Colour & Perception – Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” and Peter Jacksons’ “They Shall Not Grow Old”

Art is many things to many people. I’ve heard it described as a celebration of beauty, which is a joyous thing. Beauty is something we all need more of in our lives. What we don’t need more of is superficiality – there’s more than enough of that surrounding us already.

Art can be ugly too. It can be difficult, challenging, confrontational, thought provoking, political, religious, irreligious, complex or simple. It can be purely entertaining or deeply profound. It can make an immediate, readily understood impact, or require a major effort of understanding on the part of a viewer. Sometimes the less there is on a canvas, the longer the accompanying label seems to grow.

For me, one way of thinking about art is to understand it as the application of intelligence, technique and creativity to a subject to make you see the truth of it in a new way.  The familiar becomes new. We see something we thought we knew differently and are forced to think about it afresh. Sometimes it can upend our perceptions or make us face something we had not wanted to see. Or it can make us realize that something we barely saw at all is meaningful and worth looking at with new eyes. It seems to me that the best art begins with a strong idea – it is about something.

Image from the movie Roma by Alfonso Cuaron showing a woman and children in a car
Movie still from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma. Photo: NETFLIX

These thoughts don’t just apply to painting, but to all forms of artistic expression.  I am a painter, but I really love film – for me film was the great artistic medium to emerge in the last century. Obviously, it can be a visual feast, but it can also be highly literary. Great films take us into places we may have never been, bring us alongside other lives in ways that are visceral and real and engage our emotions powerfully just as literature or music does.

I was lucky enough to see two films in the past few days – each using the power of colour artfully to make us see something differently.  Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s black and white homage to the maid that raised him, is beautiful to look at. Imagine every great photographer you care to think of contributing a little, frame by frame. You could freeze it almost anywhere and simply appreciate the still image.  

Image from the movie Roma by Alfonso Cuaron showing a woman and child lying below a line of laundry
Movie still from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma. Photo: NETFLIX

Shooting a film in black and white abstracts each moment and makes another, almost nostalgic, reality   of it, forcing you to concentrate on light and composition. It is consciously a look and feel from a time that is past, accentuating that this is art made of memory, in a way.  The performances are powerful too – no wonder this is hotly tipped for an Oscar.  It is available on Netflix.

Image partially colorized from film footage of WWI from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Meanwhile, adding colour to footage that was black white and has left all of us with a collective memory of a black and white war that took place impossibly long ago, when people were grainy and indistinct and moved like marionettes, is a stroke of genius in Peter Jacksons’ “They Shall Not Grow Old”. It brings the reality of a war that is sliding beyond living memory screaming into the present and forces you to confront the living, breathing, humanity of these men and the hell they lived through.

Colorized film footage of WWI men resting behind the lines from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

I remember the old men those young men became, remember talking to my grandfather who went through the entire war and was forever altered by it. It was only yesterday, really, and now they are all gone. This is a film that will show future generations who never knew these men that they were more than characters in a history book.

I can’t quite believe a film of this outstanding quality was screened for just two days, in limited theatres, with almost no advertising. Despite this, the screening we attended in Victoria was sold out and left its audience profoundly moved. Peter Jackson worked with the Imperial War Museum Film and the BBC Sound archives to create a vivid, unforgettable and never before seen telling of the war on the western front by those who were there. The War Museum had asked him to make “something” out of their 100 hour archive of grainy black and white, hand-cranked camera, silent footage. Their only brief was “make it a fitting tribute to the centenary of the war and make it something we haven’t seen before”.

Colorized film footage of a trench in WWI from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Working with his digital processing and effects people in NZ. He first of all took that aging and deteriorating footage and cleaned it up, then corrected all the various shooting speeds to a believable 24 frames a second, before colouring it, so that it lives like never before.  Of course, the original film is silent, so he had actors read the words – captured by lip readers – of those seen speaking and authentic sounds added, so that the mud squelches, the shells whine and explode and the guns chatter and the soldiers laugh and joke with us.  The result brings these men gloriously alive and makes their deaths freshly poignant and senseless…

The film is voiced by a carefully edited commentary from around 100 British soldiers, telling it like it was, the horrors and the humour, the everyday realities, the dreams and nightmares, the camaraderie, the loss, the inability to ever share it all with civilians when they came home. I don’t think there can have been a dry eye in the house. It is a simply stunning achievement and will surely become the definitive telling of what it was like to be a part of that war as an ordinary soldier. There is no history of battles, no attempt to explain what it was all about, no Generals, no tactics, just those voices reminiscing, often with good humour or great sadness – what it was like to join up, train, then live and fight in trenches.  This is how it was. I’ve read a great deal about that war and have a vivid imagination, but this put you on the spot and confronted you like no reading can.

This is art. A masterpiece. See it if you can.

Now, how to make art with a brush that speaks like these films? What a challenge!

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