Feb 20, 2015

Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi on "The Colour Fantastic" at EYE, March 28-31, 2015

Guest blogger Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi previews a major conference coming up in Amsterdam. Exactly one year after hosting the 9th Orphan Film Symposium (thank you again!), EYE joins with scholars, archivists, and artists for a rich four-day event. Registration is open.  

The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema
March 28-31, 2015

In 1995, the Nederlands Filmmuseum (NFM; now EYE) organized the Amsterdam Workshop “Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Film.” This became a milestone event due to the subsequent shared efforts of the archivists and scholars who attended this event, at which dozens of colored films from the Filmmuseum's early cinema collection were screened. A book followed in 1998. However, NFM had already committed to preserving silent-era cinema in color, beginning with its restoration of the Italian feature film Fior di Male (1915), premiered at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone in 1986. 

In the mid-80s, while working on the now-famous Jean Desmet Collection, NFM curators were surprised to see how many prints from the 1910s had been distributed in color, regardless of genre, length, or content. Deciding to preserve the films on color stock was a visionary idea that would change the perception of the silent cinema in the years to come. Upon seeing Fior di Male in color, the Giornate audience split between those who were pleasantly amazed and those who reacted in anger, calling the presence of color a distraction. Peter Delpeut recalls that in 1987, only ten out of the 350 works screened in Pordenone were presented in color. Three years later he completed his own color-filled Lyrisch Nitraat (Lyrical Nitrate), a compilation film using Desmet Collection fragments dating from 1905 to 1915. When it premiered at the 1990 Giornate, the audience was again stunned. Even the most ardent devotees of silent cinema were collectively still adjusting to viewing color prints. All this made Amsterdam the natural place to hold the Color Workshop in 1995.

Today nearly all archives preserve films with their original tints. Therefore, twenty years on, EYE has once again organized an international conference on color, designed to show, tell, and evaluate what has been done in the last two decades. How are archives coping with the original colors? What are scholars studying now that color in silent cinema is not a taboo? What publications and research projects are under way? What have we learned so far from these early colors?

The conference creates platforms for archivists to show and discuss their best practices (as well as their failures) to duplicate the early colors. The last decades have seen many technological developments: the initial method used by the NFM (simply to copy the nitrate print onto color negative and to make a color answer print) has been abandoned completely, in favor of the Desmet Method, developed in the late 1980s by the coincidentally named Noël Desmet of the Royal Belgian Film Archive (now CINEMATEK). This technique allows restorationists to make a black-and-white negative and a color answer print by adding colors during the last stage of restoration. Subsequent digital technology has of course made other color adjustments possible, varying from the simple digital addition of a tint to minuscule corrections within a frame.

Jean Desmet (Belgian-born Dutch film distributor)  &  Noël Desmet (Belgian film restorer)
Images from EYEfilm.nl   &  davidbordwell.net 

In the academic field, the discussion of the presence of color has progressed into researching the areas of overlap and mutual influence among the cinema, other cultural forms (such as posters or paintings), and even industrial products (such as clothes or calendars). Film historians are also eager to unearth and understand obsolete color methods, collaborating with archivists who restore such films.

In recent debates on whether to colorize black-and-white archival footage, some have argued that adding color to monochrome images creates a deeper empathy in audiences today. The British documentary series World War 1 in Colour was first broadcast in the UK in 2003. The television network TVO in Canada focused even more on its archival achievements in the five-part Apocalypse: World War One (2014): “culled from more than 500 hours of archival material. This is WWI as you have never experienced it before: artfully colorized in a painstakingly researched process that brings the footage to life with unprecedented impact.” TVO scrupulously offers explanations for how it colorized the monochromatic record, and why it did so. Its website answers the question "Where does our footage of WWI come from?" Short videos include “Lionel Kopp talks about the emotional impact of the colourization process on B/W film." 

A century ago, the same idea might have been at the root of the highly sophisticated Pathécolor system, used for productions varying from short war reports to melodramatic feature films such as Maudite Soit la Guerre (Belgium, 1914). 

Maudite soit la guerre [Damn the War]. Produced by Belge Cinéma Films, Pathé.
Restored by Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique and EYE.

Addressing all these matters, the conference in EYE will combine panels and paper presentations with film screenings, including the now digitally revised version of Peter Delpeut’s Lyrical Nitrate, the 2014 restored version of Maudite, and a variety of shorts. Delpeut will give one of three keynote talks, along with Vanessa Toulmin (National Fairground Archive / University of Sheffield) and Tom Gunning (University of Chicago).

EYE will also present its new book Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema (Amsterdam University Press), edited by Giovanna Fossati, Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe, and Jonathon Rosen. 

The conference begins on Saturday evening, March 28 (attendees are also invited to an earlier program that day, at which EYE curators will present current projects) and concludes on March 31.

Register now at https://www.eyefilm.nl/en/themes/the-colour-fantastic-chromatic-worlds-of-silent-cinema.

"The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema" is co-organized by EYE, Giovanna Fossati (University of Amsterdam/ASCA), and the Leverhulme Trust research project Colour in the 1920s: Cinema and Its Intermedial Contexts, run by Sarah Street (University of Bristol) and Joshua Yumibe (University of St Andrews / Michigan State University). 

Elif Rontgen-Kaynakçi is Curator of Silent Film at EYE, where she has worked since 1999.