Gaumont Chronochrome


“The competition between Kinemacolor and other rival systems was partially stimulated by a Utopian faith in the potential of film technology to achieve ‘natural colour’, reality ‘as it is’ being the goal of the cinematic spectacle. An elaborate system launched at this time by Gaumont had this same goal: bringing the spectator to this ‘new world’ of the image.

Following research undertaken in France by the Établissements Gaumont, the Societé Française de Photographie presented on 15 November 1912 a demonstration of a new two-colour additive system, ‘Biochrome’, the latest entry into the field of cinematography with ‘natural colours’. The response encouraged Leon Gaumont to continue his efforts, and less than a month later to organise another screening, this time before an invited audience at the Gaumont-Théàtre, 7 Boulevard Poissonnière in Paris. The first commercial presentation was in April of the following year at Gaumontcolor in rue du Faubourg-Montmartre.

Within two months, the invention – now christened ‘Chronochrome’ – crossed the Atlantic, in an attempt to conquer the American market for ‘natural colour’ cinema, which until then had been ruled by Kinemacolor. The subjects presented in New York in June 1913 were largely those already shown in Europe. An agent of the Eastman Kodak company was present at the screening, since Kodak had produced especially for Gaumont an experimental panchromatic safety-base film, sensitive to the full range of the spectrum, which was destined to overtake orthochromatic emulsion by the end of the 20s. Alone among all the systems hitherto developed, Chronochrome had the advantage of displaying a very rich range of colour while using a film of standard 35mm format.

The system employed a triple lens fitted with three filters (green, red, and blue) for both the camera and the projector, by means of which each black and white image was split into three frames. The three images were projected simultaneously, each through its respective filter, to form a single image (Plate 61). Instead of the usual two- or three-blade shutter, a one-blade shutter was used. The width of each frame was identical to that in conventional films, but its height was reduced from the standard 18mm, thus giving the projected image a panoramic format, with an aspect ratio of approximately 1:1.71. The reduced height of the frame achieved a considerable saving of material, requiring 2.25 times the quantity of film stock used for normal film projection, rather than three times as much, as would have been required for frames of standard dimensions.

The filter corresponding to the central lens was fixed. The green and blue filters were adjustable both horizontally and vertically, in order to keep the three colour images in register on the screen. It was a delicate operation, requiring constant adjustments by the projectionist, and complicated by the distance of the projector from the screen. At first, correct registration demanded the help of an assistant projectionist in the hall, relaying instructions to the projection booth by telephone; later, a technician in the hall would modify the positions of the three lenses by means of an electrical remote device.

Another drawback proved to be more serious and ultimately decisive: Chronochrome could not be shown with a conventional projector, whereas Kinemacolor required only a single adjustment to the projection mechanism, the insertion of a two-blade shutter fitted with filters (green and red). Other disadvantages were shared by both systems. Kinemacolor filters absorbed up to 33 per cent of the light, and required 250 per cent more electric power to achieve a luminosity equivalent to that of a conventional projector. It was even worse with Chronochrome, whose blue filter alone absorbed almost one third of the available light. Furthermore, both Kinemacolor and Chronochrome had problems with image sharpness. George Albert Smith’s positives suffered from blurred contours, particularly noticeable with people and objects in rapid motion. Chronochrome projection tended to suffer from a stereo-parallax effect, as the three lenses projected the image from slightly divergent angles. This was another reason for reducing the height of the frame, so the three complementary images could be positioned closer together. Finally, both systems required twice the amount of footage needed for a conventional film. In this respect, however, Chronochrome had the important advantage of being shot and projected at the standard speed of 16 frames per second, slow enough to make panchromatic film compatible with artificial lighting.

The Chronochrome image was of a noticeably higher quality than that of other systems using filters. Two extant short films, known by their English titles Reproduction of a Bouquet with Ordinary Cinematography (to be projected without colour filters) and The Same Bouquet by Chrono-Chrome Gaumont (both 1913), provide eloquent evidence of the impression this system must have created on the spectator of the period. The definition and the variety of colour is striking, with predominant red, blue, and especially a gaudy green, particularly noticeable in the detail of a lady’s hat in Paris-Fashion: Visiting (1913). Seen as a whole, the sheer variety of tones is nothing less than astonishing. In the filming of inanimate objects at close range, Chronochrome endows the image with a startling sense of three-dimensionality. In long shots and outdoor scenes this effect is less marked; sunlight tends to give a brownish cast to primary colours, and small objects tend to go out of focus because of the trouble in keeping the three superimposed images in registration.”

(Cherchi Usai, Paolo (2000): Silent Cinema. London: BFI, pp. 29-31.)

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Original Technical Papers and Primary Sources

Gaumont, Léon (1959): Gaumont Chronochrome Process Described by the Inventor. In: Raymond Fielding (ed.): A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television. An Anthology from the Pages of The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967, pp. 65-67. View Quote

Secondary Sources

Alt, Dirk (2011): “Der Farbfilm marschiert!” Frühe Farbfilmverfahren und NS-Propaganda 1933-1945. München: Belleville, on p. 39.) (in German) View Quote

Cherchi Usai, Paolo. (1993): Le miracle du Chronochrome. In: Cinémathèque, (Paris), 3, Spring/Summer 1993, pp. 83-91. View Quote

Cherchi Usai, Paolo (2000): Silent Cinema. London: BFI, pp. 29-31. View Quote

Coe, Brian (1981): The History of Movie Photography. Westfield, N.J.: Eastview Editions, p. 121. View Quote

Ede, François (2017): Les recherches sur le cinéma En ‘couleurs naturelles’ chez Pathé avant 1914. In: Stéphanie Salmon and Jacques Malthête (eds.): Recherches et innovations dans l’industrie du cinéma. Les cahiers des ingénieurs Pathé (1906–1927). Paris: Fondation Seydoux Pathé, pp. 211–223, on pp. 213–214 View Quote and on pp. 217–221. (in French) View Quote

Fossati, Giovanna (1998): When Cinema Was Coloured. In: Luciano Berriatúa et al.: Tutti i colori del mondo. Il colore nei mass media tra 1900 e 1930. = All the colours of the world. Reggio Emilia: Edizioni Diabasis, pp. 121-132, on pp. 121-122. View Quote

Koshofer, Gert (1996): Early Colorfilm Processes for the Cinema. In: Monica Dall’Asta, Guglielmo Pescatore and Leonardo Quaresima (eds.): Il colore nel cinema muto. Bologna: Clueb, p. 41. View Quote

Limbacher (1969): Four Aspects of the Film. A History of the Development of Color, Sound, 3-D and Widescreen Films and Their Contribution to the Art of the Motion Picture. New York: Brussel & Brussel, 1969, pp. 17-18. View Quote

Mannoni, Laurent (2005): Chronochrome Gaumont. In: Richard Abel (ed.): Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, p. 117. View Quote

Mees, C. E. Kenneth (1937): The Development of the Art and Science of Photography in the Twentieth Century. In: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, 28,1, pp. 3–20, on p. 12. View Quote

Nowotny, Robert A. (1983): The Way of All Flesh Tones. A History of Color Motion Picture Processes, 1895-1929. New York: Garland Pub., pp. 90-98. View Quote

Pierotti, Federico (2012): La seduzione dello spettro. Storia e cultura del colore nel cinema. Genova: Le Mani-Microart, on p. 87 View Quote, on pp. 104–105 View Quoteand on pp. 122–123. (in Italian) View Quote

Pinel, Vincent (1992): La forêt des techniques. In: Michel Ciment (ed.): Ciné mémoire. Colloque international d’information (7-9 octobre 1991). Paris: Femis, pp. 17–24, on pp. 20–21. (in French) View Quote

Pranchère, Victor (2013): La sortie du laboratoire ou les stratégies d’exploitation du procédé trichrome de cinématographie en couleurs de la Société des Établissements Gaumont (1913-1921). In: 1895. Revue d’Histoire du Cinéma, 71, pp. 61–80, on pp. 62–65 View Quote, on pp. 65–66 View Quote, on pp. 66–67 View Quote, on pp. 67–69 View Quote, on pp. 70–72 View Quote, on pp. 72–75 View Quote, on pp. 75–76 View Quote, on pp. 77–79 View Quote, on pp. 79–80. (in French) View Quote

Ruivo, Céline (2013): Le Livre de fabrication de la compagnie générale des phonographes cinématographes et appareils de précision. À propos d’une source pour l’histoire des recherches sur la couleur chez Pathé Frères entre 1906 et 1908. In: 1895. Revue d’Histoire du Cinéma, 71, 2013, pp. 47–60, on pp. 58–60. (in French) View Quote

Stokes, Melvyn (2009): Colour in American Cinema. From The Great Train Robbery to Bonnie and Clyde. In: Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard (ed.): Cinéma et couleur. Paris: M. Houdiard, pp. 184–192, on p. 186. View Quote

Theisen, Earl (1936): Notes on the history of color in motion pictures. In: International Photographer, 8,5, June 1936, pp. 8-9 and p. 24, on p. 9. View Quote

Contemporary Reception

Anonymous (1913): A New Colour Process. Gaumont’s Chronochrome. In: The Bioscope, 328, XVIII, Jan., p. 251. View Quote

Anonymous (1913): The New Breon-Randabel Stereoscopic Color Film. In: Camera Craft. A Photographic Monthly, 20,7, Jul., pp. 335–336, on p. 336. View Quote

Anonymous (1914): Eine wichtige Verbesserung des Lichtbilds. In: Kinema, 4,19, 1914, p. 1. View Quote

Cleveland, David; Pritchard, Brian (2015): How Films were Made and Shown. Some Aspects of the Technical Side of Motion Picture Film 1895-2015. Manningtree, Essex: David Cleveland, on pp. 205–206. View Quote

Coustet, Ernest (1914): La cinematografia a colori. In: La Tecnica Cinematografica, I,3, ottobre 1914, pp. 71–78 published in Grifo, Marco (2006): Dal film colorato al cinema a colori. In: Michele Canosa, Giulia Carluccio and Federica Villa (eds.): Cinema muto italiano. Tecnica e tecnologia. Volume primo. Roma: Carocci, pp. 173–182, on pp. 175–178 View Quote and on pp. 180–181. (in Italian) View Quote

Coustet, Ernest (1921): Le cinéma. Paris: Librairie Hachette, on pp. 164-169 View Quote and on pp. 171-175. (in French) View Quote

Hopwood, Henry Vaux (1915): Color cinematography. In: Henry Vaux Hopwood: Hopwood’s living pictures. Their history, photoproduction, and practical working. With classified lists of British patents and bibliography. London: The Hatton Press, new ed., rev. and enl. by R.B. Foster, pp. 253–273, on pp. 272–273. View Quote

Mees, C.E. Kenneth (1929): The Processes of Color Photography. III. Color Cinematography. In: The Journal of Chemical Education, 6, pp. 44–51, on pp. 46–47 View Quote, on p. 49 View Quote, on p. 50 View Quote, on p. 50 View Quote and on p. 50. View Quote

Rondelli, T. (1914): Lo stato attuale della cinematografia a colori. In: La Vita Cinematografica, 32–33, 30 Aug.–7 Sept. 1914, pp. 36, 41–43 published in Grifo, Marco (2006): Dal film colorato al cinema a colori. In: Michele Canosa, Giulia Carluccio and Federica Villa (eds.): Cinema muto italiano. Tecnica e tecnologia. Volume primo. Roma: Carocci, pp. 168–173, on p. 170. (in Italian) View Quote