The History and Science of Color Film: From Isaac Newton to the Coen Brothers

[Class Assembling] Hi, John Hess here from and
today we’re going to dive into the world of color, looking at the science and history
that allows us to experience color in film. Our Journey begins with the simplest of questions.
What is this phenomenon called “color” This question baffled people for ages. Aristotle
had theories based on the four elements Earth Wind, Fire and water. But it wasn’t until
1666 when a young Isaac Newton first began experimenting with optics that we began to
think of color as a function of light. Color is really our pyschological reaction to a
very narrow band of electromagnetic radiation which we call light – from the red on the
low end of the spectrum through orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet at the high
end. Through his experiments Isaac Newton discovered
that you could combine all the colors light together to create what looked like white
light. From his experiments he created the world’s first color circle, using seven
colors to like the seven notes of a musical scale. But you didn’t need all the colors to create
white light or any color light. It turns out you only need three primary colors. This trichromatic
theory was first put forward by Thomas Young and Herman vonn Helmholtz in 1802 – they postulated
that human retina was made of cones that were responsive to only three colors of light – red,
yellow and blue. Every color that we perceive is the brain’s reaction to the combination
of stimuli of those three primary colors. But the Young-Helmholtz Theory (though mostly
correct) was based on scientific reasoning not experimental evidence. Their theory would
be refined in 1850s by one of the greatest scientists of all time James Clerk Maxwell.
Held in close stature to the great Isaac Newton in the world of physics, Maxwell unified electricity,
magnetism and light into one field of study – one branch of science which would set the
stage for Albert Einstein and his Theories of Relativity in the 20th century. But before he did that, Maxwell was interested
in color. In his 1855 paper, Experiments on Colour, Maxwell used spinning tops to demonstrate
that validity of the Young Helmholtz theory, refining the primary colors to Red, Green
and Blue which he could mix in various amounts to achieve all the perceivable colors. In 1861, with the help of Thomas Sutton, the
inventor of the Single Lens Reflex camera or SLR, Maxwell applied his theory to photography,
shooting a tartan ribbon with a black and white camera three times, once using a red
filter, a green filter, and a blue filter. Combining the color separations back together,
Maxwell and Sutton created the world’s very first permanent color photograph and the basis
for all color photography to come. Though Maxwell had demonstrated the principles
of color photography in 1861, it would take a long time before capturing naturalistic
colors could be employed in the motion picture industry. Part of the problem was film stock
was more sensitive to parts of the spectrum then others… But that didn’t stop the
early filmmakers from adding color back in after the fact. Hand Tinting was a widely practiced technique
of painting color onto the film itself. During the early days of motion pictures, where features
lasted only 10 minutes or so, it was economically viable – in fact Georges Melies employed 21
women to hand tint his films frame by frame. As the demand for film became greater and
greater, Charles Pathe mechanized the process of coloring film in France using a stencil
process he called Pathecolor. By 1910, Pathe employed 400 women in his factory and the
process was used throughout Europe. Coming into 1920s, as film became an international
mass media industry, even stencils could not meet the demands of production. Filmmakers
began using bath processes to tint and tone their films. Tinting involved putting the
black and white film in a bath of dye – this would turn the entire frame a particular color.
Toning on the other hand only colored the dark parts of the frame by chemically converting
the silver in the film to colored silver salts/ Some filmmakers like D.W. Griffith used the
tinting and toning to enhance emotional elements of the film but often times, labs would just
apply colored dyes based on the scene location or even just randomly. In 1920s, 80 to 90
percent of all American films were using some form of tinting or toning in at least some
scenes. But tinting and toning caused problems once
sound was introduced in 1927. Sound was recorded as an optical track that ran along side the
film, tints and tones would mess up the this track. Pre tinted film stock was created to
solve this problem but it saw little use as more naturalistic ways of creating color were
starting to become popular. There are two methods of creating color: The
Additive system is where primary colored lights are added together – when equally mixed, they
create white light. This is the process used right now as you are watching this video – your
screen is made up of tiny red green and blue pixels that when seen from afar, combine to
create color. The other system is the Subtractive system where primary colors are subtracted
from white light to create colors and when all added together create black.. Both additive
and subtractive color were used to create color photography. The first major venture into capturing color
naturally in motion picture came in 1908 with Charles Urban and the Natural Color Kine-MATograph
Company in England to produce and distribute Kinemacolor films. The Kinemacolor system,
invented by George Albert Smith was a sequential two color additive process that came about
after years of experimentation, In the camera, one frame would be captured
with a red filter and the next frame with a green filter and back and forth. When played
back with a projector with a red green filter fly wheel, the projected red and green image
sequentially would “add” together because of our persistence of vision. The result was
a surprising good color image despite being only a two color system. Kinemacolor was a big hit in England, and
the film that brought it to stardom was The Dehli Durbar – a 2 and a half hour documentary
on the coronation held in Dehli for the newly crowned King George V as the imperial emperor
of India. But there were problems. Notice the registration
issues in the marching soldiers legs – recording color sequentially meant not all color frames
would be the same so you would see this mis alignment in fast moving object. And since
only red and green filters were used, blue skies were impossible to reproduce. In fact
it would be this inability to create blue which would spell the downfall of Kinemacolor. Charles Urban, like any good industrialist,
wanted to monopolize color film and color film exhibition. This made an enemy in William
Friese-Greene, producer of a rival red-green color system, Biocolour which was prohibited
from exhibition because Kinemacolor held the patent on two color projection. Friese-Greene
sued Urban’s Kinemacolor to invalidate the patent. The first court upheld the Kinemacolor
patent, but on appeal, the judge sided with Friese-Green basing his decision on fact that
Kinemacolor’s patent claimed it would reproduce natural colors and yet it failed to produce
blue. Because of vague wording and technological limitations – Kinemacolor’s patent was revoked
and Urban’s company was liquidated soon after. But Kinemacolor proved there was a market
color film. Other additive techniques including Chronochrome, Cinechrome and British Raycol
tried to take the place of Kinemacolor but additive color systems for film proved to
be too technically challenging to implement. The first truly successful color system would
have to be a subtractive system and it would come in the two-strip subtractive Technicolor. The Technicolor Company was founded by Dr.
Herbert T. Kalmus, Dr. Daniel F. Comstock and W. Burton Wescott in 1915 to exploit a
two-color additive process. Their first film was an utter failure- so they changed direction
and started working on a two color subtractive process. The new process patented in 1922
used a beam splitting camera that split the light coming into the camera onto two film
stocks – one which was ultimately dyed red orange and the other which was dyed blue-green.
The resulting positive color images would be cemented together for a final color positive
image which could be played back in the same projector as black and white film. The first Technicolor 2 strip subtractive
feature film was The Toll of the Sea in 1922 The Toll of the Sear grossed over $250,000.
Two strip technicolor was a hit. In 1928, Technicolor refined the process with a step
called Imbibtion or IB: combining the color separations onto a third black gelatin coated
film which gave technicoor a richer look. Technicolor was in the right place at the
right time. As films evolved from the silent Technicolor was in the right place at the
right time. As films evolved from the silent
Technicolor was in the right place at the
right time. As films evolved from the silent era to sound era, musicals were a big genre
and perfectly suited to the color. In 1930 Technicolor was under contract for thirty
six major releases. But just two years later in 1932, the production of Technicolor films
had all but ended. Audiences were tired of seeing the poor registration of the two color
process -which was not a flaw of the process but caused of untrained cameramen. Also Eastman’s
panchromatic film stock, black and white film which was sensitive to a much wider part of
the visible spectrum, produced beautiful looking black and white images under normal incandescent
light. This was much cheaper to use than the arc lights needed for Technicolor two strip. But Technicolor wasn’t out for long. They had an ace up their sleeve.
In 1932, they perfected the three strip Technicolor system. Using a beam splitter they captured
light on to three pieces of film – Green on to it’s own strip and blue and red onto
a bipacked strip. This three strip process was technically superior to anything that
had come before it but it was really expensive – the cameras costing upwards of $30,000 a
piece. Technicolor learned a valuable lesson from the boom and bust of two strip process
and maintained an iron fist over quality control on the production of Technicolor film. In
order to make a Technicolor film, you needed a Technicolor cameraman, use Technicolor makeup,
have the film processed and printed by Technicolor and accept a technicolor consultant who would
make sure your art direction had an acceptable color palette. Hollywood majors were hesitant to jump on
board with this expensive process especially after the failure of the two strip. So Technicolor
offered the process to a small upstart – Walt Disney for his “Silly Symphony” cartoon
series. Flowers and Trees (1932) and The Three Little Pigs (1933) -were both huge successes
and even going on to winning Oscars for best animated short. For live action, small upstart
Pioneer Films produced Technicolor’s first feature film: Beck Sharp which had great buzz
but was ultimately a failure. Throughout the 30s the studios cautiously tested the Technicolor
waters – David O. Selznick’s independent studio produced the first successful Technicolor
feature with Garden of Allah in 1936. In 1938, Warner Bros. would release one of the best
showcases Technicolor’s capability with The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938 which
won three Academy Awards for it’s aesthetic use of color. And then came 1939 – considered the greatest
year in the golden era of studio controlled Hollywood, 1939 was also a great year for
Technicolor. The Wizard of Oz demonstrated the incredible richness of Technicolor in
creating a magical land of Oz. But it was Gone with the Wind that first put to use the
company’s new faster fine-grain film stock- a major technological break through that reduced
the light needed by 50%. Two years later in 1941, Technicolor introduced
the monopack – combining the three separations into one single roll of film that could be
loaded in conventional cameras – great for location shooting. Technicolor had come back
after the failure of 2 strip and now was on top of their game and doing what Charles Urban
could only hope to do with Kinemacolor… hold a virtual monopoly over color film production.
Eastmancolor Takes Over Technicolor and it’s supplier Eastman Kodak
controlled 90% of the color film market. Even though there were other rival processes like
Cinecolor and Trucolor, the United States Justice department saw this as a problem and
filed an anti-trust civil suit in 1947. In 1950, a court decree forced Technicolor to
make available a certain cameras to small independent companies on a first come first
serve basis. But this decree didn’t bring an end to Technicolor’s power. What would
break the monopoly was a new kind of film stock – Eastmancolor. Eastmancolor was based on the German Agfacolor
process developed in 1936. Similar to the Technicolor monopack that sandwiched three
color film separations in a single roll, Agfacolor was used as a crown jewel in Nazi Propaganda
Machine. After the end of World War II the patents were released and the process was
adopted all over the world, becoming Sovcolor in the USSR and Fujicolor in Japan. But it
was Eastman’s refinement of Agfacolor that really made it popular. Using automatic color
masking and released in 1950, Eastmancolor was relatively cheap, didn’t require specialized
lights or lab processes, and would work in conventional motion film cameras. Eastmancolor
would win an Academy Award in 1952 and within two years, the three strip Technicolor process
was all but dead. Eastmancolor film stock took over and has
since come to be known by the names of the studios that paid to use it like Warnercolor
and Metrocolor or by the labs that process the film such as Deluxe and Movielab. Though
the richness of technicolor had started the move of film towards color, it was the ease
and cost effectiveness of Eastmancolor that sustained the growth of color so that by 1967
virtually all major features being made were shot in color. Even Technicolor ultimately switched over
to the Eastmancolor process in 1975 selling off their imbibtion dye process to the Chinese. There was one major problem with Eastmancolor
film and it would not rear it’s ugly head for at least a decade… Eastmancolor was
not terribly stable and it tended to fade and fade much faster than other techniques
– as quickly as 5 years if not stored properly.. This would be a major issue in film preservation
in the years to follow. In 1980 Martin Scorsese lead a campaign to push Eastman to develop
low fade archival film which they did, but film preservation would continue to be an
ongoing problem. Digital Color Advancement to the color of films can come
from all sorts of bizarre places. In 1985 media mogul Ted Turner set out to “colorize”
a catalog of studio era black and white titles he had acquired during his brief ownership
of MGM/UA. Using digital manipulation, the films were scanned and colored frame by frame
in sort of the electronic version of George Milies hand tinting shops. The colorization
of old black and white films was a controversial move with Turner himself half jokingly stating
he would not stop until he colorized Citizen Kane. Just three weeks before he died, Orson
Welles who had a clause in his contract saying Kane could not be edited without his permission,
told a friend, “Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons” – Citizen Kane
was spared. But Turner’s colorization got filmmakers
thinking about the possibilities of selective color manipulation. In the 1990s, many filmmakers
explored different lab processes such as bleach bypass to create unique film tones. In the
1990s and into the 2000s, computers had become powerful enough to handle entire films. Digital
intermediaries – a process of scanning a film frame by frame into a computer to be digitally
manipulated – open the doors to all sorts of new color treatment possibilities. The
first film to get the digital intermediary treatment for the entire film was The Coen
Brother’s O Brother Where Art Thou – in 2001. Cinematographer Roger Deakins worked
for 11 weeks toning down the lush green summer foliage to achieve a dusty golden desaturated
look. As our filmmaking post production tools continue
to move into the digital realm, the creative possibilities for color manipulation are endless.
But perhaps just as important, our modern digital tools can also give us some weapons in the fight for film preservation. We have a much better capability to restore the fading prints of films past, preserving our cultural
heritage for future generations. But now the question will be how do we store those digital assets for the long term? From the moment when Dorothy first opens the
door to that technicolor world of Oz, it is clear that the use of color can move us and
transport us – a tool to unlock a world that can be as normal or as fantastically different
as the one we live in. So use that tool – use color! Go and make something great – I’m
John Hess and I’ll see you at


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