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.
Chris Challis was born on 18 March 1919 in Kensington, London and attended school in Wimbledon. He entered the film industry, working as a camera assistant on Gaumont-British newsreels before working at Denham Studios when three-strip Technicolor was introduced to Britain. Challis was an assistant on the World Windows travelogues shot by Jack Cardiff in the late 1930s and on other productions, including location work in India for The Drum (1938). He worked as a cameraman for the RAF Film Production Unit during World War II. In the post-war years he was camera operator on Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes before photographing The Tales of Hoffmann, Gone to Earth (1950), The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955) and The Battle of the River Plate (1956). During his long career he photographed many popular British films including Genevieve (1953) and Footsteps in the Fog (1955), and worked with British and American directors, most notably Stanley Donen, Billy Wilder, Joseph Losey, J. Lee Thompson and Ken Annakin. He became known for his ingenuity, reliability and expertise and is credited as cinematographer on major box-office successes including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Evil under the Sun (1981). He won a BAFTA for Best Cinematography for Arabesque (1966). He retired in 1985 after working on Steaming (1984), Joseph Losey’s last film. He died in May 2012.
Anon, ‘A Feature Cinematographer Photographs the Olympics’, American Cinematographer vol. 57 no. 4, April 1976, pp. 406–7, 458–9.
Brett, Anwar, interview with Chris Challis, ‘Reflections on a Golden Age’, Exposure, October 1998, pp. 16–17.
Challis, Christopher, ‘Hoffmann sets new pattern in film making technique’, American Cinematographer vol. 32 no. 5, May 1951, pp. 176–7, 194–6.
Challis, Christopher, Are They Really So Awful? A Cameraman’s Chronicles (London: Janus Publishing, 1995).
Film Dope entry on Challis, no. 6, November 1974, pp. 41–3.
Petrie, Duncan, The British Cinematographer (London: BFI, 1996), pp. 80–2.
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 17 OCTOBER 2008
INTERVIEWERS: SARAH STREET AND LIZ WATKINS
SARAH STREET: To start off broadly, we thought we’d ask you how would you define the role of Director of Photography?
CHRIS CHALLIS: I think it’s different on every film. It depends on the film, the style of the photography and very much on your relationship with the director. Some directors have a great visual sense, they know exactly how they want their picture to look and it’s an integral part of the way they’re going to direct it. That’s the ideal situation because it gives you a lead into what you want to do. Others who don’t have a visual sense, and they’re in the vast majority I think, then you’re in a bit of a vacuum because you don’t know which way to go with it. Now I think it’s [DOP] a very important part of the film and I admit that I’ve always felt that you are the director’s sort of paintbrush. He’s the artist, although you’re sort of carrying it out and doing the artist’s part of it, and it does differ from working in the initial stages and pre-production with the art director, the costumes and looking for locations. Of course it’s all changed now because of digital – it’s incredibly easy I think. You can photograph anywhere really – you could come in here and cover us talking to one another with these [domestic] lights. For Technicolor it’s different because it’s all arc lights and building a set, and the equipment was impressive, I mean physically impressive.
SS: When did you first become aware of Technicolor as someone who was keen to get into film and cinematography? Can you remember when you first heard of it?
CC: I started in the film industry with Gaumont British News. My father knew the managing director of Gaumont British News and Castleton Knight,1 and they were just starting to use live sound for doing interviews and things. They didn’t use sound normally and newsreel cameramen were like photographers. The cameras were quite small and they didn’t have assistants or anything like that. With the advent of sound they needed help to lug the gear around and everything like that and so I think I was one of the first people ever to get that job and I had a year or just over a year of covering all the sort of things that the newsreel seems to ply.2 They were a major part of cinemagoing; there were cinemas that just showed newsreels and there was great competition between the films. I happened to see or read that Technicolor were coming to England and doing the first colour film in Europe which was Wings of the Morning . It was made at Denham but Technicolor brought their own technicians. They took over a couple of machines in Humphries Laboratory in London, processed the negatives and made a black-and-white rush print, and then the negatives were shipped out to the States and the colour didn’t come back for four weeks and then it was only a pilot, it wasn’t a whole scene. It was a scientific process at that stage. I took myself down to Denham and the head of the camera department, George Kay, gave me a job. It was only loading magazines in the darkroom but I thought it was a step toward realising my ambitions. I suppose it was in a way but I spent most of my time loading these enormous magazines. At the end of the film the demand for colour was growing so rapidly that Technicolor decided to build a laboratory in Europe and they chose England in Harmondsworth on the Bath Road. So at the end of Wings of the Morning the laboratory was almost built – just the building because it didn’t have any of the equipment in it – because all the processing machines had to come from the States. They kept me on and so I was the first actual employee and I was very lucky because it was like going on a sort of university course.3 I went through every department as they were installing the equipment which came over without lenses. The lenses and the prism, which was the heart of the process, were made by Taylor and Hobson in England; I went through all of that and so I knew exactly how the process worked.
SS: Did they screen Wings of the Morning and have discussions about it because it was the first feature film? Do you remember anything of the reaction to that particular film?
CC: Do you mean during the making of it?
SS: Yes, during the process. I imagine everyone was intrigued to see this first British feature?
CC: Yes, of course they did, but it didn’t involve me, I was too busy loading the camera!
SS: Have you seen it since?
CC: I have, yes.
SS: Do you like it?
CC: Yes, and they were terribly impressed with it because Technicolor was a scientific process originated in California, where colours appear harsher and that’s the way they expected colour to be rather than how it was, particularly in the Irish locations that were a bit misty and hazy.
SS: It was quite soft, wasn’t it?
CC: There’s less contrast and everyone thought it was beautiful. The advent of colour had an enormous impact because people thought in terms of black and white.
SS: Yes, people seem to judge colour very harshly if it was seen to be not quite right.
CC: Technicolor retained a very strict control over what people did with it. Natalie Kalmus4 especially was in charge of colour control and she interfered with everything that our directors wanted to do, or the cameramen. They [the Color Advisory Service] didn’t like things like contrast and it was only later when it got into the hands of Jimmy Wong Howe5 and people like that that they started to experiment.
SS: Did you feel that the Color Advisory Service was something that took part in the production process? In reality, how did it impinge on people’s work?
CC: In the early stages it took a very big part because they vetted everything. There was no such thing as white and they dipped all the whites to a one- two- or three-grade dye because of the contrast which was a great problem. It was very difficult to get a good result because of the light levels. Dark colours went black and light colours [went] blue. There’s no such thing as having a pale blue or a pink because it would photograph white under certain conditions and you couldn’t see dark colours because they went black. So they tried to keep all the clothes the same, toward the middle range.
SS: So was that quite useful to some extent to prepare the production side?
CC: Yes, I think it was, so as far as the look of the picture was concerned it was very difficult to do anything unusual. They didn’t like low key lighting or anything like that.
SS: I’ve read about Natalie Kalmus developing charts for films. Is that true? Were you aware of a chart that was devised in these terms, because they don’t seem to be in the archives anywhere?
CC: Well if you were to see Natalie Kalmus you’d think she was the last person in the world to have anything to do with it because of course she dressed, well, she looked like an explosion in a paint shop.6
SS: Did you work with Joan Bridge because I get the impression that she was somebody who really knew about colour and was very helpful?
CC: Yes, she was very much better, much less aggressive than Natalie Kalmus, and she got along better with the artists. Joan Bridge was much more diplomatic. She only worked on the English films and became a colour consultant when they [Technicolor] opened up here. She had most of the contacts and during shooting she would come down once a week and maybe she would see the rushes and things.7
SS: We’re very interested in The Drum which was one of the early Technicolor British films.
CC: Oh yes, that was the first feature film made from the Technicolor laboratory in Harmondsworth.8
SS: Was Technicolor very helpful with advice about humidity controls and temperature or did you pioneer filming in a difficult location?
CC: They’d never done a location like that ever, and of course we didn’t shoot sound at all so the camera wasn’t quite as heavy.9 I was a trainee assistant [listed on Film Index International and IMDb as ‘focus puller’] and we had a unit if you could believe it; it was a major film. We didn’t take artistes [to India] but the unit consisted of a cameraman who was Osmond Borradaile10 and Geoff Boothby was the director. Henry Imus was the American Technicolor technician and I was his trainee assistant.11 I flew to India and yes, Technicolor did a lot of research on conventional film under extreme conditions such as heat leads to a build up of latent exposure; it’s like a fogging over which eventually ruins it. Also you can get static if the film gets very brittle and looks like lightening, and humidity affects it. So they did a lot of research in California and produced a whole series of recommendations about temperatures. Their thinking was that where we were going we would have the facilities that they had in California; in actual fact we hadn’t anything, there was no such thing as refrigeration. They had this idea of packing the film stock in drums, which was rather strange considering the film’s name! Each drum took what we termed two ‘groups’, and a group contained 1,000 foot screen footage but 3,000 foot linear footage of separate cans [because of the three records needed for three-strip Technicolor].12 The film was put in the drums with a silica gel which acted as a dehumidifier, and then tightly sealed and then soldered the metal drums. But of course when they [Technicolor] gave me a list of the film’s useful life at various temperatures, they were so unrealistic. I’d arrived in Karachi and had to go by train to Delhi across the Sinai desert and the temperature was well over 100 in the shade. I thought I might as well go home because I wasn’t even going to get to Delhi with the film let alone the rest of it, but thought we could try various ways of keeping it cool. The train didn’t have corridors so you had half a carriage with a shower and everything else but there was no air conditioning. They had galvanised tin baths in which they put eighty-pound blocks of ice. I had all the film stock in my compartment surrounded with these and covered with a tarpaulin sheet to try and keep it cool, and by the time we arrived in Delhi we had to renew the ice because it had gradually melted. The dust was colossal crossing the Sinai desert and so with all this water melting and everything I was in sort of two inches of mud. But finally the only check that I could develop was hand tests: I could break off a foot of film of each of the unexposed negatives, develop it and then see whether the fog level was building up.13
SS: But you wouldn’t be aware of how the colour might be affected?
CC: No, because we were dealing with three black-and-white images. The other interesting thing was that they had these camera report sheets which the assistant was responsible for and they were very, very extensive in their coverage; you had to record everything and they had this thing called a ‘lilly’. There’s three white cards, one at right angles, and two at forty-five degrees on either side, and you took a reading either side with a photometer so it would be whatever setting, 1,500 foot candles this way and 2,000 that way, 4,500 this, and all this had to be noted for each single shot and then you also had to give a brief description of the scene. If it was a close-up of you then I would have to describe the colour of your clothes and the settee behind you and the colour of your hair, and so they had all this data and they were really quite ridiculous about it. All this built up but for four months we’d had no contact; we couldn’t send any film back so we had it with us all the time.
SS: I wonder what happened to that kind of documentation because it strikes me that those kinds of records would be wonderful for researchers because British studios weren’t very good at keeping records.
CC: They went to Technicolor. They took the Technicolor cameras apart and I’m told that when we came back from India with what was the first film George Kay sat up all night reading all of my reports and he congratulated me. I got a rise and was made a qualified technician.
SS: So your notes would be very useful for other films, other texts?
CC: They would give a good lead, yes. When they printed the rushes they didn’t print in colour, they printed these pilots. Every shot you did a ten-foot or a fifteen-foot take with the ‘lilly’ in front and the colour chart and a greyscale, and that’s what they printed up. So we’d got the rushes in black and white and the colour pilot so we could see what it was like. They needed all these notes for the people who were to do the grading. When I became the Director of Photography I certainly sat in on all the grading and added my comments to everybody else’s. It was such a laborious process because once the negative had been cut – the final cut – they had a black-and-white print of it. The negative was handed over to Technicolor for negative cutting and they cut the negatives into this master, then they started printing in colour. Well of course when you saw it side by side cut together it was sometimes wildly different from how you thought it looked during shooting. This is when grading started. They would make a print based on the grading of the colour pilot, which they’d made originally, and then you would screen that and they might say ‘it’s too dark or it’s too blue and it was minus point this’, and they would make those corrections and make another print which took another two or three days and you’d see that and if that still wasn’t right, then you’d have to make more corrections. If you think you had to do this for every shot in the film then you can imagine how long it took. But Technicolor was a wonderful process because as a cameraman one had enormous control, not in the shooting but in the printing of contrast because the final colour print consisted of a black-and-white key which was printed from the blue record which was the sharpest of the three films. What defeated Technicolor in the end was definition, and they put this black-and-white key on to improve definition, contrast or reduce colour saturation. They used this idea in A Matter of Life and Death (1946).
SS: In the transition shots?
CC: Yes, they were all done that way, by increasing the black-and-white density and losing the colour. You could slowly do away with the colour and bring it back vice versa. I think, I believe Ossie Morris used it quite a lot to do some effects.
SS: Can you say more about blue being the particularly dominant register in the Technicolor process?
CC: Of course. The basis of the process was a prism and it reflected a third of the light and transmitted two-thirds approximately and you had two gates at right angles; in one of them ran the green record which was by itself because it had filters on the back. So the green record only recorded the subtractive colour, and on the bi-pack the two films ran emulsion to emulsion. The red record, which was the back one of the two, was photographed through the blue record so the definition on the red record was very, very poor. The blue record was a different type of emulsion so it was much sharper and that’s why they used that to make a black-and-white picture. If you hadn’t the least idea of how it worked you’d say of course that it can’t be done.
IN CHALLIS’S BECTU INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN GOUGH-YATES ON 11 OCTOBER 1988, HE GIVES SOME INTERESTING DETAIL ON TECHNICOLOR CAMERAS AND TECHNOLOGY WHICH IS INCLUDED HERE:
KEVIN GOUGH-YATES: Can you say something about the Technicolor cameras of this time?
CHRIS CHALLIS: There was only the one camera which was three-strip, it had three films running in it so it was large as you can imagine. It hadn’t got a turret – it had single interchangeable lenses in its mount and magazines had 3,000 foot and so were jolly heavy to cart around. It was a difficult camera to take on location because obviously the heart of the Technicolor process, which is still an engineering miracle to me, was that, it had two gates in the camera which were at right angles to each other and one was a single film and the other was a bi-pack. Two films running together, emulsion to emulsion, and the image coming through the lens was split, intensity-wise, allowing approximately a third of light through to the single film and two-thirds to the double. This was done by the means of a prism which had a spotted surface across the middle which allowed part transmission and part reflection of the image. The location of this prism was unbelievably critical. The images had to exactly coincide in the registers so when finally the thing was printed you could enlarge it up on a cinema screen and you could get reasonable definition. There was a degree of adjustment in the printing, but nevertheless it had to be as right as one could have it in the camera and it was adjustable by means of moving the prism, but it was a jolly difficult thing to do on location. I mean the reading of the register was done in the cameras when you were working in England – the camera came back to the laboratory every night and they went into the mechanical department and they were serviced and the register was checked and then you did a photographic check of the register every morning on the floor before you began to shoot. You photographed a chart which was read that evening under a toolmaker’s microscope so they could check the image size and the spread and [that] everything was within the tolerance to get the sort of definition they wanted in the final print. Well when you were away from home, a long, long way, you obviously couldn’t have a microscope check because there was nobody to do that, so you had to do it visually. And of course you were into all sorts of problems if you were out in hot countries because you had a jig in which you put two pieces of film and you drilled this with this special jig of five holes; one in the middle and one in each corner of the actual aperture and these I think were twelve-thousandths of an inch in diameter. Then you put the film into the camera, the strip of film that you’d drilled, and you put it down into the register so that you actually used the claws to pull it into the right position and the register pins would hold it just as the film would actually come down when the camera was being used. You took the pressure plates out of the gates and you put lamps so you were shining light through the back of the film and then you put the prism in and you looked through the lens with a telescope and then you could see these five holes one at a time. If they coincided as you were looking through the filters on the prism they were white, but if they didn’t you had a magenta or green fringe around it and you had to then adjust this prism on a rocker as it was on a sort of knife edge until you got the best distribution of error over the whole area. I mean it was never absolutely perfect but you had to get it as right as you could get it. It was an awful business doing this; we had to do it every night when you were away from home.
KGY: How did the equipment change over the years?
CC: Very little. It was incredibly advanced compared to any other camera when it came out. The lens mounts were just magnificent. They were on roller-bearings and they had a motor focus so the assistant could stand away with a slave motor and follow focus on it. It had a parallax corrector at a time when many other cameras, you know, the old Mitchells had the image upside down and no parallax corrector. It was a very advanced camera for its time and never really changed. The blimp was enormous; it had to be housed in all this to make it quiet. It had wonderful geared heads which have now become universal although they had them when nobody else had them. The geared heads were by Moy of England which is rather interesting [the geared head, which was operated with handles, fixed on to the studio dolly and made the camera easy to operate despite its weight]. To give you an idea of light levels, in the studio on Wings of the Morning and around that time you had to use 700 foot candles, wide open on the lens; you had to shoot wide open. It had to be an arc, basically because the process was balanced to white light or daylight. So there was no incandescent, no other coating of film that was compatible; it was all balanced to daylight, to white light. So anything that you used you had to balance, so of course arc was all right, it was slightly blue and you used a very pale straw-coloured filter. [CC notes that internal filters and effects were problematic in this system because of the high lighting levels required; CC gives an example of an internal filter in the camera which would cut the light by 35 per cent as problematic because with ‘700 foot candles you could just about light a head and shoulders’].
[REVERT TO 2008 INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT]
SS: Were you aware of other processes like Dufaycolor and Gasparcolor?
CC: Yes. Of course colour was available to amateurs long before it was professionally. They raked up a lot of that early film for this BBC series [The Thirties in Colour, BBC4, 2008].
CC: Technicolor had other processes before the final one. They had a bi-pack process where they stuck the two films together for the final print.
LIZ WATKINS: The colour on some of the World Windows films14 seems quite distinctive from what’s found in feature films and I was wondering if they were definitely filmed using the three-strip process?
CC: Oh yes, they were made fairly shortly after The Drum. Jack Cardiff photographed them. He was a camera operator on Wings of the Morning and he worked for Denham Studios. He was a very unusual sort of chap who wanted to be a Director of Photography (they didn’t call them that then, they called them cameramen), but this was a break for him and his contribution to the World Windows films was enormous. They came into being in a very strange way because Kay Harrison met Count von Keller and his wife socially.15 Count von Keller was German and he had escaped from Germany. He was a bon viveur, an extraordinary man, and he had this American heiress wife who had a lot of money. His great love was fast cars and I suspect fast women, but they’d also travel and Kay Harrison said to him, ‘Well, if you’re going to do all this travelling and go to all these places, why don’t you make films?’ To which he apparently said, ‘I don’t know anything about film.’ Kay replied ‘I can put you in touch with people who do’, and that’s how it all started. The first three were all made in Italy and an Italian named John Hanau who worked in the film industry was a partner with von Keller. We did one of the Rome Hunt [Fox Hunting in the Roman Campagna] which is the only fox hunt in Italy. The hounds were imported from Yorkshire. It’s quite unique because it’s very pictorial. You’ve absolutely got a conventional hunt that could be in England. Then we did one of Rome itself [Rome Symphony] and we did one of Vesuvius [The Eternal Fire]. They were so impressed with them because they were much better than any other travel films, different from the Fitzpatrick travelogues.16 Jack’s contribution was great I think visually and they became much more than simple travelogues. United Artists distributed the films and was very impressed and wanted more. So we went to the Middle East and it became more complicated because we wanted to be able to track the camera. We wanted a dolly, tracks and reflectors so we needed a camera car. We built a special Bedford truck which we took out to Palestine, drove it across the desert to Damascus and then down to the Persian Gulf. Then we made a whole series of them and the final lot were made in India. I went back to India and we made a whole series of films there. They would have gone on had it not been for the war.
LW: We were wondering if you could tell us about the lighting levels for exterior filming for Technicolor?
CC: We didn’t take any lighting equipment; it was all exterior shooting. We didn’t have electricians or anything like that with us.
LW: So that was sufficient light?
CC: Yes. We had this truck and we had a camera car which was Count Keller’s. He loved motor cars and he had a Packard shooting break camera car and two open Buicks for transporting people or anything like that. So it was quite a little convoy and we drove enormous distances. It was very exciting and they were lucky that they had Jack, who was very imaginative. He had ideas such as in the one about Petra [Petra], a rose-red city which is half as old as time; he had lovely shots of these steps that had been cut into the rock, going up them with the camera. Petra was a strange, enormous building. I think now there’s a Hilton you can go and stay in but when we went we had to stay in chaos in camps, and you went in through this gorge where you could either walk or ride on a donkey and you can really touch both sides and that’s the only way in.
SS: Had the films been scripted?
CC: They were scripted, yes. It wasn’t a tight script but the two directors who directed them [Hans Nieter and John Hanau], leap-frogged so while one director directed one, the other chap was preparing the second; he went there and got an outline to the script. The Arabian Bazaar was one of the second batch. We also did Jerusalem, Wanderers of the Desert, that’s the one with the Bedouins, and we did the one in Petra; that was quite a handful.
LW: In Wanderers of the Desert there’s a sequence that looks as though it’s shot at night. It has very intense blues, but the lighting levels would have been problematic?
CC: Well, that’s called ‘day for night’ photography. It was very phoney really but you couldn’t do it any other way than with a special heavy blue filter and neutral densities. It may look like night, I don’t know.
LW: [laughs] It was very blue.
SS: So because there were no lights you were using filters on the lens?
CC: No, no filters. I don’t think we did much in the early stages but later on I used to if one had a very bright sky. On a fixed, or static shot, I’d put a neutral density one on; I’d cut it more or less to fit so it would cut down on the exposure on the sky without affecting anything else. You didn’t use colour filters unless you wanted to for an effect. We cameramen, Jack certainly, and to an extent myself, had filters made for us by a couple of ladies who used to make them by hand; graduated colour filters and things like that for special effects.
SS: I suppose with the camera being different it wouldn’t be the kind of filter that would be current?
CC: It wouldn’t be used for anything else, that’s right.
SS: Would you perhaps be putting filters on lights sometimes instead?
CC: Yes, but of course you couldn’t for something like World Windows, you’d just cut the exposure down for the night [scene]. To give you an idea of the light levels, the Technicolor process was colour-balanced to daylight, to the colour temperature of the daylight. The only light source that matched daylight was arc, so it was all arc lighting. Well the arcs were enormous and they gave off a lot of fumes so if you had a big set with a lot of arcs you very quickly built up a haze in the studios and you started to see the beams of all the lights. Of the conventional incandescent lights, the biggest one listed in those days was five kilowatts and you could direct it to the colour temperature of daylight with a blue filter. If you had that largest incandescent light available with the blue filter on you could just about light a seated figure in a domestic interior and daylight from a window, two or three metres away. But that’s all it would give enough light for. So you could imagine what it was like lighting a big set. On The Tales of Hoffmann, which was shot on a silent stage, it was the old shape of things to come because we recorded at Worton Hall studios, Isleworth, for all the model work. They moved to Shepperton and it was known as the ‘silent stage’, the biggest in Europe but it was not soundproofed. We shot the whole film on that stage because it was shot to playback. Sound didn’t bother us and so we had the space and light.
SS: Shall we talk about The Tales of Hoffmann because we’ve read that one of your favourite memories is working with Powell and Pressburger?
CC: The art director was Hein Heckroth. Hein came from the background of opera; he was art director of the state opera in Hamburg and also a very good painter. But when they made the ‘Red Shoes ballet’ which was a film which was within a film [The Red Shoes], it was such a success Micky said, ‘Well we’d better do a complete opera and that’s the way we’re going to do it and we’re not going to do many special effects in the laboratory. We’ll have to do everything in the camera’, so we did most of the effects theatrically as you would do them on the stage; we did a lot of work with gauzes. As you probably know if you have a black gauze, paint something on it and light it from the front, it becomes more or less solid so you can paint a backdrop. If you take the light off the front and light from behind it disappears and you can do a tremendous change. Now that’s the theatrical side of the thing but of course light levels in the theatre are nothing and the human eye adapts so well, whereas we were doing the same thing with enormous light levels and changing had to be done with dimmer shutters because you can’t fade an arc light like you can with a resistor electric light. If you’ve got a lot of them then they have to be mechanised so they all worked electrically, then they all stuck and jammed and it was an absolute nightmare. My favourite sequence was the Venice sequence.
SS: Did you feel able to have ideas accepted and that you were very much part of the collaborative team?
CC: Oh yes, terrifically so. In fact we had one wonderful thing where the silent stage was built quite a little way off from the main studio buildings at Shepperton and Micky had the idea that after we’d seen the rushes we’d want to discuss them and talk about what we were doing. So he had a marquee put up by the silent stage and we used to have lunch brought out to us there so we didn’t have to go to the studio restaurant. It was a lovely idea really and it worked jolly well. Micky’s films were exciting because he was a great, efficient director and he had enormous energy. They were the most extraordinary unconventional couple; I mean, you would never have thought that they would ever work together. They had really nothing in common. Emeric was a mid-European Jew; Micky was a 100 per cent English. Emeric spoke with a heavy Hungarian accent, and they were a wonderful team. I knew them both very well as friends as well and I worked for them for years and I never, never heard either of them run the other one down which is pretty unique in the world of entertainment. They were great, great friends and welded together as a wonderful team. Either Micky or Emeric told me that they had been in America for the premiere of I Know Where I’m Going! (1945). They came back on the Queen Mary and Micky said that on the first night at dinner they were just talking about things and Emeric said to him, and I can’t do his accent, ‘Michael, would it not be a good idea if we made a film in heaven and on earth and earth was in colour and heaven was in black and white?’ and Micky said straight away that it was a great idea. Now Emeric didn’t know whether it was technically possible, and Micky said that when they got off the boat five days later they had an outline of the working script of the film which they took to Rank and they got the go-ahead. It was a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
SS: Oh yes, so imaginative with the colour composition.
CC: It was pure cinema, as much as Disney.
SS: Am I right in thinking that the black-and-white sequences were actually, in the transition scenes leading up to when the film flips from black and white to colour, filmed with the Technicolor cameras but then not processed for the Technicolor printing?
CC: Yes that’s right because they needed the three negatives.
SS: I’ve read that that was supposed to be less jarring than if it had been filmed with a conventional black-and-white camera?
CC: Yes with all the transition scenes.
LW: So you could print a black-and-white film from the three-strips of Technicolor negatives without any problem?
CC: Yes, it would come out in black and white.
LW: So the printing process introduces the problem with contrast and colour?
CC: The definition was fine, as good as straight black and white really, but then colour had an enormous impact as much as sound. They were the people that I liked to work with. My favourite directors were Micky and Stanley Donen, who was very, very similar. He grasped suggestions that I had and Joe Losey was good to work with.
SS: Did you have much contact with what went on in the lab?
CC: Yes, not initially but in the final printing.
SS: It can seem like a somewhat mysterious process of what actually went on in the lab, and maybe Technicolor sought to impose colour control at that stage? We’re fascinated by the whole process but with the lab stage being so important, we wondered how much intervention you were able to have?
CC: Well you had it at the end in the final printing but not during the actual shooting because the rushes were processed at night, you got them the next day and it was a fait accompli with Technicolor in the early stages. They were very conscious of anything they thought was a technical defect because the process hadn’t made the grade. There was one wonderful thing on Black Narcissus when it all fails and the nuns come back and there’s a shot of Sister Clodagh [Deborah Kerr] in her office in Bombay or something like that.
CC: Yes, Calcutta. There’s a big window and it’s pouring with rain. Jack did this close-up of her and lit her through a bit of glass but he had water running down it and so it had the effect of rain. Well this shot didn’t come back from Technicolor with the rushes; we got the rushes but minus this shot and everyone said, ‘What’s happening?’ They said, ‘It’s a problem with the printer. It’s not a very good print and we’re re-printing’. This went on for about four days and we never got it back. Eventually Frank Bush, who was the whipping boy of the mechanic department, came over and he told Micky and Jack that they’d had a problem in the lab and they hadn’t got it tied down and it looked as though we’d have to retake this shot. He said, ‘You know we’ve got this effect on it’ and Jack said ‘It’s supposed to be there!’. So they were trying to get rid of it desperately; that’s a true story.17
LW: That’s interesting the way an effect can be perceived differently. I was wondering if you could tell us more about The Tales of Hoffmann! Were you using blue gels which you would deliberately fade before using them?
CC: There were no really big incandescent lights in that period. Technicolor made a blue glass filter which was fitted into the lamp which we used rather than gels. Technicolor then made stock which was colour balanced to incandescent light so you didn’t need filters and it made the process faster. You didn’t need so much light and that changed everything enormously. You then had to put filters on the arcs because they were too blue. So basically you’d use arcs outside and as they made the bigger incandescent lights ten kilowatts you’d use those inside and they’d make lighting a bit easier. But it was a great process and good in the camera.
LW: We wanted to ask you about Footsteps in the Fog. Joan Bridge was colour consultant on that film as well and there’s a preponderance of browns and greys in the colour. Is that part of the design or something which occurs in filming?
CC: That was done in printing. You didn’t have to use filters if you wanted to have an overall warm tone on something that’s candlelit. I wanted it to be dark and murky and it worked quite well in the fog scenes.
SS: Could I ask you about The Battle of the River Plate?
CC: The picture was going to be in Cinemascope and I was actually working on another film while everything was being got ready. At the last minute John Davis fell out with Cinemascope and then we were landed with this awful VistaVision camera.18
SS: I think it looks wonderful.
SS: I was struck very much by that wonderful mobility and in the scenes in Uruguay, almost travelogue types of scenery.
CC: Well it looks all right on DVD and when it’s projected the same way it was shot. It’s not too bad when you see a reduction print but colour, well in black and white it doesn’t work well I don’t think. Then Technicolor converted their cameras to do the same thing and called it Technirama and they put an anamorphic lens on the front of it so it became enormous. We shot The Grass Is Greener (1960) that way.
SS: Are you often consulted when this remastering takes place? […] presumably it’s possible that there are […] instances when a remastered film can look different, even untrue to the original idea?
CC: Yes, but I never have been consulted, although I must say most of them have been pretty good. I mean, they have just made a DVD in America of The Small Back Room (1949), which was my second picture as a Director of Photography and my first film with Michael Powell. They interviewed me, which was included in the DVD and it looks absolutely great; so does Gone to Earth.
SS: Yes, it does. It’s a very fascinating film. Your work often seems to involve quite a lot of location work. The landscapes are very striking.
CC: Gone to Earth was shot again entirely with Micky. I loved making it and it did look quite nice with all the shots in the countryside and beautiful landscape. [David] Selznick was the co-producer and he’d just married Jennifer [Jones] and at the end he had the right to alter the production for the American market if he so wished. He wanted to do all sorts of things, have an extra scene. Micky wouldn’t do it so Rouben Mamoulian directed. They wanted me to photograph it and I said to Micky, ‘What am I going to do?’ and he said, ‘Well, you should go, you know, keep our end up a bit’. So I went and it was the funniest thing because Selznick was extraordinary. He used to be up all night writing scripts, changing the scripts and it went on and on and on and it was three weeks before we did anything. Eventually we shot it and we had an all-American camera crew who were very anti having this young limey coming over, which I think didn’t make any sense really. They got lots of work out of it but anyway there I was and Mamoulian had a pact with Selznick that he’d only do it if Selznick didn’t come on the floor when he was directing Jennifer. Selznick used to come on the floor and I’d hear this sort of ‘psst, psst’, and he’d be hiding behind a flat and he’d call me over. He said, ‘Suggest to Rouben that …’ [CC would reply]: ‘I can’t do that’. It was ridiculous and the American crew filled me with grim stories of Selznick, that no cameraman had ever completed a picture with Selznick and that he interfered on everything which he did and I was going to have a hard time. We had one new scene with Jennifer going to her room. I suggested candlelight with a candle and David talked to me about it and said he wanted it low key and that was fine. In the middle of lighting it he came on the floor and looked around and said, ‘You’ve got too much light! I want it dark.’ So I said, ‘I know you do, David, that’s why I’m doing it but we need more light than one candle’. [Selznick replied]: ‘Turn some of the lights off!’ It was ridiculous. So I said,
Look, David, let me do it. If you don’t like it tomorrow I’ll go home and I’m very happy to go home, I would like to go home. I’m fed up with being here – I would really be delighted to go back.
So he turned on his heel, walked off the floor and all the crew had backed away. They slowly came back and we shot it. And the next day at rushes it looked fine and at the end Selznick got up, turned around and he said ‘Chris, you’re quite right, I apologize.’ Arthur Fellows, who was his assistant, said, ‘He’s never done that before in his life’. He liked you to argue with him, and they all were terrified of him.
SS: So would he override people at Technicolor?
CC: Oh he’d have a go. He’d have a go at overriding everybody. But if you made your point as I think I did and it didn’t really bother me if I was going to get the sack. I wasn’t employed by him anyway; I was employed by Micky and Emeric and I was quite happy. He liked people to be like that. Micky was like that and could be absolute poison.
SS: Yes, his autobiography gives a little sense of that.
CC: I mean there’s a side to him which isn’t in the autobiography of extreme loyalty and kindness. I know many instances of that and I liked him a lot. I thought he was a great director and they were great movies. Now they’re all coming back including Peeping Tom (1960), which I didn’t like.
SS: We’d like to ask you what it was like to be in your profession as a cinematographer for so many years. You worked primarily as a freelance is that right?
CC: Except for one ghastly period when I was under contract to Rank and only because John Bryan who was an art director became one of the Rank producers. I made The Spanish Gardener (1956) with John.
SS: Did you feel you would just literally have to be doing whatever was thrown at you rather than have any choice?
CC: Well, apart from John, they were a pretty dead outfit. They had all second-rate pictures, dreadful things because I had to make a couple while I was under this contract. I actually got the sack in the end. They wouldn’t release me and there was some terrible hiatus where they had a huge programme and suddenly they hadn’t got anything. They had redundancies and everything else. The unions asked for a meeting with John Davis and I got co-opted onto the ACT.19
LW: Something we’ve read and would like to know more about is when the Technicolor lab was set up in the UK and American technicians came over to run training and to establish a working practice. Did that cause any problems you can recall? Was it possible eventually for British cinematographers to go and work in America?
CC: It wasn’t possible, really. When I went to do the extra scenes for Gone to Earth they had to employ an American cameraman who never came; he didn’t have to come and – he was paid more than I was. The unions were very strong – they wouldn’t let you train at all. Technicolor had all their own people for a long time. The three-strip cameras belonged to Technicolor. You couldn’t hire any other camera from any other process and the cameras went back to the lab every night and they were serviced. They had a big camera department and a service department and then the normal crew on a picture. On a Technicolor picture not only did they supply the camera but the equivalent of the first assistant who was known as a ‘Technicolor technician’ because on location he did very much more than a normal camera assistant inasmuch as he did the servicing of the camera.
SS: Can you tell us about Genevieve, a successful colour British film you worked on?
CC: The story behind Genevieve was quite annoying really. I was on holiday and I had a phone call from George Gunn who was in charge of the Technicolor camera department. He said,
Well, I’ve got somebody who is going to make a picture called Genevieve about the London to Brighton run and I think it’s a very good script and I’m trying to persuade him to make it in colour and he says no way, he can’t afford it, there just isn’t the money in the budget.
I half persuaded him that it was going to be a tough assignment whoever shoots it because you’ve got to shoot in any conditions really; literally any conditions. He said, ‘Would it interest you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but I’ll have to check with Henry [Cornelius]’. Henry said, ‘It’ll be nearly all on location because we can’t afford the studio rental.’ We were starting very late in the year – it was September or October when we shot it. Nothing matches anything else but strangely enough colour looks better in that dull light and if you can get the minimal exposure and you can sort of enhance it slightly with a bit of arc light to get a shine or something like that so when it comes to it, it doesn’t look bad really. Funnily enough I got some of the best reviews for photography I’ve had on Genevieve, so the rest of them must be awful!
SS: Do you think there were any particularly British conditions that made British Technicolor films made in the UK look a little different from those made elsewhere, experimentation aside?
CC: Yes, I do I think there is a different quality of light. I mean the soft sunlight that you get here a lot of the year where there’s a lot of moisture in the atmosphere is quite different from anywhere else. It’s different certainly from California which makes the colours hard, and Africa is hard and brash and even the South of France. I also think that we had some exceptionally good art directors and some good cameramen. You can almost thank Korda for that really because he brought Georges Périnal who was a wonderful cameraman from France and Harry Stradling from America. We learned from them quite rapidly and we had Freddie Young, who was marvellous and a great champion of our cause and a great cameraman. We built up a pretty good school of cameramen I think. There was Geoff Unsworth of course; Geoff was a fabulous technician at Technicolor and Douglas Slocombe was wonderful. Arthur Ibbetson was jolly good. Ossie Morris of course was excellent. And so I think that there maybe was a British school of cinematography which was slightly different. We went for softer light conditions and out of necessity we very often had to shoot without direct sunlight and we realised that it could look very good.
SS: Did you tend to discuss amongst yourselves? I’m imagining a group of fellow professionals who knew each other when they were working on a particular film who’d discuss the latest developments?
CC: Yes, yes.
SS: So you saw their latest film when it came out and there was a sort of community of cinematographers?
CC: Yes, very much so.
LW: Were there any particular colour effects at this time that you couldn’t get with Technicolor that you could with Eastmancolor or vice versa?
CC: Yes, colour reproduction was very far from being perfect for any process, Technicolor, Eastmancolor, Agfacolor or anything else. The areas of absolutely correct exposure are crucial. That’s why you have the theory about Technicolor not liking experimental colour because in dark areas, which are necessarily underexposed areas or bright areas which are overexposed, the colour rendition goes to pot a bit and that’s true of all colour processes. I don’t think there’s any way round that unless you accept having absolutely flat light, which is what Technicolor wanted, but it’s not suited chromatically for a lot of subjects. I mean I’m told that when Jimmy Wong Howe did The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) all the sequences that were in the cave and in Technicolor were terribly low key. He had a terrible row with Natalie Kalmus; they wanted that all flat lit and he wouldn’t do it. Of course it was a wonderful sequence. The colour was probably quite wrong but it didn’t matter because dramatically it was terrific. So I think the answer is you know you can’t reproduce every colour perfectly but the compromise is fine, depending on how it’s used and that’s true of all processes.
1 L. Castleton Knight was the overall ‘producer’ of the Gaumont British News from 1934 to 1958.
2 Kevin Gough-Yates’s BECTU interview with Challis (11 October 1988), tape no. 59, includes reference to Challis showing Castleton Knight some 16mm footage he’d shot for a school project.
3 In his BECTU interview Challis also praises the grounding he gained from Technicolor, commenting that: ‘They didn’t let anyone out to be the equivalent of a first assistant until they’d done a lot of work in the laboratory and knew a bit about it.’
4 Natalie Kalmus (1892-1965) was head of Technicolor’s Color Advisory Service, in the 1930s and 1940s. She is credited as advisor on all Technicolor productions until 1949.
5 James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was a celebrated Chinese-born Hollywood cinematographer. He worked at Denham on three black-and-white films in 1937.
6 It was common for cinematographers to claim that Natalie Kalmus knew little about colour on the basis of their dislike for her wardrobe.
7 Joan Bridge (1909-2009) worked with Natalie Kalmus when she was in the UK. She is credited on many British films as colour consultant. She had studied Dufaycolor, and had useful contacts for Technicolor when operations began in the UK.
8 Challis only worked on the Indian location shoot.
9 The blimp needed for filming with sound made Technicolor cameras extra cumbersome, so greater mobility could be obtained if sound was added in post-production.
10 Borradaile was responsible for location shooting in India; the rest of the film was shot by Georges Périnal.
11 Henry Imus (1908-81) was an uncredited camera operator on Wings of the Morning.
12 This detail also features in Challis’s BECTU interview. For greater clarity the following sentences are an amalgam of the detail provided in both interviews.
13 In the BECTU interview Challis recalls that during shooting the drums were kept in pits dug in the ground that were packed with blocks of ice.
14 The World Windows short travelogue films were shot in Technicolor during 1937-40 by Jack Cardiff in a number of locations, including India, Italy and Israel.
15 Kay Harrison (1895-1962) was managing director of Technicolor Ltd.
16 The ‘Fitzpatrick Travel Talks‘ were an American series of Technicolor films made by James Fitzpatrick and distributed by MGM.
17 There is no such shot in Black Narcissus. This ‘missing’ scene is discussed in Sarah Street, Black Narcissus (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005), pp. 59–60.
18 Challis also discusses widescreen techniques in the BECTU interview, confirming problems with VistaVision.
19 John Davis (1906-93) was managing director of Rank, and the ACT was the trade union, the Association of Cine-Technicians.”
(Street, Sarah; Watkins, Liz (2013): Interview. Christopher Challis. In: Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (eds.): British Colour Cinema. Practices and Theories. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 10–30.)