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.
Subscribe to the blog to receive all the news: http://filmcolors.org/ (check out sidebar on individual entries for the “follow” button).
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
Clearing Nummer: 09000
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.
La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ (FRA 1907, Lucien Nonguet and Ferdinand Zecca). Credit: EYE Film Museum. Photographs of the stencil colored nitrate print by Olivia Kristina Stutz, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.
Edge mark: Pathé (1911 onward), thin italic letters, on one edge, PATHE FRERES 14 RUE FAVART PARIS and on the other, EXHIBITION INTERDITE EN FRANCE EN SUISSE EN BELGIQUE ET EN ITALIE (partially visible). Cf.: Ill.PM.6: Brown, Harold (1990): Physical Characteristics of Early Films as Aids to Identification. Brussels: FIAF, on p. 9.
View Quote on Page: Edge Codes and Identification
Trade mark in scene: Pathé cockerel (until 1909). Cf.: Ill.TM.5: Brown 1990: on p. 30.
View Quote on Page: Edge Codes and Identification
The Virgin Queen (USA 1928, Roy William Neill). Credit: George Eastman Museum. Photographs of the Technicolor No. III dye-transfer nitrate print by Olivia Kristina Stutz, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.
The 1922 edition of the Eastman Kodak tinting and toning manual cautioned that toning and mordanting were not advised for films that were to be preserved for a long time, because a chemical alteration of the emulsion was considered inevitable and the results were impossible to forecast. Therefore it was suggested that high-quality reference prints in black and white be made before a valuable film was altered by toning or mordanting. And indeed, many of the original colored versions of films have already been lost.
By and large, film archives today are forced to preserve duplicates of early films in black and white, both for financial and practical reasons. Even without considering the huge cost of restoring a film in color, the fact remains that current technology has proved unable to avoid the progressive decay of color film stock, even under the best possible conditions of preservation.
When color restoration is attempted, film archives usually follow one of two possible strategies. The most common approach is to reproduce the original tints and tones on a modern color negative. The result can be relatively satisfying, but technicians agree that the reproduction obtained is not completely faithful to the original. The materials employed at the beginning of the century (the nitrate bases and dyes) have a unique appearance that cannot be reproduced. A second and more rudimentary strategy involves reproducing tinted scenes by printing on color stock from black-and-white negatives, using a color filter. This system has the obvious practical advantage of not requiring the printing and preservation of a master color negative. The result, however, is not accurate in its color reproduction, as the tints obtained are usually rather cold and too bright. Furthermore, this solution cannot be used at all when the original print has any kind of toning, stenciling, or mordanting.
A few film archives14 in the forefront of film restoration are trying to reproduce the actual techniques employed during the silent period, using machines and dyes that approximate as closely as possible those utilized in the early years of the century. The results obtained so far are tentative, and the work is extremely time-consuming. Given the current situation, with an overwhelming amount of nitrate film needing preservation and the relative lack of available time, money, and human resources, only a fraction of silent film will be restored according to these criteria. But there is little doubt that, following this direction of research, film restoration can acquire a scientific status comparable to the practices already established in other disciplines, such as painting and architectural restoration.
For those who work in the restoration of moving images, the importance of the original tinting and toning manuals is self-evident. Film archivists are often at a loss in knowing how a silent film looked at the time of its release. These books provide an extraordinary amount of primary evidence that is otherwise unavailable. All the volumes offer precise information about the chemical formulae used in order to prepare the dyes, the timing and methods of their use, the technical problems arising from inaccurate treatment of the film, and the possibilities of combining different coloring methods on the same positive print. Without these manuals, the ambitious enterprise of recreating the original techniques would be impossible.
Preservation and restoration are urgent tasks. Cellulose nitrate is a very unstable material whose estimated life barely reaches 100 years, according to the most recent scientific research. The phases in the process of decomposition are, sadly, well known in film archives. The cellulose base becomes brittle and shrinks so much that it cannot be projected anymore; the photographic emulsion fades; reels develop a layer of brown powder on the surface, then become so sticky that it becomes impossible even to rewind the film, and the image is lost. In the last stage of decay, nitrate film is reduced to a potentially explosive crystallized mass.
It is likely that within a few years, these tinting and toning manuals will be the only primary resource available for anyone trying to understand silent film’s aesthetics of color and how it was shaped by a technology that was extremely complex for such a young industry.
But the same effects of nitrate decomposition are beginning to be apparent on the individual frames of nitrate preserved within these manuals. Even under the best storage conditions, the nitrate frames in these books are bound to disappear eventually. Fortunately, the samples of films contained in the Eastman Kodak and Pathé manuals have barely reached an early stage of decomposition. Most of their original beauty is still intact. If it is not possible to guarantee their existence for an indefinite future, we can at least undertake an accurate study and reproduce some of their characteristics. This is a scientific challenge and an ethical issue that involves the expertise and commitment of librarians and film archivists alike.
14 For example, the Ceskoslovensky Filmovy Ustav in Prague and the Cineteca Comunale di Bologna. Some of the foremost specialists in film restoration have discussed similar issues at the first school for film restoration ever established on a permanent basis in Bologna, under the auspices of the Cineteca Comunale di Bologna. See also Ray Edmondson, “Towards a Philosophy of Film Archiving,” FIAF Bulletin 41-42 (1991), 6-7.”
(Cherchi Usai, Paolo (1996): The Color of Nitrate. Some Factual Observations on Tinting and Toning Manuals for Silent Films. In: Abel, Richard (ed.): Silent Film. New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, pp. 27-30.)
“The silent era witnessed innumerable attempts, applying widely varying levels of technical sophistication, to show films in colours. Such attempts fall into two major categories: ‘natural’ or photographic methods depending on the mechanical combination of two or three differently coloured but otherwise identical monochrome images on the celluloid or screen (in systems such as Kinemacolor, Dufaycolor and Kodacolor, to mention some betterknown examples), and applied colour methods, in which a black-and-white print was treated in some way with coloured dyes after photographic processing. The applied colour systems comprise hand-painting, stencilling, toning and tinting. The Workshop focused mainly on these techniques, partly because they are far better represented than early photographic colour in the archive of the Nederlands Filmmuseum, but perhaps more importantly – a virtue of this necessity – because they jointly present the full range of early colouring from black-and-white and the varieties of whole-image monochrome to complex local and multiple colours. Hand-painted and stencilled images, which are particularly resistant to casual or stereotypical interpretations of early coloured film, have too often been overlooked or marginalized in early film history. To disregard stencil colouring is, moreover, virtually to disregard an entire genre – the feerique – and a significant part of the output of such studios as Pathé and Gaumont.
The variety in colours found on early films is also, finally, a result of their instability. The Nederlands Filmmuseum has a certain reputation for its preservations of silent coloured films. But no preservation process is ‘perfect’ (whatever exactly that might mean to different people) and we wanted, among other things, to demonstrate to participants of the Workshop (and eventually, to readers of this book) that any process of preserving coloured film on acetate safety stock tends to depart in some measure from the applied colours on the original nitrate prints. We also wished to emphasize that there is more than one way to preserve coloured film and that each method has specific advantages and limitations as a way of reproducing applied colours. The choice of methods partly determines, for example the extent to what, an archivist or technician can choose between reproducing colours as they now appear on the nitrate or as they are thought to have appeared when the nitrate print was in circulation. This consideration itself reflects the fact that applied colours have, from the time of their initial application to the black-and-white positive print, been subject to unrelenting changes occasioned first by the wear and tear of projection in the silent era and then by ageing and decay in the vaults of film archives.”
(Hertogs, Daan; De Klerk, Nico (1996): Disorderly Order. Colours in Silent Film. The 1995 Amsterdam Workshop. Amsterdam: Stichding Nederlands Filmmuseum, on pp. 6-7.)