Magic spells and wizardry: Cinema Hues from the ’30s till date

Every second of a film, compressed into a line 1 pixel high.
All such seconds fused, into a single image.
The colours of the film, laid bare.

All the 30 films, together

The three building blocks of cinema have been the light, the sound and most importantly, time. It is the relationship that time has with light that this experiment is all about.

When colour first came to mainstream cinema, it brought with it, a quality of realism and reverence. Try to place yourselves in the shoes of those first cinephiles. It would have been mesmerizing to see the first moving colour images on the big screen. What feats of thaumaturgy could conjure visions of such beauty and charm?

The present experiment started with me trying to better understand how cinematography works in telling a good story. A little more study and I wanted to investigate how colour and cinema have changed each other over time. How the cinematography has affected the narrative and contrariwise. The phantasy and the phantasma. The light fantastic.

I came across several fascinating artifacts. One of them were the movie-barcodes. The ones I found available were not fit for study, detail wise and quality wise. There were a few films, for which the barcodes did not exist at all.

So I decided to make my own.

First, I carefully selected the films that I thought were really good examples of cinematography colluding with the narrative. Instances where the camera worked for the story and where the story was better because the cinematography was such. I deliberately avoided ‘pretty’ pictures – where the camera work was extraordinary, but, the film left a lot to be desired (Recent examples: Memoirs of a Geisha, Avatar etc.)

To keep the study within my limits of comprehension, I divided the films into two buckets, those before and the ones after “The Wizard of Oz (1939)” – the first mainstream, widely released, Technicolor event. Historically, there were a few colour films before TWOZ, like The Garden of Allah (1936) which I did analyze, but eventually decided to leave them out, because they seemed like regular films, only shot in colour. TWOZ seemed like the first film that truly justified the use of colour. There’s always something I don’t know, so correct me, if you see a flaw.

I eventually selected the films that represented the cusp of each decade. For 1940, the films were selected from 1939-1941, for 1950: ’49-51, and so on.
From all the possibilities, the choice boiled down to about 30 films.

For each of the 30 films, I then wrote a program, that would extract 3 frames per second, compress each to an image 2 pixels high and then join all these images together. The resulting mosaic was the shape of a tall pillar that looked like the spectal analysis of the entire movie. To view it better, I rotated it by 90 degrees. I finally resized all the film mosaics to the same size – 3ft by 1 ft, 300 DPI. When viewed from a distance these images give a charming insight into the minds that made the movie.

Observed closely, you can almost demarcate different scenes, see how the pace of the film varied. Towards the very right, you can even see how long the end credits were, in comparison to the rest of the film. Endlessly fascinating details come to light each time you see these images.

The first images in this album carry a mosaic of 3 films each, for every decade studied.

To me, they are a new kind of photo. An entire movie sans the fourth dimension.

A photograph of time, frozen in time.

The photographs from the experiment are available on facebook: