Ten years ago, a group of film scholars with a passion for colour in film organized the Colour and the Moving Image conference.[i] Now in 2019, in recognition of a plethora of fascinating research projects that continue to examine this domain, The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema team organized Global Colour and the Moving Image Conference at the University of Bristol on 10-12 July. For three days, researchers presented their work opening the gateway to extended discussion.
Left: Keynote Lecture by Barbara Flueckiger. Right: Q&A with Sarah Street and Barbara Flueckiger (image credit: Flueckiger and Diecke)
An introduction by the Eastmancolor Revolution’s project lead investigator, Sarah Street, led into a captivating keynote from Barbara Flueckiger on the relationships of characters to their environment in colour films. Flueckiger conceptualised a variety of the relationships between “figure” and “ground”, based on typologies like contrast, inversion, desaturation, depth of field, as well as the texture of surface, lighting and visual complexity. Images analysed included examples from Jigokumon (1953), The Garden of Allah (1936), Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), We need to Talk about Kevin (2011) and many more. The tool used for object classification was YOLO and for figure-ground separation the program is VIAN; each employs a deep learning method. Later Flueckiger gave us an interesting live demonstration of VIAN.
Helen Hughes’ paper on Operation Hurricane (1953), Calder Hall (1955) and the promotion of British nuclear power examined the practical as well as aesthetic aspects of recording the atomic age in colour. The decision of the British government to use Eastmancolor to specifically shoot the moment of explosion implied the importance of colour in depicting a nuclear-powered nation. Vicky Jackson talked about the complicated relationship of colour and the beloved long-running British television soap opera Coronation Street. She detailed the question of colour and depiction of the working class brought up by the press of that time, and the fact that the colour of the second colour episode was toned down from the first. In the show, a family’s struggle to buy a colour television for a decade was an amusing meta-level reference.
The liaison of colour with stardom, makeup and fashion came up in papers of Cathy Lomax and Lucy Moyse Ferreira. Lomax’s work was about the star image, makeup and Warnercolor films with Hollywood diva Natalie Wood as the case study. The instability of Warnercolor, the attraction of a star’s larger-than-life onscreen appearance and the possible intervention of colour restoration were discussed. Moyse Ferreira’s research on colour and fashion was a delightful multidisciplinary peek into the talented French artist Sonia Delaunay’s experiment with fashion, cinema and “Simultanism”, a concept which drew from Chevreul’s ideas to inform rhythms of contrasting colours. The screening of clips from La Mode (1927) was a worthy visual depiction of Delaunay’s creativity involving colour and design.
Joshua Yumibe, Stuart Moore and Bregt Lameris’s intriguing research suggests the profound impression colour can have on the human psyche, emotion and memory. Yumibe talked about the return of 1920s-style colour in contemporary film and media and how “indexical hues” have emerged from the past in shows like Babylon Berlin (2017), even if the colour is artificial. During the Q&A, Yumibe pointed out that the colour is not only used in a nostalgic tone in Babylon Berlin, but rather that it can be read as a critical perspective. Moore emphasised the importance of the colour aesthetic of Kodachrome Super 8 based on his own filmmaking experience. Kodachrome’s technical specificities helped to paint the past as a sunlit memorable day and the typical yellow envelope used to send off magazines of film for processing also invoked nostalgia. Thus Kodachrome Super 8 became “the colour of memory”.
Lameris explained the imaginary affective powers of colour on human beings. In spite of little conclusive scientific proof of colour influencing the mind, Lameris argued that colour and film meet in the realm of “imaginary media”, with examples like the bright and colourful Auroratone films of the 1940s.
Left: Auroratone: ‘Colour (in) Film as an “Imaginary Medium”‘. Right: Panel Q&A: Joshua Yumibe (Michigan State University), Stuart Moore (University of the West of England), Bregt Lameris (University of Zurich) chaired by Keith M. Johnston.
A number of presentations at the conference had their topics intertwined with the theme of social and economic influences on the medium of film and film colour, along with the impact of each country’s nationalist impulses. Elena Gipponi talked about Italian public TV’s transition to colour in the late 1970s, which faced opposition based on the ideological prejudice of Italian television at that time. She analysed the austerity policy driven by a fear of consumerism that, curiously, blamed colour commercials as a catalyst of materialistic consumption. Federico Pierotti demonstrated that Red Desert (Antonioni, 1964) had a substantial connection to the visual and material culture of Italy in 1957-1964, especially the idea of chromo-technics that was discussed in many national conventions. Thus the choice of colour in Red Desert (1964) can be examined beyond the artistic context that we are generally familiar with.
Josephine Diecke’s work is, as Ranjani Mazumdar remarked, “like a spy thriller”. Diecke offered us exciting results of her investigation about the transnational knowledge exchange across geographical and political borders, which affected the East German colour film system manufacturers ORWO and Agfa. The archival records prove the extensive secret organizational effort to monitor international competitors. Iryna Marholina explored post- World War II Soviet tendencies concerning colour, as a result of Agfacolor stocks being brought from Germany. A new semantic meaning was offered by colour poetics in works of Dovzhenko Pudovkin and others in the face of tough censorship. Zhaoyu Zhu informed us about colour film production in Maoist socialist China. We came to know that the ideology of self-reliance motivated Chinese film companies to develop domestic water soluble monopacks for colour movies in the 1950s, also supporting a nationalistic inclination. Delighted to be a part of this rich conference, I discussed colour’s crucial role as a promotional apparatus in the dissemination of films released between 1946 and 1954, in the context of the post-World War II Swedish economy and manoeuvring the idea of novelty and uniqueness with regard to different colour film systems.
Keynote speaker Ranjani Mazumdar presented on colour, mobility and cinematic cartography in the context of India’s colour film in the 1960s. Mazumdar analysed film as mapping socio-economic change in India, offering examples like Shikar (1968), Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968) and Aadmi aur Insaan (1969). Extensive usage of Jeep cars in the visuals to depict urbanisation, imagery of huge infrastructural improvement with highway and dam construction, and using colour’s aspect of excess built a compelling presentation.
Left: Key note lecture by Ranjani Mazumdar (Jawaharlal Nehru University) ‘Colour, Mobility and Cinematic Cartography: Exploring India in the 1960s’. Right: ‘Unveiling India through Colour films (image credit: The Eastmancolor Revolution).
It is not possible to talk about colour in cinema without touching upon Technicolor! Technicolor company experimented with colour processes throughout its history, with the dye imbibition process predominantly being associated with films made in the 1930s through to the early 1950s. Robert Hoffman’s argument about Technicolor’s dye-transfer process of 1952-1978 asserted that Technicolor’s imbibition printing was implemented well into the 1970s by talented filmmakers who came to define a new Technicolor aesthetic. While unfortunately Hoffman could not be present, Carolyn Rickards was very kind to read his paper to us. Kirsty Sinclair Dootson told us the little-known story of Technicolor’s Indian laboratory in the 1950s… that could have been. The idea of imperial chromatic regulation, even after India’s independence, and the allegory of printing colour film via the imagery of printing textiles in the Technicolor textile-themed short films provided some food for thought. In his critique of the colonial impulse, Stephen McBurney’s paper offered insight into the imperialistic agenda of some uses of early colour and film marketing. For example, Up the Nile, the Way to Atbara (1899) was promoted as a film containing “national and patriotic scenes”; the colourisation of red uniforms and the hues of the landscape apparently transformed mundane film footage to exploit patriotic sentiments. Jan Faull talked about Captain John Noel’s camerawork on expeditions to Mount Everest in 1922 and 1924, and the function of colour in the global reach of expeditionary film. Faull elaborated Noel’s use of colour through a reading of the images that he re-edited for exhibition, and the way that colour – as the new technology – added value to his visual documentation.
The question of ethical responsibility was an important part of this conference discussion. Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes’ research work on amateur films and visual anthropology offered a fascinating study of Johnny Gurkha (1945) and Who will be a Gurkha (2012). The paper raised important questions about appropriation of the past in colour, use of colour film stock and its influence on the validity of British and Nepalese private and national memory, and the burning question about the ethical liability of the media when everyone is a media producer.
Liz Watkins’ paper offered a thought provoking ending to the conference, detailing issues associated with the digital colourisation of first world war film footage in Peter Jackson’s They Shall not Grow Old (2018). While film installations like John Akomfrah’s Mimesis: African Soldier (2018) demand critical reflection on communities marginalised in white British historiographies, They Shall not Grow Old is a reiteration of nostalgia for a form of British propaganda. Jackson’s film diminishes the material and physical history of the film – flecks, flickers and camera speed – while colourising it for an “immersive effect” intended to appeal to a spectatorship contemporary to the centenary of the First World War.
The conference included a screening of Point Blank (dir. John Boorman, 1967) with an engaging introduction by Keith M. Johnston (University of East Anglia). Johnston shared information about the conscious colour design choices of the filmmaker John Boorman, the transition of colour from scene-to-scene and anecdotes – gathered from interviews with the director – regarding the pre-production and production of this rather unusual film noir in colour.
The conference also saw the launch of Sarah Street and Joshua Yumibe’s book, Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and Media of the 1920s, with an enthusiastic appreciation from the colour-loving community. Every panel Q&A was great to follow as various interesting questions flew from the committed audience to the presenters and the conversations continued during break time. So it goes without saying that the multifaceted domain of film colour research has come a long way! The conference was highly successful to open a platform of enthusiastic knowledge exchange. The members of The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinemaproject – Sarah Street, Keith M. Johnston, Paul Frith and Carolyn Rickards – deserve applause for organising this.
[I] The 2009 Colour and the Moving Image Conference was 3-day International event organised by Sarah Street, Liz Watkins, Simon Brown and Vicky Jackson at the Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts and University of Bristol. Colour and the Moving Image 2009 was attended by over 130 delegates and led to the book Colour and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive (Routledge 2013).
About the author: Kamalika Sanyal is currently pursuing her PhD at KU Leuven, Belgium. She studies the promotion, transition stage issues and critical reception of natural colour film processes in the art as well as the business of Swedish filmmaking, mainly in the time period of the 1940s to the 1960s. She has presented her papers on early natural colour Swedish shorts and on colour remakes of Swedish classic films at various conferences. Upcoming publication – “The Colour Remakes of Swedish Classics in the 1950s: Production, Promotion and Critical Reception in the Context of a New Technology” in European Film Remakes (Edinburgh University Press). Contact: email@example.com