America in Color feels surprisingly contemporary for a television series that explores as its central thesis the historic moments of the 20th Century that shaped the United States and, in turn, the world.
A massive explosion rocks the opening moments of episode one of the Arrow Media-produced blue chip archival project, set to air on Smithsonian Channel July 2. The episode features rarely seen clips of Manhattan in chaos following a shocking act of terror: At lunchtime on Sept. 16, 1920, a bomb hidden by alleged anarchists inside a horse-drawn carriage was detonated outside 23 Wall Street. The blast killed 38 people and left another 143 seriously wounded.
But for a few details, the story could be ripped straight from today’s headlines.
That the images we see on screen, though nearly 100 years old, have been painstakingly rendered into full color from their original black and white, and made 4K-ready, makes the scene all-the-more impactful.
It’s a theme that holds constant across the series’ five hour-long episodes, each harnessing the power of color to refresh and re-energize the important stories of the decade they represent. From the epic excesses of 1920s through to radical renaissance in the 1960s, the goal is to dust off the past and forge a sense personal connection among viewers to moments that might otherwise be dismissed as distant and dated.
“Life was not lived in black and white. History was not lived in black and white. It was lived in color and we are simply putting the color back into it,” David Royle, EVP of programming and production at Smithsonian Channel, tells realscreen.
America in Color marks Smithsonian’s biggest commission in the costly and time-consuming realm of colorization in almost a decade, and the bar is set high. The network’s 2009 release of Apocalypse, an ambitious, multi-million-dollar archival series produced and directed by the French husband-and-wife team of Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke, was hailed for the tasteful and detailed color restoration treatment given to Second World War footage. The series took years to complete and won impressive audiences of all ages in virtually every continent — a coup for any historic production, never mind one focused on well-mined war stories of yore, says Royle.
“At that stage, a lot of people said that everything that could be written and shown about World War II had been seen before. But the colorizing process (Costelle and Clarke) used was so precise and so nuanced and so beautiful that it really brought the footage to life,” he recalls of the project’s success.
In greenlighting America in Color, Smithsonian is looking to match, or even best, Apocalypse‘s broad appeal.
“We wanted to take on another grand subject and we felt that the history of America, well, you really couldn’t get bigger in scale than that…The growth and evolution of America over the last century or so has been epic. It is also part of the international popular culture. It transcends narrow nationalism,” says Royle.
Arrow was keen to come on board. The UK-based indie had already established a long relationship with Smithsonian. The company had also shown a willingness to tackle technically difficult storytelling formats, evidenced by the 2014 production of Live from Space, a live broadcast from the International Space Station for National Geographic.
Says Nick Metcalfe, Arrow’s executive director for America in Color: “It’s the kind of thing you dream of.”
Still, wrangling the sheer scope of the project into order proved daunting. Over two years, Arrow’s production team spent an estimated 6,000 hours scouring obscure archives and university libraries, and digging through forgotten family vaults and private collections to uncover rare and valuable photos and clips from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
All of the imagery (a whopping 27 miles of film) had to be condensed and sorted into 60-minute segments, with stories woven in a way that feels at once exciting and familiar. On a practical level, the task was completed by drawing up lists of the narratives researchers believed would best define the assigned decade, without losing any of the critical details of the era.
“Inevitably, we ended up with way too many stories and had to whittle them down. Then, sometimes we got footage and thought, actually, some of these stories need to play out much longer,” says Metcalfe.
“We had to find the right balance,” agrees Tom Brisley, Arrow’s creative director, noting the strategy was to mix the big stories of the decade with those that are lesser known, but equally powerful.
In a particularly poignant example, the series features images of five-year-old William Hinds of Portland, Maine in a segment dedicated to the booming auto industry. The child, we soon learn, was killed when he was struck by a Model T Ford in 1924, one of the first recorded vehicle-related deaths.
The series is driven and held together through narration, rather than expert or first-person interviews. The narrator in this case is actor, director and screenwriter Liev Schreiber — a nod to Apocalypse, which featured the voice of another A-list celebrity, Martin Sheen.
Of course, this being a color restoration project, finding the right partner — with the particular mix of technical and artistic skill — was essential to bringing the stories to life. And, as luck would have it, Brisley had met Samuel Francois-Steininger at MIPCOM just prior to the series’ commission. The Paris-based CEO, producer and creative director of Composite Films had instantly wowed Brisley with his eye for detail and artistic flare.
“He (Francois-Steininger) got on his laptop and he showed me the black-and-white footage alongside the color. That’s when I knew we were onto something special,” says Brisley. “You know, he’s 32 years old and all he cares about is making the color original and making it look as amazing as he can.”
For his part, Francois-Steininger, who’s lent his restoration skills to historical documentaries such as Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, thinks of the job as not unlike that of a police detective.
“One of the key points is to go as deep as possible in the research and leave almost nothing to the interpretation, or has not been verified,” he says. “It’s quite a long and dedicated and passionate process to find those answers.”
For America in Color, he and his team colorized approximately 200 minutes of footage, or 3,500 individual shots. For every shot, the same exacting process was necessary: What was the color of the tie that particular person wore on that particular day? What color was the sky? The cars? The wallpaper?
Drawing from a myriad of iconographic and historical sources, including books, re-enactors, experts, websites, biopics, paintings and postcards, says Francois-Steininger, “We investigate every element — the buildings, environment, background, key figures. Every single element has to be researched and checked with the resources at our disposal.”
The results are intended to honor each era. The 1920s episode, for instance, draws inspiration from the work of photographer Charles Zoller — the first American to use an early form of color photography called autochrome. Zoller’s portfolio, taken between the beginning of the 20th Century to the mid-1930s, “helped us capture the tints relative to the period and gave us valuable and reliable information, notably on clothes, fabrics and everyday objects,” says Francois-Steininger in an email.
“Thanks to them, we got the certainty, for instance, that the 1920s buses in New York City were green.”
For Royle, the finished product represents a breakthrough in historic docuseries production, pushing beyond the technological and emotional gains made by Apocalypse.
Indeed, the network is already considering greenlighting more episodes.
Watching the first installments, Royle found himself marveling at the remarkable details of buttons, hats and gloves of bygone eras, while discovering new meaning in well-known events that had previously eluded him.
A color-restored scene in the 1920s episode, showing a sea of hooded and bare-faced members of the Ku Klux Klan marching through Washington, D.C., left him particularly shaken.
“I’ve seen that image many times before in black and white, but when you see it in color, it is just absolutely haunting,” Royle says. “I just kept reflecting on the old images, thinking, ‘This could really be happening now. It’s not that different.’”
Feature photo: Image taken in 1920 in the immediate aftermath of the Wall Street bombing.
This story first appeared in the May/June publication of realscreen magazine