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Winton C. Hoch: From Physicist to Cinema Heavyweight


Winton C. Hoch: From Physicist to Cinema Heavyweight

George Seminara


The guy standing with Rock Hudson amongst the grape leaves is Winton C. Hoch. Coming from the Iowa cornfields, young Winton made his way to the California Institute of Technology. He graduated with a degree in Chemistry in 1931. He soon had employment as a physicist, but the klieg lights called. A new company opened in Hollywood called Technicolor, and they needed a chemist to process their new color film. Technicolor was new, and I mean fresh - as the kids used to say - brand spanking new and far better than Kodak's attempts at color film stocks. What they needed was a scientist. It ain't called TECHNI-color for nothing! (Actually, the "Techni" was for the T in MIT, where its creators went to school.)


He learned how to develop the complex three-strip process. Winton got there not long after introducing the Technicolor Camera that could expose three strips of film and create a full-color pallet. It's really complex, and you can skip the next bit if you aren't technically minded.


The Mitchell Camera Corp made the Technicolor Process Camera to Technicolor's specifications. (They made the famous camera that looks like Mickey Mouse's ears.) Behind the lens, a unique prism would split the image into three separate beams. A couple of color filters were fitted behind the split light, red and green, and the third strip of the film had a unique red emulsion that functioned as a blue filter. The camera would then film the image onto black and white film, and the filters would remove the impact of those colors on the black and white image.


Each strip could be exposed and manipulated in the camera via separate exposures to slightly change the amount of light it was filming. The three negatives get printed onto a unique matrix film that would then get soaked in a bath of color dyes corresponding to the missing color, cyan for red, magenta for green, and yellow for blue. Then they would print the green exposed film again in black and white. After all that work, they would mush the four strips together to create a full-color image like photographic lithography. (Hey, I have an art school education, so it makes sense to me!)


Just to make an image on Technicolor film, you needed to be a scientist. And the cameras were about the same size as a large refrigerator. (Maybe a slight exaggeration) You can see why the complexity of the process would draw a young scientist to it. In his heart, Winton has a secret, "Science is all well and good, but I want to be an artist!" I like to think those were his words because that's what he became, an artist.


His first job as a cinematographer was shooting Technicolor travelogues for the James A. Fitzpatrick travelogue series. He learned to make beautiful pictures of beautiful locations. In those heady days of Hollywood, your nickel bought a lot of entertainment. A documentary, short subject - like a travelogue, a newsreel, a cartoon, and a feature film. His travelogues were surprisingly beautiful, and since Hollywood was in those days a small town, the right people were talking about Winton C. Hoch.


Because of his technical knowledge and artistic flair, everyone wanted to work with him. As a result, he became an in-demand cinematographer and the top Technicolor consultant working with all the prominent directors of photography of his generation. Not only that, but he also worked with great directors and the biggest stars. He was the only director of photography of the sound age to have never shot a feature in black and white.


Did our boy rest on his laurels? No, he did not! In 1940 he won a technical Academy Award for developing a new process projector. And then the art took over, and he was the first cinematographer to win back-to-back Oscars for cinematography, Joan of Arc in 1948 and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949. It took forty years for it to happen again when John Toll pulled it off in 1994 and 1995 for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart.


In 1952, he again won the best cinematography Oscar for The Quiet Man. What is surprising was that it was, so far, the only time the award was given to the second unit DP, Archie Stout as well. Winton continued to work throughout the 1950s. His creativity is on view in Mr. Roberts and The Searchers. Two of my favorites. But in 1959 problem solving took him out of regular films and into the new blockbusters.


He met with Irwin Allen, and he hired Winton to lens a series of projects laden with special effects. The Big Circus! The Lost World! Five Weeks in a Balloon! and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea! He was in his mid-fifties, and it was time to slow down and television offered more regular hours. He was the Director of Photography on the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and for his effort, he won the Emmy Award. He shot Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and several others.


He still kept a hand in the features. After all, television shows had a hiatus during the summer, he managed to shoot the Green Berets, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars using his time judiciously. He didn't care about comedies because their subject matter didn't lend itself to dramatic lighting.


In the end, Winton C. Hoch was elected president of the ASC in 1978 but died of a stroke before his term; William Fraker (no slouch behind the camera, 6 Oscar noms) became the president in his stead. Hoch's last work was on, The Banana Splits Show and Nanny and the Professor (Which was a damn dramatic-looking comedy that I owe the treatment of to the presence of a ghost.)

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