What We Talk About When We Talk About Colour. Kirsty Sinclair Dootson. Conference report. May 2018.

Introducing the first post for the Notes on Colour pages of the BAFTSS’ Special Interest Group on Colour and Film.

Kirsty Sinclair Dootson’s Conference report encompassing presentations on colour at: SCMS 2018, the Colour Group GB’s Third International Conference on Colour in Film (organised by University of Applied Science HTW in Berlin, University Zurich, British Film Institute and Birkbeck University of London), the Colour in Context Symposium, and the BAFTSS 2018 Annual Conference (Revolution: Politics, Technology, Aesthetics) at the University of Kent.

If scholars and archivists once lamented that colour was an overlooked and understudied aspect of film history, a slew of recent conferences suggests it is now firmly established as a thriving field of inquiry. No longer marginalized as a historical milestone in film’s technological evolution towards realism, colour is now recognised as crucial to the discipline at large. This increasing consciousness of film as a chromatic medium has coloured numerous approaches to cinema: from film philosophy and phenomenology, theories of subjectivity and affect, critical engagements with race and gender, to interrogations of film’s materiality. The diversity and vitality of scholarship on colour media was emphasised by the kaleidoscopic array of papers delivered at conferences in 2018 so far.

Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, 14-18 March 2018, Toronto. Although there was only one panel dedicated to colour at this year’s SCMS, numerous scholars presented exciting work in this field. William Carroll’s paper “The History of a Broken Blue Shōji Screen: Color in Suzuki Seijun’s Nikkatsu Action Films” contextualised Seijun’s idiosyncratic colour palette within the Nikkatsu house style. A nuanced discussion of lighting and costuming choices, Carroll’s paper illuminated the seemingly eccentric colour design of films like Gates of Flesh (1964). Priya Jaikumar’s paper “Licenses, Raw Stock and the Terms of Creativity in post-Independence Indian Cinema”, explored how the regulation of stock, including chromogenic materials, helped creatively shape film aesthetics in Indian cinema. Citing Bhumika (1977) as a fascinating example, Jaikumar demonstrated how producers developed inventive solutions to the problem of scarce and inconsistent colour materials. It wasn’t only colour film that was under discussion at SCMS however, as Susan Murray delivered a paper examining how the use of colour television as a pedagogical tool transformed American surgical practice in the 1950s and 60s, while I spoke about the BBC’s decision to select The Black and White Minstrel Show as one of its first colour broadcasts in 1967.

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William Carol discusses Suzuki Seijun at SCMS 2018 in Toronto.

Third International Colour in Film Conference, 19-21 March 2018, London. The following week, the Third International Colour in Film Conference, organized by the Colour Group GB in collaboration with the University of Applied Science HTW in Berlin and the University of Zurich was held at both the British Film Institute Southbank and Birkbeck, University of London. The conference once again delivered three rich days of screenings, papers and discussion. One of the major strengths of this conference is the chance to see recently-restored and otherwise inaccessible colour films. The first day was largely dedicated to showcasing this moving image material, from Technicolor shorts and tinted talkies, to hand-coloured silent films and Agfacolor excerpts. Lea aus dem Süden (1963) was a particular highlight. Made in the GDR at the height of the Cold War by the state-owned DEFA Studio, this Agfacolor short, featuring rambunctious Bulgarian jazz singer Lea Iwanowa, delighted attendees with its mixture of Schlager music, quirky design and striking colour.

Lea aus dem Süden was digitized as part of Barbara Flueckiger’s ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors and the SNF Filmfarben project. Ph.D. candidates from these teams presented work throughout the three days of the conference. Despite working on disparate time periods and styles, each demonstrated how different colour film technologies operate as a site of negotiation between political and aesthetic demands.  For instance, Noemi Daugaard’s paper “Technological Development Between Art and Politics: The Case of Gasparcolor” explored the fraught political landscape into which Gasparcolor emerged in 1930s Germany, considering how a colour technology considered at the time to be coded as problematically Jewish and Hungarian could be co-opted for nationalist purposes. Josephine Diecke’s insightful paper “Socialist Identity in the Making”returned to Lea aus dem Süden to consider how the film troubled the associations between femininity, consumerism and capitalism in postwar Europe, provoking animated discussion about how Socialist ideals of femininity in the GDR might help complicate the overdetermined links between women and colour in film scholarship.

Lea aus dem Süden (1963, Gottfried Kolditz). Photographs of the Agfacolor Safety Print by Barbara Flueckiger

Lea aus dem Süden (GDR 1963, Gottfried Kolditz). Credit: DEFA Foundation. Photograph of the Agfacolor Safety Print by Barbara Flueckiger.               Timeline of Historical Film Colors

Gender was a much-discussed topic throughout the conference, notably in response to Kristen Moana Thompson’s paper “The Color Revolution. The Disney Studio, Du Pont and Faber Birren”, which offered a captivating insight into how colouring, as a feminized form of below-the-line labour at Disney, fed into the gendering of colour on the screen.  Thompson also offered a detailed history of the materials and techniques used to fabricate the studio’s iconic cel animation, examining how colour film, with industrial links to the manufacture of gunpowder, plastics, and paint, requires us to contextualise its production within larger, material and economic networks.

Indeed, materiality continues to be a central concern for this event, from Anthony Labbate’s discussion of uranium’s role in the sepia-process, to Olivia Stutz’s consideration of why camel-hair brushes were preferred for applying colour by hand.  Materiality was explored at length in Giovanna Fossati’s keynote lecture, “The Colour Fantastic: Two Decades of Research into the Colours of Silent Cinema”, which considered how the so-called material turn in the humanities has affected the study of early colour film since the landmark ‘Disorderly Order, Colours in Silent Film’ 1995 Amsterdam Workshop.

A panel discussion at The Third International Colour in Film Conference at the BFI

A panel discussion at the Colour Group GB’s Third International Colour in Film Conference, BFI Southbank and Birkbeck, University of London.

While this year’s papers and screenings focused largely on European and American cinema, hopefully next year’s conference will adopt a more global approach. For instance, a panel on Fujicolor would be a welcome addition to the programme, and while the connections between colour, race and colonialism were touched on briefly, it was another colour conference taking place later that week which fully tackled this subject.

Sarah Street presents research from The Eastmancolor Revolution group at the Third International Colour in Film Conference

Sarah Street presents research from the Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema, 1955-1985 project.

Colour in Context Symposium, 23 March 2018, University of Bristol. This event was sponsored by the British Association of Film Television and Screen Studies and organized by the co-convenors of the Colour and Film Special Interest Group: Sarah Street and Liz Watkins. The intertwined histories of colour and British imperialism emerged as the strongest theme over the course of the day, beginning with Lynda Nead’s keynote lecture “Greyscale and Colour: The Hues of Nation and Empire c. 1945-60.” Nead discussed what she described as the “symbolic discourses of post-war colour”  at a time when colour signified both national and racial identity, particularly for the Windrush Generation. Linking fashion, cinema and the visual arts to explore how colour was simultaneously an appealing symbol of modernity in post-war Britain, and a means of othering newly arrived migrants from the Caribbean, Nead unpicked the ways in which colour was both commodified and weaponized in Britain at this time.

These themes were further elaborated by Jan Faull’s paper on Kodacolor Himalayan exploration films in the collection of Royal Geographic Society-IBG, and my own paper on Technicolor filmmaking in India. Zhaoyu Zhu’s paper on Chinese dye-transfer printing, a process that used equipment purchased from Britain in the 1970s,  further complicated our discussion of the links between colour and political ideology in the aftermath of Britain’s colonial past. Tom Livingstone’s paper, on the other hand, considered how colour could act as a tool for resistance against the legacy of imperialism, looking at how the colorization of monochrome footage in I Am Not Your Negro (2016) could, in his terms “disrupt” and “destabilize” hegemonic historical narratives of American history by literally “bringing colour to the archive”. Colour’s connection to psychology and affect was another strongly represented topic in presentations from Kathryn Millard, Elizabeth Watkins, and Bregt Lameris.

British Association of Film Television and Screen Studies Conference, 12-13 April 2018, University of Kent, UK. The annual BAFTSS conference, which was hosted by the University of Kent, demonstrated the vitality of colour studies in the UK. Under the theme of “Revolution: Politics, Technology, Aesthetics” the conference featured three panels dedicated to colour: “Retrochrome: Salvaging Colour Images and Practices for the Historical Present”, “British Women Amateur Filmmakers: Innovative Visual Narratives and Early Colour Films” and “The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema.” The last of these provided delegates with updates on the AHRC funded project examining how Eastmancolor transformed British filmmaking between 1955 and 1985. A particularly exciting aspect of this project, discussed by Keith M. Johnston in his paper, is the focus on British laboratories as a key site for historicizing British colour practices. As Paul Frith explained, the project will provide invaluable new resources for scholars of colour film, as the research team is conducting interviews with lab technicians who worked with the process and can provide first-hand accounts of the material, technical and aesthetic challenges that were posed by Eastmancolor.

Although not explicitly dedicated to color film, the “Decolonising British Cinema” panel cannot go unmentioned. A collaboration between Lawrence Napper, Kulraj Phullar and Stephen Morgan, there was standing room only during these presentations. The panel asked how we as film scholars might transform our pedagogy to present a more responsible and inclusive history of British cinema, which acknowledges and engages with Britain’s imperial histories and its legacies. Colour film of course is central to these discussions. The presenters mentioned many films, including Sapphire (1959) and Sari Red (1988), which can be used to teach students about the inseparable discourses of colour, colonialism, race and resistance in British cinema. Perhaps by the time of BAFTSS 2019 we will see an increasing number of colour film scholars responding to these pressing concerns.

Author: Kirsty Sinclair Dootson, PhD Candidate. History of Art, Film and Media Studies, Yale University. Contact: kirsty.dootson@yale.edu Twitter: @sinclairdootson

Date published: 14 May 2018.

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