CineSavant Column

Saturday March 31, 2018


A fun conversation about Invaders from Mars had an educational effect this week, thanks to input from some helpful experts whose expertise goes beyond the ‘film historian’ norm . . . I’d like to coin the phrase Film Archeologist. It started with a question from Gary Teetzel, whose post-production knowledge surpassed my own a number of years ago. Gary forwarded a Variety article he dug up from the deep past, when yours truly was a widdle infink just ten months of age:

Filmed in an improved Eastmancolor Kodak film stock? Gary asked if Variety’s article was a mistake — most dedicated fans know that Invaders is billed as being in ‘SuperCinecolor’, the full-color successor to the older cut-price 2-color Cinecolor process. Samples of the intriguing / weird original Cinecolor process can be seen in my review for Kino’s disc of the Randolph Scott movie Canadian Pacific). Invaders from Mars doesn’t look anything like that.

So what gives?

Invaders from Mars has always posed mysteries for us, from the lack of prime-quality video, to its variant versions, and to a lot of misinformation about how it was filmed and in what process. Back in 1970 the Australian-born critic John Baxter did his best to be accurate in his book Science Fiction in the Cinema. This was the first study dedicated to the genre that came into my hands as a UCLA freshman. If Mr. Baxter could see an older film at all back then, the only print accessible to him might be a censored English version. It’s understandable that he could receive bad info telling him that the Venusian monster in 20 Million Miles to Earth was a dinosaur, and that the Gill Man interrupts a Rock ‘n’ Roll performance in Revenge of the Creature. Baxter’s book calmly stated that Invaders was originally filmed in 3-D, a goof that’s been repeated and believed to this day. That error makes perfect sense, as the depth effect in William Cameron Menzies’s images is so pronounced, the flat movie has a better 3-D feel than most actual 3-D pix. (Note: in his book Keep Watching the Skies Bill Warren states without documentation that Invaders was planned to be in 3D.)

I thought I knew the answer to Gary’s question, but since I’m always wrong, I wrote film restoration specialist Bob Furmanek to get a real answer. Bob in turn pulled his cohort (and fellow 3-D Film Archive founder) Jack Theakston in on the case, for the reason that Jack was ‘the Cinecolor expert.’

Gary found an answer at Wikipedia, which as we know scores poorly on Tom Weaver’s scale of research reliability. But Mr. Theakston came back very quickly with a more authoritative response. I’ve added some notes to Jack’s remarks:

All SuperCineColor shows derive from monopack stocks. (i.e., it was a process for making cheaper prints from films shot on Ansco/Agfa, DuPont, Kodachrome, or Eastmancolor.) That’s essentially why the process sat shelved for several years after they created it in the early ’40s. (Kodak didn’t get Eastmancolor rolled out until 1950, providing the first real competition for the much more expensive, cumbersome Technicolor process.)

Invaders from Mars was filmed on Eastman’s 5247 stock with 35mm Mitchell BNCs. To produce SuperCinecolor prints, the Eastman negative was then A/B rolled into separations and printed using magenta-red and blue-cyan toning on the same duplitized stock that had been used for 2-color Cinecolor. The third yellow layer was dye-transferred on the blue side.

(Dye-transferred! Amazing! The projection prints had two color emulsions, one on each side of the acetate base, and then a Technicolor-like dye transfer pass added to one side to add the yellow information. This accounts for the sometimes weird color values that make Invaders look so amazing. It also doesn’t sound like it could be a cheap process at all. No wonder that Theakston reports it didn’t last very long:)

Cinecolor/Color Corporation of America kept this up until 1954 when they sold out to the company Houston Fearless, which kept the lab going as an Ansco processor. — Jack Theakston.

Bob Furmanek followed up Jack’s note with interesting curatorship information on the much-admired early Sci-fi picture. We’d previously been told that Invaders’ original elements were lost somewhere in England, a story that we’re happy to hear Bob contradict:

By the way, the Original Camera Negative survives and is in great shape with most of its color. The owner has the Red/Blue/Yellow separations as well. The film can be fully restored and look stunning. Check out these frames taken directly from a 35mm SuperCinecolor print. — Bob Furmanek

I agree — the actual frames look rich and dark, as I remember the one 35mm screening restorationist Michael Hyatt gave about ten years ago. Let’s hope that we see some fantastic UltraHD transfer of Invaders from Mars in our lifetime! Come on, deep-pocket disc companies — do right by “the Sci-fi classic that, at least in Savant’s opinion, should be showing in the Louvre.

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson