The coconut effect
There’s plenty of instances in life when a lie is more attractive than the truth, if not even more believable than the truth. You’ll impress nobody saying, “play it” in your best Bogart voice because we all know the line was, “play it again Sam” – except of course, it wasn’t. One term for this is ‘the coconut effect’. Early radio and cinema would use two halves of a coconut shell for the noise of a horse, but when more realistic sounds started to be used later on, test audiences considered them unrealistic as they were so used to the exaggerated clip-clop of the coconuts.
From the 1930s there’s been hi-top trainers and hooded sweatshirts. Part of me would almost certainly rather show up to perform at a 1940s event in a Laura Ashley tea dress than an original hoodie because it’s my job to look authentic, in a way that’s obvious enough to be accessible to people who haven’t spent their evenings pouring over the pages of a 1937 Sears catalogue.
In the early 2000s Morris & Co produced a wallpaper collection that included machine-printed reproductions of J.H. Dearle’s 1899 Golden Lily. Paper ran under rubber rollers which pressed the ink onto the paper, a process called surface printing. In order to make the printing look more hand done they allowed the next layer of colour to be applied before the previous had dried, creating smudging. The funny thing is the original wallpapers were printed by skilled craftsmen, the printing was crisp and precise. Comparing the two side by side (below), the machine print (right) looked older than the hand print (left). This paradox started me thinking, what’s more important – what’s actually authentic or what appears to be more authentic?
A blank canvas
History would be so easy if we could take a look at Henry VIII’s Tiktok account – oh that’s how they danced! As it is, those of us who aren’t historians are almost entirely reliant on the media we consume to show us what history was like. “But wait!” you say, “we live in England, we’re tripping over historical buildings!” That is true, but those buildings are jumpsuit Elvis, not Hound Dog Elvis, and that’s where things start to get a little more complicated.
Paintings fade and buildings crumble. In the 1930s the British Museum rather shambolically (but with good intentions) scrubbed the Elgin Marbles white, removing their natural golden patina. What possibly makes that even worse is that they weren’t even plain originally, they were painted. Ancient Greece and Rome were not the blank canvases we see depicted on film, but were really rather gaudy. This wasn’t discovered until the 1800s by architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff, with recent technology allowing archaeologists such as Vinzenz Brinkmann to analyse the remaining traces of pigment more closely. Greek and Roman marble statues were elaborately painted, sometimes with stucco hairstyles and bronzes were dressed in armour with jewelled eyes and metalled nails and lips. Rome’s Colosseum was a “veritable riot of colour” according to its superintendent, painted in reds, blues, greens and black and covered with spectators’ graffiti. The clean white architecture and sculptures of the Renaissance were all based on a misunderstanding, one caused by the passing of time.
The question is, having believed for so long that Ancient Greece and Rome were marble white, would we accept seeing it in full colour? It has been known since before the advent of cinema that the Pyramids of Giza were bright, gleaming landmarks, originally encased in polished white limestone but even with the freedom that animation and digital effects bring The Prince of Egypt (1998) opted for the familiar golden glow of pyramids on its film poster and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) opted for a worn sandy look. Gods of Egypt (2016) did depict some pyramids as white, but everything else in the film looked so ridiculous that didn’t really help the cause of authenticity.
A faded photograph
When Wolf Hall aired on the BBC in 2015 it was hailed for its attention to historical detail, right down to having filmed night scenes by candlelight.
One detail that wasn’t right were the tapestries adorning the walls. They looked exactly how we know them to look, subdued, tasteful, faded, an intentional diversion from authenticity by its director Peter Kosminsky. He told BBC’s Start the Week that “if we were to show the tapestries in the colours that they were at the time, everyone would think we’d got it horribly wrong… people would have been appalled.” Here was a definite case of being inaccurate to appear more authentic, where the aim was to make us feel more comfortable in our surroundings. Amusingly, Wolf Hall also reduced the codpieces to half their real size on request of PBS so as not to confuse or distract the American audience.
Every film has its own visual language which for period pieces is usually desaturated in some way. In the business recolouring is known as colour grading and it is used for correction (due to changing light conditions during the filming of a scene) as well as effect.
One of the first films to be entirely digitally corrected was the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Though?, the entire film bathed in the golden haze of the dustbowl. The intention, according to cinematographer Roger Deakins, was to create the look of an old hand-tinted picture. Similarly, Peter Jackson’s King Kong was colour graded to “give it a look that’s not contemporary” and let’s not forget almost every modern war film, so miserably coloured you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d dropped the camera in a muddy puddle.
The general idea is that history is more believable if it is presented to us according to the quality and colouring of archive material. Take a moment to think of an old family photograph you might have in your drawer. When you try to imagine the moment that photo was taken, your ancestors wrangling the children into serious poses in the photographer’s studio, placing their hands just so, straightening their hat, you probably imagine it in black and white. So in film desaturation becomes the visual cue for a flashback. Maybe it’s lazy, but it’s understood and so we’ve allowed the limitations of century-old technology to perpetuate the idea of the past having always been faded.
The distant past
Having presented the case that the past is more believable in black and white, let me turn that on its head. The past may be more believable in black and white, but is it more relatable? Is the director failing if he’s created a past so far removed from our technicoloured reality that we see it as other? The perfect example of this is footage from World War One. Faces have blurred through film degradation and dirt and they have that Charlie Chaplin look about them, jerky and quick from the discrepancies between filming and projection speeds. Yes, I believe that’s the past, but I can’t quite accept it as real, as that being someone’s husband or son. Enter Peter Jackson with They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). Instead of colour grading being used to make things look old, ala King Kong, it was used to colourise it and make it look contemporary. The Guardian described it as “putting the humanity back into old film stock”. Suddenly that’s people like you or I being sent over the top to their doom.
Where this ultimately takes me is to start to ask questions about whether it is ok to indulge these false perceptions of the past. If it makes the past more accessible is it ok, or is it dumbing down? I certainly wouldn’t lose any sleep over picking a muted Persian rug instead of a brightly coloured one, but I do wonder if by peddling this diluted version of history we lose a chance to understand how rich and sophisticated past generations were. Or when it comes to two thousand years of defacing walls with phallus drawings, decidedly unsophisticated.
The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture – The New Yorker
Restorers discover colorful frescoes in Rome’s Colosseum – Reuters
Scientists ‘virtually restore’ 16th century tapestry at Hampton Court Palace – Manchester University
Start the Week – The Tudors – BBC Sounds