The Academy Hosts a Colorful Evening

On Wednesday, November 14, 2012, the Academy was proud to devote an evening to "Color in Motion: The Art and Science of Color in the Movies," which revealed the secrets of bringing color to the screen. The event was presented as part of the Color and Imaging Conference (CIC), which the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, an international organization dedicated to cutting-edge scientific and technological innovations in the imaging field, holds annually in various cities across the United States.

This year CIC attendees spent five days in Los Angeles, including a night at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills to experience a dazzling exploration of the color reproduction methods on celluloid as well as with modern digital media. From early two-strip Technicolor processes to cutting-edge digital color grading techniques, the two-hour celebration of cinema's colorful heritage was both an eye-popping tour through the past century's achievements and a thoughtful look at where we are today.

The presentation began with an introduction by George Joblove, co-chair of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council, who welcomed the evening’s two hosts to the stage: Rod Bogart, the senior color scientist at Pixar Animation Studios and a member of the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards Digital Imaging Technology Subcommittee; and Joshua Pines, vice president of imaging research at Technicolor Digital Intermediates and recipient of an Academy Technical Achievement Award for co-creating the TDI process for creating archival separations from digital image data. Both men have numerous feature credits to their name, with Bogart working on such films as “Ratatouille” (2007), “WALL-E” (2008), and “Toy Story 3” (2010), and Pines contributing to “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Titanic” (1997), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and others.

Following a short, humorous introduction featuring President Ronald Reagan from the 1980 Academy Awards® (sourced from VHS, for a little visual variety) and a depiction of the hazards of highly flammable nitrate film courtesy of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), the official clips of the presentation began. There were three very different demonstrations of black-and-white film, the prevalent format into the 1960s and frequently used for effect, as seen in the early newsreel sequence from “Citizen Kane” (1941), a time-leaping sequence from “Raging Bull” (1980), and the striking Panavision compositions of the planetarium scene in “Manhattan” (1979). Then it was a leap back in time to the early days of cinema, when Georges Méliès employed 27 women in France to hand-tint each print of his films, including the recently restored “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). In many of the evening’s amusing asides, the hosts noted that these artisans were probably hired from the earliest “binders of women.”

The early days of color in Hollywood were represented through various phases of two-strip Technicolor, which used red and green filters in an additive color process for a limited but often striking color palette. The first version used two simultaneously projected prints, one red and one green. A later version cemented the two strips together, creating very thick prints that often jammed in projectors. A third version featuring thinner prints created by a dye imbibition process was demonstrated with a clip from the golf scene in “Follow Thru” (1930), which showed the monochromatic red and green camera footage separately, and then combined, for a dazzling effect. Two-strip Technicolor soon evolved into the more common three-strip Technicolor, a dye-transfer process whose vibrant hues are still an inspiration to filmmakers today. Using successive exposures, the process was first applied mainly to animation, as seen in a print of the classic “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from “Fantasia” (1940). A striking live-action example came from Federico Fellini’s surreal “Juliet of the Spirits” (1965). Employing huge, noisy cameras that required soundproofing, this classic Technicolor process was last used in its original configuration in the Ealing Studios comedy “The Ladykillers” (1955), while the final three-strip dye transfer release was the candy-colored Italian horror film “Suspiria” (1977).

The evening continued with a quick walkthrough of the alternate Eastmancolor process, which allowed greater color control via layers of magenta, cyan and yellow-sensitive emulsions on one rather than three separate negatives. The optical color grading system was stored on paper tape, an early form of data storage that also allowed color correction to a final color interpositive for the first time. Dupe negatives could then be made to produce many prints, preserving the original negative from wear and damage; this process was commonly used for decades and still exists for 35mm-projection in theaters today. The hosts managed to scratch an item off their bucket list with their next clip selection: Tim Curry’s hip-swinging entrance in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975), which prompted several enthusiastic audience members to par-ti-ci-pate by yelling “Say it!” at a key moment.

Special photochemical processes also evolved with color film, often creating stylish and striking results by manipulating the traditional methods. For example, silver retention – referred to as the bleach-bypass process – creates a black-and-white image over the color one, producing deep, rich blacks and often unusual color renditions. David Fincher and Darius Khondji famously used this process to eerie effect in such films as “Seven” (1995); the work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski also was represented, with the robot spider sequence from “Minority Report” (2002). A newly created print of “Sleepy Hollow” (1999) provided another of the evening’s visual highlights, with the nocturnal pursuit of Martin Landau offering a look at the aesthetic power of tweaking the color process on the way to creating the finished print.

Though it is now extremely common, the digital intermediate workflow (which bypasses photochemical methods through the digital color grading of films) is still a fairly recent industry development. This process in conjunction with digital photography has allowed the integration of more digital effects while also providing a direct digital output for non-theatrical formats like DVD and Blu-ray. Two of the earliest examples are still dazzling today: the innovative mixture of color and monochrome in “Pleasantville” (1998) and the stylized Depression-era golden hues of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000). Animation once again got its due with an excerpt from “The Incredibles” (2004), which was at times digitally graded to look uncannily like a traditional live-action film. Pines presented different sequences from a film that he worked on, “The Aviator” (2004), in which director Martin Scorsese sought to simulate the appearance of both two-strip and three-strip Technicolor at different points in the film.

Leading off the transition to digital projection was a clip from the 2011 Academy Award® winner for cinematography, “Hugo,” shown from a DCP (digital cinema package). This popular projection format was in this example manipulated to look as much like 35mm film as possible. Another study in contrasts came with a glorious leap to 70mm film for a desert sequence from “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), followed by the same segment from its meticulous 2012 digital 4K restoration. After a quick tutorial on the ins and outs of movie aspect ratios, the audience was also treated to a scene from “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970), also in grand, wonderful 70mm.

As a final note, Bogart and Pines mentioned that a handful of filmmakers are still committed to using traditional film, including Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan. The evening closed with of a clip from Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008), whose hospital explosion made for a fiery, show-stopping finale to a night unlike any other.