Showing His True Colors

Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

To grasp how complicated it was to make "Pleasantville," writer-director Gary Ross' new film about two vibrant '90s teenagers who are absorbed into the black-and-white world of a '50s television show, begin by imagining actress Joan Allen's face painted green. Picture her, chartreuse, in the middle of a love scene. Then, try not to laugh.

That's what actor Jeff Daniels had to do while making the film, in which the residents of the monochromatic town of Pleasantville turn to living color, one person at a time. In one romantic scene, a black-and-white Daniels touches Allen's black-and-white cheek and discovers that under her gray makeup, her skin has become pink. That's what you see on screen, anyway.

To achieve this effect--a single splash of natural color in an otherwise drab frame--a makeup artist slathered Allen with green face paint, specially mixed to match the tones of her skin. During shooting, Daniels managed to gaze lovingly into Allen's eyes despite her ghoulish appearance (gallantly, he said later that his co-star's talent outshone her icky hue). Finally, during post-production, a computer was used to turn her green face gray.

And that, Ross says, was just one of the 1,700 special effects in the $40-million film, which premiered last week at the Toronto Film Festival and is set for release on Oct. 23.

"When I first got the idea for 'Pleasantville,' I realized I had stumbled on a wonderful metaphor to express what it means to come alive," said the 41-year-old first-time director, recalling how he first hit on the concept of making a movie that began in black-and-white and gradually turned to color. He admitted, however, that his initial excitement was accompanied by ignorance about how difficult such a project would be.

"I was so naive. I had no idea," a punchy-sounding Ross said as he neared the end of the project he began writing four years ago and spent more than two years actually making (more than twice the usual time for a less technical movie). Asked to describe the "Pleasantville" production, which according to New Line Cinema has more digital visual effects shots than any movie in history, Ross said: " 'Fitzcarraldo' meets 'Brigadoon.' "

The comparison sounds loopy, but it's apt. For like director Vincente Minnelli did in 1954's "Brigadoon," Ross brings to life a mythical village in "Pleasantville" that is forever altered by the arrival of two visitors from another land--in this case, twin siblings played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon. And like director Werner Herzog, who actually hauled a huge riverboat over a mountain while making 1982's "Fitzcarraldo," Ross had to overcome huge technical obstacles to get his movie made.

The story is a modern fable about two children of divorce--Witherspoon, the popular flirt, and Maguire, the likable nerd who is obsessed with the idyllic world of his favorite television program, "Pleasantville." When the siblings are mysteriously transported into the black-and-white show, they find themselves in an alternate reality where the weather is always sunny and 72 degrees, where the bathrooms have no toilets and where father and mother always know best. But with them, the '90s teens bring change. First a rose turns color, then a shiny new car, then a young girl's tongue. Once the transformation begins, there's no stopping it.

To execute this vision--in which color itself becomes one of the movie's central characters--Ross considered using the traditional process of colorizing black-and-white film. But the results, he feared, would look too fake, particularly the flesh tones. The key to "Pleasantville" was that the color characters had to look as real as their monochromatic friends, prompting a visceral engagement of the senses that would contrast with the sense of nostalgia evoked by black-and-white.

So Ross, who has no formal technical training, embarked on an odyssey that would make him a computer whiz who would become as comfortable using terms like "saturation shift" as he already was discussing a character's motivation.

The plan was to shoot on color film stock, which has better resolution than black-and-white, and then to remove the color from scenes--and from particular parts of individual frames of film--that the story line required to be color-free. But that created all sorts of unprecedented problems during the shoot.

Lighting was tricky, for example. Cinematographer John Lindley had to experiment to find a combination of lighting schemes that could provide the proper illumination for both black-and-white and color objects and characters. The production designer, Jeannine Oppewall, and costume designer, Judianna Makovsky, had to choose colors for the movie's sets and clothing that would have the right "gray value" in one shot, but would also evoke the right emotional feeling when shown in color.

The makeup supervisor, Susan Cabral, faced a similar quandary. For Allen's green-face scene alone, Cabral tried 50 shades of green pancake makeup before hitting on a homemade mixture that matched the tone of Allen's skin. Even script supervisor Barbara Tuss' job had an extra wrinkle: During shooting she kept track of which actors and objects--all of which, naturally, were in color on the set--would be shown in black-and-white in the final film.

Even after all of this, the toughest challenge was still to come, when Ross and his team of more than a dozen colorization experts holed up in a makeshift special-effects laboratory in Ross' Toluca Lake offices and started manipulating the 82-minute film, frame by frame. Before they were done, this post-production period, which begins after shooting wraps and usually takes about three or four months, would span more than a year.

In 1988, Tom Hanks starred in "Big," the story of a young boy who wakes up one morning having been granted his wish--to be big--and suddenly must navigate the world in a man's body. The movie was a big hit, and its writers--Ross and his then-partner Anne Spielberg--were nominated for Academy Awards.

In 1993, a second Ross script made it to the screen: "Dave," the story of a regular guy (Kevin Kline) who is drafted to stand in for his look-alike, the president of the United States. As with "Big," the movie's Capra-esque humor pivoted around a fish-out-of-water character who turned naivete into wisdom. Again, Ross received an Oscar nomination.

Ross was developing a reputation for writing funny, personal stories that made commercially viable movies. He was also known for his point of view. An outspoken liberal, he had written speeches for Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton and had made no secret of modeling the heartless president in "Dave" after Ronald Reagan.

When he wrote "Pleasantville," though, Ross says the lines between personal and political blurred for him as never before. Though the idea for the film came to him "the day after Newt Gingrich was swept into power," Ross said his interest in exposing the flaws of the idealized '50s America had its roots much earlier.

Ross' father, Arthur Ross, is also a screenwriter ("Creature From the Black Lagoon," "The Great Race"). During the McCarthy era, the elder Ross, a champion of progressive causes who founded the Hollywood branch of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in the late '50s, was blacklisted. And Ross remembers his mother, Gail, as "a housewife who struggled to find an identity in midlife."

"Bob Dole wanted to build a bridge to the past, and many people are in love with a past that I don't think ever existed--one that was devoid of conflict or poverty or strife," he said. "As a culture, there's a need to do that now, to mythologize. It's like telling ourselves big, 3-D lies because we don't want to face the consequences of what a big society is."

Initially, when Ross conceived of the idea of sending a '90s protagonist back into a homogenized '50s world, he thought he should make "Pleasantville" in the medium it satirized: television. But after setting it up as a miniseries at ABC, he suddenly realized that to truly work, it needed the scope and luminescence of the big screen.

"As a writer, you find a cool metaphor sometimes that lets you deal with stuff that expresses a theme," he said. In this case, color, or the lack of it, came to represent "being lifeless versus coming alive, hiding who you are versus letting who you are come out. Because it was an abstraction, it allowed us to deal with fear of differentness. If thefilm says anything political, it's that that's where repression comes from."

Here, Ross' light touch came in handy. Instead of making the pre-color Pleasantville an oppressive place, he made it alluring--even to himself.

"I loved walking down the street of that set," Ross said of the 21-building town his production crew built in Malibu Creek State Park. "The birds were singing. It was this pristine, perfect place. What's attractive about it is the peace, but there's a price to pay for that kind of peace. Life is more complex than that. To live that way is less complete, less fun, less passionate."

Ross had set himself a difficult goal: creating a movie that allowed viewers to engage in the fun of nostalgia but also asked them to ponder its consequences. The deeper he got into the project, the more he realized its success with moviegoers would depend not only on the actors' performances but also on something upon which he'd never before relied: technology.

"You live through an hour of the movie in black-and-white and you come to accept it as real," he said one afternoon a few months ago, gesturing toward a computer on which he was tinkering with a "Pleasantville" frame. "Then [the emerging color] will make you realize there's something much more real."

Ross did not add, "If the effects work." But he was thinking it. He'd been thinking it for months.

Visitors to Ross' offices in a Toluca Lake low-rise during the post-production period were greeted by a sign on the front door: "Welcome to Pleasantville." Inside, the hallway walls were papered floor-to-ceiling with color-coded charts detailing the status of each and every shot in the movie.

And then there were the computers--20 of them--where 10 animators, working in two eight-hour shifts, were going frame by frame through the film, adjusting the palette and the contrast and sometimes even changing the color of things altogether.

Led by an on-site visual effects supervisor who invented new software to keep track of the movie's voluminous number of shots, this team of experts was charged with nothing less than the transformation of a world.

For example, in one scene, a central character is revealed to have turned color. The character is shown first from the back and, because she wears a black-and-white dress, she appears monochromatic. Then she turns around. In quick succession, you see the nape of her neck, her cheek, then her full face. The revelation is complete: She is full-color.

But slow that down, and you see how Ross and his team cheated a bit, manipulating the palette to prolong the element of surprise. Though you won't realize it when you see the film in real time, the first glimpses of her neck and cheek are more gray than flesh-colored. Ross wants the effect to sneak up on you.

Another shot, of Maguire and his girlfriend driving down a black-and-white Lover's Lane with a swirl of light pink dogwood petals blowing around them, required another trick. During the shoot, truckloads of petals were dropped from above. But instead of pale pink, they were bright magenta.

"We needed magenta to contrast with the actual green background," explained Chris Watts, the visual effects supervisor. "Then we color-corrected to the desired shade of pink, turned the background to black-and-white and then composited the petals back over the original scene."

In a normal film, certain decisions, once they're made, cannot be changed. The costumes, for example--once the film is shot, everyone has to live with the color scheme. But not in "Pleasantville," whose costume designer had the option, if she couldn't find the perfect color in real life, of making it up on the computer.

Ross, too, enjoyed this freedom--in one scene, he changed the color of a dress to green after finding the original orange color unappealing. Having such power can be a dangerous thing, he admitted, but hopefully it can also help better tell the story.

That's what Ross was trying to do one afternoon as he sat elbow-to-elbow with color effects designer Michael Southard, staring at a computer. Southard, the man Ross calls the artist on the "Pleasantville" technical team, had pulled up a scene in which a formerly drab rose suddenly burns bright pink. Ross was wondering whether it should be pinker.

"This scene will cut to a shot of Joan [Allen] with lifeless flowers, so we need contrast," he said, urging Southard to brighten the color. Southard moved a mouse, clicked a few times. The resulting rose looked garish.

"It's starting to look like an effect," Ross said, uttering the phrase as if nothing could be worse. "Let's lose it."

In another scene, an abstract painting of Santa Claus is featured in a shop window. Ross asked Southard to adjust some of the tones.

"It's looking yellow," Ross said, frustrated. "It's going very vermilion in the reds."

Southard tried a little more blue, but they both agreed that didn't work.

"The association with Christmas means we need real red," Ross concluded.

And so it went, scene by scene.

"Who does a first movie like this?" Ross would say later, his voice weary but proud. "Technology is a tool. It shouldn't just be the province of explosions and spaceships. This is special effects for good, not evil."

But will he be leading the charge to do another film that relies heavily on effects to tell the story? Not right away.

"I'm dying to do a movie that doesn't have special effects in it," he said. "That would be a walk in the park."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World