This database was created in 2012 and has been developed and curated by Barbara Flueckiger, professor at the Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich to provide comprehensive information about historical film color processes invented since the end 19th century including specific still photography color technologies that were their conceptual predecessors.
Timeline of Historical Film Colors is started with Barbara Flueckiger’s research at Harvard University in the framework of her project Film History Re-mastered, funded by Swiss National Science Foundation, 2011-2013.
In 2013 the University of Zurich and Swiss National Science Foundation awarded additional funding for the elaboration of this web resource. 80 financial contributors sponsored the crowdfunding campaign Database of Historical Film Colors with more than USD 11.100 in 2012. In addition, the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Zurich University of the Arts provided a major contribution to the development of the database. Many further persons and institutions have supported the project, see acknowledgements.
Since February 2016 the database has been redeveloped in the framework of the research project Film Colors. Technologies, Cultures, Institutions funded by a grant from Swiss National Science Foundation, see project details on SNSF grant database.
Follow the links “Access detailed information ›” to access the currently available detail pages for individual processes. These pages contain an image gallery, a short description, a bibliography of original papers and secondary sources connected to extended quotes from these sources, downloads of seminal papers and links. We are updating these detail pages on a regular basis.
In June 2015, the European Research Council awarded the prestigious Advanced Grant to Barbara Flueckiger for her new research project FilmColors. Bridging the Gap Between Technology and Aesthetics, see press release of the University of Zurich and short abstract on the university’s research database.
Subscribe to the blog to receive all the news: http://filmcolors.org/ (check out sidebar on individual entries for the “follow” button).
The development of the project started in fall 2011 with stage 1. Each stage necessitated a different financing scheme. We are now in stage 3 and are looking for additional funding by private sponsors. Please use the Stripe interface to pay conveniently online or transfer your financial contribution directly to
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Read more about the financial background of the project on filmcolors.org.
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Credit: Copyright: Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden. Source: Archivo Nacional de la Imagen – Sodre, Montevideo/ Cineteca di Bologna. Film: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (GER 1919, Robert Wiene).
“Au fil des années cinquante (je suis conscient de l’arbitraire de tels découpages, mais il s’agit de tracer les grandes lignes d’une évolution), la couleur semble se banaliser, à la fois parce qu’elle se répand, mais aussi parce que reflue l’esthétique de la saturation bariolée. La couleur est susceptible dès lors d’apparaître plus naturelle, plus réaliste, moins artificielle ou artistique. Y contribue le tournage en extérieurs non seulement de westerns comme Le Passage du canyon ou Au delà du Missouri avec le lyrisme épique de leurs paysages sublimes (vastes ciels, Rocheuses en neigées), mais aussi de comédies musicales comme Un Jour à New York (Donen et Kelly, 1949): on renoue ici, en quelque sorte, avec l’esthétique plus neutre de La Joyeuse suicidée. Y contribue encore l’apparition de l’écran large, qui libère le Technicolor de sa tendance à l’enluminure, aère l’image, force, davantage que le format standard, à poser la question du lien entre couleur et mouvement à l’intérieur du cadre.
Au contraire de ce qu’affirme Anne Hollander dans ses Moving Pictures, le cinéma des années cinquante se révèle souvent plus proche de la tradition italienne (notamment fresquiste) et d’un pictorialisme ample, que de la tradition flamande, avec son réalisme magique et méticuleux, sa combinaison du microscope et du télescope. C’est l’époque où, comme le proclame Hollywood s’autoparodiant dans La Belle de Moscou (Mamoulian, 1957, Metrocolor), les films doivent être tournés non seulement en “glorious Technicolor”, mais aussi en “CinemaScope à couper le souffle” et en “son stéréophonique”. La couleur n’est plus l’ornement principal. Elle se déploie dans un espace littéralement et métaphoriquement élargi qui invite, pour rester lisible, à la simplification chromatique et/ou cinétique. Le générique de Simon le pêcheur (Borzage, 1959) étale ses tons lie de vin à la manière d’une peinture murale romaine. Esquissé par la séquence de Waterloo dans Becky Sharp, avec le passage du bleu au rouge, illustré par le crescendo rouge du numéro d’Ann Miller dans Parade de printemps, l’emploi cinétique de la couleur est repris par exemple dans une scène de La Croisée des destins de Cukor (1955, Eastmancolor) où l’on voit, en plongée, “l’Inde éclore comme une fleur” lors de son accession à l’indépendance, une foule joyeuse d’enfants vêtus de blanc s’ouvrant en éventail et chassant diagonalement de l’écran les uniformes kaki des soldats pathans; de même, en dehors de Hollywood, dans le péplum de Cottafavi Messaline (1960), les tons apaisés, le bleu du christianisme, chassent les tons rutilants du paganisme romain. (Il est vrai que ce procédé ne fait en somme que reproduire en couleurs celui du blanchiment de l’écran par Griffith, à la fin de la Naissance d’une nation; d’ailleurs, les chevaliers de Richard Cœur de Lion, dans Robin des Bois et Ivanhoé, rappellent, au rouge près, les cavaliers du Klan chez Griffith.)
Jusque dans la fantaisie orientale, à l’esthétique toujours proche de la comédie musicale, la stylisation chromatique se fait plus douce, moins criarde, elle tempère le rouge par le rose, intègre costumes et accessoires noirs ou blancs, en même temps que l’espace filmique échappe au confinement du studio: on opposera à cet égard Les Aventures de Hadji (Don Weis, 1954; conseiller pour la couleur: George Hoyningen-Huene, qui collabora avec Cukor sur Une Étoile est née, La Croisée des destins, Les Girls) au Kismet réalisé dix ans plus tôt par Dieterle.
Dans le même temps où la couleur perd, par banalisation et fidélité croissante à la nature, quelque chose de sa distinction, certains cinéastes s’emploient à la réduire délibérément et comme arbitrairement. Une manière de nostalgie du bichrome ou des débuts du trichrome s’exprime là, qui bien sûr n’est pas un retour pur et simple aux schémas chromatiques primitifs, puisque cette nostalgie maîtrise les progrès techniques et les apports successifs de la couleur, mais avec la volonté, pour ainsi dire, de les tenir en bride. Il faut évoquer à cet égard Moby Dick de John Huston et Track of the Cat de William Wellman, qui fonctionnent de manière fort comparable.”
(Bourget, Jean-Loup (1995): Esthétiques du Technicolor. In: Jacques Aumont (ed.): La couleur au cinéma. Mailand: Mazzotta, pp. 110–119, on p. 114.) (in French)
Virages sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté jaune (virage bleu) pink tinted stock with blue toning, backlight, Swiss collector’s copy. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Virages sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté rouge (virage bleu) red tinted stock with blue toning, toplight and backlight, Swiss collector’s copy. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Bleu blue tinting. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. View Quote
Virages sur mordançage sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté ambre, virage bleu (blue mordant toning on amber tinted Pathé stock), toplight and backlight, Swiss collector’s copy. Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Methylene blue. Thin positive. HDR photograph. Source: Eastman Kodak Company (1927): Tinting and Toning of Eastman Positive Motion Picture Film. Fourth Edition. Revised. Rochester NY: Research Laboratories Eastman Kodak Company. Photograph by Martin Weiss, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.
“As Paolo Cherchi Usai points out, it became conventional in early cinema to use specific colours in particular ways to communicate certain moods or circumstances. At a crucial moment in D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator of 1911, the heroine, Blanche Sweet, turns out the light and turns the tables on two burglars by convincing them that the nickel-plated monkey wrench she is holding is really a gun. Most black-and-white copies of the film nowadays make the ruse seeming completely unconvincing. But in the original 1911 version, immediately after the light was turned off, the film was tinted a deep blue, providing audiences of the time with a reasonably convincing simulation of a dark night. Other colours were employed in analogous circumstances. As Usai observes, “bright red was used for fire or a scene of passion; light amber, when a table light was turned on in a room; green suggested an idyllic rural life”.2
2 Paolo Cherchi Usai, “The Color of Nitrate: Some Factual Observations on Tinting and Toning Manuals for Silent Film,” in Richard Abel, ed;, Silent Film, London: Athlone Press, 1996, pp. 21-22.”
(Stokes, Melvyn (2009): Colour in American Cinema. From The Great Train Robbery to Bonnie and Clyde. In: Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard (ed.): Cinéma et couleur. Paris: M. Houdiard, pp. 184–192, on p. 185.)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (USA 1939, Michael Curtiz)
“Le caractère statique du tableau n’est pas nécessairement un handicap pour le film historique. Dans La Vie privée d’Elisabeth, l’imitation méticuleuse des portraits de la reine, dans le style miniaturiste des limners, la perruque rousse de Bette Davis, créent un effet hiératique en même temps qu’un effet d’étrangeté, donc de réalisme historique. La remarque vaut aussi pour la robe verte et les colliers de perles de Catherine de Médicis, “portrait vivant” scrupuleusement imité de Bronzino, dans Diane de Poitiers (David Miller). Entre ce pictorialisme explicite et le pictorialisme implicite, la ligne est d’autant moins facile à tracer qu’elle dépend de la culture picturale du spectateur. Le Technicolor des années trente permet de composer, dans de suaves tonalités bleues et jaunes, des intérieurs hollandais à la Vermeer, qu’on trouve dans La Vie privée d’Elisabeth d’Angleterre, mais aussi dans Les Aventures de Tom Sawyer (Norman Taurog), et qui reparaîtront beaucoup plus tard, explicites chez Greenaway (Z.O.O.), implicites chez Kagan (L’Élu).”
(Bourget, Jean-Loup (1995): Esthétiques du Technicolor. In: Jacques Aumont (ed.): La couleur au cinéma. Mailand: Mazzotta, pp. 110–119, on p. 117.) (in French)
Virages sur mordançage, Bleu (blue mordant toning). Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Virages sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté bleu (virage brun) blue tinted stock with brown toning. Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Virages sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté lavande (virage bleu) lavender tinted stock with blue toning, the same image from a different copy of the book, combination of tungsten backlight with daylight toplight. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Filmfabrikation und -entwicklung waren noch schwankend: Bei Agfacolor konnten gelegentlich ein Blaustich und rötliche Schatten beobachtet werden. Solche Farbfehler, die zunächst sicher Anfangsprobleme darstellten, nahmen unter den Kriegsbedingungen zu.
Der einwandfreie pastellfarbene Farbcharakter früher Agfacolor-Dias lässt sich in Bildbänden und Fachbüchern, die ab 1938 herauskamen und hohe Anforderungen an Reproanstalten und Druckereien stellten, gut erahnen.”
(Beyer, Friedemann; Koshofer, Gert; Krüger, Michael (2010): UFA in Farbe. Technik, Politik und Starkult zwischen 1936 und 1945. München: Collection Rolf Heyne, on p. 47.) (in German)
Virages sur mordançage sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté rose, virage bleu-vert (blue-green mordant toning on rose tinted Pathé stock). Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
“40. KOMPOSITION IN BLAU, 1935, 35mm, colour, sound, 4 min
It the same time that Fischinger worked on cigarette and toothpaste commercials for profit, he worked on Komposition in Blau [Composition in Blue] for his own pleasure and delight in experimentation. Composition in Blue shares the same jolly atmosphere as the commercials, but whereas each of Fischinger’s previous films had utilized only one basic animation technique, Composition in Blue bursts forth with half a dozen different new techniques – mostly involving pixillation of three-dimensional forms – for which it was duly recognized by enthusiastic critical praise as well as world-wide popular success.
The basic format of the film centres around solid objects moving about in an imaginary blue room. Fischinger delights in setting up conditions so that the audience makes associations with probable or “real” everyday happenings, and then extending the analogy beyond the limits of possibility, bursting the bubble of the audience’s credulity. In the opening scene, Fischinger is careful to show the red cubes entering the “room” through a door, so we will identify with this as a plausible situation. Then he subtly introduces a mirror as the “floor” to the room, again gaining our confidence in this special but logical reality. Then at the climax of the film, a cylinder pounds on the mirror-floor and creates circular ripples as if the floor had suddenly liquified, something that pushes us, with a rush of delight, out of the realm of reality, into a joyous world of sheer, absurd fantasy. The symphonic latitudes of Otto Nicolai’s “Merry Wives of Windsor Overture” give Fischinger a further chance to explore a full range of sensations, from the incredible sensuous beauty of a yellow panel merely gliding slowly to the floor, to the startling swift flow of mosaic squares across a field, to the zany whirl of an abstracted weather-vane that always turns in precise rhythmic time, an image later borrowed by Harry Smith in one of his early abstractions.
Beyond the comic facade lies a “serious” discussion of some oriental philosophical issues regarding the yin-yang or male-female polarity principle. The rectangles function as mobile, three-dimensional, but non-regenerative (“male”) forms, while the circles are static, flat, but through their radiating, reproductive (“female”) forms. The circles gradually draw the rectangles into their creative rhythm, rounding them off in the process, until the phallic column becomes the instrument of new procreation at the climactic moment. This brilliant mixture of the mystic rhythms of concentric circles and the comic pomp of blustering cylinders makes this one of Oskar’s most satisfying and memorable creations.
The first answer print of Komposition in Blau was accepted in April, 1935, and the film was registered at 108 metres as No. 39267 on 10 May 1935. Several 35mm nitrate prints survived both in European and American archives. The Fischinger collection had three in excellent condition, from one of which Elfriede struck 35mm and 16mm safety internegatives with the help of the Creative Film Society in 1968. New preservation elements were made in 2000 by the Academy Film Archive.
At some of the early performances, Komposition in Blau was referred to as Lichtkonzert Nr. 1 [Light-Concert No. 1].”
(Moritz, William (2004): Optical Poetry. The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, on pp. 226–227.)
Virages sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté bleu (virage sépia) blue tinted stock with sepia toning. Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
“Cette esthétique de la saturation chromatique domine la comédie musicale, que l’image soit bigarrée, ou inversement qu’une seule couleur vive envahisse l’écran. Caraïbe ou orientalisant, le bariolage exotique caractérise Le Pirate comme la séquence “le Harem” de Parade de printemps: dans une lumière jaunâtre, des femmes de type caraïbe – c’est-à-dire qu’elles ont la peau noire très claire – sont habillées/déshabillées de vêtements bigarrés; Fred Astaire échappe à ce bariolage grâce à son costume blanc, souligné de quelques traits de rouge vif (cravate, ganse du pantalon), exactement comme le rouge et le blanc du roi Richard et de ses chevaliers composent, dans Robin et dans Ivanhoé, un système monochrome simple qui suffit à les distinguer du bariolage ambiant. Toujours dans Parade de printemps, on observe le parti inverse avec deux numéros dansés d’Ann Miller. Dans le premier, l’actrice est vêtue d’une robe jaune vif qui se réduit bientôt à un volant laissant paraître ses jambes nues. Le jaune est la seule couleur qui s’affirme avec ostentation comme telle, toutes les autres notations chromatiques (la carnation de l’actrice, le plateau d’un rose discret, les rideaux gris de l’arrière-plan) composant un fond en camaïeu ou échappant à la thématique de la couleur (les cheveux ailes de corbeau de l’interprète). Dans le second, sur un même fond gris rose, ressenti comme achromatique, les danseurs sont habillés de noir et de blanc, tandis qu’Ann Miller porte une robe rouge vif et agite un éventail de même couleur qui va jusqu’à remplir entièrement et délibérément l’écran (le procédé était esquissé dans la séquence du bal d’Atlanta, dans Autant en emporte le vent). Multiple ou unique, la couleur affirme son empire.
Elle est multiple encore dans Le Fantôme de l’opéra de Lubin: une ponctuation récurrente est constituée par le rideau rouge fuchsia (couleur reprise par certains costumes) les bleus abondent, pâles ou foncés, du bleu marine des vêtements masculins au pâle bleu argenté du masque du fantôme, le grand lustre jette une tache de jaune éclatant. De rares tableaux monochromes, salon tout blanc à la Whistler ou Albert Moore, ramènent à une rassurante réalité et contrastent avec l’esthétique opératique, quasiment kitsch, des extraits d’opéra (dont certains comportent des motifs orientalistes), mais, à la réflexion, les scènes en costume d’époque ne sacrifient guère moins au kitsch et, comme dans les films de pirates contemporains, le Technicolor a partie liée avec la bouffonnerie, la parodie implicite.”
(Bourget, Jean-Loup (1995): Esthétiques du Technicolor. In: Jacques Aumont (ed.): La couleur au cinéma. Mailand: Mazzotta, pp. 110–119, on p. 114.) (in French)
Virages sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté orange (virage bleu) orange tinted stock with blue toning, backlight, Swiss collector’s copy. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Virage No 1 (bleu) blue toning. Credit: Clayton Scoble and Stephen Jennings, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (FRA 1966, Jean-Luc Godard)
“Jean-Luc Godard through his work is a stunning exception. Scanning his color films one immediately senses an unparalleled rigor in the organization of color. Overall, one might say, the color appears “artificial” or stylized with respect to the more familiar “natural” or postcard color of traditional films. But this generalization is unsatisfactory. I shall attempt to be more exact about the color strategies of Godard-, and the consequences of these strategies, by centering on one film, Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle [Two or Three Things I Know about Her] (1966-67).
I propose to analyze Godard’s palette in terms of four major tendencies: color tends to appear as a certain type of solid color, in a regular shape, with an arbitrary relationship to the surface of its object, and in primary opposition to other colors. It is important to note that not every color in Deux ou trois choses fits these specifications. This demonstrates that pertinent oppositions, when they appear, become structurally significant in terms of Godard’s overall color system.
Godard in Deux ou trois choses tends to limit himself to brilliant, solid colors. By “brilliant” and “solid” I have in mind a collection of attributes. First, the hue of the color appears uniform, relatively large in area, and autonomous – a solid – as opposed to the mixtures of hues found in designs, prints, or plaids. Secondly, the color appears both light in lightness and strong in saturation, hence “brilliant.”
There is one major variant of the solid hue in Deux ou trois choses: the striped hue. The reason that stripes are designated here as a variation of solids, rather than as a polar opposite to solids, is that Godard selects such a peculiar type of striped hue. Broad, evenly spaced stripes of one solid color, are alternated with similar stripes of a second solid color. The effect is of two brilliant solids juxtaposed equally edge to edge with neither one dominant and both distinctive. Indeed, striped patterns are employed in exercises by art students to minimize the influence of area and shape and to promote the effects of color.10 As we shall see, a principle of color equality is crucial to Godard’s color system.
These special stripes are seen in Deux ou trois choses for example, in the boutique when Juliette takes off her striped raincoat to hold up a striped shirt against a background of numerous shelves of striped clothes. And a red-and-white striped towel in a bathroom matches the red-and-white stripes of the American flag stenciled on John Bogus’s white T-shirt. The towel is also reflected in a mirror where we see a shirt striped in the complementary colors, yellow and blue-purple.
What are the consequences of using brilliant, solid colors? First, the consistent use of highly saturated colors is unnatural. Generally the colors of nature and everyday life are relatively unsaturated.11 This fact is exploited most by advertisers who favor highly saturated colors for their attention value in billboards and posters; indeed, advertising material itself is conspicuous in the films of Godard.
Secondly, with respect to lightness, Godard follows the so-called natural order of light values. The colors of the visible spectrum at full saturation are not all of equal lightness. Yellow is the lightest, blue-purple the darkest, and between them – arranged in descending semicircular sequences on a color circle – are the hues orange, red, red-purple, and purple; and the hues yellow-green, green, blue-green, and blue. Values of natural light and frequently the coloration of plants and animals follow this order. Consequently, there is a powerful expectation in the viewer that the light values of a composition will follow the order in which they appear in nature; a dark yellow (olive brown) paired with a blue (of the baby blue variety) seems “unnatural” or, similarly, an orange with pink or, as in the final bedroom scene of Deux ou trois choses, dark green with pink. As indicated, though, Godard generally respects the natural ordering of lightness in color, partly because he chooses highly saturated colors (each hue reaches its greatest saturation at its natural lightness); but, more importantly, because his method is to restrict the possibilities of color, selecting only a few elements to construct a disciplined color system.
Lastly, it is apparent that Godard rejects color schemes in which saturation and lightness mutually vary. One way these two variables may interact is through what Wilhelm Ostwald termed a “shadow series.” By this convention a single hue undergoes a series of precise changes which are meant to represent the color gradations of an object as it models from light into shadow.12 Thus the greens in a forest will progress from light and saturated near a light source (or apparent light source in the case of painting) to a darker, more grayish green in half-shadow to a green approaching black in deep shadow. The filmmaker, of course, unlike the painter, may actually use one or more light sources or filters in order to model colors in this way or to produce variations.
Godard does none of this. He typically uses high key, featureless lighting which suppresses shadow and creates flatter colors with less spatial or volume effect (chiaroscuro). Indoor scenes are as brightly lit as exterior daylight scenes. The traditional film, on the other hand, usually lights its objects to create depth, aligns its light sources with the mise-en-scène to emphasize “natural” sources (e.g., an open window, a lamp, fireplace, television set), and contrives its compositions so that the center of interest is accentuated by a sharp contrast with the surrounding light values. The uniformly lit objects of a Godard film, however, seem to glow on their own and are not so easily integrated into a natural, three-dimensional space. Also, the elimination of shadows intensifies and separates colors because the shadow from a colored object is not black, as is commonly thought, but approaches the complementary hue of the colored object. Eliminating these interfering shadows heightens the glowing flatness of surfaces, accentuates edge contrast, and imposes a certain equality on the elements of the composition.
So far I have discussed Godard’s use of lightness and saturation with respect to a uniform, solid hue. I now consider which hues are chosen and how they are ordered. This subject is usually examined by color theorists under the heading of color “harmony,” which is defined as a specific set of relations among the colors while all other relations create disharmony. The problem is that virtually every theorist has a different system of classifying colors and hence different criteria for the relations and harmonies among colors. The three variables or “dimensions” of color have been developed into numerous color systems which have taken the solid shapes of – among others – a rectangular chessboard, pyramid, double cone (Rood), toy top (Ostwald), sphere, irregular sphere (Munsell), and what resembles a smashed grapefruit (1SCC-NBS system). A “slice” of such a solid specifies basic hue relations. These slices have appeared as five, and six-pointed stars, “ring-stars” (Ostwald), pentagons, triangles,13 and, the most popular, circles, as well as combinations of these and others. To further complicate matters, there is no agreement on how many or which colors to include in a system.14
Systems are also constructed in terms of different primary colors. A primary color is one which may be combined in various amounts with other primaries to generate (almost) all the remaining colors of a system. The physical or light primaries (which mix toward white light) are red, blue, and green. The pigment or painter’s primaries (which mix down toward black) are red, blue, and yellow. The psychological primaries (which mix in vision toward gray) are red, blue, yellow, and green. It should be noted that there are still other primary systems, and that the above colors are not the same from system to system; for instance, the red physical primary is not the same as the red pigment primary.
It would seem that Godard chooses something akin to the painter’s primaries, selecting a brilliant, indivisible red, blue, and yellow. But, most startingly of all, a majority of the compositions in Deux ou trois choses are based on these three hues alone without the use of other, intermediate hues. Green rarely appears, although it is used decisively, for example, in the trees around the car wash/gas station, in the picture above the bed in the closing scene, and in the grass background of the final shot. Other colors are conspicuously absent. Thus, Godard tends to restrict color to brilliant and solid painter’s primaries.
One dominant color composition throughout the film involves the three colors red, white, and blue. First of all, this color combination has an inescapable cultural connotation. These are the national colors of the United States, Britain, and France. We see in the film the United States flag being worn by Johnny Bogus and an intercut of a poster with the letters U, S, and A colored red, white, and blue respectively. We also see the Union Jack painted on the lips of a model in magazine photograph. And of the opening thirteen title shots, all but two (which are green) are laid out in the order of blue, white, red. The letters of the end title (“Fin”) follow this order as does the French flag which contains these colors in three vertical blocks, left to right.
Other compositions employing these colors include the close-ups of Robert’s notebook (red ink on white paper ruled into blue squares); shots of the overpass (blue pavement, white curbs, and a red crane below); an extreme low angle of two derricks (one red, one white, against a clear blue sky); the frequent shots of a Mobil gas sign; and the appearance of various service stations. One of these latter shots in particular shows vast expanses of white concrete, blue gas pumps with red and white trim, an air pump in red and white, an attendant in blue uniform, red foreground flowers, two cars – one red, one white – and all the colors brilliant solids. There is also an extraordinary shot of Juliette lying in bed with, from left to right, a blue top, white sheet, and red blanket (cf. the colors of France). The next shot is of her son, composed in the same colors, but rearranged in the frame.
What are the consequences of color schemes based on the painter’s primaries red, blue, and yellow, and red and blue separated by white? First, there are no intermediate hues (nor intermediate values of light or saturation) to act as “transitions” between the primaries. Two colors are continuous in this sense when each contains something of the other. Thus, brown – which is, strictly speaking, not a hue but a dark shade of yellow, orange, red, or magenta – has the potential to link a number of colors. Transitional colors were important for the French Impressionist painters because they believed that, in scanning a painting, the eye follows the routes of least visual resistance; hence, patterns of transitional colors were called “passage.” Whether or not the theory is plausible with respect to eye movement, it does account for a system of differences and relations among the colors. According to this theory, then, the primary hues in Godard’s compositions are highly discontinuous and isolated. In fact, the juxtaposition of discontinuous colors serves to further increase the perceptual contrast of the two colors.15 Black, white, and gray – since they contain only the attribute of lightness – may mediate between any two colors but only in this dimension. The white of red, white, and blue combinations in Deux ou trois choses, however, is far too light with respect to the red and blue, and thus it serves to separate rather than bridge the two colors.
Though isolated, Godard’s colors are, nevertheless, balanced and symmetrical. The general rule of hue harmony states that hues should be either near one another or else far apart on a color circle. In this sense of “regularity” the concept of harmony is a requirement of form – a symmetry or repetition of units which assures that a work is a construction of meaning, not the result of chance.16 The traditional harmonies or forms are expressed in terms of degrees on a given color circle17 (cf. the 30-degree and 180-degree rules of spatial continuity in classical Hollywood films) or, most often, as various geometrical shapes rotated inside a color circle (straight lines, equilateral and isosceles triangles, squares, etc.) or spatial figures cut from a color solid. The primary colors of Godard might then be related as the points of an equilateral triangle – which neatly illustrates that the painter’s primaries, red, blue, and yellow, represent the strongest contrast of hue.18
These primary colors may be balanced, but they are not passive or static. This brings us to a second consequence of using primaries (the first was an isolation and discontinuity of color based on the absence of transitions): a tension is created between color areas. The tension is that of reds versus blues, the so-called warm/cool opposition.19 The contrast is sharpened by Godard’s tendency to limit color to brilliant solids. With primary colors, the tension is red and yellow versus blue; in red, white, and blue compositions the tension is at its most elemental, red versus blue.
The opposition of red and blue is often stated in spatial terms: reds advance toward the viewer, blues recede. This effect finds support in the well-known spatial cue of aerial perspective (the blueness of distance) and the fact that the lens of the eye is subject to chromatic aberration, which means that red light is focused behind the retina (as in far-sightedness) and blue light in front of the retina. Thus the tension engendered by red and blue appearing together begins as an optical stress in the musculature of the eye as the lens alternately tries to focus first one, then the other color. Two colors – green and magenta – focus directly on the retina and are spatially neutral; hence they are said to be “restful.” Godard’s system therefore creates isolated colors, equal and in opposition, with a selective use of green as mediation.
The warm/cool color dichotomy, established as difference, allows the text to construct meaning. The culture has already assembled a vast storehouse of possible (past) connotations (emotions) of the red/ blue opposition, such as, fire/ice, near/far, violent/tranquil, opaque/transparent, heavy/light, dry/wet, and more.
Repetition of color forces one to perceive it as a material element capable of entering into combinations and exchanges which coalesce into a system. Thus Godard’s color serves notice that nature will be radically reassembled, not imitated, and in a way which questions the dominant forms of assembly or representation. Color becomes a catalyst.
Regularity of shape
So far I have considered Godard’s color in terms of a selection of a limited number of solid hues of light value and strong saturation. I turn now to the shape of these colors and their placement within the frame. This is a complex subject and so 1 will sketch only some Godardian general tendencies.
The compositions of Deux ou trois choses tend to reveal strong horizontal and vertical lines and colors tend to appear in blocks and regular shapes, such as squares and rectangles. The preference for solid, uniform colors or stripes, noted earlier, contributes to the horizontal and vertical segmentation of the image. There is a shot, for example, of Juliette crossing the street prior to her entrance into the boutique. We see across the street six rectangular billboards. The first three contain no advertising, and each is painted in a brilliant, solid primary: red, yellow, and blue. The fourth is empty and unpainted. The last two are covered by shreds and tatters of various color posters. Many interior scenes contain posters which confine blocks of color against white, blank walls. In a 360-degree pan shot from the courtyard of a housing project, we see mostly the whites and grays of cement and skyline except for two large rectangular sections of wall that are painted a brilliant red. In the car wash, the car emerges a shiny red between two walls of bright yellow. And at another point in the film a woman wearing a sweater with horizontal blue stripes stands against a wall of three posters: one red, one yellow, and one blue. (Appearing on the blue poster are the words “color vision.”)
The repeated use of color in regular shapes tends to breakdown the “objective” image into a more formal, graphic segmentation. Natural contours tend to be replaced by a gridwork of lines that enforce not only the man-made (e.g., construction sites, cranes, buildings, advertisements, commercial signs, products) but also the abstract, the constructed – that which cannot be natural. The later paintings of Piet Mondrian, which are composed solely of rectangular color blocks, map the extreme of this strategy.
There is a major variation of these large color blocks throughout Deux ou trois choses. In the variation the same colors are used (brilliant, solid primaries) but are scattered into tiny pieces across the image. Again, the lack of intermediate colors promotes isolation and equality for the scattered hues. We see, for example, Juliette in the kitchen with fifteen or twenty household products – brightly colored boxes, bottles, and cans – scattered about. In the day care/brothel scene we see a table jammed with various brightly colored products. Later Robert appears against a massive advertising billboard which has been reduced to mere shreds and scraps of posters. In the cafe two men sit before stacks of multi-colored books including fiction, history, guidebooks, telephone books, and others in several languages, from which they randomly select and then quote a brief passage.
The last example illustrates that whatever breakdown has occurred in the visuals in terms of color is paralleled by a breakdown of the audio track and, perhaps, of narrative. The use of scattered color at various moments in the film seems to indicate a second disintegration of the objective image whereby the homogeneous color blocks have exploded into fragments. One is reminded of Juliette’s remark in the second scene when she says, “I feel as though I were being shattered into a million pieces when I dream…. When I wake up, I’m scared some of the bits will be missing.” In its episodic narrative and its color, Deux ou trois chose enacts a world, a social order, in the process of fragmentation.
Allied with the breakdown of color into equal elements is; a breakdown of the center of the image. The traditional film has often meant a tyranny of the center of the frame and central perspective, but in Deux ou trois choses there are compositions which reassert the equality of the sides of the frame. These effects are further emphasized by the expanded horizontal ratio of widescreen. We see, for instance, an extreme long shot of a construction site where a cement bucket suspended from a derrick moves at left frame, then off frame. The essentially static shot is now held until, finally, the cement bucket reappears briefly in the extreme top right corner of the frame (at a much greater distance from the camera). At the beauty parlour, Paulette’s soliloquy in close-up is punctuated by her hand breaking into the empty space at frame right. The rigorous spatial continuity of the second cafe scene depends principally on persons, reflected in a mirror, who appear in the top left or right corner of a shot. (Hence the continuity of this scene, and others in the film, is quite inaccessible to traditional reading procedures.) We also see from the distance of a long shot only Robert’s head at the lower left against a massive billboard. While the traditional film might shift a body off center frame, it would never show merely the head at that distance, but the entire body (cf. also the car wash scene).
These examples show how a tension is created between the centered and radically decentered compositions of Deux ou trois choses. The tension goes beyond a search for a new aesthetic balance; rather, it is in the end an attempt to reposition character with respect to the camera’s production of narrative space. Narrative no longer is the story of character, but is the story of a displacement of character. The political and ideological pressures and forces leading to displacement are the real subject matter of Deux ou trois choses. Prior to the first scene, an intertitle announces, “Eighteen Lessons about Industrial Society.”
What is important in the present context is that color plays an initial role in subverting the centered and hierarchical attention of a traditional reading. Colors may be positioned so as to compete with frame center. For example, a low angle shot of an overpass predominantly in whites and cement grays with a bit of light blue sky is marked by patches of brilliant red at lower left and at top right where a man, barely visible, paints a guard rail. Not only the position of color but other aspects such as movement, direction, shape, and size are important to the effect of color. Schemes have been developed which relate color and area into a new property called the “weight” or “force” of a color,20 but so far these schemes are rather crude. On the whole, there is scant theory of what happens as color is fashioned into more complex forms. What is evident is that Godard’s consistent use of regularly-shaped color blocks, with its dialectical opposite of splintered color, together with a stress away from center frame, promotes color to parallel and equal status with other elements. Systematic color then becomes a tool capable of contesting traditional stylistic and discursive organizations of a text.
If there exists a system of color in Deux ou trois choses, how does it relate to the narrative system of the film? What are the larger functions of color in the text? I begin with some functions that color does not perform.
It does not provide clues to, or mirror, the psychological states of the characters. For most critics this is the sole, or at least paramount, way color is interpreted in film. A weaker claim stemming from the same approach is that color sets the mood or tone of a scene – “vivid” colors for a “lively” scene, and so forth. The essence of this method is to shift adjectives and nouns from the narrative and attach them to the appearance of colors, as in “a chromatic sensuality that sharpened the hedonism of the plot” or “an aberrant grayness of alienation” that later “is modulated into a murky grayness to underline the barrenness of a mind drained of dreams and emotions.”21
All other uses of color for these critics are shelved in the broad category of “symbols” or “comments” by the director; that is, if colors are not emotional they must be “intellectual.” Whatever the categories may reveal about underlying assumptions of mind, they certainly reveal an impoverished notion of narrative – usually no notion except perhaps that of “plot.” There is no concept of non-narrative or counter-narrative elements in the text – that surplus of signification which recent analysis has demonstrated is so crucial to the work of the text.22 Hence, despite a claim that color may have other uses, most critics and textbook writers in their examples fall back to a psychological recuperation of the filmic text.
Color in Deux ou trois choses also does not function to enhance a reality effect. When Marianne (Anna Karina) and Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) escape across the rooftops in Pierrot le fou (1965), we see a number of ventilating pipes painted in brilliant, solid colors: red, blue, yellow. The color of these pipes stands out (almost as if it is being quoted) because normally we expect exhaust pipes and smokestacks to be black or at least a dingy color. Unexpected or unfamiliar color tends to separate color from its natural object in the same way that unfamiliar size frustrates a monocular depth cue (size perspective). It is the gap between color and object that is important in Deux ou trois choses. The gap is created chiefly through the strategies we have already discussed: a tendency to limit color to brilliant, solid primaries of regular shapes. Moreover, as previously noted, the consequences of these strategies in almost every case were to contest a natural reading of the image.
For example, when Juliette and Marianne emerge from their car in the car wash scene (see color illustration), they are dressed in brilliant, solid primaries: Juliette in a simple blue top and yellow skirt, Marianne in a simple red top and green skirt (the single reference to green in the shot). These exact primaries are reiterated throughout the shot: red, by the car, various rectangular electrical switch boxes, trashcan, and pail; yellow, by various painted machinery; and blue, by a painted wall. The repetition of color suggests that color is not working solely in a system of natural reference; background objects are not lost in the background as mere decor, atmosphere, or “accents.” The split between color and object is evidence that a logic other than verisimilitude (the probable) is at work. Later, during the bathroom and sex scene with Johnny (a john), Juliette, walking back and forth, wears a blue travel bag over her head (she had just taken off her blue top) while Marianne, walking back and forth, wears a red travel bag over her head (she had just taken off her red top). These actions fill out a series of comparisons begun in the car wash scene, namely, a woman’s body is like a car’s body; and washing a car (labor) is like washing a body (in the bathroom) for blind labor (sex). The result is that commerce is seen as a form of travel, i.e. labor is a trafficking in bodies.
If color in Deux ou trois choses is nonpsychological, nondramatic, and nonverisimilar, what is it? In negative terms it is nonreferential, or self-referential; stated positively, it is an element of equal significance with other elements – a reversible field23 of permanences and permutations criss-crossing the text, capable of forming alliances at one point and contradictions at another. That is, a color is capable of connecting to various points in a text and helping to make patterns; it need not be confined to the surface of a specific object. This potential of color is seen most clearly in those moments when it is self-referential. In La Chinoise (1967) there is a close-up tracking shot past color samples from a paint chart. In Deux ou trois choses a giant commercial sign – Azur – appears several times and is painted blue. The word azur, of course, also names a shade of blue. (The color reference is enhanced by presenting the sign out of context.)
Color also achieves a certain independence when one object is seen to have more than one color. For instance, in a long held, extreme close-up of the hood of a car at the car wash we see green trees reflect as red, and blue sky as white. In the cafe the colors of a magazine advertisement are distorted through beer in a tall glass. In the hotel scene we watch as Juliette repeatedly turns a lamp on and off, changing the color of the lamp from white to blue and the wall from red to black; she says, “The image is permeated with meanings and memories.” These sorts of shots illustrate that in general Godard offers an image not as evidence for a fixed state of the world, but merely as a possible (cultural, personal, political, or common) description, a quotation or figure, which is limited and depends on further investigation. As Godard says in his whispered voice-over commentary in the cafe scene: “The frontiers, of my speech are the frontiers of my world…. [Whatever I say (or show in an image?) must impose limitations on the world, must make it finite [reduce it?].” (Cf. also Godard’s voice-over during the car wash scene and his inclusion of alternative camera takes within the plot of the film.)
Perhaps the most extraordinary use of color in Deux ou trois choses occurs in the final shot. The shot is, among other things, an elegant summary of the progress of color throughout the film. We see about thirty consumer products in boxes spread out on the grass (like the blocks of low-rent apartment buildings seen in the film). The colors of the products – essentially the primaries red, blue, and yellow – are set off against the green background of the grass and are modulated by a shadow series. As previously remarked, green is spatially neutral and “restful” while the shadow series contributes depth. Next, instead of a fade-out, Godard stops down the camera lens and holds on a darkness which completely loses the green, the shadow series, and the basic outlines of the products, but allows the scattered primary colors to continue to glow, almost independent of shape, referent, and nature.
At this point the breakdown of color through the film from nature to solid blocks to scattered pieces has become final. A parallel breakdown has occurred in the narrative where the traditional hierarchies of the causal-psychological chain – the “tight, economical”, plot – have been ruptured. The main character, for example, is first introduced as an actress, and the narrative veers promiscuously from drama to documentary to interview to soliloquy to guerrilla theater. But the breakdown in color and narrative can only be a starting point. As the voice-over commentary states at the end, “I’ve forgotten everything except that, as I’m going back to zero, I’ll have to use that as my point of departure.” We see that the color of Deux ou trois choses ultimately reveals a work in progress.
The psychophysics of color perception as well as the function of color in a textual system depend exclusively on context and relation. The aesthetic text no less than other texts is an instrument of social practice, and its meaning depends on a relationship with cultural conventions or codes. A set of color conventions that may be termed traditional or naturalistic may be employed as a background set in order to distinguish the color organization of Jean-Luc Godard in Deux ou trois choses, and the consequences of that organization with respect to traditional representation.
Godard tends to employ uniform hues, or stripes, which are light in brightness and strong in saturation (brilliant solids). Though his color generally respects the natural order of light values, the high saturations are more typical of advertisements than the low key colors of nature. Godard muses in whispered voice-over: “You might almost say that living in today’s world is rather like living in the middle of a big comic strip.” (Cf. also Godard’s ideas about the commodification of everyday life.) The shadow series – a special relation of lightness and saturation – is rejected in favor of high key, featureless lighting that suppresses natural depth and central perspective in order to create a flatter composition of equal elements. Also, the placement of off-center color blocks operates to subvert a centered and hierarchical attention.
The hues chosen by Godard are often the painter’s primaires – red, blue, yellow – which represent the extreme of three-hue contrast. Another frequent combination is the extreme of two-hue contrast: red and blue separated by white. This contrast is based on the warm/cool dichotomy and muscle stress in the eye. These extremes of contrast create colors in tension, though equal and balanced. The lack of intermediate colors (passage) accentuates the isolation and autonomy of color. The repetition of limited hue combinations acts to break down the natural image, which is expected to contain a multiplicity (a plenitude) of graded color.
The compositions of Deux ou trois choses tend to be strongly segmented by lines, often horizontal and vertical. As a result colors appear in blocks that act to destroy natural contours. A major variation is the appearance of the same colors but now splintered across the image as if color itself had broken down.
The colors of Deux ou trois choses cannot be read in terms of character psychology, the exigencies of drama, or of verisimilitude. Instead, color – divorced from its natural (probable) object through such strategies as the above – becomes a mobile element, and an element of equal significance with other elements of the text. The consistent use of color strategies means the construction of forms – positions and differences – which are the very foundation for the articulation of color in a pictorial system. Deux ou trois choses is one of the few color films which, to borrow Eisenstein’s phrase, is in color and not merely colored.
This, essay is a revised version of one that first appeared in Wide Angle, Vol. l, No. 3 (1976), pp. 20-31.
1 Jean-Luc Godard, Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Paris: Seuil, 1971); Jean-Luc Godard, Godard: Three Films (New York: Harper & Row, 1975). See esp. Alfred Guzzetti, Two or Three Things I Know about Her: Analysis of a Film by Godard (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981).
10 Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, Rev. ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975), pp.48-50.
11Color as Seen and Photographed, 2nd ed. (Rochester, N.Y.: Eastman Kodak Co., 1972), No. E-74, p. 54.
12 For the fine points of this convention and certain deviations which result in crowding of light values or exaggeration of saturation, see Arthur Pope, The Language of Drawing and Painting (New York: Russell & Russell, 1949), pp. 44-49, 99-106, 128-31.
13 For one modern version of triangular hue relations, see Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception, Rev. ed. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 330-71
14 Most color circles are constructed with complementary colors – which neutralize each other when mixed – on opposite sides. Thus, there is a tacit assumption that colors seek an achromatic and absolute state, e.g., white light. Also, color circles include magenta (red-purple), which does not occur in natural light (it is mixed in the eye), and the circles invariably assume equal divisions for the colors (whereas reds and yellows comprise about 40% of the light spectrum).
15 Color has a temporal dimension. The perceptual mechanisms of simultaneous and successive color contrast – based on the formation of negative afterimages in the eyes – function to drive colors which adjoin or succeed one another further apart in the ways in which they differ. Camera and character movement, for instance, could be used to shift and juxtapose colors in simultaneous contrast while editing and optical effects, e.g., dissolves, would seem perfect tools to exploit the phenomenon of successive contrast. To my knowledge, no filmmaker has used these effects because negative afterimages are transitory and move with the eye and so produce an unstable, ambiguous and changing color.
16 Cf. Roland Barthes, “The Structuralist Activity” in Critical Essays (Evanston 111.: Northwestern University Press, 1972), pp: 217-18.
17 See Faber Birren, New Horizons in Color (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corp., 1955), pp. 32-33.
18 Johannes Itten, The Elements of Color (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1970), pp. 19-22, 29-31, 33, 72-74.
19 See William Charles Libby, Color and Structural Sense (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974), pp. 56-61, 67-68, plate 3.
20 See Itten, pp. 59-63.
21 Lewis Jacobs, “The Mobility of Color” in The Movies as Medium, ed. Lewis Jacobs (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), pp. 191, 196. Godard’s color design may also be subjected to the standard approach, which seeks to narrativize all the colors. See, e.g., Paul J. Sharits, “Red, Blue, Godard,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Summer 1966), pp. 24-9. What happens when colors in a Godard film fail to match plot or character? The critic then relies on irony as an explanation. “Godard, in his treatment of Camille’s garment hues [in Le Mépris, 1963 [Contempt)], seems to have broken from what he may have felt was a too-obvious color system. Camille, because she is in love with her husband at the beginning of the film, ‘should’ be wearing red; however, the cyclic motif that occurs in regard to Camille’s development has a particular irony that befits the irony of the film in general, particularly the ironic paralleling of Contempt‘s development with that of the Homeric Odyssey.” (p. 27) This approach to Godard’s color design has the ironic effect of making more conservative a director who is trying to create an alternative film practice.
22 Stephen Heath, “Film and System: Terms of Analysis,” Part I, Screen, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring 1975), pp. 7-77; Part II, Screen, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer 1975), pp. 91-113. See also Heath, Questions of Cinema (New York: Macmillan Press, 1981).
23 Cf. Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning” from Image-Music-Text, trans, by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).”
(Branigan, Edward (1976): The Articulation of Color in a Filmic System. Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle. In: Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price (eds.): Color. The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 170–182, on pp. 170–180.)