Movies and Film: A Condensed History of Color

A Condensed History of Color

Probably the most important fact to remember is that, though early on, most movies were shot on black-and-white film stock, it was always possible to manipulate that celluloid to create color; color film has been around almost as long as moving pictures. Photographers in the nineteenth century had been retouching their black-and-white portraits and landscapes to make them look more realistic. (Though the effect could actually be rather surreal.) So within a very short time after the invention of cinema, filmmakers started retouching their own film stock.

The various schemes for injecting pigment into the picture before the introduction of Technicolor include

  • Hand-coloring each frame.
  • Stenciling.
  • Tinting.
  • Toning.

Coloring in the Lines: Hand-Coloring

Hand-coloring was the earliest kind of film shading. Unbelievably, it was done precisely as the name implies. Painters colored each part of each frame of each copy of the reel by hand. This labor-intensive technology was only possible because the earliest films were very short, only several hundred feet in celluloid length. Very high quality early films, like the fantasy productions of Georges Mlis, might have this extra attention lavished on them.

Coloring in the Lines: Stenciling

Used in such landmark films as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), stenciling was markedly easier than hand-coloring, though still very labor-intensive. Primarily used by the French Path company and marketed as PathColor, it involved etching glass plates with the outline of the main photographic shapes, and then using these plates as master stencils, that covered portions of the film so that colored dye could be applied to appropriate sectors of each frame.

Totally Tinted

Perhaps the most common coloring technique was tinting. This relatively inexpensive way of producing color in the film stock involved dyeing the entire frame of a shot or sequence to match the shot's mood or activity: a yellowish-sepia for a lantern-lit cabin, a lurid red for the flames of battle or hell, dark blue for night, and so on. This technique was used from very early on—in films like The Great Train Robbery (1903)—until relatively late, in productions like Portrait of Jennie (1948).

Killer Color: The Technicolor Solution

Director's Cut

Becky Sharp (1935) was the first full-length feature Technicolor film.

By 1929 there were more than 20 companies holding color patents. Most of these methods, however, were very expensive because they tended to be extremely labor-intensive, requiring many workers in what amounted to an assembly line factory, painting each frame of each film—or portion of film—that was colored. And the results were not as natural as audiences and the industry desired.

Technicolor had been invented and reinvented since 1916, when Herbert Kalmus cofounded the Technicolor Corporation. It was an unusual company in the Hollywood scene because, though a major player in the film industry, it was not (except very early in its career) a studio but an engineering firm. Except for some very early experiments it did not make films but hired out its technology and technicians. The Technicolor Corporation went through a two-strip additive process (mixing two colors on the screen for an approximation of the spectrum), and finally, in the 1930s, a three-strip subtractive process that required a very expensive and temperamental camera through which three strips of film ran simultaneously, each emphasizing a different color of the spectrum.

Filmophile's Lexicon

The additive color process mixes colors on the screen's surface itself, rather than dyeing the film strip.

The subtractive color process involves dyeing the film itself, subtracting some color from each of two or three strips of film that, when projected simultaneously, mix to give a wider and more naturalistic experience of color. This was the final form classic Technicolor took.

Technicolor is the technology behind the classic color films like Gone With the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and An American in Paris (1951). But though representing the spectrum, Technicolor was not often used to represent "natural" colors. It was a world of heightened colors: the fantasy world of Oz, the romance world of Gone With the Wind, the cartoon world of Disney.

Director's Cut

There's a very odd political/aesthetic pairing between subject and technique in the early history of film color because early Technicolor experiments often involved "peoples of color" in films like La Cucaracha (1934). Almost all the landmark Technicolor features (or features With Technicolor sequences) are connected to race and/or ethnicity: Ben-Hur (1959), Gone with the Wind, The Godfather Part II (1974, the last film to use Technicolor for several years), The Three Caballeros (animation, 1945), Song of the South (1946), Showboat (1951), and Black Narcissus (1947). Possibly racist, all of these films certainly "Orientalized" the people they photographed.

Post-Technicolor Technologies

Though the results of Technicolor were spectacular, and added considerably to the production value of a film, it was a cumbersome and expensive technology. Further, the Technicolor Corporation insisted that a Technicolor expert be present in the filmmaking process, determining color schemes and so heavily affecting the look of a film. The co-inventor's wife, Natalie Kalmus, was often used as this expert, and was sometimes seen as an unwanted kibitzer.

Short Cuts

We are making it sound as if color film stock was strictly an American affair. But other countries were originating color technology as well. Germany had Agfacolor, while Britain and Belgium had Gasparcolor, for example.

So, after Technicolor's supremacy in the 1930s and the 1940s, other companies came forward with easier technologies. By the 1950s, Eastman Color's "monopack" color film contained all color on one strip of celluloid, a much less cumbersome technology than Technicolor's three-strip process. In part because of Eastman Color technology, and in part because of some government trust-busting of Eastman and Technicolor in the 1940s, a host of other color companies emerged, beginning in the 1950s: DeLuxe, TruColor, and Warner Color, for example. In fact, Technicolor went unused for several years in the 1960s, until resurrected in a spectacular manner by Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather (1972).

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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