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Winston Churchill Winston Churchill. Photo: Alamy

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Interview | Colouring British History

Samuel François-Steininger of Composite Films recently worked on colourizing American history for The Smithsonian Channel's series American in Color. Now, he's working on bringing colour to British history through Britain in Colour, which premieres October 29 at 8pm on the Smithsonian UK TV channel.

Published on October 21, 2019

Thank you so much for your time Samuel. Can you start by telling us what the colorization process involves, and how you came to use these processes for your two projects, America in Colour and Britain in Colour?

The first part of the process consists of finding reliable historical sources to define what color we will use for the colorization. For each shot, we have a frame that becomes a reference and that we use as documentation for the colorization. This phase requires the work of highly skilled people, with a strong background in history and research.

Then the more technical part of our process begins (restoring the artifacts, stains, scratches, dirt, detouring and animating the different shapes to create objects, applying the right spectre of color after taking the light into account). It is a very meticulous work, whose duration is linearly in proportion with the complexity of the images.

The last part is more artistic: each shot is harmonized with the rest of the film, taking into account the artistic choices of the director and the whole film to create an aesthetically coherent result. This part of the process is intrinsically linked to the first part: having a lot of references from a particular period of time not only helps to find the most accurate color of a particular object, but also to have a general feeling of what images from a given period should look like.

Britain in Colour is appearing on UK screens in October - how did colorizing Britain compare to colorizing America?

As it turns out, it has been quite different to colourize America in Color and Britain in Colour: colorizing the history of a 200 years old republic that stretches to the scale of a continent and colorizing the history of a monarchy that has existed for a millenium comes with very different challenges. For Britain in Colour, we had to dig deep into all the different uniforms of the British army, all the different honorific orders of the British monarchy. It was especially difficult in the Royalty episode, which as one could expect featured many Royals, not only British, but from all over the world. The fact that Great Britain was the largest empire in the world, a good part of the century was also particularly challenging: we had to conduct a thorough research of colonial uniforms and of the different sites.

What kind of sources help to ascertain the correct colors from historical videos?

We use a lot of different sources to ascertain the colors. The easiest scenario is when the historical scene was also photographed in colors at the time: we can rely on the color photos published in the press as sources. But we use many other different sources. Museums are always a very important source for us, and the fact that many collections, even in smaller museums, are now digitized is a real blessing for us. For instance, we were able to use the vintage soapboxes cars collection of the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska, as references for the colorization of the soapbox race featured in America in Color: Small Towns. Official records provide accurate information about a lot of things too. We also use auction sales catalogs - it was especially useful for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s belongings, and a lot of books, especially for military uniforms. Contemporary newspapers clips are also an interesting source - that’s how we learned that Sheffield was decorated in bright colors the day Edward VII inaugurated its university. We also reach out to people who can help: academics and scholars, but also private collectors, and even people who organize reenactments of historical events.

Have you noticed any differences between the type of sources in America to the type of sources in the UK?

The differences between the type of sources are related to the kind of objects we found on the images. As we said, Britain in Colour features much more military parades or other official events that involve a lot of decorum, so we had to do a more bookish type of research.

What kind of big historical events are featured in Britain in Colour?

There are of course a lot of royal coronations and funerals in Britain in Colour, some extremely moving images of Churchill in his private life... A lot of the events described are political but you also really get a feel of how people lived at the time.

The Coronation of George V The Coronation of George V and Mary, 1911. Photo: Alamy

One episode focuses on Royalty, and includes colorized footage of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII - I understand you had to travel to New York to specifically find the correct blue for Simpson's dress?

It is actually quite easy to find accurate images of Wallis Simpson’s dress online - we didn’t have to go that far. The interesting thing about that, though, is that you cannot rely on what the actual dress displayed at the Metropolitan Museum looks like today - there has been huge discoloration and the dress seems to be cream-colored, though it was originally light blue. This is something we have to be very wary of: similarly, Elizabeth II’s wedding dress fabric has deteriorated and has today a yellowish hue that could make you think the dress was in a champagne tone, although it was in reality bright white.

What happens if you can't precisely pinpoint a color through research?

It is almost always possible to find reliable sources. In the rare occurrence when it's not the case, we have to find the best possible approximation for lack of accurate reference. For instance, in the Alaska episode, we see Japanese salmon cans of the Geisha brand. We tried to find the exact same cans but to no avail. We even asked the company (which still exists) if they had any archives of the designs of their early XXth century cans. They seemed very surprised by our request, but kindly answered that they had no record of the designs of “such a long time ago”. So we inferred the colors of the can from other similar designs of the brands, as it is likely the colors scheme did not change that much from one design to another.

Why is it important to colorize historical video?

When we started our activity, colorization was still a much debated issue among documentary directors: isn’t colorization a betrayal of the authenticity of the film? Isn’t colorization vandalizing?

But actually, the reason why historical footage is in black and white is not the consequence of an artistic choice from the operator: it is simply the result of a technical limitation, which we want to lift through colorization. This demands very strong ethics about colorization: the colorization does not aim to be (only) aesthetically pleasing or believable, but above all historically accurate. We strongly believe that colorization made with historical accuracy as the most important criteria really adds an editorial value to a film and gives more information to the viewers. On an emotional level, it also brings a real closeness with the characters we see in the film: they don’t seem so different from us. Colorization can also make historical footage more accessible and open a wider, younger audience to historical documentaries.

Did the process of colorizing America and Britain change your perspective on the two nations or historical events?

To be completely honest, most of the team has a strong background in history, so we were already familiar with Britain’s and US’s history. But of course seeing history unrolling is different from learning about it, and this aspect was especially apparent in some episodes of America in Color, where you can really see concepts that are very important to understand the US - the frontier, Main Street - materializing.

What was the most difficult scene to colorize for Britain in Colour?

The most challenging scene was undoubtedly the shot of the procession of Edward’s VII funeral. More than 50 officials from all over the world were in this procession. We had to identify every one of them from the newspaper accounts of the funeral, and then find out what were the costumes the protocol dictated they wore for this occasion. It was an extremely fastidious job that took 5 whole days to the person that was assigned that task.

FDR FDR. Photo: Alamy

What is your favorite video to have colorized for Britain in Colour?

Oddly, it was also the procession of Edward VII’s funeral. It was nightmarish but also extremely challenging and offered us an incredible panorama into the different royal families of the whole world at the time.

What do you hope viewers take away from watching Britain in Colour?

We’d like them to feel a real closeness to the characters they see on film, and to have a fresh new grasp about the history of their country.

What's next on the horizon for you - are there any further In Colour series planned?

We do actually colorize a lot of different historical films for the whole world - colorized historical footage really seems to attract a lot of attention at the moment, as shown by the success of Peter Jackson’s film about World War I. We always thrive to get the best possible result and the most innovative technologies, and started a program with renowned French academics from Université Paris Descartes and Université de Bordeaux to implement AI algorithms in our process to get even more life-like results. We also have our own productions. One of our latest, the short film Safety by Oscar-nominated director Fabrice Joubert is currently programmed in many festivals.

Britain in Colour premieres in the UK on the Smithsonian UK TV Channel at 8pm, October 8pm. For further details on how you can watch, do to the Smithsonian Channel UK Website.


King Edward during his Abdication Speech King Edward during his Abdication Speech via Radio 1. Photo: Alamy

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