Made for the GPO Film Unit to advertise the postal system, A Colour Box (d. Len Lye, 1935) was the first time Lye had painted directly onto film, and has continued to be one of his most popular films. While a number of people are reported to have previously dabbled with painting directly onto film in the 1910s - including the Italian painter Arnaldo Ginna and German psychologist Hans Lorenz Stoltenberg - these experiments were never preserved, which has cemented Lye's reputation as an innovator in 'direct' filmmaking.
Lye experimented with different kinds of paint that would not peel away, but which were transparent enough to produce bright colours when projected. He then used tools such as a camel-hair brush and a fine-toothed comb to build up colour textures upon the filmstrip. Rather than following one line of movement, Lye presented a mass of complex and jumbled movements by painting directly onto celluloid. This creates a sense of off-screen space, as if the patterns are streaming in and out of the frame. Also, the dynamic abstract shapes seem to dance to the popular Cuban music that was used as a soundtrack. Lye used the soundtrack as a creative base by associating particular shapes with certain sounds, so that there is a loose relationship between sound and image.
Lye originally planned a self-sufficient abstract film, but made it afresh when tailoring it to advertising needs. In order to turn an abstract film into a GPO advertisement, he came up with the idea of inscribing a few words at the end of the film to promote the use of the postal service. These words are somewhat incongruous in the context of the film, but they are incorporated appropriately: they jitter on the screen, as if animated by the musical score.
As its title suggests, A Colour Box was also notable for being a colour film. Lye used the process of Dufaycolor at a time when colour film was still in an experimental phase. This gave the film a novelty value when first shown. A Colour Box eventually secured quite a wide theatrical release and became popular with both general audiences and critics. Because it was colourful and dynamic, with a catchy musical score, it was more accessible than many abstract films of the period.
*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Addressing The Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 1'.