Colourful stories no. 14 – À la recherche du chronochrome

Chronochrome film c.1913, from Les Premiers Pas du Cinéma

Perhaps the most beautiful of all the early colour film systems, whether ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’, was Chronochrome. Though its commercial life was not long, and though it was apparently not seen widely, recent restorations have unveiled a precious colour record of belle époque France, whose dreamy visions have a magical reality about them, capturing an ineffable something of those Proustian times.

Chronochrome was patented by Léon Gaumont in 1911. It was the first working example of the dream of the first motion picture colour inventors, a three-colour additive system in natural colours. Gaumont’s system employed a three-lens camera with red, green and blue filters, through which three images were exposed simultaneously. To get around problems experienced by previous inventors trying to move three frames of film intermittently at high speed (48 frames per second), Gaumont came up with a narrower frame height (14mm). The projector was likewise equipped with three lenses, similarly reduced in height to oblong shapes to reduce fringing.

The result was first exhibited to the Société Français de Photographie on 15 November 1912, and in London at the Coliseum on 16 January 1913. It was also exhibited in New York. Reports show appreciation of the colour, but with some complaints at the lack of brightness (all additive systems have problems in projection because they absorb so much light – a three-colour system that much more so than two-colour Kinemacolor). Accounts in some British histories of Chronochrome being a commercial failure owing to fog having drifted into the variety theatre where it was being showcased may be put down to national rivalry, but Chronochrome seems to have made a relatively modest commercial impact, at least to judge from its relative absence from the literature (Brian Coe has little to say about it, Adrian Klein still less). It had some prestige screenings, particularly in the Gaumont-Palace in Paris, and there were screenings where the colour films were exhibited with synchronised sound using the Gaumont Chronophone. There was also a dedicated cinema at 8, faubourg Montmartre, named Gaumontcolor. But it never rivalled Kinemacolor, nor even Gaumont’s own, artificial stencil colour method. Its greatest limitation was the need for the special projector to show, which naturally limited its exposure. It could be marketed as a high-class treat, but it failed to make any real inroads into a market Kinemacolor had claimed as its own.

Chronochrome images of Deauville and Venice, from

It has taken modern restorations, which can overcome the original problems in projection by creating synthesized colour prints, to reveal Chronochrome in all its evocative beauty. George Eastman House have some thirty titles, and Gaumont itself (now Gaumont Pathé Archives) has two hours’ worth of the films (the same titles as George Eastman House, maybe?), which it has restored to a richness and delicacy of colour that perhaps the films never enjoyed at the time, subject as they were to the limitations of projection at a ferocious speed and inevitable problems of registration and parallax. Gaumont kept the process going during the First World War, and there is a Chronochrome film of the victory parade in Paris in 1919.

If the above description of Chronochrome tempts you at all, you can view examples of the system on Lobster Films’ 2-DVD set on the early history of sound and colour in cinema, Les Premiers Pas du Cinéma/Discovering Cinema, available from the Projection Box in the UK, from Flicker Alley in the USA, and from Edition Filmmuseum in Germany. Chronochrome films are all actualities, filmed in bright sunlight – static, or semi-static subjects (to avoid the colour fringing exposed by too much movement), taken at Deauville, the Riviera, and in Venice. They capture a lost world.

Recommended reading:
François Garçon, Gaumont: Un siècle de cinéma (1994)

Karine Mauduit and Delphine Warin,’La Couleur dans le fonds Gaumont: le Chronochrome