Film Directors See Red Over Ted Turner's Movie Tinting
by Jack Mathews
The Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1986, part 6 page
So, Toto pulled back the curtain, revealing to the horror of everyone
who believed in him that the Wizard of Oz was not a wizard at all. It was
Ted Turner turning the knobs and making all the noise.
It's been a few months since Turner left the Emerald City, with the
film libraries of MGM, RKO
and early Warner Bros.
in tow. He had come here not long before, saying he wanted to make movies
like the old Hollywood classics.
What he apparently meant was that he'd like to reedit some of the
old classics, specifically add color to the well-known black-and-white
movies and trot them out -- films of a different color -- for new generations
of viewers on his WTBS superstation.
Last week, Turner Broadcasting System released a list of more than
100 movies that it has commissioned Color Systems Technology to computer-colorize
over the next few years, including such classics as "Casablanca,"
"The Maltese Falcon," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "A
Night at the Opera" and the 1946 "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
This week, an angry committee of film directors reacted. In a strongly
worded letter to Gilbert Cates, president of the Directors Guild of America,
the 18 members of the president's committee urged that the guild put itself
on record against the "cultural butchery" of colorizing and that
it should use "all resources at its disposal to stop this process
in its path."
Cates, reached in Vancouver where he is directing a film, said he
agrees with the recommendation of his committee and will urge approval
of it when the DGA national board meets next month.
"It (colorizing) is a process of dissembling the historical
and artistic fabric of our landmarks," Cates said. "Once you
say you can add color, why can't you add a different score, add shots,
re-edit it, or do anything you want?"
Cates' comment was mild compared to those of some colleagues.
Woody Allen: Determining the colors that people wear, or what colors
the walls are and so on are major creative decisions. . . . To have a group
of people from the outside making those decisions is criminal and ludicrous.
Billy Wilder: Those
fools! Do they really think that colorization will make "The Informer"
any better? Or "Citizen Kane" or "Casablanca"?
Or do they hope to palm off some of the old stinkers by dipping them in
31 flavors? Is there no end to their greed?"
Joe Dante: Black and white was an art form in the '40s. . . By changing
them, they are tampering with history. It's the death knell of an entire
Elliot Silverstein, chairman of the DGA committee on colorizing,
provided the most graphic opinion. When it was pointed out that the successful
halting of colorizing might ultimately cost DGA members residuals from
TV syndication and video sales, he said, "We're dealing with moral
and professional issues here, not a commercial one. These fellows are lifting
their legs on people's work.
"We certainly care about the directors' feelings, but we are
not going to change our plans," said TBS Executive Vice President
Bob Wussler. "That boat has left the harbor. The ship has sailed."
There are two colorizing companies thriving in this new industry.
Color Systems Technology, based in Marina del Rey, and Colorization Inc.,
a Toronto-based subsidiary of Hal Roach Studios. Their techniques differ,
but both essentially use computers to assign predetermined colors to shades
of gray in each scene.
Colorization has colored such films as Laurel and Hardy's "Way
Out West," the 1937 "Topper," with Cary
Grant and Constance Bennett, and Frank
Capra's "It's a Wonderful
Life." CST started with "Miracle
on 34th Street" and just completed "Yankee Doodle Dandy,"
the first of 150 films that it will do, at an average cost of $183,000,
for Ted Turner.
The directors opposed to coloring complain that: It changes the mood,
subverts the original concepts, alters subtle lighting and shadowing techniques,
redirects the viewer's focus away from where the director intended it to
be and presumes to add authenticity where a distorted reality may well
have been the director's intention.
But their major objection is that coloring is prima facie re-editing
of an artist's work, a form of mutilation that is no different from putting
a fig leaf on Michelangelo's David or rouging Mona Lisa's cheeks.
"To change someone's work without any regard to his wishes shows
a total contempt for film, for the director and for the public," said
Woody Allen, one of the few directors with the clout to make his films
in black and white when he chooses. "I think all of the guilds that
have any regard for film as an art form should take major action to prevent
it. That's what guilds are for, to protect the integrity of the artist,"
The colorizers cite several defenses for the process.
They say that black-and-white films are getting harder to syndicate
on television, both at home and abroad, and that by colorizing the films,
they are airing works that would otherwise not be seen.
They say that the booming video market is virtually shut off from
black-and-white classics, that young VCR users won't rent or buy anything
that is not in color.
And they argue that most of the old films were done in black and
white because color was either not available to the directors or the studios
wouldn't go the additional cost.
This hardly explains the presence of John
Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" and "Treasure of the Sierra
Madre" on Turner's list. Director John
Huston is still around and he is on the record against having them
colored. And it doesn't explain the presence of films like Jacques Tourneur's
"Out of the Past," a moody film noir that uses its black-and-white
cinematography as a major character.
Nevertheless. . . .
"I have no artistic problem coloring black-and-white films,"
said Charles Powell, executive vice president of Color Systems Technology.
"We're movie people, not carpetbaggers. We really care. And the contracts
are pouring in."
Powell and Color Systems Technology consultant Gene Allen, the Oscar-winning
art director of "My Fair
Lady," say they use great care in determining colors for everything
from flesh tones to room colors. The dissenting directors say that the
art director on "My Fair
Lady" might not have been director Michael
Curtiz's first choice for "Casablanca"
and that it's an outrageous presumption for him to think he can translate
the film to color without destroying the intended mood.
"They keep saying they care and that they want to consult,"
Silverstein said. "Consult with whom? Most of the film makers are
dead. It doesn't seem right for people whose main interests are archeological
to roll right over their works."
Powell said the directors do not own their films and that the public
should determine whether films are colorized or not.
"The choice lies with the public," Powell said. "The
public loudly and clearly indicates a preference for color."
Hal Gaba, vice chairman of Colorization Inc. said the directors are
promoting "the grossest form of censorship" by trying to take
away the public's right to view these films in color.
"To tell the public that they can't watch it in color, to have
the audacity to try to legislate this form of censorship is really shocking,"
Gaba said. "To carry their thinking out logically, they shouldn't
allow color films to be shown on black-and-white television or films made
for the big screen to be shown on television at all."
Powell said that the directors should take a look at the process
before complaining about it and said he thinks people are getting Color
Systems Technology's work mixed up with that of its competitor's. The directors
quoted here said the quality of colorization is irrelevant. The point is
that the films were made in black and white by a team of film makers working
in a specific medium, with its limitations and its advantages.
"I might see a colorized film and not be offended by it,"
said Milos Forman, who won an Oscar last year for "Amadeus."
"That's not the point. The point is creative rights. Coloring films
is like putting aluminum siding on a 17th-Century castle."
"I have no quarrel with the mechanics," Woody Allen said.
"That has nothing to do with it. If a director is around and says
he'd like to have it colorized, fine. If not, no one should be allowed
to change it, in any way, ever."
Allen now has it in his contract that his films cannot be altered
without his permission, and he refuses to let his moves be "panned
and scanned" (trimmed at the top and sides to adapt to the shape of
a TV screen). He said he would rather lose money on sales of tapes and
TV syndication than have people watch a different movie from the one he
The commercial rationale that people won't watch black-and-white
films or rent black-and-white tapes may be a self-fulfilling prophecy now
that they can play the computer keyboard game and magically convert them.
It's all a bit condescending, Allen said.
"What they are really saying is that the public are morons,
brainless people who can't enjoy a film if it's in black and white. They
need colors because they don't have the brains to respond to content. .
. . It is not true. The world has responded to 'Citizen Kane' and will
continue to respond to it.
"They don't care about the public or the films. They will argue
you deaf, dumb and blind with philosophical reasons for doing it. In the
end, what they're saying is, 'We'll tell you anything, but we want the
While Color Systems Technology keeps busy with its TBS orders, Colorization
Inc. is keeping busy with films taken from the Hal Roach Studios library,
or from the public library. There are an estimated 17,000 black-and-white
films in the public domain and Colorization Inc. is helping itself. By
colorizing them and copyrighting the color version, it plans to build its
own library, a scheme that the DGA's Cates says adds insult to the injury.
Among the titles in Colorization's young library are "Angel
and the Badman," starring John
Wayne, "Suddenly," with Frank
Sinatra, and George Romero's "The Night of the Living Dead,"
a 1968 horror film that slipped into the public domain because someone
failed to copyright it.
It may be hard to get the Rainbow Ship back in the harbor. Television,
with its Cuisinart style of editing, has provided plenty of precedence
for third-party interference. And the public may be hard to rouse. Colorizing
is a far more seductive abuse.
The truth is that the quality of computer color is not as aesthetically
awful as we might expect, and it will get better. Whether they actually
get Sydney Greenstreet's hair color right in "The Maltese Falcon"
will go unnoticed by most of us.
But no matter how much care goes into the selection of colors, there
will always be the overriding commercial concerns. Wilson Markle, head
of Colorization Inc., tells the story of a client who rejected a Western
that his company had colored using authentic desert brown for the backdrop.
Markle's colorizers changed the brown to green and sent it back and all
"They didn't say anything about the desert," Markle said,
"but that's the only thing we changed. . . . They said, 'That's great.'
Green deserts may become the norm in old Westerns, green being so
much more entertaining than brown. Who knows what colorful thoughts lurk
in the minds of computer keyboard artists?
In the colorized version of "It's
a Wonderful Life," the wardrobe of Gloria
Grahame's Violet, the budding vamp of Bedford Falls, was colored violet,
turning her into a visual pun that director Frank
Capra may or may not have found amusing.
No one could deny that that was art direction, nearly 40 years after
the fact. And no one can guarantee that it won't be done again. That's
One of the films on Turner's to-be-colored list is "Your Cheatin'
Heart," a 1964 biographical movie about country singer Hank Williams.
One of its stars is Red Buttons. If even one of his buttons is red. . .
John Voland contributed to this story.
© 1986 The Times Mirror Company