Colour in Film: the Fourth International Conference

From 25-27 February, we attended the Fourth International Colour in Film Conference held at London’s BFI Southbank. The conference, organised by the Colour Group, HTW Berlin and the University of Zurich, featured screenings and talks on topics ranging from colour restoration, grading and digitisation, to fashion and scientific films, and the history and cultural significance of various colour technologies past and present, placing practitioners and scholars from various disciplines in an active dialogue. While several presentations focused on the technical aspects of film preservation, and others examined these images through a historical lens, the notion of the archive – with its modes of display, its potentials, and limitations – provided a recurring thematic connection between different papers. Fashion also emerged as a theme of this year’s meeting, both in panel discussions and in the conference programming. This selective summary focuses on four presentations that analyzed the cultural use of colour in film, with specific attention paid to the clothed body on screen.


Tom Gunning – Distinguished Service Professor of Art History, Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, and participant in our March 2018 workshop – gave the opening keynote talk, ‘Projected Cinema Colors: Transparency, Light and Space’. Gunning discussed the transformative effects colour and cinema have on each other, the instability of colour experiences as temporal, ephemeral phenomena, and the complex relationship between colour and language – specifically, the inherent difficulties in grasping colour perception and expression through words alone. This idea of the multidimensionality and temporality of colour, especially as it relates to the portrayal of clothing and the moving body on screen, proved to be a common thread linking different presentations throughout the conference.


Marketa Uhlirova’s talk ‘The Aesthetic of Opulence: Channelling Colour and Darkness in Early Costume and Fashion Film’, examined dress as a key element in justifying and understanding the use of colour in early cinema. Uhlirova referred to a specific ‘aesthetic of opulence’ in early fashion films that combined colours, fabrics, décor, and the female body to provide a sensory overload for the viewer. The presentation explored the idea of transformation in these films – with their origins in late 19th century stage shows and early trick films – and the role played by costume and colour in directly linking processes of transformation to women’s bodies. In these fashion films, colour and lighting effects were also used to isolate the body and the dress on display, including its texture and movement, as important points of visual interest.


James Layton – Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, The Museum of Modern Art – gave a talk titled ‘Two-Colour Kodachrome: The Forgotten History of Kodak’s First Motion Picture Colour Process’, in which he paid special attention to fashion films produced with this technology developed in the 1920s. Layton discussed the short films produced under the ‘McCall Colour Fashion News’, which featured American actress Hope Hampton. These films were widely distributed in the United States and Europe, and in them colour and textures – including fashionable greens, leopards, and snakeskin trims – played an important role in the presentation of couture garments. In these films, two-colour Kodachrome was also promoted as the ideal way to translate Hampton’s body, hair and ‘perfect’ colouring on screen, again, closely connecting this new colour technology, fashion and the female body.


Finally, Hilde D’haeyere – photographer and film historian based at KASK School of Arts, University College, Ghent – presented on the use of colour as a comedic device, in ‘Colour Jokes: Colour and Comedy in Silent and Sound Slapstick Films’. The talk examined films by Louis Malle, Mack Sennett, and Jerry Lewis, including some fashion-related examples where clothing or make-up acted as a vessel for a specific punchline, or the continuation of a comedic motif throughout several films. Whether it was the repeated appearance of a jacket lining, or a colour trick that created visual correlations between a character’s fancy dress, commercial 1920s dye advertisements, and the film colouring process itself, D’haeyere highlighted key moments where colour and fabric transformations were used to further jokes, underscoring the material, complementary nature of clothing, colour, and film.


These selected talks all examined the fascinating interrelationship of colour, light, and textures on screen – elements that provide added layers of visual interest and depth to the moving image, which are central to the broader exploration of (fashion) film.


– Myriam Couturier