Color in motion pictures began in the late 1800’s with hand tinting. Over the next 100 years, the process of producing a color film changed dramatically.
Thomas Edison experimented with a hand-tinting process, similar to that used for stereopticon slides, on some of his Kinetoscope films. A a tinted print of Annabelle Whitford’s “Serpentine Dance” (1895) still exists.
When Edison’s first projector, the vitascope, had its commercial debut on April 23, 1896, two of the six scenes projected on the screen were in color.
Some early films were partially hand-tinted to highlight a scene or object – the color of a dress, the flames of a fire.
A print of “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) survives with hand-tinting throughout, though only of specific elements in each scene.
As early as 1905 the French Pathé company had begun to replace hand-tinting of individual film frames with tinting machines. Entire segments or scenes could be passed through them to give them a “mood” coloring of a single shade. Examples of coloring are: red for fires, blue for night, or yellow for daytime exteriors.
In America, hand-tinting was eventually replaced by the Handschiegl process. This process was developed by Max Handschiegl, an engraver who had perfected a means of dye-transfer coloring of release prints, otherwise known as imbibition. Using his knowledge of printing inks and engraving technology, Handschiegl prepared as many as three printing matrices to achieve a desired color.
Beginning in 1917, he worked on such films as “Joan the Woman” (1917), “Greed” (1925), “Phantom of the Opera” (1925), and “The Big Parade” (1925).
The first commercially successful natural color process (films photographed so that the colors are selected entirely by optical and mechanical means and reproduced again in a like manner) was two-color Kinemacolor, developed by George Albert Smith for the Charles Urban Trading Company in London, which was owned by an American entrepreneur.
This process used a synchronized rotating wheel in front of the lens so that frames of a black and white film were exposed through alternating red and green filters. It also required a special projector so that the finished film could be projected back through another synchronized rotating wheel of red and green filters.
Smith made his first color film by the Kinemacolor process outside his house at Southwick, England, in July, 1906. It showed his two children playing on the lawn, the boy dressed in blue and waving a Union Jack, the girl in white with a pink sash.
The first commercially produced film in natural color was Smith’s Kinemacolor film “A Visit to the Seaside” (1908).
The first full-length feature film in color was a five-reel melodrama “The World, the Flesh and the Devil”, made in Great Britain in 1914 by the Union Jack Company using the Kinemacolor process.
Technicolor, devised principally by Herbert Kalmus (1882–1963), was the first widely successful color film process.
The first feature-length all-Technicolor production, “The Gulf Between”, was first shown in 1917. It is considered a ‘lost’ film and only a few frames are known to survive.
The second feature-length all-Technicolor film produced in the United States, “The Toll of the Sea”, appeared in 1922 and is available in its entirety from a number of sources.
Technicolor’s biggest success during the silent-era was Douglas Fairbanks’ film “The Black Pirate” (1926).
These films, however, used a two-color Technicolor process.
Three-color Technicolor, which was the color process of choice until the early 1950s, was first tested in a Walt Disney cartoon “Flowers and Trees” (1932).
In 1928, the Eastman Kodak Company introduced the original Kodacolor motion picture film. This film recorded color images by using a process that coated a Lenticulated screen array with a black and white film emulsion.
However, in order to show the image in color the film needed to be projected through a special projection system. The additional expense of the projection system reduced the marketability of this process and it never caught on for use in commercial motion picture productions.