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Seminar für Filmwissenschaft

Material Aesthetics of Early Colour Film (1895–1932)

Olivia Kristina Stutz, M.A.
PhD supervisors: Prof. Dr. Barbara Flückiger and Associate Prof. Dr. Joshua Yumibe


The invention of film set in motion the development of more than 200 different colour film processes (see The interdisciplinary European Research Council (ERC) project FilmColors – Bridging the Gap Between Technology and Aesthetics (2015-2020) focuses on the relationship between the technology and aesthetics of film-colour processes from 1895 to 1995 in order to identify diachronic stylistic patterns of colour by means of the digital humanities. The period of early colour films (between 1895 and 1932) in particular was marked by virtuous but rather short-lived experiments in colour, fuelled by a competitive market and a seemingly endless search for so-called ‘natural’ colour – meaning the depiction of the world by three-colour film – and its standardization. Like all analogue colour film materials, they embodied a unique aesthetic fingerprint or distinct ‘look’ based on the very materiality and technology that produced them.
The ultimate goal of this thesis is to create a historical poetics of early colour film between 1895 and 1932 (see Bordwell 1989), and to introduce the concept of material aesthetics (‘Materialästhetik’, ‘Materialstil’, ‘Materialstimmung’ or ‘Materialgeräusch’) into film studies. Material aesthetics is an established concept in German art history, where it is used to denote the overall, unique aesthetics of a specific artistic material, its material relations and its material foundations in a particular socio-cultural context. In contrast to the fine arts, the techno-philosophical model of the material aesthetics of analogue film is at least two-fold: it denotes both the aesthetics of the faktura – a term implemented by the Russian formalists of the 1910s and 1920s to describe surfaces, textures and/or materiality of works of art and denotes here the film’s tangible, three dimensional (colour) architecture – and the aesthetics of the projected film, which are highly determined by the film’s historical materiality, its socio-cultural embedment and its phenomenological effect. In applying the concept to film materiality in general, and to different early analogue colour film processes in particular, I also intend to explore a material theory of film. These two aims are based on the main hypothesis that a film’s aesthetic is highly determined by its material properties and the optical configuration of the cinematic apparatus. However, while early colour film innovations originated in a specific socio-cultural context, they are not only highly ideological but also possess a certain affordance and agency in terms of aesthetics (see Latour 2005; Lehmann 2012). Thus, in order to elaborate a material aesthetics of early colour film between 1985 and 1932, this thesis highlights three different but related parameters: Film TechnologyFilm FakturaMise-en-Scène (with special focus on production design). The close interaction of these three material parameters produces a performative actualization of the film material (with its special status of ‘betweenness’). This interrelationship becomes even more important when we realize that film is, in contrast to fine art, a causal depiction process, mediated by the technical apparatus.
This research operates with a pluralisation of methods and thus combines the historical poetics by David Bordwell together with neoformalism, the technobole approach, film phenomenology, (experimental) media archaeology and material iconography form the field of art history. Besides, scientific material analyses and their contextualization in the humanities will also be crucial to further distinguish the properties of the film-colour materials and indicate the need to turn towards a closer alignment between the humanities and the natural sciences, adopting scientific principles and techniques from physics, archaeometry or art restoration. In addition, this research uses both qualitative and quantitative analysis to investigate more than 140 films, and visualizes the data according to different chosen parameters with the support of the digital humanities.
This material-historical research, therefore, is a first attempt at creating a reference guide to the most symptomatic materials used for and within early colour film, as well as formulating a material aesthetics of the medium. Its original contribution lies in the complex interweaving of the different levels of film materiality, and its proposal that film studies and archival practices should adopt a new understanding of film materiality as a fluid concept.