Restoring Moby Dick’s “Wind-Blanched Color”
Although he would probably brush off the compliment, Greg Kimble is an artist who works with the tools of the latest technology but relies also on the instincts of his painterly eye. One of Hollywood’s foremost visual effects specialists – his credits include Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), Braveheart (1995), Independence Day (1996), and What Dreams May Come (1998) – Kimble has lately turned his hand to film restoration, painstakingly refreshing the likes of A Clockwork Orange, Yellow Submarine, This Is Cinerama, and Triumph of the Will. Now, for Twilight Time, he has brought his extraordinary skills to a reconstruction of John Huston’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1956), a film that, Kimble says, “will finally be seen as it was meant to be for the first time in more than 50 years.”
Shot by the singular Oswald Morris – who is unusually and significantly credited also as “creator” of the film’s “color style” – Moby Dick on its release boasted an utterly sui generis look; Kimble notes with appreciation The Dictionary of American Film’s description of its “wind-blanched color.” Shot on Eastmancolor stock, the film was processed using Technicolor three-strip dye-transfer techniques; the desaturated appearance with tinted highlights was achieved in post, its effects available not in the negative but in the prints. To re-time/color grade the film for this TT release, Kimble consulted not one but two tech prints he discovered at the Library of Congress, picking a couple of reels from each to compare with more recent, more vibrantly (and incorrectly) colored transfers. “When Queequeg dropped his drawers,” he laughs, “I knew what I had to do!” Seems the newer transfers depicted the master harpoonist’s underwear as bright red; in the tech prints, the color was a soft rust.
Meticulously, over eight months, Kimble re-timed Moby Dick frame by frame, cleaning and “painting” each one with remarkable patience and expertise. “It helps,” he notes, “to have a touch of OCD.” The result, finally on view in the 60th anniversary Blu-Ray, is the film looking – for the first time on home video – as it was originally conceived by director Huston and cinematographer Morris: as a perfect reflection of Melville’s “damp, drizzly November in my soul.” Modeled on the 19th-century aquatints that brought the adventures of contemporaneous whalers to an eager-for-sensation general public – the very sort of images on view in the film’s title sequence – this is a visual style that is not just distinctive, but revolutionary: not so much sepia as silvery, and on occasion so bled of color that it resembles black-and-white documentary footage. The overall effect is haunting – and, like Melville’s book, as representative of an interior mindscape as it is of the exterior seascape.
For Kimble, the result was well worth his effort: to see Moby Dick looking again “like velvet…with that Monet-like sheen” satisfied not just his artistic/technical impulses, but also soothed his preservationist’s heart. Lamenting that “90 percent of films made before 1950 are gone,” he admits to being happy that “instead of destroying the planet four times a year [as a special effects master], I’m using my skill set on restoration.” An added bonus: working on the film afforded him an opportunity to re-read the novel. “I can have that on my tombstone: ‘He actually read Moby Dick.’” Preorders for November 15's release of Moby Dick in thrilling 1080p hi-def open tomorrow, Wednesday November 2.