Color in Early Motion Pictures

By Mussehl, Allan A | American Cinematographer, December 1984 | Go to article overview

Color in Early Motion Pictures


Mussehl, Allan A, American Cinematographer


Almost from the beginning of the film industry, entrepreneurs (possibly driven by the desire to entice more patrons; possibly because, like the mountain, it was there) had tried to "artificially" color films. In his monograph entitled, "The First Colour Motion Pictures," D.B. Thomas dates the evolution of hand applied color to 1896. This is obviously incorrect, however, since the Library of Congress has a print of Annabelle's Dance (1894) which pre-dates this by over a year. From this print we know that Edison used hand painted films in his Kinetoscope almost from its very inception. (The first color print of Annabelle's Dance I ever saw was a hand painted print in a Kinetoscope at the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.)

Coloring of this type was done by literally painting each frame of a film by hand. An average film length was about 50 feet (lasting about the same number of seconds) and contained approximately 700 frames. Women brush artists were employed for this work; each applied only a single color. Since films were sold outright to exhibitors during these early years, and since this hand application involved more labor, thus more expense to the producer/distributor, there was an additional per foot charge for these films. As long as the length of the film remained relatively short, this was not an unmanageable process.

The print of Annabelle's Dance shows her white dress hand-painted in half a dozen colors in an attempt to simulate the effects of colored lights, "which played over her body during her stage performance." As film lengths expanded, hand-painting became an impractical means of coloring whole films and other means were devised. Hand-painting was not immediately abandoned, however. As late as 1922 Cecil B. de Mille had a red heart painted in his Fool's Paradise; in 1925 Eisenstein had a flag painted red and the sky painted blue in a sequence of Potemkin. For all practical purposes, though, the technique was replaced shortly after the turn of the century and had almost been totally replaced by the early teens.

By 1907 we see the advent of longer films and the need for a less expensive and a faster coloring process. Changes in the film industry itself saw the rise in the number of theaters and an increase in the total number of prints needed of each film. The process that was developed to replace hand-painting was called "tinting" and was originally done by the immersion of the developed black and white stock into a dye bath. The gelatin base of the emulsion uniformly absorbed the dye coloring solution and the result was a film that, when projected, gave off a monochromatic image. Thus a sunrise could be tinted yellow, a sunset yellow-orange, evening scenes blue, interiors (generally) sepia, lush meadows or forest scenes green, etc. These colors corresponded to "natural" phenomena. There were tints available that corresponded to no natural phenomena, too. These were used for their startling or humorous application. Thus, green might show up in an interior to correspond to a title, "She was green with envy." A similar use might have red appearing in the exterior corresponding to a title, "The streets ran red with blood." Early filmmakers were quite ingenius in the use of these colors. Generally speaking, the use of tinting has historically been linked with the creation of a particular mood within a sequence of film. This was later bastardized to a process whereby certain black and white films were merely projected in a solid tint - usually sepia.

The process of dye tinting is still used. In a guide published in 1979 entitled "A Guide for Processing Black and White Motion Picture Films," the Eastman Kodak Company lists ten colors that can still be created in this manner: (Red-Crocein Scarlet Extra; Orange-Crocein Scarlet Flesh Tint; Amber-Sepia Brown ##36645; Dark Amber-Flesh Tint #476796; Yellow-Deep Yellow #34795; Light Yellow-Light Yellow #34796; Green-Deep Green #1376-#2 Concentration; Blue-Anthraquinone Blue 3G; Cyan-Acid Blue #43270; Violet-Pontacyl Violet HBL). …

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