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dossier The Colour dossier Introduction: the mutability of colour space

SARAH STREET
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Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price (eds), Color: the Film Reader (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), p. 2. Examples of recent books include Eirik Hanssen, Early Discourses on Colour and Cinema: Origins, Functions, Meanings (Stockholm: Stockholm University Press, 2006); Wendy Everett (ed.), Questions of Colour in Cinema: from Paintbrush to Pixel (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007); Scott Higgins, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s (Austin, TX: Texas University Press, 2007); David Batchelor (ed.), Colour: Documents of Contemporary Art (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel and MIT Press, 2008); Raphalle Costa de Beauregard (ed.), Cinma et couleur (Paris: Michel Houdiard diteur, 2009); Richard Misek, Chromatic Cinema: a History of Screen Colour (Oxford: WileyBlackwell, 2010). See also two issues on early colour, edited by Kim Tomadjoglou, of Film History, vol. 21, nos 1 and 2 (2009); and Journal of British Cinema and Television, no. 12 (2010), Special Issue on Colour in British Cinema and Television, ed. Simon Brown and Sarah Street.

David Batchelor, Chromophobia (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), p. 124. The amount of research being undertaken on colour was demonstrated at the Colour and the Moving Image Conference held in Bristol, July 2009.

Adrian Cornwell-Clyne was a typical exponent of this view in Colour Cinematography, 3rd ed. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1951), p. 662.

In their introduction to Color: the Film Reader, Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price reflect on the neglect of colour in film studies and note that their book, published in 2006, is intended to have a galvanizing function, making clear the many issues and ideas to which one must attend in any consideration of color.1 Since then there have indeed been significant publications on colour which similarly draw attention to its importance in the history of cinema and as a broad, culturally-based theme, relevant to todays technological transformations.2 As David Batchelor observes, an inquiry into colour can take you just about anywhere; and the field continues to be open to new research, theoretical perspectives and approaches.3 Part of the reason for colours relative neglect in film and cultural studies may have been the methodological and conceptual problems with grasping its multifaceted nature. For much of its history, commentators played down colours contribution to film, emphasizing instead its function in underscoring dominant narrative trajectories, neither drawing attention to itself nor acting as a distraction. Colour, it was felt, should be kept in its place as secondary to more important concerns such as plot development.4 Although some scholars wrote about colour, no consensus emerged concerning its relation to film. Rudolf Arnheim, for example, considers colours potential artistic contribution to be limited, bound to the realist codes of mechanical reproduction.5 Sergei Eisenstein, on the other hand, argues that as

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Screen 51:4 Winter 2010 The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. doi:10.1093/screen/hjq047

Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (London: Faber and Faber, 1958), p. 131. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense (1942), trans. Jay Leyda (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), pp. 120-21.

Everett, Questions of Colour in Cinema, p. 26. Jacques Aumont, Introduction la couleur: des discourse aux images (Paris: Colin, 1994), pp. 180-87; Bla Balzs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art (London: Dennis Dobson, 1952), p. 242; Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: the Movement-Image (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 118.

Deleuze, Cinema 1.

10 Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 90-91.

11 Paul Nash, The colour film, in Charles Davy (ed.), Footnotes to the Film (London: Lovat Dickson, 1938), p. 132.

inherently malleable and capable of creating shifting, contextual meanings within a film narrative, colour should be understood organically in relation to the whole work.6 Wendy Everett notes how the presence of movement sets filmic colour apart7 for other key theorists, including Jacques Aumont, Bla Balzs and Gilles Deleuze, who also argue that the relation between colour and object is not fixed.8 The latter in particular emphasizes how colour does not refer to a particular object but absorbs all that it can, drawing on Godards succinct observation that its not blood, its red.9 Fixing symbolic meaning to colour thus takes us only so far. How filmmakers use it makes it remarkable, capable of an infinite variety of ways to stimulate the imagination. Yet this can create problems for audiences versed in reading films in a particular way. As Stanley Cavell observes, the cultural power of black and white to dramatise reality, as a continuum from the traditions of nineteenth-century drama, is challenged by colour, despite the knowledge that colour is capable of representing the world as we literally see it. His point is that the colour film world is a less knowable one than that presented with the more familiar conventions of the black and white axis of brilliance along which our comprehensibility of personality and event were secured.10 The essays in this dossier present four case studies of how, in different ways, new contexts for colour analysis challenge established approaches, readings and conventions. The themes reflect different phases of developing research on animation, restoration, colour in non-western cinemas and the impact of digital technologies. Animation has always raised interesting questions for colour. As the artist Paul Nash noted: The problem of producing colours from pictures where the colours are arbitrarily designed is a very different affair from actual colour photography which attempts to reproduce the natural colour of objects in Nature.11 Len Lyes painting directly onto negative film for A Colour Box (GPO Film Unit, 1935) and Rainbow Dance (GPO Film Unit, 1936), and Norman McLarens Love on the Wing (GPO Film Unit, 1939), are classic examples of how animation pushed the boundaries of experimental colour design in the 1930s. Once freed from the imperative to replicate natural colour, the form could deploy colour freely and in a context in which audiences would not judge colour simply according to arbitrary standards of realism. As Kristian Moen demonstrates here, even though Disneys Silly Symphonies were intended for the mass market and thus their use of colour would be expected to relate to narrative development the films provide many examples of transformation whereby colour is as mutable, expressive and fluid as music. As their titles suggest, the Silly Symphonies were experiments using colour and music as mutually dependent registers. The examples cited by Moen indeed present colour changes within a frame and across frames, which critics such as lie Faure appreciated for their complexity. Rather than using colour as a static register, movement is deployed to express natures constantly changing forms, textures and moods. The daily transformations
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12 Batchelor, Chromophobia, pp. 22-23.

that take place in the natural world, often at a micro level, are expressed by colours that shift and mutate. In this way, Disneys films challenged the dominant trends of critical discourse which, despite an ostensible concern to harness colour to realism, did not favour its demonstration of a symbiotic or spectacular relationship with the external world. Problems with reading colour are also raised here by Alex Claytons case study of different versions of Jour de fte (Jacques Tati, 1949, 1964, 1995). Notions of Tatis parametric form, in which stylistic patterns are displayed as arbitrary and unmotivated, are questioned by a reading of the restored Jour de fte which demonstrates the use of a meaningful colour design. Thus the restored version presents a non-naturalistic deployment of colour which directs attention to objects and figures associated with a world which is external to the primary rural setting, such as the travelling fair and symbols of modernity like a tractor. In this instance, Tati demonstrates an awareness of colours potential to present alternative perspectives, bringing meaning to a style which might otherwise go unnoticed. As Clayton demonstrates, both black-and-white and colour versions of the same film operate differently in their strategies of directing attention and meaning. With the option of colour at his disposal, Tati deliberately chose to exploit the variability of colour in its capacity to accent particular objects and figures. While the example differs from Disneys Silly Symphonies, the same principle emerges whereby colours potential to offer something different and expressive is presented. What we are offered in both case studies are colour formations and associations which depart from those grounded in the conventions of psychological realism established for black and white. Colours mutability allows it to be grafted onto new meanings and forms, offering potential for establishing a style or design within the terms of a film or group of films. This is very much the case within the context of postcolonial filmmaking, where colour can be appropriated to destabilize the conventions of otherness and exoticism established through colonial imagery. The association of colour with empire and exotic cultures is apparent from the earliest colour films, and as part of western cultures obsession with whiteness. Batchelor observes that colour is made out to be the property of some foreign body usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological.12 Jacqueline Maingards analysis of Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, Senegal, 2006) demonstrates how the colours and traditions of textile dyeing acquire symbolic resonance in the context of the films critique of globalization. Coloured cloths form a backdrop to the films staging of an outdoor trial of international financial institutions. Rather than being incidental or peripheral elements of the mise-en-scene, these cloths assume major significance in underlining the films political critique. While this example is different from that of Jour de fte, colour plays a similar role in establishing the films worldview. In the spirit of Eisensteins theorizing, one might even go so far as to argue that mutability of colour is used organically, as the sight of hanging,
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multicoloured pastel and deeply saturated cloths expresses both the longevity of local tradition and also its contingency. The final contribution to this dossier considers the challenges posed by digital technologies to prevailing professional roles and methods of working with colour. Digital colour grading, as Richard Misek explains, has become a key area in which colour effects can be manipulated in postproduction to a far greater extent than was possible with photochemical processing. The idea of colour control is as important as ever, but it is spread over a reconfigured workflow with which cinematographers are keen to be involved, as is evident from the activities of the American Society of Cinematographers. Miseks final remarks remind us, however, that outside the province of the feature film the digital environment is potentially revolutionary in its challenge to the way in which colour images are made, viewed and interpreted. In the silent period, applied colour particularly hand-painted colour encouraged a similarly open attitude towards experiment. As with early colour animation, technological development can result in a realignment of professional norms, codes and styles. From very different perspectives, theorists such as Eisenstein and Cavell locate dynamic, even unsettling, territory in a world of colour on screen. The colour spaces opened up by the examples discussed in this dossier have the potential to become infinite in the digital world, as well as in critical consciousness.

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Screen 51:4 Winter 2010 . Sarah Street . Introduction