For most people, it’s hard imagining a world without the brilliant vibrancy of Technicolor. Of course, us classic film fans know it as just part of a progression in film innovation. Either way, Technicolor celebrates its 100th birthday, and after the TCM Film Festival other festivals are doing their part to honor the film medium as well. I reported a few days ago about the 14th Annual Dance Media Festival, taking place this weekend, and its screening of 1947’s film The Unfinished Dance in honor of the centennial of Technicolor (stay tuned for a review of the film). I was fortunate to talk to Technicolor senior executive Robert Hoffman about the world of color in films and its endurance and enjoyment to film fans the world over.
Kristen: For those who have yet to see The Unfinished Dance, what makes it a good example of the Technicolor process?
Robert Hoffman: The film was produced and released in 1947 and is a different style of Technicolor film than those generally produced by MGM in the post-war era. When one considers those MGM films one naturally thinks of An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, Technicolor that employed a more vibrant palette. Mr. Koster’s film was more psychologically nuanced and less a pure entertainment. The Unfinished Dance was photographed by the great Robert Surtees, ASC, a brilliant cinematographer, and very well versed in Technicolor productions; his most prominent Technicolor production was arguably Ben Hur. He also photographed the great ballet film, The Turning Point…not a film in Technicolor.
K: Too often the rise of color in film is summed up like Dorothy leaving Kansas and entering Oz but was the advent of color in films simply giving audiences a shot of color? Using something like The Unfinished Dance as an example, how has color given additional depth and breadth to storytelling?
RH: Well…we innately see in color, which adds a level of naturalism missing in black and white. (That is certainly not intended as a knock on black and white!) Aside from color being able to address the widest range of flesh tones found in the real world, color also freed-up production designers, art directors and costumers to incorporate a full palette of hues into their designs. The introduction of Oz, in that very vibrant incorporation of Technicolor, was overly saturated by design to contrast with the very dusty Kansas opening sequence. The real beauty of the Technicolor process was that the intensity of the color could be dialed up or down to address the narrative intent of the story and the creative demands of the filmmakers.
K: How has Technicolor withstood the test of time, from where it started to where its ended up? Has the rise in digital filmmaking forced the color process to change? How?
RH: I can assure you, the Technicolor “narrative” hasn’t ended…for the simple reason that the company continues to re-invent itself, as it has done consistently over the last century – something very much in the company’s DNA. The Unfinished Dance incorporated Technicolor process number four, that by 1954 evolved into process number 5, one that no longer required shooting with the Technicolor 3-strip camera, thereby extending the life of its patented IB dye-transfer release printing into the late 1970s. At that time the company reinvented itself to more fully exploit the growth of “home entertainment” while it also helped the industry fully engage in the huge global demand for American films, studio and indie alike.
The rise of digital creative solutions was something Technicolor fully embraced by the end of the 20th-century, being one of the first global post-production businesses to offer digital intermediate color-finishing. Earlier this year Technicolor celebrated its major (if not widely known) contributions to Birdman. It was the fourth year in a row that Technicolor’s clients received Oscars for Cinematography, inclusive of Hugo, Life of Pi, and Gravity – all of which Technicolor handled the color finishing on.
K: What other films would you recommend for those wanting to get a good overview of the evolution of Technicolor?
RH: Keeping in the spirit of The Unfinished Dance, I’d suggest that The Red Shoes is arguably the most beautiful ever made in Technicolor. Other great “dance” films Technicolor handled include Moulin Rouge, West Side Story, All That Jazz, and more recently, Black Swan.
More generally, I’d reference key films of directors John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, including: The Searchers; The Quiet Man; and Vertigo. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator used Technicolor color science in the most unique fashion. But one has to remember and include filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Francis Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Bernardo Bertolucci among others. The list of projects and filmmakers is nothing short of stunning.
The 14th Annual Dance Media Festival runs April 30th-May 5th in Los Angeles. You can purchase tickets to The Unfinished Dance screening on May 2nd by visiting the festival website.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.