A Brief History of Gel

...more than you ever wanted to know.

The first color media for electric stage lights was introduced in the US by Brigham in 1877.  This was gelatin, made by boiling horse hooves and other animals’ connective tissues, adding aniline dyes, and pouring in a thin layer and letting cool, then cut into rectangular sheets.  Besides the PETA-related issues, “gel” had other problems:  dryness made it brittle, dampness made it sticky, and high wattage stage lights, luckily few at the time, would burn right through it in moments.  Brigham gel continued to be made and sold until 1971.  In 1908, Roscogel was introduced, and suffered the same fate as Brigham, though a little later.  Some colors available in gelatin have never been replicated in other mediums, much to the chagrin of very old Lighting Designers.

The replacement for gel came in 1955 when Rosco produced Roscolene in the US, and in 1962 Strand produced Cinemoid in the UK.

The LEE Filters numbering system and colors were derived from Cinemoid—an acetate color medium, like Roscolene, as opposed to polyester like Roscolux, that became defunct as it could not stand up to the energy of the new [then, late 1970s] Q-I (T/H) lamps. Those of us who used Cinemoid, which were 5xx numbers, are quite comfortable with the Lee numbers, which use 1xx. The Lee 3xx and 7xx numbers are newer colors added when they ran out of 1xx numbers. Yes, it's a cluster****, but Lee still offers a "Numeric Edition" swatchbook, and a "Designers Edition includes Numeric listing" swatchbook. My "Numeric Edition" is still what I use most often, does not include 3xx and 7xx, and is rather dog-eared. Most British LDs prefer Lee, as Cinemoid was a Rank-Strand product. Many American LDs, particularly in dance, seem to want to emulate the British and specify LEE Filters only.  Other dates of importance: LEE Filters--1967;  Berkey Colortran's Gelatran--1969;  Roscolux--1976;  GAMcolor--1984;  ApolloGel--late 1998?

To further confuse matters, the Lee 0xx numbers are "clones" of Roscolux colors, with notable exceptions, i.e. Lee002 IS NOT the same as Lux02; Lee003 IS NOT Lux03; but Lee004 IS very close to Lux04. I once went 'round and 'round with a Master Elect. who said the sheet he had that just said "003" was Lux03. I didn't have my swatchbooks with me so I couldn't prove it, and it was only Followspot color for a one-off that the LD wouldn't use anyway. And I was right; we cut, framed, and loaded 6 colors in 6 spots and the LD only used OW and Frame#1. Happens ALL the time. Rant OFF. But I digress. Lee Filters also offers the "HT" prefix, for High Temperature, which costs $2-3 more per sheet, but does hold up longer, and, in my experience, is worth the added cost in saturated colors.  Not so much with pale tints.

Roscolux
has been able to keep somewhat of an order, by adding 3xx in between xx colors, but Excel doesn't understand that and it makes my color lists odd when I sort by color#. In the early 1980s Rosco was having quality-control issues and began adding an "-A" suffix to colors they could no longer replicate. Thus there was R35 and R35A, and they were close, but not the same, color.  Veteran electricians and LDs will often use an “X” prefix instead of “R” to designate Roscolux.  The reason for this is that for a period of time Roscolene (8xx) and Roscolux were sold concurrently, and thus to avoid confusion between R8xx, Roscolene, and Rxx, Roscolux.  Roscogel was still in use by Hollywood until the early 1980s, primarily because of the cost.  Roscogel was approx. $2 per sheet, when Roscolene listed at $2.95 and Roscolux, $3.95.  At the time, film gaffers typically used color for less than a day, sometimes as little as one hour.  Labor costs to label, save, and file the color made it more economical to just throw the media away, and buy new for each shoot.

One Color Media manufacturer that makes sense spectrally is GamColor. In 1984, when Joe Tawil took the colors of the defunct Gelatran, which he had introduced in 1966, he was able to devise a system that made sense, as he was starting from scratch. I feel GAM colors are the "flashiest," as well as having the sexiest names, like G195 Nymph Pink, G888 Blue Belle, and G985 Ripe Plum. Three of Roscolux's sexiest colors are what I call the "ego" colors: X336 Billington Pink, X39 Skelton Exotic Sangria, and X349 Fisher Fuchsia. Do the designers, or Tom Skelton's estate, get a royalty whenever these colors are sold?

No offense to Apollo Gel implied, but it took me 10 years to accept GAM, and I still only use a few of those colors, not available in Lee or Roscolux.  The Apollo Numbering System is even more clearly laid out than GAM’s.  All colors are four digits, and based on the visible spectrum: AP8320 is a primary red, AP5300 is primary green, and AP4200 is a primary blue.  Apollo is cleverly positioning their color toward educational facilities.  The spectral layout is easy for professors to teach and grade, and once the kiddies get all the numbers and colors memorized in their impressionable minds, what brand do you think they’ll specify when they grow up to be Lighting Designers?  Nothing wrong with that—it’s how I was indoctrinated, via Cinemoid, into Lee Filters.

For a .PDF of an Excel conversion chart of Lux to Lee & GAM, and maybe eventually Apollo, click here.
For the actual Excel file, so you can sort other ways, email me.

Here’s a link to another “History of Gel,” from which some of the above information was gleaned.  Does anyone out there want to translate it from German to English?


Hope this helps. As I've said before, I have a fetish for "modern" stage lighting history.