the most annoying innovation in moviegoing history?

Pop quiz time! Who said this, and what new cinematic technology were they talking about? Get this right, and I’ll buy you a real pony.

“[This] has been tried and rejected countless times. It has always met overwhelming objections. Not only has [it] never been properly developed, but there has been a grave doubt whether, even properly developed, it could be applied without detracting more than it added…. The argument has been that it would tire and distract the eye, take attention from acting and facial expression, blur and confuse the action.”

So who was it? Roger Ebert on 3D? Any monkey on Twitter, where, even before The Hobbit opened, 48 fps cinema is the top negative topic, with FORTY-FIVE PERCENT of all negative traffic?

Correct answers: Douglas Fairbanks. On Color. In reference to the difficulties he found in getting financing for The Black Pirate. In 1926.

Sounding vaguely like any 21st-century approaches to filmmaking technology? Sound vaguely like YOU?

The opposition to adding color to movies was resolute, and it was longstanding. As late as 1947, not one of the nominees for a Best Picture Oscar was in color. Not one.


Needless to say, the promotional materials for all of the 1947 Best Picture nominees (awarded in 1948) were in color. Posters are all well and good, but the idea of color in movies? Outrageous!

Here’s the unexpurgated Fairbanks quote. In context, he was having tremendous difficulty finding funding for his 1926 classic The Black Pirate, because, inexplicably to his potential backers, he wanted to make the film in color. Although he eventually succeeded, in the beginning, the overwhelming objection was that the realism of color would get in the way of the fantasy elements of a pirate adventure — if indeed color was worth doing at all.

“This ingredient has been tried and rejoined countless times. It has always met overwhelming objections. Not only has the process of color motion picture photography never been properly developed, but there has been a grave doubt whether, even properly developed, it could be applied without detracting more than it added to the motion picture technic.

The argument has been that it would tire and distract the eye, take attention from acting and facial expression, blur and confuse the action. In short it has been felt that it would militate against the simplicity and directness which motion pictures derive from the unobtrusive black and white.

These conventional doubts have been entertained, I think, because, no one has taken the trouble to dissipate them. A similar objection was raised, no doubt, when the innovation of scenery was introduced on the English stage-that it would distract attention from the actors. Personally I could not imagine piracy without color….”

….any more than Peter Jackson could imagine The Hobbit without 3D in 48 fps. This wasn’t just a whim. It was the foundation of the film’s aesthetic, and indeed, the only way that he was willing to become involved with the world of Tolkien again at all.

In any case, Fairbanks found this nonsense about color to be nonsense. How bizarre now to imagine the objection that technologies that increase realism would be a distraction from a fantasy film!Oh wait. See The Hobbit, where among the chief complaints is that 48 fps is too realistic relative to the expectedly artificial experience of watching film on film. Indeed, many people refuse to see digitally projected movies at all, much less 3D. The idea of 48 fps is inherently abhorrent, as the howls of millions of Twitterers who have never seen a single second’s worth of 48 frames in their lives will attest.)

(Also, the historical tension between realism vs. formalism — the notion that I go to movies to feel like i’m AT A MOVIE, and explicitly NOT experiencing reality — is one I’ll consider at length another day…and I’m certain more than once….)

Douglas Fairbanks, The Black Pirate, from the Kino Blu-ray edition.

Not that there weren’t issues with color filmmaking. As Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus noted, the experience of making The Black Pirate had some negative consequences for the company. Soon after, studios began announcing that they simply weren’t willing to make Technicolor pictures anymore. Technicolor found themselves going door to door to drum up support!

“Technicolor [has] established a department to contact exhibitors directly. Its representatives travel over the country to call upon exchange managers, theater managers, and projectionists. The purpose has been to study projection and screen conditions at the theater; to advise how to get the best results with Technicolor prints, to listen to complaints and establish good will.”

I look forward to sharing the amazing full story of Technicolor’s travails, but I want to underscore the strenuousness of the objection to adding color to movies. It went on for years and years and years.

Indeed, when Martin Scorsese was in film school in the 60s, he considered it insanity to think that all movies would be shot in color some day. Such a thing would obviously never come to pass.

Obviously.

Scorsese advises people to remember that when they think about 3D, and perhaps others of these new distractions to the moviegoing experience.

Further reading:
Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland, by HT Kalmus
Martin Scorsese & 3-D: Director Says All His Future Movies Will Use The Technology

And for the record, the Best Picture nominees for the 20th Academy Awards (films made in 1947, awards bestowed in 1948) are all okay by me:

  • The Bishop’s Wife
  • Crossfire
  • Gentleman’s Agreement (the winner)
  • Great Expectations
  • Miracle on 34th Street

Disclaimer: Only one (1) real pony will be awarded during this competition. Winner responsible for shipping. Void where prohibited.

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