Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 19, 2013
When colorization became viable some decades back, one of the biggest arguments against it (other than it looked hideously awful in its early stages) was that it was not the original intention of the filmmaker. It may not have been but I doubt there was much decision making on the filmmaker’s part. Prior to the sixties, most films were made in black and white even though color was available practically from the start. If there was a vocal decision, it was to film in color, not the other way around. Filming in black and white was the default. By the fifties, it started to even out. From 1950 to 1959, four Best Picture winners were in black and white, six were in color. From 1960 t0 1969, just one was in black and white, The Apartment (1960). Since then, there have been two, Schindler’s List (1993) and The Artist (2011). So why did color replace black and white so handily, as did sound over silent? Orson Welles once lamented that when painters discovered acrylic they didn’t stop using oil or watercolor. When canvas came into prominent use, wood was not abandoned. So why does the cinema abandon its old in favor of the new?
Personally, I think Welles was stacking the deck a bit but I don’t disagree with his overall point. That is, no, painters didn’t abandon older methods but fewer make their own paints and canvases than they used to as modern technologies have made it more convenient to simply buy pre-made canvases and paints from a store. They’ve adapted to new technologies, just as cinema, but still use all the mediums in presenting their works. Cinema, on the other hand, seems to replace rather than expand. Why is that?
When sound became a technologically and financially feasible way to make movies, silent films disappeared. Why? Sure, it’s great to hear dialogue in a movie and sound effects, too, but why was Charlie Chaplin at the head of but a tiny band of enthusiasts who continued to film in silence? It’s true, some films were silent into the thirties simply due to technology (like the Japanese film industry not having a single sound film until 1931) but, for the most part, if a film was silent in the thirties it was making a statement. Yet it’s a perfectly valid way to make a movie. Despite that, when a silent film is made, whether popular, like Silent Movie or The Artist, or lesser known, like Sidewalk Stories or Heart of the World, they’re known more for being silent than anything else. In other words, True Grit isn’t known for being a sound film anymore than Iron Man 3. They may be classified according to genre but their choice of medium (black and white or color, silent or sound) is never mentioned. Had filmmakers continued intermixing silent movies with sound movies, that wouldn’t be the case.
This brings us back to the first part of this post, the part about colorizing films. Directors didn’t make silent films from choice, it was simply the default method of making them. And despite the technology to do so, no one has ever gone back and put dialogue and full sound over the silent movies, removed their inter-titles and re-released them as sound movies (I’m not referring to the retrofits that many silent films in production went through at the advent of sound, I’m talking about taking something like <b>Way Down East</b>, dubbing dialogue and sound to it sometime in the 1980s and re-releasing it as a sound film on video). But if the filmmakers didn’t have a choice to film in silence, why didn’t they ever go back and make it sound? Because making a silent movie is different than making a sound movie. Just adding sound doesn’t make it a sound movie and removing sound from, say, Taxi Driver, doesn’t make it a silent movie. Each method produces a distinctly styled work. Maybe certain films would work better as sound movies. Maybe certain sound movies would work better as silents. Certainly, there are hundreds of films past 1960 that work better in black and white but were shot in color because that had become the default. And many more that were shot in black and white that would probably work better in color. But since they were filmed the way they were, attention was paid to lighting and sets and costumes to work with color or black and white so, again, it just doesn’t work to alter them after the fact. So if filming in silence or sound, in black and white or color, are two such completely different things, doesn’t it make sense to keep them both going, to give filmmakers more options for how to tell their story? And yes, I know that they can still do it that way if they want to, but when the industry abandoned the silents after the twenties, and black and white for major blockbusters after the fifties, they cast the die for financial failure for anything that didn’t move with the times.
How about special effects? Should we abandon obviously fake backdrops for computer effects or use both? J.J. Abrams is a fan of both and intermixes the old and the new in his movies constantly. If it’s simpler to use an in-camera optical illusion instead of post-production computer processing, do it. If it’s easier to animate from a computer than build a huge model, do that as well. Do them both rather than abandon one for the other.
But the cinema is a modern art form and always will be. More than any other, it changes with technology. It changes in how it’s made as well as how it’s presented. What that usually means is what is easier is what becomes dominant as long as it is also what is the most profitable. So if it’s easier to produce a computer animated children’s movie that will make hundreds of millions than a hand drawn movie that might not make back its initial investment, the choice is both easy and obvious. The problem is, that’s the business side of things and while it may do a film artist’s soul good to make a silent film or a hand drawn animated film or a black and white film, the chance of making money on it is limited, at best. That’s not the case with other art forms.
A painter has just as good a chance of making next to nothing or millions on their work no matter what they do or what medium they use so they might as well be true to their artistic desires and do what they feel is right. A filmmaker has no gallery to show their films in without making it to a festival, so to speak, and no chance of future success without conforming to the norms of filmmaking. And that seems to be the main reason that film, unlike other art forms, tends to replace rather than expand. Technology drives the industry like no other. Which means hand drawn, silent, black and white, models and painted mattes have no place to go but the ash bin of film history. And the (digital) band plays on.
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