Capturing colour

Kinemacolor test film (‘Two Clowns’), filmed c.1906 by G.A. Smith and featuring his wife Laura Bayley

Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder is an exhibition on the early history of motion picture colour and related media. The exhibition opened on 4 December at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and runs until 20 March 2011. The exhibition encompasses magic lanterns, early colour photography, chromatropes, kromskops and applied colour films, through to Kinemacolor, Kodachrome and Technicolor, and explores dramas and actualities, Hollywood productions and home movies.

There’s not much to look at on the Museum website, but I can vouch for the presence at the exhibition of some precious examples of very early motion picture colour technology, including a Lee and Turner triple-lens colour projector c.1901 and a Kinemacolor projector from the collection of the National Media Museum, which I saw being packed up for the exhibition a few weeks ago.

There will be a detailed report once I have visited the exhibition (late January, I think). Meanwhile, if you are interested in the history of colour cinematography, the Bioscope produced a series, Colourful Stories, on the first film colour systems, a couple of years ago:

  • Part 1: James Clerk Maxwell and the first colour photograph
  • Part 2: The Kromskop
  • Part 3: The first patent for colour cinematography, in 1897
  • Part 4: The Lee and Turner three-colour system, patented in 1899
  • Part 5: The Brighton School
  • Part 6: Inventing Kinemacolor
  • Part 7: Reviving Kinemacolor
  • Part 8: Hand-painted colour
  • Part 9: The Pathé stencil colour system
  • Part 10: First public exhibition of natural colour motion pictures
  • Part 11: Kinemacolor in America
  • Part 12: Tinting and toning
  • Part 13: The end of Kinemacolor
  • Part 14: Gaumont Chronochrome

I’m well aware that the series is not done yet (Prizmacolor, Kodachrome, Technicolor and more if we’re to complete the story for the silent era). I’ll get round to finishing it one day, I promise…


‘An odd type of theatre front’: illustration from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

One of the indications of the speculative, exploratory nature of early cinema is the uncertainty felt at the time over what it or its products were to be called. Living pictures? Animated photography? Cinema? Kinema? Kinematography? Motion pictures? Moving pictures? Photoplays? Bioscope? It’s worth bearing in mind such terms when searching for early cinema subjects in digitised book and newspaper sources (alongside such other handy terms as kinetoscope, biograph, electric theatre etc.). One term you might not think to use is ‘motography’. I’m not sure how long the lifespan was of this word, but for a short period it was used by some seeking for a distinctive, all-encompassing term for the new art – indeed it was the title of an American film journal of this period (it ran 1909-1918 and was originally called The Nickelodeon).

The term was certainly favoured by John B. Rathbun, author of Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting: A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector; the conduct of film exhibiting; methods of coloring films; talking pictures, etc. (1914), the latest volume to go into the Bioscope Library.

John B. Rathbun was a technical writer (and an associate editor of Motography, which helps explains his attachment to the term). His book is yet another of those all-purpose guides to the new industry of motion pictures, a blend of potted history, social history, technical explanation and marvelment at the rise of this extraordinary business and the huge sums that it was starting to earn. As indicated by its subtitle, Rathbun’s book takes us through the principles, production processes and exhibition of motion pictures up to 1914. It is addressed to a reader with a general interest in the phenomenon, though it sometimes forgets this.

The book starts with the familiar pre-history of the medium, from Zoetropes to Muybridge to Edison to motion picture projection. The principles of the taking and projecting of films are covered, with practical information on film stock itself, including development, printing and colour tinting. Film production follows, covering both studio and non-fiction work, then the almost obligatory chapter on the mysteries of scenario writing with suggestions on how to sell your scenario to the studios. If the lay reader did not fancy his or her chances as a scriptwriter, then they might consider opening a motion picture theatre as the best way to make money out of this new business, and advice follows on setting up a cinema, putting together the programme (with handy advice on dealing with different ages of film reels), advertising the show, an interesting discussion on whether to include vaudeville acts or not, and operating profitable sidelines.

The filming of an ‘industrial’, with Cooper-Hewitt mercury vapour lamps on the right, from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

A long chapter on the technicalities of projection seems to belong to another book, and might have been enough to scare off one or two would-be speculators. Rathbun follows this with guidelines on local censorship laws and regulations, then rounds off matters with an interesting chapter on colour (covering stencil colour, the Friese-Greene process, Kinemacolor and Gaumont Chronochrome), stereoscopy and synchronised sound films.

Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting is rather muddled in the guidelines it provides, as it is unsure at what level or precisely to whom it is directing its advice. Buyers at the time might have been less than satisfied, but for us now it has plenty of handy information on how the industry was perceived and some useful data and social observations relating to the exhibition sector. There are illustrations of studio interiors, laboratories, wardrobe rooms, camera operators, cinema floor plans, projection booths and so on, to add to its value as a reference source. It’s available from the Internet Archive, and into the Bioscope Library it goes.

Pordenone diary 2009 – day five


We continue with the daily reports from the Pordenone silent film festival supplied by The Mysterious X (which I have decided is a suitable name for our determinedly anonymous reporter), having reached Wednesday 7 October. And it was a day that started off with what undoubtedly would have been your editor’s highlight of the week, had he only been there. Alas, alas.

Firstly, may I add my apologies to John Sweeney, and indeed Donald Sosin, for misattributing the piano work on Monday … I did double-check at the time, and than forgot to write it down … fatal.

It’s an early start for fans of the crime thriller, but well worth it … because the very first film was the utterly splendid A Canine Sherlock Holmes (UK 1912) preserved and presented by the Nederlands Filmmuseum; around 3/4 parody, yet also partly in the tradition of Rescued By Rover, our hero here is a fairly nondescript-looking terrier, rejoicing under the name of Spot (in the catalogue named as Spot The Urbanora Dog, which raises hopes that there be more films starring the little chap … Mr Editor?) (Alas no, but the world’s archivists must go and hunt for some as a matter of urgency. Ed.). He has an aristocratic detective owner, but there is no mistaking who is decidedly the brains of the outfit; I really want to describe the detecting, the trailing of the thieves and the ruse employed by Spot to gain entry to the hideout, but this is a film you will want to see without too much in the way of pre-formed ideas … so let me say that Spot is the most accomplished canine actor I’ve seen since Eddie in Frasier


Urbanora poster for A Canine Sherlock Holmes, from the Giornate del Cinema Muto catalogue

The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu episode today was The Clue of The Pigtail (UK 1923) which rattled along efficiently and featured a decent stunt; a three or four-storey dive into a Thames dock somewhere off ‘Chinatown’ … cue re-use of Stoll’s Chinatown sets, interiors and exteriors, from The Sign of Four. The ersatz Holmes adventure, William Voss, Der Milliondieb (Germany 1916) was interesting, with a good plot about automata, impersonation and fraud, but exceedingly leisurely pacing within the film – langourous shots, loose editing – all but wrecked any pleasure. It may be unfair to compare films made seven years apart in this era, but after the Stoll serial, this did drag.

From Albatros, or rather their predecessor company Ermolieff, came Le Quinzieme Prelude De Chopin (France 1922) a film with a lot to interest outside of a pretty melodramatic plot, though that was handled well by Tourjansky, who made it seem just about believable … the film invests the Chopin piece of the title with near-magical powers to both calm but yet also bring people out of depressions … equally beloved by the cuckolded father of the family in the film, and the disabled young man next door. The playing for the film by Mauro Colombis was simply superb, borrowing heavily from Chopin as you would expect. The more unexpected treats within the film, early on before the family unit collapses, are extended sequences of home cinema evenings, with (well-faked) Chaplin comedies being projected by a hand-cranked Pathe (possibly 28mm?), later inspiring some creditable Chaplin impersonations, improvised by the young boy of the house.

My first Collegium session of the week was on the subject of colour restoration techniques, hosted by Haghefilm; I’m not any sort of technician so some of this went over my head, but it is heartening that work continues to be done to try and improve both digital and traditional restoration techniques; and that there may be mileage in combining Desmet toning with traditional dye tinting … which means there would be no need to use the potentially dangerous chemicals used in traditional toning, and yet could give more subtle, and closer to the original, effects than Desmet tinting and toning which can seem overcoloured. I think I’ve got that right … hopefully someone will inform me if I’ve got that wrong.


Back into the Verdi for the programme of short British films with the theme of sound and music; some experimental sound on disc films, some just about music. Based heavily on the programme curated by Tony Fletcher for the British Silent Film Festival at the Barbican in London this June, it included some real gems … the highlights being the combining of anthropoplogical film with cylinder recordings both made on the same expedition to the Torres Strait peoples in 1898 (left); a short actuality of children dancing what seemed to be a clog morris to a street barrel-organ; Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terris in a series of song and dance showcases; a proto-bouncing-ball film for The Tincan Fusiliers, and my personal favourite, a circa-1911 Hepwix Vivaphone – a film made to accompany a pre-existing disc – Are We Downhearted? No! a song that would be reworked in the trenches of WW1 but here in its original form, performed (well, mimed to) by a cast of Hepworth stalwarts with real verve and energy.

I ducked Rotaie (Italy 1929) from the Canon thread; needless to say everyone who saw it rated it very highly … but returned for La Dame Masquée (France 1924), from Albatros – described in the catalogue notes as misogynistic, I read it slightly differently; to me, only the heroine had any redeeming features; all the men were venal, cheats, blackmailers or whatever, the Aunt figure no better; the Uncle weak and vacillating until stirred into action in the final reel of what had by then become a superior episode of Dr Fu Manchu … but it held the attention, and the freshly-arrived Neil Brand probably improved the experience no end.


After dinner a special event; a performance of Betty Olivero’s score, for a quintet, for Der Golem (Germany 1920) conducted by Guenter Buchwald; it employs a string quartet plus clarinets to evoke both the medieval ghetto and the palace seen onscreen; a klezmer palette for the ghetto, courtly dances for the palace … beautifully played, and the players richly deserved the sustained applause. It’s a very strange film though, and despite repeated viewings I can’t help but think that, though within it there are a series of iconic and influential images, it doesn’t quite succeed as an entity … too uneven in tone? Maybe it’s just me.

The last film of the day was a city symphony film, Etudes Sur Paris (France 1928) by André Sauvage, which I declined for a quick couple of glasses and a relatively early night …

And so we bid farewell to day five of the Giornate del Cinema Muto. Stay tuned for what will unquestionably be day six, coming up soon.

<a hrefReport on day one
Report on day two
Report on day three
Report on day four
Report on day six
Report on day seven
Report on day eight

Albert Kahn at last on DVD


Regular visitors to this blog will know all about The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, the BBC television series which highlighted the astonishing collection of Autochrome photographs and motion picture records of life around the world in the early years of the twentieth century, created by French millionaire philanthropist Albert Kahn. You may also know that there has been immense frustration for the many fans of the series that no DVD release has been made available, supposdly for licensing reasons, except for a colossally expensive version intended for the educational market.

Now prayers have been answered. The series has made it to DVD. The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn has been released by 2 entertain (the video distributor part-owned by BBC Worldwide). The 3-disc DVD set (PAL, region 2) is in nine episodes, running 462 mins (500 mins says the BBC shop). The series shows beautifully-composed scenes from around the world: China, Brazil, the United States, Ireland, France, Mongolia, Norway, Vietnam and much more, from the mid-1900s, through the First World War and into the 1920s. Kahn’s team of photographers chiefly took still photographs, using the complex Autochrome process (invented by the Lumière brothers) with its hauntingly beautiful results, but they produced monochrome motion picture records as well, capturing distant lands and cultures on the brink of disappearing into history, and unconstrained by the need to convert the material into form that would be acceptable to the commercial cinema.

It’s unclear to what degree the DVD represents the original BBC series, which was shown in nine one-hour parts, the first five broadcast on BBC4 on April 2007 under the title The Edwardians in Colour (subtitled The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn); the remaining four as The Twenties in Colour in November 2007. The BBC Active educational version is 9×50 mins. Amazon and the BBC Shop site say that there are ten parts, but the British Board of Film Classification registers the release as being in nine parts, and this seems more likely. Anyway, the DVD set is now available, having been released on 7 September.

If you want to find out more about Kahn and his Archives de la Planète project, visit the Searching for Albert Kahn post on this blog.

Eight days and evenings of cinephilic joy


Feu Mathias Pascal

The programme for this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato has been announced. The festival takes place 27 June-4 July in Bologna, Italy, and is dedicated to restored films, silent and sound. Bologna always puts on a marvellously rich mix of astutely programmed themes, and this year looks like no exception. If it wasn’t quite so hot in Italy at that time of year I’d be there every year – though people keep telling me how good the air conditioning is. Well, one day, maybe… Anyway, here are the words of festival director Peter von Bagh to tell me what I’ll be missing:

Il Cinema Ritrovato, the festival sponsored by the Mostra Internazionale del Cinema Libero and the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, invites film lovers from around the world to Bologna from Saturday June 27th through Saturday July 4th, 2009. Eight days and evenings of cinephilic joy to be experienced in various locations: the twin screens of the Cineteca’s Lumière cinemas, one dedicated just to silent cinema, the other to sound; the Bologna Opera House and the Arlecchino Cinema (where we can experience the miracle of big screen projection as films were meant to be seen, but almost never are these days).

Let’s get started with some of this year’s titles. We pay homage to certain films simply because they have a special place in film lovers’ memory: Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes in its splendid new Technicolor restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive with The Film Foundation; a brand new restoration of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (for the closing night); Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937), the predecessor of Ozu’s Tokyo Monogatari and its equal as a deeply emotional experience.

As always, evening screenings with a live orchestra promise to be some of the most exciting events: Timothy Brock, with a new score for the print restored by Cinémathèque française of Marcel L’Herbier’s Feu Mathias Pascal, the greatest Pirandello film; and Otto Donner, the grand maestro of Scandinavian jazz, with King Vidor’s The Crowd. Of course, there are also films that will be shown because they have been forgotten for too long such as Village of Sin by Ol’ga Preobraženskaja (1927), a rural melodrama and a key film from a particularly rich period of Soviet silent cinema.

The director of the year is the great Italian-American Frank Capra: his entire silent output, of which amazingly little is known today. We will be enchanted by works from the already fully-formed comic mastermind during Capra’s silent period, with their incisive view of social life and without the ready-made formulas of his later years. We will also dive into the dynamic, original and little-known beginning of his first 8 sound films, culminating in decisive masterpieces like Platinum Blonde and The Bitter Tea of General Yen. The program was created in full partnership with Sony-Columbia and with the participation of scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride.

Vittorio Cottafavi is comparable to Sirk or Fassbinder or Leone in his capacity to treat any marginal genre with respect, literary sophistication, visual flair (with beautiful ideas about space, irony and rhythm) and a deeply nuanced popular sensibility which he lavished upon everything he touched, especially historical subjects and the peplum, which in his hands became a noble genre. The series of 12 films is curated by Adriano Aprà and Giulio Bursi.

The pleasure dome of the Arlecchino Cinema will offer two special sections: CinemaScope, widening horizons for the sixth year in a row, and color, the beginning of something that will bless our programs for some years to come. Our CinemaScope selection offers treasures like The Track of the Cat (William Wellman’s strange western with an even stranger color concept) and three famous epic movies by Vittorio Cottafavi. The first session dedicated to color is an introduction to the most notable uses of color during the first 50 years of cinema history, including the oldest hand-painted films, like masterpieces from Méliès and de Chomón, the first full color systems (Gaumont Chronochrome, Kinemacolor), tinted films, early Technicolor (in films like Scherzinger’s Redskin) and of course the miracle of the full three-strip Technicolor, both through restorations using contemporary film stock and in examples of original prints that have survived from its glory days. In other words, unforgettable viewing: Drums along the Mohawk (Ford), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Lewin), and of course The Red Shoes.

One Hundred Years Ago, a time travel journey that began 6 years ago, will again showcase the most exciting documentaries and fiction films about the life and imagination of people who lived exactly one century ago, with two special features: an homage to the miracle of Méliès and a reconstruction of the very first film festival in history, which took place, of course, in 1909. Mariann Lewinsky is this section’s curator.

Among the silent highlights we’ll present two small-scale portraits of notable personalities. First up is director Eleuterio Rodolfi (1876-1933), who started as an actor and later became a director of a number of films, including the celebrated 1917 version of Hamlet. And Anita Berber (1899-1928), who was a legendary, androgynous figure of Weimar Berlin: an actress, nude dancer, writer, celebrated in a portrait painted by Otto Dix, and equally impressive in the surviving examples of her appearances on screen.

Chaplin’s influence was unlimited and can be seen in the high quality of his assistants’ work. After Monta Bell last year, we present an equally creative mind, Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, with his two most remarkable films, A Gentleman of Paris (1927) and Laughter (1930).

Mornings too will have a special start: a full pack of Maciste, thanks to the restorations of seven films in collaboration with Museo Nazionale del Cinema di Torino. The Italian superman was a personification of the mythical hero adventuring in the past or right in the middle of modern times – the first and arguably the greatest of all the strong men of film history. The films, celebrated by Fellini and others, are totally fascinating as such, and moreover present a kind of synthesis of the film history of their day, combining – as Vittorio Martinelli put it – elements of Méliès and Lang, Gustave Doré and Flash Gordon…

Sponsored by the Cinémathèque de Toulouse and Gosfilmofond, curated by Valérie Pozner and Natacha Laurent, Kinojudaica is a series on Russian and Soviet films featuring Jewish actors, directors and themes, presenting little-known films from masters and equally fascinating films from filmmakers doomed to remain in total obscurity because of circumstances or because the films were forbidden for what seemed an eternity. Kinojudaica presents a rich flowering of Jewish films made in Russia and the Soviet Union: four silent programs and three little known sound films like Frontier by Michail Dubson (1935), The Return of Nathan Becker by Boris Špis and Rašel Mil’man (1931) and Nepokoronnye (The Taras Family) by Marc Donskoï (1945), with its terrifying re-creation of Babi Yar on screen.

Then there are films that offer a cross-section of life, with 10-15 people from all walks of society who encounter each other in situations without any clear-cut protagonist. For unknown reasons, British cinema made this a subgenre all its own, with films like Rome Express (Walter Forde, 1932), Friday the Thirteenth (Victor Saville, 1933), The Passing of the Third Floor Back (Berthold Viertel, 1935), culminating with Carol Reed’s finest 1930s film, Bank Holiday (1938).

Richard Leacock will be our guest this year. The cameraman of Flaherty’s film, Louisiana Story, and as such a bridge between the greatest tradition and the new heights of “direct cinema”, Leacock will present his own masterpiece, A Portrait of Stravinsky.

The cinema of Vichy gives us a glimpse into that enigmatic, paradoxical period of French film, with the reconstruction of an entire program from April 17, 1942, feature films, short propaganda films from 1940-44, official Vichy and other collaborationist materials, and resistance films. This program was curated by Eric Le Roy with Les Archives Françaises du Film.

Last year’s von Sternberg series was such an astounding success that we can’t imagine it being over: so this year we are offering the master’s most sublime film of his later years (The Shanghai Gesture, the perfect Dietrich film without Dietrich) as well as a selection of fabulous footage from I Claudius, a film that was never finished and that still haunts the world’s cinephiles. And we will see Von Sternberg at work once again in an interview by Eric de Kuyper for Belgian TV.

The underlying theme of this all is again cinephilia, the absolute love of cinema. Several programs will be dedicated to this theme: films on notable personalities (Bernard Chardère, Henri Langlois’s television interviews), the unsurpassed Cinéastes de notre temps programs by André S. Labarthe.

The festival also sponsors the Film Publishing Fair (Books, DVDs, Antiquarian and Vintage Materials) and Il Cinema Ritrovato DVD Award (6th edition). We would like to remind you that Il Cinema Ritrovato will host two seminars: the continuation of the Film Restoration Summer School / FIAF Summer School 2009, organized by the Cineteca di Bologna, and a workshop for European cinema exhibitors organized by Europa Cinemas and Progetto Schermi e Lavagne. Enrollment in each seminar requires separate registration, available on this website.

On a sadder note, funding for our festival has been cut drastically, so we unfortunately have had to rethink the hospitality we can offer to our very dear public. The rates agreed on with various hotels in the city are still very advantageous, and we hope that the films we are showing this year will convince you to be with us once again this year.

You are most cordially welcomed to the most memorable eight days of 2009.

Artistic Director of Il Cinema Ritrovato
Peter von Bagh

The full programme is on the festival site (in English and Italian), from which these are the silent films and silent film-related events on offer (in Italian, but you’ll cope):

Martedì 30 giugno
THE CROWD (La folla) Stati Uniti, 1928 Regia: King Vidor
Accompagnamento dal vivo del gruppo Jazz di Otto Donner

Giovedì 2 luglio
Progetto Chaplin
A DAY’S PLEASURE (Una giornata di vacanza) Stati Uniti, 1919 Regia: Charles Chaplin
SUNNYSIDE (Charlot in campagna) Stati Uniti, 1919 Regia: Charles Chaplin
ONE WEEK (Una settimana) Stati Uniti, 1921 Regia: Buster Keaton
Accompagnamento dal vivo diretto da Timothy Brock

Domenica 28 giugno
FEU MATHIAS PASCAL (Il fu Mattia Pascal) Francia, 1926 Regia: Marcel L’Herbier
Accompagnamento dal vivo dell’Orchestra del Teatro Comunale diretta da Timothy Brock

Cento anni fa: i film del 1909 – programmi a cura di Mariann Lewinsky

Omaggio a Eleuterio Rodolfi, Anita Berber e Georges Méliès

Frank Capra: il nome sopra il titolo
FULTA FISHER’S BOARDING HOUSE Stati Uniti, 1922 Regia: Frank Capra
THE STRONG MAN (La grande sparata) Stati Uniti, 1926 Regia: Frank Capra
LONG PANTS (Le sue ultime mutandine) Stati Uniti, 1927 Regia: Frank Capra
THAT CERTAIN THING (Quella certa cosa) Stati Uniti, 1928 Regia: Frank Capra
SO THIS IS LOVE? (Dunque è questo l’amore?) Stati Uniti, 1928 Regia: Frank Capra
THE MATINEE IDOL (Il teatro di Minnie) Stati Uniti, 1928 Regia: Frank Capra.
THE WAY OF THE STRONG (La maniera del forte) Stati Uniti,1928 Regia: Frank Capra
SUBMARINE (Femmine del mare) Stati Uniti,1928 Regia: Frank Capra
THE YOUNGER GENERATION (La nuova generazione) Stati Uniti, 1929 Regia: Frank Capra
THE DONOVAN AFFAIR (L’affare Donovan) Stati Uniti, 1929 Regia: Frank Capra

Kinojudaica, l’immagine degli ebrei nel cinema russo e sovietico
OÙ EST LA VÉRITÉ? (Vu iz emes?) URSS, 1913 Regia: Semion Mintus
LE MALHEUR DE SARAH (Gorrié Sarry) URSS, 1915 Regia: Alexandre Arkatov
LÉON DREY URSS, 1915 Regia: Evgueni Bauer
VÉRA TCHЕBЕRIAK URSS, 1917 Regia: Nikolaï Brechko-Brechklovski
CONTRE LA VOLONTÉ DES PÈRES (Protiv voli otsov) URSS, 1926-27 Regia: Evgueni Ivanov-Barkov
LES CINQ FIANCÉES (Piat nevest) URSS, 1929-30 Regia: Alexandre Soloviev
RETENEZ LEURS VISAGES (Zapomnite ikh litsa) URSS, 1929-30 Regia: Ivan Mutanov

Tutto Maciste
MACISTE (IL TERRORE DEI BANDITI) Italia, 1915 Regia: Luigi Romano Borgnetto,V. Denizot
MACISTE ALPINO Italia, 1916 Regia: Luigi Romano Borgnetto
MACISTE INNAMORATO Italia, 1919 Regia: Luigi Romano Borgnetto
MACISTE IN VACANZA Italia, 1920 Regia: Luigi Romano Borgnetto
MACISTE ALL’INFERNO Italia, 1925 Regia: Guido Brignone
MACISTE NELLA GABBIA DEI LEONI Italia, 1926 Regia: Guido Brignone
MACISTE CONTRO LO SCEICCO Italia, 1926 Regia: Mario Camerini

Jean Epstein, il mare come definizione del cinema
FINIS TERRAE Francia, 1929 Regia: Jean Epstein
MOR VRAN Francia, 1931 Regia: Jean Epstein

Dossier Chaplin e Napoleone

Omaggio a Harry d’Abbadie Arrast

Dossier Metropolis

Dossier Blasetti

La crisi economica ai tempi del muto

Rome Express, Friday the Thirteenth, Rodolfi’s Hamlet, Kinemacolor (Bologna has possibily the world’s largest collection of Kinemacolor films) and chronochrome, the films of 1909… Such gems, such treasures. I must be mad.

Albert Kahn atteint dix mille

‘Twas not so long ago when The Bioscope was delighted to have reached its first 10,000 visits. Now on post, 2007’s Searching for Albert Kahn, pushed on by a recent burst of activity no doubt inspired by a rescreening somewhere, has just passed the 10,000 mark all on its own. I hope one or two in search of Edwardian colour have stayed on to discover the complementary delights of the early and silent film world.

(Another) Kinemacolor centenary


Brian Pritchard (right) demonstrating the No. 19 Kinemacolor projector to Bruce Mousell (left), step-grandson of Kinemacolor producer Charles Urban, February 2008

Kinemacolor, as you will probably have deduced by now, is of great interest to the Bioscope, and it was sad that so few could get to the invite-only ‘centenary’ screening of some Kinemacolor films which took place at the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted in February of this year.

But if that was recognising the centenary of Kinemacolor as a public process (it was first shown to a public in May 1908), then there is the centenary of its name, since it wasn’t known as Kinemacolor until it had a matinee screening at the Palace Theatre, London, on 26 February 1909, swiftly followed by its commercial debut at the Palace on 1 March 1909.

All of which leads us to this cenentary event at the National Media Museum, Bradford, which is offering the chance to see Kinemacolor screening alongside other treasures. Here’s the blurb:

Here is news of a special presentation taking place on Sunday 15 February 2009 at the National Media Museum, Bradford to mark the centenary of Kinemacolor, the world’s first successful cinema colour process. Entitled Bringing Colour to the Movies – re-creating what it was like to go to the Picture Palace a century ago, it is presented by David Cleveland, Brian Pritchard and Nigel Lister, who provides piano accompaniment.

The show includes short films from the 1890s, comedies and trick films from between 1900 and 1908, the first successful British animated film Dream of Toyland and film of the Titanic in 1912. These are shown on a hand-turned Gaumont Chrono 35mm projector of about 1912, restored by Nigel Lister. This machine worked in the Picture Palace at Southwold, Suffolk and survived until 1958 under the raked seating of the cinema, from where it was rescued by David Cleveland.

Kinemacolor’s first public showing was on 26 February 1909 at the Palace Theatre, London. It was very successful for about six years, then, after losing a lawsuit claiming its patent invalid, Kinemacolor went into a rapid decline. At the height of Kinemacolor’s success there was a large library of films but these were later destroyed and very little survives. The Filmmuseum in Amsterdam have a few films and they have very kindly provided a print of one for this show.

The Kinemacolor projector used, No 19, is from the first batch delivered in 1910 and was used in the Argyll Theatre in Birkenhead. It somehow survived, and has been stored in the Wirral Museum. With the help of Colin Simpson, the Principal Museums Officer, the projector has been on loan to Brian Pritchard who has restored it to working order without altering the machine. With a motor to drive the mechanism at 32 frames per second and a new print of Italian Lakes (1910), Kinemacolor is on the screen once again.

The programme concludes with the science fiction drama of 1909 produced by Charles Urban called The Aerial Torpedo. This film demonstrates the one colour system in regular use throughout the silent period – tinting.

This special presentation will include an introduction and commentary between films by David Cleveland, with Brian Pritchard on the technicalities of Kinemacolor and Nigel Lister on the restoration of the Gaumont Chrono projector.

Bringing Colour to the Movies is on Sunday 15 February at 4.00 pm at On Location, National Media Museum, Bradford BD1 1NQ. Tickets £7.00 (full) and £5.00 (concessions). Call the Box Office 0870 70 10 200 (National Rate). Telephone booking 8.30am – 8.30pm daily, or book online at Please note: seat numbers are limited, so early booking is advised.

An accompanying display of original objects and artefacts from the Museum’s Charles Urban archive and Cinematography collection, tells the story of Kinemacolor’s spectacular success. This will be on show from 10 February 2009 at Insight: the Collections and Research Centre on Level One of the Museum. Free entry Tuesdays–Sundays 10.00am–6.00pm.

As someone who spent years (literally) delving into the manifold riches of the Charles Urban archive (formerly of the Science Museum library in London but now held in Bradford), I can recommend going just to see a display of those alone. As for that lost Kinemacolor library,it is a tragedy that the great majority is lost. But we must never lose hope, and the Bioscope is keeping its eyes and ears open, and will let you know should it find anything, one day.

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

Colourful stories no. 13 – Kinemacolor, its rise and fall

Coloured illustration from the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue attempting to give an impression of the colour effect of With Our King and Queen Through India (1912)

After something of a gap, we return to our on-going history of colour and the silent cinema by marking the end of Kinemacolor. The attention given to Kinemacolor so far in this series might give the impression that it was widely experienced by audiences. This was not the case. Ordinary cinema audiences were far more likely to experience colour in the form of tinting or toning, or stencil coloured prints. Kinemacolor films were restricted to theatres equipped with specialist projection equipment, often charging higher prices. Kinemacolor was a select entertainment. The impression it made was therefore on the wealthier sort (relatively), and there is plenty of evidence for people deciding to attend a Kinemacolor show would have never deigned to attend a film show previously. The film industry recognised how Kinemacolor was attracting new audiences, raising the possibility of a different, classier kind of film show in the future. Although the trade respected Kinemacolor for its technical achievement, its real significance was social.

Kinemacolor had started off in Britain in 1908. It received its commercial debut in February 1909, when it was first named Kinemacolor, and the Natural Color Kinematograph Company was formed to produce Kinemacolor films, both dramas and actualities – the latter always being the company’s stronger suit. Kinemacolor’s producer, Charles Urban, set about making a hoped-for fortune by licensing Kinemacolor across the world. The policy enjoyed mixed fortunes.

In establishing a system of international licences, Urban sometimes managed to sell Kinemacolor three times over: the national patent rights, the exhibition rights (for restricted periods, then to be re-negotiated) and naturally the exclusive Kinemacolor apparatus and films necessary to put on such programmes. The sale of patent rights was the most lucrative business, though they were negotiated for eight territories only. £2,500 was paid for Switzerland, £4,000 for Brazil, £6,000 for Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, £8,000 for Italy, £10,000 for France, £10,000 for Japan, £10,265 for Canada, and £40,000 for the United States of America. Few made much money for the investors, a general get-rich-quick mentality having taken over. Kinemacolor was a hard sell, and few outside Britain really understood how to market something so out of the ordinary. The demise of the Kinemacolor Company of America, after high hopes, has already been covered, but the stories of France and Japan are of interest.

Kinemacolor opened in France with a special exhibition in Paris on 8 July 1908. A three month engagement began at the Folies Bergère from September 1909. The French patent rights were sold in 1912 to the Raleigh et Robert firm, which created a prestige centre for Kinemacolor exhibition in Paris at the Biograph Theatre, Rue de Peletier. In July 1912, an attempt to float an independent company, Kinemacolor de France to supersede Raleigh et Robert’s business failed when insufficient working capital was raised by subscription. The Natural Color Kinematograph Company bought back the French patents for £5,000 more than they had sold them for, and this led Urban to attempt to repeat the formula through purchasing the lease on premises in the Rue Edouard VII, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris. Here he undertook to build his very own theatre, the Théâtre Edouard VII in 1913. This extravagant move proved catastrophic, with the theatre taking too long to build, being too small in size (it seated 800), obscurely located, and tickets priced too highly. Urban lost tens of thousands, and Kinemacolor in France came to an ignominious end.

Japan was a comparative success story. The patent rights for Japan and East Asian were acquired in 1912 by the Fukuhodo company, which paid 40,000 yen (£10,000). The rights then passed on to Toyo Shokai. A three-hour Kinemacolor programme was given before the Emperor of Japan in August 1913, and in October the first commercial Kinemacolor programme opened at the Kirin-kan in Asakusa, Tokyo. Toyo Shokai reformed itself on 17 March 1914 as Tennenshoku Katsudoshashin Kabushiki Kaisha (Natural Color Kinematograph Company), abbreviated to Tenkatsu. Kinemacolor exhibition in Japan was well-managed and profitable, and local film production followed, predominantly fiction films, which were adaptations from kabuki plays. However, the onset of the war led to a sharp rise in the cost of film stock, and as Kinemacolor used double the amount of film to monochrome production, its use became restricted to special scenes in selected productions. After a gap of two years the last Japanese film to use Kinemacolor (and quite probably the last Kinemacolor film produced anywhere), Saiyûki Zokuhen, was released in July 1917, but the novelty had passed.

Charles Urban (centre) with camera team in Delhi for the filming of the Durbar, December 1912

The Delhi Durbar
In Britain Kinemacolor enjoyed four or five years of spectacular success, driven by its films of travel and actuality, in particular scenes of royal spectacle. Urban was fortunate that the rise of Kinemacolor coincided with a series of royal events whose ceremonial pageantry naturally suited the colur system, and which proved excellent subjects for export. The funeral of King Edward VII (1910), the coronation of King George V (1911), the investiture of the Prince of Wales (1911), and above all the Delhi Durbar, a huge extravaganza held in India to mark the coronation of the new King-Emperor (1911), all made Kinemacolor a must-see attraction for many. The Delhi Durbar films, entitled With Our King and Queen Through India (first exhibited 1912), lasted for over two hours and was more of a flexible multimedia show than a film as such, as its many component parts could be shifted about according to taste, and its showings were accompanied by orchestral music that copied that which was played at the event itself, a lecturer, and in its prestige screenings at the Kinemacolor London showcase theatre, the Scala, a stage that was made up to look like the Taj Mahal. This lyrical passage – a favourite of mine – from the British film trade paper The Bioscope sums up the awe-struck reaction many had to seeing the Delhi Durbar films, and Kinemacolor in general:

Last Friday evening, at the Scala Theatre, was an occasion in many respects as significant and memorable as it was wonderful. It may be left for future generations to realise the full extent of its importance – men and women yet unborn who, by the magic of a little box and a roll of film, will be enabled to witness the marvels of a hundred years before their age, in all the colour and movement of life. Perverse old grandfathers will no longer be able to indulge disdainfully in reminiscences of the superiority of the times ‘when they were boys’; the past will be an open book for all to read in, and, if the grandfathers exaggerate, they may be convicted by the camera’s living record. Man has conquered most things; now he has vanquished Time. With the cinematograph and the gramophone he can ‘pot’ the centuries as they roll past him, letting them loose at will, as he would a tame animal, to exhibit themselves for his edification and delight. The cinematograph, in short, is the modern Elixir of Life – at any rate, that part of life which is visible to the eye. It will preserve our bodies against the ravages of age, and the beauty, which was once for but a day, will now be for all time.

The end
Kinemacolor was not to be for all time. Its demise came not from the failings of the international licensees but destruction at the centre. In 1913 a court case was launched against the Natural Color Kinematography Company by Bioschemes, a company marketing a rival motion picture colour system, Biocolour, invented by William Friese-Greene. Biocolour was an additive system which employed film frames alternatively stained red and green, close therefore in principle to Kinemacolor. Bioschemes had struggled to get off the ground because its every move seemed to infringe the Kinemacolor patent. With backing from motor racing driver S.F. Edge, Bioschemes challenged the Kinemacolor patent’s validity in the courts. The Friese-Greene case was lost, but on appeal in March 1914 the decision was reversed. The appeal judge declared that the patent claimed to produced natural colours, but also stated that it did not reproduce a true blue, since it used only red and green filters. The judge declared that it could not therefore support its claim to be natural. So the patent was invalid.

The decision was catastrophic for Kinemacolor, because it destroyed the foundations on which the whole licensing scheme was based. However, it did not of itself mean that Kinemacolor was necessarily over. The system was there for anyone to use – it was just that Urban no longer could market it exclusively. But tied to specialised projection, and being more expensive to produce (as said, Kinemacolor films were double the length of conventional films), no one (outside of Japan) was prepared to make a go of it.

‘Firing Four 12-in Gun Salvoes’, a Photochrom postcard recreating a colour scene from Britain Prepared (1915)

Urban did make a few more Kinemacolor films himself. With the outset of the First World War, he created another multimedia show, With Our Fighting Forces in Europe, which mixed library footage of troops and nations with some actuality film taken in Belgium in late 1914 – the only colour film taken of the war on land (none of this footage is known to survive today). Then for the British propaganda outfit Wellington House he made a documentary feature, Britain Prepared (1915), which included colour sequences of the British navy at sea off Scotland in October 1914. Some of these scenes were discovered recently in an American commercial archive, and are – I believe – now on their way to the Library of Congress. I’ll be able to say more on this later. (A monochrome-only Britain Prepared is held by the Imperial War Museum)

More later in this series also on Kinekrom, a would-be successor to Kinemacolor that Urban attempted to develop in the 1920s. But next up will be Gaumont’s Chromochrome, perhaps aesthetically the most sucessful of the pre-war colour processes, and then the winner of the colour wars – Technicolor.

Recommended reading:

Colourful stories no. 12 – Tinting and toning

Nosferatu (1922), from Eureka Video

In our history of the use of colour in silent cinema, there has been probably disproportionate emphasis on Kinemacolor. The first ‘true’ colour system it may have been, and importantly technically and in perceptions of cinema it undoubtedly was, yet was only ever witnessed by a minority. Kinemacolor featured in select theatres which had installed the necessary projection equipment, but in the ordinary cinemas and movie houses it did not feature. The mass early cinema audience, where it saw colour – and it often did – did so in the form of tinting and toning.

As the film industry expanded through the 1900s, and as mass production of prints ensued, stencil colouring (that is, applying artificial colours onto the print using stencil cut-outs and a pantograph system) became a speciality, reserved for historical dramas, exotic travelogues and films with a strong fantasy element, and predominantly the preserve of the Gaumont and Pathé multinationals. Such films also commended higher prices, and once films began to extend in length beyond 1,000 feet they became no longer economically feasible (bar the occasional deluxe exception). For most other, so-called monochrome films, colour tinting and/or toning were widely employed to lift them from the mean appearance of black and white.

Tinting meant bathing the black-and-white print in a coloured dye, though from 1912 onwards suppliers started offering coloured film stocks, which gave greater evenness of colour. The colours were roughly analogous to action and mood: yellow or amber for daylight scenes, red for fire and scenes of dynamic action, green or blue-green for seascapes and scenes of mystery, blue the recognised convention for night. Colin Bennett, in his The Guide to Kinematography (1917), lists how to tint for certain well known effects:

  • Early morning: Tint film lightly in one tenth per cent bath of crystal violet
  • Moonlight (night): Use one quarter per cent patent blue solution
  • Lamp or candle light: Tint in half per cent orange brown (Mandarin) dye bath
  • Fire: Use bath containing one per cent each of brilliant yellow and rose bengal
  • Weird effects: Tint green in a half per cent naphthol green bath
  • Bright sunlight: Use half per cent brilliant yellow bath

Though there examples of just the one tint being used throughout a film, it was more common for different colour tints to be employed, enhancing the drama and varieties of mood. By the start of the 1920s, the large majority of films were exhibited with colour tinting. Even newsreels were commonly seen in tinted colours.

Yellow tint with a green tone added, from

Toning was a little more complex in production and subtler in its effects. While tinting meant simply the application of colour dye to black-and-white film, toning involved converting the black-and-white image to a colour record, reflecting its tonal qualities. There were various chemical methods by which this could be achieved. One was to convert the black-and-white silver image to another, coloured metal. Brian Pritchard’s site on historical motion picture technologies (recommended to the specialist) lists the following effects to be expected:

Iron gives blue
Copper gives red to brown
Vanadium gives green
Uranium gives black to red
Selenium gives red-brown
Sulphide gives sepia

Tinting and toning combined the two methods, for example: a sun setting over the sea might have blue-green toning for the sea and sky, but red tinting for the sun and clouds. The combination led to subtle and often hauntingly beautiful effects, and not just in fiction films, as the illustration from the British Film Institute’s restoration of South, Frank Hurley’s documentary of the ill-fated 1914-15 trans-Antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, indicates:

South (1919)

Tinting and toning continued as the main means of putting colour before audiences throughout the rest of the silent era. The arrival of sound caused problems, as colour tinting interfered with the sound reproduction, chiefly by absorbing too much of the light that the photocell required to reproduce the sound. Although adapted tinted stocks were produced, and continued in some cases to be used well into the sound era, essentially tinting and toning for films were no more.

The accurate and sensitive reproduction of tinting and toning effects for silent films is a major part of the restoration work undertaken by film archives, and there is much delight taken in the finest results. The Nederlands Filmmuseum, for instance, has built up a worldwide reputation for some of its exquisite colour work on early films. Prestigious silent DVD releases now highlight faithfulness to original tinting and toning. On the other side, and mentioning no names, there have been some real horror stories presented at some silent film festivals, where garish colours grossly applied shock you with their thoughtless vulgarity. It is not, and never was, colour for its own sake, but rather colour for the film’s sake. As with musical accompaniment, decoration had always to be subservient to the drama it was there to enhance.

Trailer for the Eureka Video release of Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau-Stiftung restoration) with state-of-the-art tinting and toning

The outpouring of colour viewing prints of early films (in past years, some archives regrettably had to economise by producing viewing prints in monochrome, even though the originals they were working from were tinted) has in turn encouraged an enthusiastic literature on the aesthetics of colour in silent film. Kinemacolor, interestingly enough, tends not to be discussed so much in such works, owing to the lack of viewing prints. Examples include Daan Hertogs and Nico de Klerk, Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Films (1996), a special issue of the Italian journal Fotogenia, two essays from which (including a key work by Tom Gunning) are available online in English, and a special issue on colour of the journal Living Pictures (vol. 2 no. 2, 2003), edited by yours truly, which is now alas rather difficult to find. Probably the best text available on tinting and toning in early film, with illustrations, is Paolo Cherchi Usai’s Silent Cinema.

For a rich selection of examples of early colour films – not just tinted and toned films, but Kinemacolor, Prizmacolor, Technicolor and other such processes – Lobster Films has created a marvellous DVD, which is available in the UK from the Projection Box in the 2-DVD set The Birth of Sound and Colour as A Dream of Colour, in the USA from Flicker Alley as Movies Dream in Colour, one half of the Discovering Cinema set, and in Germany from Edition Filmmuseum as part of The First Steps of Cinema set. Under whatever title you find it, it is warmly recommended.

Recommended reading: (reproduces documents from the period with detailed information on dyes, processes etc; also frame illustrations of tinting and toning examples)

Tom Gunning, ‘Colorful Metaphors: The Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema’ (from Fotogenia)