Not long ago I was watching Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, which I’ve watched multiple times—not because I feel it is necessarily a great film, but because few modern films have so accurately pinpointed the look and feel of early Hollywood. A friend of mine was watching it with me (and I must say, watching it with a non-classic film lover is quite a strange experience … i.e., having to explain who Katharine Hepburn is and why Cate Blanchett’s performance is so fantastic …) when suddenly she shouted out in horror: “Eew! Gross! Leo’s peas are blue!”
So they were.
While a band pounds away the happy beat of “Happy Feet” at Hollywood’s favorite playground, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) sits down to a dinner of steak and peas. The point of the scene is to accentuate Hughes’ germophobia when Errol Flynn (played by a gleeful Jude Law) reaches over and steals a few of Hughes’ peas with his fingers and stuffs them in his mouth. Hughes reacts with visible disgust, pushing his plate away, the food in front of him now contaminated and inedible.
But all my friend could focus on was the fact that Hughes’ peas weren’t green … they were blue.
Or, to be more accurate, cyan. And I love it that way.
Scorsese had done a near flawless job of recreating the old Technicolor “two strip” color process that so aptly coincided with the setting of the Cocoanut grove scene: Hollywood, circa 1930. Scorsese’s team was as obsessive to perfect the period color as Hughes was obsessive about, well, everything. Following Hughes’ life, moving from the late ’20s to the mid ’30s and 40s, The Aviator‘s color palette progresses right along with the time frame: in the early ’30s the grass looks cyan but by the early ’40s the greens are deep and rich as the film switches to re-create the saturated “three-strip” Technicolor look of the period. Our eyes adjust and it seems much more … well … normal. (Although, there really isn’t anything normal about three-strip Techinicolor, but that’s another blog post …)
It is the earlier “two strip” process that so shocked my friend, and is why it’s perhaps a good thing to understand what it was and why it’s results were so very unique. This particular process was called “Subtractive Two-Color Dye Transfer Print,” (often referred to, albeit incorrectly, as “two strip”) and was used between 1927 and 1933.
Wait, what? Isn’t Gone with the Wind the first color movie?
Le sigh. No. And while we’re on the topic, neither was The Wizard of Oz. I’m not actually sure how the popular misnomer came to be, but Gone with the Wind and its 1939 Best Film competitor Oz are far from the first color films– although they were, without question, a pinnacle of the Technicolor technology up to that point.
Way back in 1927, the two color process mimicked in Scorsese’s The Aviator, was a marked improvement on the previous (that’s right, previous: color on film dates back to 1917) “Subtractive Cement” print procedure. With Subtractive Cement, the film matrices were literally bathed in dye, then cemented back-to-back to the original for printing. Starting in 1927, the wizards at Technicolor (namely Herbert Kalmus) developed a technique for matrices to be optically generated from the actual camera negative.
According to the extensive website The Widescreen Museum: “[the new process] used the matrices to transfer the dye to a specially prepared clear base film. The groundbreaking dye transfer process won substantial acclaim and Technicolor’s output increased markedly from 1928 through 1930.”
It is this process that Scorsese had his special effects team employ to recreate the warm dreaminess of early movie color in The Aviator. Scorsese’s film has a fantastic special effects website where it describes the technique more succinctly than my non-technical brain ever could:
“Natural skin tone was achieved by filming two black and white strips of film (with a red and green filter on the lens) and later adding Yellow dye to the resulting Cyan and Magenta printing matrices. The yellow dye makes up for the lack of yellow color found in skin tone pigment but ultimately can not reproduce yellow or any shade or variation of blue (as a result of the missing blue layer.) The resulting matrices appear orange and a warmer version of cyan more than the normal magenta and cyan found in the later three color process. This look creates an odd but pleasing hand-painted look where faces appear normal and green takes on a blue-green quality while the sky and all things blue appear cyan.”
Here’s how Scorsese’s crew did it in 2004:
Here’s how Kalmus did it in 1927:
Some of the earlier subtractive color systems, namely from 1922-1926, likewise produced some truly eye-popping moments in some of the era’s best silent films. Silent films were resplendent with color: often hand tinted to evoke mood or time of day, they also often featured segments of color film to often stunning results.
Anna May Wong’s ethereal beauty captured forever on film in 1922’s The Toll of the Sea:
Lon Chaney’s dramatic staircase descent in the 1925 horror classic The Phantom of the Opera:
Beautiful Ramon Navarro’s triumphant procession through ancient Rome in the original Ben-Hur (1925), as well as Betty Bronson’s appearance as the Virgin Mary:
The swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks and gorgeous Billie Dove in The Black Pirate (1925):
And, appropriately enough, Howard Hughes’ silent-to-sound war epic Hell’s Angels (1930), featuring the only color footage in existence of Jean Harlow (who is played by Gwen Stefani in Scorsese’s The Aviator):
And finally, here’s the process in action. A few years ago, Kodak released test color footage from 1922, featuring actress Hope Hampton who models costumes from the film Light in the Dark (which was the first commercial use of Kodachrome’s two-color process) as well as Ziegfeld girl Mary Eaton and silent superstar Mae Murray.
Kodak sums it up perfectly: “Actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair.”
Watch the entire clip and prepare to be thoroughly enchanted: