All the Colours of The Film
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
At the beginning of march we were able to send our colourful cultural attaché Rosie Taylor off to That London for the First International Conference on Colour Film. Hosted by the Colour research group, this two-day event brought together some of the brightest and most colour-balanced researchers and speakers on colour and cultural heritage. A great gathering for early and silent film enthusiasts, and we’re here proud to present a brief report on proceedings from the two days. Over to Rosie for the breakdown:
Two things struck me at the First International Conference Colour in Film: firstly how little I actually know and take for granted about colour film, despite an ongoing interest in it, and secondly it’s historical and curatorial importance. The aim of the conference was to bring together people from different sectors working with colour film, from archivists, preservationists and chemists, to curators, historians, researchers and enthusiasts. It was a chance for these people, who otherwise seem to work very separately, to talk to each other.
There were curatorial and research presentations and discussions from the likes of the BFI’s Bryony Dixon and the University of Bristol’s Dr Sarah Street, talks on chemicals used to produce colours from Dr. Ulrich Rudel, and a presentation on the colour restoration of Fritz Lang’s Der Mude Tod and Die Nibelungen by Anke Wilkening. These were followed by more scientific presentations (some if which, I must admit, were slightly over my head) about measuring colour, and in particular how the human eye sees and interprets colour, a fascinating presentation by Prof Andrew Stockman.
There is a lot more to colour film than ‘meets the eye’ (excuse the pun!) The conference made me realise how much we all take for granted. Today everything is in colour. We’re rather desensitised to it. We associate black and white with ‘old’ and early film (even though colour in film had existed since the beginning of cinema itself). We know colour is used for effect and to convey emotions and meaning in film. But we never consider how colour came to be on the screen or how we perceive the film through our own biological sight and perceptions of colour!
Like many aspects of film production, colour is something that doesn’t necessarily seem to concern the audience beyond aesthetic pleasure, but actually has a large impact on our perception of a given film. The conference brought together these discussions and talked about aspects such as how colour production and the placement of colour in an image affects how we see and interpret those colours and what’s happening on-screen. How different colours were produced and how this affected the length of time colours in a film would last after years sat in an archive. Some of these aspects include how variables on the same colour production process can affect the final colour image, such as where the colour film print was produced and in what conditions. For instance, Technicolor prints produced in the UK will produce slightly different colours to those produced in the US due to factors such as differences in water and equipment used, as well as the British publics’ perception of colour (many films were processed for the UK to show more subtle colours, as UK audiences did not appreciate the bright colours US audiences were used to).
The production of colour is detailed and fascinating and impacts on our perception of a film. Yet we are very unaware of how. Perhaps this is the magic and the mystery of film and we are not meant to see beyond. The conference scratched the surface of this and the work carried out by the varied and interesting speakers, but it shows that the production of colour film is, and has always been, a complex and detailed process which is often highly criticised, but greatly underappreciated.
Colour in early cinema is still rather a novelty to the modern audience even though many of these films would have originally been shown in a form of colour from hand-colouring, stencil colouring, tinting and toning, to natural colour processes such as Friese-Greene, Prizma, and eventually of course Technicolor. This can hardly be helped, given that we have only ever viewed many of these films in black and white, largely due to the fact that these are the only surviving versions.
Strong discussions around the authenticity of screening once colour films in black and white arose in the second days Q&A session. The argument was that films originally in colour should be shown in colour wherever possible and more needs to be done to make this possible. This is how they were intended to be seen. It was a subject which resonated with me as showing early cinema as it was intended to be seen is a big discussion in silent film circles (and part of the South West Silents’ mission statement). This ‘big discussion’ generally relates to seeing the films on ‘the big screen’ and with a live (usually traditional) musical accompaniment, and on 35mm film if possible. This is the dream, but of course many factors affect the reality. What is interesting is that the subject of colour is largely absent from this discussion. Surely, if these films were originally meant to be seen in colour then this should be part of the discussion? Of course, restoring films to their original glory is a time-consuming and expensive process, especially if you have no record of colour from the original film. However, the conference highlighted work being done in this area. Anke Wilkening’s fascinating work on the restoration of Lang’s Der Mude Tod and Die Nibelungen (which she presented at the conference) both highlight the possibilities and challenges of restoring colour film. From recreating original colours and methods, to making curatorial decisions about how to colour sections of a film where no information about its’ original colour survive.
The variation of perspectives on colour made the conference a well-rounded education and enabled interesting and necessary discussion and information, including Barbara Flueckiger’s Timeline of Historical Film Colours which is a must for anyone interested in colour!
The two days perhaps raised more questions than they answered. And it certainly had me raising my own. But this was the purpose of the conference. Questions need to be raised in order to be explored. We need to learn more about the history of film, particularly colour film, in order to be able to understand it, preserve it for future generations, and bring it to modern audiences.