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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Virages sur mordançage, Rouge-Orangé (red-orange mordant toning) backlight, Swiss collector’s copy. 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). 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
“By contrast, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) provides a full spectrum of optical color. In Argento’s visually excessive giallo, white is overrun by a multiplicity of colors. The ballet school that provides the setting for Suspiria‘s elegantly choreographed murders is littered with stained glass windows, which filter the white of day into panoplies of optical color. Not that Argento and director of photography Luciano Tovoli worry too much about motivation. By creating an environment with a superfluity of colored light, they make it impossible for the viewer to attach specific motivators to specific colors, freeing themselves to use whatever color they like whenever they like. Faces are lit in color even when no stained glass is visible. A shot lit in red is cut together with a counter-shot lit in green. In a red room, lightning flashes green (Plate 4.14). In a blue room, lightning flashes pink, perhaps because a window somewhere is pink, or perhaps because we are looking into an imagined world in which Newtonian optics has been perverted.
Argento and Tovoli also use surface and optical color in combination, allowing each to modify the other. For example, in order to achieve intense facial colors, Tovoli placed colored fabric in front of powerful carbon arc lamps, which allowed the lamps to be placed closer to the actors’ faces than is usually possible. The result is further intensified color.11 Similarly, much of the wallpaper in the school is partially reflective, again allowing surface color to become a source of optical color. Inversely, optical color also becomes a source of surface color. For example, in one scene, white sheets are erected in the school gym, creating a temporary dorm after the girls’ bedrooms have become infested with maggots. The sheets are white, but when the lights are switched off, they are suddenly backlit in red. Unlike Douglas Sirk, Argento is happy to play out the entire five minute scene in colored light. Later in the film, at a climactic moment when Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) discovers a hidden door that will reveal a witches’ coven deep inside the school building, optical color momentarily disappears. The door’s handle takes the form of a stem of three wrought iron flowers: one red, one blue, one yellow. This detail is highlighted with a white spotlight, virtually the only white light in the film’s final 15 minutes. The lone white light spotlights the subtractive colors of the flowers, which in turn (because she has previously been warned to look out for the red, yellow, and blue flowers) alert Suzy to the presence of the secret door. In Suspiria, it is white light and surface color – not colored light and optical color – that is made noticeable by its scarcity.
There is, however, a limit to the chromatic excess of Suspiria. Though multiple optical colors share the frame at once, these colors generally remain separate. The impression may be – to use Newton’s evocative word – of colors “promiscuously” interacting, but in fact Argento and Tovoli rigorously separate colors into different spatial zones. Faces are key-lit in one color, figures rim-lit in another, backgrounds floodlit in yet another. The multiple colors that appear to emanate from off-screen stained-glass windows take the form of autonomous blocks or bands of optical color, not of multiple optical colors dynamically commingling. Suspiria‘s pristine compositions also tend toward the static – too much motion would disturb Argento and Tovoli’s careful chromatic zoning. The overall effect is that of a motionless kaleidoscope. Yet motion is precisely what Newton’s promiscuity implies – different frequencies of light moving into and out of each others’ spheres of dominance, combining, separating, and recombining.
11Suspiria 25th Anniversary featurette (Robert A. Ferretti, 2001), Suspiria collectors’ edition DVD. Troy, MI: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2001.”
(Misek, Richard (2010): Chromatic Cinema. A History of Screen Color. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, on pp. 142–143.)
“Opfergang dagegen hat klarere Konturen, deutlichere Kontraste. “An der Intensität der Rottöne… lassen die dramatischen Höhepunkte sich ablesen”.32 Als Variation zwischen Weiß und Rot läßt sich der Film sehen, wo die Dinge in Bewegung geraten, wo die Emotionen dominieren; als Variation zwischen Schwarz/Dunkelblau und Grau, wo die Geschichte sich verfestigt, wo die Ordnung dominiert. Wenn die Farben wechseln (Raddatz plötzlich ein rotes Halstuch oder während der Karnevalsequenz eine rote Maske trägt, Söderbaum bei einem Ausritt überraschend ein schwarzes Kostüm), geraten auch die eingespielten Arrangements durcheinander. Harlan trennt hier nicht zwischen Verstand und Kostüm: Trägt ein Mann eine rote Maske, ist er offensichtlich nicht ganz bei sich; und kommt eine lebenslustige Frau in Schwarz daher, muß sie die Ordnungsprinzipien vertreten, für die der Mann im Moment keine Kraft oder keinen Sinn aufbringt.
Harlans FarbÄsthetik zielt auf dramatische Effekte, die seinen strikten, deutschnationalen Geschichten einen offeneren, ambivalenteren, karnevalesken Sinn unterlegen.
32 Frieda Grafe, FarbFilmFest 1–12. Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin 1988, S. 7″
(Grob, Norbert (1991): Farbe im Auge, Ausdruck im Kopf. Hein Heckroths Farbdramaturgien für Powell & Pressburger. In: Katharina Spielhaupter (ed.): Hein Heckroth. Frankfurt/M.: Filmmuseum, pp. 57–78, on p. 63.) (in German)
“Nella sceneggiatura di Carnevalesca, architrave dell’intero sistema era la scansione in sette carnevali (azzurro, verde, blu, rosso, giallo, arancio, violetto) incorniciati da altri due in posizione di incipit (carnevale bianco) ed explicit (carnevale nero). Ciascuno dei sette carnevali centrali indicava una sezione del film colorata nella tinta corrispondete, a prescindere da eventuali cambi di luce ed elementi ambientali e atmosferici; i due carnevali di cornice indicavano le sezioni lasciate in bianco e nero. Inoltre, per i primi quattro carnevali (bianco, azzurro, verde e blu), impostati sui modi della commedia, erano previste per ciascuno dei rispettivi colori tonalità chiare; per quello successivo, che preparava il cambio di registro, tonalità di rosso continuamente cangianti; infine, per gli ultimi quattro (giallo, arancio, violetto e nero), drammaturgicamente affini alla tragedia, le tonalità prescritte erano più scure. Ancora, delle otto transizioni complessive tra un carnevale e il successivo, corrispondenti al passaggio da un colore all’altro, cinque tra quelle centrali (azzurro/verde, verde/blu, rosso/giallo, giallo/arancio, arancio/violetto) erano marcate dal quadro emblematico di un prisma in movimento, che costituiva un evidente rimando a Newton e all’ordito spettrale del film62.
Del film è stata rinvenuta e restaurata una copia nel 199364. Essa rivela un’architettura meno chiara rispetto a quella progettata da d’Ambra65. Risulta problematico stabilire quanto questa versione sia conforme a una del tutto teorica editio princeps del film, mentre è pressoché impossibile congetturare in quante versioni, e con quante e quali varianti cromatiche e strutturali, esso abbia circolato in Italia e all’estero: le testimonianze scritte sono in proposito piuttosto timide e lasciano supporre che il film andò incontro, come da consuetudini dell’epoca, a tagli operati direttamente da distributori ed esercenti66. Ad ogni modo, in quanto ancora oggi è dato di vedere nella copia restaurata, si possono cogliere le tracce del progetto originario e ipotizzare dunque che esso persistesse – impossibile dire con quale grado di aderenza – anche nella versione effettivamente girata da Palermi.
62 Per una più dettagliata descrizione della sceneggiatura, cfr. Mazzei 2003, vol. 1, pp. 231–241.
64 La copia è stata rinvenuta a Montevideo e restaurata nel 1993 dalla Cineteca di Bologna.
65 Michele Canosa, che al film ha dedicato un interessante e pionieristico studio, propende per la suddivisione in quattro carnevali, ipotizzando un parallelismo con le stagioni dell’anno e con le età dell’uomo: bianco, azzurro, rosso, nero (cfr. Canosa 1996b). Oltre a non collimare con l’idea iniziale di d’Ambra, tuttavia, questa ipotesi rende assai più vago il riferimento al sistema spettrale, che in certe immagini del film – come vedremo – appare invece rafforzato.
66 Il seguente passo – pubblicato antecedentemente alla prima (Roma, Cinema corso, 1 marzo 1918) – lascerebbe supporre anche per il film una scansione dei carnevali affine a quella della sceneggiatura: “la Vita ha, come il sole, come il prisma, tutti i sette colori dell’iride. Uomini, vecchi, fanciulli… “/ “E a traverso i sette colori della Vita i personaggi vivono la loro commedia e il loro dramma” (Blios 1917); in un passo immediatamente precedente dello stesso articolo si parla inoltre di “[…] Vita […] colta e prospettata ora in tinte sanguigne, ora in tinte rosse, ora in tinte celesti” (ibidem). Un articolo apparso dopo l’uscita del film menziona esplicitamente tre carnevali (bianco, rosso, nero): “e quando credete che il dramma cominci, comincia invece il carnevale dei bambini – il carnevale bianco – (“La vita cinematografica” 1918, p. 54); “finalmente, quando la fantasia dell’autore si è ben bene sbizzarrita e vi ha letificato fino al punto di volergli far grazia del resto e prendere la porta, ecco che incomincia davvero il dramma: – carnevale rosso – dramma grave, pesante e voluto. Ma siamo già alla fine o quasi” (ibidem) e infine: “…la commedia ze finida… avrebbe detto Arlecchino, e invece doveva incominciare il – carnevale nero” (ivi, p. 55). Quanto ai tagli, alcuni li auspicano, altri li documentano. Si vedano i due seguenti passi: “troppi titoli; troppa letteratura. La pellicola va tagliata e se ci risparmia un po’ di quel prisma luminoso, ci fa un vero piacere” (Torelli 1918, p. 6); “però la direzione del Salone Ghersi [sala cinematografica torinese] ha soppresso – molto giudiziosamente – non poca parte di scene perfettamente inutili, e più che inutili, ingombranti” (“La vita cinematografica” 1918, p. 55, corsivo nell’originale).
Blios (1917), Divagazioni artistiche. “Carnevalesca“, in “Film“, IV, n. 37, 12 dicembre 1917, p. 4.
Canosa, Michele (1996b), Note sul linguaggio dei colori in “Carnevalesca“, in Dall’Asta/Pescatore/Quaresima, a cura di, 1996, pp. 52–55.
Dall’Asta, Monica; Pescatore, Guglielmo; Quaresima, Leonardo, a cura di (1996), Il colore nel cinema muto, Mano, Bologna.
“La vita cinematografica” (1918), “Carnevalesca“, in “La vita cinematografica“, IX, nn. 11-12, 22-31 marzo 1918, pp. 54–55.
Mazzei, Luca (2003), ‘Ebbe viva la passione per il cinema’. Lucio D’Ambra fra scrivanie di redazione, teatri e set, tesi di dottorato, Dipartimento della comunicazione letteraria e dello spettacolo, Università degli studi di Roma tre, 2 voli.
Torelli, Guglielmo (1918), “Carnevalesca“, in “Contropelo“, III, n. 10, 9 marzo 1918, p. 6.”
(Pierotti, Federico (2012): La seduzione dello spettro. Storia e cultura del colore nel cinema. Genova: Le Mani-Microart, on pp. 79–82.) (in Italian)
Red, tinted safety base. 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.
We have seen that the departures from exact colour reproduction inherent in colour photography are of a fundamental and more or less incurable nature. It is necessary, therefore, to consider how important such departures are in practice, and in particular whether errors in some directions are more important than those in others. Before classifying errors under various headings, however, and weighing their relative importance, the way in which colour rendering is judged must be considered for a moment.
Colour photographs are practically never compared side by side with the original scene. Moreover, very few colour photographs are taken with a view to their being seen only by persons who were present at the time of exposure. So the majority of the criticisms of a colour photograph come from persons who never saw the original scene, and whose judgment must be based on some mental comparison between what the picture looks like and what they think it ought to have looked like. The precision of such mental comparisons will depend entirely on the precision of the mental standard used. For instance, if in a colour photograph there was depicted, amongst other things, a pillar-box, then its colour would be mentally compared with one’s impression of the usual colour of pillar-boxes. The impression will be the average of those given by a large number of different pillar-boxes seen on different occasions. And, of course, the colour sensations received will have been subject to the considerable variations caused by differences in the colour, intensity, and the direction of the lighting, whether the surface was wet or dry, dusty or clean, whether the pillar-box had been recently painted or not, etc. The impression, therefore, cannot be precise; and hence, provided that the reproduction of the pillar-box in the colour photograph compares favourably with what a pillar-box could look like, it will generally be acceptable.3
Similarly, all objects of well-known colour give rise to colour sensations which are not always the same and which exhibit quite wide variations. It is these variations, therefore, which govern the tolerances available in colour photography. Let us now consider some of these variations under the headings, lightness, saturation, and hue.
Variations of Lightness
Lightness is probably the attribute of surface colours which varies most from point to point over their surfaces. Any fabric tends to hang in folds, and the troughs will be much darker than the crests. Foliage, and grass, are subject to wide variations in lightness due to the shading of one leaf or blade by another, and due to the difference in orientation with respect to the direction of the incident light. Simultaneous contrast between a patch of colour and its background will also affect its apparent lightness. Thus a given colour will appear much lighter when seen against a black background than when seen against a white background. Thus one would expect errors in lightness reproduction to be relatively unimportant in colour photography, and this is borne out by the fact that there is a considerable range of contrasts over which a colour photograph may vary without detriment.
Variations of Saturation
Saturation also exhibits variations from point to point over a surface, especially on any surface having some sheen or gloss. Such surfaces can also show large increases in saturation when the type of lighting is changed from diffuse to directional, and it is well known that a scene always looks more colourful when the sun is out than when the weather is overcast. The saturation of all colours of distant objects is likely to be decreased by atmospheric haze, and sometimes the effect is strong enough to remove all sensations of colour completely. Reference has already been made to the presence of dust or dirt on surfaces, and while this may result in some changes of lightness, the change in saturation will be considerable. Wetting a matte surface often results in startling increases in saturation. The saturation of the blueness of the sky varies enormously with the direction of viewing relative to the sun, and similar variations occur, of course, in the case of the blueness of seas, rivers and lakes. The apparent saturation of colours also varies with the intensity of the illumination; for instance, at dusk colours are far less saturated than at noon, and by moonlight colour vision has almost ceased, all colours appearing almost completely desaturated.
The use of illuminants of different colours, such as tungsten light and daylight, also results in variations in apparent colour,4 and in the case of blues and yellows the differences in saturation can be considerable. Similar effects also occur, of course, with different phases of daylight, such as noon sunlight, north sky light and late evening sunlight. Again simultaneous contrast can alter the apparent saturations of colours. A pale colour seen against its complementary colour appears more saturated than when against a saturated colour of the same hue. It would thus be expected that errors in saturation would not be of very great importance. This is borne out by the appearance of many water-colour paintings, in which the colours are usually quite pale, but which as pictures are often highly successful. It seems that rather than requiring exact reproduction of saturation, all that is necessary is a reasonable saturation-maximum for each hue, and a uniform desaturation of colours of all hues and saturations, since this is what normally occurs in the conditions mentioned above. In terms of the purity characteristic curve, suggested by Wright,5 this means that the purity gamma can have a value substantially below unity, but that it should have the same value for all hues, and that the curve should be linear with saturation.
Variations of Hue
Let hue as a variable in surface colours now be considered. Simultaneous contrast can cause apparent changes in the hues of colours, but it is clear that most of the phenomena described above, which give rise to changes in lightness and saturation, do not give rise to any changes in the hues of colours. The hues of some objects, however, are quite variable. For instance, foliage varies in hue with time of year and with type of tree, and nearly all fruits change hue with degree of ripeness, as well as being different for different varieties. The colour of flesh varies with type of skin, and, of course, with amount of sunburn. There are, of course, other objects the hues of which vary, but, generally speaking, variations in hue, while important, would seem to be more restricted in surface colours than variations in lightness and saturation. It is, for instance, easier to think of a pillar-box which is a light or a dark red, or a pale or a deep red, than to think of one which is an orange- or magenta-red.
By this type of argument, and by experience, an approximate order of priority in the requirements, as far as colour is concerned, of a successful process of colour reproduction is arrived at, as follows:6
1. Correctness of hue.
2. Approximately equal desaturation of colours of all hues.
3. Approximately proportional desaturation of colours of all saturations.
By way of illustration of these principles it is a well-known fact that in colour reproduction the variable with the least tolerance is the overall colour balance of the picture. If the picture is slightly off balance, pale colours will undergo violent changes of hue, and it is these which make off-balance pictures so intolerable.
It is concluded, therefore, that, owing to the way in which the colours in a photograph are judged, and owing to the large changes in colour which well-known objects so often undergo, the discrepancies inherent in present-day methods of colour photography can be tolerated. That is not to say, of course, that improvement is not desirable, and in certain types of process special devices have to be resorted to in order to overcome some of the discrepancies because they have exceeded the admittedly very wide tolerances.
Most of the effects described in the paper were demonstrated during the lecture, either by actual experiments or by means of colour transparencies.
3Phot. J., 91B, p. 2, 1951.
4G.E.C. Journal, 18, Apr., 1951.
5J. Brit. Kine. Soc., 13, p. 1, 1948.
6Phot. J., 91B, p. 107, 1951.”
(Hunt, R.W.G. (1951): Colour Cinematography and the Human Eye. In: British Kinematography, 19,6, pp. 173–180, on pp. 176–178.)
2. Tonung: Der einfachste und schon lange benutzte Vorgang besteht darin, das nach der Entwicklung entstehende Silber zu tonen, d.h. es in gefärbte Verbindungen überzuführen. Besonders leicht und sicher ist die Überführung des Silbers in ein Uransalz von rotbrauner Farbe oder in Berlinerblau. Beide Farben entsprechen annähernd den Anforderungen eines Zweifarbenverfahrens und werden daher mit Vorteil bei einem doppelseitig begossenen Film (Agfa-Dipofilm) verwendet. Auf die eine Seite wird das z. B. mit Hilfe eines Bipacks aufgenommene Rotorangenegativ vom Rückfilm, auf die andere das Blaugrünnegativ vom Frontfilm kopiert, und die entwickelten Silberbilder im 1. Falle in ein Berlinerblaubild, im 2. in ein Uranbild übergeführt. Nach einem derartigen Verfahren konnte die amerikanische Multicolor-Gesellschaft und in Deutschland die Ufa verschiedene Filme herstellen, die einen überraschenden Reichtum der verschiedensten Farbabstufungen erkennen ließen.”
(Eggert, John; Heymer, Gerd (1937): Der Stand der Farbenphotographie. In: Veröffentlichungen des wissenschaftlichen Zentral-Laboratoriums der photographischen Abteilung Agfa, pp. 7–28, on pp. 20–21.) (in German)
Safranine. Lavender base. 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.
“What is curious is that even though the Bioschemes court case drew attention to Kinemacolor’s inability to render blue, Kinemacolor was occasionally admired for achieving blue tones, as one report of the Delhi Durbar film attests: ‘Even the sky, which throughout serves as a frame for the human spectacle, is a thing to wonder at; it is one pure sheet of palpitating light, blue with a blueness of which one can only dream here in grey England, deep, intense, unruffled, like one gigantic sapphire.’48 Even though the colour palette achieved with Kinemacolor was clearly deficient as far as blue and purple were concerned, projecting the film onto a light blue screen helped overcome these problems and may explain the enthusiastic comments about blue.49 In addition, giving evidence to the court in the Bioschemes vs Natural Color Kinematograph Co. Ltd case, G. A. Smith made the point that even though an image of a Union Jack flag might not have very blue sections, more grey or even black, the viewer’s cultural expectation to see blue could indeed convince her/him that it was actually present.50 This example draws attention to the complex factors that come into play when trying to assess the impact of colour; the power of suggestion and symbolism are important influences on colour perception. Commentary in the Catalogue of Kinemacolor Subjects, 1912-13 mentions dark blue in Children Forming the US Flag as ‘unmistakeable’ and the sea in Telemachus: A Mythological Play as ‘a superb blue’. Floral Friends was said to convey a cornflower in ‘remarkable vivid blue’ in spite of the difficulties of obtaining the colour.51
One must indeed chart a careful evaluative course amid a wealth of contradictory detail about Kinemacolor, not least found in Urban’s archive which contains many scrapbooks of advertising materials, press reviews and reports on Kinemacolor screenings all over Britain and abroad. The phrases used are often similar, inviting the suspicion that many descriptions were taken from the catalogues produced by the Natural Color Kinematograph Company. Colour vision is, indeed, variable, and the excitement around Kinemacolor might well have induced those who saw the films to imagine a fuller range of colours than they actually saw. One report recounted how after a demonstration colour specialist Professor Lippmann insisted on seeing the Kinemacolor projector ‘to see with his own eyes that only two colours were actually employed. He did not believe it possible that such a combination of tones and shades could be obtainable in this manner.’52 The wonder of natural colour film was sufficiently novel as to invite positive appreciation from many audiences, particularly when the films were carefully presented and contextualised by the company’s publicity.
In a world in which many lower-class people did not have access to bright-colour clothing, for example, and most colour was seen in advertising materials, its appearance in film was all the more notable.53 While colour was clearly making an incursion into everyday life for those able to purchase coloured wallpapers, clothes and jewellery, one cannot assume that these commodities were available to all. Admissions to Kinemacolor programmes varied and not all exhibitors charged higher prices for tickets. Some halls explicitly stated in newspaper advertisements that they were keeping their normal prices for Kinemacolor screenings – for example, the King’s Theatre Greenock (May 1912); His Majesty’s Theatre, Dundee (September 1912); The Cinema de Luxe, Walsall (March 1913); and The Palace, Durham (August 1913). But higher prices were charged in some halls, such as the Electric Theatre in Bath which increased its prices in April 1912 on the afternoon Kinemacolor arrived. It appears, however, that a significant number of venues chose not to increase prices and this trend occurred throughout the years when the process was being screened in Britain, presumably in an attempt to broaden its appeal.54 Urban’s pitch to higher-class audiences was, however, likely to connect with those able to afford the growing commercial availability of colour in other spheres. For this reason new fashion ranges were promoted by Kinemacolor as the only way to fully appreciate the styles in films such as Advance Styles in Ostrich Plumage:
All those who have seen monochrome representations of the latest fashions in dress or in hats, will have realised how powerless black and white motion photography is to reproduce with fidelity and conviction these wonderful creations of the modiste’s art, or to import a true idea of their actual appearance. Thus it is, in this field of colour photography holds undisputed sway, by this process alone is it possible to present on the screen convincing reproductions which are so true to actuality as to awaken the envy and admiration of every woman in the audience.55
In this case audiences are invited to admire the fashions and be envious of the women wearing them, implying that purchase of the items would not necessarily be possible for everyone. Indeed, the description ends by remarking on the ‘perfect detail’ of the hats on display and flesh tints of the models as being ‘so life-like … as to complete the illusion that one is gazing, not on a picture screen, but, as through a window upon an actual scene’.56 The choice of words is interesting, implying a spectator who gazes from afar, as if from the perspective of someone looking in from a street onto a scene, perhaps seeing an opulent house or shop beyond their own experience or financial circumstances.57 A similar sensibility is evident in Kitty, the Dressmaker, a Kinemacolor film about a ‘humble’ dressmaker’s assistant who has a dream in which she is ‘richly dressed, wearing furs’.58
McKernan notes that: ‘Those who criticise Kinemacolor now for its inadequate colour reproduction are ignoring both the prevalent cultural conditions and the physiological processes that enriched the colour effect.’59 These included the vicarious acquisition of culturally coded sensibilities with which colour became inextricably associated. In these circumstances an approximation of colour was most probably acceptable to many viewers when combined with the magnificence of a ceremonial occasion, or showing an exotic, foreign location which had been photographed in bright sunshine. These images were less tied to commercial exploitation of commodities or fashions but rather depended on the revelation of new experiences of colour at home and abroad. The description of A Visit to the Seaside, the first ‘scenic picture’ shot in Kinemacolor in Brighton, remarked of a shot of the Cameron Highlanders’ Band that: ‘In colorless Britain one must go to the Army to find rich, glowing hues.’60 Films taken in India featured elephants adorned with ‘crimson velvet … at times the whole screen seems to be filled with a riot of gorgeous color as has never been seen before’.61 But apparently limitless interpretations of such scenes were not acknowledged by the judge in the 1914 Lords Appeal case when Kinemacolor’s claims to ‘approximately’ render all colours from a two-colour method were considered to be empirically unproven, therefore invalidating the patent on which the process was based.62
Kinemacolor was shown extensively in London, particularly at the Palace Theatre leased by Urban in 1911, and there is evidence of considerable dissemination in the provinces. In 1910-14 Kinemacolor films were exhibited in approximately 250 venues in a total of 161 regions across the country, and there is further evidence of screenings in the regions until at least May 1916. Runs were typically short, supplied by touring companies.63 An exclusive licensing system meant that exhibition in London and elsewhere was largely subject to Urban’s control. In August 1912 exhibitors were offered, for example, a programme entitling a licensee to choose ten reels, representing one and three-quarter hours of projection, for £30 a week. With the programme came instruction on musical accompaniment, the installation of modern ‘sound effects’ and ‘the worth, and method of judicious and skilful advertising’.64 The aim was to market Kinemacolor as a means by which exhibitors might draw in the ‘upper strata of local society’ to their cinemas, as well as retaining their typical patrons. Urban’s mission involved bringing colour to cities ‘where the prevailing hues are grey, black and brown’, a modern invention being marketed as providing relief from the drudgery of industrialisation.65 Provincial Picture Palaces, an independent company, was initially granted exclusive rights outside London to show Kinemacolor in its circuit until the Natural Color Kinematograph Company Ltd (NCKCL) sold licences individually to exhibitors. Kinemacolor (London District) controlled exhibitions in the metropolis, particularly those located in the immediate vicinity of the Palace Theatre. For a time this exclusive system ensured Kinemacolor exhibitions in Britain and overseas could be monitored, although it is likely that in the long term the costs of hiring films and equipment held back mass expansion after the initial, novelty phase. Exhibition and patent rights were also sold all over the world and Kinemacolor did comparatively good overseas business in Japan and, for a time, in America. But after a promising start it proved impossible to repeat the popular success of the Delhi Durbar films, although something of a brief revival was experienced with wartime screenings of With the Fighting Forces of Europe (1914) that was arguably popular more for its subject matter than for its colour. The financial costs of specialised exhibition facilities and prestige venues proved in the long run to hasten Kinemacolor’s demise. In an attempt to offset exhibitors’ reluctance to purchase special projection equipment when the majority of them did not show Kinemacolor films for long periods, the NCKCL developed a projector that could also show black-and-white films. Even so, a long-term commitment to Kinemacolor was rare, a notable exception being T. J. West’s run for approximately two years at the Shaftesbury Hall, Bournemouth.66 The rest of Europe proved to be an even more difficult market. After selling the patent rights to a French company in 1912 Urban bought them back at a profit and built the Théâtre Edouard VII in Paris, a costly enterprise that ended in financial disaster.67 After the patent was invalidated in 1914 the exclusive licence system broke down; thereafter Kinemacolor was available to all producers and exhibitors. Yet the process did not thrive in a free market since it required considerable technical expertise and financial investment. Urban was forced to retrench, particularly on his worldwide operations, and during World War I shifted his priorities to war propaganda, including successful Kinemacolor screenings of With the Fighting Forces of Europe and Britain Prepared (1915). He collaborated with Henry Joy on perfecting yet another colour patent for Kinecrom, a process that was designed to address Kinemacolor’s technical shortcomings with a non-fringing projector known as Urban-Duplex.68
The majority of Kinemacolor films were actualities or topical films that could be regarded as a limitation when the film industry was poised for saturating the market with fiction films. An analysis of the Kinemacolor catalogue 1912-13 indeed demonstrates that the majority of films were non-fiction of the British countryside; numerous animal and bird studies; royal events; and many films of military parades and natural scenery in countries including the USA, Canada, European countries, Sweden, India and Egypt. The emphasis on British locales places Kinemacolor within traditions of landscape painting which can be seen to have had a longer-term influence on perceptions of a British approach to colour cinema. While only a very small percentage of Kinemacolor films survive, often in tantalising fragments such as scenes from the Delhi Durbar film, the catalogue’s descriptions of individual films nevertheless gives an impression of what was perceived to be of colour interest to exhibitors and audiences. Eirik Hanssen’s study draws attention to the catalogue’s great value as a source that reveals a sense of what was achieved with Kinemacolor in terms of film form, genre and address, as well as the ways in which it connected with contemporary discourses around colour.69 The films demonstrated trends of silent cinema from Gunning’s notion of ‘the cinema of attractions’ to ideas about natural colour processes exemplifying a close relationship between an object and photographic indexicality.70 As such the films demonstrated different approaches to engaging spectators by establishing regimes of verisimilitude appropriate for a particular genre. Some films were geared towards showing ‘attractions’ such as magic tricks or travelogues of faraway, exotic places which induced the pleasure of surprise, while on other occasions they presented close approximations of familiar sights such as the seaside, trees, flowers and everyday objects which induced the pleasure of recognition. Italian Flower and Bead Vendors announced Italy to be ‘the land of colour’. It showed stalls and wares with vendors selling coloured beads. Another travelogue that made a spectacle of place and colour was Kingston, Jamaica, which again featured a marketplace and an exotic fruit, the ackeé, ‘somewhat resembling the banana in colour, but having black berries which are not edible … the close views of this fruit are wonderful examples of the powers of Kinemacolor’.71 In such films unusual objects and locales were so presented that the spectacular values of place and colour were mutually reinforcing.
Trick films in particular made colour an obtrusive feature and were obviously intended to punctuate colour presentation with surprise as cinematic attractions.72 […] it is important to convey a sense here of the variety of Kinemacolor’s output. A Kinemacolor Puzzle, for example, had two rotating coloured discs revolving in kaleidoscopic fashion yet ‘in spite of the rapid movement the colors of the discs are perfectly distinct’. The film was described as being ‘in considerable request’. There was clearly great confidence in Kinemacolor’s ability to reproduce colours ‘true to nature’ that would immediately invite audiences to compare what they saw on screen with their own experience of colours for particular foods or objects. The catalogue’s description of Refreshments noted that: ‘If any needed to be convinced that Kinemacolor is not a system of artificial coloring of the film itself, this section would surely suffice.’ The film showed a man pouring water into a tumbler of claret and ‘as the claret diffuses itself in the water, the liquid gradually assumes a deeper hue. The actual process of diffusion and the change in color of the contents of the tumbler are depicted exactly as if the real thing was happening before our eyes.’ The same film featured an orange being cut and squeezed: ‘It is exactly the color of orange juice and is so like the actual thing that one’s mouth positively waters as one watches the picture.’ Such claims were risky, although in this case orange was a colour that tended to reproduce well in Kinemacolor. Studies in Natural Colour went even further by showing the contrast between an ordinary orange and a blood-orange.73
The emphasis on differentiating Kinemacolor from applied techniques was an important element of Urban’s rhetorical presentation of ‘natural’ colour, in particular emphasising the aim of photographic processes to convey changes in hue or saturation in mimetic rather than symbolic fashion associated with, say, tinting an image in its entirety to convey a generic mood for a frame or scene rather than to ‘capture’ the colours of particular objects. Publicity boasted that, unlike applied colour methods, Kinemacolor ‘instantaneously catches the most unexpected tints with wondrous sweetness and represents the dominant colors not only in their own richness and brilliance, but also in their finest and most delicate shades, presenting an endless combination which in scale of splendour is rivalled only by the band of the spectrum’.74 These aims transcended genre, the emphasis being on exposing applied methods as somehow fooling audiences with inaccurate, ‘false’, unscientific representations of reality. This was demonstrated in Gerald’s Butterfly, a comedy film that depicted a boy who paints a butterfly that fools a naturalist when it is dangled over a hedge. The naturalist pays for being taken in by the painted butterfly since his attempts to catch it result in a greenhouse being damaged and him getting thrown into a pond. The catalogue’s description offsets this narrative of disaster wrought by deception with praise for the film’s reproduction of flowers and the countryside as ‘so realistic that it was almost possible to fancy that one could smell the new mown hay’. By means of a dramatic scenario the film can be seen as presenting a somewhat reflexive position on Kinemacolor’s relationship to applied methods of colouring film by hand.75 While the naturalist suffers for being taken in by the fake painted butterfly, audiences were encouraged to delight in Kinemacolor’s approximation of flowers and the countryside as a more accurate mode of representation. The emphasis on natural colour eliciting a sensual response from audiences (‘tasting’ the orange or smelling the hay) was a typical claim that linked with Goethe-based theories that conceived of colour perception as subjective, interactive and experiential.76 It also engaged with theories which linked sensory experience to colour. The idea that colour intensified the spectator’s pleasure and could even elicit a physical response resonated in subsequent discussions about the impact of screen colour. While some saw this as an opportunity to explore colour’s educational potential, others claimed colour’s enhanced sensorial potential as a point of aesthetic difference from monochrome. Colour was seen to produce psychological and physiological effects, constituting a ‘synaesthesic’ approach which emphasised its impact on emotions, senses and health. These connections were investigated by Loyd Jones, a technician who developed a number of colour technologies at the Kodak Research Laboratories in Rochester, New York, from the 1910s-50s.77
One must, however, be careful not to construct an impression of this period as one in which colour processes were necessarily distinct in people’s minds. While Urban encouraged notions of specificity around Kinemacolor comments on films coloured by other means reveal similar tendencies and aims. The Glories of Sunset, a Gaumont film, seems to have presented variable colour effects:
As the sun sets the toning gradually becomes deeper, giving a most beautiful effect. The various scenes shown represent the sun just before it disappears, entitled ‘Last Rays’, the sun having set, entitled ‘First Shadows’ and concludes with a striking view of the bay by moonlight with a ship in full sail passing across, the silver reflection on the water.78
Sunsets of Egypt was a Kinemacolor film that also took pride in showing ‘the red glow of the sun and the changing colours in the sky … the after-glow of the setting sun fills the sky with the richest and most glorious colors imaginable’.79 Such examples draw attention to the mutual effect processes were having on each other during a time when the achievement of ‘spectacular realism’ was a shared goal of colourists using a variety of different approaches. Kinemacolor’s success increased exhibitors’ interest in other forms of colour film. The Bioscope reported in October 1911:
Within the year – almost within the last six months – Mr Charles Urban’s Kinemacolor process has come right to the front, and has become a formative influence upon the future of the business, the importance of which cannot be over-estimated. ‘Colour’ has now become a sine qua non of the picture theatre programme, and one cannot pass along the streets without seeing from the announcements of exhibitors that they are fully alive to this, and, if they have not a Kinemacolor licence, they are making a special feature of tinted or coloured films in order to cope with the public demand.80
The flurry of experimentation clearly had an impact on applied methods. Kinemacolor drew attention to colour and increased demand for interest in other systems, particularly stencil methods, 1909-16.81 As films became longer, often dealing with complex narratives and different temporalities, tinting and toning […] could be motivated by an extended range of imperatives. […] the variety possible with dye methods […] outlasted Kinemacolor by being used until the early 1930s. Rachael Low argues that for some time blue tints made up for technical deficiencies in lighting and stock which made night-shooting difficult.
48The Bioscope, 8 February 1912.
49 Cherchi Usai, Silent Cinema, p. 29.
50 G. A. Smith, unpublished evidence in URB 7/2/6, pp. 292. This reference is also cited by McKernan, ‘”Something More than a Mere Picture Show”‘, p. 179.
51Catalogue of Kinemacolor Film Subjects, 1912-13, (Natural Color Kinematograph Co.).
52British Journal of Photography, colour supplement, vol. XVI no. 189, 4 August 1922, p. 31.
53 This point was made by Nick Hiley, in Hertogs and de Klerk, ‘Disorderly Order’, pp. 31–2.
54 Victoria Jackson, ‘The Distribution and Exhibition of Kinemacolor in the UK Provinces, 1909-15’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bristol.
55Kinematograph Monthly Film Record, April 1913, pp. 24–5.
56 Ibid., p. 25.
57 One is reminded of the ending of Stella Dallas (1937), when Barbara Stanwyck gazes through the window at her daughter in an opulent house.
58Catalogue of Kinemacolor Film Subjects, p. 125.
59 McKernan, ‘”Something More than a Mere Picture Show”‘, p. 180.
60Catalogue of Kinemacolor Film Subjects, p. 16.
61 Ibid, p. 309.
62 For the relevant documents on the case see URB 7/2/6 and summary in The Bioscope, 9 April 1914, pp. 141–2. McKernan also discusses the case, ‘”Something More than a Mere Picture Show”‘, pp. 182–9.
63 URB 3/2, p. 60. See also Jackson, ‘The Distribution and Exhibition of Kinemacolor’.
64Kinemacolor Supplement to the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 15 August 1912.
65 Ibid., 29 August 1912.
66 Jackson, ‘The Distribution and Exhibition of Kinemacolor’.
67 McKernan, ‘”Something More than a Mere Picture Show”‘, pp. 163–72.
68 Urban, ‘Terse History’, URB 9/1, p. 14.
69 Hanssen, Early Discourses on Colour and Cinema, pp. 31–87.
70 Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’, in Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (eds), Early Film (London: BFI, 1989). The idea is that early cinema was primarily a demonstrative mode in which visual display and attraction was the major source of appeal rather than continuous narrative development. The spectacle of colour can be usefully linked to this idea as developed in Gunning’s ‘Colorful Metaphors’ article.
71Kinematograph Monthly Film Record, March 1913, p. 6.
72 All subsequent descriptions of Kinemacolor films are taken from the Catalogue of Kinemacolor Film Subjects, 1912-13.
73Kinematograph Monthly Film Record, May 1913, p. 102, emphasis in original (referring to Studies in Natural Colour).
74Kinemacolor Supplement to the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 10 October 1912.
75 The relationship between Kinemacolor and applied methods is discussed in Bregt Lameris, ‘Pathécolor: “Perfect in their Rendition of the Colours of Nature”‘, Living Pictures: The Journal of the Popular and Projected Images Before 1914 vol. 2 no. 2, 2003, pp. 46–58.
76 See Hanssen, Early Discourses on Colour and Cinema, p. 40.
77 Joshua Yumibe, ‘”Harmonious Sensations of Sound by Means of Colors”: Vernacular Colour Abstractions in Silent Cinema’, Film History vol. 21 no. 2, 2009, pp. 164–76.
78Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 18 February 1909, p. 1121.
79Catalogue of Kinemacolor Film Subjects, 1912-13, pp. 216–7.
80The Bioscope, 26 October 1911, p. 283.
81 Jackson, ‘The Distribution and Exhibition of Kinemacolor’.”
(Street, Sarah (2012): Colour Films in Britain. The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-55. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, on pp. 15–19.)
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.
Rouge, red tinting, Swiss collector’s edition, toplight and backlight. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger. Source: Didiée, L. (1926): Le Film vierge Pathé. Manuel de développement et de tirage. Paris: Pathé. View Quote
Rouge, red tinting, 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