Lights, camera, action . . . colour!

Two film devotees are ready to take audiences back 100 years to the early days of colour.

Steven Russell

Two film devotees are ready to take audiences back 100 years to the early days of colour. Steven Russell sees what they've got up their sleeves

WITH the Oscar shindig on the horizon, and industry chatter all about the $250million high-tech blockbuster Avatar, it's an intriguing time for two East Anglian film enthusiasts to be saluting the pioneers who strove to bring colour to the movies a century ago. No big-bucks budget or computer-generated wizardry for those inventive souls: they added a touch of magic by using paint, chemical dips, stencils or clever filters. Their early attempts to push the art-form to another level will be honoured on March 6 with a show by enthusiasts David Cleveland and Nigel Lister, who last year shared some old films with audiences and are back with a fresh collection, Many of the films haven't been screened in public since the early years of the 20th Century.

David - who had a career making films for the BBC and then founded the East Anglian Film Archive, which preserves historic footage - will begin the evening with magic lantern slides. Dating from about 1850, they're mainly of hand-painted scenes with simple animation - achieved by moving the glass slide - such as a man falling victim to a pickpocket, animals walking, and a poor unfortunate being caned!

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“They were about for 200 years, easily,” he explains. “Samuel Pepys (the diarist) recalls in 1666 a magic lantern show, just before the Great Fire of London. It was the latest technology! They weren't quite like this” - his examples - “as they were a bit cruder and didn't move. They were just painted pictures on glass which you pushed through the machine.

“Magic lantern shows were very popular up to the time motion-picture cinema came in and then they went out of fashion quite quickly. Today, when they're on the big screen, they look rather good.”

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A one-minute, black-and-white, 1896 film of a train will show the audience what their Victorian counterparts were used to - before a series of short coloured films is screened. Each tiny frame had to be painted by hand.

“Then they invented a stencil system: a mechanical way of putting colour on already-finished films,” says David, who with Nigel will be donning top hat and Edwardian garb for the occasion. “The film would be made in black and white. Then someone would trace round a shirt, for instance, on each frame. They'd cut out a hole in a blank piece of film, corresponding to the shirt, and when you laid that on a print of the film, and put ink through it, the colour went where the shirt was.”

Colouring a whole film was invariably prohibitively expensive. “Quite often odd bits were done in colour: clothes and green foliage, say; and the blue sky. They could look quite nice.”

“Stencil Colour” lasted until the late 1920s. “They had another system, called tinting, where basically the film was dipped in a dye and came out an overall colour. They also had toning: where you drop film into a chemical that changes the structure of the emulsion so it changes colour. Sometimes they applied toning and tinting to the same film, and achieved really exciting effects.

“But these were all additions to black and white films. There were experiments going on all the time to find a way of photographing scenes in colour, but there was no colour film as we know it today. So one of the methods - the one that worked . . . well, it didn't work, actually! It's terrible colour! But it was such a novelty that Kinemacolor, as it was called, and which came out in about 1909, caught the public's imagination.”

Scenes were photographed through revolving red and green filters, with the finished film then projected through the same spinning filters.

“It's really just individual red, green, red, green flashing in front of you, but your brain thinks it's in colour! They merge in the brain and you get a sort of greeny sky but you think it's blue and it 'looks' blue. It sort of works!” David laughs.

“We've got an Italian lakes film, with a brown sail, greenish water and blueish sky, green foliage and houses with red roofs. It looks OK, but by modern standards people would say 'That's very odd!'”

David has spent the past year copying all these films onto modern 35mm film stock. The original nitrates are too delicate to run through a projector.

He says archives do have examples of this kind of early-colour film, and often copy them digitally, but along the way the hues can change. David seeks to preserve the colouring the way it looked 100 years ago.

“I think we're the only people in the world recreating this in the original manner. I don't know anybody else who's doing it.”

By 1915 Kinemacolor had effectively disappeared. “Why? It's a good question. One of the problems was that a case was brought against the man who promoted it, because he described it as full, natural colour, and he lost. So he lost interest. The first world war came. Everything changed. It just didn't happen.”

The 1920s saw experiments with various colour systems but they didn't catch on, “and nothing really happened until Technicolor came along in 1932.

“That was a three-colour system. It was an extremely complex

process, because they still used black and white film - but three of them. One recorded the red information, one the blue information and one the green. They were then combined during printing into one piece of film, and it came out in colour.

“That system continued through to the 1950s, until what we know as normal colour negative film came out.”

The film show is at Chelmondiston Village Hall, on the Shotley peninsula, on Saturday, March 6, starting at 7.30pm. Tickets are �5 and can be bought from the village post office and Orwell Stores, or by telephoning 01473 780 855.

WITH David Cleveland's life having been dominated by film, we can't resist asking him about Avatar, whose high-tech whizziness is in great contrast to the hand-coloured, stencilled, toned and tinted films made a century ago. Has he seen it?

“Yes, I have!” He thought he'd better, since people kept talking about it and his grown-up children had seen it. “I think there were a lot of people of our age in the cinema doing the same thing!” And his verdict?

“It's two and a half hours long and I was expecting it to be very gimmicky - well, I suppose it is, with lots of special effects - but I will say that the story was better than I expected.

“It's just a fun adventure story, really; a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean or something. It's just it happens to be set in this strange land. I was hooked all the way through. I didn't go to sleep! The story, with all its human interest, was really quite watchable. Whether it's worth all those Oscars, I'm not sure. It's just a good old adventure story. That's how I see it.”

The style, techniques and gloss might have changed over the years, but the essentials of movie-making tend to remain the same, he feels.

“In the show we did last year we had a (1909) film called Aerial Torpedo, which was really the first science fiction film - full of all these tricks: airships coming over and having to be shot down - and it's very similar to what they do today, in a different guise.

“In Avatar they shoot down these flying saucer-type things. So, things haven't changed, and all the comedy and stories have been done before. This little story” - he points to Seeking for the Child on the March 6 show schedule - “where a boy gets stuck on a rock, and the tide comes in and he has to be rescued, is the type of human drama that's still being done today.”

THE projector being used at the Chelmondiston show is a 1910 German-built Ernemann model that's operated by hand. Nigel Lister and David Cleveland will need to be full of energy, since they'll have to turn it at 32 frames per second when running the Kinemacolor movie.

The Ernemann - restored by Nigel, former projectionist at Ipswich Film Theatre - was not originally built to show Kinemacolor but has been adapted to run with the necessary red and green revolving filters.

The two enthusiasts, who both live near the Essex/Suffolk border, will tell the story of those early forays into colour movie-making. Nigel, a wizard on the piano, will accompany some of the films with music.

David says: “After this date, we aim to take this show round to anyone who wants it. It would ideal for groups, schools and so on in the region.”

The films include:

1895: La Ciotat, a one-minute black-and-white film

1897: Death of Marat, one-minute, hand-coloured. (A journalist is stabbed to death for political reasons, in his bath, in 1793!)

1898: Joan of Arc, one-minute, hand-coloured

1908: Modern Sculptors, six minutes, stencil

c1908: Seeking For The Child, four minutes, toned and tinted. About a little boy who has to be saved from the encroaching sea

1909: How Jack Helped His Little Sister, four minutes, stencil. Canaries fly off and a boy helps get them back in their cage. The film uses the technique of running the film backwards

1908: The Coasts of New Zealand, five minutes, tint and stencil

1912: Good Simon, Bad Simon; eight minutes, tinted. “It's full of tricks,” says David. “One person plays two parts and the film uses split screens. Years ago, they were doing all the tricks we're used to today.”

1910: Les Lacs Italiens - Le Lac Garde; eight minutes, Kinemacolor

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