Whenever you read books or articles on film noir, you encounter expressions like this:
Another influence on the visual style of the films was the development of camera and lighting technology in the late ‘thirties: faster film stock, coated lenses (which significantly increased the light transmission) and more powerful lights.
– ‘Film Noir, Introduction’, Michael Walker, in “The Book of Film Noir”, edited by Ian Cameron, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1992
In fact, almost all literatures I have been reading recently reiterate the same thing: faster film stock, high-speed lens and powerful light. Some critics inserted these lines in the beginning of their writings so that they can go on rumbling about the analysis of film noir stylistics and aesthetics. I started to wonder, what are they? How did they differ from the previous technologies? So I dug a little deeper into this little problem.
First, a little of background. There is a vast pool of literature and writing on the definition of film noir. Some people say it is a certain style of filmmaking, prevalent in 1940s and 50s. Some define it as a visual style. Others define it as a manifestation of a certain psychological condition of the era. Or simply a genre. Yet others say a film has to have a set of traits to be a noir, such as femme fatale or brooding atmosphere. I am not quite sure the discussion of such matters would ever be productive, so I leave it as it is. For the sake of this post, I will discuss about the technologies, which enabled some of the filmmakers (directors, cinematographers etc.) in late 40s and 50s to achieve a certain kind of visuals. The most obvious examples would be low-key, high-contrast (night) scenes with a limited number of light sources, especially shot on location. You can find a fine example of this kind in ‘T-Men (1947)’ directed by Anthony Mann and shot by John Alton. In fact, I read someone claiming that ‘T-Men’ cannot be classified as film noir since it is in the semi-documentary style and doesn’t have a femme fatale in it. Good. I don’t care. My interest is a certain visual look you often find in crime dramas and other melodramas in late 40s and 50s Hollywood films.
Another keyword is ‘often’. These low-key, ‘chiaroscuro lighting’ had existed for a long time even before 40s. Billy Bitzer shot a dark interior with only few sources of light in 1910s. German Expressionism were full of ‘chiaroscuro’. If you look at some of James Wong Howe’s works in 1930s, you would find very impressive imageries playing with light and shadow. These were special, if not isolated, cases, however. The bulk of products up until 1940s were not as ambitious nor as experimental. Many filmmakers preferred brighter, well-lit images with shallow depth of focus. Was it an aesthetic issue? Maybe. But, more importantly, you need an experienced cinematographer like Howe, who was willing to take awful chances, to achieve such low-key visuals in 1930s. Because, if you fail, and there was a substantial risk, you would end up with dark, severely underexposed camera negatives, which certainly infuriates studio executives. Many cinematographers would rather have well-lit pictures instead of impressive chiaroscuro, just to be on the safe side. These new technologies, however, lowered these risks, so that they would safely explore the plays of light and shadow, if needed.
Faster Film Stocks
Two major supplier of film stocks in Hollywood back in those days were Kodak and DuPont. In 1938, almost simultaneously, these two companies introduced the new lines of film stocks. Kodak introduced Plus-X and Super-XX, while DuPont introduced DuPont II. The previous Kodak product, “Super-Sensitive”, which was introduced during the end of silent era, had the rating of only 25 Weston, equivalent of ASA 32. Plus-X had 40 Weston (ASA 50) and Super-XX had 80 Weston (ASA 100). By the end of 1930s, Kodak apparently discontinued “Super-Sensitive”, as their Plus-X had became the industry standard.
The tables below are results of survey done by William Stull, A.S.C., published in July 1940 issue of American Cinematographer. This is an amazing study. He thoroughly researched illumination conditions used by the major Hollywood cinematographers at the time. Here, you can see the illumination readings in footlight candles (x10 will give you numbers in lux), f-stops, and film stocks they were using. Twentieth Century Fox was the only studio, which did not provide the detailed data, claiming that the studio had standardized the lighting and camera setups across their productions. I noticed, for example, the average footlight readings of MGM cinematographer settings were considerably higher compared to, say, those of Columbia cinematographers. And, of course, the differences showed up in their products. James Wong Howe was working at very low illumination, so was Theodore Sparkuhl. I think these readings were not meant to be anything but the snapshot example of the practices among cinematographers, so you shouldn’t read too much in these numbers. In any case, the film stock in use were either Plus-X or DuPont II.
Super-XX was more sensitive (and unavoidably more expensive) film stock. This film stock was used in Citizen Kane by Gregg Toland in 1940. Super-XX enabled many of the celebrated deep-focused shots in the film, in which Toland claimed to have used f8 or f16 stops even.
Now these were the choices of the film stocks available in 1940s. Kodak did not introduce another new film stock until mid-50s. Characteristic chiaroscuro shots in Nicholus Musuraca’s or John Alton’s works were certainly shot on Plus-X or Super-XX. Since many of Alton’s works were done in poverty row studios, it is probable he used more affordable Plus-X stock. Considering that the standard stocks of later years were either ASA 100 or 200, and that digital era has just made ASA ratings arbitrary, these ‘faster’ stocks were still quite slow in modern day terms.
Here is a strange little story about Kodak’s Plus-X and Super-XX. They were also marketed as still photography stocks, packaged in the ever-eye-catching yellow cardboard boxes. In late 1945, Kodak realized that their products were experiencing ‘fogging’, graying of the image, resulting in loss of contrast in the developed film. It turned out that their cardboard boxes were contaminated with the radioactive fallouts from the Trinity Test in July of that year. Kodak had been very sensitive about the choice of their packaging, since the previous cardboard materials had been contaminated with Radon. They had discovered that the raw materials from the mill located in Indiana were free of radioactive materials, so they made an exclusive contract with this mill. However, the fallouts from the Trinity Test contaminated the river this mill used for manufacturing, and its product, the cardboard, emitted gamma-rays, which caused fogging of raw film stocks. Since the atomic bomb test was kept secret, Kodak scientists didn’t know the exact cause but assumed there must had been an nuclear explosion somewhere nearby. According to Ansel Adams, a renowned photographer, ‘a hot cloud’ from the Trinity Test also hit the Union Pacific fright train bound to Los Angeles, which contained a lot of Kodak photographic and X-ray films. A doctor in Yosemite called him up and showed a fogged X-ray film. The DuPont plant in Parlin, N.J. had to be shut down, since their air intake contaminated the manufacturing line. The Kodak plant in Rochester was fine, since it cycled air internally. When U.S. restarted nuclear testing on the U.S. soil again in 50’s, Kodak demanded the government to notify Kodak the schedule of the test beforehand.
The major breakthrough in the field of optical technology in 1930s was the invention of reflection/anti-reflection coating. This was basically due to the newly developed process called vacuum deposition. This technique enabled optical industry to produce uniform, optically flat mirrors. It also made partial translucent mirrors used for range finders possible.
It was known that incoming light reflects back at the interface between a lens and air, resulting in less light coming through the lens. This is due to the difference in optical index between glass (lens) and air, and as long as silicate glass was used, it is unavoidable. In 19th century, however, many photographers knew the aged lens tends to have a brighter image, possibly due to diminished reflectance at its surface. Its surface was ‘eaten away’ over the time, producing a very thin porous layer, which has a smaller optical index (close to that of air). Aging lenses was fine for hobbyists, but artificially creating a very thin layer of this nature was a challenge. In late 1930’s, the researchers at Zeiss and California Institute of Technology independently developed the anti-reflection coating on lenses using vacuum deposition technique. Thin deposition of MgF or other metal fluorides produced high transmittance for a lens. ‘Treated lenses’ as they were called, brought many favorable features to cameras and projectors. A camera lens is a set of multiple lenses, and uncoated older lenses caused multiple reflections among themselves. This resulted in grayer background and resolution loss. The figures below show the striking difference in contrast and resolution between coated and uncoated lenses. This was a great news for cinematographers who was exploring deep-focused, crisp images under darker illumination, when their story demands such a ‘mood’. Another improvement was loss of flare. When a strong illumination is in the view, multiple reflections in an uncoated lens caused flares. New coating suppressed this phenomenon, prompting many photographers and cinematographers to employ bold angles and compositions.
Interestingly, this technique of vacuum deposition is still the dominant method to produce the anti-reflection coating on lenses. From your SLR camera to a projector in your living room, the lenses have this coating (and plus anti-scratch coating).
Also around the same time, different types of lamps were introduced providing cinematographers wider variety of choices. One of them was called photoflood. These incandescent bulbs provide intense light over wide range of visual spectrum, suitable for color photography. Because they are small and operates at a lower voltage, they were extremely useful in location shooting. Arc lights were improved as well. Manufacturers introduced a variety of high-power arc lights with low noise (earlier arc lights produced audible noises which interfered with sound recording).
Science, Technology and Standardization
In the table above, you may have noticed there were three cinematographers who did not use meters: James Wong Howe, Frank Redman and Stanley Cortez. They were working on what we call experience and expertise. You may call them ‘artists’ or ‘craftsmen’. However, the use of meters and other technological tools during the shooting were becoming a norm at the time. I think there were several reasons for this modernization of the process. First, the studios demanded the consistent quality from all the productions including B-pictures to differentiate their brand from the others. This is quite evident in Twentieth Century Fox’s case. Fox claimed its cinematographers use the setups specified by the studio, rather than they work from their expertise and knowledge. The ‘standardization’ of production process, including print developments, was spreading through Hollywood, to control the quality of their product. Up until early 30s, negative and print developments were kind of dirty garage work, where seasoned workers ‘knew’ their ‘soup’. But in late 30s, many industry leaders began to realize the need to control the development process rather than having a variety of development formula. In 1940, Warner Brothers opened their new facility for development works, and it was a well-designed, very modernized ‘factory’. The dust control was in place, whole building was air-conditioned and temperature and humidity were controlled. Emergency power supply was built so that they could provide the power within 5 seconds of blackout. And most of all, the concept was to control – it had a chemical laboratory for checking their development solution (formula) constantly. Asked about how many different formula Warner Bros. had, Mr. Spray Warner Bros. replied:
It is not the formula as originally written on the paper that counts, but the maintenance of that formula in a certain definite concentration at all times. In other words, it is a standardization problem, rather than so many grams of this and so many grams of that.
[J.S.M.P.E., 35. p.294 (1940)]
Or Mr. Evans:
When four laboratories say they are using the same formula, they are not, in the ordinary case. They start out with the same formula, but the technic of replenishment leads to a different formula in all four laboratories. Agitation and temperature and speed of the machine all enter into the picture, very decidedly; but in addition, there is the difference that four persons, each using his own technic of replenishment, will arrive at four different stable conditions.
I would like to enter a plea, now that we have analytical methods for developers, that we start writing the formula for the used developer, not the one that we start with.[ibid.]
In fact, since early 40s, there were number of studies regarding the development solution formula consistencies after the usage and replenishments. This trend of standardization and quality control lead to John Alton’s comment in his book, “Painting with Light”:
With modern laboratories came chemical engineers, and with them came science; today photography is based on science.
In fact, there were a variety of inventions and technological advancements, which were indirect and less obvious. It was a concerted effort. Even though the film history and criticism tend to focus on “influential figures” and “innovative individuals”, there were hundreds of thousands of engineers and scientists, technicians and artists. Today, in the era of digital filmmaking and video streaming, the ocean of technology is vast and immense. You may read about celebrated “visionaries”, who have incredibly rich “visions” about what they want to achieve. But it is a two-way street. Sometimes these visions do influence the course of the technologies, while technological advancement itself affects these visions, as they make ‘visionaries’ realize what they would like to do with them. Well, the hype about these visionaries are not necessarily a bad thing, since it usually motivates the commerce.
So, whenever you see a “film noir” next time, I hope you remember tens of thousands of people who made that film possible more than half a century ago. We will never know their names, but that’s fine, too.