Originally published at suite101.com on 03/11/08 – now hosted at Xomba.
The image of silent cinema as a purely black and white affair is largely a misconception; from the turn of the century experiments in colour were common occurrences.
To most of the cinema-going public, if they consider it at all, colour is a distinctly post-war phenomenon. Yet before the studio system had finished getting its claws entirely into Hollywood a whole variety of experimental colour techniques had fallen in and out of favour with filmmakers across Europe and America.
Black and white predominated cinema during the late twenties, thirties and early forties for the same reason that black and white dominated the budget and start up end of the market until the advent of cheap digital technology. Making films in black and white was simply much cheaper. For many studios colour was too expensive to be used for anything other than epics and special event features.
For much of the early years of cinema the ideal that so many aimed for was to give their moving images natural colours and natural sounds. It had after all been the creation of the ‘Magic Lantern’, which had first allowed practical experiments in still colour photography during the 1860s. (Steve Neale, p112, Cinema and Technology: Image, Sound, Colour 1985)
Hand Painting and Stencilling
From the earliest years of the century filmmakers seeking to push the boundaries of the new medium experimented with colour. Much of George Meliès work along with most other early experimental colour films were hand painted individually. Despite the time-consuming nature of the method, the cheapness of labour allowed it to be sustained for longer than would be imagined.
Stencilling techniques, pioneered by Pathé – thus known as Pathécolor – and later improved upon by the Handschiegel process thanks to a St Louis engraver of the same name, allowed for a more industrialised production of colour films. The technique reached its peak in the nineteen teens but still remained in use into the early 1930s. (Steve Neale, p116, Cinema and Technology: Image, Sound, Colour 1985)
Tinting and Toning
Tinting and toning became the dominant method of colouring films for quite some time, due to their lending themselves to true mass production. Some of the techniques employed to this end were even developed specifically to allow colour to be applied to film in a quicker and cheaper manner than those that preceded it.
Although this method limited the colours to turning the whole image one shade, the advantage of opening up colour to film-makers unable to afford or unskilled enough to manage the more finicky techniques that came before. This technique only really fell into disuse with the coming of sound, as the process damaged the parts of the film cells used to record sound.
Additives and Technicolor Rainbows
In the meantime a variety of techniques were being experimented with, in an attempt to create truly ‘natural’ colour. Kinemacolor, Chronochrome, Prizmacolor and Sodachrome to name but a few of the techniques. However, these techniques never really took off due perhaps to their additive nature, which meant that they involved adding colour, and hence involved additions to either the camera, the projector or both.
The early Technicolor experiments ran into similar problems, before finding success with a subtractive process, which unlike tinting and toning, did not affect the sound. The increased durability of the new film led to a boom in demand. Although this was quickly followed by the depression, however, they were able to improve their technique considerably in the interim. Re-emerging with an improved system into an industry that it would dominate for a considerable time to come.