Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism

Joshua Yumibe,
Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism
Rutgers University Press, New York, 2012.
ISBN: 978-081355 2972
(Review copy supplied by Rutgers University Press)

Joshua Yumibe’s Moving Color is a slender, thoughtful and carefully researched book about the emergence of applied colour techniques in cinema from the 1890s to the 1920s. To my knowledge it’s the only book-length analysis of colour cinema in this period, which is astonishing given the volume of material that’s been written about every other aspect of early film.

Moving Color is essentially a history of the development of different applied colour techniques – hand painting, stencilling, tinting and toning – over cinema’s first couple of decades. In the first chapter, Yumibe describes the colourful contexts of cinema’s emergence. Throughout the 1800s, he writes, new and more affordable dyes, pigments and colouring processes were developed. The result was an increasing array of coloured consumer goods – fabric, wallpaper, house paints, porcelain glazes and so on. At the same time, in the early decades of the 1800s, there were new explorations into the physiological and psychological effects of colour on the human eye and mind (such as Goethe’s Theory of Colours [1810]). These two trends, says Yumibe, converge at the point of early cinema. New synthetic aniline dyes “were the predominant colorants used in the film industry” (25), and their application by film colourists was informed by prevailing theories of colour and vision. The intersection of technology, industry and aesthetic theory that Yumibe describes here in this first chapter provides the framework for the remainder of the book in which he explores how applied colour was used by early filmmakers, how it was incorporated into the industry, and with what success.

Over three chapters Yumibe looks in detail at three stages of applied film colour: hand-painted films which dominated from the 1890s until about 1906; the transition from hand-painting to stencilling, toning and tinting in the single reel period between 1907 and 1913; and on to more subdued and naturalistic colouring techniques from about 1914 to the end of the 1920s. Looking at the different time periods that Yumibe is working with, you can see straight away that his approach is drawing on some very familiar academic discourse on early cinema. In its earliest years, applied film colour was a spectacular, visually exciting attraction rather than a ‘primitive’ attempt at verisimilitude (as per Tom Gunning’s concept of a ‘cinema of attractions’). In the single reel period the garish, erotic colours of Pathé’s grands guignols existed alongside more subdued efforts at film colour (as per Gunning’s concept of a ‘cinema of narrative integration’ in which attractions-based aesthetics jostled with emerging classical film norms). And after about 1910, “color styles became less distracting and more narratively realistic” (145) in keeping with the subordination of film style to realism and causal motivation that defines the classical Hollywood paradigm.

By using colour as a kind of filter for viewing the emergence of cinema, however, Yumibe manages to expand and complicate this familiar history in some interesting ways. He makes a convincing case that cinema was colourful from the get-go. Cinema emerged in colourful times, he says, not just in terms of bright consumer goods and colour theory but also popular entertainments like dance spectacles and magic lantern shows, which increasingly incorporated colour as an exciting visual effect. Many labourers who worked as colourists in those formats – painting slides for lantern shows and so on – were later employed to work on early film. “Emerging from this network of colored media,” says Yumibe “the cinema like other screen technologies was in color from the start” (39). The description that Yumibe paints is totally at odds with Maxim Gorky’s famously ambivalent account of early film as a “kingdom of shadows”. It’s also at odds with more recent writing on early film colour, such as a (pretty weak) chapter from Richard Misek’s Chromatic Cinema (2010) in which Misek’s takes Gorky’s description of cinema’s monotonous grey tones at face value. Yumibe doesn’t say that Gorky got it wrong, but rather he emphasises the variability of early film colour: “As with other new media, films were experienced in a multitude of ways and formats at the turn of the last century, and they looked and sounded different from place to place. Some prints were hand colored, while others, of the same film, were not” (70). But it seems, based on Yumibe’s research, that Gorky’s shadowy experience was atypical.

Yumibe also examines the role that 19th century colour theory played in shaping the emergence of early film. Theory about how colour affects the human senses trickled down into popular discourse, which in turn seems to have influenced how filmmakers and production companies used applied film colour. For instance, colour theory suggested that women were more sensitive to colour, which goes part way to explaining why women usually did the work of hand-painting films and why female bodies were the subject of so much applied colour (such as in the popular dance and fairy genres). Colour theory also emphasised the ability of colour to ‘uplift’ audiences, but also to overwhelm the senses if it was too bold. This, says Yumibe, played a major role in how colour was applied in the single reel period and later, especially in the United States. The emergence of more subdued and naturalistic colouring was indebted not just to developing concepts of unobtrusive narration and visual verisimilitude, but also the belief that colour ought to be tasteful, restrained and ‘uplifting’.

Moving Color is at its strongest when it focuses on the historical detail; the technical processes involved, the organisation of labour, the different strategies employed by the major film companies, and the relative success these were met with. Some of the broader concepts – early colour cinema’s relationship to contemporary film colour, or the impact of colour theory on applied film colour – aren’t always convincing. Yumibe regularly outlines parallels between the principles of colour theory and principles of early film colouring, but he doesn’t always have evidence to support a direct line of influence. And in his first chapter Yumibe sets up two lines of inquiry – the influence of modernist colour theory, and new techniques for the industrial production of coloured consumer goods – but only the former gets any attention in the rest of the book. The fascinating relationship between early film colour and modernist consumer culture sadly falls by the wayside (see for example Eirik Frisvold Hanssen’s article “Symptoms of desire: colour, costume, and commodities in fashion newsreels of the 1910s and 1920s”).

These criticisms aside, Moving Color is an enjoyable, well-written addition to the study of colour cinema, which addresses a major gap in our understanding of applied film colour. As compared with the Technicolor-era, this strange, experimental and transitional period of colour cinema has been grossly overlooked. One of the main reasons for the paucity of writing on early film colour, I imagine, is simply the lack of material to study. So many films from this period no longer exist (this is true for black and white, and colour prints). Where prints have survived, the applied colours rarely have (even in its day, says Yumibe, exhibitors complained about how quickly colour wore off new prints). For contemporary researchers relying on preserved or restored films, there are other problems. Processes of conservation, restoration, and digitisation, inevitably impact on how film colour looks. The hard work Yumibe has done in order to overcome these hurdles, and to give a rich sense of the variety, popularity and hybridity of early film colour, is extremely commendable.

About the Author

Maura Edmond

About the Author

Maura Edmond

Maura Edmond is an honorary research fellow in the Cinema and Cultural Studies program at the University of Melbourne, where she recently completed her PhD. She’s also researching community-uses of participatory digital media for the Queensland University of Technology.View all posts by Maura Edmond →