Please access detailed information on over 250 individual film color processes via the classification system on this page, display the Timeline of Historical Film Colors in chronological order, search via the tag cloud at the end of this page or directly on the search page, or see the contributing archives’ collections on the header slides.
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 was 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. Since 2016 the team of the research project ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors has been collecting and adding written sources. All the members of the two research projects on film colors, both led by Barbara Flueckiger, have been capturing photographs of historical film prints since 2017.
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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Contributions to the Timeline of Historical Film Colors
“It would not have been possible to collect all the data and the corresponding images without the support from many individuals and institutions.Thank you so much for your contribution, I am very grateful.”
Experts, scholars, institutions | Sponsors, supporters, patrons of the crowdfunding campaign, April 23 to July 21, 2012
Experts, scholars, institutions
Prof. Dr. David Rodowick, Chair, Harvard University, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies
Prof. Dr. Margrit Tröhler, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Jörg Schweinitz, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Christine N. Brinckmann, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
PD Dr. Franziska Heller, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Dr. Claudy Op den Kamp, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Anton Rey, Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Zurich University of the Arts
Dr. Haden Guest, Director, Harvard Film Archive
Liz Coffey, Film Conservator, Harvard Film Archive
Mark Johnson, Loan Officer, Harvard Film Archive
Brittany Gravely, Publicist, Harvard Film Archive
Clayton Scoble, Manager of the Digital Imaging Lab & Photography Studio, Harvard University
Stephen Jennings, Photographer, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library
Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, Senior Curator, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Jared Case, Head of Cataloging and Access, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Nancy Kauffman, Archivist – Stills, Posters and Paper Collections, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Deborah Stoiber, Collection Manager, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Barbara Puorro Galasso, Photographer, George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film
Daniela Currò, Preservation Officer, George Eastman House, Motion Picture Department
James Layton, Manager, Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art
Mike Pogorzelski, Archive Director, Academy Film Archive
Josef Lindner, Preservation Officer, Academy Film Archive
Cassie Blake, Public Access Coordinator, Academy Film Archive
Melissa Levesque, Nitrate Curator, Academy Film Archive
Prof. Dr. Giovanna Fossati, Head Curator, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam, and Professor at the University of Amsterdam
Annike Kross, Film Restorer, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, Curator Silent Film, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Catherine Cormon, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Anke Wilkening, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, Wiesbaden, Germany
Marianna De Sanctis, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna
Paola Ferrari, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna
Gert and Ingrid Koshofer, Gert Koshofer Collection, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany
Memoriav, Verein zur Erhaltung des audiovisuellen Kulturgutes der Schweiz
BSc Gaudenz Halter, Software Development Color Film Analyses, video annotation und crowdsourcing platform VIAN, in collaboration with Visualization and MultiMedia Lab of Prof. Dr. Renato Pajarola, University of Zurich, (Enrique G. Paredes, PhD; Rafael Ballester-Ripoll, PhD) since 07.2017
BSc Noyan Evirgen, Software Development, in collaboration with Visualization and MultiMedia Lab von Prof. Dr. Renato Pajarola, Universität Zürich (Enrique G. Paredes, PhD; Rafael Ballester-Ripoll, PhD), 03.2017–01.2018
Assistants Film Analyses:
BA Manuel Joller, BA Ursina Früh, BA/MA Valentina Romero
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
Account IBAN CH2509000000604877146
Account holder: Barbara Flueckiger, CH-8005 Zurich, Switzerland
SWIFT Code / BIC: P O F I C H B E X X X
Bank: PostFinance AG, Mingerstrasse 20, CH-3030 Bern, Switzerland
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Regarding a Catalogue of the Tints Used on the Silent Screen
In the period of silent films, the immense majority of these were distributed as tinted copies. This is very well known today but until a few years ago all silent films were seen in black and white.
For various decades, the archives reproduced the nitrate copies conserved in colour in black and white. Many of these nitrate copies no longer exist. At least until the Sixties, they were continuing in, some archives to systematically destroy them after they had “preserved” them. It may be thought that they were reproduced in black and white because colour was much more expensive or even less stable. But how can it be justified that no record was kept of the original colours? Something that would have been so simple to note down on paper.
The explanation is simple. For many years it was fashionable to think that black and white was more “artistic” than colour. This absurd rejection of colour was unfortunate for the silent screen. While nitrate copies in colour were being kept on the archives shelves, cinema enthusiasts and historians knew nothing of their existence and were judging the films from black and white copies in which the night scenes, usually shot during the day and later tinted in blue, took place in full sunlight.
When I published my conviction in 1977 that Nosferatu had to have been tinted because it did not make sense that the vampire always acted during the day and Der Müde Tod and Scherben went from night to day from one shot to another because they did not have the tints, my ideas were not considered very orthodox. For some critics, tinting Nosferatu was a heresy. Everyone knew that “artistic” photography was in black and white. Colour was vulgar, black and white “intellectual”. This may seem very surprising to young people but it was as real as the present overlooking and even rejection of the original scores for accompaniment. It seems deplorable to me that in the majority of the archives they do not make a search for, conserve and promote these scores, many of which are being lost through pure negligence.
The problem is that we are now trying to restore the colour to some films that have been conserved in black and white with scarcely any indications of the original colours. Sometimes we feel the temptation to dream that in the future it will be possible to restore the original tints using the differences in the greys visible in the countertypes in black and white taken in the past from tinted nitrate copies which have disappeared today. We have to learn how tinting was performed at the time, to recover information on the original colours and the old laboratory techniques.
Fortunately this is a task in which the archives are taking an increasing interest.
Catalogues of pre-tinted positives
Various manuals and catalogues of pre-tinted positive materials were published in the Twenties, something which became general from 1921 onwards. There are Kodak, Agfa, Gevaert, Pathé catalogues…Various copies of these catalogues have been conserved throughout the world and are considered by archives and collectors to be museum pieces although the present practical use is obvious. The first thing that should be done is to reproduce them so that all archives and laboratories could have copies. When we suggest the restoration of a silent film, we often find only single copies in tinted nitrate positives whose colour has faded or been changed by exposure to light and damp or mechanical wear and tear. We need these catalogues to restore the original tones as they usually provide samples that are generally well preserved.
Owning a copy of these catalogues could be of great help. It is essential to reproduce them. But although this is very important, it is only the first step. We cannot stop there and this is the object of this article.
Many more tinted positives than those conserved in these few positives exist on the market only published by such important companies as Kodak or Agfa and these generally have a date that is too late such as that of Pathé (1926) and those of Agfa (1926-1927-1928). No catalogues exist with earlier dates from these manufacturers, nor any known from other well-known manufacturers of positives which were habitually used, not even Kodak of which a good number of American catalogues (between 1916 and 1927) have been conserved, but we do not know of any samples of tints used in stocks manufactured in Europe. And regarding some manufacturers of positives such as Dupont and Lignose, we do not even have any information on when they put tinted positives on the market although we do have nitrate copies reproduced in positives from these companies which show that they even tinted some of their stocks in mass.
I have been working for the past five years for the Fimoteca Española on the preparation of a general catalogue which is much larger than the ones provided in manuals published by manufacturers of emulsions.
It is our intention to attempt to obtain nitrate samples with which we can establish a catalogue of factory tinted positives from all the companies existing over the years in which they came on to the market. We have obtained and classified hundreds of samples from the Filmoteca Española collection which logically do not cover all the positives that appeared on the market. It is necessary to complete the work with collections from other European archives.
We have acquired many publications and manuals with samples, above all from Agfa which, in its later editions, include tints of colours for sound films that are much softer in order not to affect the soundtrack. The arrival of sound put an end to tinted positives and tints in general because the copies had to be reproduced uninterruptedly, as the sound was displaced, and without noisy joining and it was not practical to have the negatives arranged according to tints. In the case of Agfa or Pathé, the catalogues are very complete but were not published until 1926. Not many catalogues exist of companies that we know manufactured coloured materials such as Ferrania, Nobel or Eagle whose list of tinted positives was published in the press of the period. Advertisements by Nobel-Film (Toxo) for positives in colours: yellow, lemon, amber, orange, green, violet and cobalt blue appeared in the Spanish cinema press.
Film Ferrania sold eight colours: black, amber, green, blue, pink, violet, yellow and orange. And in 1926 the Eagle Film Company sold positives in black, pink, red, orange, violet, blue, green, yellow amber and light amber in Spain. This announcement for a novelty had already appeared in the magazine “Arte y Cinematografia” in 1920: “Tedious tinting has already passed into history by using our colour film. Gevaert. The coloured positive raw stock. Patented in the U.S., 14 different colours”.
But there are no manuals with samples of these colours in existence. These catalogues should be supplied with comparison of copies of the period. If we can find a sufficient number of copies made in 1926 on Eagle tinted positives, for example, we shall know what those nine colours that appear in the advertisement were like. To do this we need to work on the nitrate bases in the greatest number of archives possible. This is v slow and costly work which is complicated by the co-existence of materials tinted in the factory together with imbibitions done in the laboratory. We have to collect all the advertising possible and all the information that can give us clues to the possible changes in colour over the years. Because the main problem lies in these changes. Unlike artisan imbibitions where the tone is changed from day to day in the same laboratories, the tints on the manufacturers’ support tend to be fairly uniform in the same stock. But the tints are changed by the manufacturers from year to year. We can see, both in the catalogues of the period and in the copies that have been conserved, that an orange of Kodak in 1924 was not very like a Kodak orange of 1926. The greens and blues of Agfa or Gevaert changed radically from year to year.
We cannot commit the error of using a catalogue of Agfa colours from 1926 to establish what the Agfa colours were in a 1923 copy. And for the years for which we have no references from the manufacturer (from Agfa, for example, we only know of catalogues published from 1926 onwards and as there are no references to the year of manufacture in the marginal companies, we cannot be certain of the batch to which a particular nitrate positive belongs) we have to proceed with great caution in order not to confuse a laboratory tint with a factory tint.
In an Agfa manual published around 1928 we can read:
Preparation and colouring of the support.One of the sides of the support is washed with an adhesive solution, it is evaporated with warm air and the layer of sensitive emulsion is deposited on this side.
The celluloid is then coloured. At the present time (1927-1929) a good part of the total production of positive film is already prepared in the factory by lightly colouring the celluloid.
Already beforehand, in order to obtain special effects, for example, fires or marine landscapes, the gelatine of the film had already been tinted and made ready by a means of aqueous solutions of different classes of colourings.
Later on, it can also be seen that even in those matters in which no particular colour dominated such as portraits or street scenes, a light touch of violet or yellow “to temper the white” was also very pleasant.
Until shortly before the war (1914) this effect was only achieved by colouring the copies reproduced, whether on the side with the emulsion with aqueous solutions of colorants or on the celluloid side with alcohol solutions.
We can tell whether the celluloid is tinted or the film is soaked in water or alcohol by rubbing the photograms with cotton wool impregnated with alcohol or dipped in water. But the majority of the manufacturers did not mass tint and merely passed the support over a roller impregnated with alcohol coloured with aniline.
Whatever the case, this procedure only affects the support side while imbibition also affects the emulsion.
The catalogues that were published in the Twenties are only the top of the iceberg. And to reconstruct the entire iceberg is a huge puzzle that is taking us years of work. We have to acquire samples of nitrates from various archives and renew our efforts making a particular study in each country.
Then there is the problem of producing the catalogue. How can we imitate the old colours exactly? Our idea is to produce a Cd-Rom but this creates the additional problem of calibrating the monitors. The colours can be established for working with a computer using any drawing programme which establishes the various combinations possible in scales of 256 degrees from three television colours bars for adjusting the sets. In this way, we could define Agfa 1926 red as R255-G23-B78 or a Kodak 1924 orange as R255-G162-B60, for example. A couple of pages of paper with a simple list of numbers such as these could contain a vast catalogue of fully defined, operating colours.
Establishing these subtle variations in colour produced in each new batch of the same material could be of great use and, in the case of materials where no signs which can be dated exist, such as in Agfa or Gevaert, or which have codes that have still not been deciphered such as Nobel, they could even be used for dating the positives.
Another more complex programme appears with the enormous field of imbibitions. We have to compile the formulae and collect the manuals of the period in order to associate the different solutions available in each period with the samples that we are extracting from numerous silent films. A catalogue of these samples at least enables us to appreciate the changes in the tints in fashion, the variety of these tints and their intensity from country to country and from year to year. And also from laboratory to laboratory. In this case the variety of tones and colours is infinitely multiplied. Each laboratory could make changes and modifications to the solutions and apply different techniques. They could combine various tints or use imbibitions, by submerging positives which had been previously tinted in the factory in a bath of water with a different tint or by combining toning liquids with tints. We have even found samples that show a series of successive tinting in order to achieve darker colours through transparency. A first bath in red with alcohol followed by a second bath of blue with water achieved an efficient night effect for a Spanish film in 1919.
A detailed study of the tints in Spain showed us the customs of the laboratories and the criteria that they usually followed in their tinting. This is very important for another kind of problem which tends to arise in restoration from a nitrate negative. The nitrate negatives in the Twenties were always in black and white but tended to have indications of the colours with which the positives could be tinted. These indications could appear at the beginning of the roll or in a small tail between the scenes. Normally only the colour was given such as “blue”, “amber”, “green”…
At times, these indications can be missing but a montage of the negatives, generally filed by grouping all the shots of the same colour in order to facilitate the process of reproducing the positives, gives us sufficient idea to be able to deduce the original colours “a grosso modo”. But once we know that the shots have to be tinted in blue or green, how do we choose the particular colour if no positives have been conserved from the period? In the first place, as we normally know the year that the film was produced, we can specify the tints on the market that year and we can deduce the companies that were distributing their products in the locality where the film was produced. If it is an American film from the mid-Twenties we can reproduce a copy with Kodak tints without many feelings of guilt or in Agfa if the film is German.
But how do we decide on the tints for a Spanish film? We have to use another type of research to resolve this problem. We have to study the examples of silent nitrate films that have been conserved and collect information on the producer and the laboratories where the film was developed and the positives printed.
We discover that the various Spanish laboratories had very different practices and habits. It would be marvellous if the old laboratories continued to exist and if they conserved all their documentation and billing for the period of the silent film and even lists of the positive materials used for each film or the stock of material acquired each year.
We do not possess this information but a study of the films conserved leads to similar results. The different laboratories tended to advertise in the press by publishing lists of the most important films that they had processed that year. We search for the nitrate copies existing of these films and compare them in an attempt to reach some conclusions on the work of each laboratory.
We see that the Madrid Film laboratories worked mainly with Kodak material for years although they combined tinted Kodak materials with Agfa and Gevaert in the same film in 1927. We have films processed in the Cyma laboratories that were reproduced exclusively using Agfa materials. The CAF laboratories combined their artisan imbibitions with tinted positives from the Ferrania factory, Agfa, Gevaert and Kodak in 1925. The Ardavin laboratories are particularly interesting: they used the remains of all stock they had in a single film, La Malcasada, in 1926. There are shots in black and white reproduced on Eastman, Gevaert and Pathé positives and Agfa tinted positives (6 colours: yellow, light amber, amber, pink, blue, green), Kodak (7 colours in American materials from 1925 and 1926 and English materials from 1926: dark blue, light blue, green, yellow, orange, amber and brown), Gevaert (5 colours: green, orange, amber, light amber and violet) and Eagle (4 colours: green, pink, orange and amber). In other films we discovered that these laboratories did not respect the colour indications on the negative and they frequently used baths or tinted positives that they happened to have at the time without any dramatic criterion. This procedure was even followed with their own productions. In the negative of El Bandido de la Sierra, by Fernandez Ardavin, the colour indications written on the negative are only approximate. In a nocturnal scene they write “blue or violet”. And the colour indications for La Bejarana, by the same director, were not respected in the positives that have been conserved.
We were also able to discover that new copies were produced with changes in colour from year to year and perhaps even from month to month. But at times these changes can only be seen: two copies conserved of El Dos de Mayo are reproduced in different colours. The same shot appears in a bluish green in one copy and in a light blue in another. But if we look closely, we can see that one is reproduced on Kodak material and the other on Agfa and, by consulting the catalogues of tinted positives from these companies in the same year, we discovered that the bluish green and the light blue were the only blue available from the two companies. In both cases, the laboratory had faithfully followed the indications written on the negative and had printed the shot in the positive blue. The change was in the brand used for the positive. These same differences could occur when tinting in a laboratory by imbibition when using colorants and formulae from different manufacturers.
This problem had a curious consequence in Nosferatu by Murnau. There is a long sequence of parallel actions in the only tinted nitrate copy that still exists and is conserved in Paris. In a room in the castle, the vampire turns toward Ellen who reaches out her arms to him although she is many kilometres away from there, in her bedroom at home. The action happens at night. The colour changes alternatively from blue to bluish green in the shots with the vampire to the shots with Ellen. We can see that these shots were reproduced on different types of Agfa positives and the joining in the positive show us that, the shots of Ellen and those of the vampire were stored separately in the negatives.
Why? In order to tint some blue and others in a light greeny-blue? There is no sense in this because the difference between the blue and the greenish blue is scarcely visible and is merely the result of a simple change in the blue bath. The hypothesis exists that negatives of these shots had a very different density and had to be reproduced with different lights. But this does not seem very probable either, in view of the very similar range of greys and seeing the location of the joins in the rest of the film.
The most probable and at the time most worrying hypothesis, because of unknown quantities involved, appears to be that these scenes were separated in the negative because they had to be tinted with different colours. One of the sets is bathed in moonlight and would be tinted in blue and the other in orange because of being lit with artificial light.
This would show that the Paris copy did not respect the original colour indications on the negative or that we have a cheaply produced copy and that other copies of Nosferatu existed with more complex tints, perhaps double tinting or toning. According to the last hypothesis, one of the scenes would perhaps have only been tinted in blue while the other could combine a blue tint with a toning of another colour which would have forced it to be stored apart and would explain why when reproducing one copy with a single tint both shots were reproducing in blue. In any case, a finding such as this produces many questions and creates many headaches. This example shows that establishing a criterion on the correct tints becomes considerably more complicated with costly productions whose copies were reproduced with combined tints, tints and tonings in two colours. More economical copies of these same films were also frequently reproduced without toning. And this is to say nothing of reproductions of copies in other countries, for export, using double negatives. Do the tinted nitrate copies or fragments of copies that we possess in Spain from films such as Nibelungen, Mabuse (which it was supposed had always had positives in black and white) or Orphans of the Storm by Griffith show the original tints? From which negative have they been reproduced and where? Establishing the tints of silent films is a task as complex as it is exciting. The existence of catalogues and manuals with chemical formulae for the tints can be a very useful instrument for getting to know this complicated period of the cinema more precisely.”
(Berriatúa, Luciano (1998): Regarding a Catalogue of the Tints Used on the Silent Screen. In: Luciano Berriatúa et al.: Tutti i colori del mondo. Il colore nei mass media tra 1900 e 1930. = All the colours of the world. Reggio Emilia: Edizioni Diabasis, pp. 135-139.)