Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor Oz in 1938 is so iconic that the decades of color film history before it are almost forgotten. Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, out this month from Amsterdam University Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press, illuminates examples of color film back to the 1890s.
Its over 300 images are from the archives of the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, which in March held a conference on The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema.
“The dominance of black-and-white film only appeared in the sound era,” University of Chicago Professor Tom Gunning explains in one of the book’s thorough essays. “For a variety of reasons — some aesthetic, some technical and some purely archival — this early use of color, while known to specialists, fell into near oblivion for most people until rather recently.”
Fantasia of Color focuses on the pre-World War I era, when each tiny frame of film was hand-tinted. “This process was carried out by skilled but certainly underpaid laborers, primarily female, since it was believed that women’s fingers were more nimble,” Gunning adds.
Color films, and the peepshows and projections before them, were within a saturation of newly mass-produced hues. Director of Film Studies at Michigan State University Joshua Yumibe explains in the book that the pigments “from electric blues and fiery reds to shimmering golds and resplendent greens” were “themselves part of a change in the colorant industry that began in the nineteenth century.” These aniline dyes were developed in the mid-19th century, drenching wallpapers, art reproductions, lantern slides, and photographs in phantasmagoric shades. “With the tints of aniline flooding the market, new colored goods transformed the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, making the world seem like a fantastic dream come to life.” Yumibe writes.
Many of the frames selected for Fantasia of Color are reveries of the most hallucinatory imaginations. Selections fill the page as if we’re viewing them from a theater seat, like a man grasping at his bed as he floats above a city in the 1906 Dream of a Rarebit Fiend by Edwin S. Porter, the whole frame dipped in acid blue, or the 1908 Excursion dans la lune, a near identical shot-for-shot copy by Segundo de Chomón of the 1902 A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès, where the moon eats the voyagers’ rocket ship and spits out bright yellow flames.
In this video from Jonathon Rosen Studio, some of the still images from the book are revealed in their vibrant animation from the collection of the EYE Film Institute Netherlands: