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 of the 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 the 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. 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
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Bank: PostFinance AG, Mingerstrasse 20, CH-3030 Bern, Switzerland
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Read more about the financial background of the project on filmcolors.org.
The author has exercised the greatest care in seeking all necessary permissions to publish the material on this website. Please contact the author immediately and directly should anything infringe a copyright nonetheless.
“Negli stessi anni, la Technicolor introdusse la terza versione del suo sistema, sempre in bicromia. Rispetto alle due precedenti, essa metteva finalmente nelle mani dei proiezionisti una copia tecnologicamente affine a quelle in bianco e nero29. Pertanto, essa risultava pienamente compatibile tanto con la stampa ottica del suono quanto con i normali sistemi di proiezione.
Tutte le major si rivolsero alla Technicolor per inserire sequenze a colori all’interno di film parlati. La Warner, che stipulò con la società di Kalmus un contratto biennale, introdusse una serie di all Technicolor talking features costruiti sulla clonazione cinematografica della musical revue di Broadway: Su il sipario! (On With the Show, Crosland, 1929), Cercatrici d’oro (Gold Diggers of Broadway, Del Ruth, 1929), Rivista delle nazioni (The Show of Shows, Adolfi, 1929)30.
Il boom dei talkie in bicromia nel biennio 1929-1930 fu caratterizzato da una continua euforia della visione. Assieme ad altri sistemi impiantati su più piccola scala negli stessi anni, il Technicolor concorse per qualche tempo a offrire sontuose portate al banchetto del film sonoro31. Le strategie che informano le sequenze a colori dei talkie, o almeno quanto ne sopravvive, rivelano la necessità di esibire ciò che fino a quel momento non si era potuto fare sullo schermo, se non nelle forme ritenute inadeguate e imperfette della colorazione applicata. A questo riguardo, i film offrivano anche una nuova declinazione delle istanze estetiche e avanguardistiche maturate in precedenza attorno all’orizzonte della sinestesia: la nuova alleanza tra colore e musica consentiva di annettere la produzione di effetti sinestetici al dominio della riproducibilità.
29 Il Technicolor 3 fu introdotto proprio allo scopo di normalizzare le copie da proiezione. Il sistema rimase sostanzialmente analogo al precedente fino all’ottenimento delle due matrici positive in rilievo. A questo punto, la procedura dell’incollamento, rivelatasi poco efficace, fu sostituita da un nuovo processo di colorazione ispirato ai principi della tipografia. Ciascuna delle due matrici veniva imbibita della tinta corrispondente e utilizzata per il trasferimento del colore per contatto, su un nuovo supporto privo di emulsione. Dopo aver ricevuto il colore da entrambe le matrici, la copia ottenuta poteva essere utilizzata in un normale proiettore, senza le difficoltà evidenziate dalle matrici incollate della precedente versione (cfr. Basten 1980, pp. 37–46 e Haines 1993, pp. 8–16).
30 Oltre cinquanta film furono girati interamente o parzialmente in Technicolor nel biennio 1929-30: per far fronte all’incremento delle richieste, la società impiantò un nuovo stabilimento in grado di raddoppiare la capacità produttiva (cfr. Crafton 1999, pp. 196–198 e 319; per la filmografia, cfr. Basten 1980, p. 170 e Haines 1993, pp. 15–16).
31 La Fox ad esempio optò per il Kodachrome, sistema sottrattivo in bicromia della Eastman Kodak messo a punto nel 1916, che fu per l’occasione ribattezzato Fox Nature Color.
Basten, Fred E. (1980), Glorious Technicolor. The Movies’ Magic Rainbow, Barnes, Cranbury (N.J.).
Crafton, Donald (1999), The Talkies. American Cinema’s Transition to Sound. 1926-1931, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Haines, Richard W. (1993), Technicolor Movies. The History of Dye Transfer Printing, McFarland & Company, Jefferson (N.C.).”
(Pierotti, Federico (2012): La seduzione dello spettro. Storia e cultura del colore nel cinema. Genova: Le Mani-Microart, on pp. 128–130.) (in Italian)
Gerwin van der Pol and Karel Dibbets, University of Amsterdam
The use of colour in the silent cinema does not always seem to make much sense to contemporary audiences. Film historians like to suggest that a colour can have two functions. In the first place, colour has a link with reality and is motivated by the story, for example blue for night. The other function is one of spectacle, which manifests itself as an illogical, magnificent display of colour, without any connection to “reality”; for example a fire scene with a green tinting instead of a red one. However, this tendency to reduce the use of colour to two dimensions only, can be questioned. It seems that the spectale function often serves as a dumping ground for all the cases where no reality function appears to be at work and for which we have no explanation. Of course, it is true that there are films in which colour is meant to serve a spectacle function, but these instances are not as numerous as is often touted.
To retrace the full complexity of the use of colour in silentfilms, it is necessary to develop a historical poetics of film colour. This paper wants to contribute to such a project by studying a famous case, L’Inhumaine, directed by Marcel L’Herbier in 1923. This film is in every aspect very explicit. Prominent painters, designers and composers co-operated in its production. Its style is a culmination of the possibilities of filming, particularly in camera movement, fading and montage, that all contribute to an impressive narrative. L’Inhumaine is also an artistic spectacle, demonstrating to the United States the capabilities of French cinema. Since this film serves as an example of the French avant-garde of the early twenties, a sketch of these principals and years will be made, using Fernand Léger as an example. Léger was one of the artists co-operating in the production of L’Inhumaine and was deeply involved with cinema in general. More importantly, his collected articles can be seen as a proposal for a poetics of colour. After some consideration of the film’s artistic backgrounds, the system governing the use of colour in L’Inhumaine will be scrutinized in more detail.
L’Inhumaine and the Avant-garde
L’Inhumaine commences with a title shot. The sequence in green tinting shows a painting by Léger. The painting has geometrical forms, some resembling machine parts, and together with the title passing by, there is a real sense of movement. In contrast with the dazzling, speedy montage sequences that will follow, this beginning is quite static. The green tinting is also rather weak compared to Léger’s other paintings which utilise bright, pure colours. Hand-colouring would certainly have been more effective here, however, this was not a common method at the time. If only this sequence had been produced in full colour, the tinted rest of the film would have looked rather uninteresting. Since green has no realistic function here, it might be said to possess a spectacle function.
The next scene shows several shots of a city in blue. These images are obviously intended to be realistic, blue for night. The camera pans left, a movement continuing in the next shot and ending with an extreme-long-shot of the exterior of a house, in a green tint. Since this shift from blue to green is unrealistic, should we conclude that it has a spectacle function? It is already apparent that alternating a spectacle function with a realistic function, within the same scene, is pointless. A better approach is to analyse colour from a completely different angle.
The French avant-garde around 1923 was a melting pot of different artistic trends, like Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Expressionism. The concept of cinéma pur was vital to the avant-garde even though they disagreed about its definition. Traditional French narrative films were watched with disdain, and avant-garde abstract films were presented as a reaction against them.
L’Inhumaine is essentially a narrative film. This makes L’Inhumaine, being a narrative avant-garde film, a half-hearted attempt. The schematic narrative is about a human scientist, Einar, who falls in love with an inhuman artist (singer), Claire. The artist dies (becomes literally inhuman) and thanks to (the machines of) the scientist she is brought to life again, and becomes human. The distance between the two worlds of the scientist and the singer is bridged by a staggering car ride (man in the machine). Fabulous motion is suggested by the film through the accumulation of camera movements, close-ups, and fades. The impression of speed does not originate within the frame, but by the interaction between separate shots. This also applies to the long final sequence, where the machines, designed and built by Fernand Léger, are set into motion. The story is a means to show great spectacle, all rendered by famous artists: houses designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens, several famous composers fighting, interiors by Alberto Cavalcanti, acrobats, dancers. What all these elements have in common is that they appear within the frame as part of the theatrical, earlier tradition of cinema.
L’Inhumaine, commonly considered as a summary, a collaboration of several important artists, must be understood more literally: in the medium of film all arts assemble, in the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The most essential account of the artists gathered in this film is their motivation: the idea to meet in a film. Of all the artists that contributed to this film, Léger is the only one whose work is present in the discontinuous scenes. His sets are used to suggest movement within the interaction between the images. The title sequence with Léger’s painting is a witness to the traditional movement within the image; with his laboratory sets in the final sequence representing the ideas of the avant-garde: real movement, by contrast. This can be seen as a metaphor for an important step in Fernand Léger’s career, from trying to suggest movement in a painting, to attaining that goal in the film medium. In the same year that Léger’s made the sets for L’Inhumaine, he also made his first film as a director: Le ballet mécanique.
We know that Léger put great effort into making the sets for L’Inhumaine. He not only designed them, but also built them. This, and his work as a director at the same time, leads one to surmise that he also had a role in advising on how to use his sets in the montage, however there is no primary evidence in support of this claim. Still, by looking at the large amount of articles wrote by Léger, a very clear idea arises of how the montage was meant to be. Reading Léger’s articles, collected under the title Fonctions de la peinture,1 has another advantage, since he also explains the functions of colour. His explanation is quite helpful for understanding the use of colour in L’Inhumaine.
The painter Fernand Léger is associated with the Cubists movement in 1909. Cubism is an analysis of seeing, an abstraction of it, and a search for movement. The Cubists used traditional subjects for their paintings. Léger, however, replaced traditional subjects with modern subjects: machinery. Machines are not only seen as giving colour to life in a figurative sense, even literally they are the most colourful objects in everyday reality. The mechanical element is a means of expressing strength. Instead of opposing comical and tragic characters, Léger opposed contradicting values. Flat areas against three-dimensional areas; flat, pure colours against round, grey colours, and vice versa. Modern beauty compliments practical necessity: the train and the car. Léger called life, with all its possibilities, a state of war, an accelerated rhythm. The artist has his place on the street, where life rushes past. The world is geometric, in a state of continuous contrast, movement being the connecting element. In the work of Léger, the human figure is often a doorkeeper, driver, steersman, clown, acrobat, in conjunction with machinery. As a part integrated with all the other elements, humans are associated with a certain “non-individualisation.” In this new, well organised, environment, the human being displays his true nature.
All these themes from Léger’s paintings are found in the film L’Inhumaine. Through editing, the machines are shown in motion and the human beings static, since they move within the frame. The sheer number of doorkeepers, drivers and acrobats is also highly impressive. For Léger the change to film became a very logical one. Although before the First World War hardly any avant-garde artist was interested in film-making, in the post-war years several writers, poets and painters began to work in the medium. La roue (1922), by Abel Gance, was Léger’s introduction to film. To Léger, film was no theatre, it took its right to exist from the projected image. In his eyes, Gance was the first to successfully use the object as actor in the film, the train as an object-actor, while similarly Charles Chaplin was the first who, conversely, transformed the actor into object. Léger liked the mobility of Gance’s images, balancing between mobile and static. And also opposing the human figure as a whole or as a part, to geometrical, abstract forms. An eye, or a finger received a new importance through its fragmentation and enlargement on the screen. Insulated, the fragment became independent and equal to the whole object. This independence of objects and the harmony that their contrasts produced reached a new intensity in his film Le ballet mécanique. It has been proven by William Moritz2 that a copy of this film, found in the Amsterdam Film Museum, was coloured by Léger. Finally, Léger’s working with film influenced his painting. The special character of film as a mobile, rhythmical art, made him no longer strive for mobility in his paintings, which became far more static.
Léger’s thoughts can be summarised as a striving for movement by contrast. Contrast between static and mobile, fragment and whole, man and machine, two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Léger’s ideas concerning the functions of colour fit within this line of thought with colours having to contrast as well. Two complementary colours could not be placed next to each other. The colours had to stand for themselves, to stand apart. He called such colours, pure colours.3 A yellow next to a blue was impossible to him, because they result in green. Thus, a colour had to be placed next to a non-complementary colour. Also, in a different way, those colours were pure since they were freed from their association4: blue was no longer associated with the sky, nor green with trees. Pure colours became independent and could be used objectively. Architects like Robert Mallet-Stevens had freed the walls of their ornaments. These large, blank areas tempted Léger to experiment with colours. According to him, the colours of walls changed the appearance and dimensions of rectangular buildings. A yellow area gives an impression of distance, and red makes it look nearer. The rectangle which seemed to be of fixed proportions, became suddenly elastic. In 1938, Léger spoke about the function of colour in Technicolor film,5 and noticed that according to the atmosphere of the film, different colours should be used. One had to create a poetics of colour.
The Logic of Colour in L’Inhumaine
The result of placing L’Inhumaine in the context of its production leads us to analyse the use of colour differently. In Léger’s film, we no longer should look for the meaning of colour within the frame, as a reality function supposes us to do, but we must scrutinise the colours in contrast to one another.6 As we have seen, the title shot, showing Léger’s painting with some movement, is tinted green, followed by several shots of a city in blue. The camera pans very quickly to the left, this movement continues into the next shot, coming to a standstill at the exterior of Claire’s house, in green. The continuation of camera movement, indicating a continuity of space and time, is interrupted by the change of colour. Since the makers have deliberately chosen to change the colour, where a continuation of colour would have been more logical, we can conclude that there must be a reason. The most obvious reason is to make the public pay attention to the change from something general, the city, to something more specific, a certain house. We can formulate this phenomenon as a first rule:
Rule 1: Change of colour as indication for change of place.
The intertitle that follows gives information that this is Claire’s house; it has the same colour as the shots before and after the title.
Rule 2: The intertitle adopts the colour of the surrounding shots.
The next shots, all part of a whole scene in Claire’s house, are in blue. This change of colour from green to blue is a change from exterior to interior (rule 1). All characters in this scene are introduced by close-ups and intertitles, and are shown in the same shade of blue. The Maharadja is the last one to be introduced by a close-up. The next shot after his close-up is in green, a long shot of the Maharadja as he enters the frame in profile from the left. Normally a change from a close-up to a long shot is easy to comprehend, but in this case the person in the close-up is not present in the long shot yet, and when he finally enters the shot he is in profile, while the close-up was en-face. The change of colour could indicate a change of place (rule 1). However, it also has a psychological effect: the character must be as strange as the deformity of the image.
Rule 3: A colour is an indication of a special character.
The next scene continues in the same green. The scene consists of further conversation between Claire’s guests, Claire’s entrance, a dinner at the chessboard set and Claire noticing Einar’s absence. Even the exterior of Einar’s house (a different location) is in the same colour. When Einar drives away in his car, it is shown in brown. According to the first rule the change of colour had to occur when the shift to Einar’s house was made. It now becomes clear how compelling this rule is, it immediately leads to a lack of comprehension: one is inclined to believe that this is Claire’s house since it looks the same as hers, and although we see some difference, the colour makes us think that it is a shot of Claire’s house. It is evident that for this deviation from the first rule to have occurred, there must be a good reason. The next shot shows Claire, who once again notices Einar’s absence. This shot is again tinted brown. Following this comes Einar’s staggering drive to Claire, in blue. This leaves us with only two shots in between in the same brown colour: a close-up of Einar and a close-up of Claire, indicating that these two will soon become related to one another.
Rule 4: Similarity of colour relates characters to one other.
Einar overhears Claire speaking about leaving the country, unless “quelque chose”, something happens. Einar looks up, and above his head appear his words as if he sees them. The vague contours of the next images and the consequential return of the text in the frame already make clear that we are seeing Einar’s thoughts of what this “something” could be. To make this even more explicit, the shots have a different colour than the ones of the rest of the scene: blue. The other guests have their thoughts about a possible future in blue too.
Rule 5: Change of colour indicates thoughts, dreams and fantasies.
When the acrobats begin their performance, the colour changes to red. The colour red has several functions. First of all: spectacle, the circus is an indication of a different atmosphere.
Rule 6: Colour to indicate a certain atmosphere (spectacle)
The following images show acrobats, a fire-breather, Einar threatening to commit suicide and Claire’s answer meaning: go ahead. The colour red is well chosen since it is true to nature in the case of the fire-breathing.
Rule 7: Colour according to convention of reality.
The colour also intensifies the feeling of danger: the threat that Einar is going to commit suicide. Red makes the public extra alert. When we look closely at the previous scene, we see extremely short flashes of alternating red and white images. This also occurs in later sequences, then it applies with the scene’s colour. This special use of pure colours serves two purposes. It supports the aesthetics of the images: among others the red and white areas of the chessboard-set. This fits snugly into Léger’s theory of the connection of an object as a whole and elements of an object amongst themselves. It also accords with his pure colours and his wish to free colour from association. A second function of these short flashes is the reinforcement of the movement.
Rule 8: Change of colour as reinforcement of the rhythm of montage.
The end of the first part of the film ends with the same images of the city, also in blue. This, including the rides in the car, which are consistently in blue, makes clear that the action takes place at night, according with a convention of reality.
These eight rules may be reduced to six:
“Change of colour as indication for change of place” (1) and “Change of colour indicates thoughts, dreams and fantasies” (2), can be summarised as:
a) Change of colour as indication of change of setting.
“A colour is an indication of a character” (3) and “similarity of colour relates characters to one another” (4), can be summarised as:
b) Similarity of colour relates characters to one another.
c) The intertitle adopts the colour of the surrounding shots, or complies with the shot it refers to.
d) Colour to indicate a certain atmosphere (spectacle).
e) Colour according to the convention of reality.
f) Change of colour as a reinforcement of the rhythm of the montage.
These six rules can further be reduced, but this will not make the analysis of this film any clearer. The point to be made is the effect that these rules have on this film and how these separate rules become part of a governing system. This whole idea of colours being part of certain rules and a certain system depends on the assumption that choices have been made when tinting the shots. The alternation of so many different colours at such a high cutting rate was a very time-consuming task and does not fit into the idea of a spectacle function, for which some colours would be added at random. If tinting had been effected at random, the colours would have changed more often within a long monochrome scene and less often within the high cutting rate scenes. Even when working at random one follows some rules. Since a choice about the colour has been made, and because it fits into the composition of the montage, the use of colour can be analysed as any other element of the film, like setting, light and costumes.7
This sum of possibilities makes clear that when a certain (change of) colour does not make sense within one rule (for example the reality-function), a viewer has to refer to a different rule in order to comprehend it. This presupposes a governing system, which enables the makers to decide which colours to use, and which rule to follow.
An indication for this governing rule can be found in the beginning and final scenes of the first part of the film. The same shots of a city at night, even without colour, indicate that every action in between is occurring within this city. The colour blue also specifies the time: night. So logically, this part of the film should have been coloured blue. But this would have been extremely boring, and tedious, since one of the functions of colour in general is to make things more attractive. Therefore, as soon as colour, in this case blue, is shown as an indication of the action taking place at night, that colour can be transformed according to other rules. This is what should be called the governing rule: as soon as colour has been used consistently to a certain requirement then another rule can take over. Since tinting has the peculiarity that each frame, usually, was to be tinted in one colour, one has to distribute the few colours very consciously. So after using blue for night and wanting to highlight a different setting in the next scene, one can use any colour except for blue – with red also out of question as it is needed in a later scene, where the effect of red will be stronger since the colour has not been used yet. In this way the governing rule decides which colour should be used, and where.
This governing rule leads to an always shifting hierarchy amongst the rules. Sometimes one rule becomes more important than another. When we look at the first part of the film, the colour blue generally stands for night, not only in the beginning and the end, but also when the ride in the car takes place. But between these scenes, there is enough time to use the colour for another purpose: to indicate dreams. To make things more clear: imagine that there was an extra scene within the ride in the car, for example the driver thinking about the future. The dream would then have to have had a different colour, anything but blue otherwise it would not have contrasted with the ride in the car. This would have had consequences for the other dreams which then could not have been blue either.
In the second part of the film the whole distribution of colours starts afresh, and indeed: according to another rule, the colour blue is necessary in some other places, with the dreams within this part consistently coloured in red. The only demands these rules have to satisfy are to use colour consistently, logically, and that colour be motivated in some way. In this example, when the dreams suddenly become red instead of blue, the change is motivated by the scene belonging to a completely different part of the film, and the dream belonging to Claire, the only one who did not dream in the first part. So we can conclude: Claire’s dreams are in red, those of the others are in blue. Adding this to the analysis of the film provides an insight into Claire’s character: she is the only one who is inhuman.
Although the use of colour throughout L’Inhumaine can be made comprehensible in this way, one thing remains to be said about the third part of the film, where Léger’s set appears in full motion, not only within the frame, but also in the high cutting rate of the montage. In this part the hierarchy of rules has been changed again, and the most important rule here is the one which refers to colour reinforcing the rhythm of the montage. The extremely high cutting rate, and thereby the changing of colours, reduces the possibilities of sticking to, for example, a realistic use of colour. Although, when one looks at it this way, one is amazed at how often there is still some realistic logic in the use of colours.
The reason why viewing a film like L’Inhumaine is difficult to modem audience stems from our modern viewing conditioning. Today we have a need for continuity; in the early twenties there was rather a need for contrast and discontinuity. As soon as the film is watched from this different point of view it certainly makes more sense. Every choice of colour, according to certain rules, has been made to create the strongest of all possible contrasts. Being impossible to use the same colour twice, next to each other, and with several rules working at the same time, a governing rule appears to be at work. This governing rule decides on the colours to be used, and the shift from one rule, when introduced and used consistently, to another.
The logic of colour is not something of the past. We have only to look at Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), that can be seen as a summary of its time, like L’Inhumaine in the early twenties. The colour in this film is not achieved through tinting, but via certain colours dominating the image. Those colours are not realistic, but help the four characters of the title to be contrasted with one another. L’Inhumaine was intended to be a culmination of all the possibilities of filming, and this also applies for its use of tinting. Although the film has, as indicated, a system governing the many different rules that the colours stand for, it can be argued that the system itself is at work in most narrative films in the history of tinting. In earlier films there may not be as many rules as in L’Inhumaine, and it may also be possible that some films make use of other rules, applying for a particular film only. However, in most cases, the system governing these rules is the same. To discover its logic, it is necessary to look for the hidden rules at work, not at the colours themselves.
*The authors acknowledge the editorial assistance of Daniel Saul Zeff, University of Amsterdam
1 F. Léger, Fonctions de la peinture (Paris: Editions Gonthier, 1965).
2 W. Moritz, “Strubbelingen rond een kopie,” Versus no. 2 (1988).
3 A. Verdet, Fernand Léger: le dynamisme pictural (Genève: Editions Pierre Cailler, 1935).
4 F. H. Man, Eight European Artists. (London: Heineman, 1954), quoted in R. T. Buck, e.a., Fernand Léger (New York: Albeville, 1982).
5 From an interview with Georges Charensol in Pour vous, 20 april 1938, quoted in C. Derouet, “Léger et le cinéma,” in G. Viatte, ed., Peinture Cinéma, Peinture (Paris: Hazan, 1989).
6 This analysis of colour is based on a video-registration of a television broadcast of the restorated copy of L’Inhumaine. It was restorated by Frantz Schmitt, Chef du Service des archives du film du Centre National de la Cinématographique. The restoration of the images was done in 1976, using as many available copies as possible, to make sure the restorated version would be as close to the original as possible. The restorated version is not completely tinted since some tinting has disappeared in time, or become unclear on the video screen.
7 Thus a new definition of spectacle function is asserted: that of atmosphere, similar to die use of darkness and shadows to convey a feeling that will echo a down beat mood within the body of the film. When we know that changes of colour are a result of choice, then no change of colour must also be a result of choice too. Therefore, no change attains its own meaning. In this way no change of colour can also be a reinforcement of the rhythm of montage, for example, it indicating the dullness of the character’s life.”
(Pol van der, Gerwin; Dibbets, Karel (1996): The Logic of Colour in L’Inhumaine. In: Monica Dall’Asta, Guglielmo Pescatore and Leonardo Quaresima (eds.): Il colore nel cinema muto. Bologna: Clueb, pp. 155–163.)
“4. Abstract Animated Film, the Rhythm of Form and Color
In Le rhythme coloré2 (1914) Léopold Survage, a Russian-born painter who came to Paris in 1908, has a completely new kind of cinema in mind: cinema based on the rhythm of pure form and color possible in a succession of images, like music is based on the rhythm of sounds. Forms and colors in cinema should function like notes and cords in music. The key-concepts in Survage’s conception of animated cinema as a new kind of art are “abstract visual form,” “rhythm” and “color.” Abstract visual form is “the complete abstraction or geometrization of a shape, an object, within our surroundings” and rhythm is “movement and the changes which visual form undergoes” (Abel, 91). By movement (transformation and combination with other forms), “visual form becomes capable of evoking a feeling,” and in particular “the inner state of the artist”;
it becomes both the expression and the effect of a manifestation of form-energy, within our environment. In this, form and rhythm are bound up together inseparably. […] Color is, at one and the same time, the cosmos, the material world, and the energy-field of our light-sensitive apparatus – the eye. And since what influences us psychologically is not sound or color, in isolation, but the alternating series of sounds and colors. […] Only through movement does the character of color acquire a power superior to that of the static harmony [of painting]. Through this, color in turn is bound up with rhythm. Once it ceases to be an accessory to objects, it becomes the content, or even the spirit, of abstract form” (Abel, 91–2).
In the 1920s, abstract animated films are made in Germany by Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling and Oskar Fischinger. Ruttmann characterizes his abstract Opus films as “painting in time” and “music in light” as a synthesis of painting and music. Although some of his abstract films are in color, he does not discuss in his writings on abstract film the specific qualities of color. In an interview with Jerzy Toeplitz (1933) he says about his abstract films:
Nowadays I will not return to these attempts any more, although I consider them as the alpha and omega of my artistic creating, because by these I became familiar with film work. In principle, film art can be reduced to a play of lights on the screen, to an appropriate paintinglike (painting technical) composition of shots. A second matter in addition – the study of rhythm, the succession of changes of black and white spots. […] This music of light was and remains an essential element of film (Goergen: 1989, 89).
Viking Eggeling has developed in connection with his abstract films the concept Eidodynamik (visual dynamics). This concept assumes that the projection of colored light contains an element of form. Eggeling is probably influenced by the ideas of Kandinsky. In On the Spiritual of Art (1911), Kandinsky assumes that
the value of many colors is reinforced by certain forms and weakened by others. At all events, sharp colors have a stronger sound in sharp forms (e.g., yellow in a triangle). The effect of deeper colors is emphasized by rounded forms (e.g., blue in a circle). Because it is clear on the one hand that the incompatibility of certain foms and certain colors should be regarded not as something “disharmonious,” but conversely, as offering new possibilities – i.e. also (a form of) harmony. […] Every form has inner content. Form is, therefore, the expression of inner content (Niehe: 1993, 15).
Oskar Fischinger emphasizes that his abstract films should not be regarded as colorful visualisations of music. If necessary, the screening of his films can do without music, although music makes the spectator more susceptible to abstract images. Unlike Ruttmann and Eggeling, Fischinger has not devoted theoretical writings to abstract film.
His adagium is, according to the only essay by his hand which is published, “my statements are in my work” (Niehe, 26).
1988 French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology 1907–1939 Volume 1: 1907–1929. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press).
1989: Walter Ruttman: Eine Dokumentation. (Berlin: Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek).
1993: Ik zie muziek, ik hoor kleuren: een verkennend onderzoek naar de werking van abstracte film met betrekking tot het fenomeen “synesthesie” (Utrecht University, master’s thesis).
2 According to Abel (1988, 23), this essay is the first one in France that “edges the cinema away from the Symbolist Aesthetic in which all the arts were seen as evolving toward music […] and toward a Modernist aesthetic of purely formal innovation and play.”
(Kattenbelt, Chiel (1996): Color and the Absence of Color in Early Film Theories. In: Monica Dall’Asta, Guglielmo Pescatore and Leonardo Quaresima (eds.): Il colore nel cinema muto. Bologna: Clueb, pp. 116–132, on pp. 119–120.)