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Glorious Technicolor

1.01.2011

In the early 1930s, sound cameras were bulky and cumbersome. In 1935, Hollywood produced its first three-strip Technicolor feature film, Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp. Three-strip Technicolor was a color additive process that exposed three separate strands of film in one gigantic camera, and then printed these three strands on top of one another to produce a full color effect. It was a vast improvement over the red and green pallor of “two-strip” Technicolor and the various stencil and dye processes that had been used since the medium’s inception, in which film was run through a fixing bath and dyed one “color” for dramatic effect, or hand-colored frame by frame.


Technicolor  soon became the dominant force in color films, and his company jealously guarded both its process and the equipment used to shoot Technicolor films. In fact, if a producer wanted to use Technicolor, he had to sign an agreement with the company to use Technicolor’s camera and Technicolor’s own house cameramen, and to employ Natalie Kalmus, Herbert’s wife, as “color coordinator.” Her taste ran to bold reds, vivid greens, and equally pronounced hues of all the other colors in the spectrum; pastels and shading were out. If a producer or director argued about the use of color, Natalie Kalmus was quite willing to pull the plug on the whole project. Her sole function was to make sure that Technicolor showed itself to best advantage no matter what the subject matter, which accounts for the vibrancy of color in such classics of the period as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both 1939).


At the same time, by the 1940s black-and-white cinematography had developed into a highly sophisticated art, with the introduction of more sensitive film and the adventurous lighting patterns pioneered by such brilliant cameramen as James Wong Howe, John Alton, Lee Garmes, Gregg Toland, and Nicholas Musuraca. Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was, on the whole, a rigidly defined genre factory, in which individual talents were tolerated and encouraged only as long as they added to the hegemony of the studio’s hold on the public imagination.



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