Nothing matches the holiness and fascination of accurate and intricate detail.
-Stephen Jay Gould
Perhaps all understanding begins in reminiscence.
I watched Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952; shot by George Barnes, with Technicolor equipment) at the age of six, some ten or twelve times on successive Saturday afternoons, in the company of an elderly babysitter who must eventually have thought I was crazy. What I needed to see over and over—and still find myself needing to see over and over today as I watch this masterpiece—was the haunting iridescent colour of the train wreck scene, set in the wilds of the countryside at night: the sparks, the flashing lights, the escaping beasts, the gay costumes of the afflicted circus personnel, the peculiarly magnificent visceral colours of mangled painted steel by starlight.
I can understand now—what I could never have imagined then—that a strange Romantic yearning for a long-gone agrarian past, for the predictable if demanding relations of bucolic life, for a world still innocently hungered for by those who looked around to see its forms and colours, charged my vision of Greatest Show, though I could never explain precisely how this could be the case. The colour drew me out, and back, into a kind of dream memory. Therefore, it is also necessary to acknowledge that Technicolor, this supreme technology for rendering colour in motion pictures, never did promise, nor ever did deliver, what anybody could call an accurate picture of our colourful world.
Conceived around 1915, and then developed rigorously through the 1930s and 1940s – Scott Higgins claims that “the basic methods for handling colour and assigning it functions – i.e., the terms under which filmmakers engaged with three-colour – were set in place during the 1930s” (1) – and coming to its peak of usage between 1945 and 1955, Technicolor exaggerated, warped, intensified, indeed romanticized everything it showed. Soon enough, I was goggling the borscht red hair of the carrot-topped puppet, as he jabbered away at impetuous Leslie Caron in Lili (1953; shot by Robert Planck),
and swooning at copper-skinned Abraham Sofaer as he marched around Fiji in His Majesty O’Keefe (1954; shot by Otto Heller).
The paralysing spangly colours of Dan Dailey, Ethel Merman, Mitzi Gaylor, Donald O’Connor, Johnnie Ray, and Marilyn Monroe stepping out onto the stage of the Palladium in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954; shot by Leon Shamroy) worked on me, too, and came almost to the level of a Technicolor dye transfer extravaganza,
except that in this case the colour was by De Luxe, which was on the verge in 1953 of setting up a dye transfer facility of its own but decided against it (2). Yet as a child, one knew none of these “technical” details, thinking instead only of that magical thing, that all-embracing epithet, “Technicolor,” at once a label and a formula and a password that all pointed to an overwhelming feast. “Technicolor” as one imagined it, further, was an indicator of, and was responsible for, every smashing colour moment one saw, because one thought of “Technicolor” as being the colour of the screen (notwithstanding that other processes existed). And it was all a waking dream, which is to say, a domain that both existed and did not exist, that affected me intimately yet worked from an incalculable distance.
Technicolor tended to offer the intensely saturated, yet also slightly unreflective, and thus seductive, colour that we can see in what photographers call “the magic hour,” that period before sunset on a clear day, when every hue is cast with a little red and the contrast between hues appears to heighten, with the effect that objects stand out from one another with augmented crispness and vitality. If not always its ruddiness, yet Technicolor did systematically manage to capture the colour contrast and powerful saturation, the vivid blacks, of this aching light. In British Technicolor films, printed at the London laboratory using iron-rich water from the Thames, one very often does see a slight reddish cast, a certain metallic flamboyance and sharp shimmer: The Thief of Bagdad (1940; shot by Georges Périnal with Robert Krasker, Henty Henty-Creer, and Cliff Shirpser), Jungle Book (1942; shot by Lee Garmes and W. Howard Greene),
A Matter of Life and Death (US title, Stairway to Hevean, 1946; shot by Jack Cardiff),
Black Narcissus (1947; shot by Jack Cardiff),
The Red Shoes (1948; shot by Jack Cardiff) :
so that their diegeses appear to unfold in a kind of mythical, yet also burnished sunset of the imagination. In Thief, just for one example, the amethyst purples of the receding hills of Bagdad invoke a virtual mist of sweet desire and intimation;
and the city of Basra is all a garden of pinks, the perfectly decadent province of a childish ruler.
Some of the films I have mentioned here, along with The Drum (1938; shot by Osmond Borradaile and Georges Périnal), Gone with the Wind (1939; shot by Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944; shot by George Folsey) ,
Incendiary Blonde (1945; shot by Ray Rennahan), The Pirate (1948; shot by Harry Stradling), An American in Paris (1951; shot by Alfred Gilks and John Alton), Rancho Notorious (1952; shot by Hal Mohr), Shane (1953; shot by Loyal Griggs), The Band Wagon (1953; shot by Harry Jackson),
The Robe (1953; shot by Leon Shamroy), Botany Bay (1953; shot by John F. Seitz), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954; shot by Milton Krasner), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953; shot by Edward Cronjager), and legions more, beginning with Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp in 1935 (shot by Ray Rennahan),
were made from start to finish through Technicolor’s patented three-strip process, “the best colour that’s ever been done,” according to Gene Kelly (3) and “a different kind of process,” as Ray Bolger put it, “which is a whole story in itself, a technical story” (4).
In Technicolor three-strip, a scene is recorded simultaneously on three rolls of special black-and-white film, all loaded (two of them sandwiched together in bi-pack) into a single, rather bulky, Technicolor camera that is equipped with a prism and filter system for dividing the incoming light into its red, green, and blue components. Viewfinding on this camera was through a supplementary apparatus, not in a conventional “through-the-lens” operation, and so, as Barry Salt observes, one might well have seen “less precisely composed images in Technicolor when compared with the best black and white photography of the ‘thirties’ and ‘forties’ (5). In Technicolor three-strip work, once the three “colour records” are developed (each evidencing the amount and distribution of its primary in the photographed scene), they are used for contact printing three corresponding “colour matrices,” each of which is a kind of “hard” record since it is constituted by a strip of film stock coated with a special impressionable emulsion in which the spots of highest exposure (most intense colour) are thickest. After the emulsion has hardened, each matrix operates as a form of “stamp,” and after they are loaded with dye (cyan dye for the red record; magenta dye for the green; yellow dye for the blue: the greatest amount of dye saturating the thickest parts of the gelatin coating) they can be rolled under pressure against blank film stock, one after the other, to produce what is called an “imbibition,” or dye-transfer, print. The dye is imbibed, or drunk up, by the stock. The colour print that results from this “three-strip” Technicolor process (various two-strip processes had been tried before 1935) has very fine grain, beautifully saturated colour rendition, sharp “black” blacks (produced through the use of a fourth “key” image of black silver created beforehand photographically by printing from (typically) the green negative (6)), excellent contrast, and distortion-free images, since the wet gate process used for dyeing the film stock was under constant monitoring by laboratory personnel who could check for dust and other possible flaws. To produce the initial colour records, however, it was necessary to use the immense Technicolor camera available only from the Technicolor company –
When a studio wanted to make a colour film, Technicolor supplied the cameras, a Colour Director, and colour consultants who were placed on the studio’s payroll.. . . Technicolor cameras were scheduled months, sometimes years, in advance. Without an available camera, there could be no movie, so studios reserved cameras long before projects were ready to face them.. . .
[. . .]
In the thirties, Technicolor was unwilling to allow its cameras out of its hands. “We would bring the cameras to the studios at 7:30 a.m.,” says Henry Imus, a colour technician (equivalent to a second cameraman) on The Wizard of Oz. “We would shoot H&D tests and density tests and be ready for photography by 8.” After work, Imus would take the cameras to the Technicolor plant where each night every camera was taken apart and lubricated and its plates and lenses cleaned. (7) .
-and to load it with the Kodak black-and-white recording film produced especially for usage in this process. The camera, a huge affair, was distinctively hard to move around – it weighed seventy-seven pounds and was often encased in a two by three–foot blimp (8); and exposures required substantial illumination, with the result that working conditions on set were less than ideal for performers and technicians alike. Bolger commented on The Wizard of Oz, for example, that “it was one of the most difficult jobs I’ve ever done . . . it was just physical work, and under very trying circumstances . . . we were using a thousand foot candlepower with hot light, and chewing up the oxygen in the studio” (9). The camera, further, needed special lenses, which began at 35mm and went up to 140mm, so that until the 1940s, “there was no wide-angle or very long focal length lenses for Technicolor filming (10). Three-strip Technicolor prior to 1955, then, and especially in the 1950s, was an expensive and cumbersome approach to making colour films, which at once increased the labor and cost of production—Technicolor demanded a minimum print run of one thousand; as well as input in the design of sets, costumes, and mise-en-scene and in overseeing every aspect of the handling of the delicate equipment–and made possible a thoroughly stunning, virtually hyperreal, viewing experience. Not only were the films indelible for audiences, who would carry sharp memories of the pictures far into the future, but because the matrices originated from comparatively stable black-and-white stock it was usually possible to strike new ones after each run of a few hundred prints, and even years later: thus one could get new imbibition prints that looked almost exactly as good as the original ones had (more on this below). But Technicolor’s three-strip process could not last forever. In 1955, after the production of The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, Invitation to the Dance, The Far Country, and forty-six other films, the Eastman Kodak company ceased production (and thus supply) of their black-and-white recording film and Technicolor put their three-strip camera into mothballs.
It was eight years later when Michelangelo Antonioni brought himself to make a colour film, this after an earnest and eventually celebrated career making films in black and white with such titles as L’aventurra (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962). His Il deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964) opened a whole new kind of process to him, one in which his coloured dreams could be realized through the most fluid responsiveness of a technical process to a filmmaker’s creative manipulations. “Colour has, in modern life, a significance and a function that it had not in the past,” Antonioni writes, “I’ve tried to use colours that would satisfy a particular taste of mine” (11). He plunged into the exercise, often aggressively addressing and recalibrating the colours of the world to suit his conceptual needs and even—should his viewers have failed to grasp his directness—including a character who openly wonders in one scene which colours she might use to paint the interior of a boutique she plans to open. In this way, he bluntly invokes the idea of making a space one’s own through recolouration, and draws our eye to the many instances here, and in his subsequent colour films, where he changes the profilmic world because for him its colours are “wrong.” One Italian director rhapsodized that Red Desert was the first color film he had ever seen, because Antonioni had found a new method of manipulating colour. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther cooed about the colour. Noting a pale-blue shack and the ships passing in the gray-white mist, he wrote, “The director has abandoned his customary black-and-white for the advantages of Technicolor . . . he creates a haunting conception of the vaporous nature of the lives of the lonely, isolated people who grope so barrenly and pitifully for—call it love” (12):
but in writing this way, by “Technicolor” Crowther meant only what we had all meant in those early days of film critique, that is, “motion picture colour” in general; in fact he is praising the Technicolor, but likely without knowing it, and certainly without a readership equipped to appreciate the technical marvels of this film as such. Jeanne Moli reports that Antonioni claimed shooting in colour “changed his camera technique.” And when in 1990 the film was reprinted and re-released for the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Pacific Film Archive noted the culminating “yellow smoke trailing to the sky” as evidence that “its very beauty is hewn from an environmental apocalypse”(13).
But: without the Technicolor three-strip camera and the Kodak black-and-white recording film designed to be run through it, equipment and materials that were discontinued after the mid-1950s; thus, without three black-and-white colour records to start from; how could the Technicolor imbibition process have been employed on The Red Desert (or any other film)?
The answer is that there was a second way to obtain the three matrices Technicolor needed to work from. The camera could be loaded with a stock that since the mid-1950s was increasingly in use, Kodak 5247 colour negative film. This film is coated with an emulsion that has embedded within it chemical dye couplers that react differentially to red, green, and blue light and are chemically transformed by exposure to this light. 5247 recorded colour directly on the negative. Further, as only one roll of film needed to pass through the camera, the camera could be distinctively smaller, thus easier to work with. Still, however, imbibition matrices could be struck from this negative, through colour separation involving filtering in the optical printer and a new panchromatic matrix stock from Kodak (14), and this is essentially what Technicolor Roma did for Antonioni on The Red Desert. The black-and-white colour records were simply bypassed in the process, along with the gigantic camera that made them.
The colour of The Red Desert, even more than being revolutionary, was exciting and in many respects overwhelming.
Even as astute a cinephile as Alfred Hitchcock found the colour techniques profoundly stunning, even inexplicable, but unlike Crowther, he knew exactly what he was loving to look at. Peggy Robertson, his assistant, reports that “Red Desert was the first time that he’d seen white on white with no shadows at all, looking beautiful” (15).
He had her write to Giulio Ascarelli of Universal Films in Rome early in April 1965:
“We have just screened Il deserto Rosso, would you please let us know if Technicolor desaturated the film [one could accomplish this, for example, by pre-flashing the film before shooting—MP]. Also we would like any information that you can get regarding types of filters used, etc. One of the credits on this picture reads: “I colori ‘TINTAL’ sono stati forniti dal COLORIFICIO ITALIANO MAX MEYER” I think the translation of this credit is: “The colors ‘TINTAL’ were provided by MAX MEYER ITALIAN COLOR INDUSTRY” What exactly is “TINTAL”? Did the MAX MEYER Company supply the prints for the sets or did they work in conjunction with Mr. Antonioni and Mr. [Carlo] di Palma to design the colors of the sets, or what? (16)
To which Ascarelli immediately replied:
Technicolor did not actually desaturate the film but made a great number of matrices to obtain the effects requested by Antonioni. Antonioni’s aim was to have a dominant grey colour, or should I say colours as soft as possible with the dominating grey tone. I understand that in shooting Antonioni avoided bright colours as much as possible and actually went as far as painting a street in order to get the desired colour effect.
Naturally Technicolor worked very closely with Antonioni. In the printing were not used any special effects or devices. MAX MEYER is a colour manufacturer in Italy. TINTAL is the trade-mark name of a washable colour used particularly for painting walls and it is similar to “Ducotone”. MAX MEYER Company supplied to Antonioni such kind of colours to obtain in filming the effects he wanted. (17)
The Tintal colours were durable but washable tints used by art director Piero Poletto at Antonioni’s direction for painting walls, streets, even a fruit vendor’s fruit, a black house in a swamp, and other objects and surfaces to be photographed for the film. The colours had to be washable so that after a day’s work, the location could be restored to its original colours. Ascarelli, by the way, is clearly wrong in his supposition that Antonioni utterly eschewed bright colours; occasionally, as in the factory and on the oil rig, he rather wallowed in playing with them.
As to the multiple matrices, Ascarelli is informing Robertson that Technicolor Rome went to extraordinary troubles to get the exact matrices that, when dyed, would make for the print Antonioni needed
– extraordinary troubles, given that the antecedents of the matrices were negatives with very “strange” colour values: very fruity or almost completely washed out flesh tones,
chartreuse pollution in gray water,
a composition with natural and industrial colour together,
and so on. The Technicolor process generally allowed for extremely fine adjustment of matrices and thus consummate control of exposure, contrast, and saturation. If Antonioni needed Technicolor Roma to make numerous stabs at striking the matrices, so be it – the process could handle that. Ascarelli’s comment that no special effects or devices were used indicates that once the correct matrices had been struck, the normal Technicolor three-strip process was employed for printing, and that the three matrices themselves – he calls them “multiple” only because so many attempts had to be made to make them because many of the attempts were unsatisfactory (to Antonioni) in the ultimate results they gave – were the standard sort that Technicolor always made. Important here is not so much that Antonioni might have demanded custom treatment from this laboratory as that this laboratory was technically and straightforwardly able to provide its clients with treatment of this sort, because of the process that was used there.
Given the significant range of controls in the dye-transfer process, and since there was great flexibility in the way matrices could be handled scene by scene, it was possible for Antonioni, using the Technicolor Roma labs, to get both highly saturated images such as those in the hut by the wharf
and scenes with much more delicate colour, such as those on the fabular island
in the sequence that turns the story. Worth noting, too, is this: when the lab struck matrices from Antonioni’s Eastmancolor negative for this film, it would have been probable that at the same time a 35 mm colour interpositive would have been made, from which could be issued a set of 35 mm black-and-white fine-grain positive separations – green, red, and blue records (16); these would be stored for excellent long-term protection. Interestingly, although such black-and-white records tend to have an extremely long life span, this fact alone was not enough to guarantee their utility in the manufacture of a crisp new Technicolor print for the 1990 re-release. As they languish in storage, black-and-white separations experience differential shrinkage over time, so that when they are recombined at a later date one might see fringing in the print. By “recombining and filtering them in an optical manner” (18), the lab would have made a 35 mm colour internegative from the positive separations, and from this a new colour positive print: a positive print, note, rather than a dye-transfer print, since by 1990 the dye-transfer imbibition process was itself no longer available and new matrices could not have been made. The aesthetics of film never cease their loving bondage to technology and technical possibility; and in film as in other industrial practices under capitalism, technological possibility is the bride of profit.
(For making colour prints of older films today – for example, the DVDs or blu-ray transfers so many of us take delight in using – the original camera negative and various interpositive and black-and-white colour records are all scanned into a computer on a shot-by-shot basis; then a new colour internegative and a high-definition master are outputted (19). The DVD of Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon (1954) and that of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) are each staggeringly beautiful examples of the kind of exceptional quality possible through these techniques.)
There were other advantages to be obtained from the Technicolor lab, one of which was first-generation fades and dissolves. When one scene fades or dissolves into another in a motion picture, the transformation is produced in the laboratory, not on the set. For doing fades and dissolves, Technicolor used a process of A- and B-rolling: that is, it employed two identical versions of the colour record and alternated between them shot by shot in creating the matrices, so that the fades and dissolves could be embedded in the matrices directly as they were produced. In the printed film, this meant fades and dissolves that were not copies (as in conventional optical printing), very crisp and grain free (20). Further, the Technicolor machinery had a built-in wet gate process, which meant that as final prints were made, dust, scratches, and cinch marks were avoided (87-88). If there were some (principally economical) drawbacks to using Technicolor, still the Technicolor print, in its final form, was the cream of the cream of Hollywood cinematic colour in the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. As Haines put it, “No other multihued process was able to match the ultrasharp appearance, vibrant colour or grain free image” of Technicolor(21).
If with The Red Desert Antonioni and Technicolor achieved real potency with colour abstraction, strange and beautiful rhythms in poetic modulation, and new harmonies in composition, the capacity he developed for fluid narration wedded to the posture and manipulation of colour became decisive soon later, in the trilogy of English-language films he made on contract to Carlo Ponti, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (1975). To say that colour in these three films is important is to grotesquely understate: they contain some of the most potent and most evocative colour in the history of filmmaking, yet colour that is consistently used by the filmmaker in a poetic and very finely nuanced way. In Blow-Up, when the pretty young owner of an antique shop (Susan Broderick) confesses that she would like to move away and “try something different, get off somewhere . . . to Nepal,” she is posed so that we can see that her eyes are glaucque, that her sweater is mulberry gray and her cheeks florid, as one would find on a girl in a Boucher.
In the Mojave Desert sequences of Zabriskie Point, we note the soft, ancient colours of the American west.
In The Passenger, a young woman suddenly appears in a robe of blazing saffron, a flesh more exciting than flesh.
Antonioni’s treatment of colour is unremittingly fresh, unanticipated. Wittgenstein asked this charming little question – “A man may sing a song with expression and without expression. Then why not leave out the song – could you have the expression then?” (22) – which also points in the direction of Antonioni’s attitude to colour, a commitment to expression inseparable from the song. He does not borrow from conventions when he colours, he seeks and finds the source of his desire. The colour effects we see in Antonioni’s films are often abstract, in the sense that they are meant to approach and transform the viewer without specific practical reference to the objects in which they inhere. An appreciation of Antonioni’s colour films requires that the viewer really let colour work, and this is ultimately a commitment that transcends rationality.
While many who study and write about film attribute the colour effects visible in a print to the creative input of the director alone, it is important to keep in mind that prints of motion pictures are struck neither by the director nor by producer but by the distributor, whose problem it is to obtain the copies necessary for exhibition. Prior to 1955, a decision about colour printing was implicit in the actual shooting of films, since a commitment to the Technicolor company for their services involved a minimal print order through them as well as constraining arrangements for their consultation on set and their rights to perform daily maintenance on the camera equipment. From Technicolor matrices, nothing but a Technicolor dye-transfer print could be made. But after the bulky Technicolor camera and the Kodak black-and-white recording film that the three-strip process required both became unavailable, and producers were shooting their films on Eastmancolor negative, there was actually a radical choice available at the printing stage. And once the producer had turned over his canned negative – hopefully, for an artist like Antonioni, a negative the filmmaker felt was wholly satisfactory – the choice of laboratory, absolutely critical in terms of the prints that would finally emerge, was made by someone with financial, not aesthetic, experience and values.
Beside being used to strike Technicolor matrices, as I discussed above, Eastmancolor negatives from 5247 could be contact-printed against an Eastmancolor positive stock 5381 to make a final “positive” print. This is, indeed, the prototypical procedure for printing out Eastmancolor negative. In the process of Eastmancolor contact printing, the negative and print stock were run sandwiched against one another, “light was exposed through the emulsion of the negative onto the emulsion of the print stock, and the latter was developed, fixed and washed into a colour positive image” (23). Colour produced this way, exciting as it was to look at initially, was very problematic. As with the negative, there were also dye couplers in the positive print, and these had a tendency to fade – at differential rates. Over time, therefore, Eastmancolor prints, efficient as they were to strike, actually lost their colour. (In the late 1970s, Martin Scorsese led a protest that eventually moved Eastman Kodak to manufacture colour negative stocks with stronger dye couplers, particularly for cyan (24).) Projector wear on Eastmancolor positive prints did not help the dismal situation, either, with the result that even before the end of a print’s booking in a theater there was sometimes noticeable degradation of the colour.
Images from Eastmancolor contact-printing – the straight Eastmancolor positive print – could not, writes Haines, replicate “the vibrant, saturated primary colours of a Technicolor print on Eastmancolor positive stock”(25) (virtually all the actual stocks used at all the labs, and certainly by Technicolor, came from Eastman Kodak). Further, “the ‘pure’ blacks of a dye transfer print that gave them their rich contrast and grain free appearance were . . . absent in positive prints. Eastmancolor had weaker contrast and transparent blacks, which made grain more apparent in dark scenes that used low lighting” (26). If Eastmancolor positives were less than magnificent by comparison with Technicolor prints, Eastmancolor negatives themselves were admittedly much better to start with than the Technicolor black-and-white records, since they had a much finer grain structure, this even after a change in the black-and-white film used by Technicolor (after the 1930s) in which a tinted filtering substance was laid across each of the three rolls in order to help “generate a better record” (27). By the mid-1950s, using Eastmancolor negative in the camera and then striking colour separation matrices from it would permit the fine-grain structure of the image as obtained from Eastmancolor negative and also extensive control of saturation and contrast -thus a print that would not fade- because of imbibition printing. Although in the 1960s and 1970s Technicolor suffered financial stress, and stopped imbibition printing around 1975, it was still just possible as the three Antonioni-Ponti collaborations went off for printing that imbibition prints might have been made from the Eastmancolor negatives.
But the laboratory work on Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point, and The Passenger – films of great philosophical profundity that were built upon some of the most stunning and evocative colour cinematography ever accomplished, and all of which were shot on Eastmancolor negative – was done not at Technicolor but at Metrocolor, the Eastmancolor lab on the lot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (The company changed the name from “MGM Laboratories,” which had used Ansco negative and positive stocks, when it switched to Kodak after the production of Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life in 1956 (28).) Finally, it was with MGM, not with Antonioni, that Ponti had struck his distribution agreements, and it therefore fell to MGM, not to Ponti or Antonioni (or to Harrison Starr, the line producer of Zabriskie Point, and what Lawrence Bensky described as “probably the closest Hollywood can come to a sympathetic producer for a man like Antonioni”)(29) to make the final decision about printing.
In positive printing, as was accomplished at Metrocolor, fades and dissolves had to be done from duplicate stock, and were not ideal-looking because they were not first-generation. Here as with all positive prints, according to Haines, technicians wouldn’t know “whether they came out until the next day and the chances of a lab restriking hundreds of copies that were off color was slight” (30). Given that objectively and technically, Technicolor dye-transfer prints were superior, and that Antonioni was seriously concerned with his colour,
the fact that Metrocolor was used to make positive prints that would have less contrast, less saturation, and a shorter life span becomes a fascinating and important aspect of the films. After decades of concentration on lavish production, MGM was finally by the mid-1960s fully suffering the financial pressures that had earlier struck other studios; Technicolor’s matrix costs were amortised over the cost of a whole print run, so for small print runs (of about a hundred, the size that would have been ordered for Antonioni’s films) the Technicolor process was relatively costly.
Rachel Low estimated the budget increase on Technicolor productions as being twenty to thirty percent (31). With Technicolor, as Leo Enticknap notes, “the cameras by themselves were useless without access to the patented negative stock and laboratory techniques,” but “Eastmancolor stock could be purchased by a studio off the shelf” (32). Harrison Starr, interested perhaps in the economics and facility of production more than in technical virtuosities, proclaimed Metrocolor “the best colour lab, the easiest to work with, in the West” (33), this no doubt because the Technicolor lab was in the San Fernando Valley, at least an hour each way from Metro’s facility in Culver City, while dailies could be rushed to Metrocolor and viewed much more quickly. Further, if a studio acting as distributor could use its own labs, the costs could be hidden in their overall budget. As to print fading, at Metrocolor, which had good quality control, notes Haines, the deterioration of prints was slower than at other labs (34).
Yet anyone who has seen Technicolor prints produced before 1955 remembers vividly the way the picture would “‘glow’ from the screen in a three dimensional depth” (35). That even with the imbibition process soon being discontinued in the United States it would have been possible at the time Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point, and The Passenger were produced – had MGM been willing or interested – for the company to have produced, and for viewers to see, prints that Technicolor could have made by striking matrices from those negatives is a stunning, invigorating, and also depressing thought for anyone devoted to cinematic colour. Given the often shocking, but always overwhelming quality of the Technicolor prints of The Red Desert, with those boldly orange and purple factory conduits and that black marsh, one must wonder what might have been made of the Antonioni-Ponti films in such a superior technical process. The green, green, green park in Blow-Up . . .
with its mysterious turquoise neon sign,
the magnificent artifice of modernity in Zabriskie Point . . .
the indigo and ochre of Saharan African in The Passenger.
Now, for reasons distant from the filmmaker and his rich imagination, the question of what Technicolor might have done with these films will apparently never be answered.
I am sincerely grateful to Richard W. Haines for an extended dialogue, as well as to Stephen P. Arkle (Technicolor, Los Angeles), Mike Munson (Technicolor, North Hollywood), Bob Olson (Technicolor, North Hollywood), and Ned Rifkin (The Smithsonian Institution).
- Scott Higgins. Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Colour Design in the 1930s. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. p. 210
- Richard W. Haines. Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1993. p. 52
- Ronald L. Davies. Oral History No. 8 with Gene Kelly. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, 1974. p. 34
- Ronald L. Davis. Oral History No. 97 with Ray Bolger. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, 1976.
- Barry Salt. Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis, 2nd Expanded Edition. London: Starword, 1992. p. 199
- Salt, p. 199
- Aljean Harmetz. The Making of The Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM—and the Mircale of Production #1060. New York: Hyperion, 1998. pp. 226; 229
- Salt, p. 200
- Davis, “Ray Bolger”, p. 29
- Salt, p. 199
- The Red Desert Pressbook
- Bosley Crowther. “Suddenly Color Is In,” New York Times (14 February 1965), X1.
- Pacific Film Archive. Notes on The Red Desert, January-February 1991, Red Desert clipping file, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills.
- Haines, p. 66
- Peggy Robertson. “An Oral History with Peggy Robertson,” Interviewed by Barbara Hall. Oral History Program, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, 2002.
- Peggy Robertson. “Letter to Giulio Ascarelli, Universal International Films, Rome, April 8, 1965, regarding The Red Desert”, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills.
- Giulio Ascarelli. “Letter to Peggy Robertson, A. J. Hitchock [sic] Productions Inc., Universal Studios, April 13, 1965, regarding The Red Desert”, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills.
- Haines, personal correspondence
- Haines, personal correspondence
- Haines, Technicolor Movies, p. 86
- Haines, Technicolor Movies, p. 119
- Wittgenstein, Lectures, p. 29
- Haines, p. 53
- Marc Raymond. Martin Scorsese and Film Culture: Radically Contextualizing the Contemporary Auteur. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Comparative Literary Studies, Carleton University, 2009.
- Haines, p. 54
- Haines, p. 54
- Haines, personal correspondence
- Haines, p.59
- Lawrence M. Bensky. “Antonioni Comes to the Point,” New York Times (December 15, 1968), D23.
- Haines, personal correspondence
- Quoted in, Leo Enticknap. Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital. London: Wallflower, 2005.
- Enticknap, pp. 43; 93
- Harrison Starr, personal correspondence
- Haines, p. 55
- Haines, p. 54