As Peter Monaghan writes in the absolutely essential online journal Moving Image Archive News, “Barbara Flueckiger has run a series of projects to figure out how best to determine the original colors of films, throughout cinema history. She is developing means to more accurately replicate the colors in digital restorations. It’s a huge technical challenge: to understand not just the chemical and physical properties of film colors, but their origin in complex cultural predilections for certain color palettes. Her work promises to provide new shading to film interpretation and film history.
A 2014 state-of-the-art restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has been doing the rounds of art-house film venues, the result of work performed at L’Immagine Ritrovata, in Bologna, under the supervision of Anke Wilkening, of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, in Wiesbaden. It’s a model collaborative project, and among those who worked on it was Barbara Flueckiger, whose applied research promises to be particularly important to the future of film appreciation and study.
Efforts had been made regularly since 1984 to restore Robert Wiene’s classic German silent film from 1919, which portrays an insane hypnotist who provokes a somnambulist to commit murders. Restorers had faced a quandary; it’s one that restorers always confront: How could they replicate the colors of the original? That is far from a simple challenge.
Even when restoring black-and-white classics, technicians have to deal with color complications. Early films had visual qualities that depended not only on the lighting used during the filming, but also on what film technicians — directors, art directors, film processors – did to the original camera negatives: how they tinted and toned them, or in some cases colored them by hand.
During the course of film history, explains Barbara Flueckiger, a professor of film studies at the University of Zurich since 2007, hundreds of cinematic color processes have emerged, many with roots in nineteenth-century still photography. But figuring out what those original colors and visual qualities were is no easy task. Yet, no comprehensive guide has existed to connect each color’s technical inputs to its contemporary reception and aesthetic and narrative uses.
As Flueckiger says, ‘film color is an issue that few film viewers think about consciously even though the material of film and the nature of color information play a key role in how we perceive film.’” This is essential reading for all who want to understand the ephemeral nature of film, and why it needs constant, unceasing preservation. It’s work that must continue, or the entire visual history of the 20th century – much of it missing already due to archival neglect – will cease to exist entirely.