Is This Really The World’s “Oldest” Colour Film?

Film History is not my main field but the way film historians (re-)establish narratives for their findings often fascinates me. This finding of the world’s “oldest” colour film sounds very exciting as well.

When I watched this clip for the first time, I felt I was watching a prototype of 3D movie: the images seemed unstable but each movement I perceived seemed exaggerated in deep focus.

BBC One‘s The Race for Colour explains how Edward Turner who originally made the original reels of these clips attempted to screen the films in colour. Its mechanism of matching one primary colour filter for each frame sounds to me similar to wearing a pair of 3D glasses with one red lens and one blue lens and watching a 3D image or movie. If you don’t have access or can’t find this BBC program, check this YouTube clip by the National Media Museum at in Bradford:

You can find more details on their exhibition page, World’s First Moving Colour Pictures. Yes, the museum is screening these films in public! I hope I have a chance to watch them someday! If you’re in the area, you should definitely check them out!

In the field of early cinema history, the “earliest,” “oldest,” and first persons, events, and objects must play a significant role to understand how society had engaged with film and how film shaped merged into culture in general. When we try to claim that something is the oldest, the earliest, or the first of some sort, we often need to consider what we mean by that. In the case of Turner’s films, although he came up with a solid idea of how to shoot and screen a colour film, he wasn’t able to screen the films that he shot at the end. If we claim that his films are the oldest colour films, are we talking about the (re-)discovered film strips? As you can watch in either YouTube clip, the film strips are black & white and not in colour. Only material indication that these are colour films is all the material documents.

Of course, historians and archivists pay close attention to details in the processing of making any kind of conclusion, and I’m sure that those who took part in this restoration project came to the conclusion after careful investigation of material documents. By following his plan to project each frame with a matched primary colour, the project team was indeed able to show the colour films. The issue with claiming the films as the oldest reside in the fact that Turner didn’t succeed in making a mechanical system that would have enabled him to project films as he had conceived it.

Providing valid documents and tracing connections among persons, objects, and events through them is a legit way of verifying the certainty of specific incidents. Following ideas contained in such documents and realizing the ideas don’t necessarily constitute a truth especially if we know that the ideas didn’t bear fruit. In this sense, maybe it is wrong to claim that Turner’s films are the world’s oldest colour films; it would be more correct to say that they are among the earliest conceived ideas of making colour films.

Regardless of the validity of its “oldest” status, Turner’s restored films are worth watching because of his unaccomplished original plan. By watching this, we can speculate how Turner’s films could have influenced the period of what we call early cinema and consider our own understanding of what colour films are to us.

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