Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Film Studies Program
About the Project
Home > Colour in the 1920s > About the Project

The use of colour in cinema has been a topic of growing interest in cinema studies over the last decade, yet little attention has been paid to colour cinema in the 1920s. This is a glaring oversight, for this was a decade when international debates about colour were intense concerning its artistic scientific, philosophical and educational significance. Colour transformed industrially as well: before the First World War, Germany dominated international colorant production, owning most of the modern dye patents and factories. During the shortages of the war, colour usage diminished, but following the break-up of Germany’s chemical patents as part of war reparations, colour surged internationally. In the art, advertising, architecture and cinema of the jazz age, cultural fascination with colour was lively and ranged across media and disciplines. Surrounding motion pictures in the 1920s, the range of colours available for use in new consumer goods, buildings, magazines, neon advertisements, and theatrical performances created an exciting, chromatically rich visual culture. 

Part of the difficulty of dealing with colour cinema during the 1920s is coming to terms with its relation to the broader colour horizon of the decade. The 1920s is commonly regarded as a period of film history during which experimentation with colour began to grow amongst technicians and artists across Europe and North America. Numerous ‘natural’ colour processes were developed and implemented in a variety of nonfiction, advertising, and feature films. At the same time, avant-garde interest in the medium surged as artists turned to colour cinema as a means of animating abstract painting and music. This project seeks to open up the 1920s to more sustained scrutiny as it examines the variety of routine and experimental colour practices that existed within a hybrid, intermedial culture. By producing new research that integrates these various practices of colour expression in and around the cinema, the project will facilitate an unprecedented assessment of the period. A chromatic revolution was taking place, profoundly influenced by the increasing availability of synthetic colorants. Mapping this intermedial and international colour field will demonstrate the extent to which it was forging new ways of looking at, and experiencing, the world—a history still relevant for today’s digitally interlinked colour horizon.