Two Early Color Tests

Among a host of treasured American feature films and esteemed documentaries considered for the 2012 Registry of the National Film Preservation Board, there is an unlikely hopeful: a film test. It was made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a decade after D.W. Griffith and his cinematographer Billy Bitzer had migrated to Los Angeles.  (Update: the test was in fact included in this year's registry, announced on Dec. 19).

There had been some earlier color processes including Kinemacolor, but none had proven to be very commercial. The Kodak Company had begun testing a two-color Kodachrome process as early as 1914. It was rather unwieldy as well, as described in a Kodak blog:

The Two-Color Kodachrome Process was an attempt to bring natural lifelike colors to the screen through the photochemical method in a subtractive color system. First tests on the Two-Color Kodachrome Process were begun in late 1914. Shot with a dual-lens camera, the process recorded filtered images on black/white negative stock, then made black/white separation positives. The final prints were actually produced by bleaching and tanning a double-coated duplicate negative (made from the positive separations), then dyeing the emulsion green/blue on one side and red on the other. Combined they created a rather ethereal palette of hues."

The 1922 test, however, was made with a conventional, hand cranked single lens, 35mm camera onto a single strand of film. The models were three well-known Hollywood actresses: Hope Hampton, Mary Eaton, and Mae Murray.

Hope Hampton
Mary Eaton
Mae Murray

Murray was the best known and easily the most flamboyant. Several years later she would star with John Gilbert in the extravagant Stroheim feature The Merry Widow, photographed by Oliver Marsh. Mary Eaton was the star of the 1929 musical variety feature Glorifying the American Girl, directed by Millard Webb, but with the guiding hand of the redoubtable Florenz Ziegfeld. The great George Folsey, who ended his career by teaching at the AFI, photographed it. Hope Hampton had just recently starred in a Clarence Brown picture called Light in the Dark, and wore that film’s wardrobe for the test. A French born cinematographer named Alfred Ortlieb, whose credits on iMDB end in 1926, photographed that film. The film was long considered lost until a near complete print was discovered in the garage of a former projectionist and was restored at the George Eastman House. Such are the ongoing amazing stories of discovery and digital restoration that we read about weekly. One can only wonder if movies from our own digital infancy will be so lucky.

A Kodak Marketing Director, Thomas Hoehn, attempts to explain the “flicker effect” in the test.

I learned that the flicker that you will see is a result of two different things. First, early cameras were hand cranked, or hand wound, to feed the film through. This could result in slight variations in speed. Second, there could be uneven densities in the film itself because of its age. These two physical characteristics combine to produce the "flicker" that you see. There are digital enhancements that can be made to address this but we thought it better to keep this in its original form.

But a comment posted by Fred Knauf, a likely Kodak techie, offered another possibility.

The flicker could also have been made by the conveyance technology employed in the coating machines at the time - the use of festoon loop sticks. Early coating machines conveyed the coated film by the use of these long sticks that supported the film and the sticks were driven by chain drives on each side. The film hung over the sticks and where the stick contacted the base side of the coated film, the film's thickness - and thus density, could be slightly altered. After processing, that would result in a flicker. 

It wasn't until 1937 with the installation of 10 room that Kodak started conveyance of coated web without the use of festoon sticks. The last festoon machine, 8 room[s], closed in 1988.

I hope this extended introduction to a simple four-minute piece of film will in no way diminish its sense of immediacy. What is it about the simple fact of convincing color that can seem to give such presence to a piece of celluloid that is now 90 years old? Even allowing for the gestural tropes of 20s acting, these three women seem so present to us. Here is the “test.”

As incredible as the Kodachrome 1922 test is, another color experiment from two decades earlier has recently surprised and excited the world of early cinema history. The esteemed National Media Museum in Bradford, England revealed several months ago the results of its restoration of a test of a three color process from 1901. Its inventor, Edward Raymond Turner, died two years later in his studio at age 29 from a heart attack. Three years ago, a can of film in the unusual gauge of 38 mm and with a single round perforation on both sides of each frame, was relocated from the London Science Museum to Bradford. The footage had been known for some time but was thought to be a failed experiment in color, as the frames all appeared to be black and white.

Upon close examination, cinematography curator Michael Harvey suspected otherwise. He enlisted the help of Brian Pritchard and David Cleveland, two experts in early cinema apparatuses. What they discovered and how they realized Turner’s 110 year deferred dream is the subject of a section of the BBC documentary narrated by Antonia Quirke, The Race for Color.

Here are several frame grabs of the compiled three frame color images.

The Parrot
The Goldfish
Agnes May Turner, the Photographer's Daughter.

There may be a supreme irony that it is the tools of the digital age, in cataloging, archiving, and searching, as well as sophisticated restoration machines such as the DaVinci, the Pablo, and Baselight that are giving new life to nearly lost movies. But, finally, it was two film era techies who undertook the task of creating a new “gate” in order to retrieve frames of an obsolete format. Can we hope that such technicians will be able to do so in the even near future, given the rapidly increasing piles of junked tape and digital formats that are beginning to overwhelm us?

Here is the retrieved message in a bottle color test of more than a century ago.



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