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When the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, aged 84, talks at the new National Film Theatre Cinematography season about painting with light, you have to remember that Cardiff, who was the first Briton trained to use Technicolor, is actually two years younger than that process. Although Kinemacolour, the original movie colour, was a British patent, used to record the 1911 Durbar at Delhi in a sumptuous haze, Herbert Kalmus (of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hence nicolor) invented Technicolor in 1912, patented it in 1915, and shot The Gulf Between in it in 1917.
We could get here into the technics - splitting the white light that enters a lens through prisms within the camera to register on film its three major colour components, blue, green and red; when projected, they overlap onscreen and reassemble the spectrum again before your eyes. That's how it's done. But it's more revealing to consider what colours movie-makers want on screen. And why. Colour palettes are personal, emotional, national and historic - we don't use the words 'colour values' for nothing.
Take Herbert Kalmus himself (born 1881) and his wife Natalie (born 1891), who was credited as 'color consultant' on all Technicolor productions until the patent expired in 1949. As children, the first artificial colours the Kalmuses saw would have been the late 19th-century's new printing inks and dyes - Technicolor's own dyes are related to these - which at last made possible bright chromolith colour plates for books, advertising, and packaging labels.
Those inks/dyes allowed mass-reproduction of the aesthetics of high 19th-century painting with its expensively brilliant oil-paint range. Chemical purples of the 1880s coloured baby Natalie's idea of glamour, so that when she consulted on The Garden Of Allah, 1935 - a David Selznick production that put serious studio money behind colour - she fought with Selznick and his designer over their decision to tone the whole to dusty desert tints. Kalmus could only imagine romance in the Sahara as a spectacle in alizarin crimson.
Selznick recorded the dispute, which he won, in his memos. It became important two years later to his definitive Technicolor movie, Gone With The Wind. What Selznick wanted was the ability of the process to register everything, down to the grass blades, brighter than God made it, perfect for his ultimate American artefact.
Technicolor was US technology at its zenith - all that skill and effort just for pleasure. And what it put on screens was a visible expression of the supreme prosperity of the US. Atlanta in flames in a scarlet flare showed a land with resources to burn, and the ruddy skin and Max Factor lip tones on GWTW's cast (and on Judy Garland in the Technicolor fantasy The Wizard Of Oz) made visible the glowing health of America - they were all in the pink. Hollywood colour films of the 1940s make it evident that the US was the last place on Earth not bleached out by depression and war.
In comparison, the German Agfacolor process (later nicked by the Russians and called Sovcolour), which premiered in 1940, was biased to grey-green: scientists at the Neue Photographische Gesellschafte, which developed it, came from an art-school, Arts & Crafts aesthetic, more subdued than the US preferences.
Second world war documentary footage shows its loyalty through colour - in newly rediscovered John Ford Technicolor film of the 1944 Normandy landings, purple smoke billows over emerald crop land. That's why colour freaks found the opening of Steven Spielberg's 1998 Saving Private Ryan weird: he took the coating off his camera lenses and so suffused his hues with grey-greens. It looks as if he had filmed Omaha beach in captured German Agfacolor stock, flying the enemy's colours.
Even where there was no locally branded process, national and personal tastes modified Technicolor. And gifted directors soon understood how to use its resonances to manipulate audiences. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) was set in a Himalayan royal love nest converted to a convent. The intense blues of its wall-decorations are accurate to India, but very disturbing (a blue environment depresses unless there is high, bright sun). Photographer Jack Cardiff lit interiors even bluer, and put green in the shadows of a red dawn, because together those colours are tragic (he adopted the combo from Van Gogh's painting The Billiard Room At Arles).
It's irresistible to make your own list of what film colours do for the director and to you - look at our rainbow here - although you have to allow for different social, political and emotional meanings in other cultures. In China, for example, red is the colour of weddings, celebrations, communism and change, which charges Zhang Yimou's film Red Sorghum, and its solar eclipse shot through hot filters, with the power of a red shift.
Think how overwhelming were Francis Coppola's The Godfather I and II. He drove photographer Gordon Willis nuts by filming already sombre scenes severely underlit, so that the private world of the Mafiosi would show on screen as unprecedentedly morbid. Remember the shade of ginger of the hair of the heroine Janet Frame in Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table, how it marks her as outstanding, cursed and blessed against any background. Or just recall the lips of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, splendiferous curves of paint in the shades called Fire and Ice.
Jack Cardiff's lecture at the NFT on Thursday opens a cinematography season which runs till January.