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Colorization: Beginning to See Possibilities, as Time Goes By

Times Staff Writer

The fact that Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were the original choices for the roles played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” is the most interesting footnote to what many people consider the greatest movie ever made.

Here’s a new footnote for future film scholars: Did you know that although Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa recalls wearing a dress when she and Humphrey Bogart’s Rick parted in Paris, she was actually in a suit?

For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 11, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 11, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 18 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
“Casablanca” was made by Warner Bros., not MGM, as indicated in a story on the film’s colorization in Wednesday’s Calendar.

It was a suit, and for 46 years, no one noticed. Now that “Casablanca” is in color (it airs tonight at 5:05 p.m. on Ted Turner’s cable station TBS) and our eyes are drawn to such details, the truth is out. The wardrobe department at MGM blew it when it dressed Bergman for the Paris flashback.

“I never noticed that and I’ve seen that film I don’t know how many times,” said Roger Mayer, president of Turner Entertainment Co., which ordered the colorizing of the 1942 black-and-white classic. “I don’t think many people would.”

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Probably not. It’s a detail for anti-colorization purists to cluck about.

To most viewers watching “Casablanca” tonight, it may seem that the film was always in color. Certainly, the quality of American Film Technology’s digitally processed color is state of the art. There are no halos around actors’ faces, their movements don’t track in colorful blurs, their eyes do not look like fruit stains.

The colorization battle is essentially over. The colorization interests--primarily Turner Entertainment, the four colorization companies and the studios holding title to black-and-white features--have won their argument that colorized editions of black-and-white films are new creative entities eligible for copyrights. The directors’ last fight, in passionate congressional hearings, resulted in the formation of a congressional commission that will merely designate which black-and-white films must carry disclaimers saying the films have been color-converted without the film makers’ collaboration.

It is an obligation that Turner, with its faith in colorization as the preferred medium, is glad to keep.

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“We were never misleading anybody anyway,” Mayer said. “We have already done it. Starting two pictures back, we were doing it. . . . We are conforming to the law even before the (commission) chooses the pictures.”

Dozens of well-known black-and-white films have undergone the change, but “Casablanca” is the most revered and Mayer insists it was done with extraordinary care.

“We had our technicians involved in the process early on and we certainly put a lot of extra effort into it,” Mayer said. “It took a longer time, we were more involved in the creative process and we made more changes.”

To do “Casablanca,” Turner chose American Film, the youngest of the four colorization companies. In fact, American Film, headed by Barry Sandrew, a 41-year-old neuroscientist recruited from the staff at Harvard, was given about half of Turner’s business during its first full year in operation.

American Film, housed in a two-story building in an industrial park near La Jolla, is colorizing about four new movies a month. Currently, it has in some stage of production the colorized versions of “Battle Ground,” “King Kong,” “Mighty Joe Young” and several black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1930s.

American Film’s process, designed by Sandrew, who had previously designed computer programs for Catscan and X-ray technology for Harvard’s medical school, is unique in that it replaces all black and grays from films with “pure” colors selected from the 16.8 million possibilities that Sandrew says are contained on the computer’s pallette.

Jack Flowers, a veteran stock broker who helped raise capital for American Film and now serves as its vice president of marketing, said research for “Casablanca” was both facilitated and complicated by the large amount of material available.

“There have been about six books written on it and there were an awful lot of notes available,” he said. “The wardrobe notes actually mentioned the colors the actors would wear in most of the scenes.”

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It was even learned, Flowers said, that despite the film’s black-and-white format, MGM apparently intended to introduce a new color tint called “Casablanca blue” to World War II fashion markets. Flowers said that fashion designer Orry Kelly derived the tint from the reflection of the Mediterranean Sea off the white walls of Morocco.

Sandrew said that the quality of his colorized films is largely dependent on the quality of prints available to work from. The best of the “Casablanca” prints were not great, he said, and the ones for “King Kong” and “Citizen Kane,” which Turner has not yet ordered colorized, are terrible.

American Film, like its three competitors, first restores black-and-white prints before transferring them to tape for colorizing. It’s one of the bonuses of colorization that Sandrew says critics fail to acknowledge.

Whether opponents like it or not, colorization is a booming cottage industry. Flowers said American Film has $55 million worth of backlogged assignments. Turner alone is having about 30 films colorized each year, and with the quality constantly improving, Turner and others may begin having early color jobs redone. American Film has already recolored “The Miracle on 34th Street,” done just two years ago by Color Systems Technology, and Turner will air it next month.

(Color Systems Technology said Tuesday that it had received an order from Turner to colorize 12 more films in 1989, among them “Suspicion,” “Angels With Dirty Faces,” “Fort Apache,” “Woman of the Year” and “My Favorite Wife.”)

The potential for colorization is far from tapped. Sandrew said that his process can be used to restore to their original glory all of those pre-1960 Technicolor classics whose colors are fading from nitrate stock. It can be used for special effects, for coloring stock black-and-white footage to be used in new films, and for bringing black-and-white coverage of events into line with color coverage of the same events.

In “Imagine,” the current theatrical documentary on John Lennon, there is a scene where the late cartoonist Al Capp gets into a nasty argument with Lennon at one of the singer’s bedside peace happenings. One camera got the fight in color, another got it from a different angle in 16-millimeter black and white. American Film matched the black and white to the color and apparently no one has noticed.

Sandrew said American Film already has the capability of colorizing directly on film, meaning that color prints could be made for theatrical re-releases. Turner’s Mayer said his company is considering the possibility of re-releasing colorized films for theatrical play.

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By far, the most impressive color work Sandrew has to show at American Film is the work going on with animation. Walt Disney Studios has commissioned the coloring of 81 of its 82 black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons and the color appears as rich, or richer, than conventional hand-painted animation.

What is the 82nd Mickey cartoon and why is it not on the order?

“We’re doing everything except ‘Steam Boat Willie,’ ” said Sandrew. “There are some things you just can’t touch.”


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