One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned that director King Vidor made a claim about an experiment he was conducting in his upcoming movie:
“It looks as though the day is near when color is to be used in motion pictures to suggest varying moods of human nature as well as of objective nature. Colored photography is one of the improvements on which picture producers have been working for years. Now it seems King Vidor has really discovered a new process, and the result will be seen in his latest picture, The Sky Pilot. In this, almost every foot of film is not only colored, but colored in tones and tints that are true to nature. As though this were not enough, Mr. Vidor, according to his statement, has successfully induced moods in the drama through color suggestions.
What King Vidor claims to have done is to have “scored” the photoplay for color. He has not only used various different tints to suggest different hours of the day, but to induce certain moods he has scientifically played upon the varying degrees of happiness and sorrow with suggestive colors. The heights of joy, says Mr. Vidor, are enhanced with a delicate pink glow, while the depths of grief call for a ghastly gray-green tone.
Mr. Vidor was very emphatic as to the effectiveness of his coloring. “You see,” he said, “I have spent about twelve hours a day for the last three weeks in our laboratory, working to achieve this effectiveness.”
If only the amount of time we devoted to our experiments guaranteed their success! Kingsley did poke fun at his idea a bit, saying “fancy coloring some lady pure white who ought to have at least a touch of purple!” Exhibitors’ Herald offered more details about his announcement, along with more skepticism:
King Vidor has issued a statement to the effect that he has suddenly stumbled upon an important scientific fact in film tinting that he believes will have strong bearing upon this angle of the motion picture industry. His production of The Sky Pilot will be, he claims, the first photodrama ever made in which every foot of film is colored in tones and tints true to nature. He also attests that he has successfully induced moods in the drama through color suggestion.
He has used various tints to accord with the times of day and night in which the scenes were shot—soft violet for the early dawn, pale yellow for the post-sunrise time, amber for noon and night interiors, and deep blue for the moonlight scenes. Exteriors have verdure tinted with delicate green and snow scenes are steel blue. Varying shades of pink and green were used in the expression of joy or sorrow. Vidor claims that the screen patronage will be unconscious of the coloring to the extent that it will not distract from the force of the theme. (“King Vidor Claims to have Originated Film Tinting Idea,” Exhibitors’ Herald, March 5, 1921, p.68.)
Pink for joy and green for sorrow didn’t catch on with other filmmakers, and Vidor didn’t try it again. He wasn’t the first young filmmaker to claim he’d invented something entirely revolutionary. He went on to try new things in his later movies that worked very well, like featuring the ordinary toil of an office worker in The Crowd (1928) and making the first all-African America musical, Hallelujah (1929). He went on to a long (67 years!) and very successful career. Nominated five times for the Best Director Oscar, his work included The Big Parade (1925) Show People (1928) and a lot of talkies like Stella Dallas (1937) and Duel in the Sun (1946).
One thing Vidor did get right: the patronage was unconscious of his color schemes. Kingsley’s editor, Edwin Schallert, reviewed it when it opened in Los Angeles in July, and he didn’t notice the colors at all. He admired some of the film:
There’s human interest, and spectacle, and thrills, but there is little or no suspense of the growing kind and the whole business of the cattle stealing intrigue and the attendant scrapes explodes just about as excitingly as a package of damp firecrackers. Still, Director Vidor is to be congratulated on the beauty of his settings, the charm of his direction as exhibited in the handling of his people if not the story, and his daring picturing of the cattle stampede. (Edwin Schallert, “The Sky Pilot,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1921.)
Summer Smith in Moving Picture World gave it a much stronger review, but also made no mention of effect color had:
In every respect this picture, directed by King Vidor, makes good. His excellent judgement is noticeable throughout in the characterizations of the players, the staging of the big scenes and the general atmosphere of the picture. (Summer Smith, “The Sky Pilot,” Moving Picture World, April 30, 1921, p.994.)
The Sky Pilot was recently digitally restored and screened at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. However, it is only partially tinted, so we can’t see what his experiment looked like. The Obscure Hollywood blog has a modern discussion of the film.
Filmmakers are still trying to figure out what color does to audiences, but they run into some problems. Not only is color perceived differently by different people—anatomy, language, culture and environment affect that – but also its action on emotions is complicated. Furthermore, in movies color isn’t in a vacuum. Motion pictures add sound and movement, so it’s hard to tease out exactly what is causing the emotion that filmmakers are aiming at. Cinematographer Daniel Berens wrote an interesting dissertation on the role of colour in film (he’s British) if you’d like to read more about it. He has the good fortune to have a neuroscientist for a brother, so the paper is informed by science.