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Color in Movies: A Brief History

“Black and white movies allow you to focus on what’s going on in the story more clearly.” -Robert Osborne on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast

After making that statement, Osborne and Gottfried went on to have a further discussion (which can be heard in full here) about the benefits of black and white films over color. In addition, they also talked about how colorization of black and white films, particularly noir films that were meant to be dark, greatly hurt them.

Black and white films still serve as a stylistic choice for some directors, albeit on a very rare basis. Just within the last few years, The Artist (also a silent film) won best picture, and Nebraska won critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations. The latter film being shot in black and white was met with much resistance, however. Director Alexander Payne had to shoot it in color and change to black and white in post-production, as the studio wasn’t convinced it was the right move.

That a studio would want color over black and white should not come as a surprise, especially given the history of color in film. From practically the very beginning of film, even before sound existed, the film industry was working to put color into films.

As 1900 began, landmark films in terms of plot and camera work were emerging. Some of those same films also were among the first to put color into films. A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery are two of the earliest examples of hand coloring, which is exactly like it sounds–people hand coloring the film frame-by-frame. As this was a undoubtedly a long and tedious process, it wasn’t used by everyone and was often used only in select moments. In The Great Train Robbery only used this in select scenes:

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On the other hand, Meliès went all out for A Trip to the Moon, employing several people to make very detailed hand coloring:

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But were either one of those the first? No. At least one film predates both of them, Cyrano de Bergerac, from 1900. Clocking in at just over two minutes, it’s not only hand colored but also featured sound on cylinder as well. Because of this fact, it may be the first film to feature both sound and color. It wasn’t released in the United States until eight years later, without the soundtrack.

A much more common practice was color tinting, the monochromatic dying of the print to a certain color. Use of this carried on into talkies, and it was effective for situations like night scenes:

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All the while, more attempts were made to create color, some of them not successfully. Kinemacolor was one of the successes, and was actually the first color process used successfully (outside of tinting and hand coloring). This process didn’t require anything new to be done with the film itself. The films were just projected between green and red filters. This required the projectors to be specially altered, which ended up being the main reason for it not being used wider. If the two filters didn’t match up correctly, it led to a haloing effect, another drawback to the process. It’s success largely came in England, where nearly 300 theaters were equipped with the correct projectors. 54 films total were produced in England, with only four made in the US. DW Griffith later bought out the Hollywood studio of the company. The company’s run ended up being from 1908 to 1914.

At the same time Kinemacolor was coming to a close, Prizma Color used mostly the same principles starting in 1913. By 1918, that was abandoned for a new process– filming two strips side by side, one green and one red. The two were then printed together. While this eliminated the halo problem, a seam was always present since strips were filmed side by side. The technology did have some success and was used in a few pictures. By the time it sued Technicolor in 1922 for using the same technology, their output was slowing down. They lost the lawsuit, and only produced a couple more films after that.

Technicolor, the name synonymous with color technology, was indeed exploring similar types of methods for creating color. Process 1 was essentially the same as Kinemacolor, two filters on a specially made projector. Only one film was made this way before they abandoned it.

Process 2 worked on some of the same principles as the Prizma Color process, which ended up being the subject of the lawsuit. The Technicolor camera eliminated the seam Prizma had, but had it’s own problem the two sides of the print often not being in focus together. The prints were also more easily damaged by cupping, parts of the film bulging out after repeated use. Still, the process was commercially successful and was used in such major films as the 1925 Phantom of the Opera:

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Process 3, debuted in 1928, was made to fix those problems. It used a dye transfer process, dying the red print green and the green print red. This eliminated the focus problems of the two separate strips and proved to be popular with audiences. But with only those two strips, the full colors of the spectrum couldn’t be shown.

As part of budget cuts, less color films were produced as the 1930s began. But that was soon to change, as Technicolor debuted a new camera to show all the colors, process 4. Using a beam splitter to control the light as well as several filters, this was the advancement that brought more full scale color as the decades wore on.

Technicolor held the monopoly on color for many a year, until Eastman Kodak presented an easier way in 1950. A dye transfer process was still required by Technicolor, which involved sending the negatives to the company and cost a lot of money. Eastman didn’t require that, which spelled the end of the dye transfer process and eventually Technicolor.

So yes, the process to color was indeed a long journey. But each new technological advancement helped bring about the color we see in classic films.

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5 responses to “Color in Movies: A Brief History

  1. What a great read! Can you talk about 3D next, please?

  2. What an amazing read. Thank you. You know I’ve always thought that black and white was unnatural. In that, most of us, see in color. It heightens and lessens our senses. The shadows and spaces with light are highlighted more. I like black and white, but I miss the colors of the costumes. When you see a photo of an old black and white movie set, it’s heartbreaking how many hours went into sewing such amazing costumes and the lush colors, and all we got to see was tinges of gray and black.

  3. V.E.G. ⋅

    There are only a few Prizma Color films exist today.

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