Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
About thirty-five years ago the top bosses of my then-employer, the American Film Institute, got us into a real jam with our funders. Taking a stiff-necked, self-righteous pose, AFI impulsively issued strong statements and held an urgent press conference in support of a new artists’ rights movement headed by longtime board members and all-around AFI pals Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Saying yes to them must have seemed like a no-brainer. What, after all, could be controversial in 1980’s Hollywood about backing Steven and George? And they had allies; the film directors’ guild, as well as groups of film critics and other intellectuals, were coming out in force against a new media technology that they sternly called a mortal threat to America’s film heritage.
The new technique, supposedly so dangerous to preserving American culture on screen, was called colorization, using video technology to allow hand-coloring of black-and-white films and TV shows. In retrospect, it was one of the most overblown film controversies of the mid-Eighties. But the way it worked out set business precedents that still guide media law to this day, and shape the battleground over censorship and online cancel culture. Withdrawing Song of the South from general circulation, or turning police guns into walkie-talkies in E.T., cutting a Donald Trump cameo appearance out of Home Alone 2 or removing Kevin Spacey from All the Money in the World, —they were all affected by what happened in courtrooms and offices in the nearly-forgotten Colorization War of now-distant 1986.
The studio bosses, the guys who in fact ultimately paid AFI’s paychecks, were solidly on the other side of this new technical issue and resented AFI’s well-intentioned meddling. Ted Turner was pissed with us, man. “They’re my movies, and I’ll do what I want with them”, he snapped. Disney and Paramount weren’t happy either. Once AFI got the word it did some frantic, face-saving back-pedaling. We hadn’t intended to bite the hand that could strangle us.
The basic idea of colorization goes back to the earliest days of film. Rows and aisles of retouching artists, generally women, sat at flat, glowing glass tables equipped with big magnifying glasses. They used sable brushes to paint colors directly onto each frame of film. It was a crude process, but it delighted the audiences of 1907. By the ‘20s, movie photography began to include color, though rarely, and the paintbrushes were put away.
The vast majority of old movies continued to be black and white until the ‘50s. Then increasing the proportion of color films gave the theater screen something that early television couldn’t compete with. By 1965, after a half-billion-dollar effort, television caught up with color, and basically everything had to be made in color from then on. That left Hollywood with a huge inventory of black and white titles, feature films, and TV series, that were now worth far less money. Film companies couldn’t sell nearly as many of the “b&w”s to local television or basic cable—almost their sole markets—as they could sell even mediocre color programming. On Mannix, they still use dial phones and record players. Every adult seems to smoke. Women wear mini-skirts. Quaint! But to casual viewers of MeTV or AntennaTV, because it’s in color it’s instantly accepted as part of our everyday world in a way that (black and white) M Squad or Peter Gunn can never be. Rapid depreciation of black and white meant less studio equity, less collateral for loans. They took the hit on their books, wrote off the loss, and moved on.
Decades later, at the dawn of the ‘80s, the studios were offered a chance at partial recoupment of that loss, at a price. New analog technology allowed video frames to be painted and stored electronically, one at a time. Emerging digital technology was capable of much more, such as auto-following a colored-in shape from frame to frame, and a more subtle, deeper color palette. The new media tech was now accompanied by one of capitalism’s most unmistakable cues, the sound of big money hitting the table.
Then the guilds threw a fit and everyone ended up in court. (Why, exactly, did the Writers Guild have any sort of standing? Did their members really think they had a legal right to have their words read aloud in black and white rather than color?)
After the expensive legal wrangling, a consensus formed around two points:
First, the big picture: The studios won, make no mistake about it. They outright own the material and can do what they want with it, provided all existing contracts are observed and all profit participants paid. The grandly European concept of artists rights beyond the contractual, the goal of the arts guilds, was largely ignored or legally rejected, though Congress did give the complainants a fig leaf to hide their defeat, a requirement that colorized video should bear a notice that the original work was in black and white.
Second, the artists lost, but the studios admitted that artists’ rights mean something, as long as that “something” was abstract and didn’t cost major money. In case of alterations of library content, whether by censorship or by more routinely commercial reasons, the studios voluntarily promised that the original version would be saved in the archives, so a decision, say, to colorize or censor, can be changed or reversed, years later. This is essentially a handshake deal. There’s no real enforcement mechanism, but nobody wants to be that one schmuck who breaks a deal and faces the wheel. As of the time you’re reading this. the original negative and soundtrack of Song of the South are sitting, peacefully intact, in Disney’s film vaults, and a few miles away in Burbank, the original B&W, non-colorized version of Yankee Doodle Dandy is kept by Warners.
That was the truce between art and commerce. That truce line assumed that artists would always be on the side of freedom, and companies would always be on the side of censorship. Bluntly, it was a parent/child relationship and for most of a century, it basically worked. The system wasn’t set up for a situation where art and commerce went to the same colleges, read the same magazines, and essentially thought alike.
So what happened to colorization? It’s there today, it works better than ever, but it’s still rarely used, even as black and white film prints—and our memories—fade. Contrary to Martin Scorsese’s fears, the studios holding rights to historically significant black and white films didn’t knock themselves out in a mad rush to offend purists by colorizing classic films that only purists would pay to see anyway.
Nobody’s even rushing to colorize classic old TV shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Sgt. Bilko, or The Honeymooners. Fifty, sixty years after they first aired, people know how old they are, and are accustomed to them in their original form. One minor exception has been very specific, two ABC shows of the early ‘60s, Combat! and Twelve O’ Clock High. Some episodes of both shows were colorized, the rationale being they were World War II shows with a lot of stock footage that already defined them as part of the past.
One episode of I Love Lucy has been colorized twice, giving us a look at how much the artistry behind the technology has improved. IMHO, the outstanding example of what intelligent colorization can do for a movie is They Shall Not Grow Old, which used a variety of novel techniques to turn World War I footage, and our faded memories into a new-for-the-first-time vivid sense that these weren’t mere flickering, herky-jerky shadows on the screen, but men as they actually lived, people once as real as you or me.
Make no mistake about it, turning World War One imagery into color is adding something that wasn’t there to begin with. But paradoxically, it restores an image to a lifelike, if imprecise, and better impression of reality.
Altered Images (aside from being the name of an ‘80s band) will be a short series of posts revealing how, well, motion picture images are altered, with a specific emphasis on changing reality. The next post in the series is likely to be about image smoothing, or frame rate adjustment, and why this seemingly obscure, subliminal technique is going to be important to the way we see the past. Soon we’ll get to how films as diverse as Citizen Kane, In the Line of Fire, and Zelig use these techniques on once-real, now-altered footage.Published in