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.
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.
For as long as celluloid can last, the filmed record of Captain Scott’s last tragic journey to the Pole is at last completed. It has taken years of work, and now posterity can look on it, just as we do, for as long a time as discovered science can ensure (Ponting, 11 August 1924: 8)
The 2010 digital restoration of The Great White Silence (Ponting, 1924) commemorates the centenary of the departure of the British Antarctic Expedition (1910-13). Herbert G. Ponting’s photographic record of the expedition has been integral to the narratives that have emerged around the loss of the polar party. The stills and cine-photography formed a strand of the expedition’s scientific research by offering a visual record of the region. A study of the provenance of the 2010 restoration discerns a supplementary layer of information (residual marks of production and decay) beneath the fascia of image and narrative. The interpretation of instructions that are scratched into the film and attributed to Ponting have informed the “return” of color in the 2010 release of Silence. The restoration refers to and incorporates sections of film from diverse archives and pasts elaborating a historiographic process that embeds ideas of authorship and authenticity in a narrative of irresoluble loss.
Herbert G. Ponting, camera artist to Captain R. F. Scott’s fated polar expedition (1910-1913), re-edited his film footage across an initial twenty-year period in response to the technological and cultural contexts of each release. The material and textual alterations that can be tracked across the different versions reveal a tension between the film as scientific document, historical record and the continuing development of a narrative that underlies its remobilisation as a commercial enterprise in the film market. […]
This discourse, of authenticity and authorship, in which the return of color is keyed to Ponting’s instructions scratched into sections of leader, is invoked in the digital simulation of tinting and toning as applied color processes. These technical alterations open a space in which to address the impact of the digital on the film object and text. It is in this sense that the reconstruction (Busche 2006: 3) of the color scheme operates as a facet of historiography, imagination and memory.
The camera negatives were initially processed by Ponting in the Antarctic and returned to the UK in two consignments to be screened in two parts under the title With Captain Scott R.N., to the South Pole (1911 and 1912). Ponting, who held the rights to the expedition stills photography, subsequently purchased those for the cinematograph films from the Gaumont Company in 1914 for £5,100. […] Work on editing Silence began after the 1921 publication of his written account of the expedition, The Great White South.
[…] During this period Ponting’s correspondence with Frank Debenham who, with his assistant Miss Winifred M. Drake, advised on the accuracy of the film’s illustrations, indicates the difficulties of revitalising the film in keeping with the full breadth of technological developments that would position his “ancient results equal to modern panchromatic photography” (Ponting, 22 October 1932; 15 August 1933).1 Adaptations to the technique required to produce 90° South included the transfer of material to film stock with different perforations and the alteration from the speed of filming at 16 fps to that of the 24 fps of synchronised sound projection. The residual effects of these technical manipulations are visualised in the instabilities of the image in relation to the frame (Ponting, 12 January 1933). Ponting’s revision incorporates additional material including the commissioning of new maps, a 25-foot painting of the landscape, a diorama and an amended animated line and map sequence, each of which was filmed and inter-cut with still photographs to further illustrate the journey of Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans to the South Pole (Ponting, 15 August 1933). […]
In reformulating the film footage to the shifting interests of its anticipated reception the visual appeal of the image and the drama of the story are emphasised. The tension between the film as commodity and expedition record lies in the accumulation of information and its erasure and of the materials and detritus that invoke a direct relationship between the photographic imprint and the cinematic illusion projected of light. While the re-editing of the film footage is responsive to different innovations, indicating its potential to be deciphered as a tract of film history, such alterations in technique also affect the film as a text.
Ponting’s references to the use of color for his still photography primarily concern the selection of hues that enhance the subject: “Ice Blink” is printed “in the green [carbon] tissue” and another “in a very fine blue tissue, which seems to suit the subject exactly” (Ponting, 15 June 1926). In Silence, however, the fourteen different combinations of tinting, toning and hand coloring that are detailed by instructions scratched into sections of film indicate a color design that is also significant to its themes and narrative.
Cherchi Usai tracks the significance of certain colors in the silent period to suggest thematic associations, such as a shift to amber which could signal “when a table lamp was turned on in a room” (1991: 29–38). In Silence the thematic use of color, perhaps unintentionally, maps territory, both by delineating between areas associated with the ship and those inhabited by the Antarctic wildlife. In this context a shift from amber in the record of the expedition member’s daily work to the sepia tone and green tint of zoological studies indicates that of a different realm, whilst combinations of a blue tone and pink tint are associated with the effects of light refracted by the ice. Ponting’s use of color contributes to narrative progression through a historiography practice of editing and commissioning new material.
The initially black-and-white film footage and selected photographs of the Terra Nova seen through an ice cave can be linked to his written account of the expedition, which is particularly attentive to color:
During this first and subsequent visits, I found the coloring of the grotto changed with the position of the sun; thus sometimes green would predominate, then blue, and then again it was a delicate lilac. (Ponting  2000: 68)
[…] Such descriptions suggest what was not immediately recorded by the cinematography. The movement of the ice floe is evoked in Silence through inter-cut still and moving images of the grotto taken a year apart, each shot colored in jewel-like tones to be found in tinting and toning catalogues. The addition of color to these images offers the cinematographer’s perspective as a layer of interpretation over the “subtle shadows of the snow and […] wonderful transparent texture” that Scott notes of his black-and-white photography (Scott  2000: xv).
The significance of color to the narrative is established in the opening section of the film. The initial black-and-white images of Captain Scott and Ponting position them as auteurs of both the expedition and the diegesis before the color scheme is instigated as the Terra Nova sets sail. The changes in color that are contiguous with those of the film’s themes are reduced in the section detailing the final journey to the Pole. This also gives an inflection of coherence across a section that is assembled from a significant number of technical revisions including animation, still-photographs and drawings, to avoid distraction from the tale. A shift in color to a blue tint denotes their imminent demise in the “fateful tent” which persists across the memorial portrait photographs of the five men. The still images screened are the work of duplication across a strip of 35 mm film. This contrasts with the transcendent blue tone and amber tint that transfigures the remaining images: drawings of an angel reaching down to Captain Scott and a cairn of rocks surmounted by a cross that marks the graves of the expedition members. Notably the remaining inter-titles of Silence are dominated by a quote from Scott’s diary and marked by the imaged authorisation of his handwritten signature which forecloses the film.
The 2010 restoration of Silence, which sees the return of the chromatic schema, is drawn into a discourse of authenticity and authorship through reference to the color instructions scratched into sections of leader that accompany the film negatives. For Silence, as with many examples from the 1920s, the instructions do not consistently distinguish between tinting, toning and hand painting as possible methods of coloring the film. Luciano Berriatúa notes “the variety of these tints and their intensity from year to year. And also from laboratory to laboratory”, indicating potential points of divergence from the color instructions (Berriatúa 1998: 135–139).3 Both Paul Read and Nicola Mazzanti indicate material inconsistencies that occur between prints of what is ostensibly the same film due to differences in the concentration of dye solution and the duration of the submergence of each strip of film (Mazzanti 2009: 67–93; Read 2009: 9–46; BJP 1924: 611–614). For example, the recurrence of a color instruction could incur a variation in color intensity. It is in this sense that the salience of color in the study of Silence encounters numerous factors affecting the variations in hue, transparency and intensity that result from different dyes and processing methods.
[…] In the 1990s Angelo Lucatello’s comparative work, which contributed to the later digital restoration, identified several differences between the 1923 nitrate soft print of Silence and the EYE Film Institute’s holdings which include additional material such as a still-photograph of Dr Atkinson’s frost bitten hand. Such combinations of elements also extend to the duplication of fragments of leader and instructions in the fine grain contact print assembled in the 1990s by the NFTVA. The diversity of materials that informed the reconstruction (see workflow chart in Figure 21.3 […]) indicates the potential for the film image and text to alter.
[…] For Mazzanti the collation of different versions and generations of prints toward what Busche calls a reconstruction (2006: 3) can elicit shifts in the film text by decomposition or design to constitute a “variant” rather than new “version” of a film (Mazzanti 2009: 76–77). While Ponting’s re-editing constructs new versions, the trajectory of the digital reconstruction forms a variant within the cultural context of its production. The “return of color” through digital grading encounters inconsistencies in the filmic elements sourced. The inflection of color across the configuration of assembled materials (see the workflow chart) noted in the exhibition of the 2010 print contributes to the discourse of authorship and authenticity. […]
In evaluating the concepts of “authorship” and “variants”, Ponting’s correspondence with Debenham is significant in its recognition of the involvement of four assistants. The assistants include Mr Gent, who had been the Gaumont Company’s representative in Australasia and acted as their signatory on the agreement with the expedition. Gent was in Ponting’s employment from 1918 until at least 1930 on a wage of £400 per annum. Ponting states that in addition to his work on the cinematographic films Gent was responsible for the care “of the negatives and everything appertaining to them” (Ponting, 29 July 1929; 8 January 1930). […]
In a sense, the process of reconstruction resonates with Ponting’s own practice. The assembled materials therefore map the path of the digital reconstruction to formulate an image of the film elements and a digital simulation of the applied color processes of tinting and toning. Each transfer to a new medium signals a shift in the image and text. The assembled “film” accumulates the characteristics of each medium and process; alterations remain visible through the details that they add or erode from the image. […]
The subsequent image sustains a trace of previous generations of film material. The residual imprints of processing and the simulacra of marks specific to other film elements reveal fragments and images drawn from diverse pasts into a new narrative form. […]
Although an assumption of objectivity underlies the subjective selections made, there are layers of interpretation from Ponting and his assistants, through to those of the reconstruction. The NFTVA’s work documents a trajectory through previous generations of materials now detailed and in storage. A study of the restoration trajectory tracks alterations in design and the contingent marks that register the susceptibility of celluloid and photosensitive emulsion to the impact of the environment during filming and storage. Traces of the technologies of production and decay constitute data which can be read as a supplementary record of the expedition and form a strand of the historiography of its materials and texts. Ponting’s photographic work is integral to the narratives that have emerged around the expedition. The restoration underscores and distances photography and detail as paradigmatic of authenticity. It also offers a new point of access to Silence as film text and to a narrative that plays on imagination, memory and the historicity of the subject. For its historical, narrative and pictorial significance the chromatic scale of the film, like the deictic salience of marks and scratches, offers the illusion of the past in the present that allows the spectator to invest in the digitally colored image as an image of authenticity.
1. Debenham was a geographer on the British Antarctic Expedition (1910-13). He was later Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute.
3. The NFTVA consulted a Pathé catalogue of tints and tones and additional individual frames that form part of the Kodak collection at the National Media Museum Bradford. These sources were used as a point of reference for the 2009-2010 restoration of Silence. Additional reference material included prints of Silence from the EYE Film Institute and La Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and a research screening of tinted and toned prints of The Lodger (Hitchcock, 1926) and South (Frank Hurley, 1919) for NFTVA restoration project members and technicians from Deluxe Digital, London.
Berriatúa, L. (1998) “Regarding a Catalogue of the Tints Used on the Silent Screen”, All the Colors of the World: Colors in Early Mass Media 1900-1930, Reggio Emilia: Edizioni Diabasis: 135–139.
British Journal of Photography [BJP] (1924) “A Review of Dye Toning Processes”, British Journal of Photography [BJP], 71, 3360: 611–614.
Busche, A. (2006) “Just Another Ideology? Ethical and Methodological Principles in Film Restoration”, The Moving Image, 1: 1–28.
Cherchi Usai, P. (1991) “The Color of Nitrate”, Image, 34, 1-2: 29–38.
Lucatello, A. (2010) “How Do They Do It? The Great White Silence“, The Discovery Channel, 27 October. Online. Available at http//ww.yourdiscovery.com/ video/how-they-do-it-how-they-do-it-the-great-white-silence/
Mazzanti, N. (2009) “Colors, Audiences and (Dis)continuity in the ‘Cinema of the Second Period'”, Film History, 21: 67–93.
Ponting, H. G. ( 2000) The Great White South, New York: Cooper Square.
Ponting, H. G. (17 December 1913) Letter to Apsley Cherry Garrard, British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, MS559/102/2, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.
– (11 August 1924) “The Great White Silence Programme Notes”, D. 1500/1/1, Bournemouth Electric Theatre, Dorset History Centre: 3–10.
– (22 October 1932) Letter to Padre Hayes, MS964/7/22, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.
Ponting, H. G. British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, Volume 7, MS280/28/7, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.
– (15 June 1926) Letter to Frank Debenham.
– (29 July 1929) Letter to Frank Debenham.
– (8 January 1930) Letter to Frank Debenham.
– (12 January 1933) Letter to Frank Debenham.
– (15 August 1933) Letter to Frank Debenham.
Read, P. (2009) “‘Unnatural Colors’: An Introduction to Coloring Techniques in Silent Era Movies”, Film History, 21, 1: 9–46.
Scott, R. F. ( 2000) “Kathleen Scott’s Foreword”, in H. G. Ponting, The Great White South, New York: Cooper Square: xv.”
(Watkins, Liz (2013): Herbert G. Ponting’s Materials and Texts. In: Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (eds.): Color and the Moving Image. History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive. New York, London: Routledge, pp. 230–242, on pp. 230–240.)