Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Colorizing Films

Sometime in the past three years I obtained a collection of Shirley Temple Films. I have watched some of the shorter ones with my daughter, but yesterday was so blisteringly cold that we decided not to brave the outdoors after a trip to Target. We came home and decided to watch The Little Princess and drink Silk Nog.  

Imagine my horror when I turned on the film to find it was colorized. The shorter films we had watched previously were not colorized. I know that it is not always clear why colorization is so bad, so let me explain. To me films are works of art and not simply works of entertainment. When the films were made colors were chosen for the shade of grey that they would become when shot with black and white film. If you were to visit a set while they were shooting the colors would seem very odd. For instance to give the impression that women had deep red lipstick on the actresses actually wore a garish brown color that translated to what appeared to be a rich velvety red color on film. Directors of photography (DPs) trained their eyes to see in shadows and shades of gray as opposed to seeing in, so to speak, technicolor. It is an amazing skill that has for the most part been lost.

If you compare a black and white film shot in the last twenty years to one shot in the 1940s the difference is very apparent. Black and White Films nowadays tend to have a washed out look with many of the grays being similar shades. Contemporary DPs can see light and shadows, but are not as good at looking at colors and seeing gray. You can even see this in photography if you compare older photographs with newer ones. This also has something to do with film vs digital. Film can get a really wonderful, rich black color that digital just can't reproduce. Digital doesn't have the range of color that film has and it becomes very obvious when you are dealing with a gray scale because the grays start to match and you lose contrast. When you colorize a film some random colorist, completely disconnected from the film, is sitting at a machine deciding what color a dress the actress should wear, what color their hair should be, how green a tree is, etc. All of these choices were made previously by people collaborating on the actual film and are now being changed.

Not only is random color being applied to the film, but the choices that were originally made are being obscured. Sixty and seventy years ago film was not as sensitive as it is now and lights were huge and powerful. Painting with light (as cinematography can be referred to) was so much more difficult then and to see what DPs were able to do can be awe inspiring. They had to control the light in ways that we no longer have to; technology has made it very easy to shoot with available light and small lights. They had to think about every ray of light shining on to the set and they had no way of previewing what they were doing the way we do now with video assist or playback. You could walk onto a set and it would seem glaringly bright, but then when you watched the film the light would seem low and nearly dark. Past DPs really were true visionaries, even just the ones working on small B films or Shirley Temple films. When you colorize a film you lose all those details that they worked so hard to obtain.

Lastly, I believe it is beneficial to be appreciative of the past and those that came before us. There is a tendency to think that if something is new then it is better, if something is more expensive it is better, and so on. So often you get eye rolls about watching something in black and white, which makes no sense to me. I understand not being in the mood for subtitles (I've felt that way before particularly with a toddler running around), but black and white? I think a well executed black and white film is often significantly more beautiful than a run of the mill color film and is on par (and can even exceed) any of the great color films. I thought this argument had been made and colorizing films had been admonished (I can be so naive sometimes). In just the last two weeks I have run across two colorized films (when I bought Miracle on 34th Street the colorized version is publicized and the original B & W version is simply an "extra") and people are so nonchalant about it. I wonder if everyone would feel the same way if I suggested sprucing up some of Picasso's paintings from his blue period. They are kind of drab don't you think? Shades of blue? Wouldn't it be nice to add a little red? Some nice bubblegum pink would surely make them more appealing.

My daughter was so excited to watch Shirley Temple (she drinks that drink, as she repeatedly told me) that I continued watching and will no doubt watch it again. Our collection includes three discs so I am hoping that some of the other films are in glorious black and white.

(Picture Sources:  Photo 1, Photo 2)

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