The origins of colour in cinema

Regarding the screening on February 28th, 2021

Oriol Sánchez
Alfred Machin

The first film screenings unsettled their audiences because their moving images were so realistic. The strangeness of their sombre, grey monotony - of a reality stripped of its spectrum of colours - was particularity highlighted in testimonies of the time. But cinema never wanted to be black and white.1 Right from the very start, in order to remedy this deficiency, various non-photographic methods of applying colour were developed: tinting, toning, hand-colouring and stencilling.

At that time, industrialised societies were beginning to be overwhelmed by colour. Synthetically produced aniline dyes were a novelty which, due to modern mechanical reproduction techniques, enabled colour to be introduced as a complement to all kinds of commercial and industrial products. As Joshua Yumibe notes in Techniques of the Fantastic, "the new coloured products transformed the late 19th and early 20th centuries, making the world seem like a wonderful dream".2 Textile mills used mass dyeing for their garments, publishers used chromolithography to illustrate the covers of their books, comics and magazines, photographs were illuminated with dyes and popular entertainment shows - the magic lantern, pyrotechnics, the féerie or circus - exploited colour as a means of attraction. And it was within this context of the transformation of perception that cinema emerged.

Very early on, with an initial concern to create more realistic images, the major film companies - American and French - such as the Edison Manufacturing Company, Gaumont and Pathé Frères, adapted the colouring technique used by magic lantern shows. Between 1895 and 1905, many black and white (orthochromatic) films based on exotic, historical or fantasy-related genres, filmed using a static camera, theatrical stage and front-on setting, were coloured by hand, frame by frame, by applying aniline dyes to the surface of the emulsion. In general, between one and six different dyes were used on a single 35 mm frame. With very fine brushes, only those elements of the image that were to be highlighted were coloured in, such as a blue sky, the yellow smoke of an explosion or a large red flame, while the rest was left in grey. This operation was repeated for each frame in the shot. The process was time-consuming and costly and the application of the paint required precision to keep the brushstrokes uniform and prevent the dye from splashing or going outside the object to be coloured, a frequent imperfection which, when the film is projected, is seen as a vibrating, unstable chromatic movement. As Tom Gunning points out in "Colorful Metaphors: the Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema", in most cases colour "possessed a realistic motivation, even if it lacked truly realistic results".3 The bright, vivid, pure colours added to these films appear unnatural, more intense than in reality, seeming to come out of the screen and detach themselves from objects. As a result, colour is experienced as an independent entity in itself; rather than a feature of a specific object, it's an effect that serves to make an impact on the audience, holding their gaze and inciting fantasy. In Serpentine Dance (1895) by Edison Manufacturing Co., the applied colour is used in a spectacular way, mutating as the dancer shakes her dress hypnotically, evoking the multiple lighting effects that were projected onto the undulating skirt of the dancer Loïe Fuller, where "colour appears as a sensual presence" that's "exhibited as an attraction in itself".4

Colour as an attraction also played an important role in films using tricks and transformations such as those of George Méliès and Segundo de Chomón. These productions, resulting from an incessant exploration of the illusionist prodigies of the cinematographic apparatus, "seem to see colour as an additional element of magic and fascination".5 In Méliès' Le chaudron infernal (1903), the painted details of the actions of diabolical characters, who capture women to cook them in a cauldron, hybridise with the grey image and interact with the film's mise-en-scène, tricks, pace and plot. The power of "this added intensity opened up the possibility of colour being used as a signifier of fantasy or a metaphor".6

Cinema as an attraction emerged in large metropolitan areas as part of the popular culture of the time. It was spread by itinerant exhibitors who travelled with their projectors from town to town. Moving images were one of the main attractions of cabarets, vaudeville, circuses, music halls and cafés and formed part of different acts, such as magic, hypnotism, tightrope walking and acrobatics, and even complemented X-ray demonstrations. The visual power so characteristic of the "cinema of attractions" was aimed a proletarian audience directly and almost "aggressively", subjecting them to perceptual shocks. Hand-coloured films were enthusiastically received by the masses - children, women, workers, immigrants - while they were despised by the aristocratic and bourgeois elite, who perceived animated colour as a threat to civilisation, something "wild", excessive and uncontrollable.

Gradually, as the film industry consolidated, films became longer and took on a more narrative form. The process of colouring by hand - slow, imprecise, extremely expensive and limited to a small number of single prints - became untenable. Yet colour had become an indispensable condition for any screening and the big companies had to implement a different technique - faster, more accurate and cost-effective - to cope with public demand and keep up with an expanding business around the world.

In 1903, a more agile technique started to be adopted: stencilling, a colouring system based on the use of templates.7 These stencils were created from positive black and white copies of the film to be coloured. The process consisted of cutting out by hand - with a scalpel - a particular figure from the image in each of the frames. All the gelatine was then removed from the emulsion and the film was left completely transparent. The stencil thus obtained was placed on top of the strip of film to be coloured and the aniline was applied with brushes or sponges - through the holes in the mask - to the surface of the image. This process was repeated in different areas of the picture, with three to seven different stencils being made, one for each colour. After completion, the masks could be used several times to colour other copies, saving time and labour. Early attempts were somewhat crude and the results were similar to hand-colouring but the technical quality gradually improved with a consequent increase in production. This process was used, with minor differences, by Segundo de Chomón (Cinemacoloris)8 and large companies such as Gaumont, Ambrosio, Cines and, above all, the prestigious Pathé Frères.

In 1906, Pathé's technical unit introduced a mechanical stencil process, Pathécolor. It was the French engineer, Jean Méry, who invented a cutting system based on the pantograph (1907) and a colouring machine based on the mechanical cutting of stencils (1908). These devices were gradually modified and optimised up until 1927. The colouring process was carried out in an independent workshop run by Madame Thuillier, located in the Pathé studios in Vincennes (Paris). Several hundred women skilfully operated the cutting machines and applied the inks, ensuring absolute sharpness in the recording of the image, stencil and copy.

Between 1907 and 1917, in the transition between the so-called "cinema of attractions" and the "golden age" of silent movies, films began to be shown as entertainment in permanent cinemas set up in large cities. Colour images became an important promotional factor. Producers and exhibitors alike strove to attract more audiences, seeking to include the "respectable and disciplined" bourgeois clientele. This required a different kind of film, a different kind of colour, purified of any "offensive" elements. Nicola Mazzanti, in "Colours, Audiences, and (Dis)Continuity in the 'Cinema of the Second Period'",9 explains how, in line with the "taste" of the dominant classes, colour was "tamed", making it less "aggressive". Pathécolor changed its approach, orienting the palette towards pastels and aiming for a more natural effect. The more sophisticated mechanical process made it possible to colour more dynamic scenes, both in fiction films (historical dramas and literary adaptations) and non-fiction films (travelogues, phantom rides, news and scientific films), achieving an aesthetic effect that was pleasing to the eye and close to realism. In fact, in 1910 Pathé Frères advertised its system as the perfect interpretation of the colours of nature: "The foliage possesses all the shades of green; the skies are rendered with astonishing precision; the sunsets glow as in reality itself".10

This illusion of perceiving "natural colour" can be found, for example, in Alfred Machin's Chasse à la panthère (1909), where we see the exotic landscape of the African jungle with almost no area of the image left uncoloured, even the skin of the natives appears to be painted brown;11 however, we don't see the red blood of the panther sacrificed by the white settlers. Pathécolor's carefully applied colours play with ambiguity. "Realism is feigned"12 says Mazzanti, "its strength, its fascination and its interest lie in the slight and sometimes imperceptible displacement between the real and the figurative".13 "Natural colour in cinema is, of course, ontologically and technically impossible, and this is also what makes it interesting and enables cinema to use colour as a language, [...] when its use becomes complex and conscious enough to exploit its unnatural component, it becomes an effective narrative and figurative device".14

Mechanical stencilling was also developed on films tinted and toned in different shades, thereby increasing their aesthetic and creative possibilities. All this can be seen in Alfred Machin's Maudite soit la guerre (1914), a highly plastic, pacifist melodrama made before the First World War that anticipates and criticises the war. This film was ambitious in its attempt to demonstrate visually what colour could bring to cinema at the time. Most of the time, the stencil is delicately applied in perfect interaction with the other processes. Its chromatic composition is built around a contrast of atmospheres: the (stencilled) pastel tones, used in scenes of everyday life, take on a naturalistic tone, while the red monochrome (tinted and toned), where the colour is saturated, bursts out of the battle scenes. These chromatic effects form part of the narrative and increase the dramatic tension of the film, that of a love devastated by war.

Between 1918 and 1927, the Pathécolor system, renamed Pathéchrome, reached the heights of colour treatment on the eve of cinema's transition to talkies. Although used less frequently, the stencil process was reserved for special films. In fact, major productions such as Auguste Genina's Cyrano de Bergerac (1925) and Alexandre Volkoff's Casanova (1927) illustrate well the virtuosity and high degree of technical and artistic perfection achieved by combining different methods of applying colour. In Cyrano it took three years to stencil the entire film, under the direct supervision of the indefatigable Madame Thuillier and the expert hand of anonymous women. Here, the colour is not intended to be naturalistic but to enhance, as does the music, the mood of the story, to convey the impression of a living fresco or watercolour through the use of soft shades and textures of great sensuality. In Casanova, for example, the mechanical stencil is used in the night sequence of the Venice carnival to embellish all the details of the scene. Thanks to colour, we can make out the geometric figures on the fabrics and other ornaments, appreciate the "flesh tones", i.e. the white skin of the characters, and appreciate the moving reflections of the fireworks on the water. However, despite the perfection, the visual magnificence, the dreams fulfilled and hard-won reputation, the Pathé system was doomed to fail. In 1927, with the advent of colour film stock and talkies, the Vincennes colour workshop closed down forever.

Oriol Sánchez


[1] All photographic images that can be obtained by means of photochemical technology are, at least initially, black and white. The image-forming material is silver, which reacts on being exposed to light; the exposed parts blacken while shaded parts remain unchanged and clear. Captured with a camera obscura, the latent images are fixed onto an emulsion coating a transparent film, containing a thin layer of gelatine with the photosensitive material. After the film has been developed with chemicals, a negative image is produced which requires further processing to invert the image and achieve a positive copy of reality in terms of light and shade.

[2] Yumibe, Joshua (2015). "Techniques of the Fantastic". In: Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe, Giovanna Fossati and Jonathon Rosen (ed. ). Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema. EYE Filmmuseum and Amsterdam University Press, pp.  29-39.

[3] Gunning, Tom (1994). "Colorful Metaphors: the Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema". In: Fotogenia, 1, pp.  249-255.

[4] Idem.

[5] Minguet Batllori, Joan M. (2010). Segundo de Chomón. El cine de la fascinación. Barcelona: Generalitat de Catalunya.

[6] Gunning, Tom, idem.

[7] In French, pochoir.

[8] In 1911, Segundo de Chomón opened a workshop in Barcelona for colouring film using a manual stencil cutting system he himself had invented.

[9] Mazzanti, Nicola (2009). "Colours, Audiences and (Dis)Continuity in the 'Cinema of the Second Period'". In: Film History 21, n.º 1, 67-93.

[10] Lameris, Bregtje (2003). "Pathécolor: Perfect in their Rendition of the Colours of Nature". In: Living Pictures, vol.  2, no. 2, pp.  46-58.

[11] The white skin tone of people was the most difficult thing to reproduce with artificial colours. In most films, faces are usually in black and white, while other elements such as clothing are coloured. However, in people from exotic countries, their skin was sometimes coloured brown.

[12] Mazzanti, Nicola, idem.

[13] Idem.

[14] Idem.