Sometimes the cinematographic technique is absolutely essential to the experience of a motion picture. Immediately some films that come to mind are "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and its iconic 65mm photography or "Avatar" (2009) and how it changed everything about what the term "spectacle" even means. The epic genre has always been about exploiting the latest in filmmaking techniques whether it's widescreen or IMAX. So when "Gone with the Wind" uses color in 1939 to tell a sweeping story of the Old South with one of the most lavish budgets ever afforded a film production, audiences immediately know they're in for something special.
In the old days shooting color wasn't as easy as turning on a camera and hitting a red button that puts magic video files onto a memory card. Now you'll have to excuse me while I nerd out on humanity's first great achievement: color filmmaking. While "GWTW" was far from the first color film it made use of one of the early processes. Before Kodak developed single strip color negative film that granted cinematographers the ability to shoot a color image on a single piece of film, a color picture essentially had to be cobbled together from multiple different images. Anyone who's messed around enough in Photoshop knows that you can create a full range of colors just by mixing red, green, and blue light in varying amounts. This is the principle that was used in the Technicolor process 4 (and yes your inference that there were 3 previous inferior processes that led to this fine feat of engineering and photochemistry is correct). Three separate strips of film ran through a Technicolor camera. After light passed through the lens it hit a beam splitter: a piece of glass that transmits a portion of light and reflects another portion. In this case 1/3 of the light went straight through the beam splitter and through a green filter to expose the first strip of black and white film and create the green record. The other 2/3 of the light was reflected off at a 90 degree angle where it passed through a magenta filter (transmitting blue and red with no green) then it hit a piece of bi-pack film, or two strips of film slapped together emulsion sides in. The first strip was orthochromatic blue sensitive only film, with a reddish dye that prevented the blue light from passing through to the back strip, which was exposed with only the red light. After all that was said and done you had three separate strips of black and white film, each with a different color record of the same exact scene. After a bit of photochemistry magic, the images were put together on a single film print ready for projection.* If that doesn't put your entire life into perspective, I don't know what can.
Technical stuff aside, Ernest Haller did wonderful work photographing this film. It was his first color movie and it's easy to see his strong black and white background pouring through the lighting in almost every scene. He has a penchant for hard light, which was always a big yes in the black and white days. Without color to provide layers, separation, and contrast, hard light was often used to help in modeling the actors and sets. Another explanation for his choice of hard sources may have been the more practical consideration of the extremely slow imaging system he was left with in the case of the Technicolor camera. Due to the 3 strips of film he had to expose he ended up with only 1/3 of the sensitivity that he would normally have with his film stock. Of course soft light comes at the expense of reduced light intensity, so perhaps he had no choice but to go without diffusion. Even in that case, it's much easier to make hard light look awful in color than it is to make it look decent. In fact, he went the extra mile and made it absolutely breathtaking, which is only a testament to Haller's finesse with hard light. He frequently kept his key lights on the side of the actors away from the camera for the more aesthetic contrast. But anyone can do that. And let's be real, especially with a female protagonist, beauty lighting was a major part of the game in a film from 1939. What really impresses me is how he was keenly aware of his background illumination, knowing that it was probably one of the biggest photographic influences for how the scene will read. He knew that he could paint eerie shadows on the back wall that will give the scene a heightened sense of tension, or stage the actors in front of a brightly lit wall that fades off into darkness to focus the frame. It starts to become obvious after a while that the face lighting is actually the easy part; fortunately for Haller, he had also mastered the art of lighting everything around it.
He also used the motivation of the lighting to great effect. The sequence with the explosion and subsequent fire lit kiss between Scarlett and Rhett is one of the most iconic classic movie moments partially because of Haller's expressive lighting. The other thing was his use of moonlight. It's not always there, but from time to time he used cool blue night scenes. The equation of night time with blue light had actually been a part of filmmaking for quite a while. Even in the silent era there were times when film was toned or tinted toward blue to convey a night scene, even though I don't think anyone actually experiences it that way. The restraint that Haller shows in only using the moonlight when it's most effective and truly expresses the character or situation was quite a strong choice.
As cinematographers we like to think that the camera work makes the difference but, probably trumping all the camera trickery, the sets are one of the most essential elements of making an epic actually epic. One of the greatest accomplishments of the photography here was showing off how grand the beautiful sets were. Without an eye for how to suck the viewer into the setting, it's hardly even a film about the Old South. Imagine if we didn't get that special moment of the camera pulling out while Scarlett and her father look out over their house and all their property to perfectly summarize a film about a woman who fights nonstop for her land and dignity. In its 3.5 hours, the film spans many settings as Scarlett moves from place to place, reaching great highs and pitiable lows, but each time Haller showed us who she is by where she is. Making sure that the sets are prominent enough in the scenes to bring out the character and the environment doesn't get lost in the coverage was a tall challenge that he more than overcame. "GWTW" was quite a notable achievement in the history of cinematography and was absolutely amazing beginning to end.
*I realize that the discussion of the Technicolor process was getting a bit tedious, but for anyone who's interested in knowing a little more:
In case it seems kind of arbitrary why each color record goes where it does, it's actually not. The reason why the green is by itself rather than on the bi-pack film is because it's actually the most important color record for achieving a rich image. This principle is still used in the Bayer filter pattern of modern digital cameras that have as many green-sensitive photosites as blue and red combined. The blue record has to go in front of the red record because the blue one can be on orthochromatic film, but the red one has to be on panchromatic film. What this means is that the blue record can be on film that's not sensitive to a full spectrum of colors, and therefore is not sensitive to red light and the image won't be contaminated by red illumination. The reason why this is possible with the blue record and not the red is because the silver halides that make up the light sensitive material in the film are naturally only sensitive to blue light. In fact much of early photography was orthochromatic because it wasn't until later when panchromatic black and white film was developed that was sensitive to a full spectrum of colors. If the red record went in front of the blue there would be no way to make the blue light reach the second strip without also exposing the first one.
And to speak a bit about the magical photochemistry printing process, the technicolor process actually outperformed many competing systems because it adopted a subtractive dye-transfer process rather than an additive one. After the film was processed each one was printed on a separate strip of gelatin film called a matrix in which a relief image created. Essentially, areas in which there was greater illumination left a thicker amount of gelatin in the matrix. The matrix was then put in dye of the opposite color, so the red matrix was put in cyan dye, the green matrix in magenta, and the blue matrix in yellow. Then all three dyed matrices were pressed against another strip of film so that the dyes would create the full range of colors using a subtractive method of printing rather than a photographic one.