In Search of Colour


Any screening that comes with a four-page handout is probably not for the casual viewer, and this is certainly true of IN SEARCH OF COLOUR. Those interested in film history, especially the technological side, will find much to admire in this group of around fifteen short (sometimes very short) films, whose only connection is the process used to photograph them: Kinemacolor. Others may find slim pickings in the landscapes and long-forgotten ceremonies these films record—although pickings there certainly are, here and there.

Kinemacolor, the first mechanical process to film in colour—previous colorization had usually been done by hand—was developed by George Albert (G. A.) Smith, a name very familiar to film historians as a key figure in the so-called Brighton School of early filmmakers and the man often credited with such innovations as the close-up and the dissolve. Smith sold the rights to the process to the pioneer film producer Charles Urban, whose company name can be seen at the end of many of the films shown at this screening.

Like most of the first cinematic colour techniques such as Biocolour (developed by the self-proclaimed father of cinema, William Friese-Greene, who successfully defended a copyright claim from Urban) or early Technicolor, Kinemacolor used a two-colour process: the two colours are almost invariably referred to as ‘red’ and ‘green’, though, as becomes evident while watching the films, the actual base colours are a vibrant orange and a deep turquoise. The main criticism of the process during its heyday, which centred on the fact that objects would split up into blobs of the two constituent colours when moving at speed, was entirely vindicated during the screening, as dogs on the hunt were regularly rendered as orange and turquoise blurs, droplets in a fountain turned into two coloured streams and running soldiers in khaki became harlequins.

If nothing else, these films are likely to be a boon to costume designers…

It may be argued that, as most of these films have been prepared by perhaps the world’s most prestigious organisation dedicated to restoring old cinema, L’Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna, viewers might expect the ‘restorations’ to be of a higher quality than they are. But there are two objections to this, one ethical, the other technical. First, intervening too heavily to ‘correct’ damaged film may be said to go against the basic principles of restoration, by adding a layer of newly created material which imposes itself between the original film stock and the viewer. Secondly, and more simply, restoration can only go so far if the original material is too damaged. Such damage is an inevitability with films of this age: in a number of them, animated bubbles in the two base colours move across the screen like a psychedelic light show from the 1960s. In the case of ‘The Pageant Procession’, a fragment from a 1911 documentary called WITH OUR KING AND QUEEN THROUGH INDIA, the damage affects four-fifths of the screen for the first few minutes. One obvious solution would have been to reduce the fragment to those minutes that were actually watchable—but this, too, would presumably go against the restorers’ principles.

As the title ‘The Pageant Procession’ suggests, many of these films are of expansive events filmed from a distance, which can occasionally wear thin over the course of even a brief run-time. Sometimes, though, the subject matter compensates. The very first film in the screening, uncredited in the handout, is of an unusual pageant, with all the locals dressed in what seem to be Dark Age English costumes (or at any rate what people in the early 1900s thought their Anglo-Saxon ancestors wore). There is a curious example of synchronised movement from a scout troupe in Reedham Orphanage in 1911, and an even more curious exhibition from the Italian cavalry in 1912, where their ‘plotoni nuotatori’ (swimming squads?) swim across the river in full uniform behind their horses. Every so often, a vivid image will jump out of the screen: a poultry farmer, incongruously dressed like a laboratory assistant; an almost modern-looking portrait of African children staring into the camera; three musicians, playing on a Venetian gondola. If nothing else, these films are likely to be a boon to the costume designers of future historical dramas.

Special mention should be made of the contribution of the pianist at this screening, Stephen Horne, who managed to accompany himself on the flute, accordion and other instruments, to give the films a soundtrack that was both varied and appropriate.

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