We are happy to present this guest post by Stephen McBurney, PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. Stephen is researching the integration of colour films into the Scottish film market between 1896-1916, with an empirical approach that incorporates a wide range of contemporary materials, including newspapers, trade magazines, periodicals, and film programmes. In the absence of the films themselves, Stephen argues, this peripheral approach is the best suited to recognise and illustrate a nuanced and distinctive picture of early colour cinema in Scotland. In this blog post, Stephen discusses his recent research on William Walker of Aberdeen.
Untitled example of a yellow tinted film
Tinting is perhaps the hardest of all the colouring methods to document from the silent era. The process itself involved applying a translucent dye to the entire film stock, resulting in the hallmark colouring around the perforations. The dyes of the earliest tinted films were simply applied by hand using a brush. As the process became industrialised chemical baths became the norm, which resulted in greater efficiency and a more even distribution of colour, as exampled in the image opposite.
If the process itself is well documented and evidenced by technical manuals dating from as far back as 1913, its earliest applications and the integration of the process into the market remains somewhat of a black hole in film history. I want to tease out some of these issues using Aberdeen based filmmaker and exhibitor, William Walker, as a case study.
Picture of burned out building – taken by Walker. Bon Accord, 29 April 1899.
On 24th April 1899, Aberdeen Journal (AJ) reported on a fire at the premises of Messrs J. and W. Bisset’s warehouse on Bridge Place (p. 4). Walker was quick to react, ‘Thanks to Mr Walker’s energy, the great fire in Bridge Place was cinematographed when the flames were raging at their worst, no fewer than 2500 impressions having been taken on celluloid films’ (Bon Accord 27th April 1899, p. 13).
On the evening of the fire, Walker premiered his film in the Salvation Citadel, a prearranged show not connected with the recent events (AJ 24th April 1899, p. 6). Bridge Place Fire was also a feature of Walker’s next show on 27th April in the Music Hall, again a prearranged booking originally promoting a separate Walker production, The Launch of the S. S. Salamis (AJ 25th April 1899, p. 4). The first mention of colour appears several days later in an advert for a show specially arranged to exploit this latest production.
Advert from the Aberdeen Journal, 29 April 1899
AJ’s review for the latest show makes direct reference to the feature of natural colour, describing it as ‘interesting’ in its ‘astonishing fidelity’ (20th May 1899, p. 6). Newspaper reports and adverts for Walker’s shows before this screening make no reference to colour, and there is no evidence of Bridge Place Fire being screened since. Consequently it is reasonable to suggest this was the first and only time colour was a feature in the projection of this film.
‘In Natural Colours’ suggests a simple ambition to reflect reality, to convey an extra element of the world around us that had yet to be mastered in the standard black & white film productions of the time. When placed in context, however, Walker’s use of colour transcends such a simplistic reading. We need to go back two years to trace this context, and in the process uncover the primary function of colour during the Trades Hall screening.
Bon Accord 1 April 1897, p. 9
On 1st April 1897, Bon Accord (BA) reported on the much needed addition to the fire brigade of an experienced firemaster, ‘There is now no laugh at the breakdown of the hose, & c., and Mr Inkster must be heartily complimented on the perfect working of his apparatus and the businesslike way in which he and his men go about their work’.
A clearly defined character was constructed through the press, and he was quickly credited with transforming the brigade through nothing more than his personal qualities and positive influence. Yet this initial optimism slowly transformed into a picture of a skilled professional being thwarted by inadequate facilities, as the slapstick-esque report reproduced below exemplifies.
Bon Accord, 16 September 1897
On 17th February 1898, BA reinforces this image of the brigade by poking fun when reporting on an upcoming dance, ‘Will you oblige us, Mr Inkster, by seeing that all your men wear pumps, and that there are no holes in their hose [emphasis in original]’ (p. 3).
With the reporting of the Bridge Place fire the following year, the theme of a skilled firefighter frustrated by inadequate tools remained distinctive, however the tone changed from one of hilarity to sombre damnation:
We hope the lesson will not be again thrown away on our City Fathers. For years we have heard it said that Aberdeen should have a permanent Fire Brigade, and for years simply nothing has been done… the present arrangements are a disgrace to a city of the size and importance of Aberdeen (BA 27th April 1899, p. 9).
BA was careful not to place blame on the few firefighters within the brigade, stating they ‘did what they could right bravely’ (27th April 1899, p. 9). The onus was on the lack of infrastructure, resources and investment the brigade was subject to, and the inability of the council to react in any meaningful way. In a separate article BA implores Firemaster Inkster to present a case to the council for further investment, and use this disaster as a catalyst for change (27th April 1899, p. 10).
Walker’s first mention of colour in his marketing materials occurs two days after BA’s polemic against the council. In this light, Walker’s use of colour transcends a simple desire to reproduce the world more accurately. It can be read as a contribution to a local debate and a demand for change. Such a reading is supported when considering the inclusion of The London Fire Brigade within Walker’s programme (AJ 24th April 1899, p. 6). The contrast between red saturated images of a local business burning down, with that of the brigade’s highly respected London counterparts displaying their facilities, only serves to feed the local debate and express Walker’s opinion. After all, Bridge Place was literally round the corner from Walker’s premises on Bridge Street, and the well publicised Paris tragedy, triggered by volatile nitrate film, occurred less than a year ago.
The earliest dyes applied to films were notorious for damaging the emulsion and rendering the film quickly unusable. This explains the sudden omission of Bridge Place Fire from Walker’s subsequent performances, while the remainder of the programme stayed intact. However ephemeral colour may have been for this production, it nevertheless contributed to the formidable catalyst for change triggered by the disaster, fed by the local press, and felt by the local public.
About the author, Stephen McBurney: I first became interested in colour during my MA at University of Bristol, where I came to focus on the evolution of the Technicolor Hollywood Musical for my dissertation. Keen to build on my interest in colour cinema, I came across the work of the Early Cinema in Scotland research team, which to a large degree inspired my current project and helped shape my methodology. More than any other period, cinema’s first twenty years contained a fascinating and evolving range of colouring techniques and systems, often intensely debated in contemporary publications. The continuing growth of digital archives makes this an exciting time to be re-visiting early film history, and to build on the ongoing research into early cinema.
A charming dash of colour
Hogmanay at the pictures