Damn The War! (1914) – the beauty of stencil colour

  • Click on any of the above images to view a slideshow of stills from Damn The War! (1914)

One of the highlights of the silent offering at this year’s London Film Festival, Alfred Machin’s Damn The War!/Maudite Soit la Guerre (1914) is not just a moving pacifist drama, it is an object of jewel-like beauty. As those who saw the restoration of this Belgian film at the Bologna this year attest, the secret is in the vibrant, expertly applied, stencil colour. Head Curator at the BFI Archive, Robin Baker, says:

The ravishingly beautiful restoration has returned a magical range of stencilled colours, evoking the nostalgia of tinted postcards and a world stained with the blood of war.

Stencil colouring was popular during the early film period, and through the silent era. It was a meticulous process, as Barbara Flueckiger explains on her Timeline of Historical Film Colors website:

Stencil coloring required the manual cutting, frame by frame, of the area which was to be tinted onto another identical print, one for each color. Usually the number of colors applied ranged from 3 to 6. Theprocess was highly improved by the introduction of a cutting machine. Thus the cutter could follow the outlines of the image areas on a magnified imagefrom a guide print projected onto a ground glass. Apantograph reduced the enlargement back to framesize. The machine performed the cutting on the stencil print with a needle. When cut-out manually, the gelatin had to be removed from the stenciled print to form a transparent strip. In the machine cutting process the stencil was cut into a blank film directly. For every color the stencil print was fed in register with the positive print into a printing machine where the acid dye was applied by a continuous velvet band.

At the time that Damn The War! was made, this painstaking work would have been done by large teams of female workers. Stencil colouring was part-mechanised, however, and as such was a sight easier than the hand-colouring techniques that preceded it. In fact, it’s the combination of soft pastel-coloured inks and machine-cut precision that creates such a beautiful painterly look. In Damn The War! a wash of vivid red ink is also used to dramatic effect, and masks are used to intensify the impact of the coloured scene.

Readers of this blog will note that in the year that this film was made, the Technicolor corporation was born, which would eventually create a whole new approach to colour film. Glorious though that could be, it’s hard not to think that a certain kind of cinematic gorgeousness was lost when the stencils were all packed away.

Watch Damn The War! (1914) at 6.30pm, 12 October 2014, NFT1, BFI Southbank, in the London Film Festival. Buy tickets here.

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