The NFSA’s collection includes early coloured films, many of which are tinted. As these films deteriorate with age, their colours are lost.
Steve Clark, Trevor Carter and Bruce Cowell from the NFSA’s Motion Picture Laboratory share their research about using traditional dyes and techniques to restore tinted films.
Tinted film projects at the NFSA
The NFSA has been aware of the problems associated with tinted film for many years. In the 1990s, we carried out tinting experiments using liquid food dyes. These dyes were chosen because in-house research found that the main colouring agents in food dyes were based on the coloured aniline dyes used in the original film tinting era. As we will discuss later, this research did not pan out and the pressure of other work led to the experiments being shelved.
In 2007, the NFSA began a targeted restoration program for films in the iconic Corrick Collection. This program is still ongoing and the some of the restored films have been progressively relaunched at the annual Pordenone silent film festival (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto) in Italy. Black-and-white copies of the Corrick films are produced in-house. However, copies of coloured films have had to be created in partnership with external providers with access to specialised equipment (such as film scanners and the Desmet system).
In March 2008, the Motion Picture Laboratory was visited by the renowned audiovisual archivist, Paul Read (co-author of Restoration of Motion Picture Film, 2000, cited in the Endnotes). Read gave a talk on the tinting and toning of early films and discussed work he had carried out in identifying the modern equivalents of original powdered aniline dyes. This talk, and the preservation work required for the Corrick Collection, renewed staff interest in finding ways to reproduce coloured films in-house and the NFSA’s tinting research was reactivated.
As a starting point, Neil Richards and Trevor Carter were asked to reproduce a tinted title sequence for the 1907 short film The Bashful Mr Brown from the Corrick Collection.15 Inspired by Paul Read’s work, we decided to try and source a small quantity of powdered aniline dye. As well as using liquid food dyes, an attempt would be made to reproduce formulas and methods from the 1920s (found in Kodak manuals on tinting and toning motion picture film).16
‘Bashful Mr Brown’ (1907): experiments with liquid and powdered aniline dyes
The film Bashful Mr Brown is historically important as it was produced by Leonard Corrick and various members of the Corrick family appear in the film. As only the film’s opening title was tinted, we thought that the film would provide a relatively simple start for our reactivated tinting research. As things turned out, the process was not as simple as we had hoped. The black-and-white story part of the film had survived intact; however, only a single frame from the film’s original title sequence still existed. This frame showed that the title had originally been tinted orange. Before we could begin testing the dyes, a new black-and white negative had to be created of the title sequence.
Stretch printing the title
A motion picture is a sequence of still images (known as frames) which, when played back at speed, appears to be a moving image. Films from the silent era were generally shot at a range of 12 to 18 frames per second. Bashful Mr Brown was filmed at 16 frames per second, meaning that one frame of title would appear on screen for only one sixteenth of a second. To create the new title, the original frame needed to be copied multiple times (to allow it to remain on screen long enough to be read). A general rule of thumb when creating titles is that the image should stay up on screen for one second for each word in the title. As the film had a three word title, its single frame was copied and made into a sequence of 48 frames (three seconds at 16 frames per second). This expanded the single frame to a film approximately three feet (one metre) long. The black-and-white negative was then used to produce new cinema positive prints ready for tinting.
Sourcing the dyes
Liquid food dyes were purchased from the Aeroplane Jelly Company. An orange tint was produced by mixing Aeroplane Egg Yellow food dye with Aeroplane Red. Aeroplane Egg Yellow contains two original aniline dye colours: Tartrazine Yellow E102 and Sunset Yellow E110. Aeroplane Red contains one aniline dye, Amaranth E123, which is reddish-brown in colour. We had trouble sourcing an orange-coloured powdered aniline dye to compare with the food dyes. Some dyes were no longer in production — others were unable to be used due to health and safety reasons. One dye contained uranium oxide and the importation and use of a uranium-based product was not considered advisable. Eventually, a small quantity of a red powdered dye, Ponceau 2R, was sourced from a scientific supply company (Crown Scientific).
Hand tinting tests
Because the title was made up of 48 frames of moving image, it was roughly equal to 36 frames of still image film. This made it possible to dye the title section using equipment normally used for hand-developing rolls of photographic film. To make it easier to establish a methodology, we started with the material that we had previous experience with: the liquid food dyes. The first step was to figure out the best method to achieve an orange tint with an appropriate depth and hue when compared to the original. We produced a number of clear strips of film (roughly 15 cm long) and tried different concentrations and quantities of dye, testing and recording the formulas used.