Bringing History to Life: America in Color

On November 18, Smithsonian Channel in the U.S. will premiere the second season of its critically acclaimed original series America in Color.

Produced by Arrow Media in the U.K. and recently renewed for a third season, America in Color features historical footage that has been painstakingly colorized. The idea to colorize black-and-white footage of America through the ages was inspired by the success of Apocalypse: The Second World War, a France Télévisions colorized doc that Smithsonian aired in 2009. “Looking at it, I kept thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to do something similar?” says David Royle, executive VP and chief programming officer at Smithsonian Networks. However, Royle did not want to focus on war, but rather “move beyond the battlegrounds into celebrating the fullness of life.”

Royle and his team decided to explore the history of America, noting that the country has been “filmed so extensively over the years. There are the most wonderful archives in ***Image***existence. And it really gave us a chance to bring American history to life, in some ways for the first time.”

Colorizing is a complicated, expensive, time-consuming process, Royle stresses. “There is a very limited number of people who have the skills to do it. It took us quite a while to work it all out.

Our vision of creating America in Color was shared by Arrow Media and they brought France’s Composite Films on board to handle the actual colorization process,” Royle says. “We wanted it to be every bit as good, if not better, in terms of colorizing than the marvelous work done on Apocalypse—we wanted to take it to another level. The care and love and creativity that the team poured into this process is astonishing.”

Royle says that it’s not just about the technical aspects of colorization—“it’s about working out what those colors would be. And as much time goes into the historical exploration to try to identify the right colors as goes into the colorizing itself. For us, it’s very important to be as accurate as possible. I’m not saying there are never times when they have to make educated guesses, but it’s astonishing the extremes to which our colorizing teams will go at times to find the right color.”

Nick Metcalfe, executive producer at Arrow Media, emphasizes this point. “Colorizing is not about applying blue to the skies or green to the grass. It’s about doing the research that tells you what color the clothes were, what color the busses were, what color the taxis were. For that, you need to do a lot of historical research. That’s the time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive part of the process. Your colorizing is only as good as your research.”

Royle cites as an example a scene from season two of a parade at Harvard University in the 1930s. “The team worked out what colors the jackets were! This parade was happening right after the end of prohibition and these alumni were wearing blue coats because they were supporting the end of prohibition. Blue was one of the colors associated with Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration. It’s that attention to detail. In the first episode, there was a pin worn by Roosevelt during one of his speeches and [the producers] literally spent hours going over every Roosevelt-related item they could find until they found a portrait of him wearing the specific pin. It is like a treasure hunt at times.”

The first season of America in Color featured episodes built around specific decades. For the second season, the team opted for a thematic approach, covering, among other subjects, the Wild West, industry titans, organized crime and Hollywood’s golden age.

“We started with decades because we felt that would give us a chance to include in every episode a really wide range of subjects and give a chance for the audience to see the whole sweep of American history in the last century,” Royle explains. “But then we thought, Wouldn’t it be really fun to focus on particular subjects? This [colorization] process allows us to bring life to black-and-white footage that felt faded and distant. It makes the mundane and the ordinary surprisingly vivid and interesting. So we wanted to take on big topics, we wanted to mine subjects where we felt there was a wealth of interesting material, and our team, because they’d done the decades, had a pretty good sense of where to go next. There are lots of moments that are pure fun, there are moments that are fascinating, but then there are moments that make you sit up and reflect on the repetition of history.”

“I loved making the first series decade by decade, but it’s a slightly unnatural process to tell a story that fits into a decade,” Metcalfe observes. “A bunch of stuff happens in a decade. Does it all tie together? With the thematic episodes, it felt as if you could develop a big narrative, you could find a beginning and then follow a development and trace it through to an end point. Narratively, it was much more satisfying because it felt as if there were a real story to follow. The decades were very interesting programs to make, but as a producer, there was something about the stories we uncovered—crime, playtime and so on—that told something bigger about America.”

Metcalfe notes that there was a “huge learning curve” in the approach to finding footage. “There were some things we did differently in season two. We get a lot of footage from the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, places like that. They have huge resources. They are brilliant. But not everything they have is available online, so you can look at it, or sometimes the description is very brief in the catalog. You have to take a gamble. At the beginning of season two, we sent our star archive producer to the States, and he spent a week going through those archives. You can view them there in a way you can’t view them online. So we knew, for the price of a ticket to the States, what material was available. That felt like a really good commitment of resources. Funnily enough, we also know now that some of the best and rarest footage of what’s happened in the U.S. is not in the U.S. It’s in various other archives. We found things in Britain, in France, in the Netherlands. We knew that if we couldn’t find something in the U.S., it’s not the end of the world, there are other places that we can look. We just keep searching.”

The colorization itself posed some challenges for Samuel François-Steininger, CEO and artistic director at Composite Films, and his team. “Sam is brilliant,” Metcalfe says. “We know if we’ve got a huge crowd shot, like at a sporting event or political event, that’s a real challenge. Sam never just applies slabs of color. The amount of detail in a huge crowd shot is a nightmare for him. But still, he does it. We learned on series one that some things are tricky to color. It’s not just the size of the crowd. It’s flesh tones. Getting the color right was [often] dependent on the quality of the film—how much detail there was in the original. The story wasn’t as simple as, old film, poorer quality, less detail. Some of the best footage we had was, counter-intuitively, from the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the later footage, from the ’50s and ’60s, was not so good. Some of the original material had not been as well looked after or well preserved. With the advent of television, people either didn’t shoot on high-quality [film], or they didn’t look after it, and sometimes it was a horrible transfer to video. We have to deliver in UHD/4K, that’s higher quality than a lot of the footage you see online. We can’t just go to online sources and take whatever they have already scanned. That’s why we had to go back to the original and rescan it, which is why we had to find out first that there was an original somewhere, as opposed to just saying, here it is online, we can take it and use it. And then we’ve got to persuade someone who holds that original to release it.”

Arrow and Smithsonian Channel have other colorized docs in the works and are exploring if the techniques applied in America in Color could be applied to telling the histories of other countries.

Colorized docs are part of Smithsonian’s broader effort to “refresh the way we tell stories,” Royle explains. “We’re working very hard to bring new audiences to history and to subjects that maybe people have lost interest in. Colorizing brings a new audience to the table. America in Color was our top-rated series in the States and it attracted our largest number of young viewers. So for us, doing history in color is key. The way I think of it is, life was not lived in black and white, history wasn’t lived in black and white. We’re putting the color back into history.”