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England of 1926, in Almost Living “Colour,” Is a Youtube Sensation

A rare and captivating glimpse of London’s busy streets, filmed in color during the summer of 1926, has been gathering a lot of attention on the web this week.

The footage was shot by a pioneering British cinematographer named Claude Friese-Greene, as the final segment of a 26-part travelogue of the British countryside he had been working on since 1924.

His project was to have been called The Open Road and was designed to promote the color film process his late father, William, had been working on since 1911 (and which he had continue to develop himself after his father’s death in 1921.) Their system had a revolving disc in front of the shutter that alternately exposed frames of standard black-and-white film through a red and then a yellowish-white filter. Later, after the film was developed, these alternate frames would be hand-tinted with red and cyan dyes and projected at 32 frames per second. Although the footage flickered heavily, it did indeed render color images.

Excited by the prospect of using the newly patented “all-British Friese-Greene Natural Colour Process,” the son founded Spectrum Films, and with his chauffeur-cum-assistant Robin Haworth-Booth set off in a motor car in 1924 to make The Open Road , a travelogue of the British countryside and villages. The idea was that these 10-minute segments would be shown before the main feature at cinemas and hopefully generate public interest and create a demand for more.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. With the exception of a showing of the first nine segments at a trade show in November 1925, none of The Open Road is believed to have been shown in theaters at the time or ever distributed. The flickering footage had a way of giving viewers headaches. And technically and visually, the “Natural Colour Process” was outclassed by the superior Technicolor process, which had been in development since 1916 and was already being used to good effect in America. The Open Road died before it could be released.

Friese-Greene went on to enjoy a successful film-making career but his patented color process was largely forgotten. In the years after his death in 1943 his original nitrate negatives of The Open Road – all 25,000 feet of them – were donated to Britain’s National Film and Television Archive.

And there the story of a long-ago dream and a 1920s road trip through the British countryside might have ended but for an extraordinary digital reconstruction of an hours’ worth of Friese-Greene’s original by a team of technicians at the British Film Institute – a two-year effort that combined cutting-edge digital technology with fragile 1920s negatives.

“It was more of a reinterpretation than a true reconstruction,” says Kieron Webb, the Film Conservation Manager at the British Film Institute who oversaw the project. “What we wanted to do was capture Friese-Greene’s original vision and colors as faithfully as possible, but without the migraine-inducing flicker.”

That proved to be a painstaking challenge. First a set of positives had to be made from Friese-Greene’s original negatives, fragile after nearly 90 years. These were then scanned. Next the frames were digitally separated into those that had been shot through the red filter and those shot through the yellowish white. Finally, software was used to create new frames for the film based on whatever motion was going on in the picture—a sophisticated bit of computerised legerdemain, with the computer working out the speed and direction of the motion it sensed in the footage. These additional frames helped smooth the overall viewing and reduced the jerky, head-ache inducing flicker.

Next came the tinting – the process that delivered the color to the audience. “After printing, what Friese-Greene did was hand tint each of the alternate frames with red and cyan dyes,”  Webb says. “We were able to use software to do that, basing our colors and color density on an analysis of the only surviving original nitrate print of The Open Road. How Friese-Greene managed to apply his tints so smoothly and evenly over the frames is a mystery, but he did a wonderful job. It must have been a hugely labor-intensive effort.”

And so it still is. Two years of work were required to recreate an hour of Claude Friese-Greene’s original vision – five minutes of which have been capturing the attention of You Tube aficionados. “I think we got the colors pretty much as he saw them,” says Webb. “There is still a bit of ghosting [a faint echo of a moving image, such as a raised arm or a person walking through the crowd]. But I don’t mind it. It kind of adds to the sense of looking back in time. We could probably have cleaned that up but this is supposed to be Claude Friese-Greene’s film, not ours.”