Scorsese In The Red
Just as silent movies were rarely silent, black-and-white films were not often simply black and white. In the silent era, the techniques of tinting and toning were commonly used to add a dash of color to the grayscale images.
The tinting process involved bathing the black-and-white print in a colored dye, thus adding one extra color to the footage. (The white parts of the image took on that hue). Toning was a more complicated matter, employing one of several possible chemical processes to convert the black-and-white silver image to another (metallic) element to change the color. (1)
Both methods resulted in a colored print that broke the monotony of straightforward black-and-white footage. The use of these colors became codified: blue was used to indicate moonlit night scenes, orangish hues evoked the light of a lamp or a candle.
The advent of color rendered these techniques obsolete. But Scorsese has resurrected tinting and toning, or the visual impact of these techniques, throughout his directing career. An impressive number of his films feature shots or entire scenes that are drenched in a single color. The color palette is reduced to one hue, resulting in startlingly monochrome visuals. But in Scorsese’s movies, not all colors are created equal: red is his color of choice.
Martin Scorsese doesn’t use tinting and toning’s archaic, artisanal methods to achieve these colorful effects. He finds other ways, often very creative ones, to recreate this visual effect.
On set lighting (in combination with set design) is the most common method he uses. In Scorsese’s on-screen universe, red lighting appears to be mandatory in any bar or restaurant. New York, New York, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, The Color of Money… they all feature bars that are as fiery red as purgatory must be. For outdoor scenes, the tail lights of a car, shop signs, ambulance lights or street lighting offer enough motivation to soak a scene in saturated reds.
Clever mise-en-scène (especially set dressing and costume design) can also achieve the desired effect. Kundun may well be the pinnacle of creativity in this regard. When the young Dalai Lama seeks refuge under the red robes of older monks, his world is tinted red.
It is not hard to find symbolic meaning in Scorsese’s use of bloody red hues. His scarlet palette underscores the emotional distress or excitement, the danger, the despair or the sheer violence of his characters. The color red becomes a visual exclamation mark, signaling heightened emotions. This is perhaps clearest when Scorsese dissolves shots into a completely red frame, using the abstraction of color to comment on the emotional state of his protagonists. (Or, as in The Age of Innocence, using a dip over a reddish color to create a mental liaison between characters who are physically apart).
(1) The Bioscope published a concise but interesting article on the history of tinting and toning. Also, Brian Pritchard’s site offers a wealth of information on color processes.
This video essay includes clips from:
The Big Shave [short film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. N.k., USA, 1968. 6 mins.
Mean Streets [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Taplin – Perry – Scorsese Productions et al., USA, 1973. 112 mins.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros., USA, 1974. 112 mins.
Taxi Driver [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Columbia Pictures Corporation et al., USA, 1976. 113 mins.
New York, New York [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Chartoff-Winkler Productions, USA, 1977. 155 mins.
Raging Bull [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Chartoff-Winkler Productions et al., USA, 1980. 129 mins.
The Last Temptation of Christ [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal Pictures et al., USA et al., 1988. 164 mins.
Goodfellas [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros., USA, 1990. 146 mins.
Cape Fear [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Cappa Films et al., USA, 1991. 128 mins.
The Age of Innocence [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Cappa Production et al., USA, 1993. 139 mins.
Kundun [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. De Fina-Cappa et al., USA, 1997. 134 mins.
Bringing Out the Dead [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Cappa Production et al., USA, 1999. 121 mins.
Gangs of New York [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Miramax et al., USA et al., 2002. 167 mins.
The Aviator [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Appian Way et al., USA et al., 2004. 170 mins.
The Departed [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Plan B Entertainment et al., USA et al., 2006. 151 mins.
The Key to Reserva [short film / commercial] Dir. Martin Scorsese. JWT et al., Spain, 2007. 10 mins.
‘Boardwalk Empire’, Boardwalk Empire [television program] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Home Box Office et al., USA, 2010. 72 mins.
The music used is:
‘Gimme Shelter’, Rolling Stones Instrumental Renditions [music track, CD] Perf. Wildhorses. Purple Pyramid Records, USA, 2008. 4 mins 57 secs.
The additional illustration is taken from Hugo. In that movie, the main character attends a screening of the Lumieres’ earliest movies. Red curtains open (a little too late) to reveal these very first moving images, effectively tinting the black-and-white images in a reddish hue.