Film Preservation 101 is an occasional series in which we answer our most frequently asked questions. Please submit your burning questions about film preservation in the comments below!
What is Color Fading?
Why are old films sometimes pink? The simple answer is color fading. This might seem a little confusing, since it looks like the film just turned pink, but what has actually happened is that two of the three color dye layers (cyan and yellow) have faded, leaving magenta the prominent hue.
A USDA film from 1970 that has experienced color-fading.
Color fading is an issue because of the introduction of Kodak’s Eastmancolor in 1950. Eastmancolor was a huge deal at the time because it used a single strip of film rather than the three separate film rolls required to create a Technicolor print (for more on how Technicolor worked, see The Three Strip Camera and The Dye Transfer Printing Process videos produced by the George Eastman House). 1950s Eastmancolor prints were probably gorgeous when they were first screened, but since the dyes were unstable, most of us have only seen them as magenta.
It was not until the late 1970s that filmmakers became widely aware that their works were fading and raised the alarm. At the forefront of color preservation efforts was Martin Scorsese, who famously said that he shot Raging Bull (1980) in black and white “to avoid the color problem entirely.”[i] (The home movies sequences in Raging Bull are in color—Kodachrome and other reversal home movie stocks do not fade.) In response to the industry backlash, Kodak quickly developed more stable color dyes, but the damage was already done. The film industry had already produced 30 years worth of faded color films. At the National Archives, we know that, with very few exceptions, a non-reversal color print will be magenta before we even look at it. The government had mostly switched to video by the 1980s, so we don’t have a lot of color prints that haven’t faded. Luckily, the Eastmancolor negatives did not fade anywhere near as much as the prints, so our original negatives, while shifted a bit, have a lot of color to work with. A sizable percentage of government films were made with Kodachrome or Ektachrome reversal, as well, and have retained their original glorious color.
How Can Color Fading Be Prevented?
This one’s easy: By keeping the film cold, chemical processes slow down. That means that the color dye fading slows down as well. At the National Archives, our color films are kept at a toasty 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Our cold vault is essentially a giant meat freezer, but tricked out with movable shelving instead of meat hooks. Preserving on newer stocks will yield a more stable copy, and we can adjust color levels somewhat, but we can’t fix it completely. The good news is that even a film that appears to be completely magenta will usually have some remnants of the blue and cyan dyes. Freezing the film keeps the color from fading any further and ensures that there is something there for us to recover when we transfer the film digitally.
How Do We Fix Color Fading?
While we can attempt to re-balance the color when we create new preservation copies photochemically, the digital tools we have available to us are so much more powerful that there’s really no comparison. We adjust color settings on the scanner before we capture, and then use filters in our editing software to further restore the color. Since we’re usually transferring films for access copies and not doing a full-scale restoration, we probably spend less than ten minutes making adjustments. Considering that, the results are incredible.
Check out these examples from a film we recently featured on the blog, The Year of 53 Weeks. You can see that while we were not able to recover the full range of color, we have evened out color palette so that the fading is not so distracting. You can watch the complete film here.
Three shots from The Year of 53 Weeks, before and after color correction.
For much, much more information on color dye fading and how to prevent it, see “The Permanent Preservation of Color Motion Pictures,” Chapter 9 of The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs by Henry Wilhelm, and Storage Guide for Color Photographic Materials, by James Reilly of the Image Permanence Institute, both available online for free download.
[i] Martin Scorsese “Letter to the Editor,” Film Comment, January-February 1980, quoted in The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs, pg. 306.