'Isn’t that going to be awfully dull and drab?' George Hoyningen-Huene’s use of neutrals

Creator's Statement

George Hoyningen-Huene was a photographer, best known for his pioneering work for Paris Vogue in the 1930s. He worked as a colour consultant/coordinator on thirteen films from 1953-1963, collaborating frequently with George Cukor, with whom he had a long-standing friendship and who was responsible for this development in his career; Huene’s introduction to the role of colour consultant was on A Star is Born (Cukor, 1954), Cukor’s first colour film. Technicolor’s Color Advisory Service, headed by Natalie Kalmus (assisted by several other consultants), initiated the colour consultant role to guide, and, as Sarah Street has observed, ultimately control, the studios using their colour process and special cameras (207). Even as the studios became less reliant on Technicolor, the model of the colour consultant was sometimes retained (or even combined with Technicolor’s consultant).  An outlier to both the studio system and Technicolor, Huene has occupied a marginal position within Hollywood colour histories to date. This audiovisual essay seeks to highlight his contribution to the films on which he worked, and to colour aesthetics of the period, by dramatizing his tendency towards neutral palettes.

There are a number of interviews with Cukor (conducted in the 1960s and 70s) in which he notes the significance of Huene’s influence, crediting him (along with art director Gene Allen) with defining the look of his colour films. Prior to his move to filmmaking, Huene had the opportunity to work in colour for his magazine assignments (principally for Harpers Bazaar in the 1940s and 50s, but there are also some examples from Vogue in the 1930s) but he is generally most celebrated for his achievements in black & white. William A. Ewing, author of the only monograph-length exploration of Huene’s life and work,[1] highlights the significance of Huene’s still photography in terms of his control of chiaroscuro lighting effects and line, as well as a precise attention to minute details in composition. Ewing describes his colour work as ‘not as adept as some of his rivals’, and as a result there is scant attention to his colour photography in the book (1986: 9). Whether this is due to an art historical emphasis on black & white photography or not, as I’ve explored videographically elsewhere in relation to his work on Les Girls (Cukor, 1957), the archives reveal that Huene’s approach to colour was principally informed by references to paintings (Donaldson, 2022). As well as highlighting Huene’s good taste, Cukor repeatedly emphasises his approach as being defined by the removal of colour: ‘the great thing is always the absence of colour’ (Gillett and Robinson, 13); ‘it was removal of color, color used with discipline the way it should be used’ (American Film Institute, 117). I found an echo of this in the extract of Huene’s unpublished memoir featured in the audiovisual essay, where he describes his method as ‘playing down’ colour through ‘monochromatic arrangements’ (176). Although this characterisation of his aesthetic connects to the principles of restraint and harmony established by Kalmus and mapped out in her 1935 essay ‘Color Consciousness’, his approach to a neutral palette differs. Whereas for Kalmus, neutrals are best deployed as a background or ‘excellent foil’ adding ‘interest, variety and charm to our colors’ (142), I noticed that in Huene’s colour designs they would frequently dominate a scene. This was the starting point for the audiovisual essay, which then seeks to understand what the foregrounding of neutral tones achieves.  

The argument engages principally with the slight distinctions between colours in monochromatic palettes which favour greys, beiges, browns and blacks. Although writing about an earlier era of colour cinema, Scott Higgins notes that the restrained mode of Technicolor’s colour design in the late 1930s results in tonal gradations where ‘a finely tuned design can draw attention to, and get use from, relatively minute and precise changes in color’ (98).  Rather than taking the neutral as a base which makes other colours stand out, as Kalmus suggests, or thinking of neutrals as inherently dull, Huene’s palettes for films like Les Girls (George Cukor, 1957), Let’s Make Love (George Cukor, 1962) and A New Kind of Love (Melville Shavelson, 1963) likewise show that ‘small variations become significant’ (Higgins, 98). 

The audiovisual essay employs the visual motif of coloured boxes in order to call attention to hue, tone and saturation (especially in the first portion which draws on vibrancy associated with Technicolor, which is so central to popular memory and associations with this colour process). The idea of using colour charts was suggested to me by Dayna McLeod, and this quickly became an informing idea that expanded my own understanding of the range of shades within the films’ palettes and shaped both my videographic approach and argument. Rendering the colours used in solid blocks presents an opportunity to be immersed in colours drawn directly from the films, and more importantly, to see the subtle distinctions between shades. Colours placed next to one another take on new qualities; a grey seems more blue, a beige more pink. This counterpoints the quote from Cukor used in the title referring to his concern that a monochrome neutral colour scheme will result in a drab effect, by revealing the dynamic range contained within such a palette. The audiovisual essay plays with this idea of range, alluding to the ambiguity of neutrals which Eugenie Brinkema attributes to a longstanding difficulty in identifying their specificity: ‘drabness names a lack of specificity in color – it is a symptomatic confusion that history cannot agree on whether it points to a dull light-brown or a luminousless gray’ (78). However, the process of paying close attention to the colour design of these films enables a more fine-grained understanding and a need to make further distinctions between colours. The comparison invited through graphic arrangement of boxes alongside the image is therefore concerned with specificity, not so much in naming colours but understanding how they shape the material qualities of a scene, adding softness or warmth and appealing to a tactile immersion in the textures of the world onscreen.

There is a further dimension to choosing the term ‘neutral’ to encompass a group of colours that might be described variously as muted, bland, drab, dull, or even colourless. In wider usage, neutrality absents an ideological position, it is unbiased, unprejudiced, unaligned. However, in histories of film colour, the ‘neutral’ that counteracts the colourful excess that is to be avoided in tasteful colour design, is not without politics. Indeed, as Richard Dyer notes, in his landmark study White, if colour film’s development was centred around the white face as norm, the chromophobic attitude of wanting to absent colour, to avoid gaudiness is ‘racially suggestive’ (93) as ‘excess colour, and the very word ‘gaudy’, was associated with […] coloured people’ (94). Sarah Street has noted the use of colour to ‘highlight questions of racial difference and exoticism’ in the British context; this certainly extends to Hollywood, where several of the films Huene worked on might also be termed ‘empire films’ (2009: 200). In these films, white actors play different ethnicities, casting which demands a sudden visibility to their usually ‘neutral’ skin, which requires a process of being given colour, either through make-up or by virtue of complementary chromatic relationships in order to differentiate them from the white characters. In the archival holdings for Bhowani Junction (Cukor, 1956) - a film whose narrative is very much concerned with the in/visibility of race since its central character, Victoria Jones (Ava Gardner), is biracial - Huene’s costume notes reference colours that will ‘tend to make the skin dark’ for some scenes or for another scene ‘a muddy brown, or muddy green which would tend to make her skin pinker’ (1954: 1-2). Although this gestures to a much larger vein of ideological analysis beyond the scope of this audiovisual essay, if my interest in neutral shades is to argue for their particular and specific qualities as colours then we might understand Huene’s foregrounding of neutrals as in tension with a ‘removal’ of colour.  



My thanks to everyone who gave me feedback and encouragement on the audiovisual essay, and to the reviewers for their generosity and expertise. Special thanks to Kirsty Sinclair Dootson for her kindness and willingness to talk about colour and help me find my way through a wealth of scholarly material. I would also like to thank the incredible staff at the Margaret Herrick Library and UCLA Charles Young Library for their support. The archival research for this project was made possible by funding from the British Academy.


Works Cited

American Film Institute. (1978) 2001. ‘Dialogue on Film: George Cukor’. George Cukor Interviews, edited by Robert Emmet Long, University of Mississippi Press, pp. 101-121.

Brinkema, Eugenie. 2020. ‘Colors Without Bodies: Wes Anderson’s Drab Ethics’. Practical Aesthetics, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, Bloomsbury, pp. 73-82.

Donaldson, Lucy Fife. 2022. ‘Tracing the threads of influence: George Hoyningen-Huene and Les Girls (1957)’. Movie: A journal of film criticism, 10.

Dyer, Richard. 1997. White. Routledge.

Ewing, William A. 1986. The Photographic Art of Hoyningen-Huene. Thames and Hudson.

Higgins, Scott. 2007. Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s. University of Texas Press.

Hoyningen-Huene, George. Undated. Unpublished memoir. UCLA Library Special collections, Catalogue number 2232.

Hoyningen-Huene, George. 1954. Memo to George Cukor. November 8. Margaret Herrick library, George Cukor Collection, folder 32.

Gillett, John & David Robinson. (1964) 2001. ‘Conversation with George Cukor’. George Cukor Interviews, edited by Robert Emmet Long, University of Mississippi Press, pp. 3-15.

Kalmus, Natalie. 1935. ‘Color Consciousness’, Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, August, pp. 139-147.

Street, Sarah. 2009. ‘“Colour Consciousness”: Natalie Kalmus and Technicolor in Britain’, Screen, 50.2, pp. 191-215.

Street, Sarah. 2015. ‘A Suitable Job for a Woman: Color and the Work of Natalie Kalmus’ in Gledhill, Christine & Julia Knight (eds) Doing Women’s History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future. University of Illinois Press, 206-217.



[1] An edited collection on Huene, edited by Susanna Brown and published by Thames and Hudson, is forthcoming in 2024.



Lucy Fife Donaldson is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. She is the author of Texture in film (Palgrave, 2014), co-editor (with James Walters) of Television performance (Red Globe Press, 2019), general editor (with founding editors Sarah Cardwell and Jonathan Bignell) of Manchester University Press’ ‘The Television Series’ and co-editor of the ‘Moments in Television’ collections. Lucy’s research focuses on the materiality of style and the body in popular film and television. She is an editor of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism and a member of the editorial board of MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture.


The role of the colour consultant in the period directly following the demise of Technicolor three-strip remains an underexplored area of color histories warranting further analysis and this essay represents a significant contribution to the discussion. Until now, color consultants working during the era of Technicolor three-strip (including Natalie Kalmus, Joan Bridge, and Henri Jaffa) have often remained at the center of scholarly writing on the subject (Haines, 2003; Higgins, 2007; Street, 2010) with only a passing mention of the role played by these consultants as three-strip made way for the revolutionary Eastmancolor monopack.  

As Lucy Fife Donaldson’s essay demonstrates, color consultants working during the Eastmancolor-era, including George Hoyningen-Huene, no longer remained tied to the recommendations established by Kalmus and Technicolor. These creative freedoms, informed in part by the properties of the new film emulsions and a shift away from the spectacle of Technicolor (highlighted within the examples provided at the start of the essay), resulted in Hoyningen-Huene’s introduction of a monochromatic colour palette offering a more desaturated and naturalistic aesthetic.

Throughout the essay, Donaldson’s effective use of ‘color boxes’ draws the viewer’s attention to the color palettes employed across the film extracts provided, beginning with an illustration of the ‘excessive color use’ in several early Technicolor productions before switching to examples of the muted color schemes adopted by Hoyningen-Huene. This contrast provides a clear visual illustration of Donaldson’s discussion of Hoyningen-Huene’s use of neutral color palettes in the accompanying statement and supports the author’s call ‘to make further distinctions between colours.’ 

Side-by-side comparisons of film extracts and color boxes representing the palettes of individual scenes, offers an illuminating examination of the variety of colors employed by Hoyningen-Huene in these seemingly ‘drab’ sequences. This is perfectly illustrated by the two sequences from Let’s Make Love through which Donaldson demonstrates how these muted color palettes subtly convey the emotional connections between the characters and their environment. 

Though focused upon the specific example of Hoyningen-Huene’s work as a color consultant, this essay has wider implications for the study of color and the moving image. Notably, it offers insight into the question of how color aesthetics developed in Hollywood following the demise of the studio system.


Works cited

Haines, Richard W. 1993. Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing, Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Higgins, Scott. 2007. Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Street, Sarah. 2010. ‘"Colour Consciousness": Natalie Kalmus and Technicolor in Britain.’ Screen 50, 191-215.

This video essay is most effective in communicating some fascinating and essential aspects of 1950s and 60s colour design in Hollywood. Huene’s work is relatively unknown, and the manuscript quotations are very effective in giving the essay the context it needs in order for the key issues to come across strongly to the viewer. The written, contextualizing part of the submission is well researched and presented. The key film example of Let’s Make Love works very well as a means of communicating the complexities of the work achieved by the so-called ‘neutral’ colours. The design elements of the essay are a wonderful way to illustrate the importance of charts and planning of colour in films from this period, and as a reminder of Technicolor’s foundational methods (Natalie Kalmus, Technicolor’s first ‘color consultant’ warned against ‘super abundance’ and pioneered the use of colour charts). These often receive less analytical attention in discussions about film colour, and foregrounding them visually in this way provides ample evidence as to why they ought to receive as much attention to, and in their relationship with, more saturated colours.

An interesting area the essay is intriguingly suggestive about is what motivates the close-up of the background in the dancing number scene. It’s a perfect way to introduce the essay’s theme in detail as a means of illustrating the infinite and complex textures commented upon in the essay. Thoughts on its narrative motivation might have been possible in a longer work.

The essay made me think, without this being particularly foregrounded, how greys, browns and beiges can be used to contrast with black and white. Marilyn Monroe’s black beret in the sequence analysed, for example, leaps out as a visual marker for her around whiteness and all that that signifies. This is all the more striking with the beret’s stark contrast with her blonde hair and lighter beige coat. A figure passing the couple as they walk down the street is dressed entirely in black and white and while the woman is only an extra in the film her presence is an important aspect of the scene’s chromatic design and draws the eye.

I really enjoyed the video essay; it’s a great way of making the point most clearly about how analysing films through their colours can be so instructive. The essay demonstrates most persuasively how the form is an excellent means of communicating ideas and information about the fascinating details of how film colour design worked in practice.