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.