The Color of Silents

Special piece for A Day of Silents 2015
by Shari Kizirian

The moment in 1939 when Dorothy Gale steps out of her monochromatic, tornado-tossed house into Oz’s richly saturated Technicolor world, her jumper transformed from checkered drab to blue gingham, her pigtails, cheeks, and lips taking on shades of red, is the moment most moviegoers associate with the beginning of color in the movies. But they are off—by four decades.

For the first color in a film you have to travel back into the silent era, pass by 1922’s The Toll of the Sea (starring Anna May Wong), for which the six-year-old Technicolor Corporation had licked a projection problem, but not the “blue” problem. Then further still, past 1919’s gel-lighting projection system patented by D.W. Griffith for Broken Blossoms and the Handschiegl coloring process, which debuted in 1917 with the burning-at-the stake scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman.

For color’s cinematic debut, you have to go all the way back to that famous night when the Lumière brothers demonstrated their Cinématographe at the Grand Café in December 1895. Among the actualities on the program, at least one, The Blacksmiths, is known to have been hand-colored, frame by frame, for its brief but entire duration. Whether or not it was in color that night is unknown, but some films surely were, as according to one account: “[Y]ou see them again natural size, in color, with perspective, distance, skies, houses, with a perfect illusion of real life.”
Less than a year later, in May 1896, actors May Irwin and John Rice appeared on a New York screen courtesy of Thomas Edison’s competing invention, to re-create the intimate kiss from their current stage play The Widow Jones, she wearing pink, he sporting a deep-blue suit jacket. The New York Times reported in its next edition: “Edison’s Vitascope has made a sensation at Koster and Bial’s, and promises to remain for a long time on the bill. It showed its pictures in colors last night, and was applauded vigorously….”

That more of us aren’t aware of cinema’s colorful origins is the result of a pragmatic approach to film preservation. In the introduction to Joshua Yumibe’s Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism, Paolo Cherchi Usai explains: “The cost of color film stock was prohibitive, and there was not enough money to deal with the staggering amount of nitrate prints to be saved. Moreover, there was an acute awareness that modern color negatives and prints were subject to irreversible fading, while black and white preservation material had a better chance to remain relatively intact … Make no mistake: if early films hadn’t been saved without color, there wouldn’t be so many of them available.”

It’s hard to find a better example of what we’ve been missing than Georges Méliès’s iconic A Trip to the Moon (1902), restored to glorious color in 2010 thanks to digital technologies. The columns in the grand hall of the debating scientists are gilt in gold and each man wears a suit of a different color, making differences in fabric visible, helping to transform the mass of old men into distinctive characters. The mushrooms are more alluring, the lunar demons more menacing in red, and the celebration at the end is much more celebratory with multicolored banners. Consider also what happens to the poor Moon when the spaceship makes its squishy landing. In black and white, that ooze was always a kind of soft-cheese joke to me. But in color, these men have hurt the Moon; they’ve drawn blood.

During production Méliès found that he could only shoot on sets in shades of gray, which paints a drab picture of life inside his glass studio. “Colored sets come out very badly. Blue becomes white, reds, greens and yellows become black; a complete destruction of the effect ensues,” the pioneer explained in a 1907 article. He outsourced the tedious work of adding color to his films, in part, to Elisabeth Thuillier whose thriving Paris business employed two hundred workers and, when the area was small enough, used paintbrushes of a single horse hair.

French studio Pathé, through technical wizard Segundo de Chomón, had refined a more industrial but no less painstaking method by cutting stencils for each color to be applied. But, by 1912, films were getting longer, rendering hand- and stencil-coloring unfeasible. Tinting and toning prints became the norm, like the sepia-saturated parts of Wizard of Oz—the early scenes on the farm, the singing of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and the tornado sequence. Toning is color added to the darker parts of a print’s emulsion and was often done in combination with tinting, dousing sections of a print in a bath of browns, reds, blues, greens, or yellows. While a film like Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) would certainly still be effective in black and white, Mauritz Stiller’s ice-entombed world seems somehow colder and more forbidding in blue. From the short puppet film The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) to the feature-length narrative The Birth of a Nation and from Louis Feuillade’s spooky serial Fantômas to the 1927 mystery thriller The Cat and the Canary, color had become so standard that manufacturers marketed pre-tinted film stocks. Yet the holy grail for color was always what is called “natural” photography—capturing a full palette of color in-camera like Technicolor first used in 1932’s Flowers and Trees and made indelible in The Wizard of Oz.

The American company was not the only one experimenting and a recent discovery reveals how close movies came to having color cinematography all along. Surviving footage from a set of 1902 films by London photographer Edward Raymond Turner shows Turner’s three children in the garden of their home in Hounslow, jousting with sunflowers, goldfish swimming in a fishbowl, in all their four-color glory. In 2013, archivists uncovered the footage (and notes for the process) and proved Turner’s system, patented in 1899, would have worked at the time had he lived long enough to see it through.

This article is condensed from the original published in 2013 by Keyframe, Fandor’s online movie magazine.