Please access detailed information on over 250 individual film color processes via the classification system on this page, display the Timeline of Historical Film Colors in chronological order, search via the tag cloud at the end of this page or directly on the search page, or see the contributing archives’ collections on the header slides.
This database was created in 2012 and has been developed and curated by Barbara Flueckiger, professor at the Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich to provide comprehensive information about historical film color processes invented since the end of the 19th century including specific still photography color technologies that were their conceptual predecessors.
Timeline of Historical Film Colors was started with Barbara Flueckiger’s research at Harvard University in the framework of her project Film History Re-mastered, funded by Swiss National Science Foundation, 2011-2013.
In 2013 the University of Zurich and the Swiss National Science Foundation awarded additional funding for the elaboration of this web resource. 80 financial contributors sponsored the crowdfunding campaign Database of Historical Film Colors with more than USD 11.100 in 2012. In addition, the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Zurich University of the Arts provided a major contribution to the development of the database. Many further persons and institutions have supported the project, see acknowledgements.
Since February 2016 the database has been redeveloped in the framework of the research project Film Colors. Technologies, Cultures, Institutions funded by a grant from Swiss National Science Foundation. Since 2016, the team of the research project ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors has been collecting and adding written sources. All the members of the two research projects on film colors, both led by Barbara Flueckiger, have been capturing photographs of historical film prints since 2017.
Follow the links “Access detailed information ›” to access the currently available detail pages for individual processes. These pages contain an image gallery, a short description, a bibliography of original papers and secondary sources connected to extended quotes from these sources, downloads of seminal papers and links. We are updating these detail pages on a regular basis.
In June 2015, the European Research Council awarded the prestigious Advanced Grant to Barbara Flueckiger for her new research project FilmColors. Bridging the Gap Between Technology and Aesthetics, see press release of the University of Zurich and short abstract on the university’s research database.
Subscribe to the blog to receive all the news: http://filmcolors.org/ (check out sidebar on individual entries for the “follow” button).
Contributions to the Timeline of Historical Film Colors
“It would not have been possible to collect all the data and the corresponding images without the support from many individuals and institutions.Thank you so much for your contribution, I am very grateful.”
Experts, scholars, institutions | Sponsors, supporters, patrons of the crowdfunding campaign, April 23 to July 21, 2012
Experts, scholars, institutions
Prof. Dr. David Rodowick, Chair, Harvard University, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies
Prof. Dr. Margrit Tröhler, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Jörg Schweinitz, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Christine N. Brinckmann, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
PD Dr. Franziska Heller, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Dr. Claudy Op den Kamp, Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich
Prof. Anton Rey, Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Zurich University of the Arts
Dr. Haden Guest, Director, Harvard Film Archive
Liz Coffey, Film Conservator, Harvard Film Archive
Mark Johnson, Loan Officer, Harvard Film Archive
Brittany Gravely, Publicist, Harvard Film Archive
Clayton Scoble, Manager of the Digital Imaging Lab & Photography Studio, Harvard University
Stephen Jennings, Photographer, Harvard University, Fine Arts Library
Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, Senior Curator, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Jared Case, Head of Cataloging and Access, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Nancy Kauffman, Archivist – Stills, Posters and Paper Collections, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Deborah Stoiber, Collection Manager, George Eastman Museum, Motion Picture Department
Barbara Puorro Galasso, Photographer, George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film
Daniela Currò, Preservation Officer, George Eastman House, Motion Picture Department
James Layton, Manager, Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art
Mike Pogorzelski, Archive Director, Academy Film Archive
Josef Lindner, Preservation Officer, Academy Film Archive
Cassie Blake, Public Access Coordinator, Academy Film Archive
Melissa Levesque, Nitrate Curator, Academy Film Archive
Prof. Dr. Giovanna Fossati, Head Curator, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam, and Professor at the University of Amsterdam
Annike Kross, Film Restorer, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, Curator Silent Film, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Catherine Cormon, EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam
Anke Wilkening, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, Wiesbaden, Germany
Marianna De Sanctis, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna
Paola Ferrari, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna
Gert and Ingrid Koshofer, Gert Koshofer Collection, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany
Memoriav, Verein zur Erhaltung des audiovisuellen Kulturgutes der Schweiz
BSc Gaudenz Halter, Software Development Color Film Analyses, video annotation und crowdsourcing platform VIAN, in collaboration with Visualization and MultiMedia Lab of Prof. Dr. Renato Pajarola, University of Zurich, (Enrique G. Paredes, PhD; Rafael Ballester-Ripoll, PhD) since 07.2017
BSc Noyan Evirgen, Software Development, in collaboration with Visualization and MultiMedia Lab von Prof. Dr. Renato Pajarola, Universität Zürich (Enrique G. Paredes, PhD; Rafael Ballester-Ripoll, PhD), 03.2017–01.2018
Assistants Film Analyses:
BA Manuel Joller, BA Ursina Früh, BA/MA Valentina Romero
The development of the project started in fall 2011 with stage 1. Each stage necessitated a different financing scheme. We are now in stage 3 and are looking for additional funding by private sponsors. Please use the Stripe interface to pay conveniently online or transfer your financial contribution directly to
Account IBAN CH2509000000604877146
Account holder: Barbara Flueckiger, CH-8005 Zurich, Switzerland
SWIFT Code / BIC: P O F I C H B E X X X
Bank: PostFinance AG, Mingerstrasse 20, CH-3030 Bern, Switzerland
Clearing Nummer: 09000
Read more about the financial background of the project on filmcolors.org.
The author has exercised the greatest care in seeking all necessary permissions to publish the material on this website. Please contact the author immediately and directly should anything infringe a copyright nonetheless.
“João S. de Oliveira is director of PresTech Film Laboratories Limited, London, which was founded in 2004. De Oliveira was formerly technical manager at the British Film Institute’s John Paul Getty Conservation Centre and worked at Cinemateca Brasileira, São Paulo, Brazil, Cinemateca Portuguesa, Portugal, and as professor in the Postgraduate Department of Museology FESP, São Paulo, Brazil. He was also chairman of the Technical Commission of FIAF.
de Oliveira, João S., ‘Black-and-White in Colour’, in Roger Smither and Catherine A. Surowiec (eds), This Film Is Dangerous, A Celebration of Nitrate Film (Brussels: FIAF, 2002), pp. 117–22.
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 12 OCTOBER 2010
INTERVIEWER: LIZ WATKINS
LIZ WATKINS: So the colour screened of a film is going to differ according to the projector lamp?
JOÃO S. DE OLIVEIRA: Absolutely right. The logic behind it is that film is experienced on the screen, right? And the technology and conditions of screening change. So you then go into a very complex ethical and philosophical discussion because you probably don’t have two screenings that will be similar. There’s just a range that is more or less the average of these different projectors, light sources and cinema sizes.
LW: The distance between the projector and the screen would also make a difference to the intensity of colour required on the film strip for certain hues to appear on the screen?
JSdO: Exactly, that’s the theatre size, so I spent a long time reading the JSMPE.5 You don’t need to have the opacity very high to have a black on the screen, so in a large theatre, all of your renderings change. You have to have a much lighter print than normal. Imagine that you have a translucent material in front of the projector. The print has to be lighter for a long distance between the projector and the screen and the theatre has to be very dark. This is the other thing people don’t realise, that there is no black – you can’t project black – black is no light. So the blackest bit you have on the film is the white of the screen. It’s the difference between the lightest areas and the darkest areas that produces the image. This is a big problem: when you have a large theatre and an orchestra, then where do you have enough darkness for the integrity of the screened image to be maintained?
For every prestigious restoration, you have a big theatre because normally people like to have 1,000 people watching and you put a sixty-person orchestra with light to read music that then reflects on the screen. This is the terror of the restorer because you know, we spend a huge amount of time with this film. For the previous big restoration we did they had the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and so sixty musicians were playing. It was screened at the Deutsche Oper, which is not a film theatre, so they had to improvise a place to put a projector and there was a massive amount of light reflecting. Normally, the conductor has to be spot-lit because he has to see well.
Obviously, when you do the print for the premiere, you have to warn the client that you have to take this into consideration. So it’s not a print that would look right if you then project it in a theatre just with a pianist with just one little light, which will be the circumstances for 99.9 per cent of the screenings of the same film. So this is the thing for us, the reference or the aim would be to produce on the screen a similar experience that the original process produced at the time the film was made, right? If it were Dufaycolor or Gasparcolor, then you are not going to screen the original elements, but a new print or new digital cinema product, derived from the original. To calibrate your system then, you have to have at least one good-condition print, or, you have to find a way to produce that information.
LW: It’s quite an undertaking.
JSdO: It’s quite a challenge. So would this be always possible? With Gasparcolor the amount of good-physical-quality surviving materials is limited. Everything is too shrunk.
LW: It’s the film support rather than the dyes that have deteriorated?
JSdO: Exactly. If you look to Dufaycolor, then contrary to Gasparcolor, it was always produced on safety film, which means that it’s not at as much risk from fire. It was made on an early safety film that normally decomposes in a much more speedy way than cellulose nitrate. So you have the decomposition of Dufaycolor preventing you from screening it. I think we were reasonably lucky because we found some examples, some surplus film stock and we could extract some basic information from it. This is another part of the work that is an interesting area to investigate, that is, the possibility of recreating some control samples or new materials to calibrate and set your processes to.
LW: New reference materials that are similar to the original materials rather than simulating the screened image?6
JSdO: It sounds crazy, exactly but it’s something that then you could project, checking its limits to see how much the machine really can cope with.
JSdO: Well, now with digital technology, work is coming back to the treasures that people tend to revisit and this is why it’s so crucial to preserve the originals, it’s because technology evolves. You aim to give the next generation of colleagues the chance to do better what you did in your time.
LW: Do you make a preservation copy of the source materials as you find them and then you begin work on a restored print?
JSdO: The interventions that are normally carried out to stabilise the film have to be very carefully balanced, chosen and researched so that you could use the ones that you know are reversible. If possible, you don’t cause a permanent change to the source material. If you have to modify something, it’s better to modify the film equipment that you are using to suit the film, than to modify the film to suit the machines.
This, I think, is crucial: to make sure that they will last. The Lodger was done totally photochemically and the intertitles were very poor quality. They were damaged but they were the only fragments that we have of some of these.
LW: So, when we were talking about Dufaycolor and the distortion of colour resolution in areas of underexposure, I wondered if that was something that you’d come across in your restorations? Would you colour-correct those anomalies or keep the colour distortions?
JSdO: Dufaycolor is a particular additive mosaic process and a crucial part of Dufaycolor is the manufacturing and printing of the réseau. Unfortunately, the dye that they used to make the réseau was susceptible to acidic degradation. So for Dufaycolor, the trend of deterioration is to become a shade of ultramarine blue. This happens very often. The BFI National Archive has masses of examples in this condition and it’s normally because the prints decompose. Beyond a certain level of deterioration, the acidity is raised and then its interaction with the dyes has an effect. So we looked at that because it’s a photomechanical printing process and because the colour image is produced by a moderation of the black-and-white image seen through the réseau. When you film, you do so with the réseau to the lens so that the image is ‘analysed’ through the colours of the réseau and you have a resultant density formed in the black-and-white film behind it. So if the réseau is destroyed, you can make a calculation on the basis that it consists of parallel lines at 30 degrees of inclination and that there are squares in between these lines; then you know that these particular lines carry information. In screenings of Dufaycolor film this is always visible. I did remove the réseau and looked just at the image, just at the emulsion and gelatine. I just peeled it off and you can see in the black-and-white emulsion the position of the réseau. So it is possible to design a digital process that will construct the image.
I took some Dufaycolor to be scanned so that I could work with it in a digital device and it was very difficult because it’s always shrunk and discolours all the time. It was so expensive that we never want to put anything that deteriorates that quickly through it, but I managed to persuade a friend and we did a few frames and we did a trial that did work. It was just handmade because we were more chemists than software designers. But now I know that it’s very easily done if you have the resources. So in a way, when I was at the BFI, I was suggesting the preservation of Dufaycolor in black and white, because if you have it black and white you know where the réseau is and you have the information you need to make a restored print. Obviously, some of these deteriorated films did not have the colour, but if you do have colour then of course let’s build the colour, or let’s do the colour separation of it. Dufaycolor itself is a micro-colour separation. You have single squares and the colour lines that are the separation of them.
These are the particularities that I remember in terms of the preservation of the deteriorated material. I think it’s perfectly good to preserve it in black and white and then later, when technologies and resources are available, to create a tool that will digitally reinstate the colours and restore the film to its original aspect. If you are using an analogue photochemical reel, then you are using a film that is designed for printing. It is designed to match film dyes from very standard processes contemporary to the production of that particular film stock and so it is designed to work toward a standardised result. But you get into trouble when you try to copy a film that is not the one that the film stock was designed for. In this scenario, there is an incompatibility between the colours of your new system and those of, let’s say, a non-contemporary or obsolete colour process like Dufaycolor or Gasparcolor.
5JSMPE: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers.
6 Robert M. Fanstone, ‘Experiences with Dufaycolor Film’, British Journal of Photography, 7 June 1935, pp. 358–9. Dufaycolor is characterised by a réseau.”
(Watkins, Liz (2013): Interview. João S. De Oliveira, Hon. FBKS. In: Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (eds.): British Colour Cinema. Practices and Theories. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 171–185, on pp. 175–181.)
“Dr Paolo Cherchi Usai is senior curator of the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and director of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, which he established in 1996. He is also curator emeritus of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) since 2010 and resident curator of the Telluride Film Festival. Cherchi Usai was the founder of the Haghefilm Foundation, which he directed until 2011, and is a founding member (1982) of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. He previously worked as director of the NFSA (2004–8) and as a curator at George Eastman House (1994–2004).
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, ‘The Demise of Digital (Print #1)’, Film Quarterly vol. 56 no. 3, 2006, p. 3.
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, ‘An Epiphany of Nitrate’, in Roger Smither and Catherine A. Surowiec (eds), This Film Is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film (Brussels: FIAF, 2002) pp. 128–31.
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, ‘The Legend of the Earth Vault’, in Smither and Surowiec, This Film
Is Dangerous, pp. 541–4.
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age (London: BFI, 2001).
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, Silent Cinema: An Introduction (London: BFI, 2000).
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, ‘Film Preservation and Film Scholarship’, Film History vol. 7 no. 3, 1995, pp. 243–4.
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, ‘The Color of Nitrate’, Image Magazine vol 34 nos. 1-2, 1991, pp. 29–38.
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, ‘Archive of Babel’, Sight and Sound vol 59 Winter 1989/1990, pp. 48–50.
Williams, Linda, ‘Passio-Review’, Film History vol. 60 no. 3, 2007, pp. 16–18.
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 13 SEPTEMBER 2010
INTERVIEWER: LIZ WATKINS
LIZ WATKINS: There are instances in which technical records, such as those detailing the adjustments made in colour grading, have been kept by the person undertaking the restoration and that have been a point of reference for subsequent restorations of the same film.
PAOLO CHERCHI USAI: There is objective information that can be kept, but then there is also the subjective expertise that resides with the person. When a preservation element is created, the archive will then take good care of it. This opens another can of worms about the correct fashion of repeating a preservation of a given film a number of times; sometimes you lose track of how many times it has been done, but you redo a preservation because you always think you can do better. This is happening with titles like Visconti’s The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963) and Metropolis (1927).1
LW: And The Red Shoes?
PCU: Yes, but the case of The Red Shoes is again different in the sense that there are, to my knowledge, two main sources for this film.2 I do not recall if and how the two sources were combined in the versions of the film that were available earlier; if they were not, then it is a good idea to do it.
LW: For restoration projects, some archives work towards the viewing experience of the initial screening of the film; so a point which is subject to interpretation. This resonates with questions surrounding the perception of colour and fading. How would you estimate what colour a film might have been when there are multiple film elements that the restoration could utilise?
PCU: Most viewers don’t have the elements necessary to judge. When a viewer is told that the colour of The Red Shoes looks better than it did in the last preservation and they have no way to evaluate this, then as consumers they take it at face value.
LW: Thinking about different prints of the ‘same’ film, would it be okay if I asked you about Passio (2007)?3 You’ve described it as a film version of The Death of Cinema.4 There are seven prints, each of which is hand-coloured to a different design and the negative, as a source element, has been removed or destroyed.5 Do you consider this practice a way of foregrounding the dilemmas film archives are faced with?
PCU: It was my way of highlighting certain issues, of presenting a case where you have a film, making seven copies, the negative has been destroyed and even if the negative had not been destroyed no other print will be hand-coloured in the same way. The prints can be duplicated, but if they are, this will probably not be coloured by hand and the experience of these films and of these duplicates will differ. So as each film and its potential duplicate are different, then each viewing experience will be different; each film will mean something slightly different, depending on which print you view.
LW: I read that you had put them in different archives: if each film is unique, do they immediately get held for preservation and take on the status of master print? Archival practice around master prints would make them inaccessible.6 Have the films been screened since? Do you keep track of them?
PCU: The prints can and should indeed be screened! Some archives have received a print of the film; one of them was acquired by Martin Scorsese for his personal collection. As a matter of contractual agreement, the prints are not to be reproduced or duplicated in digital or analogue form.
LW: Right, but that they can’t be duplicated made me wonder about the status that conferred on them?
PCU: What the archives want to do with the prints is their decision.
LW: You’ve set them a dilemma!
PCU: The prints are all different and under archival rules they would be considered masters. But they are and they are not. They are master copies because they are unique, and they are not masters because the prints are meant to be screened. That is part of the experiment in a way.
LW: So, it’s about the effects of deterioration and what is desirable in a print after ‘to preserve, to show’?7
PCU: It all boils down to the question, ‘Do you want the moving image to bear the traces of history?’ If you say ‘yes’, then you have to accept the consequences, which means accepting the fact that the film will begin showing the effects of time. If you say ‘no’, then you will be aiming at a perfect image, which is fine, but you will be denying the image the right to have a history. I call it the right to have a history, because I do not see why we should give this right to other forms of human expressions and not to the moving image. I have a feeling that my problem with what we call restoration is that it seems a way to deny the materiality of the work. The challenge of preserving film as the object of an event called ‘projection’ is not much different from preserving the object where the digital image is stored. I am not satisfied by the answer ‘just migrate’ [film to another medium]: that’s no solution. It is only a way of postponing the problem. It is still duplication and the issue is that it is presumed to give you an identical copy, but the question of materiality has not disappeared. Nothing is new. My book The Death of Cinema came out in 2001, but there was a book called The Death of Film that came out around 1927. There is a book here in my library that is also around 1927 called The Crisis of the Film, now film is in a crisis?8 Film has always been in a state of ‘crisis’ since it was born.
1 A Brilliant Evening: Restoration of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard‘, Film Foundation, 2010, http://www.film-foundation.Org/common/11004/aboutNewsStory.cfm?QID= 7593&ClientID=11004&TopicID=0&sid=1&ssid=3, accessed May 2012. Refers to different restorations of The Leopard undertaken in Italy, then by Criterion and then by the Film Foundation (US). Metropolis was restored by Giorgio Moroder in 1984. Sections of Metropolis on 16mm film stock were identified at the Buenos Aires Museo Cine in 2008, leading to a further restoration released in 2010.
2 Robert Gitt, The Red Shoes – Preservation Booklet (Film Foundation, 2009), p. 7, http://www.film-foundation.org/common/news/articles/detail.cfm?Classification=news&QID=6654&ClientID=11004&BrowseFlag=1&Keyword=&StartRow=1&TopicID= 0&Subsection=&ThisPage=0, accessed April 2012. The Eastmancolor print produced by Paul de Burgh at the Rank Film Labs for the BFI restoration in the 1980s was a point of reference for this restoration. It also referred to three-strip Technicolor transfer prints, nitrate and acetate protection master copies and the original Technicolor negatives.
3 Linda Williams, ‘Passio – Review’, Film Quarterly vol. 60 no. 3, 2007, pp. 16–18.
4 Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema (London: BFI, 2001).
6 Ernest Lindgren, ‘The Work of the National Film Library’, read to the British Kinematograph Society, 1 November 1944; Paul Read, ‘Film Archive Is on the Threshold of Digital Era: Technical Issues from the EU FIRST Project’, Journal of Film Preservation, December 2004, pp. 32–45.
7 Snowden Becker, ‘See and Save, Balancing Access and Preservation for Ephemeral Moving Images’, Spectator vol. 21 no. 1, 2007, pp. 21–8 refers to FIAF’s advocacy of ‘to preserve, to show’.
8 John Gould, The Crisis of the Film, 2nd edn (Seattle: University of Washington Book Store, 1929).”
(Watkins, Liz (2013): Interview. Paolo Cherchi Usai. In: Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (eds.): British Colour Cinema. Practices and Theories. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 208–218, on pp. 215–218.)