Color, like sound, widescreen, and digital cameras, is a special effect that was implemented as a form of spectacle/innovation and ended up becoming a standard amongst filmmakers in the industry. It’s rare that a film is not in color nowadays and when new films are released in black and white, that is now the special effect, the gimmick, harkening back to the classic days of cinema and utilizing a technical aesthetic that almost calls out to the viewer that he/she is watching a film when the reverse effect used to be true.
The use of color and/or black and white in a film is an aesthetic choice made by the filmmakers but it is also a technological one that greatly impacts the final product. There are films that toy with this by using both like Pleasantville, Sin City, and a significant scene in Schindler’s List and this is achieved through editing in post production, the digital intermediate, but to look at two incredibly similar, almost identical films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake really allows for the differences between the two technologies to stand out. Steven Soderbergh recognized this significance and took it upon himself to blend the two films together and remove the color from Van Sant’s version so the two could flow almost seamlessly together. He has not made much comment that can be found on his intentions with his project but it has brought up an interesting angle in which to look at and discuss both films and their use of color and black and white photography respectively.
From here I will briefly discuss Brian Winston’s piece “How Are Media Born?” in order to touch upon the process in which standards of technology come about and then examine the David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson piece “Film Style and Technology” and “Painting By Numbers: The Digital Intermediate” by John Belton in order to put this discussion in context and then discuss the two films and how by Soderbergh placing them in a realm together and changing Van Sant’s to black and white, it can be seen how the technological choice between color and black and white alters a film's reception as well as its overall effect on its viewer.
What Winston covers in “How Are Media Born?” is exactly that, what are the processes in which media, of the past and what we know today, are created and who was responsible and how did they end up to where they went? He discusses how though these innovations often get credited to specific individuals; these technologies are actually a product of many, many people’s works and ideas over a very long period of time. He says that “the technology was available, but the commercial desire and need were not” (Winston 7) and goes on to detail how studios, Warner Bros. referenced specifically, would demonstrate their new innovations in order to earn the desire needed to monetize the investments. He says,
“Yet important clues as to how technical change occurs can be gained by thinking of why a change occurs at a particular time. This is a more complicated issue than it might seem to be at first sight. Changes do not occur simply when the materials and the scientific knowledge necessary for an advance are at hand. The history of cinema is a good illustration of this” (5).
Through that context when looking at the Psycho films, particularly the original, it is interesting to note that the technological advances for color film had not only been achieved but had been implemented in the film industry and that Hitchcock made the choice to shoot the film on black and white film stock opposed to color for a variety of reasons, the primary ones being budget restraints and the strict grip of the production codes that dictated what could and could not be shown. Hitchcock intended to show some blood and knew he could get away with more if he had the film shot in black and white and this choice allowed him to make the film that he sought to make and that answers Winston’s question of the effect technology has on the “content, the output, of mass communication” (1). The technology of color and black and white had to be chosen in both Hitchcock’s and Van Sant’s films and there were consequences for both but in the end, the options due to innovation allowed for the respective directors to make their choices and get their desired results.
Winston doesn’t spend too much time on color’s relationship to film but what he discusses about other innovations relates, especially when he says that “the only way a judgment can be made as to the effect of a technology on the content of communications is by comparing the content before and after the technology is introduced” (2). Though Hitchcock’s film had the option of being in color, it was not and therefore allows for an interesting case when the two films are looked at next to each other that will be further explored in the discussion of Steven Soderbergh’s Psychos piece and them when compared side by side.
David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson argue that technology changes in three distinct ways and that there are five reasons for these changes in their piece entitled “Film Style and Technology to 1930.” They discuss how progressing film technologies act initially as almost novelties in order to gain attention before they reach the level of a standard. This includes sound, smell-o-vision, widescreen, 3D, and color. What they claim propels these special effects from the gimmick level to the level of standard is their ability to meet the desire for production efficiency, product differentiation, and an adherence to standards of quality.
The desire to implement new technologies that would help achieve all of these things is rather obvious from a business standpoint so when it’s taken into account that these changes should also save time, money, and labor as well as be more reliable than previous standard practices and/or solve a previous hindrance or obstacle, a lot of the new technologies are unable to meet the mark. With color, money, time, and labor were not saved because with its introduction, people had to be taught to light sets differently, sets and wardrobes had to have specific color schemes that matched the content of the film as well as being simply optically pleasing. Before this, wallpaper and dresses and furniture could pretty much be any color desired as long as it filmed well in black and white but now the specificity that color requires in filmmaking changes many things. Hitchcock purposely avoided color in order to save money and keep his artistic vision whereas Van Sant chose to use color to set his film apart from the original as well as capture a different aesthetic. In “The Making of Psycho” bonus feature on the DVD, the crew discusses how through color they were able to guide the story, starting the film off with saturated colors and lighting techniques and progressively changing to more heightened and sharper colors as the tension of the films rises.
The two films chose to use their respective color palettes for both aesthetic and technical purposes and used what was available to them at the time. In the same making of feature, Van Sant feels that his film was able to achieve what Hitchcock’s was unable to due to the technology that was available to him in 1998 compared to what Hitchcock and his crew didn’t have access to in the late fifties and that thought is both true and false. Hitchcock may not have been able to begin his film with a high and sweeping shot like he wanted and as Van Sant was able to achieve but the option/technology for color was available to him and it was his decision to utilize black and white cinematography just as it was Van Sant’s to do his remake in color. The technology is/was there but it’s all about what is best for the film and what is suitable for the time.
John Belton discusses the rise of film color editing and creation through digital intermediate in his piece “Painting By Numbers: The Digital Intermediate” and covers that “though it includes virtually all post-production operations, the DI process has become primarily associated with color grading… it had influenced decisions made on the set during production and has increasingly become a factor during pre-production when filmmakers must decide to go through (and budget for) a DI or not” (Belton 58). Since the introduction of the digital intermediate process, filmmakers have been more than willing to use it because they feel that it is actually helping them save time when in production when in actuality, it’s costing them far more time and far more money. “Filmmakers used to say they would ‘fix it in post-[production].’ Now with DI, they tend to say they’ll ‘make it in post’” (59). This innovation in technology has changed how films are created entirely. With Hitchcock’s Psycho, the sets were lit so that the desired effect would be met in as little takes as possible as to save time and money and once the shoot was over, little could be done in post if something happens to go wrong in how a certain shot or scene turned out. With Van Sant’s film, much more could be done in order to fix any issues and though I am not saying that makers who use the digital intermediate are amateurish, the process of production allows for a lot more error to occur because all can be addressed and fixed in the post-production process.
Though his piece primarily focuses on Pleasantville, much of what Belton argues fits perfectly when discussing the Psycho films in a comparative way. “What makes it unique is that it narrativizes the presence and absence of color, black-and-white, and the relationship between the two… but the fact that it does so from a vantage point of digital technology’s ability to manipulate images is important for our understanding of cinema in the digital age” (60). Due to the decisions made on the remake of Psycho, audiences familiar with its source material almost cannot help but focus on the differences with the most apparent one being color and therefore, the film no longer acts a storytelling tool but rather a film about the technological differences, a film about the colorization and modernization of what most consider a cinematic classic.
So what does this technological advance of color achieve in the remake of Psycho? I felt it did very little in regards to enhancing the experience or conveying the message and in a lot of ways actually cheapened much of the experience. Hitchcock’s and Van Sant’s films both represent the times in which they were made but Van Sant’s immediately seemed dated with its bright colors and 1990’s attire even though they attempted to duplicate the classic styles in a modern setting. The color simply showed too much and maybe it is because the 1990’s were not all that long ago so there isn’t an almost nostalgic removal yet like there are for further years gone by but the film feels far more stuck in its era than Hitchcock’s does and it is apparent from the moment Anne Heche’s Marion Crane is seen in a bright orange bra before dawning a bright pink coat but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a fault of the film. Belton says that the “black-and-white footage signified one narrative world and color another – but each world functioned as a credible diegetic reality in itself” (60) and that is the best way to approach these two films in terms of their differences in presentation. The two films may follow the exact same story with the same characters and sequence of events but what is crucial to acknowledge is that they are different films that come from different worlds in the sense of both the story realm and the actual realm. They were made for their time and did what was best for then and for their audiences.
This all can be discussed in the realm of the films individually but becomes more apparent in Steven Soderbergh’s Psychos video piece. What Soderbergh does, without any explanation, is take both the original film and the remake and splices them together while also removing all the color from Van Sant’s version so they flow almost seamlessly together. What is interesting about this project is how it adds a new life to the color film. Seeing it cut in with the original shows just how close Van Sant was able to keep his vision to the original and just how different the two actually are.
Through editing software technology, Soderbergh was able to splice the two films together and show what both films are achieving through their own technological choices. Both films are presented in black and white and cut so they switch back and forth between the original and remake up until the classic shower scene where Soderbergh chose to place the scenes on top of each other, allowing Van Sant’s to return to its original color scheme for this scene. With the two being shown in their original format and overlapping each other, it can be seen what both films are achieving through their decisions. This instance in the piece shows how much has changed culturally and within the industry. Hitchcock’s sequence cut very quickly, almost making the viewer believe that he has seen more than he actually has in terms of the stab wounds and nudity whereas Van Sant’s shows much more and to a more graphic extent and that is due to both the time the film was released and the innovations in technology. At the moment of death in both films, the character of Marion is shown slowly sitting down as she dies, leaning against the wall of the shower. Van Sant mimicked this but added gore running down the wall, the red standing out strongly on the white tiled surface, as well as a quick cut to his heroine’s blue/gray eye dilating. Hitchcock’s images are frenzied and disorienting and Van Sant’s capture much of the same energy but do so in a way that almost makes the scene a bit overdone, a bit too much in the attempt to get more intimate and graphic with the murder.
In the documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, director, and narrator Mark Cousins covers the history of film and makes a specific stop with Van Sant and his Psycho in the fourteenth installment entitled “New American Independents and the Digital Revolution” and introduces the nineties remake it by saying, “Welcome to the first days of digital.” Here, Cousins takes a similar approach to what Soderbergh accomplish but instead of overlapping the films, he shows the shower scene of both films side by side in order to show how this new digital age has changed how films are made and presented. He mentions the moment of death for both characters and explains how due to time, Van Sant was able to show much more, including nudity. Where Hitchcock wanted his audience to see things that they were not actually seeing, Van Sant choice to show it much more blatantly. After Cousins discusses the scene, he gives Van Sant a moment to explain just what he sought to achieve in remaking a beloved classic. He says:
The intentions of the movie [were] to see what would happen if you tried to, you know, literally do the same thing. What did happen and what I learned from it was that even though your camera angles are actually the same [and] the performances are close, that the intentions of the filmmaker and the soul of the filmmaker [are] different. My Psycho became devoid of like some of the most important things that were in the original which were these sort of dark underlying tensions. In mine, the dark underlying tensions are kind of like not there, there’s something else there that doesn’t really fit with what Psycho is so it kind of became an example of how you can’t really copy something.
Van Sant had all the modern technological advancements of the nineties at his disposal and with those, he attempted to recreate something that also had the technological advancements of its time at its use and yet was unable to capture what made the original film so culturally significant and withstanding. Hitchcock didn’t use everything that he could have for one reason or another and ended up making a film that terrified a nation and made its place within the world of cinema. Van Sant’s experiment in recreation utilized what it could and was unable to reach the same level and actually missed the mark almost completely according to many, even with so many tools that the original film did not have access to. Roger Ebert reviewed the film upon its release and said:
Curious, how similar the new version is, and how different. If you have seen Hitchcock's film, you already know the characters, the dialogue, the camera angles, the surprises… The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted… Anne Heche, as Marion Crane, lacks the carnal quality and the calculating detachment that Janet Leigh brought to the original film... Van Sant's decision to shoot in color instead of black and white completes the process of de-eroticizing her; she wears an orange dress that looks like the upholstery from my grandmother's wing chair.
With that he captures what the true differences the two films have, more is not better and technological innovation does not necessarily lead to a more sound work. He also mentions the parlor scene and when watching the two individually and then again in the Soderbergh mash-up, this stuck out as well. The scene loses its menace, its sense of dread. This is partly due to set design choices but also due to the addition of color, which drastically changes the tone, and therefore the reception of the scene. Aside from this and the shower sequence, the ending reveal of Norman Bates as the killer is drastically different in execution and aside from the action that takes place changing, the use of color and lighting sets the whole thing in a different direction. Van Sant simply showed too much in his film that remained hidden in Hitchcock’s and much of that was due to the vibrant color choices.
By looking at the two versions of Psycho first as individuals and then again side-by-side or overlapped, it is clear that the use of color plays a huge role in the film's intention and reception. What was once a shocking and dark thriller became a flashy and vibrant re-tread that lost its purpose. Van Sant himself recognizes this but the attempt at doing something different through replication is admirable when all is said and done.
The two films are very similar but world’s different at the same time and this is all due to the technological innovations and standards that the filmmakers choice to use or not use in their respective works and further, through technology, we were able to see many of these differences thanks to work’s like Psychos and The Story of Film. Through technological innovation, films can be remade almost identically and through those same innovations, they can be deconstructed and studied. The use of color is a standard in today’s cinematic world but sometimes it cannot shed an effective light on the world of yesterday and this is seen prominently in comparing the Psychos.
Belton, John. “Painting By Numbers: The Digital Intermediate.” Film Quarterly 61 (2008): 58-65. Print.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson. "Film Style and Technology to 1930." (n.d.): 241-61. Print.
Ebert, Roger. "Psycho Movie Review & Film Summary (1998) | Roger Ebert." Editorial. Chicago Tribune [Chicago] 6 Dec. 1998: n. pag.Rogerebert.com. Web. 20 July 2014.
THE MAKING OF "PSYCHO" (1998). Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. Anne Hache and Vince Vaughn. Universal Pictures, 1998. YouTube. YouTube, 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 July 2014.
Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Norman Bates and Janet Leigh. Paramount Pictures, 1960. DVD.
Psycho. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn. Universal Pictures. 1998. DVD.
Psychos. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Extension 765. N.p., 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 July 2014.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Dir. Mark Cousins. Hopscotch Films, 2011.Netflix. Web. 19 July 2014.
Winston, Brian. "How Are Media Born?" (n.d.): 1-13. (1990): 55-72. Print.