The Technological Evolution of Filmmaking and its Relation to Quality in Cinema
Color in film went through a self-contained evolution much like sound. Many films of the silent era, for instance, used processes such as tinting and toning to give an overall color to the frame (Thomspon & Bordwell 34). Thompson and Bordwell comment on the process that “color could provide information about the narrative situation and hence make the story clearer to the spectator” (34), much like the use of photogénie and mise-en-scene by the Impressionists and Expressionists. Other films, such as The Great Train Robbery, employed stenciling to hand color portions of the frame after photography. Color began its mainstream assent when Technicolor introduced their three-strip coloring process in the 1930s (Thompson & Bordwell 203). However, not every filmmaker immediately began producing color films, and those that did, did so with reason. While this was greatly due to the fact that shooting in color increased budgets by as much as thirty percent, Thompson and Bordwell reflect, “Today we regard color as a realistic element in films, but in the 1930s and 1940s, it was often associated with fantasy and spectacle. It could be used for exotic adventures like The Garden of Allah (1936), swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), or musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)” (203). However, despite this new technology, a film did not have to use color in order to be considered of quality. Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane, for instance, was shot in black and white, despite the advent of color film in the previous decade. While it is possible this decision was made for budgetary reasons, the use of black and white dramatically accentuated the shadowy, mysterious tone of the film. In this case, the decision not to use a tool born from the technological evolution actually enhanced the end result. However, other technologies were meticulously chosen and skillfully implemented to produce the complex film. Thompson and Bordwell write:
Stylistically, Kane was flamboyant, drawing extensively on RKO’s resources. For some scenes, Welles used quiet, lengthy takes. Other passages, notably the newsreel and several montage sequences, used quick cutting and abrupt changes in sound volume. To emphasize the vast spaces of some of the sets, cinematographer Gregg Toland worked at achieving deep focus shots, placing some elements close to the camera, others at a distance. (209)
Despite that Citizen Kane did not utilize Technicolor, it is clear that the film is still very much a child of the technological evolution. The rhythmic use of editing and sound, for instance, is reminiscent of the Soviet Montage movement. Even the tenets of this movement, specifically Eisenstein’s dialectical montage, evolved with technology such as synchronized sound. In a scene from Citizen Kane, for instance, a non-diagetic scream is heard after Kane strikes his wife. This clashes with the diagetic sound to create a new idea in the mind of the viewer. It can also be seen as a subjective tool, similar to those of French Impressionism and German Expressionism. In the light of this convergence of styles and technical tools, Citizen Kane is a prime example of the possibilities enabled by the technological evolution. However, it is most important to remember that human inventiveness is responsible for the realization of these technologies in the successful manner seen in Citizen Kane.
The evolution of film technology remains unpunctuated. New technologies are readily invented, tested, and perfected. In recent years, the rise of digital cinema equipment and techniques has begun encroaching on the arena once dominated solely by photographic film (Thompson & Bordwell 713). As was true in previous evolutionary iterations, however, this technology only serves as another option for filmmakers to choose and not a precondition of modern quality. This is reflected by enthusiasm from some directors, such as George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez, about digital technology, and apprehension from others. Thompson and Bordwell write, “Many cinematographers, directors, designers, and other professionals were upset at the prospect of the death of photographic film, as were many movie fans, but the rise of digital cinema seemed inevitable” (713). This trend and the attitudes surrounding it harmonize with the patterns that have characterized cinema history. However, fans of cinema need not fret, for neither adoption nor disregard of this new technology can bring an end to cinematic quality. The power to do so lies solely in the hands of the filmmaker, the quality of whose projects will ultimately depend upon his or her ability to effectively wield the cinematic formal elements, whatever they may be in the coming years, to clearly convey a story, emotion, impression, or idea.
Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. (2010). Film History: An Introduction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Gunning, Tom. "Now You See It, Now You Don't": The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions. In R. Abel, Silent Film (pp. 71-84). New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Jaramillo, Deborah. (2010, October 4). History of Cinema. Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, United States.