Corrosive Colourisation


Peter Jackson’s colourisation of Imperial War Museum footage.


Three years ago, so the media release goes, the Imperial War Museum approached Peter Jackson, famous director of The Lord of the Rings, ‘to see what could be done’ with their archival film footage of the Great War. Jackson’s answer was to slow the footage to the frame rate at which it had been originally shot, remove scratches, grade it and sharpen it. All this is what any good digital restoration does. But Jackson then went on to add colour to it. This is not restoration, because something is added which was not there in the first place. And it is not even ‘enhancement’, it is destruction.


Any creative re-use of archival footage is generally to be supported, and purist approaches to some notion of untouched archival sanctity get us nowhere. But the wholesale colourisation of archival footage is becoming more and more common recently. Jackson is not the only film maker to claim that colourisation is essential to bring ‘neglected’ or ‘lost’ or “forgotten’ footage to new audiences. And his is not the only company with a digital colourisation process to sell. For instance this year Screen Australia’s documentary funding program supported Stranger Than Fiction Films to use a French company to colourise ‘pivotal moments in our nation’s history’ for SBS. So it may be worthwhile to take a step back and consider the long term impact on our historical consciousness of wholesale colourisation as an archival default. What is its effect on affect?


The director of the Imperial War Museum, Diane Lees, states the argument for colourisation: ‘what we want to do is to take film that is very often dismissed by audiences because it is black and white’. There seems to be two strands to this argument: colour will somehow appeal to young eyes put off by boring old drab black and white with its association with – yawn – school history lessons; and colour is closer to the ‘reality’ for which the original cameramen strove, but were prevented from achieving because the technology they needed was yet to be developed. Both arguments are wrong.

Colourisation is not a gift to young people, it robs them of visual and historical literacy. It diminishes their ability to appreciate the full and beautiful range of tonal and chromatic spectra associated with each decade’s intrinsic technology. The technologically immersed young clearly have no problem in choosing from amongst the 24 default Instagram filters, including several in monochrome, with all of their historical associations, so why is their discrimination not trusted by Jackson and Lees?


And is a digitally colourised frame, where colours from a pre-determined palette are arbitrarily overlaid in a paint-by-numbers fashion, closer to reality than the original 256 tones of grey? We may know the original colour of a uniform, or an epaulette; but somebody’s skin, or their wallpaper? We can all, now, have a little snicker at Roland Barthes who, writing as late as 1980, still couldn’t help himself thinking that colour was: ‘a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph.’  For somebody like Barthes, who grew up when press photographs and films were overwhelmingly black and white and expensive colour was reserved for special portraits and fiction, colour was an artifice, a cosmetic like the kind used to paint corpses. Now the situation is reversed, for those who came of visual age amongst colour, black and white is the connotational accent, signifying a certain classical aestheticism, laid on top of the RGB substrata. This indicates the fluidity of the exchange between black and white and  colour. It is not just from an incomplete to a complete image potentiality, it’s an historical dialectic.


Even during the Great War itself, colour was perceived as a ‘lack’. When, in 1918, Australia’s War Records Section projected Paget Plate magic lantern slides at London’s Grafton Galleries (panchromatic emulsion exposed, and re-projected, through a three-colour matrix screen giving a pixelated colour image) they were rightly applauded as the first ‘real’ colour images of the War. They were recognised as ontologically different to the thousands of hand-coloured War photographs that already had been, and would continue to be, produced. (In 2016 the State Library of New South Wales held a wonderful exhibition of hand coloured Great War photographs from Melbourne’s Colart Studios.)


But anybody who has worked in the area of colour reproduction, Peter Jackson most particularly, knows that there is no prelapsarian urcolour waiting to be discovered. From Paget plates, to Dufay colour, to Kodachrome, to Technicolor, to the bling of today’s Canon or Sony firmware, all supposedly ‘natural’ colour is technologically sampled and replicated, and therefore of its time. Jackson is not returning what was lost, not clarifying what was muddied. He is just adding a supernumerary layer and obscuring the past with a chromatic corrosion from today. This is the first sin of historicism. Some colour profile has to be generated for the palette from which different colour values are assigned to various areas in the tonal image. The colourisation efforts I have seen so far project a vaguely retro palette back into the past — unlike today’s colour technology but also unlike any actual primitive colour technology of the past either — perhaps closest to Instagram’s ’Slumber’ filter.


Jackson says: ‘the people come to life in this film’. And that is the problem. They are not alive, they are dead. Allow us to meet them in their own technological time,  not in a fantasy of ‘presence’ which is really just a current technological effect.


Some of the news reports suggest that Jackson is even adding digital 3D (although perhaps, let’s be thankful for small mercies, they mean 2.5D) to the archival footage. The hyper realism of stereoscopic photographs was also an important part of the contemporaneous experience of the Great War. (For instance in Australia the Rose Stereographic Company produced thousands of stereo views of the War.)  But if it is true that Jackson plans to invent a new 3D effect within the archival footage, then the revenant automata manufactured out of the indexical template of the scanned film frames will even further divorce contemporary audiences from a profound acknowledgement of the significance of those who once lived within a specific past. They deserve to be more than just retro effects within the present.

5 thoughts on “Corrosive Colourisation

  1. Colorist (sic) is the new boom-time profession. With the entry of RAW image capture to motion picture recording and camera circuit designs capable of a dynamic range of 13 stops (viz.Blackmagic), the ‘feel and look’ of movies now is finalised in post (production) to a much greater degree than in the days of the DOP and the lab; 4k television, even HD feeds demonstrate the range of approaches the contemporary filmmaker can take. However, all this sophistication, all this technology, all these options are but nothing on many a television screen. Though these screens are capable of displaying the nuances fussed over by a dedicated colorist, how do the owners of the screens prefer to have them adjusted? Max chroma, variable contrast, variable brightness, just like the original Kodakcolor prints and slides. The War in Colour – just another scene.


  2. As always, an excellent and provocative summation of a vexed issue in contemporary photography. Yes, “all supposedly ‘natural’ colour is technologically sampled and replicated, and therefore of its time”, and this applies to lantern slides as you point out. Augustus Francis Sherman’s monochrome prints and coloured lantern slides of migrants on New York’s Ellis Island is a case in point to compare with their ‘colourisation’ by by Wolfgang Wilding and Jordan Lloyd of ‘Dynamichrome’


  3. It’s not really destruction because what the writer isn’t aware of is that the process is literally a “non-destructive” one.

    Firstly, the original reels remain unchanged. Secondly, the restoration and color grading are different processes, both done on the computer. Which means any restoration or grading process is recorded independently of the scanned original

    It’s a matter or simply opening up the project, turning off the color filters and exporting the footage again.

    It’s all a non-destructive proces

    In addition, color of a skin isn’t as difficult to predict as it may seem since, there is really no such thing as color. So what we have instead is the mix of the melanin and the blood beneath our skin that gives us our color. This color all falls very tightly along a particular hue within a color table, it is simply darker or lighter. That information can be learned by how light of dark a skin is within the image.

    However, there would be other elements within an image that wouldn’t be known. The color of an out of uniform clothing as example, of a lady’s dress. But really, as long as the asthetics isn’t as distracting in anyway, it shouldn’t really matter what color it is as the heart of it is what the imagery portrays and the story being told by extension.

    If anything, it could be perceived as bringing us closer to actually being there, because as nice as black and white cinematography can be, we don’t perceive the world in black and white. So it constantly puts a veil between us and reality. With proper use of color, it may be possible to lift that veil a little and engage the viewer in a deeper sense of reality.

    I actually don’t think it’s bad as it’s made out to be.


    • Thanks for your comments Simon. I guess I meant it was destructive of the experience of the past, as the past, by a viewer who only gets to see the colourised version. I know that both versions are retained within the archive itself. Thank you for your comments on the colorisation of skin. If colourisation is undertaken more frequently by archives in the future we will need to be more aware of these processes and how they work. I’m afraid, as I try to explain in my piece, I don’t feel that adding colour brings viewers closer to the reality of the past, as the past.


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