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: https://blog.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.
In spite of Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock’s reputation is not that of a colorist. His legacy is largely in black and white – only fifteen of his fifty-three films are in color – and Psycho (1960) is not among them. Furthermore, the defining influence on Hitchcock’s style is the aesthetic of German Expressionism that is identified with the visual repertoire of black and white. Yet Hitchcock’s films represent a remarkably thoughtful and complex engagement with the aesthetics of color at the level of expression, theme, and form. Hitchcock’s films, like the work of many colorists, draw on a range of conventions that pertain to the symbolic and emotional significance of color that are deeply embedded in Western culture and the traditions of pictorial, dramatic, and novelistic representation that have sustained it.
There are two overarching assumptions that govern my approach to understanding color in Hitchcock whose justification resides in part in what one may discern from Hitchcock’s working method and in part from studying the overall relationship between narrative and style in Hitchcock’s work. The first assumption is that Hitchcock approaches his color films as blank canvases in which every element of color placed in the frame is put there for a reason. In an essay first published in 1937, well before his first color film, Hitchcock wrote:
I should never want to fill the screen with color: it ought to be used economically – to put new words into the screen’s visual language when there’s a need for them. You could start to color film with a boardroom scene: somber paneling and furniture, the director’s all in dark clothes and white collars. Then the chairman’s wife comes in wearing a red hat. She takes the attention of the audience at once, just because of that one note of color.
(Hitchcock 1995: 258)
In a later interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Hitchcock states:
Color should start with the nearest equivalent to black and white. This sounds like a most peculiar statement, but color should be no different from the voice which starts muted and finally arrives at a scream. In other words, the muted color is black and white, and the screams are every psychedelic color you can think of, starting, of course, with red.
(Hitchcock 2003: 136)
The second assumption is that Hitchcock puts color in his films to enhance our understanding of character and story, a practice that is borne out by the comments of his long time collaborator, costume designer Edith Head, who worked on his color films Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man who Knew too Much (1956), Vertigo (1963), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), and Family Plot (1976). Head wrote:
Hitchcock thinks in terms of color; every costume is indicated when he sends me the script. … There is always a reason behind his thinking, an effort to characterize. He’s absolutely definite in his visual approach and gives you an exciting concept of the importance of color.
(Quoted in Kindem 1977: 75)
Hitchcock confirms this attention to costume detail in his own report of a shopping trip with Eva Marie Saint, the star of North by Northwest (1959). He recommends she be dressed in “a basic black suit (with simple emerald pendant) to intimate her relationship with (James) Mason,” in “a heavy silk black cocktail dress subtly imprinted with wine red flowers, in scenes where she deceived Cary [Grant],” and in “a charcoal brown, full skirted jersey and a burnt orange burlap outfit in the scenes of action” (quoted in McGilligan 2003: 567).
Hitchcock’s approach to color design is one that balances the expressive demands of color with the constraints of realism.1 Thus Hitchcock spent nine days refilming Rope (1948) in order to achieve the gradual darkening of the color scheme from day to night and to avoid lurid Technicolor.2 Just as Hitchcock’s visual expressionism in his black-and-white Hollywood films supervenes on the conventions of classical cinema with regard to the representation of space and the placement of character within it, so to, Hitchcock’s expressive and symbolic deployment of color is wholly congruent with the constraints of photographic realism. […]
However, in comparison with black and white, color yields far more choice and hence far more elements to control. Hitchcock’s approach to color design demands first imagining the location as a colorless as well as an objectless space and building up the elements of color design alongside the construction of the mise-en-scène. Within Hitchcock’s practice of “coloring” the mise-en-scène, certain objects become privileged bearers of color meaning in the sense that their color can be most readily calibrated without undermining the overall surface realism of the design. Costume in Hitchcock is perhaps the most privileged color index because it is at once attached to character and can be readily calibrated to changes and development in the story. Color in the design of costume extends beyond the clothing of the protagonists to the clothing of extras who populate Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène. By carefully controling the color worn by his extras, Hitchcock is able to control the color design of public spaces. The color of vehicles, too, becomes readily orchestrated and Hitchcock obsessively exploits the color of taxis, buses, and planes for expressive purposes. Within interiors the main bearers of color meaning that can be readily changed and be strategically positioned in a set are lampshades and flowers. […]
Hitchcock’s approach to color is highly creative in its deployment of the full expressive repertoire that color affords, and even “experimental” in the way he organizes the elements of mise-en-scène to achieve the right orchestration of color within it. However, color in Hitchcock’s film functions strictly to augment, counterpoint, and clarify narrative meaning and expression. More specifically still, Hitchcock’s use of color is calibrated in relationship to the conventional moral coordinates of the romantic thriller and the identification he invites with the protagonists of the thriller. To be sure, Hitchcock subverts the conventional meanings of color and, in particular, the conventional ways in which color and color contrasts express gender difference, and in this respect his color design is congruent with his overall aesthetic where the tension between the norms of the romance and an ironic subversion of those norms is consistently maintained. However, whether Hitchcock is asserting conventions or subverting them, and often he is doing both at the same time, his deployment of color consistently serves the amplification of character and the elaboration of story.3
As color theorists have long recognized, while colors can be uniquely discriminated and can carry symbolic value by virtue of that discrimination (for example, red conventionally means warning), colors also gain significance by their association and contrast with other colors. It is thus helpful, as Edward Branigan points out, to approach the analysis of color in terms of groupings of systems of color, some of which conventionally have contrastive or opposed meanings and all of which may overlap with one another in different ways (Branigan 1976: 26). I will identify four main color groupings in Hitchcock’s films and demonstrate some of the ways Hitchcock uses these groupings in the context of individual films.
Color and its absence
The first contrastive grouping of colors to consider in the context of Hitchcock’s work is the opposition between the presence of color, of colorfulness, and the absence of color, of colorlessness. Absence of color is, literally speaking, the use of black and white and the gradations between them as opposed to the primary colors red, blue, and yellow (and green) and their derivatives. However, if we take the absence of color less literally it is also registered by the presence of muted colors, such as pale beiges. Conversely, colorfulness as opposed to colorlessness is registered not simply by the use of color but by the deployment of a range of hues in discreet blocks of bright, highly saturated, color. This contrast between colorfulness and colorlessness invokes the emotional resonance attached to the idea of color. Colorfulness evokes in Hitchcock’s work gaiety or cheerfulness, warmth or love, depending on context. Colorlessness, which is ubiquitous in Hitchcock’s late works, evokes negative emotions such as anxiety or depression, a sense of emotional vacuity or emptiness, and the loss of identity.
My thanks to Brian Price for his helpful comments.
1 In Under Capricorn, Hitchcock worked with Powell and Pressburger’s cameraman Jack Cardiff to create what is at times a very luxuriant Technicolor feel, but while it is not “realistic,” color here is consistent with the generic motivation of the “costume melodrama.”
2 See Laurents 2000: 134, and McGilligan 2003: 414.
3 Hitchcock approaches abstraction in specific moments in his work. In a sequence early in Torn Curtain (1966), a late work which is arguably his most refined in its use of color, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) walks to a book store in Amsterdam to pick up a package for her fiancé. She walks past store fronts that are successively painted in the primary colors of red, blue, yellow, and also green. These could be motivated as the “color” of the free world in contrast to the gray colorless iron curtain, but they also appear to exceed such a motivation, as if Hitchcock is announcing the color schemes of the film rather in the manner of a modernist colorist like Godard.
Branigan, E. (1976) “The Articulation of Color in a Filmic System: Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle,” Wide Angle, 1:3.
Hitchcock, A. (1995) “Direction,” in S. Gottlieb (ed.) Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Essays and Interviews, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
– (2003) “Interview with Charles Thomas Samuels,” in S. Gottlieb (ed.) Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Press.
Kindem, G. (1977) “Toward a Semiotic Theory of Visual Communication in the Cinema: A Reappraisal of Semiotic Theories from a Cinematic Perspective and a Semiotic Analysis of Color Signs and Communication in the Color Films of Alfred Hitchcock,” doctoral thesis, Northwestern University.
Laurents, A. (2000) Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood, New York: Applause Books.
McGilligan, P. (2003) Alfred Hitchcock: A Portrait in Darkness and Light, New York: Reagan Books.”
(Allen, Richard (2006): Hitchcock’s Color Designs. In: Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price (eds.): Color. The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 131–144, on pp. 131–134.)