Inside a colorization studio, where the palette is computerized

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ONE company in the colorization field, Color Systems Technology Inc., is located in a handsome, new industrial park in this seaside community. This dream factory isn't the Hollywood of weathered back lots and drafty sound stages; it's Silicon Valley with deck shoes. Three-year-old Color Systems Technology (CST) is already at work on an $18 million contract with the Turner Broadcasting System to color 100 films from a library that includes more than 3,500 movies from MGM, RKO, and pre-1948 Warner Bros.

In addition to ``Yankee Doodle Dandy,'' recently shown by superstation WTBS, colorized classics to be seen in coming months are ``The Sea Hawk,'' ``Forty-Second Street,'' and ``The Prince and the Pauper.'' The company also has a contract to color 16 Shirley Temple films for Twentieth Century-Fox and 94 episodes of the Steve McQueen series ``Wanted Dead or Alive'' for Four Star International.

CST isn't the only company in the film-coloring business. Colorization Inc., with processing facilities in Toronto, has several products appearing soon on independent stations and network affiliates. These include ``Night of the Living Dead,'' to be shown at Halloween, ``It's a Wonderful Life'' at Thanksgiving, and ``Topper'' in February.

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Does coloring really make a difference in appeal to today's viewers?

The answer seems to be that it does.

CST colored the 39-year-old Christmas classic ``Miracle on 34th Street'' for Twentieth Century-Fox, and, according to Buddy Young, president of Color Systems Technology, ``It was the highest rated syndicated film of 1985.'' Mr. Young said the color-converted version had triple the ratings that the black and white version did.

When a client brings a black and white videotape transfer, says Young, his company begins the research phase to assure historical accuracy. The company may have to determine the color of an actor's eyes and hair. In addition, it may try to find the original costumes, check the production notes in film archives, or consult with surviving actors. The company also views color films treating the same period in an effort to get the right color of specific objects.

After the research phase, adds Young, ``the art department then blends that information in for an aesthetic look.''

At this point, explained Ralph Weinger, chairman of Color Systems Technology and inventor of the company's process, one key film frame from a scene is picked and colors are decided upon. A ``colorist'' sitting at a custom computer system brings up that key frame on a video monitor and tells the computer to assign particular colors to different shades of gray in the frame, whether it be a face, clothing, or an automobile. If there are different objects with the same shade of gray in the frame, says Weinger, the colorist electronically marks off a ``mask,'' or smaller area, within the frame and tells the computer to assign a new color to the same shade of gray, but only within that mask. Using this procedure, the shades of gray actually color themselves.

Next, animators are called in. As the scene progresses, the masks coloring a portion of the frame must move across the screen to follow the action. In order to do this, the animator jumps ahead 5 or 10 frames and indicates to the computer where the mask will be. The computer automatically fills in the frames in between. The process is considerably easier during this portion of the task because no new coloring need be done, only the relocation of a mask.

In the case of ``Yankee Doodle Dandy,'' the entire procedure -- including research -- took two to three months to complete. One person with a personal stake in the success of the coloring technique is actress Joan Leslie, Jimmy Cagney's co-star in ``Yankee Doodle Dandy.'' She reportedly aided researchers in their work on the project. Miss Leslie says she was initially fearful the color might be gaudy. She was enthralled, however, when she saw the finished product. ``If done tastefully and subtly,'' she said, ``it's going to enhance anything it colors.''

Executives at CST are extremely sensitive to the complaint that coloring classics is equivalent to disfiguring works of art. Young stresses that the original black and white version of the classic is never altered, only a videotape copy of that. He further states that adaptations have always been a part of the arts.

``We don't understand why the purist would rather have six people see the black and white version rather than 150 million people see the color converted version,'' says Young. ``And those people who are watching the color conversion can always turn the color out [on their TV sets] and watch the original version.''

Ron Haver, head of the film department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, calls the controversy over colorization a ``tempest in a teapot.'' While he regarded the results on ``Yankee Doodle Dandy'' as less than perfect, he had no objection to what the companies are attempting to do. ``I think what it does,'' says Haver, ``is very valuable in that it revives interest in a lot of films that the younger generation probably would never give a second thought to.''

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