Bringing The Munsters Back from the Grave

The Munsters sit down to dinner in this rare color shot from a View-Master reel.

The Munsters sit down to dinner in this rare color shot from a View-Master reel.

Most people who know me know that from the age of nine, I have been a Munsters fanatic. When I was younger, the show’s cartoonish approach to monsters and physical comedy drew me in, but as I grew up, it was the sly writing and comedic timing between Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis that made me appreciate the show even more. Unfortunately, audiences were only treated to the show in black and white, which veiled a shroud of mystery over everything from Grandpa’s lab to the shade of Herman’s green skin.

It has always been a dream of mine to see The Munsters in color and there are only a handful of instances where we see the family outside of their dreary, monochromatic world. The 1964 unaired pilot, as well as the 1966 feature film Munster, Go Home! were both shot in Technicolor. However, the pilot features a different set, different cast and is a far cry from the show it would eventually become. By 1966, audiences were dying to see The Munsters in their full, Technicolor glory and Munster, Go Home! finally delivered. Unfortunately, producers decided to change the plot and move the Munsters to England, leaving fans with only a small glimpse inside the creepy Munster mansion during the film’s first five minutes.

After stumbling upon Stuart Manning’s wonderful colorization of The Addams Family opening, I was so impressed that I decided to give it a try myself. I am familiar with colorizing still images, but moving images are a completely different animal and initially, the project seemed daunting, if not impossible. I started researching to find the easiest colorization method. I had attempted colorization years ago, creating a 2-second animated GIF of Herman walking down the stairs from the first season opening and it was bad. It was really, really bad and THAT took me hours. I initially attempted rotoscoping in Adobe After Effects. Motion tracking on individual objects was incredibly time consuming and required frame by frame tracing. In the end, my computer just couldn’t handle it and I knew there had to be a better solution. After diving into the world of YouTube and Google searching for any tutorials on colorization, I came up dry and it looked like I was going to have to create my own process.

A still from the unaired color pilot

A disheartened Marilyn retreats to her bedroom in this still from the unaired color pilot

Before I go any further, I want to address the purists. The ones who consider colorization to be blasphemy of the film and television world. I know. Colorization in the past was not good. In fact, it was pretty terrible and even today, colorizations are typically flat with little shading and color variation. I’m with you guys; they are bad. But I’m not here to do bad things! Especially not to a show so near and dear to my heart. There is also a fairly large crowd that argues black and white programs should not be colorized because it goes against the director’s vision. I completely agree with this argument for certain films, but in this case, I don’t believe the director chose black and white for his vision. In fact, I know he didn’t. In a 2002 interview, Munsters makeup creator Karl Silvera explained, “It was $10,000 more to do [the show] in color and neither CBS or Universal were willing to pick up that extra $10,000 per segment. That’s why it was shot in black and white.” Coupled with the fact the pilot was shot in color, as well as the follow-up movie, it is clear that the reason television audiences were never treated to seeing the Munster family in “dying” color was strictly budgetary.

I spent a day or two thinking of how I was going to approach colorizing hundreds upon hundreds of individual images and I finally streamlined a process. After importing all 1,317 frames of the 44-second opening, I broke them down into scenes. Each scene consists of an establishing shot of the character, followed by a quick zoom into a closeup. The establishing shots and close ups would be easy enough, but the zooms seemed like a challenge when coloring frame by frame. Using the same color palette for both parts of the shot did not work well, so I had to color each section (establishing and close-up) separately and find a way to transition the colors during the zoom.

Speaking of colors, let’s talk about that: my personal belief is that a colorized image should not look colorized. I have a personal vendetta against poor colorizations that take too many artistic liberties. Was that woman really wearing a bright purple skirt with a neon yellow shirt? Are you sure that guy’s hat was red? They are silly color choices that look neither realistic or aesthetically pleasing and just because you can color an object any color you like, it doesn’t mean you should. Whenever I colorize something, my thought process is not “how can I make this look cool?” rather “how can I make this look like it was shot in color?” Many times, people throw color in where it doesn’t belong. The sad truth is that sometimes objects are boring and in fact, most objects individually are pretty boring. Blonde hair is not yellow, it’s a shade of gray and brown. Teeth are not white, they are gray and yellow. Black? You can’t just not colorize it. It has a lot of blue, purple and green. Color takes a lot of work.

The dress in question.

The dress in question.

I did, however, take two artistic liberties in this project. As I learned from Stuart Manning’s blog post, early color television programs often chose yellow in place of white to add an extra pop of color, while still registering as a white object on black and white sets. The dress that we see Marilyn wearing in the Munsters opening was white, and this can be seen in a few color promo photos featuring the first actress to play Marilyn, Beverley Owen. Yellow seemed like the natural choice for several reasons. It adds necessary color to the shot and I have no doubt that the wardrobe department would have chosen something similar, had it been shot in color. Yellow also fits with the grayscale values of the dress, so it looks very natural. Had I tried to color the dress red, green or any other color, it would not “stick” to the gray values as easily and would not look very good. My final reasoning in choosing yellow was because recent Munsters memorabilia items feature the character of Marilyn wearing a yellow dress that looks similar to the one seen in the opening. Although it has nothing to do with the show’s original creative team, I feel that it supports my choice. The second artistic decision I made was the color of The Munsters’ drippy, melted wax logo and title cards. In the pilot, the text was a minty blue, almost the color of Herman’s skin. I felt that the color just did not look right when placed over the colorful house and characters. I decided to use a bright green color with a shade of yellow. This color was used in the main title card for Munster, Go Home! and I felt that it gives a nice contrast of color while keeping the palette organic to the show.

Choosing the colors for the other characters was fairly simple because I know these characters better than I know some people in real life. The only color reference I used was for Lily’s purple coat. I knew it was purple and gray, but to get the tones just right, I needed to reference Munster, Go Home! The rest of the colors like Herman’s skin, Eddie’s suit and Grandpa’s red cape were done without reference. I know I probably should have, but I did not feel it was necessary. This is also one of my favorite parts about colorization. The image slowly starts to develop and you get a feel for the tone of the image, then in a snowball effect, all of the other colors fall into place and it’s like magic. I colorized the beginning and ending frames of each character and worked through the frames in reverse to eventually match the colors.

Once I finalized my technique and fell into a groove, the process was fairly painless. I fully colorized several images, almost as key frames, throughout the entire segment, then adjusted for the small movements in between. I knew I would be working frame by frame, but I was not prepared for the sheer amount of time required for this adventure. In the end, I colorized every single frame by hand and even re-colorized the portions of Eddie and Marilyn when I decided on better color choices. In all, I colorized nearly 2,000 images over the course of 80 hours in one very, very full week. Final adjustments and clean-up took an additional two days and finally hitting the “export” button was shared with a stiff drink and a deep sense of pride. I sent myself through colorization boot camp, honed my Photoshop skills and fulfilled my childhood dream. I am very happy with the end result and, call me a masochist, I am looking forward to doing it again.