Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism

Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism

Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism

Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism


Color was used in film well before The Wizard of Oz. Thomas Edison, for example, projected two-colored films at his first public screening in New York City on April 23, 1896. These first colors of early cinema were not photographic; they were applied manually through a variety of laborious processes--most commonly by the hand-coloring and stenciling of prints frame by frame, and the tinting and toning of films in vats of chemical dyes. The results were remarkably beautiful.

Moving Color is the first book-length study of the beginnings of color cinema. Looking backward, Joshua Yumibe traces the legacy of color history from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the cinema of the early twentieth century. Looking forward, he explores the implications of this genealogy on experimental and contemporary digital cinemas in which many colors have become, once again, vividly unhinged from photographic reality. Throughout this history, Moving Color revolves around questions pertaining to the sensuousness of color: how color moves us in the cinema--visually, emotionally, and physically.


Color doesn’t exist in itself but only when looked at. The unique fact that
color only materializes when light bounces off a surface onto our retinas
shows us that the analysis of colors is, in fact, about the ability to analyze

—Olafur Eliasson, Your Colour Memory (2006)

Color in the cinema is and always has been expansive. As in the other visual arts, color’s filmic history is interwoven with aesthetic theory and experimental science, alchemy and the occult, the dye trade, and everchanging coloring techniques and technologies. Color was a key topic of the nineteenth century, from Goethe and Kant to Hegel and Baudelaire and well into the twentieth with Wassily Kandinsky, Harry Smith, and Stan Brakhage. One can go on almost endlessly, which is a way of saying that color in its prismatic splendor is uncontainable.

With color cinema, even before the first hand-colored images of the mid1890s, one can trace its history to the physiological study of afterimages. The investigation of color afterimages fascinated Goethe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and through scientists such as Joseph Plateau it led to the theorization of persistence of vision—the notion that afterimages are connected to the perception of movement. This conceptual framework was one of the scientific bases that grounded the development of the cinema apparatus, even if the concept today has been replaced by more accurate theories of motion perception. From Plateau to the flickering movement of still images, the cinema is fundamentally a color medium, and from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, color continues to raise questions about the mechanics of the saturated eye. How do we experience color physiologically, sensually, and emotionally? How do our eyes react when we are immersed into a colorful worldview? These are questions that drove scientific, aesthetic, and technological experimentation in the nineteenth century. Color has structured how the medium was conceived . . .

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