Color and the Moving Image
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Color and the Moving Image

History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive

Simon Brown, Sarah Street, Liz Watkins, Simon Brown, Sarah Street, Liz Watkins

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eBook - ePub

Color and the Moving Image

History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive

Simon Brown, Sarah Street, Liz Watkins, Simon Brown, Sarah Street, Liz Watkins

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About This Book

This new AFI Film Reader is the first comprehensive collection of original essays on the use of color in film. Contributors from diverse film studies backgrounds consider the importance of color throughout the history of the medium, assessing not only the theoretical implications of color on the screen, but also the ways in which developments in cinematographic technologies transformed the aesthetics of color and the nature of film archiving and restoration. Color and the Moving Image includes new writing on key directors whose work is already associated with color—such as Hitchcock, Jarman and Sirk—as well as others whose use of color has not yet been explored in such detail—including Eric Rohmer and the Coen Brothers. This volume is an excellent resource for a variety of film studies courses and the global film archiving community at large.

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“the brighton school and the quest for natural color” – redux
s i m o n b r o w n
The generative mechanisms of history operate at a number of levels and with uneven force, so that it is the historian’s job to understand these mechanisms in their complexity rather to isolate a single "cause" for a given event.
(Allen and Gomery 1985 : 16)
In his article “The Brighton School and the Quest for Natural Colour” (2004: 205—218) Luke McKernan illuminates the history surrounding early color processes developed in Britain, particularly Kinemacolor and its rival, Biocolour. Kinemacolor was the first commercially successful natural color process, developed by George Albert Smith around 1906, premiered in 1908 and successfully exploited by American entrepreneur Charles Urban through the early part of the 1910s. Biocolour on the other hand was considerably less successful commercially, barely being exploited at all. It was developed by William Friese-Greene who was championed, notably by early cinema historian Will Day (Bottomore 1996: 38) and Ray Allister (1948), as the founder of cinematography, a view later cemented in popular opinion through the The Magic Box (1951), a British feature film starring Robert Donat as Friese-Greene. Yet the historical evidence fails to bear out this romantic and idealized tale. An alternate view is offered by McKernan who mercilessly describes Friese-Greene as “a man of scant technical genius, an opportunist, fantasist, and an incorrigible borrower of others’ ideas” (2004: 209).
On a technical level, Kinemacolor and Biocolour were similar additive two-color processes. The principle of additive systems involved using filters to record a particular portion of the color spectrum and then in projection adding that portion of the spectrum to white light. By combining the two additive primary colors of red and green, a broad range of color could be achieved. Both Kinemacolor and Biocolour films were taken the same way, recording successive images through red and green filters at twice the normal speed, resulting in a black-and-white film which was alternately a record of the red and green components of the spectrum. In projection they used the same principle that by projecting at twice the normal speed, persistence of vision would blur the red and green records and thus give the illusion of natural color. The methods by which they achieved this were however different. While Kinemacolor projected through similar filters, Biocolour film was stained red and green and projected without filters. What links these together historically is not only their technological similarities, but the fact that Urban threatened to sue Biocolour for infringement of his patents and after a series of court battles and appeals, Smith’s patent was revoked leading to the end of the commercial lives of both processes.
McKernan’s research is significant because unlike the majority of studies of color it does not focus upon technological development but instead examines the more complex history of the people involved, how they came together and how their involvement led to technological change. To do this he links the story of Biocolour and Kinemacolor to the invention and activity which grew up in Brighton in the early years of the British film industry, termed by Georges Sadoul as the “Brighton School” (1948: 155— 176). While focusing on the figures of Smith, Urban and Friese-Greene, McKernan also highlights the role in the development of color played by lesser known figures including William Norman Lascelles Davidson, Dr Benjamin Jumeaux and Edward Turner, all of whom were involved in various ways in bringing natural color to the screen.
McKernan’s focus serves to illuminate the importance of these previously unknown characters and by shining a light on the people rather than the processes he illustrates the complexities behind even the most seemingly straightforward history of inventors and invention. Such an approach has broader implications not only for the history of color cinematography but also film history in general. It is tempting to interpret the growth of cinema as either a series of technological advancements which build upon one another, or as a series of aesthetic developments which similarly move consistently forward. Equally however the development of cinema is an industrial history, and behind each inventor are investors and supporters whose contributions may have little to do with technology but who may have exerted influence or pressures on the inventors. To acknowledge such a thing however risks a necessary engagement with a level of granularity which is potentially counter-productive, since small details may obscure the bigger picture. At the same time however broadening out the focus from the main players, in this case Friese-Greene and Urban, towards those on the periphery, allows us not to lose sight of the fact that film was, and is, fundamentally a business, knowledge of which can establish connections that challenge existing histories, raise new questions and suggest new perspectives.
The research which informs this chapter was provoked by a query about McKernan’s statement that with the formation of Biocolour “the intention was to exploit two-color films made using the prism color process from Friese-Greene’s 1905 patent” (2004: 213). However, as mentioned on p. 14, Biocolour used a successive frame system which did not involve the use of a prism. In undertaking what appeared to be a relatively simple task of clarification, it became clear that the reality of the situation was more complicated than even McKernan’s detailed study reveals, and involved a number of significant figures whom McKernan does not mention. This chapter therefore builds on McKernan’s work by introducing new peripheral figures, hence my giving it the same title as McKernan’s but with the addition of the word “Redux”. My aim is to explore the complexities around the formation of Biocolour while also considering the risks and rewards of the kind of analysis which I am attempting here. If Friese-Greene was as McKernan describes him, and I am inclined to think he was, then he is a useful case study for considering how the character of the people involved in a particular historical moment can serve to complicate the truth of that moment, and to consider the value of that complication to historical analysis.
The key to this history is the patent no. 9465 filed in 1905 by Friese-Greene who at the time was working as an assistant to Captain William Norman Lascelles Davidson at 20 Middle Street, Brighton. Friese-Greene’s patent was a version of an earlier one, no. 7179, filed by Davidson and Benjamin Jumeaux in 1903. Which suggested using colored prisms to split the light from the object and direct it through lenses onto a film strip where it registered images side-by-side. Friese-Greene proposed that a prism be placed in such a way as it lay behind and half way across the lens, thus refracting half of the light. The light which was not refracted passed through a yellow-orange color screen whilst the remainder passed through a blue-red color screen, and the two images were registered side by side.
Friese-Greene insisted his 1905 patent was the master for color cinematography, one of the claims which later formed the basis of the legal battle between Biocolour and Kinemacolor. Biocolour Ltd. was formed in 1911 by the exhibitor Walter Harold Speer to commercially exploit the Biocolour process. As part of the formation, Biocolour was granted the rights to the Friese-Greene 1905 patent which was owned by a Brighton furniture dealer named Harry Birch. While he was still working for Davidson, in 1905 Friese-Greene had shown Birch some examples of color films. On the strength of the prism process Birch advanced Friese-Greene £500, and in August 1906 Birch acquired the patent in lieu of an outstanding debt of £150 (URB 7/2-6: 172). Friese-Greene left Davidson’s employ in October 1906 and Birch set Friese-Greene up in a photographic shop at 203a Western Road in Brighton. Part of the deal by which Biocolour Ltd. was founded was an agreement made in August 1911 between Speer and Birch that for the sum of one fully paid up share Birch would sell the company the rights to the 1905 patent.
So far the information agrees with McKernan’s assertion that the company was formed to exploit two-color films made by the prism system, but it is at this point that the problems emerge. The first is that the company was formed and acquired the prism patent in August 1911, and yet only a month later announced that Biocolour was ready for commercial exploitation. A public demonstration was held at the Piccadilly Cinematograph Theatre and on 8 September a deal was struck with the exhibitor Montagu Pyke for exclusive rights to show Biocolour on the Pyke circuit in all London districts (Bioscope supplement, 14 September 1911: xv). An advertisement suggested that showmen in the provinces had already started acquiring rights and that a large factory and studio had been built in Brighton (Bioscope, 14 September 1911: 577). There is no record of a Biocolour lab and factory but it is possible that in 1911 Biocolour was granted use of the studio which was being built for The Brighton and County Film Company, later Brightonia. Brighton and County was formed in 1911 by Speer and was funded by the cyclist, boat manufacturer and adventurer Selwyn Francis Edge who in November 1911 would fund Biocolour’s battle with Kinemacolor by helping to re-form Biocolour into a new and better resourced company, Bioschemes Ltd.
The second problematic issue, which explains why Biocolour was able to launch so quickly after the company was formed, was that the process was not based upon Friese-Greene’s 1905 patent at all. It did not use a prism system registering images on the frame side-by-side using instead, as described above, a rotating disc containing red and green filters through which successive frames were taken at double speed, then stained red and green and projected again at twice the normal speed.
In fact the 1905 patent formed the basis for a completely different natural color system, known as Cinechrome and developed by a company called Friese-Greene Patents Ltd. While working with Davidson on a prism system for natural color, which Davidson and Friese-Greene demonstrated in January 1906 at the Royal Institution and in July at the photographic convention of Great Britain in Southampton, Friese-Greene was also trying to perfect a successive-frame system of color using a rotating filter wheel, which would become the basis of Biocolour. A number of witnesses testified in court during the Bioschemes v Kinemacolor court case that Friese-Greene, both while working for Davidson at Middle Street and shortly after moving to Western Road in October 1906 with Harry Birch, demonstrated color films taken with both a prism system and a rotating filter system using a projector made by Robert Royou Beard which was modified so that the mechanism could be changed to accommodate both (URB 7/2-6: 164-165). Friese-Greene therefore had two color processes in development.
Confusingly, not only was the 1905 patent which Friese-Greene Patents Ltd. developed actually owned by Biocolour, but also it was the only patent registered by Friese-Greene which Friese-Greene Patents Ltd. did not own. In November 1907 Friese-Greene assigned the rights to all his patents, excluding the 1905 patent owned by Birch, to Charles James Morris. This assignation bore the provision that Friese-Greene and George Walter Chapman would subsequently secure the rights of these patents from Morris for an engineer named Allan Ramsay. The deal securing the rights for Ramsay was signed in July 1908 and that same month Friese-Greene Patents Ltd. was formed with a capital of £2, 400 and a registered office in Ramsay’s premises in Victoria Street in London. Ramsay agreed to sell his rights to the company and became the Managing Director and Friese-Greene was appointed as Technical Director for a period of four years (BT 31/18498/98940, Friese-Greene Patents Ltd., 1908).
Under the auspices of this new company, Friese-Greene continued his experiments to develop a successive frame rotating disc system. Somewhere between 1908 and 1910 Friese-Greene came into contact with the aforementioned Walter Harold Speer. In 1909 Friese-Greene opened a workshop at 130 Western Road in Brighton above Speer’s Electric Bioscope Theatre. In December 1909 Speer and Friese-Greene, along with Friese-Greene’s head electrician James Clifford Crawley, invited members of the National Association of Cinematograph Operators to his workshop, grandly named the New Scientific Hall, to demonstrate a new process of tri-color stereoscopic cinematography (Bioscope, 2 December 1909: 29). Then between November 1910 and August 1911, Speer, who was not involved in Friese-Greene Patents Ltd., took the impetus to build up an infrastructure with a view to forming a company to exploit under the brand name Biocolour the successive frame color system which Friese-Greene was developing whilst working for Friese-Greene Patents Ltd., acquiring at the same time the unrelated 1905 patent presumably because it was the only Friese-Greene patent which was available (BT 31/13680/117253, Biocolour Ltd., 1911).
Friese-Greene evidently had no qualms about taking the money to develop rival processes for competing companies. In 1911 he therefore found himself with his patents divided between two companies and his attention divided between competing color systems, one using a prism to record images side-by-side, owned by Biocolour Ltd. yet being developed by Friese-Greene Patents Ltd., and another using a rotating disc to record successive frame images, owned by Friese-Greene Patents Ltd. but being exploited by Biocolour Ltd. Friese-Greene himself was working for both companies at the same time, patenting a color stereoscopic process in February 1912 under the auspices of Friese-Greene Patents Ltd. while simultaneously involved with Biocolour’s court case with Kinemacolor (British Journal of Photography, 28 March 1913: 255—256).
It was between 1911 and 1912 that Friese-Greene Patents Ltd. became involved with another significant figure, Colin Noel Bennett, who was a journalist, a photographer and cinemato...

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