Rouben Mamoulian — What Do You Think of Color? (1935) 🇺🇸

Rouben Mamoulian — What Do You Think of Color? (1935) |

December 21, 2021

Rouben Mamoulian, who directed “Becky Sharp,” thinks it makes action twice as important as talk, and that it’s here to stay.

by Rouben Mamoulian as told to Jack Jamison

Motion pictures are visual. They are primarily for the eye. If a person is blind, they don’t exist for him; if he is deaf, they do. They are moving images, developing on a screen placed before the eyes.

At the start — twenty-odd years ago — those moving images were black and white. It was not a matter of choice, it was an accident. The only photographic process known at the time produced black-and-white pictures, and that was all there was to it; nobody as yet dreamed of anything else. At the start pictures were silent for the same reason. Nobody had so far imagined that they could ever be anything else.

But seven years ago we got sound, and now we have color.

I met Gertrude Stein recently, when she was visiting Hollywood. We had a violent argument. Miss Stein held that sound pictures were only temporary, and that we ought to go back to the silent film. I disagreed with her. When I saw my first sound film I was convinced that they were here to stay, and today I believe that color will stay. It is, today, where sound films were seven years ago. Today we accept talkies as an accomplished fact. Seven years from now, I am sure, we will similarly accept color pictures.

I am sure of it because I am sure color is integral with the screen. The screen, more than any art, is based upon the achievements of organized science. Before we can do the simplest things, in Hollywood, we must take for granted all the resources and accomplishments of hundreds of trained laboratory workers who have made our tools, as it were, possible to us. For years we did not even know that movies were an art. We thought they were a business. We knew it was a complicated business, true — so complicated that it took twenty years to learn it — and along about 1927 or 1928 we were just beginning to grasp the fundamental laws which applied to it. Then, overnight, the talkies came into existence and swept all our hard-bought knowledge away, with no small amount of destruction, thrusting us back into chaos to learn all over again. We had to stop just when we were learning.

But now a few of the new laws begin to emerge. For instance we know that sound, the new element, was quite different essentially from the basic root of moving pictures as moving pictures. They are primarily for the eye. The eye is the quickest of our senses. The ear is much slower. We see before we hear, and what we see makes a much deeper impression on us than what comes to us through our ears. Doubtless you know the old Chinese proverb, “A picture is worth ten thousand words.” It had a great deal of truth in it. If, instead of merely reading about murders and automobile accidents in our morning newspapers, we could look at the page and really see the events, just as they occurred, in all their blood and horror, our lives would never be the same from that morning on. If the newspapers found a voice and simply told us about them, on the other hand, it wouldn’t affect us much more than it does at present. If sound were as powerfully affecting as sight — to give an example— we would all stay at home and listen to football games on the radio, in preference to attending the games and seeing them with our own eyes. But, when talkies first came in, we forgot all this. Instead of planning pictures for the eye, directors planned them for the ear and filled them with dialogue. Pictures became overbalanced, lopsided. They slowed. Instead of being two-thirds sight and one-third sound, as I think they ought to be, they became half of each. I believe that color will restore pictures to the old, desirable balance of two for one.

Why? Because every object in the world, every house, every stone, every tree, has two visual elements, form and color. To see only one of the two is to half-see the object. If you see a photograph of a rose, uncolored, you see only the design. You accept it as a rose because you happen to know what it means in life, in actuality. But if, in real life, you saw a gray rose, you would be seeing only half a rose. A rose by any other name may swell as sweet, but a rose without its color is no rose at all. Color on the screen increases the visual element by accenting it, doubling its power and bringing it home to us with its real-life force. Hence in my opinion it is connected with the very essence of the motion picture, its visual quality, and belongs integrally to the screen. More than ever, now that we have talkies, I think it belongs there, to restore the balance I have mentioned.

What, after all, is picture-making? To direct a film is to tell a story, or express a character, by drawing a series of pictures of that story or character. Up until now the drawing has been done in charcoal. Now those silent men of the laboratories have said to us directors — “Here is color for you. Take it and use it in your drawings.” What man with an ounce of artist in him could resist such an offer? We are like men who have been condemned for life to draw in black and white, and who suddenly find ourselves painters with a palette and oil paints. If we have called them motion pictures, before, from now on we ought to call them motion paintings

But the whole point is this. Now that color is possible on the screen — how will the film makers use it? Will they go about it like the newly-rich and turn the screen into a gaudy riot of hues? I hope not. I hope they will avoid the mistake that early sound pictures made — that is of having too much dialogue and noise in them. The directors will have to learn the science of colors and light and will have to exercise their color instinct with discrimination and tact. The scenic designer alone cannot solve the problem just as the dialogue director could not and did not in the talkies. Neither sets nor dialogue by themselves make a film. The film depends so much on camera treatment and cutting and the color progression of these elements can only be controlled by the man who tells the story.

The sensible outlook, it seems to me, is this. There is no sense using color just because we have it. As a silent spot in a sound picture can be effective, so a neutral gray spot in a color picture can be effective. A painter often finds a subject which lends itself better to a black-and-white drawing or etching than it does to his colors. So with moving pictures.

Hardly anything in life is objectively good or bad. Fire is good for warmth and bad when it burns your house down. A medicine that will heal you if you take it according to the doctor’s orders may kill you if you take an over-dose. Anything of inherent power, anything with force, is good or bad depending upon the circumstances. Color, definitely, is a force. It is not neuter. It, too, can be destructive or creative. It answers a strong basic craving in us. Children love it. So do savages. That is why traders, who do business with them, carry large stocks of bright beads and bolts of brilliantly dyed cloth. There are few of us in whom color does not provoke a definite reaction. Through association, different shades and tints have even come to be symbolic to us; there are tints that are warm, aggressive, soothing. Red, for instance, traditionally stands for danger, for excitement, whereas a pale blue is cool and soft. Here is the use for color on the screen.

The play — the story — is the thing. Color can be good only when it serves the story. It must be selected to fit in with the emotional and psychological aspects of each scene of the film. If red is a color bound to excite your audience, then it will be foolish to use it in a sad scene. The audience must be in the director’s mind every moment. That was the first problem I had to meet when I started work on “Becky Sharp.” How was I to introduce my color to audiences unused to it and bound psychologically to be a little shocked by it? Should I thrust it on them, with a bang? That, definitely, I was sure was wrong. So, if you saw the picture, you will remember that it began with the palest of tints, only building up later, as the drama of the story itself climbed’ to the stronger, brighter colors.

Selection, there is no doubt of it, is going to be the main problem. Just as no camera angle is good unless it is the one angle which will best capture the mood of scene, so we will not be able to photograph colors as they happen accidentally to appear in Nature. We are going to have to choose them with the utmost caution, whether it is for harmony or for contrast. Selection crops up again in the cutting-room, where the film is edited. When working with black-and-white film we could cut almost where and how we pleased, and the monotone color note of gray would blend the scenes and join them together. With color this will be changed. If one scene shows a bed of scarlet geraniums, and the next a lady’s boudoir in pink and pale gray, the shock to your system would be like having a stick of dynamite go off in your lap. Where once we could intensify our actions with clever cutting, now we are going to have to do it with the colors.

To show what I mean, in the ballroom scene in “Becky Sharp,” on the eve of Waterloo, the dancers were gay and carefree when news of Napoleon’s approaching army came to them. The alarm spread and they went into a panic, with the women rushing to escape and the men hurrying out to their horses to join their troops. Now, if I had thrown the colors in the scene together, I would have had a jumble. I had to arrange my shots so that each had a dominant hue, running first to the weaker tints and later to the powerful ones. I took my groups in this order — dark blacks and blues and greens, then lighter greens, yellows, orange, purple and finally scarlet. In life it would have been unreal for them so to select themselves, but on the screen the color logic is so undeniable that it is completely convincing.

Color speaks with its own voice and the directors must listen. The language of color should be used beautifully and correctly, it should tell the story even as effectively as the camera and dialogue are telling that story.

And how much there is to learn about color we do not even suspect, at this early date. For instance — any painter will tell you that the three primary colors are red, yellow and blue. But making pictures, we work not with pigment, but with colored light — and the primary colors, working with light, are red, violet and green. Add to this the fact that the chairs and tables and costumes on the set all have colors of their own, which must blend with the colors of the light. The laws of harmony and contrast of colors become more intricate because none of your characters stands still and holds poses for you, as models do for a painter, but are constantly in motion. Add that, and a few other facts, complex and extraordinary, and you have a slight notion of what a new fairy-land full of mystery and excitement we are facing!

Difficult it is — but interesting. But make no mistake about it. Color is here to stay.

Rouben Mamoulian was born in Tiflis, Caucasus, near the Russian border, on Oct. 8, 1898. Educated at the Lycée Montaigne in Paris as well as at the University of Moscow, he studied law but, going to London, became interested in the stage although he spoke not a word of English. George Eastman, president of the Kodak Company, brought him to Rochester, N.Y., to direct American opera, and that led in turn to productions on Broadway, and to Hollywood. Among his pictures are “City Streets,” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “Love Me Tonight,” Queen Christina, and now “Becky Sharp,” the first major picture using Technicolor’s new color process.

Top of page: Mamoulian with Miriam Hopkins and the crew.

Above: Frances Dee and Cedric Hardwicke get final instructions for a scene of “Becky Sharp.”

And at the left: A portrait of the author of this story.

Collection: The New Movie MagazineSeptember 1935