Since I discussed tinting in my first podcast, the conversation about silent film color has been buzzing. Hurrah! And the most common questions have centered around just what some of these colors mean. So, I thought we would get a little help from a vintage Eastman Kodak ad.
This ad is actually for Sonochrome film, that is, tinted film stock for talkies and films with synchronized scores. However, each tinting shade, sixteen total, has its suggested use carefully described. THIS IS NOT DEFINITIVE but rather a jumping off point to understanding how silent era filmmakers sometimes used color for both narrative purposes and mood.
A few caveats before beginning:
- The sample color wheel has seen some of its shades fade almost completely away, particularly the reds. I have approximated these shades using better preserved samples as my guide but this was more art than science. Some of the images ended up looking more toned (shadows colored) than tinted (light areas tinted) but I hope you will get the idea.
- These are manufacturer suggestions and many silent era filmmakers went their own way with color.
- The descriptions were published in 1929 and may differ from earlier practices.
- Restorations do not always use the original color scheme and it can sometimes be challenging to tell what is original and what is a restoration with the naked eye.
- Tinted film can look very different in normal daylight than it does being run through the projector.
- This is just meant to be a jumping-off point for newcomers, not a scholarly work.
Let’s get this color party started! For sample images, I am using screenshots from The Flying Ace because it likely had very simple tinting (if any) due to its extremely limited budget and I really like it so it will be fun to shine it up a bit.
The color descriptions are exactly as printed in the ad. They’re pretty amusing in and of themselves.
A rose pink that quickens the respiration. The tint of passionate love, excitement, abandon, fete days, carnivals, heavily sensuous surroundings.
Allegretto vivace. A tint for brief, joyous moments, buoying up scenes of light, sensuous content. The spirit of coquetry. An excellent tint for close-ups.
Less radiant than Peachblow, yet warm and stimulating. Cafe, banquet scenes, gardens, sunsets, late autumn.
A cheerful orange tint — in interiors suggestive of warmth, intimacy, comfort. A mellow autumnal light.
In the middle tempos, but blending happily with all active moods. For general use in interiors. For exteriors morning and afternoon, with but little sky area.
The generous brilliancy of mid-day sunlight. Of use where the light of the sun plays prominently in fixing the locale or the mood . . . sunlight, streaming through windows, Mexican patios, the desert.
In the larghetto range. Refreshing. The sunny green of vegetation in spring and early summer. Simply furnished interiors.
Emotionally cool, soothing, relaxing. Especially suited to water scenes outside the tropics. One of the wettest colors imaginable.
With the liquid characteristics of Aquagreen, but cooler … the Mediterranean, the cool of dawn, bright moonlight.
The tint of reserve and distance. In exteriors spacious, atmospheric — the blue of tropical skies. In interiors cold, formal, repressive.
For night effects, murky interiors. Maximum repression. The color mood of sadness, defeated expectation, dark intrigue, the underworld.
Rising somewhat in pitch from Nocturne. For dim interiors and outdoor settings obscured with haze. Languorous, dreamy, narcotic.
Fleur de Lis
Tempo di marcia pomposo. The time-honored hue of the ceremonial, the ritualistic. Pompous, solemn, stately. The purple of royalty.
A less austere purple than Fleur de lis. Suggestive of gentility, aristocracy. Heightening the elegance and luxury of certain interiors. Balcony scenes at night illuminated from within.
In the range of rapid tempos. An audacious magenta. The mood of fickleness, impulsive action, rash adventure.
Agitato. Intensely stirring with strong sounds and movements . . . fiery revolt, riot, conflagration, disaster, unrestrained passion.
A silvery hueless tone, less harsh than that of ordinary black and white positive. Of general utility for all untinted scenes.
Phew! That’s all of them! As I stated above, none of this is exact or precise or should be used to teach a class on tinting or even Sonochrome. But I hope this give you an idea of the range of colors used, the way subtle differences were interpreted (per Kodak) and where filmmakers were coming from with their color choices.
Thanks for this post. I had no idea the tints were supposed to evoke emotional states in addition to time of day, firelight, heat, etc. Just yesterday I saw that the San Francisco Silent Movie Festival will be showing the film L’Inferno on May 4th. (I confess that I hesitated about buying a ticket for fear the whole picture — Dante’s hell — would be tinted “Inferno.”)
Fortunately, most major silent productions had at least a few different colors in their arsenal and not just inferno. 😀
The SF festival will also be showing an Italian silent film that should fascinate anyone with an interest in silent film color: Rapsodia Satanica (1917). A variation of the Faust tale, it stars legendary diva Lyda Borelli, and most if not all scenes are in multiple (mostly natural) hues (not sure of the process used, but being a knowledgeable person on the subject, you could probably identify it 😉 It is on YouTube in a couple of places, but I’m sure the SF festival will have the best available print to screen with great music as well.)
Yes, they always put on a great show!
This is a wonderful guide (and it’s great you used stills from The Flying Ace to illustrate)! I don’t think about silent tonalities of color and music cues the way a lot of people do, I’ve found, so this guide is such a help. Tones can really be emotion-indicative for the audience, as music cues are. Always felt that instinctively. Silent film is always an emotional experience for me, even the worst ones. Ah, but all the others…
For those going to the SanFran SFF, I envy you. This year is the one for me to stay put at home. Enjoy the Castro Theatre’s opulent glory, and enjoy what looks to be another spectacular bill!
So glad you liked it! Yes, there is a definite rhythm and melody to silent films even without the music.
This is a great article, thanks for posting it. I enjoyed your podcast as well. The use of color tinting in silents fascinates me and I always enjoy seeing a beautiful restored and tinted film. While it is fairly well known now that silents were frequently tinted, it’s not as well known that tinting continued well into the sound era as well. Take a look at this article which contains an interview with my friend Anthony L’Abbate:
Thank you! Yes, I just watched a tinted version of the musical The Girl of the Golden West. It’s so interesting to read about the number of times studios attempted to revive tinting as a middle ground between full color and black and white.
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