Saturday, April 29, 2017

What Made 70s Movies Look So...Well...70s?

An Ongoing Question

I don't remember when I first noticed the distinctive look of a 70s movie. I know it was long before I knew anything at all about the filmmaking process. The things I've learned in the past ten years or so have answered a great many of my questions, but not all.

I've tried doing Google searches to find the answers which still elude me, but cannot seem to find any articles, blog posts, or discussion threads that can tell me what I want to know. So I'm putting this out on my own blog. I'll start with what I've already figured out, then present the questions which still linger. If anyone who knows their way around film stock happens to drop by, please take a moment to leave a comment. It will be much appreciated.

What I Know

I know that the seventies represented a shift toward realism in film. The trend actually began much earlier. In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) are two prime examples from the late sixties. You can even see some aspects of this gritty realism as far back as 1954 in On the Waterfront. But for the most part, films from those two decades and earlier were dressed up to look anything but real. Ladies had perfect clothing and hairstyles no average woman would ever be able to pull off on her own. They were also made up to the same degree one would expect from a big Broadway musical. Filmmakers apparently didn't realize that a camera ten feet from an actress would pick up facial features much better than an audience member on the back row of a large theatre. Sets were lavish and the lighting was a work of art in its own right. It all worked together to create an illusion of life which in actuality had nothing to do with real life at all.

Fast forward to the seventies, and you've got movies about people who look like they could be your next-door neighbors. Sure, actors still wore make-up, but more often than not care was taken to make them look like they weren't wearing make-up. Scenes took place in rooms that looked like they could be in your own house.

Coinciding with this emphasis on realism was a shift in hair and clothing styles in the world at large. Things in the seventies became much more casual than they had ever been before. For the first time women were just as likely to be wearing pants as dresses. And when they wore pants, those pants were just as likely as not to be jeans. These fashion trends are reflected in the movies of the time.

Another trend, specifically related to filmmaking, that occurred in the seventies was the use of the zoom lens. It was so popular that its presence will often immediately date a movie. This is another thing that began gaining popularity before the seventies. I can't think of any specific examples right now (sorry) but I know I've seen a great deal of 60s movies which employ heavy use of zoom lenses. But, still, in my mind they scream seventies, which means if I ever wanted to make a movie, and make it look like it was shot in the seventies, I would be employing a considerable amount of zoom.

What I Don't Know

Okay, this is the question I've been unable to answer. I want to know if there was something different about the mechanical process of filming that set 70s movies apart from other decades. Because they have a different look to them which goes beyond just hair, makeup, and costumes.

I've done numerous Google searches on this question, and have found no satisfactory answers. Most people who try to answer it usually bring up the fact that 70s movies are...well...getting on in years and film deteriorates over time. But the seventies occurred between the sixties and the eighties (duh), and even compared to those two decades, 70s movies have a certain look. If that look is caused by the deterioration of film, wouldn't 60s movies have even more of that look than 70s movies do? They don't, so it must be caused by something else.

If you've read my post, Why I'm Still Embroiled in the Film Vs. Digital Debate, then you know I've dabbled in still photography quite a bit, and that my experience with that art form has been limited to actual film (because I can't afford a good digital camera at the moment). So I know some things about film, but I'm still an amateur and there are many things I know from books (and Google searches) which I've never witnessed firsthand. I don't have much experience bracketing, I've never played around with pushing film, and I've never seen the inside of a dark room. But I have a rudimentary understanding of the kinds of effects those practices can have on a photograph. If still photography can be manipulated in those ways, surely motion picture photography can too. So was there something different about the camera settings which were used in the seventies which marked a change from what was done in the sixties? Were people experimenting with lower lighting, which created a darker, grittier look than what had been seen previously? Were they using different film stock which resulted in a distinctive look? Was there something different about the way film was processed in the seventies which contributed to the appearance of the finished movie?

Maybe this makes me a colossal nerd (a title I wear proudly), but I think about these questions all the time. So if anyone knows any answers beyond the ones I've already provided in this article, please leave a comment. You will have my undying gratitude. 

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