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The use of colour in early Dutch film

The Eye collection contains a short film made in about 1910, in which two women, a child, and a man walk through beds of flower bulbs. These flower beds have been hand-coloured in shades of yellow and light purple. The film was later given the title Bloemenvelden Haarlem. But which film is it?

Still from Bloemenvelden Haarlem (1909, Willy Mullens).
Still from Bloemenvelden Haarlem (1909, Willy Mullens).

Two candidates

Archival records suggest two candidates. In the book ‘Ons Bioscopisch bedrijf - voorheen en thans’ (‘Our cinematographic company - then and now’, 1911) Franz Anton Nöggerath Jr. writes that his production company, Filmfabriek F.A. Nöggerath, made a short colour film of Haarlem’s flower fields in 1908.
A year later, in 1909, Alberts Frères made the short artistic film De legende over het ontstaan van de bloembollencultuur te Haarlem. This film consists of two parts: the first part is set in the seventeenth century, and the second part, set in the present (1909), depicts a visit to the flower fields. Alberts Frères also reports that the second part of the film is coloured.

The oldest preserved Dutch film in colour

It was long thought that Bloemenvelden Haarlem was the film produced by Nöggerath, but we now believe that it is most likely the second part of De legende van het ontstaan der bloembollencultuur te Haarlem. This recording is the oldest known Dutch film in colour that has been preserved. There are earlier examples of colouring in foreign films: colour was added from the very earliest days of film.

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Bloemenvelden Haarlem (1909), F.A. Nöggerath jr.

Colouring, tinting, and toning

The Eye collection contains coloured footage of dancers (Les Parisiennes, 1897) and of a train ride through the northern part of Wales (Conway Castle - Panoramic View of Conway on the L. & N.W. Railway; 1898). In both cases, colour was manually added to parts of the film.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, more and more coloured films were being shown. Mobile film exhibitors such as the Mullens Brothers (Alberts Frères), Alex Benner, and later Jean Desmet praised the newest coloured films in their advertisements

Still from Les Parisiennes (1897, director unknown).
Still from Les Parisiennes (1897, director unknown).
Still from Conway Castle - Panoramic View of Conway on the L. & N.W. Railway (1898), William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson.
Still from Conway Castle - Panoramic View of Conway on the L. & N.W. Railway (1898), William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson.

The colours of Pathé Frères

Most of these films come from the studios of the French company Pathé Frères. The coloured films made by this company were the apex of cinematic skill, and Pathé dominated the film world.
In the Netherlands as well, Pathé Frères took the lead in the making of coloured films. In the winter of 1905-1906, Pathé had already opened an office in Amsterdam for the sale and distribution of films, and in 1910 this branch was also used for film production: the Belgian director Alfred Machin came to the Netherlands, and was commissioned by Pathé to make the film Comment se fait le fromage de Hollande (1909).

Still van La poule aux oeufs d’or (1905), Pathé Frères.
La poule aux oeufs d’or (1905), Pathé Frères.

De molens die juichen en weenen (The Mills that Cheer and Weep)

A few years later, Machin came to the Netherlands for a second time, in this case to make a number of short feature films for Pathé. The Dutch landscape and the couleur locale were important ingredients in these films, and they were mainly intended for the foreign market.
One of the most beautiful and interesting films that he made was the short drama De molens die juichen en weenen (1912), a film about a drifter who gets revenge on a miller by setting fire to his mill. The film seems to be a showcase of what was currently possible in terms of colour.

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De molens die juichen en weenen (1912), Alfred Machin.

Stencilling

The film begins with a scene that has been coloured by means of stencilling. Using a template, it was possible to colour a portion of the film frame relatively quickly. By using different templates, multiple colours could be added within a single frame.

Tinting: dye-bath

Later in the film are some scenes with a uniform colour. This is achieved by completely immersing the film in a dye bath (or by printing the film on film stock that had already been dipped in a dye-bath). This treatment gives the entire film strip (both the frame as well as the edges beyond the frame) a uniform colour; it is a simple process that was very popular in the early decades of film. This method of colouring is referred to as ‘tinting’.

A scene that has been coloured by means of stencilling.
A scene that has been coloured by means of stencilling.
A scene that has been coloured by means of tinting.
A scene that has been coloured by means of tinting.

Toning: chemical reaction

A third colour process that can be seen in De molens die juichen en weenen is toning. With toning, the silver particles in the film emulsion are chemically converted into a silver compound. This gives a different colour to the black and grey coloured areas within a film frame (the parts that contain the silver).

An example of toning: sepia

A familiar example is the conversion of silver to silver sulphide using a bath of sodium sulphide. This gives the black and grey colour areas a sepia toning. By using other compounds, different colour tonings can be obtained.
In contrast to tinting, toning can be recognized because only the black and grey areas take on the new colour. The ‘white’ or transparent surfaces, which do not contain silver, remain uncoloured. The edges of the filmstrip also remain uncoloured, because they do not contain any silver.

A scene that has been coloured by means of toning.
A scene that has been coloured by means of toning.
A scene that has been coloured by means of both tinting and toning.
A scene that has been coloured by means of both tinting and toning.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

In 2015, the book Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, a glorious anthology of coloring in the early film, was published on the basis of a wide range of Eye collection.

Attraction or realism

In 1995, a conference was held in the former Filmmuseum about the use of colour in the early days of film. The main question asked was whether there was a clear intention behind the use of colour, particularly in the use of tinting or toning.
Was there a kind of code, whereby a certain colour represented an emotion (for example, red for danger), or served to indicate a place or time (e.g. yellow for daytime and outside, and blue for night time and outside)? Or was it more a question of using colour for its ‘attractional’ value, i.e. where colour was primarily used to enhance the enjoyment of watching?

Still from De molens die juichen en weenen (1912), Alfred Machin.
Still from De molens die juichen en weenen (1912), Alfred Machin.

Inconclusive verdict

After three days of watching and discussing, it was decided that there was no conclusive verdict. Colouring was often used to support narrative structures or to or emphasize ‘naturalness’, but certainly not in all cases.

Red sea of fire

From this perspective, it would seem logical to use red to colour a film about a major fire (De Petroleumbrand te Vlissingen: een overzicht van de ruïne; Pathé Frères, 1917 [?]), due to red’s association with the nature of the subject. But in watching the film, the narrative meaning of the red tinting is completely outweighed by the visual impact. It is not the subject of the news that stays with the viewer, but rather the sensation of bright red that was used to colour the film frame.
In the previously mentioned film De molens die juichen en weenen, there is also a clear use of ‘attractional’ colour. This is especially so in the apotheosis of the film, namely the burning of the mill. Yet in the first part of the film, the use of colour is more focused on the representation of nature, and on enhancing the narrative structure.

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De petroleumbrand te Vlissingen: een overzicht van de ruïne (1917), director unknown.

Routine tinting

Tinting was used very frequently in the early days of Dutch film, but the visual spectacle seen in the Petroleumbrand te Vlissingen and in the final scene of De molens die juichen en weenen is a rarity in Dutch film. In general, the use of tinting was a more or less routine process; it was used as a matter of course, and not to apply extra flourishes.
Nonetheless, it was still the case that tinting combined with toning could occasionally lead to stunning beauty; consider for example the images in Holland in ijs (Willy Mullens, 1917), or the city film Arnhem en omstreken (Willy Mullens, 1919).
In films such as Het vervloekte geld (Alfred Machin, 1912) and Alexandra (Theo Frenkel Sr., 1922), we see that colour was mainly used to clarify or enhance the drama of the story.

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Holland in ijs (1917), Willy Mullens.
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Arnhem en omstreken (1919), Willy Mullens.

Het vervloekte geld (The Cursed Money): colour for drama

Het vervloekte geld is a short drama about fishermen. The first scenes (the introduction of the main characters and the beginning of the intrigue) are tinted in a neutral sepia colour. But when the fishing boat sails off to the high seas, the outdoor scenes are tinted in blue. The fire, in which one of the fishermen is killed, is tinted in red. All of the subsequent scenes (the handling of the treachery) are in black and white.
In this film, tinting was used to indicate the location (blue tinting at sea), but also to enhance the drama of the fire on the ship (red tinting).

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Het vervloekte geld (1912), Alfred Machin.

Alexandra: natural sepia

Alexandra is a long melodrama about a woman who flees from her husband. On her journey, she encounters a desperate millionaire who wants to commit suicide. She convinces him not to do so, and they fall in love. Yet her health is fragile, and before she dies, she has the millionaire promise that he will marry his protégée. Almost all of the film is tinted in sepia and blue, which are colours that accentuate the natural realism. This is also done in scenes that have been tinted in purple (for an exotic North African interior) or pink (for a boudoir).
This pattern is only deviated from in a dramatic scene where the woman’s husband tries to break into her bedroom (coloured in red) and in the intimate scenes in the Alps, where the millionaire and Alexandra talk about their past (tinted dark blue). Through these small deviations from the natural colour spectrum, the drama and significance of these scenes are emphasized.

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Alexandra (1922), Theo Frenkel sr.

True to nature

Abroad, Pathé in particular was working on a colour system – Pathécolor – that made use of stencilling and/or manual colouring. This was a method that was already known in the field of picture postcards and wallpaper, whereby a stunning colour effect could be achieved by using different templates for each colour.
An example of this kind of colouring can be seen in the first part of the film Hollandse tulpen en klompen. This film is a compilation that consists of two short recordings. The second fragment is black and white, depicting children on the island of Marken, and the first part is about the Dutch fields of flower bulbs. The first part is in colour, and was almost certainly made by Pathé Frères, most likely by its Dutch subsidiary Kinematograaf Pathé Frères.

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Hollandse tulpen en klompen (1920), director unknown.

This method of colouring, stencilling, was unique in the Netherlands, as the Dutch film companies only used the techniques of tinting and toning; the few film recordings made in the Netherlands that used colour stencilling are all of foreign (probably French) manufacture. Examples include the film Dutch Types, made by French company Gaumont, and the film Pretty Dutch Town.
Much like in the film Hollandse tulpen en klompen, these two sort recordings focus on the Dutch landscape, traditional Dutch costumes, and the splendour of the Dutch cities.

Still from Dutch types (1915), Gaumont.
Still from Dutch types (1915), Gaumont.
Still from Hollandse kinderen (Bits & Pieces no. 54); (1915), Pathé Frères.
Still from Hollandse kinderen (Bits & Pieces no. 54); (1915), Pathé Frères.
Still from A Pretty Dutch Town (1910), director unknown.
Still from A Pretty Dutch Town (1910), director unknown.