In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • A Digital Humanities Approach to Film Colors
  • Barbara Flueckiger (bio)

And much of the data mining that leads to visualization … is based on a flawed method that conflates literal discourse and symbolic/interpreted reference. In an art-historical context, this would be the equivalent of counting instances of the color red across a collection of images without discriminating between symbolic and representational functions. The reds are not the same, and cannot be counted the same way, put into the same category, or re-represented as data for visualization in a graph or chart, without monstrous distortion.


There are strong and justifiable objections to the measurement or, more broadly, the computer-assisted analysis of aesthetic phenomena—as Johanna Drucker makes clear.1 One pitfall of quantitative analysis is its potential to disregard the meaningful context of data occurrences across the body of works studied. In fact, any quantitative approach to aesthetics that aims to reduce the inherently ambiguous quality of works of art into measurable units runs the risk of engaging in positivist reductionism and of fundamentally ignoring philosophical aesthetics and its analytical tradition. Given these reservations, it may seem extremely bold to investigate one of the most intangible aspects of film aesthetics, namely, film colors, by computer-assisted tools in the emerging field of digital humanities.

Colors are elusive. Our perception of them is deeply influenced by the context of their appearance, their material presentation, the given cultural framework, and each individual spectator's subjective response. However, it was precisely this challenge that led to the development of the projects elaborated and reflected in the digital humanities platform Timeline of Historical Film Colors and, most importantly, the research project FilmColors, which was funded by an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). By their very definition, ERC Advanced Grants are meant to be "high risk, high gain" projects that "are designed to allow outstanding research leaders of any nationality and any age to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects in Europe."2 This article offers insight into the current state of research in computer-assisted film color analysis and applications that are either available or in development.

FilmColors is closely linked to the interactive Timeline of Historical Film Colors, which started in 2012. The platform consists of a comprehensive web resource and online database for all topics related to film colors, with a special focus on their technology, aesthetics, analysis, and restoration. Thus the Timeline is a collection, an archive, a documentation process, and, increasingly, an annotated system for the investigation of the topic, which offers access to a curated body of information to researchers, archivists, film historians, and a broader audience of users from different backgrounds. Four different interdisciplinary approaches investigate the relationship between aesthetics and technical innovation as applied to film colors.

First, the database-driven analysis of film color aesthetics, their affective qualities, and their narrative functions aim to identify diachronic aesthetic patterns. Based on this offline database, the research team is developing a computer-assisted tool with a web interface that will allow the crowdsourcing of film color analyses applying recent advancements in digital humanities and custom-made visualizations. Then these aesthetic analyses are connected to the study of film color technology in combination [End Page 72] with chemicophysical analyses of historical color films to understand the influence of film stocks and color processes on films' aesthetic appearance. Third, the team will apply insights gained during the digitization and restoration of historical films by taking into account the requirements of restoration ethics while improving workflows. Finally, three PhD theses in progress will provide case studies from three periods: the emergence of film colors from early applied colors to so-called natural colors (1896–1930), the development of standards in film color technology and aesthetics (1930–55), and the dominance of chromogenic processes (1955–95).

The project features a truly interdisciplinary approach to consider and connect all the relevant factors—from technology to perception and aesthetics—because they are closely intertwined. The focus remains firmly rooted in the humanities.


The planned computer-assisted...


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pp. 71-94
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