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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Red, tinted safety base. 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.
“Within the year and after a number of other color Silly Symphonies had been produced, a more complex use of color begins to surface, as a film like Babes in the Woods (1932) illustrates. A variation on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, Babes begins with a highly stylized image, as flowers and birds, all in highly-saturated colors, dominate the frame and surround a black rock, roughly shaped like a witch. They create an almost festive atmosphere for the narrative that follows, essentially a flashback to an earlier time, prior to the witch-rock’s appearance, and they anticipate another element of color, two gaily-dressed Dutch children walking through the woods. The colors, in fact, both create an effective atmosphere and largely tell the story here, for as the children move through the forest, its colors gradually change, from greens to browns to grays, suggesting movement deeper into this world while obviously creating an ominous impression. A clearing, however, introduces the unexpected, as the children come upon an elf village, the elves all dressed in bright shades of red, sporting stark white beards, and going about their daily work as if it were play. The dark woods become bright again, as if their darkness only disguised a bright, colorful, and happy realm, one of perpetual childhood in which the brightly-dressed Dutch children seem at home and happy.
The second stage in this story, though, twists this vision by playing upon the children’s – and our own – colored expectations. For from the dark edges of the forest appears an old woman, the witch, dressed in gray and black and surrounded by black birds. This dark extension of the woods frightens off the elves, but after taking the children on a ride on her broom, she reintroduces a riot of color, landing them in another clearing where they find her house, one made of brightly colored candies, cakes, and pies – or as she offers, “sugar, spice, and everything nice.” Lured inside, however, the children find the interior of this colorful location to be dull, colored in grays and browns, and containing cages full of black creatures: bats, spiders, rats, and cats. As the children quickly learn, when the witch pours an elixir from a black vial on the boy and turns him into another black spider, these captive “pets” are simply children like themselves, similarly lured to the witch’s lair by its attractive and colorful appearance. When the elves reappear and distract the witch, though, the girl discovers a green bottle (a color of vitality), pours its contents on her brother and restores him, and then on the other pets, transforming them all back to brightly-dressed children. Together, the elves and children then defeat the witch and drop her into a vat of another of her concoctions, from which she emerges and turns red, then brown, and finally a dark gray as the material hardens. She becomes that witch-like rock on which the narrative opened, and bright color returns, as a dissolve restores the opening scene – the black rock surrounded by flowers, vines, and brightly colored birds. It is the triumph of life, vitality, and variety over the dark, stifling, and monochromatic vision that she represented, a kind of trial run for the more ambitious story of The Three Little Pigs that followed the next year.”
(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. 34–35.)
“When the studio decided in 1935 to extend the use of Technicolor to the films of its “star,” Mickey Mouse, color could easily have taken a back seat and become more “natural,” subordinated to an established character. Yet The Band Concert, the first Mickey cartoon shot in Technicolor and one that, as Steven Watts offers, “many critics consider… to be Disney’s masterpiece among his animated shorts” (65), strikes a medium ground between denial and exposure. Its color scheme is clearly designed not only for a naturalistic effect, but also to advance the principle of caricature. In fact, the setting – a rural scene of a small bandstand in a clearing, surrounded by trees, fields, and a few farmhouses – is indistinct for much of the film, with the backgrounds just broadly suggestive of the setting and done in pastel shades of blue (the sky) and green (nature). Against such a vaguely naturalistic backdrop, the film repeatedly centers Mickey, the bandleader, or other music-playing anthropomorphs (Goofy, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle the Cow, etc.) in the foreground wearing uniforms in the highly saturated Technicolor primaries – red, blue, and green – that make them stand out against the muted backgrounds and argue for the heightened importance in which these characters see themselves and their actions. His long red military-style coat with gold buttons and epaulets particularly seems to comment on Mickey’s status, since it is many sizes too big for him: dwarfing him, slipping over his arms as he leads the band, so that one arm constantly seems much longer than the other, and causing him to trip over its tails and fall on his face as he tries to fend off a pestering Donald Duck. If the bright red coal signals his status as leader, it is also practically a character itself insofar as, much like the Duck, it repeatedly seems to mock him, to point up his slightness but persistent sense of self-importance. And it is a point underscored when a storm comes up and undresses several of the band members, stripping them even of their red long underwear, while also, in two cases, inflating the underwear to suggest animated figures – like themselves.
The other key color motif consistently highlighted here is that of gold or brass, the color of the trim on all the band uniforms, of the music stands, and especially of the instruments that, as the brief narrative unfolds, increasingly become comic props or foils for the action. By the way it stands out against the muted pastels of nature, it quickly suggests another order of things, an intrusion that predicts the later appearance of the cyclone. Mickey’s gold epaulets flip-flop as he waves his arms, the gold and red caps of each band member repeatedly lift off their heads as they play their instruments, as if propelled by the force of the sounds they produce, and a yellow and black bee (another sort of “accident”), stirred up by the music, proceeds to harass each of the band members, while also anticipating the arrival of the cyclone that seems to have been evoked by their rendition of “The Storm.” The sense of vitality linked to this color carries over to the instruments, which not only produce the music but seem to produce the characters themselves, as they precipitate key actions. For example, the slide of a trombone accidentally snares the Duck and releases a golden shower – myriad flutes he has been using to bedevil Mickey by joining in with the band’s playing. Horace’s cymbals become a way of swatting the bee that is interfering with their playing – but also another sort of interference, as he accidentally claps Goofy’s head between them. And a bright tuba, picked up by the storm, lands in center frame to cover up and at last shut up the Duck, practically literalizing the notion that silence is golden. Finally, the flutes that the Duck keeps producing, and that Mickey repeatedly confiscates and breaks, seem to appear as if by magic – in fact, the Duck several times poses as if he were a magician as he materializes them – become the golden emblem of his persistence and of another sort of storm that can simply take things off on its own course, hijacking the music and the musicians, shifting their tunes from classical to popular styles (from gold to brass).
Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom. Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1997.”
(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. 35–36.)
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.
Virages sur mordançage sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté lavande, virage rouge-orangé (red-orange mordant toning on lavander 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
Red, tinted nitrate 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.
Virages sur mordançage sur films à support teinté Pathé, Film teinté lavande, virage rouge-orangé (red-orange mordant toning on lavander tinted Pathé stock), 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
Loin de rompre de manière éclatante avec le noir-et-blanc, le Technicolor trichrome, jusqu’aux années quarante, s’introduit avec prudence, se présente comme une sorte de complément au bichrome, un ajout occasionnel de taches de couleurs vives qui s’inscrivent sur un fond à douces dominantes de pastel.
Cette esthétique de la restriction chromatique est aussi à l’œuvre dans Vogues (1938) (Ray Rennahan et Natalie Kalmus y sont responsables du Technicolor, comme dans Becky Sharp): les taches de couleur vive, des rouges, des bleus, des verts, des jaunes, se découpent sur un fond de Technicolor bichrome.”
(Bourget, Jean-Loup (1995): Esthétiques du Technicolor. In: Jacques Aumont (ed.): La couleur au cinéma. Mailand: Mazzotta, pp. 110–119, on p. 112.) (in French)
“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.)