Watch: Red Lighting in the Films of Martin Scorsese
A new site called Film Scalpel is devoted to not just the production of video essays, but also understanding their grammar and exemplary practitioners. Among their first handful of videos are four takes on different motifs in the work of Martin Scorsese, with a thoughtful look at his use of red as it historically relates to tinting and black and white compositions. Check that out above, and read below for some context.
Just as silent movies were rarely silent, black-and-white films were not often simply black and white. In the silent era, the techniques of tinting and toning were commonly used to add a dash of color to the grayscale images.
The tinting process involved bathing the black-and-white print in a colored dye, thus adding one extra color to the footage. (The white parts of the image took on that hue). Toning was a more complicated matter, employing one of several possible chemical processes to convert the black-and-white silver image to another (metallic) element to change the color. (1)
Both methods resulted in a colored print that broke the monotony of straightforward black-and-white footage. The use of these colors became codified: blue was used to indicate moonlit night scenes, orangish hues evoked the light of a lamp or a candle.
The advent of color rendered these techniques obsolete. But Scorsese has resurrected tinting and toning, or the visual impact of these techniques, throughout his directing career. An impressive number of his films feature shots or entire scenes that are drenched in a single color. The color palette is reduced to one hue, resulting in startlingly monochrome visuals. But in Scorsese’s movies, not all colors are created equal: red is his color of choice.