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  • “Digital Desmet”Translating Early Applied Colors
  • Barbara Flueckiger (bio), Franziska Heller (bio), Claudy Op den Kamp (bio), and David Pfluger (bio)

Despite advances in the digitization of archival films, the translation of early applied colors into the digital domain has remained a critical issue for many reasons. Among the objectives of the Swiss project DIAsTOR1 was the development of new approaches for the digitization and restoration of film colors, employing scientific analysis in conjunction with film historical research and software development. The project’s research areas pertained to early applied colors and their digitization, including the aesthetic and historiographic consequences of the technical processes involved. Based on an early film example from the 1910s, this article presents several areas of that particular focus, which resonate with contemporary archival debates. [End Page 107]

The aim of this article is to contextualize the translation of historic aesthetic objects to the digital domain on several levels:

  • • to raise awareness of the film materials’ origin and of the interrelated network of technological as well as institutional frameworks affecting the digitization process

  • • to point out the potentials, as well as the contingencies, when dealing with digital technologies within workflows2

  • • to highlight the potential role of research to mediate between disciplines, such as computer science, engineering, physical chemistry, film history and aesthetics, restoration ethics, and philological principles

An exhaustive documentation of all the factors at work in the historiographic process of transferring early films to the digital realm is impossible. Nonetheless, the awareness of certain specific factors that originate in digital technologies, as well as in the heterogeneous interdisciplinarity of the fields involved, can help to point out the importance of and the need for more open documentation and communication.

By highlighting the concrete setup of our approach, as well as by documenting the contingencies in experimenting with “Digital Desmet,” we have combined philological requirements with a critical reflection on our workflow options and decisions. Our study does not focus on a deep exploration of the relationship of Digital Desmet to the history and evolution of the analog Desmet method for transferring early cinema to chromogenic3 safety stock.4 It rather discusses the translation of the ideas behind the analog method and the digital principles involved as a method. It also focuses on the attempts to remodel this method for digital workflows in analogy to a set of principal requirements for a universal “recipe.” Issues of the technology of scanning, as evidenced by the scanner tests developed within the DIAsTOR framework, and its epistemological underpinnings are brought to bear on a wider set of questions on how evolving technologies shape the aesthetics and interpretation of filmic source material. By describing the specific archival pragmatics active within the setup of testing Digital Desmet, the article documents and contextualizes the shift that digital technologies introduce into the archival practice when translating applied colors into the digital realm.

A critical attitude toward primary and secondary sources is fundamental to many academic disciplines—especially those with historical aspects. In film studies, and film history in particular, in which archival films can be used for film historical research and, consequently, film historiography, an understanding of the film archive as [End Page 108] a storage place for filmic sources is paramount. Source material and its use have thus been fundamental topics in film historiography.5 Evolving technologies, including film scanning, shape the aesthetics and interpretation of filmic source material, and practices within archives and laboratories can be seen as co-constructive to that process. This article investigates the impact that digital technologies have on the interrelation of a multitude of players in the field—archives, post-houses, research in film history, and science. Their interactions will here be termed archival pragmatics, which we explore in more detail in the penultimate section of this article.


To understand the principles and problems of digitizing and restoring applied colors, it was necessary to investigate the basic elements that shape and influence the scanning process. Digitization is not an equivalent of the analog duplication process but rather a fundamentally different process whereby color values are extracted from an analog print and translated into a binary code. As elaborated...


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