Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Something that needs to be explained is why color films of the early 60s were so badly photographed and composed.  Every shot in the films of this period seemed geared to producing good lobby cards.  Telling the story seemed to be secondary.

It's doubly puzzling because only a short time before, in the black and white era, Hollywood had no difficulty shooting dramatic scenes (above) in a convincing way. 

Sometimes I think Technicolor was to blame. The color was gorgeous but lighting it may have been so difficult that studios opted for simplistic set-ups.  Maybe wide screen was to blame. Maybe flattening long lenses. 

Another possiblity is that the minimalist aesthetic had set in and art directors simply thought that less was more. Look at the Hanna Barbera cartoons (above) from this period. Some of them are mind-numbingly bleak and arid, but I doubt that many people complained.  

Here's (above) what we would call today "TV lighting" and staging applied to a feature film. The characters are reduced to simple shapes. The background is generic, made a little dark in one spot to make Doris Day pop out.  The whole look is flat. Probably the technicolor was beautiful, but so what -- the composition and modelling are lifeless.

Here (above) human beings are reduced to cardboard cut-outs; just shapes and colors. It's scary because you get the feeling that the stories were simplified and streamlined to fit the clunky photography. 

Me, I prefer lighting that brings out the gritty humanity of the characters. I also like to see lots of extras, like in the scene below.  That doesn't work at all in animation, but it makes live action spring to life.  


Mark Mayerson said...

Starting in the 1950's, the studios abandoned Technicolor as being too expensive and went with their own processes that were all variations on Eastman color. You'll see Warner color, Metro color, etc. credited on films from the '50s and '60s.

Technicolor was dye transfer release prints made from separation negatives. All the other processes were color negatives printed on cheap color stock. As a result, the non-Technicolor films were not as rich in terms of colors and the prints faded very badly, turning redder as they aged.

That's why so many films of the '50s onwards need to be restored. The color is shot all to hell. You may be reacting to crappy color due to aging prints.

There's also the problem of aspect ration, which affects composition. Older films were 1.33:1. Starting in the '50s as an attempt to pull people away from television, the aspect ration became 1.85 to 1 or greater. If you're seeing films of the '50s and later on TV without letterboxing, you're not seeing the original compositions. You're seeing cropped and panned and scanned compositions.

When Hollywood finally got used to the idea that their product was going to end up on TV, the poor cinematographers had to compose shots that would work for 1.85:1 and for 1.33 to 1 at the same time, which made it tougher to create dynamic compositions. Plus they used more close shots because they knew that the movie would eventually end up on a 19 inch TV.

Anonymous said...

I read that the long lenses made their big impact in the 70s (The Graduate, The Godfather) In any case, I despise long lenses and prefer the look of films like Citizen Kane with their wide angle lenses. Long lenses make characters seem like they're barely moving when they're apporaching the camera. It's frustrating!

The worst thing about the 60s was the color. I cannot stand the look of old color films, black & white was infinitely superior, and as far as I'm concerned, still is.

I'm sure most of you know that black & white films were filmed in unnatural colours because some colors read better on black & white stock (for contrast purposes) I think I read that green was avoided. In any case, when color came out the rules had to be thrown out and re-written. I'm sure a big factor was that nobdoy knew what they were doing with colour, cinematography-wise.

The same thing happened when sound came on. They had to completely change how they filmed when sound became popular. Alot of the devices that made silent films so spectacular were very noisy. Consequently, films made in the early sound years were more conservative in terms of shots and cinematography.

Also, the quality of the generation making films was deteriorating.The talented people who made the 40s films were dying and getting old, past their prime, and the younger generation replacing them weren't as talentedtively. I also think the generation that started filming in the 60s had a rebellious streak in them that maybe made them stray from the established way of making quality products.

The 60s in general were a time of decline, in terms of music and animation, and automobile design, and architechture, and writing, and poetry. It's all about cycles of generations.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Technicolor wasn't to blame, since it existed in the 30's and 40's too, and the lighting in those color films wasn't flat like in the 60's.

I suspect television might have had something to do with it. Lighting for TV was very flat right from the beginning. Maybe the craftsmen who learned their trade on television productions got jobs in the film industry in the 60's?

I agree with you about the color films of the 60's looking flat and unappealing, though. I never understood it either.

Anonymous said...

Why should a Doris Day romantic comedy look dramatic? It's light-hearted.

The mood of the movie is supposed to be reflected in how everything looks, correct?

Anonymous said...

The 60s in general were a time of decline, in terms of music and animation, and automobile design, and architechture, and writing, and poetry. It's all about cycles of generations.

Did you read that in a book? Sounds like it.

Most of the greatest muscle car designs were from the '60s: Starliner, GTO, Mustang, Chevelle, Camaro. Corvettes were way cool in the '60s. Impalas were very stylish. Chrysler 300s. The list goes on and on....

Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin..all started in the '60s. Also, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck. And Jazz was quite good in the '60s.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, your last post reminded me of something that I read in the paper. One of the best things EVER:

An old guy came home one day after visiting his wife who was in the hospital, and he was brutally murdered with his own cane. He was discovered by his neighbour, who had to break a window because all the doors and windows has been locked from the inside.

Nobody knew how the killer could have gotten in, because everything was locked from inside, so it went unsolved and put aside. When new owners moved into the house, they couldn't hold onto any housecleaners or nannies because they swore the place was haunted. They heard weird noises in the ceiling and one said they saw a wizzled old man at the top of the staircase in the middle of the night.

Eventually the new owners moved out, and some detectives spent the night in the house to investigate the claims that it was haunted, and a bunch of spooky noises started in the ceiling, and suddenly an old half naked bearded man was standing at the top of the stairs.

They chased him into a closet where he dissapeared, then found a tiny hole in the cieling, which they reached into and pulled out an evil old hermit!

He'd been living in the cieling for years and stealing food when people weren't around! When the old guy came home and caught him he had murdered him and hid in the ceiling (just a crawlspace, there wasn't an attic)!!!

I found that absolutely amazing! An evil hermit living in your closet ceiling for YEARS!

I thought you'd apprecitate that.

I.D.R.C. said...

One of the absolute best-looking (and last)color films of the 60's is Fellini's SATYRICON.

Highly recommended if you can tolerate being wierded out for 2 hours.

Anonymous said...

Ewww muscle cars... give me 50s designs with fins any day, or 1940s town cars!

Rock music? Yuck!! Led Zeppelin? Yuck!! Who is Jeff Beck? Can he hold a candle to the 50s rock & rollers, to the country singers, to the crooners of the 30s and 40s? I think not.

Lester Hunt said...

I like "some guy's" explanation the best. Aspect-ratio must be a major factor. Fritz Lang used to say that Cinemascope was only good for filming snakes and funeral processions. He also pointed out that the only super-familiar, iconic painting that has approximately that aspect ratio is "The Last Supper." Classic paintings tend to be a lot more like 1.33:1. There must be a reason for that.

Anonymous said...

Black and white film noir lighting was different from Technicolor lighting for a host of reasons. But there's at least ONE example where a great monochrome cinematrographer, John Alton (who shot 'T Men' in 1947), was hired to light a fantasy sequence done in three strip Tech: the 17 minute ballet at the end of "An American in Paris." They hired Alton because of his ability to make very fast lighting setups required for the ballet but as a bonus they got a ton of interesting black core shadows and unsually dramatic mood for a musical. Just contrast that sequence with the rest of the picture, which was shot by someone else. Of course, Alton being an outsider to MGM's usual way of doing things meant he was outta there after that project.

I.D.R.C. said...

Who is Jeff Beck? Can he hold a candle to the 50s rock & rollers?

Get CRAZY LEGS by Jeff Beck and the Big Town Playboys.

Gigantic candle of tribute being held. Mostly it's a love letter to Cliff Gallup. Great stuff. Awesome recordings that rival the originals. It's out of print and the price is going up faster than gold. I found mine in a bargain bin. There's probably a torrent somewhere...

--Did you get it yet? I'm not kidding!!!

Thad said...

Film restoration is a serious issue. Some of the best films ever made have been only seen in inferior prints for years. I know I heard (I don't know how true it is) that the original negative of "It Happened One Night" was destroyed at Columbia and all transfers/prints since have been made from a dupe.

It's the same in animation too. The best Clampett and Tashlin shorts were only in crappy reductions from Eastman prints (until the wonderful DVDs that is!). Disney actually put cartoons that had faded to red on a few original VHS releases, and the features have NEVER looked good.

Ian Merch! said...

After watching the Popeye DVD, I have to say that I'm disappointed that everyone just lept at Color like it was a necessity. The same way that everyone seemed to jump on 3D after Toy Story. The black and white Popeye cartoons are beautiful and have inspired me to experiment with some monochromatic animation when I can. I just think it's something people need to give a shot to now and again.

Anonymous said...

IDRC: Thanks for the Jeff Beck recommendation, I'll look it up!

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Nobody seems to have adequately answered Eddie's question though; why is it that color films of the 1960's have such flat lighting? It's not just in light comedies, either.

Compare, for instance, the 1946 version of The Killers with the 1964 version of the same film.

The '46 version has such beautiful and sumptuous lighting, while the '64 version looks like the director Don Siegel went out of his way to avoid any shadows at all. Everything is evenly lit. I have no clue as to why. Especially since Siegel's own version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers had such great film noir lighting.

Jack Snider said...

The stills you show all remind me of Al Parker illustrations. I think, as you suggested, that the flat style was an attempt to capture the aesthetic of the times. The flat look was "in".

Trevor Thompson said...

i think the biggest reason why the 60's films look so bad is because by that time in american cinema they overlit the films so they could read the rushes.

the rushes, or footage, were watched at the end of every day, and, because the film had not yet been fully treated, it would appear darker.

they knew they could difuse the light later, in post production, but would have to overlight everything so you could see the results while still in production.

the problem was that cranking down an overlit scene is a lot like turning the volume down on a piece of audio that was recorded way too loud.... it doesn't hurt your eyes or ears to look at / hear it, but it isn't as clean or clear as it could've been if everything had been recorded correctly in the first place.

just a theory, but hey, theory corner's just the place.

- trevor.

Anonymous said...

I'll answer!

In the 60s, the film speed was real slow. I could look it up to be sure, but it was probably around 25asa. Nowadays people shoot with 500asa speed! What that means is that back then the lights were HOT! and BRIGHT! That's why everything's flat, because you needed so much light just to expose the film properly!

I think it was the 70s when they finally came out with 100 speed film.

Of course, I'm not sure what the speed of the b&w film was. But technicolor in particular I believe started at around 7asa! Can you imagine!?

Anonymous said...

Also, the widescreen thing had been experimented with for years, but I it was the 50s when it took off. They actually started with 1.66, which is close to the golden rectangle, 1.618. Most classic paintings are very close to the golden rectangle.

Of course, they also played around with larger film sizes, threading the film horizontally (vistavision), and different anamorphic systems. They had one system that combined three cameras!

They eventually settled down to 1.85 (which is cropped), and anamorphic. I think 1.66 was popular in europe though.

And that's about all I know!

Check out the widescreen museum. It wasn't really started simply to compete with tv. They had been experimenting with that stuff since around 1900!

Anonymous said...

One photographer told me that there just isn't time to light scenes the way they did in Hollywood's golden age. That, coupled with modern ultra-fast film stock speeds, is a combined recipe for flatness. Television likes everything flat, and TV is where all film eventually ends up.

Anonymous said...

The seventies actually had worse color in many cases, because directors were so keen to use the faster stock newly available in naturally lit situations. It was often too grainy and certainly not as saturated.

I think the new economics of the film industry (the same economics that led to growth of limited animation) are more to blame for what eddie is seeing in the sixties- there was a lot of rushed tv style directing and photography going on.

Kevin Koch said...

Some great comments, but the real answer is . . . it was Doris Day's fault. Nobody could make a watchable movie with her in it.

And now you know. ;)

Anonymous said...

What's all this about 60s films looking so bad ?? I think 60s Films shot on 35mm film are beautiful especially if they have been restored and on Blu Ray they are a real visual pleasure to watch. 1000's of times better than a lot of todays cgi digital shit usually filmed in a horrid yellow hue. There are an absolute wealth of fabulous films from the 60s that most people don't even have a clue exist so never seek them out. People should be asking why do lots of films from now look so bad ..