The 10 best film colour systems

Do you know your Technicolor from your Kodachrome? The science of colour in film, which will be explored in a fourth annual event at BFI Southbank in March, has brought us many innovative systems over the past 120 years. Here’s an expert’s guide to 10 of the best.

26 January 2016

By Uli Ruedel

The Red Shoes (1948) in Glorious Technicolor
© Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive in association with the BFI/The Film Foundation/ITV Global Entertainment/Park Circus

In early 2015, the BFI hosted Colour in Film, an enthusiastically received symposium held by the Colour Group, an interdisciplinary society bringing together experts in the field of colour. The event highlighted issues of colour film restoration, and how and where these related to the discipline of colour science, furthering the interaction between these two vibrant but thus far largely separated communities.

In March 2016, this was followed by the first international conference, Colour in Film, with an afternoon of specially selected colour film screenings contextualised by expert introductions and a full day of symposium presentations afterwards. The second conference in spring 2017 then covered the entire breadth of colour in moving images, from early (pre)cinema’s chromolithographic printing through the applied colours of tinting, toning and their Desmetcolor rendition, from chromogenic Agfacolor and Eastmancolor through the video- and film-based look of the golden age of British colour television and up to modern, current grading in the digital domain.

The third international conference Colour in Film was again organised by the Colour Group (GB), HTW Berlin and the University of Zurich, in cooperation with the BFI and Birkbeck, University of London, and featured a special workshop by University of Zurich’s projects ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors and SNF Film Colors: Technologies, Cultures, Institutions (both led by Prof. Dr Barbara Flueckiger).

The event will include screenings in the BFI’s NFT3 theatre, keynote lectures and presentations from international film and colour scholars, and will feature a special  workshop by University of Zurich’s projects ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors and SNF Film Colors Technologies, Cultures, Institutions led by Prof. Dr. Barbara Flueckiger.

Many of the colour systems featured in the previous conferences appear in the below list, which we first published to coincide with the first Colour in Film session in 2015 and updated on occasion of ther first full conference in 2016.

10. Eastmancolor

So called LADs (Laboratory Aim Density charts) with ‘China Girls’ allow assessment of select defined colours as well as of skin tones in these Eastmancolor clippings
© U. Ruedel

Often maligned, perhaps in comparison to the ‘Glorious’ Technicolor it replaced, or for the fading of some materials, Eastmancolor and similar colour negative processes are often too easily dismissed, ignoring their revolutionary accomplishments. In the 1950s, they overcame the registration and fringing issues of Technicolor and, in this manner, made colour film ready for the widescreen revolution.

They developed the chemistry pioneered by Kodachrome reversal and Agfacolor negative stocks further by introducing the colour ‘mask’ that is responsible for the typical orange of colour negative films, making printing and copying in colour much more feasible. Under severe threat from digital projection nowadays, modern, analogue colour film still remains the top standard for any large-screen colour moving image experience, especially on the large 70mm film stock, so gloriously revived by Quentin Tarantino for his The Hateful Eight (2015).

9. Dufaycolor

A Colour Box (1935), Dufaycolor reversal colour positive
© BFI National Archives. These and other colour treasures were documented by Professor Barbara Flueckiger in a joint project with BFI for her Timeline of Historical Film Colors

With its mosaic of red, green and blue colour areas known as a réseau, Dufaycolor was an additive system, that is, one creating colour in the same manner as, say, the modern red, green and blue pixels of a computer monitor. It’s even tempting to see its mosaic colour pattern, which blends at sufficient viewing distance into the intended colours, as a precursor of the modern colour pixel.

This complex process emerged in 1933, though was soon to become outdated due to more effective subtractive systems such as Gasparcolor, Technicolor, Kodachrome and, eventually, colour negative film. But this was not before making some of the most beautiful British colour films possible, including the famous abstract films by animator Len Lye, such as 1935’s A Colour Box, seen in the above frame grab.

8. Colour separations

Principle of colour separations, starting from an Eastmancolor LAD (digital simulation)
© U. Ruedel

It bears repeating that the most stable colour records are those separated into black-and-white film strips, representing the three primary colours, each as a black-and-white master positive or negative. Technicolor produced its negatives on three black-and-white film strips or (for animation) as three successive images on one strip, in each case separately recording and rendering three basic colours. They still hold up breathtakingly, copied onto modern film or remastered to the latest DCP or high-def formats. Gasparcolor used the same approach for its negatives, and to this day, copying colour materials onto three separate silver gelatin, black-and-white images remains the most durable colour record for moving images ever invented.

7. Two-color Technicolor and Two-color Kodachrome

Much like Technicolor’s revolutionary colour system in the 1920s, the earliest Kodachrome (related to the later, better-known reversal process one by name only) used only two primary colours, red and green-blue, with its respective photographic emulsions on two sides of a single film strip. Both systems are somewhat similar in their photographic-chemical approaches, if not in detail, and their limited colour rendition might not accurately represent the scene photographed, but could beautifully render skin tones in a glowing, sometimes nearly marble-like beauty.

Technicolor’s implementation (in two different versions known as Technicolor No. II and No. III) enjoyed quite some success in 1920s cinema, more often than not for select sequences highlighted by their ‘natural’ colour, like the religious scenes in Ben-Hur (1925). Famous features entirely shot in the process include Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1926), preserved at the BFI in its proper colours resembling period book illustrations, and Michael Curtiz’s pioneering early colour horror films, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). For the definitive history of two-color Technicolor, look no further than James Layton’s and David Pierce’s magnum opus, published by the George Eastman Museum.

6. Gasparcolor

The Ship of the Ether (1934)
© BFI National Archive. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors

Admittedly short-lived after its 1933 introduction, but vibrant and pioneering, Gasparcolor was a so-called dye destruction system, requiring extensive exposure. Animation scholar William Moritz described the system by its “perfect hues for animation,” and it was this way it was used by artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and George Pal. For a while it was the only technically serious competitor to Technicolor. For the most recent restoration study, consult HTW graduate Andrea Krämer’s master thesis (in German), available through the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

5. Kodachrome

Introduced in 1935, the Kodachrome reversal process was the first successful colour system employing what we know today as colour development, using so-called couplers that create the dyes within a film upon photographic development. Available as a reversal material only, it entered the amateur movie market while the cinema market was only slowly moving towards Technicolor.

Most Kodachrome films are vibrant (even an American state park, Utah’s Kodachrome Basin, has been named after the system) and quite stable, and thus home or non-theatrical movies shot in the format can provide rare historic colour images such as those of the Second World War or the lives of ordinary people.

4. Agfacolor

Developed in Germany in the 1930s, but tainted by its emergence in the state-controlled cinema of the Nazi era, Agfacolor was the first successful colour negative material, and as such, a major innovation and a technical predecessor of the American Eastman colour negative introduced in the 1950s.

In the post-war era, the material’s typical pastel hues offered a beautiful alternative to America’s more candy-coloured Technicolor and Eastmancolor materials for the national cinemas, say, of Scandinavia or Germany, and its equivalent East German successor Orwocolor (renamed in 1964) has similarly recently been re-appraised, such as in the 2013 Emulsion Matters series at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. One of the most important – and problematic – Agfacolor films is Veit Harlan’s Opfergang (1944).

Opfergang (1944)
© By courtesy of Murnaustiftung, Wiesbaden. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Die verwitterte Melodie (1943). Orwocolor safety print of this Agfacolor film
© U. Ruedel

3. Tinting and toning

Even in the earliest silent movie era, the majority of films were in colour, though colours were subsequently applied to the black-and-white image rather than naturally photographed. Tinting would literally bathe the entire image in colour dyes, resulting in subtle or saturated, vibrant, incredibly transparent colours that often are still impossible to fully match with today’s photographic or digital imaging methods.

Der Märchenwald, ein Schattenspiel (1919)
© By courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Der Märchenwald, ein Schattenspiel (1919)
© By courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors
Dänische Landschaften (Danish Landscapes, 1912)
© Joye Collection, BFI National Archive. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors

 Toning, in contrast, would replace the black-and-white silver image with one equally crisp and defined, but comprised from inorganic pigments such as the well-known sepia brown or Prussian Blue. Tinting and toning could also be evocatively combined, yielding two-colour, yet artificial images of particular beauty, such as in the brand-new restoration of Fritz Lang’s melancholic masterpiece Destiny (1921), freshly restored by Murnaustiftung.

Essentially a silent film technique, tinting would also occasionally be applied in the sound era, perhaps most recently in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) to suggest the heat experienced on the Earth as it drifts to the sun. For our 2014 sci-fi season, the film was digitally restored by the BFI, drawing on this rare original tinted print (note the typical image squeeze, meant to be stretched to CinemaScope dimensions on the screen) as a colour guide.

Tinted frame for The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
© BFI National Archive

2. Hand and stencil colouring

The Cascades of the Houyoux (Province of Liège, Belgium) (1911)
© Joye Collection, BFI National Archive. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors

Adapting an approach well known for, say, photographic postcards from the 19th century (but dating back even to prehistoric cave paintings), hand and stencil colours were made from solutions of synthetic dyes applied to films shot on black-and-white materials, much like in tinting but selectively, thus to create the first ‘colour’ films.

The version done frame by frame, by hand, copy per copy, would be the most laborious, but soon French production company Pathé would establish its semi-automated stencil colour system, where, once stencils were cut for every colour for a given film, they could more easily be brushed onto numerous copies, and benefit from very concise outlines. Artificial but also incredibly beautiful, whether lavishly applied or selectively, naturalistically or fantastically, these colours still exert their magic spell on an audience after more than a century.

1. Glorious Technicolor

The Red Shoes (1948)
© BFI National Archive. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger, Timeline of Historical Film Colors

In the year of the 100th anniversary of the company that developed it through the years (‘Glorious Technicolor’ is actually the fourth Technicolor system, with two-color Technicolor systems No. 2 and 3 its most important predecessors, see above), Hollywood’s first enduring colour system easily makes the number one spot on this list. With prints that are essentially made in a lithographic, ‘dye transfer’ process, its vibrancy is reminiscent of the earlier, ‘unnatural’ applied dye colours, yet it was the first system to offer full ‘natural’ colour photographic moving images.

Hollywood classics like Gone with the Wind (1939) are unthinkable without the systems, but there were also, in their aesthetics, distinctly European and British implementations of the system, such as The Red Shoes (1948). Even after the bulky Technicolor camera had to succumb to the use of Eastman colour negatives in conventional film cameras, Technicolor printing remained the preferred way to ensure vibrant prints even from Eastman negatives, well into the 1970s, for everything from spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror.

Want to know more? Consult the Timeline of Historical Film Colors

Timeline of Historical Film Colours

The BFI National Archive’s vaults are home to a host of treasures reflecting the international history of film colour, including British contributions ranging from early colour systems such as Friese-Greene to the unique aesthetics achieved with American Technicolor by cinematographers such as Jack Cardiff.

In film restoration, rendering historical colours faithfully in modern photographic or digital copies remains a substantial challenge. Improvements have been made both within the analogue realm and by the extended possibilities digital restoration offers. Still, many existing copies only to a limited extent reflect original colour appearance, and even in brand-new restorations, the colours of originals can turn out to be beyond the range of modern films or digital colour spaces. Thus, ‘passive’ conservation to protect original materials for the future in state-of-the-art film store facilities remains of the highest priority, but so does further research and documentation on the colours of 20th-century motion pictures towards improved understanding and more faithful restoration.

The BFI has always been engaged with these problems, ranging from issues related to the very earliest colour films to the authentic colour rendering in major BFI restoration projects, with scientific research and outreach informing such endeavours. Recognising the quantum leap towards documentation of historical colour systems facilitated with her Timeline of Historical Film Colors, the BFI’s conservation managers and curators were thus delighted to welcome the University of Zurich’s Professor Barbara Flueckiger to the J. Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre in March 2014. In a joint project and with help from the conservation and collection teams, various colour systems evidenced in the rich collections were to be visually documented for dissemination within the Timeline website.

During two days on site, Professor Flueckiger thus captured numerous high-quality, colour-calibrated digital images of a carefully selected, yet extensive number of historic colour prints, often on volatile nitrate stock, from the BFI’s vaults. The high-quality images thus generated now form part of the BFI’s Collections and Information Database and are available both to specialists and the public through the galleries in the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

Colours captured range from the early, ‘unnatural’ tint and stencil colours in the BFI’s remarkable Joseph Joye Collection to the pioneering ‘natural’ colour systems such as the additive Francita and Dufaycolor processes, the latter famously employed in films by Len Lye and Humphrey Jennings. They evidence both colour fading such as in Dufaychrome and the gorgeous, resilient colours of, for instance, Gasparcolor (typically employed in animation, but also used in rare London documentary footage). They also comprise the most famous systems such as Technicolor (and even its variations among different archives’ prints) and effectively forgotten ones such as CinechromeSpectracolorChemicolor and Dunningcolor.

This is an amended version of an article first published on 14 January 2015.

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