Hillary Atkin

Series Presents a Groundbreaking — and Colorful — History of America

Jul 27, 2017

It was the Roaring ’20s as no one had ever before seen them — in living, nearly breathing, full-spectrum color.

That footage of flappers and good time Charlie-types living it up in an era of newfound affluence and social and political freedom for women, which looks as though it could’ve been shot a few decades ago but is actually nearly a century old, was the opening of a five-part documentary series currently running on the Smithsonian Channel.

“America in Color” chronicles many of the most significant moments of the 20th century — from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression to the World War II era to the first moon landing — that have only previously been seen in black and white.

In the process, the history of the United States, its people and its cultures is shown in a new way that makes previous generations come to vibrant new life.

Narrated by noted actor and three-time Emmy nominee Liev Schreiber in authoritative tones, the docuseries uses modern technology and filmic artistry to morph black-and-white film footage and photographs from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and 1960s into vivid color, transforming a past that in many cases has seemed distant and gray.

As Smithsonian Channel EVP of programming and production David Royle bottom lined it, “History was not lived in black and white. It was lived in color.” He said the documentary, encompassing five hour-long episodes, is the most ambitious colorizing of historical images ever undertaken on American TV.

Filmmakers spent nearly 6,000 hours ferreting out the footage and researching original colors to conform to the correct tones from each period of history, using source materials from libraries and archives as well as forgotten family vaults.

Their work included tracking down private collections of film and photos, which were then painstakingly colored by an expert team in France.

Samuel Francois-Steininger, CEO, producer and creative director of Composite Films, said colorizing the film brings to life details that were not otherwise readily apparent.

“In black and white, most of the time your eye will notice only the foreground, the main characters, but will miss all the details in the background and the crowds, and also the details on the clothes and the objects,” he said in an email interview.

It was a painstaking project that required extensive research and calling upon experts in a wide range of fields.

“To find the exact matching colors and achieve a realistic look, our researchers and historians team had to analyze every single element of every black and white shot — environment, sky, cars, buildings and homes, clothes and fashion — then perform extensive researches to find a match,” Francois-Steininger said. “It’s like in a police investigation actually. And that’s a lot of work. We sometimes needed to cross reference two or three different sources to find a 100% match.”

The upcoming, concluding episode of the docuseries chronicles the 1960s, beginning with the historic showdown between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential campaign debate, watched by 70 million viewers, and courses through the momentous occurences that followed during the decade.

Societal and cultural changes begun then reverberate today, reflecting the impact from landmark events including the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, more violent civil rights struggles, the Woodstock music festival and the historic Apollo 11 flight that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

“There were so many stories to choose from it was almost impossible to narrow them down. JFK, MLK Jr. — it’s a decade so crowded you have to use acronyms to fit it all in,” said executive producer John Cavanagh via email. “We got a late break in the 1960s show when our production team found some home movies shot by a 21-year-old Kodak employee named Joe Laney. He and his wife were living in upstate New York in 1969, and he was filming as they made the trip to Woodstock. It’s never been broadcast before and drops you right into the middle of counterculture at its peak — a rare look at the everyday people who came together to form one the most iconic moments in American history.”

(“America in Color: 1960s” airs on Smithsonian Channel on Sunday, July 30, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)

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