Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Color in the movies - Part 2 - Chronochrome

The additive color processes were many and all fairly alike. The basic principle of an additive color system consisted of black and white film stock that was treated with some sort of filters or sequence of filters when shot and up on projection the same filters were applied. Most of the problems with the different processes boiled down to getting the colored filters in perfect sync with the running film. While Kinemacolor had some success it wasn't the best looking additive color system. From a technical point of view it had quite a few shortcomings, most notably the irritating flicker and the limited color spectrum it offered.

The best looking and probably most advanced additive color process was French inventor Léon Gaumont's Chronochrome, patented February 11, 1911. Chronochrome was a three-color system where the three different color images were shot simultaneously rather than in sequence. The camera was equipped with three lenses and three filters, blue, red, green. The resulting positive was then projected by a machine also equipped with three lenses and filters.

Léon Gaumont

Léon Gaumont was born in Paris 1864. He grew up in a family of humble origins. His mother was a maid and his dad a Paris cab driver. In 1876 young Léon had the oppportunity to enter the Collège Sainte-Barbe, probably with the financial assistance of his mother’s employer, the countess of Beaumont. He was forced to leave school at the age of 16 when his parents separated.

Gaumont continued educating himself by attending classes at different public Paris institutions. In 1888 Gaumont married Camille Maillard, who brought as her dowry a piece of land on the rue des Alouettes, near the Buttes Chaumont, the eventual site of the Gaumont studios and of the 'cité Elgé'.

When Gaumont was offered a job at the Comptoir géneral de photographie in 1893, he jumped at the opportunity. His decision proved fortunate when two years later he was given the chance to acquire the business. In August 1895, he partnered with Gustave Eiffel (the creator of the tower), the astronomer Joseph Vallot and the financier Alfred Besnier to make the purchase. Their business entity, called L. Gaumont et Cie, has survived in one form or another to become the world's oldest surviving film company extant.

The company sold camera equipment and film, but in 1897 inaugurated a motion picture production business. Initially, Gaumont made films for the picture arcade business such as those operated by the Lumière brothers, but it was under the direction of Alice Guy, originally Gaumont's secretary made head of production that they began making short films based on narrative scripts.

Alice Guy

Alice Guy is considered to be the first filmmaker to systematically develop narrative filmmaking. She was also one of the pioneers in the use of sound recordings in conjunction with the images on screen in Gaumont's Chronophone system, which used a vertical-cut disc synchronized to the film. An innovator, she employed special effects, using double exposure masking techniques and even running a film backwards. Alice Guy pretty much set the standards for what could be done technically at the time. More about the Chronophone system and an example of Alice Guy's phonoscenes can be found here . She left Gaumont in 1906, before most of the experiments in color film took place.

In papers found after his death Leon Gaumont described the Chronochrome process like this:

“Each image appearing on the screen in natural colors was formed by superimposition of three images, violet, green and orange. The combined radiation of these three colors results in the reproduction of natural colors. The image was photographed on the film by three objectives placed one above the other, each provided with a glass color filter. These three images were were projected in superimposition through carefully aligned objectives and filters. In this process the single image of ordinary motion pictures is replaced by three images simultaneously projected and superimposed.
If these three images had the same dimensions as used in ordinary motion pictures, 18 by 24 mm each, each scene would require three times the length of film ordinarily used, and would necessitate very rapid movement of the film. Therefore, it was decided to reduce the height of the film by one quarter. By this method, the film length was approximately two and one-half times that of ordinary film.”


Three images in different colors would thus overlap on the screen. A servo engine installed on the projector would correct parallax problems. The chronochrome frame measured only 12 mm in height (the standard was 18 mm), which resulted in a panoramic format on the screen. The purpose of the truncaded height of the image was purely economical as less film were used because of this. Three frames were shot on the same space as two with normal height. One could argue that the dimensions of the Chronochrome image was a forerunner to wide screen film of later years.

The most fascinating thing about the Chronochrome process is that it still looks so good. Let's take a look at some of the Chronochrome films which was included in the first public presentations of the system. Ten short films were showed before an amazed audience in Paris, November 15 1912. It was a great success. In June 1913 the system was ready for export and thus presented in New York. The New York show contained slightly different snippets than the Paris showing and contained 16 scenes. To really show off the possibilities of the system both showings started with studio shots of flower and fruit arrangements.



The next segment showed what 1912 French beach life was like. In this clip there's also some footage used in the New York presentation. The Carnival in Nice, early spring 1913, some shots of Venice and a military parade in Berlin celebrating the wedding of Princess Victoria Louise of Preussia and Ernest Augustus Duke of Cumberland in May 1913.



At the outbreak of the first world war the Chronochrome and many other techincal innovations were either completely forgotten or put on hold. This snippet was shot at the Victory parade in Paris July 14,1919 and is one of the last scenes filmed in the process before it was finally abandoned in the early 1920's.


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