Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema


Presented at SFSFF 2016
Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin

Essay by Fritzi Kramer

“Old black-and-white movies” is a phrase that trips easily off the tongue but, like many common beliefs about silent cinema, it is inaccurate. Color has accompanied motion pictures since the beginning with some of the earliest public screenings featuring hand-colored films in their programs. Because of the low survival rate of silent films in general and the tendency of chemical colors to fade, it is impossible to say exactly how many silent-era motion pictures came in color. Film color historian Joshua Yumibe studied a collection of film fragments that were mostly dated between 1908 and 1912 and discovered that seventy-four percent of the titles contained some degree of color, twelve percent with hand- or stencil color and the rest tinted or toned.

Photographic color, which coauthor of the recently published book Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema Tom Gunning describes as “a chemical and optical process by which colors of things are captured (with varying degrees of accuracy) onto film,” is familiar, common, and expected in modern film but applied color techniques of the silent era remain unfamiliar to many modern cinemagoers. Tinting, toning, hand-coloring, and stencil color were used to varying degrees throughout the silent era and the resulting images have a charm and beauty all their own, like watercolor illustrations breathed miraculously to life.

There were many intriguing color techniques in the silent era but early cinema was particularly notable for its hand-coloring and stencil processes. Adding color to particular parts of the frame by hand required considerable time and effort. Pigments were applied directly to the film with fine brushes, some only consisting of a single hair, and care was required to ensure an even layer of color that stayed reasonably within the lines of the object being colored. Les Parisiennes (1897) is a particularly fine example of this dainty precision with color following the dresses, ruffles, feathers, and ribbons that bedeck a quartet of dancers. As Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema puts it: “Frozen as a still image, one can see the ways in which the delicate strokes of the blended, hand-colored hues add depth and material volume to the film.”

While the process of hand-coloring nitrate film was neither fast nor cheap, it remained in high demand. Motion picture exhibitors placed colored films as their top-billed entertainment and distributors could command up to double the price for colored titles in comparison to black-and-white. For exhibitors who wished to offer hand-colored films but balked at the price, Edison’s motion picture company offered discounted prints with only partial color.

Because of the then-current notion that women were more sensitive to color and that they were better suited to delicate work, the majority of colorists were women. In France, Elisabeth Thuillier was one of the most successful and renowned in the world of applied color and she later recalled that she spent her nights selecting shades for the motion pictures that were sent to her—her clients included Georges Méliès—and spent her days overseeing a staff of more than two hundred colorists. The labor was divided by color and Thuillier claimed that it was not unusual to exceed twenty colors in a single film.

Films grew longer as the 1900s wore on but hand-coloring remained as labor intensive as ever; a colorist could add pigment to approximately two hundred feet of film a week and each release print of a motion picture had to be colored individually. With the demand for hand-colored films far exceeding supply, industrialization was inevitable. Already noted for their mastery of hand-coloring, French film companies embraced a newer, faster, cheaper, and more uniform method of adding color to motion pictures: the stencil process. Pathé Frères, the company most associated with stencil-color, began its experiments with the procedure in 1903 and found such success that it was able to expand its facilities and double its colorist workforce during 1906.
Workers cut a particular portion of a film cell (the outline of a character’s hat, for example); they repeated this process for the entire scene and the film was then used as a stencil. The earliest stencils were cut with scalpels and the colors were hand-applied by brush, but Pathé quickly upgraded to precision stencil-cutting machines and mechanical dye applicators. The initial cutting required time, skill, and a practiced hand but it allowed for comparatively rapid reproduction once the stencil was ready. Hand-coloring was still used but much less often after the mid-1900s.

While hand-color and stencil-color remained crowd-pleasers, tinting and toning, also introduced in the 1890s, struck a balance between artistry and thrift and as a result were the most popular methods for coloring films during the silent era. Tinting colors the “whites” of the film while toning colors the darker parts of the frame, and the two methods could be used together for a luscious dual color effect. Tinting and toning could also be combined with hand-colored, stencil-colored, or Technicolor sequences for dramatic or artistic effect.

Stencil color is most often associated with films of the pre-feature and early feature eras but there were some artistic triumphs in the later silent era, such as the all-color Cyrano de Bergerac (1925), which had its color application overseen by Mme. Thuillier.

Applied color could result in a raucous riot of hues, bold, brash, and delightful. However, there was also a subtle side to applied color with dainty floral shades and tasteful combinations. Colors could attempt realism, as is the case with the verdant hues of Bout-de-Zan et le crocodile (1913), or head in a more fanciful or dramatic direction, sculpting the audience’s emotional response. Alfred Machin’s 1912 film De Molens die juichen en weenen is on the more dramatic side with painterly swirls of indigo and candy pink for the sky and then a burst of angry red tinting for the climactic fire. In contrast, the red tint in Buona sera fiori! (1909) is cheery and suits the lively stop-motion flowers as they fly about spelling messages and creating proto-emojis. Segundo de Chomón’s celluloid magic show Le Roi des dollars (1905) contents itself with simplicity and realism: yellow for the illusionist’s sleeve, metallic tones for the coins, and a tan shade for his hands. His Voyage sur Jupiter by comparison owned its science-fiction premise with a fully textured world of multi-hued stars, variegated pastel landscapes, and violent puffs of poppy-colored smoke and flame.

Whether bold, elegant, or some combination, these applied colors remain as much an attraction for modern viewers as they were for the audiences who were present at the birth of the movies.

Les Tulipes (The Tulips)
Directed by Segundo de Chomón, France, 1907

L’Album merveilleux (The Wonderful Book)
Directed by Gaston Velle, France, 1905

Bout-de-Zan et le crocodile (Bout-de-Zan and the Crocodile)
Directed by Louis Feuillade, France, 1913

Le Charmeur (The Charmer)
Directed by Segundo de Chomón, France, 1906

Coiffes Hollandaises (Dutch Types)
Director unknown, France, 1915

De Molens die juichen en weenen (Mills and Joy in Sorrow)
Directed by Alfred Machin, The Netherlands, 1912

Danses Algériennes I: Danse des Ouled-Naïl (Algerian Dances)
Director unknown, France, 1902

Visions d’art: 3. La Fée aux étoiles (The Fairy of the Stars)
Director unknown, France, 1902

L’Obsession d’or (The Golden Obsession)
Directed by Segundo de Chomón, France, 1906

Les Parisiennes (The Parisians)
Director unknown, USA, 1897

La Peine du talion (The Penalty of Retaliation)
Directed by Segundo do Chomón, France, 1906

Les Six soeurs Dainef (The Six Sisters Dainef)
Director unknown, France, 1902

Le Voyage sur Jupiter (A Trip to Jupiter)
Directed by Segundo de Chomón, France, 1909

Le Roi des dollars (The King of Dollars)
Directed by Segundo de Chomón, France, 1905

Buona sera fiori! (Good Evening Flowers!)
Directed by Giovanni Vitrotti, Italy, 1909

All films from the EYE Filmmuseum in The Netherlands