Thursday, June 8, 2017

What Made 70s Movies Look So 70s? Part 2: Some Answers!

Years of Wondering

I encourage you to read the previous post I wrote on this topic, where I discussed everything I already knew about 70s movies, but lamented that there was this whole set of information out there that I had been unable to find. Basically, my lingering questions revolved around the use of cameras and film. Was there something different about the shooting process in the 70s that gave the movies their distinctive look? I had done numerous Google searches which had all turned up nothing. Then I finally stumbled upon some real answers.

Finding the Correct Search Words

I had googled every conceivable combination of words related to 70s cinema. Or at least I thought I had. But then one day I decided to type in "70s cinematography", something I hadn't thought to search before. One of the first links which showed up was this one. I'm linking to it because it contains a lot more detail than I'm ready to provide here. After all, I'm not an expert on the subject, and I don't want to put wrong information out there. Just follow the link, then scroll down to the response by David Mullen, and there you will find information about 70s movies that you never knew you wanted to know.

It Was the Film After All

No, it wasn't just the film that gave 70s movies their "look". If you read that earlier post, you'll know about some other trends that were popular in the cinematography world during that decade. But, as I stated in that article, those trends did not explain everything I was noticing about 70s movies. There was more going on, and most of it related to the film stock itself. Here are just a few things I've found.

The Death of Technicolor

Do you know what Technicolor was? Or were you like me? Did you grow up hearing that word, and seeing it in the credits of old movies, but never had a clue what it actually meant? If you already know this information, just ignore me while I show off my previous ignorance. For those of you who are just like me, keep reading. It's pretty fascinating.

Technicolor was not just a fancy term filmmakers applied to movies shot in color. It was a very specific process for making a movie. Here's an interesting link to some basic information about what Technicolor was. My understanding, and true film nerds can correct me if I get any of this wrong, is that the process employed special cameras which recorded three different light beams, one red, one blue, and one green, onto three different reels of black and white film. Then the three films were processed and made into three black and white prints. Then the prints were colored with dye which corresponded with the color light they recorded. Finally the three different color films were layered on top of each other to create a color movie.

My mind was blown. They were making color movies on black and white film? How did I never know that? How many other people out there never knew that? Does anyone who is not a filmmaker or a colossal nerd know that? Anyway, it's just about the coolest thing I've ever read. Even surpassing my amazement when I finally found out how filmmakers synced the soundtrack to the film reel, and that blew my mind too, I must say.

So Technicolor had a certain look to it. It is often referred to as "glorious Technicolor" because of the vivid hues the process was able to produce on a movie screen. But Technicolor, it seems, was crazy expensive and a royal pain in the butt. So when Kodak started putting out color film stock which looked just as good, or almost as good, as Technicolor, the process was gradually abandoned, much as shooting movies on actual film has gradually been abandoned in the past fifteen years. A big difference is that real film (or reel film, if you like cheesy puns!) has a huge entourage comprised of people who are determined not to let it die. Technicolor had no such following, and so the process was discontinued in the mid-seventies.

So my new theory, and I could be wrong because I have not had time to watch all the movies I think may be examples of this, is that the 70s movies which have that "look" I'm talking about were shot on the new color film stock, and therefore were not Technicolor. I have plans to investigate this further, but it takes time to watch all those movies, and then research which film stock and what kind of camera was used. So stay tuned. I may have more information on this topic later.

Lower Lighting

Remember that discussion thread I linked to at the top of the post? It goes into quite a bit of detail about the lighting conditions a lot of filmmakers were experimenting with in the seventies. Not that low key lighting was a new thing. Film noir had been playing around with light and shadow for decades, but 70s movies were not film noir. They were just dark. And part of that has to do with the fact that people were shooting in lower lighting than was recommended for the type of film they were using. Basically, what you see in a lot of movies from this decade is underexposed film. I had suspected this for years, but could not find confirmation of my suspicions until my serendipitous Google search a couple of weeks ago.

The Evolution of Color Film

Before the seventies, most color movies were shot in Technicolor, which made color film stock a relatively new trend. So 70s movies looked different from 60s movies primarily for that reason. But the companies that made the film stock were constantly perfecting the process and putting out new products, each of which had their own look. So by the time the eighties rolled around, color cinematography had come a long way and the movies had a different look than those which had come out just a few years before.

Still Learning

So this is my best understanding of 70s cinema. If I've gotten anything wrong, or if I've left out any important details (because I'm not aware of those details), please leave a comment and let me know. I'm always open to learning more about this fascinating topic.

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