In trying to devise a photographic style for Space Rangers, I looked at a lot of different films from the mid 20th century, and I noticed some pretty interesting things. It lead to doing quite a bit of research for the film.
The History of Color Film in Movies
First a little history about color cinematography. In the late 1930’s the first viable full color film system came in to being. It was the “3 strip” Technicolor system. Technicolor employed a large camera, with 3 strips of black and white film. 3 filters made sure that each strip of film only recorded one 3rd of the color spectrum. Red, Green or Blue. The images from these 3 strips of film were combined together on to one film strip in the laboratory using special dyes. Technicolor had a very rich look that we associate with films like The Wizard of OZ (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939)
But there was a problem with Technicolor. The cameras were HUGE, and the process was complicated. So the search was on for single strip film that could record the full color spectrum. In 1950, with a little help of records captured in World War 2 from the German company Agfa, Kodak developed Eastman Color. A single strip of film could run through a standard 35mm motion picture camera, and get full realistic color. No more need for the bulky Technicolor cameras.
The folks at Technicolor saw the hand writing on the wall, but they also realized that the name Technicolor had been fixed into the minds of the general public as standing for high quality spectacular color images. So they developed a way to make classic Dye transfer Technicolor prints, from Eastman Color negatives. The results of this process didn’t exactly look like classic 3 strip Technicolor. In fact it was a unique look all its own, that we tend to associate with widescreen CinemaScope films of the 1950’s
Modern Technology, Retro Look
It’s this 1950’s version of Technicolor that I wanted to emulate in Space Rangers. But how to do that with modern digital cameras. I started by looking at some of the films of the 1950’s, to try and figure out what exactly it was that made these images so unique. I looked at films as diverse as “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) “Forbidden Planet” (1956) and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) among many others. What I discovered surprised me. That 50’s Technicolor look had as almost as much to do with the color choices in the sets and makeup, as it did with the Technicolor process.
So I set about doing tests. I found that if I had my actress made up to match the 50’s style, then placed her on a background of neutral colors, she would “pop” in a way that reminded me of those 50’s films. From then on the selection of paint and fabric colors was very important to achieving this look.
Star Trek and the Tao of Colored Light
The next rather huge influence on Space Rangers, was the original 1966 version of Star Trek. Star Trek was the first professional job as a director of photography for Gerald Perry Finnerman. As the show was on NBC, the first “all color network”, the producers of the show encouraged him to be bold with color. The sets of the Enterprise were painted in a light grey, so Finnerman would wash the walls in deep reds, greens and violets. Not only did this help the sci-fi factor, but it helped disguise the fact that sets were being redressed and used over and over again. He would also use a red or blue hair light on the actors. Just a hint of color touching the actors face. (Colored light on an actor’s face was a no no according to network dictates.)
With this in mind, I grabbed my color gels and never looked back. I tried to be as bold as Finnerman with my color washes. But having no network to please, I also used color on the actor’s faces. For me it just felt right to make the show as dramatic as possible.
The Masters of Composition
In watching this widescreen films of the 50’s, I was amazed at the dramatic use of the frame. CinemaScope having been introduced in 1953, you could see that the directors and cinematographers were discovering how to use this extraordinarily wide frame. Sometimes allowing the actors to move around the frame with little movement of the camera. This was partly a solution to a technical problem with focus in CinemaScope, but it was also an artistic choice.
Many of the directors and cinematographers of the day, studied the old masters of art, for ideas of how to handle this new format. You can see as you watch the films the use of classical composition. The camera always seems to be exactly where it needs to be to cover the action. No one was better at this than director John Sturges. I think I watched his film “Bad Day at Black Rock” 20 times while preparing Space Rangers.
I hope that all of this research comes across in the final product. While my intent was not to be slavish to this style, my hope is that Space Rangers will give people old enough to remember, that nostalgic feel of 1950’s cinema. Those too young to remember might be prompted to check out some of these classic films.