Special feature: Early experiments in colour filmmaking

Updated: Nov 28, 2014, 09:36 IST | A Correspondent |

'The Toll of the Sea', the first film to be made using the two-tone Technicolor process was released on this day, November 26 in 1922. A look back at other notable attempts in colour filmmaking...

'The Toll of the Sea', the first film to be made using the two-tone Technicolor process was released on this day, November 26 in 1922. It is also considered the first Hollywood film made in colour. It was shot under 'natural light' and outdoors, with the one 'interior' scene shot in sunlight under a muslin sheet. This was because the Technicolor camera divided the lens image into two beams to expose two film frames simultaneously through color filters, and at twice the normal frames per second, much higher lighting levels were needed.

'The Toll of the Sea'
(Above and below) Stills from 'The Toll of the Sea'. Pics Courtesy/YouTube

A variation of the 'Madama Butterfly' story set in China instead of Japan, 'The Toll of the Sea' was not only Hollywood's first colour feature but also the first colour film that didn't require a special projector to be shown. The film, which premiered on 26th November 1922 at New York's Rialto Theatre went into general release on 22 January 1923. It is also notable as the first leading role of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star.

'The Toll of the Sea'

'The Toll of the Sea'

The film was intially considered to be lost in the 1967 MGM Vault 7 fire but has survived and was restored in 1985 from its original camera negative except for the final two reels and is preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive from the original 35mm nitrate film negative.

How colour filmmaking originated
The earliest attempts in colour filmmaking begun with filmmakers using anline dyes to create artificial colour. Hand-colored films appeared in 1895 with American inventor Thomas Edison's hand-painted 'Annabelle's Dance' for his Kinetoscope viewers.

A still from Thomas Edison's 'Annabelle's Dance'
A still from Thomas Edison's 'Annabelle's Dance'. Pic courtesy/ YouTube

The earliest known colour film?
British inventor, cinematographer Edward Raymond Turner produced the earliest known colour motion picture film footage. The reel of film was discovered in the archives of the National Media Museum, and dates back 110 years.

On 22 March 1899, while Turner was employed in the London workshop of colour photography pioneer Frederic E. Ives, Turner and Lee applied for a British patent on a 3-colour additive motion picture process. It was granted on 3 March 1900.

Edward Raymond Turner's film
(Above and below) Stills from Edward Raymond Turner's film. Pics courtesy/YouTube

Turner's camera used a rotating disk of three colour filters to photograph colour separations on one roll of black-and-white film. A red, green or blue-filtered image was recorded on each successive frame of film. The finished film print was projected, three frames at a time, through the corresponding colour filters.

Edward Raymond Turner's film

The system suffered from two types of colour registration problems. First, because the three frames had not been photographed at the same time, rapidly moving objects in the scene did not match up on the screen and appeared as a blurred jumble of false colours. Second, and apparently much worse, mechanical instabilities in the system caused serious overall registration problems, so that the three superimposed images ceaselessly jittered and wove about relative to each other.

Film reels get hand-coloured
French firm Pathé Frères introduced the first commercially successful stencil colour process in 1905. Pathe Color, which was later renamed Pathechrome in 1929 became one of the most accurate and reliable stencil coloring systems, which incorporated a film's original print with sections cut by pantograph in the appropriate areas for up to six colors by a coloring machine with dye-soaked, velvet rollers. After a stencil had been made for the whole film, it was placed into contact with the print to be colored and run at high speed (60 feet per minute) through the coloring (staining) machine. The process was repeated for each set of stencils corresponding to a different color.

'Eccentric Waltz'
A still from an early Pathecrome production 'Eccentric Waltz'. Pic Courtesy/ YouTube

Pathe had 400 women employed as stencilers in his firm by 1910 in their Vincennes factory and continued production through the 1930s.

The Miracle: The 1912 British silent film enjoys the status of being the first hand-coloured films using the Pathecrome process and was filmed on location in Austria. Joseph Menchen designed the production of 'The Miracle' in a unique way. It was not intended to be shown as a regular film but as part of a 'Lyricscope play'.

This was an unusual (if not unique) spectacular theatrical presentation which - in its most elaborate and complete expression - included: the projected colour film, a full-sized symphony orchestra and chorus, live sound effects such as church bells and crowd noises, stage sets around the projection screen which changed during the performance, and live (non-speaking) actors and dancers in medieval costume. The various component parts of this ideal production varied somewhat according to local conditions.

This 1912 multi-media experience was an adaptation of Max Reinhardt's wordless spectacular stage production of Karl Vollmoeller's play of the same name, which had played to huge audiences at the Olympia, London exhibition hall in 1911–1912.

A Trip to the Moon: Also known as 'Le Voyage dans la Lune' in French, this silent film directed by Georges Méliès in 1902 was innovative for its time and is widely regarded as the earliest example of the science fiction film genre. The film had various parts of the film painted frame-by-frame by twenty-one women in Elisabeth Thuillier's coloring lab in a production-line method. Thuillier, a former colorist of glass and celluloid products, directed a studio of two hundred people painting directly on film stock with brushes, in the colors she chose and specified; each worker was assigned a different color in assembly line style, with more than twenty separate colors often used for a single film.

(Above and below) Stills from 'A Trip to the Moon'. Pics courtesy YouTube
(Above and below) Stills from 'A Trip to the Moon'. Pics courtesy YouTube

(Above and below) Stills from 'A Trip to the Moon'. Pics courtesy YouTube

No hand-colored prints of 'A Trip to the Moon' were known to survive until 1993, when one was given to the Filmoteca de Catalunya by an anonymous donor as part of a collection of two hundred silent films. The restored version premiered on 11 May 2011, eighteen years after its discovery and 109 years after its original release, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, with a new soundtrack by the French band Air.

Technicolour enters the picture
The Gulf Between:
The film, which was released on September 13, 1917 was the first motion picture made in Technicolour and the fourth feature-length colour movie. It tells the story about a girl raised by a sea captain who is rejected by the wealthy family of the man she loves.

'The Gulf Between', was filmed using two-colour "System 1", in which two frames of a single strip of black-and-white film were simultaneously photographed by means of a prism beam splitter. One frame was photographed behind a red filter while the other was photographed behind a green one.

After private trade showings on September 13, 1917 in Boston and September 21, 1917 in New York City's Aeolian Hall, 'The Gulf Between was released on February 25, 1918 to play one-week on a European tour using a special two-aperture, two-lens, two-filter projector required to exhibit it. It was the only motion picture made in Technicolor's System 1 due to the apparent technical problems in keeping the red and green images aligned by prism during projection. Technicolor later abandoned the additive color process of System 1, and began work on subtractive color processes that did not require a special projector.

The film is generally considered lost with very short fragments of it surviving at the Margaret Herrick Library, George Eastman House and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History Photography Department.

Attempts made to capture 'natural colour' on film
The World, the Flesh and the Devil:
This 1914 British silent movie now considered lost was the first full-length narrative in natural colour. It was made using the additive color Kinemacolor process.

With Our King and Queen Through India: This 1912 silent British documentary made in the Kinemacolor additive color process that was capable of capturing natural colour was filmed on 12 December 1911 at the Coronation Park in Delhi. It is a recording of celebrations relating to the coronation of George V, known as Delhi Durbar or The Durbar at Delhi. Two hours exist of what may have been a six-hour documentary.

'With Our King and Queen Through India' 1912, Delhi Durbar
(Above and below) Stills from 'With Our King and Queen Through India'

'With Our King and Queen Through India' 1912, Delhi Durbar

Since it was the first successful colour motion picture process showcasing the use of Charles Urban's Kinemacolour launched in 1908 'With Our King and Queen Through India' was succesful at the box office in comparison to earlier black-and-white releases of the Delhi Durbar.

Cupid Angling: The 1918 film was the only feature film photographed in Douglass Natural Colour process. It was thus promoted as 'The First Photoplay Made in Natural Colours' on its release. It featured walk-on appearances by silent film era screen legends Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

The first feature film to have colour with a full soundtrack
The Vikings: The 1928 film was the first to feature a soundtrack and the first film made using Technicolor's Process 3. Based on Viking history, the movie is an adaptation of the novel 'The Thrall of Leif the Lucky'. The sound was recorded in the Movietone sound-on-film system originally developed by Fox Film Corporation, with color by Technicolor in their new dye transfer process, now known as Process 3.

'The Vikings' 1928
(Above and below) Stills from 'The Viking'. Pic courtesy/YouTube

'The Vikings' 1928

'The Vikings' is noted as the first feature-length film to use Technicolour's dye-transfer process and was considered the finest use of color cinematography at the time of release. The film still survives and remains an example of early color film.

The first-ever Indian film made in colour
Film pioneer Ardeshir Irani of 'Alam Ara' fame made 'Kisan Kanya' in 1937, a film generally considered as the first full-length Indian feature film in colour. The film is an adaptation of Saadat Hasan Manto's novel. Directed by Moti B.Gidvani, it was produced by Ardeshir Irani's Imperial Pictures.

Kisan Kanya 1937
A still from 'Kisan Kanya'. Pic courtesy/ Jagran.com

'Kisan Kanya' utilised the Cinecolour process, whose rights Irani had acquired from an American company. V. Shantaram's 1933 Marathi film 'Sairandhri' contained colour scenes but it was processed and printed in Germany. 'Kisan Kanya' is thus India's first indegeniously made colour film.

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