Film

A History of the Film Industry’s Fascination With Color

From early tinting to modern film stock, the ERC FilmColors project overviews the craftsmanship that has historically gone into color filmmaking.

Kaleidoscope (Loyd A. Jones, USA ca. 1927) – Kodachrome Two-Color samples from the Kodak Film Samples Collection. Courtesy of the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. Photograph by Barbara Flückiger in collaboration with Noemi Daugaard.

A wide variety of filmic color processes exist of which enthusiasts of the moving image may be unaware. Spearheaded by Professor Barbara Flückiger, as part of the ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors project, a team the University of Zurich is at the forefront of research into the history of moving-image color processes. Their interdisciplinary project involves the work of preservationists, engineers, and Film Studies scholars, and reaches a broad audience through the Timeline of Historical Film Colors website, as well as a recent exhibition at the Fotomuseum in Winterthur, Switzerland and an accompanying book of the same name, Color Mania: The Material of Color in Photography and Film.

The timeline website is a visual compendium largely comprised of lightbox images taken by Flückiger and other researchers at film archives across the globe. These photographs display the wider surface areas of each print, incorporating the additional information found outside of the frame. Spanning early tinting to modern film stock, it’s a growing overview of the craftsmanship that historically has gone into color filmmaking, such as the hand-painted examples that gave serpentine dances in early cinema a prismatic quality. It also surveys how different color processes fade or wear damage. With Gasparcolor, for instance, the pictures show its dense black borders and the vivid blue and red hues kicked up by scratches on its double-sided emulsion.

A Gasparcolor print of Colour Flight (Len Lye, 1937). Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film. HDR photographs by Barbara Flückiger.
A Gasparcolor print of Colour Flight (Len Lye, 1937). Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film. HDR photographs by Barbara Flückiger.

A Gasparcolor film, Uit het rijk der kristallen (J.C. Mol, 1927), graces the front of the Color Mania book, edited by Flückiger, Eva Hielscher, and Nadine Wietlisbach. Flückiger’s introductory essay provides a comprehensive, illustrated overview for readers who might be approaching the subject for the first time. Throughout, side notes point to corresponding photographs, and the book’s dimensions frame the lightbox images well. Bregt Lameris’s contribution illustrates how different duplication film stocks, such as Eastman Reversal, diminished the original vividness of Éric Duvivier’s Hallucinations: Images du monde visionnaire (1963), while Olivia Kristina Stutz examines how the fashion industry embraced color film processes with a vivid display of Kodachrome and Technicolor III frames.

Prizma II prints of Sunshine Gatherers (George E. Stone, 1921). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film. Photographs by Barbara Flückiger.

Noemi Daugaard’s essay looks at how the success of Gasparcolor was thwarted by the political climate of Nazi Germany and patent-trolling by the then-regime-linked Agfa, and Michelle Beutler’s outlines the industry dominance of Technicolor IV and Agfacolor in the 1940s and the standardized aesthetics and ideological control that presided over their use via Hollywood and the Ministry of Propaganda in Nazi Germany. These contributions demonstrate how early color processes both impacted and were impacted by sociopolitical climates, exemplified in Evelyn Echle’s discussion of how silent film-era tinting reinforced an exoticized, Western construction of the Orient. Other essays outline connections to the photographic industry and consider how artists can engage with the history of color in film through artworks featured in the Fotomuseum exhibition.

Speaking at the 2020 Colour in Film conference in London, Hielscher addressed how the exhibition (which included excerpts from films) drew interest from general visitors, and similarly, Flückiger’s visit to MoMA’s film archive several years ago paved the way for many of the photographed films to be restored, resulting in a 2019 screening at MoMA. A compilation of examples from that screening also appeared at the aforementioned Colour in Film conference, including Little Nemo (Windsor McCay, 1911) — a partially hand-painted film where a comic artist’s work awakens from the canvas — and the canned fruit advertisement Sunshine Gatherers (George E. Stone, 1921), shot on Prizma II color film, in which blue and red blues hues pulsate and split.

Examples of tinting in Le ballet mécanique (Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, 1923). EYE Film Museum. Photographs by Olivia Kristina Stutz, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.
Examples of tinting in Le ballet mécanique (Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, 1923). EYE Film Museum. Photographs by Olivia Kristina Stutz, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.

Just as the ERC FilmColors project is interdisciplinary in nature, so is the presentation of its work and findings. The website, exhibition, book, conference, and screenings all have their own properties and possibilities, but all pursuits evidence a desire to share this visual history and highlight unique works.

The Timeline of Historical Film Colors website is accessible at filmcolors.org, and the project’s blog at blog.filmcolors.org.

Color Mania: The Material of Color in Photography and Film (Lars Müller Publishers), edited by Barbara Flückiger, Eva Hielscher, Nadine Wietlisbach, in collaboration with Fotomuseum Winterthuris, is available on Bookshop

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