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.
“Accounts of Hollywood color usually leave off with the ascension of 3‑strip Technicolor in 1932 and its near-monopoly over commercial feature color production that lasted for the next twenty years.1 The 1950s in these histories is mourned as the decade when Technicolor was abandoned in favor of Eastman Color, yet another example of Hollywood’s decline. In this fallen age of shoddy, the original Eastman Color process is remembered as Technicolor’s cheap, unstable successor, notorious for its instability which became the mark of cut-rate quality.2
This is color’s own version of the 50s Red Scare, where prints over time were liable to turn pink [Fig 01]. Eastman Kodak’s cover-up of its color film’s instability – an evasion that continued well into the 1970s – has, justifiably, been labeled a disgrace.3 But as we’ll see, Eastman Color had much more to offer than corrosion.
I want to argue that this stress on the ersatz impermanence of early Eastman Color has created an important distortion, leaving the impression that when Eastman Color replaced Technicolor the use of color itself went into a qualitative decline. Far from providing the epilog for color, I will claim, the 1950s in fact became the decade when color movies suddenly matured. It was the decade in which the studios – and by extension, their directors, cinematographers, and art directors – gained control of the color process, enabling filmmakers to experiment as they seldom could during the Technicolor days. Directors debated how color was to be used in a decade that was becoming increasingly self-conscious about color.
Instead of a single monolithic concept of color, a healthy number of rival frameworks emerged to accommodate a significantly enlarged variety of color films.
[…] Long after it stopped providing three-strip cameras, Technicolor continued to offer its services as a lab to process and print a wide variety of color films made from negatives manufactured by its competitors and successors – notably Eastman, Ansco, Agfa, Ferraniacolor, Gaevert, and eventually Sovcolor and Fuji – film stocks that all used ordinary cameras. While Eastman and its competitors provided camera negatives, Technicolor after 1954 limited itself to the highly lucrative business of processing and making dye transfer prints. In that same year, Technicolor abandoned its distinctive photographic system based on its unique three-strip camera.4 But film companies, eager to capitalize on the prestige of the Technicolor name, did their best to blur the distinction between films shot with Technicolor cameras and those simply processed by Technicolor. They continued to advertise Technicolor prints as though they were Technicolor films.
Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a useful case in point. The credits read, “Color by Technicolor.” But in fact Rear Window was shot entirely on the new Eastman 5247 negative with ordinary 35mm cameras.5 And why did Hitchcock chose to shoot Rear Window in Eastman Color when he could just as easily have shot in “real” Technicolor, the way he had Rope and Under Capricorn five years earlier? The answer lies in the way that Eastman Color had improved on the more famous system in ways essential to Hitchcock’s requirements.
1 The literature on Technicolor is large; for a fine scholarly introduction to Technicolor’s development in the 1930s that includes an extensive bibliography, Scott Higgins, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s, University of Texas Press, 2007. For a popularized technical history, Richard W. Haines, Technicolor Movies, Jefferson, N.C., 1993. Martin Hart’s remarkable website, The American WideScreen Museum [http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/] contains much expert, detailed information about Technicolor, Eastman Color, and their rivals, and is especially valuable for the wealth of graphic illustration. Scott MacQueen’s, “Film Technology: Special Report,” The Perfect Vision 3/10 (Spring, 1991), 24–38, is the single article I know that challenges the orthodoxy about Technicolor and Eastman Color. With the technical expertise of a film restoration professional, MacQueen cuts through the usual cant with a fresh, provocative comparison.
2 In his intellectual history of color reproduction, Neil Harris sees an analogous decline. For him, the early 1950s are stigmatized not by Eastman Color but by color television whose anticipated rise was accompanied by an intellectually impoverished level of discourse, limited to technical and commercial issues. Harris contrasts this with the lively multi-layered debates that accompanied the rise of Technicolor in the 1920s and 1930s. Harris, “Color and Media: Some Comparisons and Speculations,” Prospects 11 (1987) 7–28; reprinted in Harris, Cultural Excursions (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 318–336.
3 For Eastman’s problems with color instability and the corporate cover-up, Henry Wilhelm and Carol Brower, The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures (Preservation Publishing Co., Grinnell, Iowa, 1993), 305–328.
4 Technicolor’s biggest year was 1952, when no fewer than 85 Hollywood features used the 3-strip camera. It meant that in the following year audiences were flooded with Technicolor releases including The Band Wagon, Shane, 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Caine Mutiny, and Magnificent Obsession. The studios released almost one hundred Technicolor features in 1953 [95 by my count, including three shot overseas] and distributed another 23 foreign films shot in Technicolor.
But the tide quickly ebbed. In their rush to wide-screen in 1953, the biggest studios switched away from the 3-strip process, leaving the cameras to Columbia, Universal, and RKO for budget product. In early 1954 Paramount made Technicolor’s final Grade-A picture, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, but by then prestige Technicolor productions had become an anomaly. Paramount itself had already begun using VistaVision for its other color releases, a widescreen process that depended upon Eastman Color.
Three-strip was phased out on a schedule of low-cost westerns, sci-fi, and musicals. The last American Technicolor features were Seminole Uprising, Man Without a Star, Shotgun, and, finally, Universal’s Fox Fire, filmed July–Sept 1954 with Jane Russell and Jeff Chandler.
My statistics derive from an amended list of Technicolor films compiled in Haines, Technicolor Movies, pp. 37–47 which in turn derives from Fred Basten’s filmography in Glorious Technicolor (Cranbury, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1980), 169–187. The difficulty with these lists is that they do not distinguish between films shot in 3-strip and those simply processed by Technicolor. Nor do they distinguish Hollywood product from foreign-made movies, nor Hollywood productions made abroad [which relied on Technicolor technicians in London and Rome] from those made at home. In my statistics, I have siphoned off the non-three strip productions and foreign films.
I have drawn production dates from the American Film Institute Catalog, 1951–1960, Chadwyck-Healey/American Film Institute, 2003–2008.
5 In this case, the Technicolor credit is doubly misleading. Although Rear Window was processed by Technicolor, Eastman Color film was used not only as the negative, but also for the prints. The Technicolor lab, still learning how to cope with the new Eastman monopack negative, discovered that Eastman’s own print film produced sharper results than Technicolor’s dye transfer process. So, while the lab took a crash course to improve its own system, it quietly used Eastman print film for features such as Rear Window, A Star is Born, and How to Marry a Millionaire. Robert Gitt, interview with author, Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA 20 Feb 2005.
Paramount’s advertizing also created the illusion that Rear Window was shot wide-screen. But cinematographer Robert Burks confirms that the film was shot standard aperture with standard lenses. Arthur Gavin, “Rear Window,” American Cinematographer (February, 1954), 76–78, 97. Following the practice Paramount started with Shane, the aperture plate was masked to simulate wide-screen in some [mostly first-run] theatres.”
(Merritt, Russell (2008): Crying in Color. How Hollywood Coped When Technicolor Died. In: Journal of the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia, 3,2/3, pp. 1–16, on p. 1.)
“This chapter deals with the construction of cinematic space in Hitchcock’s first experiments with color: Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), and Dial M for Murder (1953). These films are characterized by a rather restrained palette contributing to the creation of a claustrophobic interior, which is central to the plot of these films. Unmistakably in line with the contemporaneous “low key” genres of the Gothic melodrama and film noir, Hitchcock’s earliest color films clearly differ from the glaring colors of his later films that established him as one of the great colorists of film history although only fifteen of his fifty-three films are in color.
In contrast with his films of the later 1950s, in which color is first and foremost invoked to construct exterior public spaces, Hitchcock’s earliest color films use color to create a specific atmosphere that is inherently linked to domestic interiors. In films such as Rope, Under Capricorn, Dial M for Murder, and Rear Window (1954), the narrative is largely or even exclusively situated in domestic spaces that become oppressive and claustrophobic (Jacobs 2007). This tallies with Hitchcock’s Gothic melodramas of the 1940s that present the house as a place of confinement (Doane 1987: 123–154; Waldman 1991). […] By turning the familiar domestic environment into a place of fear, Hitchcock developed into a master of the uncanny. The color films Rope, Under Capricorn, and Dial M for Murder are variations on this Gothic theme, which are set in domestic spaces: a Manhattan penthouse, a Georgian country house in New South Wales, and an apartment in a London Edwardian Mansion House respectively. What’s more, these houses are places where a murder takes place and/or where a character gets the impression that he or she will be killed by another inhabitant. Instead of a place of safety and domestic bliss, the house becomes a trap and an uncanny place of treason, suspicion, and danger. Light and color play an important part in this process.
dial m for murder
Hitchcock’s third color film was Dial M for Murder, which tells another story about somebody trying to kill another resident of his own house. This time, the story is situated in the ground floor apartment of a London mansion. Its interior is marked by sober and elegant classical decorations. The living room has eggshell colored walls and is richly furnished with seats, armchairs, side-tables, and a writing desk. In addition, the apartment is richly decorated and the sophistication of its residents is expressed by the presence of some artworks. A Warner Brothers press release states that “because he is a man of taste and culture, Hitchcock hand-picked many of the props, including an original Rosa Bonheur oil painting, long hidden in Warners’ property gallery, and a pair of valuable Wedgewood vases” (Jacobs 2007: 107). Some of these art works, such as the Bonheur painting, fauve paintings, and a postimpressionist flower piece, render touches of color to the restricted palette of the interior, which is beautifully rendered by Robert Burks’ Warnercolor photography.
Again, the subdued colors emphasize the feeling of an enclosed and confined space. Its boundaries are not only underlined by the motifs of the locked door and the latchkey but also by the closed large window curtain – its dark green called “oppressive” by Johnson (1966: 9–10). In addition, the boundaries of the confined space are marked by a series of high angle shots whereas the claustrophobic feeling is further elaborated by the 3-D process. Although Hitchcock refused to capitulate to the outrageous eccentricities of 3-D gimmickry (no objects are thrown in the face of the viewer), he favored compositions that place lamps, knickknacks, and pieces of furniture of diverging colors in the foreground, walls well in the background, and human subjects in a middle-ground. In addition, a subtle depth of field is created by the camera, favoring low positions and gliding fluently around the furniture. In so doing, Hitchcock used the 3-D process to create dramatic effects, emphasizing the ways in which the apartment serves as a trap for the characters.
Again, the contrast between light and darkness contributes to this effect. Crucial scenes such as the planning of the murder, the murder itself (actually an attempted murder that turns into the killing of the murderer), and the exposing of the criminal are shown in darkness – with the light of the fireplace, the light from an adjacent room coming under the door, or a flash light as dramatic elements. Against the quiet and almost monochrome background of harmonious colors of the interior, the changing colors of Margot’s dresses are remarkable. Wearing a color perfectly in harmony with the background in the company of her husband in the opening scene, Margot (Grace Kelly) is dressed in sparkling red in the subsequent scene with her American lover. As Laurent Fiévet (1995: 72–73) has noted, Hitchcockian red is often associated with the red theater curtain. Since Hitchcock heroines tend to appear late in the film, they are often surrounded by red indicating that the plot truly begins. According to Fiévet, in Hitchcock, red is also the color of fake appearances and of lies and he mentions Margot as an example. Later in the film, she is shown with a blue night gown during the murder scene as if she has merged into her domestic setting. The day after the murder, she is dressed in dark blue and she wears a brown coat in the final scene blending with the background again. Like Milly, the housemaid in Under Capricorn, she repeatedly becomes part of the interior. Referring to Scottie in the hospital room in Vertigo, Marnie disappearing in the urban gray, and Roger Thornhill in the vast wasteland of North by Northwest, Allen (2006: 134) noted that “loss of identity or emotional vacuity is evoked in precise moments in Hitchcock films through the loss of color.” Margot is also wearing dark clothes during the scene of the trial, which is in many ways remarkable in respect to color. Apart from some establishing shots of the apartment’s exterior, a shot in a cab, a view of an arriving ship, and some shots in a restaurant, the courtroom scene is the only scene that does not take place in the apartment itself. It is a scene, however, without spatial coordinates or in which space is exclusively constructed by color and light. Only a medium close-up of Margot and the judge are visible and they are shown against a monochrome background, which changes from blue to red. It is as if this red reverberates the blood that intruded and destroyed the home, which in Hitchcock is never a site of domestic bliss. Years before Marnie’s obsession with red, the blood stain on the carpet in this bourgeois apartment acts as an intriguingly strange object. It is not only a literal stain on the floor but also an uncanny detail in the mise-en scène, a stain in the visual field or what Zizek (1999) has called a “Hitchcockian blot.”
the restrained mode
In his three first color films (and, to a large extent, also in his next color film Rear Window), Hitchcock favored muted colors before he started to celebrate the exuberance of glorious Technicolor from the mid-1950s onwards. This line of approach was already announced by Hitchcock in 1937, ten years before his first color film:
I should never want to fill the screen with color: it ought to be used economically – to put new words into the screen’s visual language when there’s a need for them. You could start to color film with a boardroom scene: somber paneling and furniture, the director’s all in dark clothes and white collars. Then the chairman’s wife comes in wearing a red hat. She takes the attention of the audience at once, just because of that one note of color. (Hitchcock 1937: 258)
In so doing, Hitchcock’s early color experiments tally with what Higgins (2007: 76–136) terms the subdued or restrained mode of Technicolor filming which flourished in the late 1930s. […] Hitchcock’s first color films are characterized by narrow palettes and tight harmonies although this restrained mode allows for an occasionally overt display of color, dramatic punctuation, and elegant decoration. This predilection for muted colors can also be linked to the generic conventions of the somber domestic melodrama and the crime thriller, which both in the 1940s and early 1950s reached their apex in the “black-and-white” and “low key” genres of the Gothic romance film and film noir. Together with John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1946), Rope was one of the first crime thrillers shot in color. In addition, Hitchcock’s subdued palette contributes to the creation of a claustrophobic interior, which is central to the plot of these films. Consequently, color plays an important part in the integration of the characters in the surrounding interior. However, blending the characters with their environment entailed specific problems in color photography. On the set of his first color feature Rope, Hitchcock was surprised to see the extent to which actors were separated from the background through the use of backlights even though in color there was no need for this (unless the actor should be dressed in exactly the same color as the background). In his famous interview with François Truffaut (1984: 183), Hitchcock stated that he truly believed that “the problem of lighting in color film has not been solved. […]” Last but not least, in Rope, Under Capricorn, and Dial M for Murder, specific colors, color combinations, and pictorial light effects help to mark the difference between inside and outside, and hence often between on screen and off screen. In so doing, colors greatly add to the construction of the motif of intrusion.
Allen, R. (2006) “Hitchcock’s Color Designs”, in A. Dalle Vacche and B. Price (eds) Color: The Film Reader, New York: Routledge: 131–44.
Doane, M. A. (1987) The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s, Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
Fiévet, L. (1995) “Vertiges chromatiques, Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo“, in J. Aumont (ed.) La Couleur en cinéma, Paris: Cinémathèque française: 72–73.
Higgins, S. (2007) Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Hitchcock, A. (1937) “Direction”, in S. Gottlieb (ed.) (1995) Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, London: Faber & Faber: 253–261.
Jacobs, S. (2007) The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.
Johnson, W. (1966) “Coming to Terms with Color”, Film Quarterly 20,1 (Autumn): 2–22.
Truffaut, F. (1984) Hitchcock/Truffaut, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Waldman, D. (1991) “Architectural Metaphor in the Gothic Romance Film”, Iris 12: 55–70.
Zizek, S. (1999) “The Hitchcockian Blot”, in R. Allen and S. I. Gonzalès (eds.) Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays, London: BFI: 123–140.”
(Jacobs, Steven (2013): Color and Containment. Domestic Spaces and Restrained Palettes in Hitchcock’s First Color Films. In: Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (eds.): Color and the Moving Image. History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive. New York, London: Routledge, pp. 179–188, on pp. 179–187.)