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Jack Mathews : Film Directors See Red Over Ted Turner's Movie Tinting

September 12, 1986|JACK MATHEWS

So, Toto pulled back the curtain, revealing to the horror of everyone who believed in him that the Wizard of Oz was not a wizard at all. It was Ted Turner turning the knobs and making all the noise.

It's been a few months since Turner left the Emerald City, with the film libraries of MGM, RKO and early Warner Bros. in tow. He had come here not long before, saying he wanted to make movies like the old Hollywood classics.

What he apparently meant was that he'd like to reedit some of the old classics, specifically add color to the well-known black-and-white movies and trot them out--films of a different color--for new generations of viewers on his WTBS superstation.

Last week, Turner Broadcasting System released a list of more than 100 movies that it has commissioned Color Systems Technology to computer-colorize over the next few years, including such classics as "Casablanca," "The Maltese Falcon," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "A Night at the Opera" and the 1946 "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

This week, an angry committee of film directors reacted. In a strongly worded letter to Gilbert Cates, president of the Directors Guild of America, the 18 members of the president's committee urged that the guild put itself on record against the "cultural butchery" of colorizing and that it should use "all resources at its disposal to stop this process in its path."

Cates, reached in Vancouver where he is directing a film, said he agrees with the recommendation of his committee and will urge approval of it when the DGA national board meets next month.

"It (colorizing) is a process of dissembling the historical and artistic fabric of our landmarks," Cates said. "Once you say you can add color, why can't you add a different score, add shots, re-edit it, or do anything you want?"

Cates' comment was mild compared to those of some colleagues.

Woody Allen: Determining the colors that people wear, or what colors the walls are and so on are major creative decisions. . . . To have a group of people from the outside making those decisions is criminal and ludicrous.

Billy Wilder: Those fools! Do they really think that colorization will make " The Informer " any better? Or " Citizen Kane " or " Casablanca "? Or do they hope to palm off some of the old stinkers by dipping them in 31 flavors? Is there no end to their greed?"

Joe Dante: Black and white was an art form in the '40s. . . By changing them, they are tampering with history. It's the death knell of an entire art form.

Elliot Silverstein, chairman of the DGA committee on colorizing, provided the most graphic opinion. When it was pointed out that the successful halting of colorizing might ultimately cost DGA members residuals from TV syndication and video sales, he said, "We're dealing with moral and professional issues here, not a commercial one. These fellows are lifting their legs on people's work.

"We certainly care about the directors' feelings, but we are not going to change our plans," said TBS Executive Vice President Bob Wussler. "That boat has left the harbor. The ship has sailed."

There are two colorizing companies thriving in this new industry. Color Systems Technology, based in Marina del Rey, and Colorization Inc., a Toronto-based subsidiary of Hal Roach Studios. Their techniques differ, but both essentially use computers to assign predetermined colors to shades of gray in each scene.

Colorization has colored such films as Laurel and Hardy's "Way Out West," the 1937 "Topper," with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, and Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." CST started with "Miracle on 34th Street" and just completed "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the first of 150 films that it will do, at an average cost of $183,000, for Ted Turner.

The directors opposed to coloring complain that: It changes the mood, subverts the original concepts, alters subtle lighting and shadowing techniques, redirects the viewer's focus away from where the director intended it to be and presumes to add authenticity where a distorted reality may well have been the director's intention.

But their major objection is that coloring is prima facie re-editing of an artist's work, a form of mutilation that is no different from putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo's David or rouging Mona Lisa's cheeks.

"To change someone's work without any regard to his wishes shows a total contempt for film, for the director and for the public," said Woody Allen, one of the few directors with the clout to make his films in black and white when he chooses. "I think all of the guilds that have any regard for film as an art form should take major action to prevent it. That's what guilds are for, to protect the integrity of the artist," he said.

The colorizers cite several defenses for the process.

They say that black-and-white films are getting harder to syndicate on television, both at home and abroad, and that by colorizing the films, they are airing works that would otherwise not be seen.

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