The Classic Film Thread: Early Color in Film

Hey, all! Quick introduction to this thread and what I’d like to do with it – I used to be very into classic movies, ever since I became a Wizard of Oz obsessive as a little kid. My interest dropped off a while back, but it’s come back in a big way thanks to the events of the past year (it was either that or actually, y’know – speaking to my loved ones.) I think a monthly or bi-monthly thread exploring classic films and topics related to classic films would be neat. I’ll post a roundup of any movies I mentioned in the topic, some classic films showing on television and streaming at the end of each thread, and maybe even throw in a bonus discussion topic if I’m feeling daring. Anyway, on to the bit of history that inspired this whole thing – the introduction of color to the movies.


To understand color in film, we have to first understand a little bit about how color works. I’ll try and make this as brief and as simple as possible, as this is a topic that can get into eye-glazingly boring and dense territory with terrific speed. As you know, the human eye can see a light color spectrum that features seven distinct colors – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (note we’re talking specifically about light here – and I think you’ll find that all aspects of filmmaking will eventually come back to light.) There are three what we call “primary colors” which, combined, create all of the other colors on this spectrum as well as white – that’s red, yellow, and blue. You’ll get just about the same effect with red, green, and blue, and it’s with these three colors that color photography got its start. Crude color photography was beginning as early as the 1860’s with images captured using red, blue, and green filters which, combined, created a picture that looked (almost) like it was in color. However, it was a long while before films would begin capturing the color spectrum onto celluloid.

Early films introduced color by physically manipulating the film itself. This film from 1896 has some good examples of one of the three ways that films were given color before true color processes. As seen in the link, film could be painstakingly colored by hand, frame by frame, almost as if you were coloring in a coloring book (the most repetitive coloring book in the whole wide world.) Or, if you valued your time and hand dexterity and didn’t mind the film only featuring one color at a time, you could tint your film by bathing it in different colored dyes (like an Easter egg.) If you wanted to be fancy or subdued, you could tone your film instead, which would affect only the silver particles in your film strip, and would add some subtle color to the darker parts of your image. If you’ve seen the original version of the film Nosferatu (whose history will be its own thread topic surely), you’ve seen a tinted film. For a brief period in American filmmaking, somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% of films were tinted or toned, or both.

Of course, these processes didn’t strike the same visual punch that a true color film would have. At this time of frenzied development in the filmmaking world, inventions such as the Kinemacolor camera were introduced.


This wheel of red and green filters would spin in front of the camera lens during filming and, when the film was played back in front of a matching spinning wheel, the result was an image that actually looked pretty close to color film, which is pretty impressive given how mad scientist this whole setup was. This process couldn’t produce the color blue however, and given its complicated setup and some wacky turn-of-the-century lawsuit business which I won’t get into, the Kinemacolor camera fell out of favor pretty quickly. This is when Technicolor swooped in to pick up the color baton.

Screen Shot 2021-03-20 at 11.39.20 PM

Technicolor first attempted color filming with an “additive” color process – at the time, this involved wildly complicated filming and projecting setups, so this process was scrapped almost immediately. Technicolor then moved on to what they called “process two,” which was a subtractive process. Subtractive photography is a little difficult to explain without visuals but I’ll do my best (or you can just watch this video from the Eastman Museum which does a great job.) If you consider what I mentioned about the primary colors red, blue, and green being able to create white light, we’ll also find that the secondary colors of yellow, cyan, and magenta create black. Early Technicolor cameras split light coming into the camera lens through a green prism and a red prism, with each frame of the film filtered back and forth through one color or the other (similar to what was happening with the Kinemacolor camera, only it was happening inside the camera body). This film was then split onto two separate strips of “red” and “green” frames, and tinted with dye of its complementary color – cyan for red, and magenta for green. Images which in real life were green would not absorb much magenta, and images which in real life were red would not absorb much cyan. These two film strips (thinner than other film at the time) were physically cemented together, and bing bang boom, you got yourself a color film that doesn’t need a special projector to play. The first film made with this process was The Toll of the Sea, a retelling of Madama Butterfly set in China, and starring the wonderful Anna May Wong.

This process was a smashing success, and Technicolor began refining and perfecting its process as sound film began to take hold. However, the Technicolor process was very expensive, and when the Great Depression hit, studios couldn’t justify the added costs when audiences were perfectly happy to see films in black and white.

However, great things were on the horizon – Technicolor was about to make a big bet on a young filmmaker who would change the landscape of entertainment forever. But we’ll talk about that next time.

Bonus topic: Let’s start off on the right note – what are some of your favorite classic films? For simplicity’s sake in these threads, I’m going to define a “classic” film as thirty years or older.



  • TCM
    • Tuesday, March 23
      • To celebrate Joan Crawford’s birthday, TCM will be showing a number of her films from across the course of her career starting with The Dancing Lady (1933) at 6 AM EDT
    • Thursday, March 25
      • For the month of March, TCM is screening classic films which have troubling sexist, homophobic, or racist aspects and examining them with even-handedness and sobriety. This includes My Fair Lady (1964) at 8 PM EDT and The Children’s Hour (1961) at 11 PM EDT
    • Friday, March 26
      • King Kong (1933) at 6:15 PM EDT
  • MeTV
    • Saturday, March 27
      • Svengoolie will be showing The Beast Must Die (1974), starring Peter Cushing, at 8 PM EDT
  • Streaming
    • The Black Pirate (1926) was the third film shot using the two-tone Technicolor process, and is available on YouTube
    • Enter the Dragon (1973) was Bruce Lee’s final film before his untimely death, and will be leaving Netflix on March 31st. This film is widely considered one of the best martial arts movies of all time.