For Better, For Worse? Special Effects and Colour in the Early Eastmancolor Era

by Keith M. Johnston, Co-Investigator on The Eastmancolor Revolution Project

Special or visual effects have been a crucial part of cinema over the last 120 years, including George Melies’ spectacular fantasies, the stop motion animation of King Kong (1933), the motion controlled action of Star Wars (1977), and the current use of computer generated imagery (CGI). While visual effects feature regularly in debates about the spectacular narrative pleasures offered by science fiction, epic, and horror films, there is a broader use of special effects across all genres. Matte paintings, miniatures, back projection, and travelling mattes featured in most film productions, allowing exterior scenes to be ‘shot in the studio without any regard to weather conditions or other hazards… a means to enhance production values and reduce costs, rather than just another trick process to be used when all else fails.’ (Margutti 1960, 137)

Given our project falls firmly in the pre-CGI era, I was interested in how existing special effects techniques adjusted to the early Eastman colour era.

It doesn’t get much earlier than For Better, For Worse (J. Lee-Thompson, 1954), one of the first ten feature films made in Britain in Eastman Colour. Directed by J. Lee-Thompson (his first colour film), working with famed cinematographer Guy Green (who had experience on seven earlier Technicolor films, including Blanche Fury (1946) and Decameron Nights (1953), and one Eastmancolor film, the 1953/54 Billy Graham religious film, Souls in Conflict), this theatrical adaptation rarely explores the narrative possibilities of colour, despite a strong use of colour in its opening titles – where the slapdash blue paintbrush marks anticipate the film’s story of a newly married couple struggling to survive in a small apartment that they want to make their own.

Aside from a painted backdrop seen through the windows of the flat Anne (Susan Steven) and Tony (Dirk Bogarde) move into, the main effects shots in For Better, For Worse are background travelling matte shots in car driving sequences such as those featuring Anne’s parents (Eileen Herlie and Cecil Parker):

 

 

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Then, there is a final matte shot in the penultimate scene that raises a real question about the reliability of special effects in the early colour era: as seen in the images below, Anne, Susan, and her parents meet in a London restaurant. Through the large bay windows we can see a curiously blank blue screen: at a stretch, in the first (establishing) shot, this could be thought of as depicting blue sky outside. However, as the camera cuts in to medium and close shots, the flat blue screen becomes even more overt; and a later exterior shot shows the sky outside to be quite grey, not blue at all.

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A more likely explanation, therefore, is that this blue backdrop is the traditional blue screen used for travelling mattes, but without the exterior specially shot image that would normally be added optically at the laboratories.

What is curious is that this mistake appears to have slipped past everyone involved in the film, including Thompson, Green, and staff at Rank Film Laboratories, Denham. From the 1940s on, Rank invested heavily in developing the Independent Frame system, an approach that relied on studio-based exteriors through the use of back projection, mattes, miniatures, etc. (Dixon 1994). Despite this expertise, the evidence of this sequence in For Better, For Worse suggests that the move to Eastmancolor may have complicated the use of such regularly adopted effects techniques.

This problem was raised in several contemporary film industry trade publications. Some regarded the shift to colour filmmaking as a warning that back projection (images projected onto a screen in the studio, and captured on the same negative) ‘should be used with considerable discretion… travelling matte is preferable.’ (Gloynes 1959, 126). The adoption of colour travelling matte, however, was not without its own difficulties, not least ensuring colour mattes were not ‘upsetting the colour quality of the foreground picture.’ (Margutti 1960, 133). As Margutti also notes, colour effects processes (likely developed by Technicolor, although this is not stated) would shoot ‘foreground scenes… against a backing of such a colour that it will expose one of the layers of the colour negative to the exclusion of the others. Any layer may be selected, but blue has most often been used.’ (Margutti 1960, 132) While accepting this had its limitations – not least ensuring that no other blue elements featured in the scene – it was clearly industry standard during the adoption of Eastmancolor – the shift to green-screen was still several years away.

BKSTS v55, n1 (Jan 1973), p.21

Illustration of matte processes: Margutti (1973), ‘Magic with mattes’, p. 21.

So, we may now have a better explanation why For Better, For Worse’s restaurant scene features a blue backdrop – and we know that Eastmancolor stock could make blue ‘go more blue than [the cinematographer] wants it’ (Erwin Hillier 1956, 11), possibly explaining why the restaurant back-drop is quite so striking – and we know that Rank were well versed in the use of black-and-white travelling matte – but that necessarily brings us back to the explanation that something must have gone wrong during the colour processing at Rank laboratories; something that was seemingly not picked up before the film was distributed. Yet the (limited) critical reviews I could find make no mention of this ‘mistake’: the Monthly Film Bulletin, for example, described the film simply as ‘played with charm and vivacity’ with ‘pleasing’ Eastmancolour (MFB 1954, 161). So its continued presence in the film still retains some mystery…

In the years following, critical commentary on ‘bad’ special effects would appear to crop up more in critical appraisals of films, which suggests that the Eastmancolor revolution may have worked to exacerbate the visibility of such techniques. A year after For Better, For Worse, Simba (1955) had ‘muddy’ colour and evident ‘disparity between stars performing against back projection plates and their doubles in long shot on actual second-unit locations’ (G.L., 1955, 36). By 1958, Passionate Summer was dismissed for having ‘bleary Eastmancolor’… [with] crude and appalling back projection’ (Dyer 1958, 24); while colour was once again ‘muddy’ in Gorgo (1961), with ‘irritating… back projection in the early scenes’ (MFB 1961, 155).

Given our project’s aim is to uncover the aesthetic possibilities – and occasional limitations – of the introduction of Eastmancolor, then I would imagine that the work of special effects technicians and laboratories will becoming increasingly important, not just in genre entries but across the full range of films.

 

WORKS CITED

Winston Wheeler Dixon (1994), ‘The Doubled Image: Montgomery Tully’s Boys in Brown and the Independent Frame Process’, in Dixon (ed.) Re-Viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992 (Albany: State University of New York Press), pp.41-52.

Peter John Dyer (1958), ‘Passionate Summer’ Films & Filming v5, n2 (Nov), p.24.

 For Better, For Worse review (1954), Monthly Film Bulletin v21, n240, p.161.

F.P. Gloynes (1959), ‘Progress in Colour Duplicating Techniques’, British Kinematography v35, n5 (Nov), p.125-26.

Gorgo review (1961), Monthly Film Bulletin v28, n324, p.155.

Erwin Hillier (1956), ‘Are You Colour Conscious?’ Films & Filming v2, n5 (February), p.11.

G.L. (1955), Simba review, Monthly Film Bulletin v22, n252, p.36.

Victor L.A. Margutti (1960), ‘Some Practical Travelling Matte Processes’, British Kinematography v36, n5 (May), pp.131-37.

Vic Margutti (1973), ‘Magic with mattes’, British Kinematography Sound and Television Journal v55, n1 (January), pp. 20-23.

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