The Negotiation of Innovation: Colour Films in Britain, 1900-55

People involved in this project

Principal investigator:

Co-investigator(s):

PhD students:

School Arts
Department Drama: Theatre, Film, Television
Dates October 2007 - October 2010
Website Colour Film Project
Funder AHRC: Research Grant
Contact person Professor Sarah Street

More about this project

The Negotiation of Innovation: Colour Films in Britain is a comparative analysis of commercial colour film processes introduced in Britain, 1900-1955. It constitutes the first economic, cultural and aesthetic history of colour films in Britain, based on archival documents, film analysis and interviews with cinematographers and other professionals who worked with colour in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition archivists who have restored colour films and are working on current projects have been interviewed. Existing academic work on colour has been concerned with the details of technological processes rather than with their cultural impact and aesthetic specificities. While the technical specificities of each technique and process have been investigated, in addition the project's findings elucidate how innovative technologies that represent a challenge to prevalent aesthetic regimes are negotiated and with what consequences. As emergent technologies, colour processes constantly had to make a case for their superiority in a market that was dominated by cheaper, monochrome films that were also privileged in aesthetic terms. As is the case with contemporary innovative technologies, colour systems had to negotiate a space for themselves, often facing fierce opposition from competitors who had vested interests in preserving the status quo. Techniques such as early hand-colouring, toning and stencilling have been researched, as well as processes such as Kinemacolor, Dufaycolor, Gasparcolor, Biocolor and Technicolor.

The concentration has been on films intended for theatrical release, although processes developed for the amateur market have been taken into account from a technical and economic perspective. As well as presenting detailed histories informed by archival sources of colour processes and contemporary debates that surrounded their appearance, the project has analysed the textual aesthetics of colour films and considered their place in British film culture. While seeing the world in colour was a part of everyday life, on screen it was another matter. Although the majority of films are now made in colour this was far from the case in 1900-1955, raising key questions about changing notions of realism, the relationship between aesthetics and modernity, and the ideological impact of popular culture.

The project's findings suggest new ways of analysing films by taking colour as a primary referent, testing how, and in what ways colour determines impact, directs attention and how it was used in particular film genres. It has also addressed current issues of film preservation and restoration, informed by archival work at the Nederlands Film Museum, Amsterdam, the BFI National Archive and elsewhere. The research for The Negotiation of Innovation provides an instructive model of historical precedent that yields valuable insights into the negotiation of today's technological challenges and transformations. The project’s outcomes are a single-authored book by Sarah Street, with a technical appendix by Simon Brown; a co-edited volume of documents and interviews (Sarah Street and Liz Watkins), a co-edited book based on the successful Colour and the Moving Image conference (Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins), and a PhD on Kinemacolor by Vicky Jackson.