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.
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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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Account holder: Barbara Flueckiger, CH-8005 Zurich, Switzerland
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Read more about the financial background of the project on filmcolors.org.
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Double tone safranine. Medium positive. 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.
Virages sur mordançage sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté orange, virage vert (green mordant toning on orange 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
Orange, orange tinted support, Swiss collector’s edition, backlight. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
“One point on which I feel very strongly concerns realism in colour. The film maker should never allow himself to be strapped by naturalism in treating with colour values. All sorts of creative departures, even to radical extremes, should be practiced on the screen, the deciding factor being not – “is this the way it is in life?,” but “is this the best way to express the desired emotions?”
As an example, let me refer to the ballroom sequence in Becky Sharp (1935). A ball is given in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo, at which Wellington, his officers, and hundreds of civilians are present. A messenger secretly informs Wellington that Napoleon is on the march towards the city. Wellington gives an order which is delivered confidentially to all the officers present. Following this, the news leaks out and starts a panic among the guests. They begin to flee as fast as they can. Now, in terms of realism, the officers, who heard the news first and had an immediate duty to perform, would certainly leave the building first. Yet, visually, color-wise, it would have been wrong. All British uniforms of the period were red. Were I to show these in the first shots and then follow them with less striking, mingled colours of the civilians, I would be decidedly building towards a chromatic anti-climax. So I went against plausibility and reason, and based this montage purely on colour-dynamics, believing that the rising excitement of just the colours themselves would affect the audience more strongly than a realistic procedure. I divided all guests into groups according to the hues of their costumes and photographed them, as they were running away, in separate shots; this, in the order of colours in the spectrum, ranging from cold to warm. This resulted in the officers leaving the building last, instead of first. But the colour montage, from purples and dark blues to oranges and reds, achieved its emotional purpose of building up to the climax of the officers’ scarlet capes in flight.”
(Mamoulian, Rouben (1960): Color and Light in Films. The Esthetics of Colour. In: Film Culture, 21, pp. 68–79, on pp. 74–75.)
Virages sur mordançage, Rouge-Orangé (red-orange 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 mordançage, Rouge-Orangé (red-orange mordant toning) toplight and backlight, Swiss collector’s copy. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Double tone chrysoidine. Medium positive. 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.
Virages sur mordançage sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté lavande, virage rouge-orangé (red-orange mordant toning on lavander tinted Pathé stock), backlight, Swiss collector’s copy. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
“As Leonard Maltin notes, “right from the start Disney was concerned with creative use of color, not just color itself” (40), and in the studio’s first Technicolor effort, Flowers and Trees, the Disney animators sought “to find expressive and challenging ways to use the new medium” (40). Not simply coloring their images to create a more convincing and impressive sense of reality, they quickly began experimenting with highly atmospheric and even symbolic uses of color, uses that fit right in with the more ambitious trajectory that Disney was starting to lay out for the studio’s animation (as would become obvious in a work like Fantasia ), and uses that could hardly escape some of those early qualms about “stylization and spectacle.”
With its release in late 1932, Flowers and Trees quickly rewarded Walt’s enthusiasm, since it proved extremely popular. As Bob Thomas points out, the first color Silly Symphonies cartoon “got as many bookings as the hottest Mickey Mouse cartoon,” prompting Walt’s decree to produce all future films in this series in color (Walt 115). However, this first effort suggests some caution about deploying the new technology in an overtly “stylized” way. For much of its story, the colors seem to operate primarily on a naturalistic scale with greens and browns naturally dominating the forest setting. The plot is a simple love triangle, involving slender boy and girl trees whose happy dancing is spoiled by an old, gnarled, and mean-spirited tree. The young trees are a light brown with green leaves serving as “hair.” In contrast, the older tree is a dark gray, suggesting its age and recalling a figure from a black-and-white Silly Symphony, with its only hint of color a green “tongue” – actually a lizard that hangs, lasciviously, from its mouth. The other major elements of the story also have pointedly “natural” color correspondences – the yellow and white daisies that dance around the younger trees, the orange and brown mushrooms that spring up from the ground and form a kind of appreciative audience for the dancing trees, the black birds whose nests and hatchlings suggest the proper goal of the young trees’ romantic dance, and the golden caterpillar that also joins in their dance. These colors are all clearly appropriate to the figures and help paint a recognizably natural world.
And yet Flowers and Trees manages to locate certain thematic resonances in these colors, illustrating a pattern that would develop as the Silly Symphonies became more complex narratives and as the Disney animators became more accustomed to what the new Technicolor technology would permit. Certainly, the near absence of color in the older tree serves a minimally symbolic function, its gray lending it a deathly pall and bracketing it off from the warm shades of the natural world, while the green lizard it sports sharply contrasts with the leafy green of the other trees and imparts a menacing tone to what should be a sign of life and vitality. When the older tree’s effort to seize the girl tree is rebuffed, he uses dried gray twigs to produce fire, the small red tongues of which are pointedly juxtaposed with the oranges and browns of the mushrooms, and the effect of which is to remove color from all that the fire touches, reducing them to black ashes. And the defeat of the old tree and its fires are marked by the return of a variety of colors – the flowers reappearing to form a garland for the girl tree, the mushrooms resurfacing as a colorful audience, and the golden caterpillar rolling into a circle, becoming a ring to mark the union of the girl and boy trees. In this last effect especially Flowers and Trees at least verges on a discourse of exposure.
Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York: New American Library, 1980.
Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Hyperion, 1976.”
(Telotte, J.P. (2004): Minor Hazards. Disney and the Color Adventure. In: Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price (eds.): Color. The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 30–39, on pp. 33–34.)