those early Fred Astaire black and white musicals in the late 1930s to actor-filmmaker Gene Kelly’s masterworks, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, among others. Kelly, one of the greatest dancers in motion picture history, directed and choreographed those films signature dance sequences – as if the camera was really his dance partner.
The Technicolor camera, a beast to move given its weight and size when fully rigged for sound, presented its own set of restrictions of mobility – ironically until the introduction of Kodak’s first 35mm color movie negative stock (Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff called the Technicolor camera & rig “the enchanted cottage”).
After 1954, when the original Technicolor 3-strip camera was retired – or modified for Vista Vision – “wide-screen” presentations, dance films and musicals overall benefited greatly from smaller, lighter-weight cameras introduced in the post-war period that could still serve as the basis for Technicolor dye-transfer release prints. And as lighter weight, more mobile cameras appeared, a whole new generation of filmmakers further embraced dance and camera choreography into their narrative palettes. One only has to think of director Robert Wise’s West Side Story and the brilliant use of color married to incredible camera choreography to understand the full potential of the filmmaking process.