“Color makes you feel alive.” So quips film chemist Beverly Wood, whose innovations in color technologies contributed to the success of films such as Seven, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Skyfall.
A self-described “film whisperer,” Wood has helped cinematographers and directors achieve their artistic vision for a film. To that end, she has received accolades for the film processing technologies known as Color Contrast Enhancement and Adjustable Contrast Enhancement. In reading about Wood, I was struck by her mutual love of movies/TV and chemistry and how she found a way to combine her two passions. Wood was recently interviewed in a pubilc program hosted by the Lemelson Center.
Learning about Wood in advance of the Innovative Lives program hosted on March 8, 2023 has led me to wonder about the contributions, recognized and unsung, of women working in the film industry. I am particularly drawn to Alice Guy Blaché who, like Wood, applied her interests, inventive thinking, and an experimental approach to cinematic storytelling and film production. While well-known in the early part of the 20th century, Guy Blaché had fallen into obscurity until recent scholarship brought to light her contributions to filmmaking. This piece is one small effort to help get the word out about a woman inventor who for decades was a “hidden figure.”
Like so many other inventors, Guy Blaché was exceptionally adept not only in solving but in identifying a problem. After attending a test screening of the Lumière brothers’ newly invented Cinématographe in 1895, she was impressed by the camera’s technology, but underwhelmed in its application. The Lumières’ demonstration included the viewing of a brief film that was called an “actualité,” essentially footage capturing everyday events, places, and/or things). Guy Blaché found the clip they showcased, workers leaving the Lumière factory, uninspiring and instead grasped the medium’s potential to educate and entertain.
Guy Blaché was then a 22-year-old secretary working for motion picture camera inventor and entrepreneur Léon Gaumont. Employed by a company that initially sold photography equipment, she interacted with scientists, inventors, and businessmen who were excited about the technology and looking for ways to utilize it. Guy Blaché shared their enthusiasm.
Despite her lack of technical expertise, Guy Blaché’s background and appreciation of the humanities and her access to motion picture cameras motivated her to try her hand at filmmaking. As Guy Blaché later recalled in her memoir: “At that time, people were still filming street scenes, a train pulling into the station, etcetera. I was the daughter of a bookseller, and I loved books. I had read a great deal. And I had done some amateur theater. And I thought something better could be done. So, I suggested to Monsieur Gaumont that I film a few scenes. He said, ‘It seems like a girlish, silly thing to do, but you can try if you want. On one condition: that your office work doesn’t suffer.’”
Guy Blaché’s initial efforts were short—no more than a couple of minutes, which was typical—but Gaumont so admired her work that he decided to expand the company business. In addition to developing and manufacturing cameras and other photographic and motion picture technologies, Gaumont became among the first companies to produce films, with Guy Blaché leading that effort. Her success would bring her and her husband to the United States, where she would go on to co-found the motion picture studio Solax Company in 1910.
Over the course of her career as writer, producer, and director, Guy Blaché’s filmography would encompass between 600 and 1,000 works, including a few dozen feature-length films. But more important than her prodigious output as a filmmaker, the impact of Guy Blaché’s motion pictures helped transform film from technological novelty into an enduring art form. She evolved cinema, both technically and creatively, influencing such renowned filmmakers as Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock.
Given her interests in literature and the performing arts, Guy Blaché knew what made for a good story. With technical input from Gaumont cameramen, she is credited with having innovated a variety of narrative devices for use in the new medium of motion pictures. As a filmmaker, Guy Blaché experimented extensively, reversing, slowing down, accelerating, and stopping film. She implemented film processing techniques such as double exposure, split screen, and fade out. As she developed as a narrative filmmaker, she tried and effectively used the closeup, film cuts, angled shots, camera movement, and locational shooting.
Guy Blaché encouraged other women into the field. In 1914, she wrote in The Moving Picture World, a trade magazine: “There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art…. The technique of motion picture photography like the technique of a drama is fitted to a woman’s activities.”
Guy Blaché is perhaps best known for being among the first to explore the use of sound and color. Despite working during what has been deemed the “silent era” of film, Guy Blaché made hundreds of phonoscènes, or sound films, using a Chronophone, an apparatus patented by Léon Gaumont that meshed imagery produced by a Cinématographe and sound captured in a disc Phonograph. And prior to The Wizard of Oz in 1939, with its inventive and dramatic use of color that helped popularize the invention of Technicolor, Guy Blaché went to the time and expense of have each frame hand-tinted.
These films made by Guy Blaché, which date to 1900, were among the first to incorporate color. Guy’s improvements in color were such that by 1911, in the June 17 issue of The Moving Picture News, it was noted that not only was the then new Solax Company one of the first to produce fully colorized films, but the tinting and toning of them also “succeeded in adding an embellishment which has been greatly admired by the trade.”
Remarkably, in the early 1900s, she incorporated both sound and color. For example, in this short, Guy Blaché provided visual interest with a muted palette that was either painstakingly applied to the film by hand or created using an experimental two-color film projection process. She also used a chronophone to synchronize the singer filmed lip-syncing his performance to a disc recording.
“Movies have a seismic effect on our collective visual vocabulary. Those who create the grammar of movies—how they’re lit, framed, composed, shot, and indeed, colored—are key influencers of visual culture.” This quote refers to Natalie Kalmus, one of the color directors of Oz whose contribution to films helped pave the way, like the yellow brick road, to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Certainly, the same could be said of Guy Blaché and Wood.
With “everyone is inventive” as its guiding principle, the Lemelson Center is committed to raising awareness and celebrating the history of diverse inventors.
- Guy Blaché, Alice. The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022.
- Green, Pamela B. et al. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. Zeitgeist Films, 2018.
- McMahan, Alison. Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2002.
- McMahan, Alison. “Alice Guy Blaché.” Women Film Pioneers Project. New York: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-5a4c-yq24
- Manohla Dargis, “Overlooked No More: Alice Guy Blaché, the World’s First Female Filmmaker.” “The New York Times, September 6, 2019.
- Simon, Joan, ed. Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer (Whitney Museum of Art). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.