Historical colours

Recreated Kinemacolor image from With Our King and Queen through India (1912), showing the Elephant Gate at Delhi, from Cinémathèque Française, reproduced on the Historical Film Colors timeline

Historical Film Colors is a timeline of motion picture colour systems and their antecedents. It has been put together by Professor Barbara Flueckiger
of the Institute of Cinema Studies, University of Zurich, as part of her research into the remastering of historical film into the digital age.

The timeline presents colour processes (240 of them), from Thomas Young’s paper on trichromatic vision published in 1802 through to Eastman Color High Speed Negative, type 5297 (1987). It is presented as a work-in-progress, with the promise of more detailed information to be added to each process, and an invitation to scholars to collaborate in building up the resource.

Each entry gives the year, name of the colour system, the person on company involved, illustrative images (taken from a variety of secondary sources), the principle expounded by the process (e.g. aditive three-colour), any relevant patent, and references to papers, articles and books. So you will find Kinemacolor, Technicolor, Prizmacolor, stencil colour, Cinecolor, Kodacolor and a great deal more, famous and not so famous. It’s more of a timeline than a database, so you can’t search for individual systems or combine search requests, but there is a drop-down menu letting to select systems by some of the categories on offer, and it is possible to present the entire timeline on one web page.

Entry for Kodachrome Two-color 1915 (Fox Nature Color)

It’s a vivid demonstration of the huge efforts made by inventors to come up with a workable motion picture colour system in the silent era, a race won – as we know – by Technicolor – but which is all the more interesting before they got it right, when assorted competing, imperfect systems struggled to convince the public and exhibitors that they had achieved the epitome of colour reproduction. None had, though the artifical colour systems of Pathé and Gaumont delighted with their painterly effects, and the ‘natural’ colour system Kinemacolor thrilled many with actualities of pomp and pageantry.

Flueckiger writes on her website that all of this work, producing the database, clearing rights in images, and collating all of the bibliographic references, has been very time-consuming and largely self-funded. So she is inviting not only contributions of ideas and texts, but financial support as well, through a crowdfunding campaign. She hopes to raise $10,000 in 90 days. Most of us not otherwise supported by universities ending doing this sort of thing for free, but maybe the more fool us if there’s money out there from principled individuals keen to support good research that can be shared with everyone. So good luck to her.

All of which makes me think it is high time the Bioscope returned to its Colourful Stories series of posts, each of which tackled a different colour process. Well, maybe I will. Eventually.

4 responses

  1. This was an interesting effort. I enjoyed looking at the all-in-one-page version. I felt a desire to click on links and drill down on some of the entries, but they aren’t there yet. Her funding idea is interesting. Many of the political and history sites I read defray their expenses by carrying advertising. One political site likes to point out to trolls who try to turn every comment thread into a controversy that they are making money for the site every time they click on it.

  2. I agree that you want there to be more functionality than is actually on offer, but it is handy to see it all on one screen. The funding idea is ambitious, to say the least, but it’s not really in the modern spirit of things. I wonder who’s going to contribute $5,000 and get to be named co-chair of the database?

  3. The still from With Our King and Queen through India shown at the top of the post intrigues me; I had seen this image previously, but only in a very small format, like here ( http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/kinemaco.htm ) for instance, and I thought that it only remained thanks to a photograph of a film strip; but the good quality of the image shown here seems to indicate that maybe some better material still exists. Is there any chance that a fragment of this portion of the film survives? (I hope my english is understandable).

  4. Well, as the man said, I was wondering who was going to ask me that.

    The image on widescreenmuseum.com comes from Adrian Klein’s 1936 book Colour Cinematography, where he reproduces a few frames from the Durbar film without giving a source. My guess would be that that Klein got his film strip from the British film historian and collector Will Day, whose collection of papers, equipment and films were later purchased by the Cinémathèque Française. So it might be that the Cinémathèque has just a few frames and has created a single image approximation of the Kinemacolor effect (and a different frame, or rather two frames, from that selected by Klein and widescreenmuseum.com), but isn’t sitting on the whole, or even part of the film. But it would be great to be wrong!

    Does anyone know better?

    I took the CF image from the Historical Colours timeline, by the way.

%d bloggers like this: