REACTION ON MAKING HIS FIRST COLOR PRODUCTION
Veteran Cinematographer Discusses Experiences in Filming Tom Sawyer
By JAMES WONG HOWE A.S.C.
From the American Cinematographers Magazine October 1937
FOR more than forty years cinematographers have been seeing color in terms of black-and-white rendition. Today, as cinematography in natural colors comes increasingly to the fore, we must teach ourselves to see color as color.
This is perhaps my paramount reaction as I find myself engaged in photographing my first Technicolor production. Being just at the threshold of getting acquainted with color cinematography, I hesitate to write so prematurely of my experiences; only the hope that these notes, written while the transition from monochrome to color is still under way, may be helpful to others making, as increasingly many of us must, the same transition emboldens me to do.
For the last eight or more years, cinematographers have considered color strictly in terms of its normal monochromatic rendition by normal panchromatic materials. In other words, the actual colorings of any two parts of the scene were of little importance so long as their rendition in black-and-white was satisfactory for our composition.
Now that we are dealing with color on the screen as well as on the set we must learn to see these colors consciously. Flecks of coloring which in a black-and-white picture would form part of a neutral background can in a color-picture prove enormously disturbing to the best composition.
There is neaily always some means of avoiding these disturbing colors, by changing the camera-angle, the lighting, or by spraying the offending area; but to be avoided, the color must first be seen.
While it is necessary that the cinematographer become definitely color conscious, it is equally vital that this color consciousness should not be exaggerated. When working with color it is all too easy to become so color conscious that you force color into scenes and places where it should not be, thereby defeating the effect of naturalness you are striving to build up.
Any type of cinematography involves the coordination of two basic elements: the players and their background. In black-and-white cinematography, the background, while vastly important, is generally selected and lit so that it remains a neutral background against which the players can move.
Highlights and Shadows
In other words, we generally try to avoid strong highlights or strong shadows in the background, which might draw the eyes of the audience away from the more important players.
In natural color cinematography we must learn to place background color in the same category as such highlights. A splash of red or blue in the background of a color shot can distract audience attention in exactly the same way as a strong highlight does in monochrome.
Therefore in my current production, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” I have tried to subordinate background color and to keep the major part of any scene’s coloring confined to the players. This has in practice worked out very successfully; and it is not nearly as difficult to do as might appear.
In this respect, we have been fortunate in one early accident which would ordinarily appear to have been a serious handicap. The production was designed as a black-and-white production. It was, in fact, well under way in monochrome when a decision was reached to film it in Technicolor.
As a result, we have been working with normal black-and-white production settings and costumes. These have not been changed in any major detail; they are precisely what would be expected for a monochrome production of the same story. Yet we have been using them for color with excellent results.
In many ways, I think we have got better results this way than we would had sets and costumes been planned for color.
As it is, their coloration is approximately what would be natural for that place and period; had they been deliberately designed for color, there must inevitably have been temptations to insert color here and there simply for the sake of color, rather than because it should naturally be there.
Coordinating these two elements with lighting offers new and interesting possibilities, but it also calls for a new approach to the problem of lighting. The actual increase in illumination as compared to black-and white is relatively unimportant; I am at present using about twice as much light as I would use for the same scene in monochrome.
This increase is not in the number of lights, but in the intensity of their beams. If, for a color shot, I use a Mole-Richardson Side Arc with two silk diffusers to light a given area, I would in monochrome use a comparable incandescent broad with four silks for the same purpose.
If for spot-lighting I use a 65-ampere H. I. arc I would in black-and white use an incandescent Junior Solarspot for the same purpose, but with the beam flooded out rather more.
Soft Lighting for Color
Every cinematographer has his individual preferences in lighting, and every cinematographer will, when he comes to Technicolor lighting; determine for himself the technique he likes best.
Already, some cinematographers favor lighting Technicolor very flatly, while others favor even more brilliant lighting than they would use for black-and-white.
Personally, I favor a soft lighting for color, with the modeling done softly and subtly rather than strongly
and obviously. Those of us who have studied the methods of the Old Masters of painting will recall that they achieved their modeling in many cases, not with the direct sunlight that corresponds to our spotlighting, or by using a featureless flat lighting, but by using what might be termed a “directed” north light for the modeling light.
I have been striving, with good success, for the same results using diffused Side Arcs for my modeling light. In larger shots it is of course sometimes necessary to use the projected beam of an H. I. Arc for this
purpose, but even so I retain a considerable amount of diffusion, and wherever possible I use Side Arcs.
The present trend in monochrome lighting is toward having most if not all of the light come from above, projected by spotlights. However satisfactory this may be for black-and white, I have not found it gives natural results in color. It is probable that many more experienced color cinematographers may disagree with me, but personally I have found that the most natural effects come when the majority of the lamps are at approximately the level of the camera, with a bare minimum of fill-in and backlighting from units above.
This question of backlighting in color is another thing that demands modification of usual techniques. In
black-and-white we use back light and rim light to outline our characters so that they will stand out from
their backgrounds. This is seldom necessary in color, for we have inherent color differences to serve the same purpose.
In one sequence of my present picture we had a scene showing young Tommy Kelly, who plays Tom Sawyer, walking atop a picket fence balancing a feather on his nose, to impress his sweetheart. The camera angle was such that Tommy’s head moved against the open sky. In monochrome, the boy’s hair and the sky would be rendered in very similar shades of gray.
Instinctively as we prepared to photograph the scene I arranged back lighting to outline the head and separate it from the sky. After the first take, it suddenly dawned on me that this was a color picture, and on the screen the sky would be blue while the boy’s hair would be light brown, giving a natural separation.
In the next take I eliminated the rim lighting. On the screen this latter take was far more pleasing.
Where backlighting—or any strong highlighting—may for any reason be necessary it is important to remember that one of the few remaining limitations of the process is the fact that strong highlights show a tendency to become “washed out” in the printing.
Therefore if such highlights must for any reason be used, they must be softened until they no longer produce this color-destroying glare but remain merely to suggest a highlight.
Approaching color from this viewpoint, lighting can be tremendously simplified. Consider, for instance, one recent shot of Tommy Kelly and May Robson. In lighting this shot I used only five lamps. They were a diffused Side Arc for my key light, placed at the right of the camera; another Side Arc, diffused with about three silks, at the other side of the camera to complete my primary personal lighting.
On the wall behind the camera was one Scoop, slightly diffused to give a general lighting on the set. Shining through a window on walls behind the players was one 65-Ampere H. I. Arc spotlight, which produced decorative shadows.
Finally, on the lamprail behind the players was one 90-ampere H. I. Arc, diffused and flooded, to give merely the faintest suggestion of a highlight on the players.
In this you will notice that I concentrated most of my lighting on the players, definitely subordinating the background. This treatment, I have found, gives the most natural results.
The same general treatment is is equally effective for exteriors. In general, I like to keep the direct sunlight away from the players, diffusing it with overhead scrims. I then effect my modeling with either reflectors or booster lights—more frequently the latter. Arc booster lights have many definite advantages over reflectors.
First of all, as my Technicolor associate Wilfred Cline pointed out early in the production, arcs as they are now used in Technicolor are far easier to face than any reflectors, so that the players have less trouble keeping their eyes open naturally.
Secondly, in reflecting sunlight, reflectors also reflect other things, as for instance some of the blue of the sky, the green of large masses of foliage, or the red-orange light of the sun late in the day. The Side Arcs and H. I. arcs used in Technicolor are accurately matched to the north light standard, and their light is therefore colorless. Thirdly, of course, either Side Arcs or H. I. Arcs used as booster lights are far more controllable than any reflectors.
The question of effect lighting in color is one that has only begun to be explored. The possibilities seem boundless. In “Tom Sawyer” we have had reason to portray a wide variety of light effects, including normal daylight, late afternoon, exterior and interior moonlit night scenes, and interiors lighted by oil lamps, candles and torches.
The ease with which we can obtain these effects with existing equipment and our really limited knowledge of color cinematography is amazing.
Subtlety in Color
It is significant of the subtlety needed in lighting color that these effects are most successfully achieved by suggesting them rather than by painting them with bold strokes. In general, it seems best to light the scene in a fundamentally normal manner, and then add faint touches here and there to suggest the desired effect.
All of these effects other than normal daylight are based on some change from the normal color of lighting. Natural light in the late afternoon actually takes on a warm yellow-orange tinge; lamplight, candlelight and torchlight also partake of these warmer tones, while moonlight calls for a glint of steely blue.
The warmer tones are secured very simply by using conventional Junior and Senior Solarspots with overvolted or photoflood type globes of the correct power instead of the usual incandescent globes. Moonlight effects are produced even more simply, by merely removing from the H. I. arc spotlights the light straw-colored filter which corrects their beam to the north light standard.
Use Beams with Care
These colored light beams must be used with great care, however. I have not as yet found an instance where they can be used indiscriminately throughout a set. Instead, they should be used only here and there, to give a little glint suggesting the warmer or bluer tone, while the rest of set and personal lighting remains normal.
In some instances, it may be advisable to use these colored lights for illuminating all of the set, and even for illuminating the figures of the players. But as long as one is striving for an illusion of naturalness, it seems to be a fixed rule never to play one of these colored lights directly on the face of an actor, for that somehow introduces a note of artificiality.
This rule would probably not apply in photographing a melodrama like “Frankenstein” or “Dracula,” in which the weird impression could be heightened by deliberately playing, say, a blue or green light on the unnatural character. I would enjoy doing such a picture in color.
But for normal effects, low key lighting in Technicolor is every bit as possible—and as effective—as in black-and-white. Here I would like to encroach once again upon the art director’s field. Light sets are definitely an advantage in color, for they may be controlled as easily as they are in black-and-white, by regulating the intensity of light falling on them. The sets for “Tom Sawyer” were as I have said, designed for black and- white photography, and remain fundamentally unchanged in the color production. Accordingly, many of them are in relatively light colors, while if the production had been designed for color from the beginning I have a suspicion that many of these same sets would have been darker.
Favors Light Colors
Judging by my own experience and from what I have seen of previous color productions, I think these lighter sets have photographed much more effectively than they would had they been darker; and certainly they helped us to use a more normal volume of light.
In closing, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the whole-hearted cooperation afforded me in this, my first Technicolor production, by my associate Technicolor cinematographer, Wilfred Cline, and by all of the Technicolor personnel.
While Technicolor has advanced to the point where an experienced black and- white cinematographer need have no undue fears at undertaking the direction of photography on a Technicolor film, the average cinematographer would ordinarily enter upon his initial color production with the advantage of a period of studying the process and making color tests beforehand rather than, as I did, making but one brief Technicolor test and then finding myself launched on an important production.
The cooperation of the capable Cline on the set and of the many unpublicized individuals in the Technicolor laboratory and offices have been truly invaluable both to the production itself and to me as an individual.
A world of credit also is due to another group of experts whose behind-the-scenes activities have done much to make modern Technicolor photography what it is today.
These are the engineers who designed and built the Mole-Richardson arc lighting equipment which was developed especially to meet the lighting problems of Technicolor. One of the first things needed to make the new Technicolor practical was modern lighting equipment, and so capably have the M-R engineers succeeded in this that today the lighting equipment on any Technicolor set is more modern and more efficient than that used on most black-and-white sets, and consequently the cinematographer’s lighting problems are simplified.
There is no doubt about the fact that color is coming as a major production medium. I have no hesitation in predicting that within the next four or five years at least 50 per cent of all major productions will be in color.
Credit to Engineers
For obvious reasons, the photography of these films will be directed by the same men who are directing the photography of today’s outstanding monochrome productions. Therefore more and more of us will find ourselves making the transition to color.
And between the basic simplification of the process itself and the earnest cooperation afforded by all these experts in and associated with the Technicolor organization, this transition will be increasingly easy and natural for cinematographers who prepare themselves beforehand to accept color with an open mind.