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

10 responses

  1. Luke: Thanks for another interesting story. Gaumont was a technology pioneer. You inspired me to dig out “Discovering Cinema” and watch the part about Chronochrome again. I noticed that the clips featured a lot of blue, perhaps to show the improvement over two-color systems. I remember seeing the victory parade footage in a WWI documentary.

    Joe Thompson ;0)

  2. Hi Joe: The Gaumont Pathe Archive website (it stills feels odd that the two great rivals should have amalgamated) has a number of Chronochrome films listed, which you can see illustrated as thumbnail stills, but the clips themselves aren’t aavailable to view except to registered users (which seems to mean those in the media industries looking to buy footage). There isn’t any way I can see of bringing up all the Gaumont Color films they have, but typing in ‘Trichromie’ into the search box brings up fourteen, including a monochrome film of Gaumont Color being presented at the Gaumont Palace.

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  5. Sorry, but I don’t like to have video clips ripped from DVDs on this site. Frame stills with attribution I reckon is OK, but clips are just robbing people.

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  7. (a) Flower Studies
    (b) Farmyard Scenes
    Views of the Riviera
    Mandolinette — study by artificial light
    The Nice Carnival Fetes, 1913
    Rustic Scenes in France
    The Cock That Crowed in the Morn (nature study)
    The Broken Window (sketch)
    Justice (illustrated fable)
    The Bad Son (illustrated fable)
    Caught (sketch)
    (a) Funeral of King George of Greece, at Athens (b) Paris Fashions (c) Studies of Nature
    Venice (a) town and canals (b) glass works. (Salviati & Co.)
    National Flags — The Tricolor The Stars and Stripes
    In the Lion’s Den
    Bert Earle, in humorous sketch
    16. A French comedy entitled Le com-missaire est bon enfant by Courteline & Levy.

    Trichromies Gaumont (1912)
    Lion Let Loose (1912)
    The Same Bouquet (1912)
    Victory Parade in Paris (1919)

    GREECE: “District around MEGARE and CORINTH. Women in holiday dress 1912
    LA COTE SAUVAGE. Panorama de la Côte Sauvage. L’ARDECHE. 1912
    La mode de PARIS. 1912
    L’ARDECHE. Panorama de l’ARDECHE.Lavoir :femmes lavent le linge. BRETAGNE : La COTE SAUVAGE. 1912
    KINGS AND PERSONNALITES: The late King of Greece, arrival of royal remains at Athens 1912
    NICE CARNIVAL NICE – 1913 (1912)
    VENICE VENICE queen of Adriatic 1912
    VILLA OF THE BOUGAINVILLIERS. Beach, unloading of cases. 1912
    ENGHIEN LES BAINS “View of Enghien les Bains. The casino at Enghien regarding which has question was lately raised in the french parliament “(View of ENGHIEN-LES-BAINS (The Enghien casino the question of which fell recently within the competence of France Parliament) 1912
    MAJORCA “In the Isle of MAJORCA. Palma the the capital of balearic islands “(On the ïle of MARJORQUE. PALMA the capital of the Balearic Islands) 1912
    Die Belle-Époque in Farbe (1913)

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