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A Perception of Color in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator

The 2004’s The Aviator, Martin Scorsese wanted to imitate the color techniques from his memories watching the films of the era as a child. You can almost feel him relish the prospect of being able to make a motion picture about the movies. About an integral, transitional period of cinema.

Experimenting with color palettes and saturation, Scorsese and his team designed a kind of color timeline to somehow mimic the early American Technicolor dye-transfer process. Replicating the vintage look of the period, and the films made back then. Styles of processing we perhaps take for granted today. And know very little about. Scorsese, of course, is an ambassador when it comes to the revitalization of film disrepair. And the Digital Intermediate phase of the production, utilized given our modern methods, was a first for Scorsese. A filmmaker who had nothing to prove to us, but still bagfuls of raw passion to show.

The Aviator was five years in the making. John Logan must have written in the region of fifteen drafts of the screenplay. Leonardo DiCaprio threw himself into the role of Howard Hughes – he was already an inquisitive fan of the filmmaker. Likely the finest turn of his acting career. Gwen Stefani had the once in a lifetime opportunity to portray her idol, Jean Harlow. Scorsese did not want to recreate movie stars with prosthetics. Rather, he present the essence of those characters, through top-notch, well-researched make up and hair-styling.

Veteran production designer Dante Ferretti was exhilarated to create the club Coconut Grove, and with it the transitions through the decades. And the showy architecture of Hollywood. Sandy Powell modeled the designs of her costumes on the actors and actresses, as well as the characters they played. Howard Hughes’ clothes were made to gradually deteriorate with him.

There was a seamless use of visual effects, both practical scale models of planes, houses, Hollywood Boulevard, as well as CGI effects, adding water, clouds, era appropriate backgrounds. Composer Howard Shore listened to music from the 1920s and 1930s to get a true feel for the historical context. The Aviator was Scorsese’s free reign to put himself, and us, right in the time of Howard Hughes, his ambitious film productions, and his own personal compulsive demons. And the intensive work color grading the film has resulted in a picture that looks both stunning and of the time.

Scorsese’s homage to the Technicolor two-strip and three-strip processes used in the early days of cinema, was itself reflective of a period of experimentation – both in the making of The Aviator and the years it depicts. Its a complicated process, even in the digital age, not just in the recreation, but also the concept. Manipulating the layers to enhance or remove certain color channels on the film reflects how even back then the grass can look blue, the skies aqua, even the metal of a plane could shimmer blue. Teals and oranges you might say. Let’s push aside the head-spinning technology, and see for ourselves how The Aviator not only relies heavily on color alteration, but also how emotion, life events, sets, costumes, make-up, sheer objects – you name it – are given essential depth and meaning through color.

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The glow of the browns, the dusty oranges, are imprinted on us from the outset. The opening scene has Howard Hughes as a child being bathed by his mother. The scene is shrouded in shadow as his mother warns him about the potential for disease.

 

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A brighter palette of oranges and browns as we join Howard as a young adult making Hell’s Angels. The bright blues are introduced via the sky. It’s easy to assume a warm / cold connotation with the color shades, but what is established is the blues form a backdrop while the oranges appear to be active totems.

 

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The first scene in the club Coconut Grove continues the dual color theme, both the architecture and the costumes. You’d have to attribute the warmer shades in some way to Howard’s early years doing his thing without the burden of OCD prominent.

 

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Like the motion of the girl on the swing, blue, still bright, creeps it’s way into the mise-en-scene. Almost drifting your eye to the background, or subtly help light up a smile. Notice Howard’s jacket, which appears light brown, is checked ever so faintly with, yes, blue.

 

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The illuminated blues against the darker browns take greater emphasis during a sequence depicting the film’s production. Of course, projection lights and the daytime sky call for brighter exposure, but the contrast with the darker shades and shadows make for greater emphasis.

 

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The blues darken as Howard begins to shows signs of the OCD creeping in.

 

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A huge transition from the color scales, but still keeping within the two tone palette, is when Katherine Hepburn enters Howard’s life. Or rather he invites himself into hers, flying his plane to the beach to offer a round of golf. Katherine stands out in white amidst the browns, and then alongside the equal blend of blue and brown of teh golf course – including Howard’s own sartorial choices. As well as the direct red stripe on the plane, Katherine is slowly introducing more red into the frames. And the of course Howard is somewhat blue-grey in the house almost all browns and oranges.

 

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The refreshingly brighter scope of the distinct tones portrays, again, a more euphoric moment for Howard as he strives to be the fastest man on the planet. The blues once again become the backdrop, but seemingly dominates the frames with its vibrancy.

 

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The reds are given stronger weight as Howard enters further unfamiliar, nervous quarters at Katherine’s estate as well the couple discussing the nitty-gritty of their own contrast in character. In fact the colors are much more varied than the dual tones emphasising the earlier period. As well as red, green is now playing a big part.

 

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Neutral colors momentarily mask the greens and the reds as Howard and Katherine’s relationship, as well as his well-being, start to seriously crumble. The reds and browns merge, and as Katherine leaves him and his OCD hits a new levels, they morph to a rich orange – soon the flames as Howard burns all his clothes.

 

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The multi-colors are prominent as the following scenes demonstrate Howard’s growing struggles. Green also play it’s part, with the dress of Ava Gardner, but on a much grander scale the entire walls of the rest room where Howard seems stranded. Notice how after waiting for someone to enter so he can leave without touching the handle, he has to leave the green and enter the red.

 

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Discussing the blueprints, that very color is no longer the background. The prints themselves, and his vivid eye color, as he stammers and flees.

 

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Even during his great love for aviation, the red shades rear their heads as he is forced to crash land a plane in a Beverley Hills neighborhood. Look at the red roof tiles being ransacked, the crimson interior of the home, not to mention the bloody face following the accident. And there are plenty of orange flames to add to the analysis.

 

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And we’re back to the turbulent close of another relationship. Ava Gardner wearing red (Look, bright green plant outside), and a tatty Howard seemingly surrounded by varying shades of green. The bright green couch soon after as the senator attempts to make Howard uncomfortable.

 

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The blue of the projection light dominates the frames, and cast Howard almost as a shadow. The whole ambience is dimmer than similar lighting early in the film. Howard’s condition had indeed come a long way. He is finally interrupted, and illuminated, by the active auditorium light. His visitor is Katherine Hepburn, seemingly bringing the color red with her. Thus is, though, in a reverse of before, a step towards an improvement in health.

 

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Ava also soon visits, also dressed in red – albeit with touches of blue. The color re-emerges as a dominant one, leading to the scene when Howard takes to the site once again. Notice, too, he is dressed in a light brown, we’re almost coming full circle.

 

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Howard has another bout of stammering, even in a moment of triumph he succumbs to paranoia. Escorted to the rest room, he is enveloped in browns. And from this is sees himself as a boy in the mirror – almost a parallel to the opening scene. Howard as a boy appears to look right back. Adult Howard, the red of anguish in his face, the brown of his facial hair, the bloodshot blue eyes. Attempting to compose himself, repeating the phrase that mirrors his true ambition. The way of the future. The way of the future. The way of the future.

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