Visual empires

The fourth Visual Delights conference, Visual Empires, will take place at the University of Sheffield between 3-5 July 2009, and a call for papers has been issued.

Popular visual cultures have been central to the construction and propagation of imperial and colonial narratives and have helped define the nature of Empire. They have been intrinsically linked to discourses about the rise and fall of Imperial fortunes in the 19th and early 20th centuries and have been studied as both evidence of imperial attitudes to race and colonial subjects and as propaganda texts which helped spread and cement imperial and colonial ideologies. This conference seeks to explore this rich visual archive and to examine the roles played by popular visual culture in the construction of narratives concerning issues of race, identity, colonial and imperial ideologies, nationalism, patriotism and the ‘Visual Empire.’

We would like to receive suggestions for papers with deal with these issues in popular cultural forms such as photography, advertising, cinema, theatre, the magic lantern, ethnographic display and world’s fairs before 1930. Suggested themes could include:

  • Photography and constructions of ‘otherness’
  • Ethnographic display and racial identities
  • Advertising and imagined colonies
  • Cinema and the mapping of Empire
  • The magic lantern and the topography of Empire
  • Music hall and the patriotic show

Abstracts of no more than 500 words should be sent to Simon Popple (s.e.popple [at] or The Louis Le Prince Centre, The Institute of Communications Studies, The Houldsworth Building, The University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK. The deadline for submissions is 1 November 2008.

The conference will be jointly hosted by the Louis Le Prince Centre, University of Leeds and the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. It is held in conjunction with the journal Early Popular Visual Culture.

Colourful stories no. 9 – They do it with stencils

Pathécolor machine printing room, from F.A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (1912)

As films grew longer, and their production increased, through the 1900s, so the idea of adding colours by hand became uneconomic. A mechanised system was required, and at around the same time that experiments were taking place in Britain to develop natural colour motion pictures, in France first Pathé and then Gaumont started developing processes for the mass production of multi-colour-tinted film prints through the use of stencils. This was a labour-intensive process (employing mostly female operatives – see pictures above and below) which could only be carried out by well-capitalised businesses with international distribution, and in the mid-1900s France dominated the world’s motion picture business. Hence France became the home of artificial motion picture colour.

Women workers preparing Pathécolor films, from Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked

Pathé introduced its stencil colour process in 1905, but the system in principle was not new, having been adopted from methods used for colouring postcards and wallpaper. A number of prints of any one film title would be made, each representing the different colours to be employed in the eventual film (i.e. a film featuring red, green, blue and yellow would require four original prints). The areas in each of the original prints to be coloured would be marked out and cut with scalpels. Each cut-out print would be laid over the final projection print and each colour would be applied in turn. 600 women were employed at the Pathé factory by 1906 to produce colour prints in this way.

However, great mechanisation was soon brought in, led by Henri Fourel, who ran the Pathé colour studio in Vincennes. In 1908 Pathé introduced a pantograph mechanism to improve production. A master print would be rear-projected onto a ground glass screen, one frame at a time, which enabled the operator to have a far clearer view of the image. She would then move a pointer over the screen, marking out the area to be treated with one colour. The pantograph allowed for greater precision of line, and a needle at the other traced marked out the corresponding area on a second print. This would be repeated for each colour required. It was painstaking work, and still very labour-intensive, with an estimated 300 women operators employed. About one metre of film per colour was produced in an hour. When all the stencils had been cut, the gelatin emulsion was removed from each and they were then run in turn through a staining machine in precise registration with the master print. The cumulative result was a finished print stained in multiple colours – or rather multiple prints, since at least 200 colour copies had to be produced to make the system economic.

This demonstration of the stencil colour process is taken from Brian Coe’s The History of Movie Photography. The original film is on the left; then follows (L-R) the stencils cut for each colour (top row) and the application of that colour (bottom row) for red, blue, brown, green and yellow respectively.

The Pathé system produced images of frequently exquisite quality, with a notable precision of colour. Colours were not applied to every kind of film, but generally to those kinds of films which it was felt would be best enhanced by colour: exotic travelogues, costume dramas, magical films etc. Such films would be billed as the highlight in cinema programmes, and were more expensive for exhibitors than common film titles. As indicated, the industrial, labour-intensive process could only be supported by major producers with extensive distribution, and Pathé’s only rival in stencil colour was to be Gaumont, which came up with a similar process around 1908.

An unidentified fragment of a Pathé stencil colour film, date uncertain (c.1910?)

Another stencil colour example, from the same collector, again undated (early 1910s probably) and location unknown. Anybody recognise the building and gardens?

Pathé and Gaumont would continue with stencil colour into the 1920s, and the finest examples of their art are among the treasured items of the world’s film archives (there is a particularly strong collection at the Nederlands Filmmuseum). Stencil colour films have also inspired a growing body of academic work looking at the aesthetics and meanings of early colour. Strongly recommended is Tom Gunning’s essay ‘Colorful metaphors: the attraction of color in early silent cinema‘, originally published in the Italian journal Fotogenia (there is a version online in English), which looks at the special nature of early colour, seen in the context of the use of colour in other media (posters, books, advertisements etc.). For Gunning, it was not that the stencil colour films were more true to nature, but that they were an attraction in themselves, offering a ‘sensual intensity’, acting as a ‘signifier of fantasy or as a metaphor’.

However, just as Pathé introduced its improved colour system to the world in 1908, a rival system from Britain was announced, which did not use artificial colour but instead boasted that only its photographic colour was true to nature. The commercial and ideological (i.e. in debates over reality) between the systems that would later be known as Kinemacolor and Pathécolor will be covered in a later post.

Further reading:
Bregtje Lameris, Pathécolor: “Perfect in their renditions of the colours of nature”, in Living Pictures vol. 2 no. 2 (2003)
Brian Coe, The History of Movie Photography (1981)

Classic silent films … and a kickin’ rock concert

While planning an overview of silent film and modern music accompaniment for you, I came across Vox Lumiere, a concept so bizarre that it more than merited a post of its own.

Vox Lumiere is a music theatre company which specialises in presenting a combination of silent film and rock opera. While a silent classic plays in the background – so far their repertoire features Metropolis, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Peter Pan, The Phantom of the Opera and a ‘greatest hits’ package’ – singers and dancers enact the drama and a five-piece rock band does what five-piece rock bands tend to do. Musically, going by their promo video above, it’s not quite my taste, but clearly some people like the concept, to judge from their press reviews, and they’ve come up with something novel which in its way articulates the modern appeal that the iconography and emotion of silents can engender.

Vox Lumiere Metropolis

Vox Lumiere’s interpretation of Metropolis, from

The Vox Lumiere website provides you with video clips, sound clips, photographs, information about the company, a calendar of events (catch them next in Shreveport, Louisiana in November), and the chance to buy T-shirts and baseball caps. So that’s everything covered really.

As said, it’s not going to be everyone’s taste, and the juxtaposition of the kind of low rent rock music you only get in rock operas with silent movies (which don’t necessarily need this sort of help to gets their effects across) is peculiar, if not alarming. But it wins points for originality, enthusiasm, and for demonstrating that silents remain an inspiration – and an inherently theatrical medium.

(The title of the post is taken from a line in their promo video, by the way)

The Open Video Project

Edison titles

2 A.M. in the Subway (1905), Japanese Acrobats (1904) and The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, But He Fools Them (1902), from

There are a number of online video collections out there designed for university use which feature lectures, demonstrations, educational documentaries etc. One that has been around for some time is the Open Video Project, which is hosted by Internet2 in America, and aims “to collect and make available a repository of digitized video content for the digital video, multimedia retrieval, digital library, and other research communities.” It comprises a number of collections from around the world such the University of Maryland HCIL Open House Video Reports, Digital Himalaya, NASA K-16 Science Education Programs and the HHMI Holiday Lectures on Science, but for our purposes what is interesting about the site is the Edison Video section.

This features 187 Edison production from the Library of Congress, dating from the 1890s and 1900s. Many early Edison titles are, of course, available from the LoC’s own excellent American Memory site, but the majority of the titles here are not on the better-known site. Among the varied titles only available here are A Ballroom Tragedy (1905), A Nymph of the Waves (1903), A Wake in “Hell’s Kitchen” (1903), Dog Factory (1904), Fights of Nations (1907), Gordon Sisters Boxing (1901), International contest for the heavyweight championship–Squires vs. Burns, Ocean View, Cal., July 4th, 1907 (1907), Princeton and Yale Football Game (1903), a series of films on the United States Post Office, films of the Westinghouse electrical works in 1904, and films from the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. And many more.

Basic cataloguing information is provided, though there are some peculiar errors with dates from time to time, and the presentation is rudimentary apart from some helpful synopses. There is little information available on the collection overall, so nothing to explain the significance of Edison films or why these titles – predominantly actuality – have been chosen. All are available as freely downloadable MPEG-1s, with the same frustratingly small image size as one finds on the American Memory site. But let us not be churlish – here is a wonderful selection of titles, many of them unfamiliar and indicative of the range of Edison production, including comedies, dramas, variety acts, sports films, travel films, and sponsored industrial work. Well worth exploring.