What Was The First Color Movie

Nastya Bulavska
Nastya Bulavska
Content Manager at MakeStoryboard
12 min reading·

Cinematography has been repeating the history of photography since its early days, for film has been a canvas for directors as well as for photographers. But when color appeared on film, filmmakers were the first to master a new artistic technique - using or ignoring the play of color in the frame, they created entire film worlds and rewrote the history of visual art. At the same time, over 100 years of experiments in cinema, directors and cameramen have not managed to exhaust the color palette or even come close to it.

Why was cinema originally in black and white?

Photography began to develop rapidly in the middle of the 19th century, and by the beginning of the 20th century, cameras, which were still a luxury for their time, became a common means of earning money.

Many families ordered photo portraits dedicated to important life events: birthdays, weddings, family meetings. This tradition has taken root in all sectors of society - for example, in America of the 19th century, even black families, just freed from slavery, were photographed for portraits.

There was even a Victorian custom of portraits of deceased relatives who could not be photographed during their lifetime. Especially for photography, the eyes of the dead were opened so that the whole family was assembled in the portrait, despite the death of one of its members. A photograph was cheaper than an oil portrait, so over time, shooting with a photographer turned into a ritual that every person went through several times in his life. The city authorities began to order photo studio owners to shoot important events, city meetings or landscapes.

In the age of lithography and oil painting, photography at first seemed too fragile, but over time it became clear that it could also leave a mark on history.


The first films were single-layer, and the image on them was formed by alternating dark and illuminated areas on the film. Reflections of sunlight from a clear sky, a dark jacket, or red curls produced different shades of gray. Contrast and exposure were adjusted during development: by prolonging the chemical reaction, it was possible to dramatize a look or landscape, and, conversely, make them more lyrical by interrupting the interaction of reagents. The earliest films were hand-coloured, and when multi-layer film appeared, the process was complicated by long and risky development - familiar colors could be displayed in the most unexpected way. All experiments on film development were akin to alchemy: many photographers and cameramen of that time were etched with poisonous solutions, burned their hands or spoiled their eyesight in endless experiments in the dark.

In a film projector, 24 frames are replaced in one second, so the task of applying color was exactly 24 times more difficult.

Color arrived in photography in the 1930s, but the new technology remained a costly experiment and did not become widespread until the first budget films in the 1950s. The same story was repeated in the cinema: mass production of color films began only in the early 1960s - before that, only films by proven directors, high-profile premieres that were supposed to earn at the box office, and large-scale historical reconstructions were released in color.

Although the technology of coloring frames has been known to cinema since 1895, working in black and white was cheaper, more familiar and much easier: after all, the presence of color very often destroyed the composition that had developed in the frame and complicated the work in the film sets for the art director and cameraman. And in an era when televisions were a luxury, and a color copy of a film cost much more than a black-and-white one, it was simply unprofitable to make color films. And of course, without black and white, there would be no whole movement - films noir, Hollywood detectives and thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s, built around crimes, dark conspiracies, quiet conversations in muffled offices, femme fatales with faces hidden veil, and worried protagonists in white shirts.

Literally from the first steps in the development of cinema, directors and inventors tried to color films. Jacques Méliès' famous film Journey to the Moon was already in color. However, the technology was so imperfect that it was difficult to call this film a work of color cinematography.The film at the time was painted literally by hand, using paints and a stencil. Recently, Turner's technology has also been discovered, who introduced color film to the world in 1902. This filmmaker had his own method - he shot frames through filters of 3 different colors - red, green and blue.

Soon after brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere invented cinema in 1895, the new art became wildly popular. And the audience immediately wanted to see colors on the screen. Hand coloring came to the rescue, the first colored ribbons appeared, but natural colors were still far away. 


In 1902, when the first colorized film A Trip to the Moon appeared on the screen, the earliest example of true color cinema appeared. This technology was invented by Briton Edward Turner in 1899.

The very first hand-coloured film was Anabella's Serpent Dance (1895), but it could only be viewed individually through Edison's Kinetoscope.

It used the already familiar additive method for obtaining a color image: the camera had a rotating disk with red, green and blue filters. For shooting, a black-and-white film sensitive to the visible spectrum was used, and the projector had three color filters. The colors were washed out, the picture was shaky, and the technology had no practical application. The 30-year-old inventor died in 1903 without having time to correct the shortcomings.
Oldest Known Color Film

The earliest color film known to date. Photographed by Edward Coach in 1902


The first commercially successful color film technology was invented in 1906 by two directors, the Englishman George Albert Smith and the American Charles Urban. The basic operation of the new concept was to use a camera whose shutter was cut out to accommodate red-orange and blue-green filters so that the image was reflected in two colors. The projector was equipped with the same type of shutter, the light passed through these color filters before hitting the screen, which allowed the colors to be reproduced in general outlines. The films were actually black and white, and colors were added using shutter filters. This technique, preceding others, needed

new equipment in the premises and did not guarantee a real "color film". But she inspired many inventors.

She also relied on an additive way of forming colors, but used only two light filters - red and green. Not too realistic color reproduction, but the picture was clearer.

Cinemacolor was actively used by film studios in Europe in 1908–1914. The first tape is "Visit to the Sea" in 1910. The 1912 full-length documentary about the coronation of George V and his proclamation as Emperor of India, "With our king and queen through India", had a significant success. The prism and biocolor systems worked on a similar principle, but they were more advanced and quickly replaced kinemacolor.

"Visit to the Sea", dir. George Albert Smith, 1908 - the first successful color motion picture.

The use of additive technologies required too expensive film projectors with color filters, so the cinema, following the example of photography, came to a subtractive method of obtaining colors: the color was created not on the screen, but directly on the film copy. So, in the 1910s, the bipack system appeared, where two negative films, emulsified to each other, passed through the camera: one light-sensitive to red, the other to blue-green. In 1938, it was with the help of this approach that the first Ukrainian color film "Sorochinsky Fair" was shot.
The Fair at Sorochyntsi ~ Сорочинський Ярмарок ~ 1938

"Sorochinsky Fair", dir. Mykola Ekk, Oleksandr Dovzhenko Film Studio, 1938 - the first Ukrainian color film

This two-color technique was adopted and improved by the technicolor system, which was invented by American engineers Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock. It was she who first allowed the use of conventional projectors to display color films. Victims of the Sea in 1922 with American-Chinese Hollywood star Anna May Wong was the first such film.

"Victims of the Sea", dir. Chester M. Franklin, Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, 1922

In the 1930s, tri-color technicolor appeared, which made full color reproduction possible. For the first time, improved technicolor was used by Walt Disney in 1932 in the cartoon "Flowers and Trees". The most famous film is Gone with the Wind (1939) starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. The technology was used until the mid-1950s, although it had a serious competitor.



Technicolour's main competitor for decades has been synecolor, invented in 1932 by the Englishman William Crespinel, who founded Cinecolor in the US. This technology was based on the two-color bipack system, but allowed the use of conventional cameras.

With the help of bluecolor, the Paramount studio and poor film studios filmed. The first full-length film was Sweden, Land of the Vikings (1934), the famous film was The Enchanted Forest (1945). A bunch of cartoons were made on the bluecolor - in particular, the serial "Funny Melodies" and "Popeye the Sailor".


Three-film technicolor was very complex and expensive: in 1939 there were only 14 such cameras in the world, one cost 5 times more than usual - $ 16,000. The cheaper bluecolor had problems with displaying colors. The solution was a new subtractive technology - multilayer film, created back in the early 1930s. It was perfected by the Nazis.

Significant progress has been made by the German agfacolor technology. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels loved cinema, gave themselves private screenings and demanded the best technology for propaganda. This drove the inventors. In 1941, the first full-length film on the new technology “Women are still the best diplomats” was released. After the Second World War, the USSR took possession of the Agfa color materials and created the Sovcolor technology based on them. In the 1960s, the Oscar-winning War and Peace was filmed on it. And already in 1950, Eastman Kodak introduced a new Eastmancolor multi-layered film - the killer of technicolor.

Royal Journey, National Film Board of Canada documentary film, 1951

The first feature-length film on Eastmancolor was the documentary The Royal Journey, a film about the trip of Queen Elizabeth II to America, which was released in 1951, and already in 1955 the technicolor was done away with. Multilayer film is still used today, although it has been replaced by digital cinema since the 2000s.

How Color Revealed Famous Directors

With the advent of color film in mainstream cinema, filming without color has become a gesture.

The technology of color cinema was the first to be put on stream by Hollywood studios. European directors continued to shoot black and white films for a long time, occasionally working with color in big-budget films. First of all, this is due to the European approach to film financing - the concept of a blockbuster has not taken root in the Old World so far. Black-and-white films by European directors ideologically resisted the Hollywood pressure of a bright Technicolor palette and colorful composition, which often masked a clichéd script. The classics of European cinema were much more excited about new living types, immediacy in the frame and visual experiments.


It was this naturalness of European black-and-white films of the 1950s and 1960s that stirred and renewed the blood of Hollywood after 1968 - as part of the new Hollywood wave, American studios produced one risky experiment after another for a little more than a decade. The transition to color opened up the unique color vision of Alfred Hitchcock (in The Birds or Vertigo the colors in the frame are themselves included in the plot and carry a great semantic load) or Luchino Visconti and gave Fellini's films a real three-dimensionality without any 3D effects.



Thomas Alva Edison Studios shoots Annabelle Whitford's butterfly dance and colorizes the film in black and white. The movements were invented specifically to accentuate the play of colors.



Georges Méliès is finishing the first sci-fi film in history, A Trip to the Moon, and along with the black-and-white copies, creates some more expensive color ones. To color the film, a colorist shop had to be hired.

British inventor Edward Turner, who died of a sudden heart attack at just 30, invents and patents a way to capture color using a conventional camera with black and white film and a rotating three-color RGB (Red, Green, Blue) filter.



Briton George Albert Smith is directing the first ever color film, A Trip to the Sea, about a weekend in Brighton. To obtain color, he used Kinemacolor technology, running black and white film through red and green filters. This method of filming was used in cinema until the First World War.



The first film shot in Technicolor technology, which became the main fetish of Hollywood until 1952. For filming, a fine-tuning of the projector was required, which, through two apertures, superimposed images passed through color filters on top of each other. The film remained in black and white. In 1922, the Technicolor process was improved - the exposure now depended not on the skill of the operator, but on the quality of the projector. "Victims of the Sea", a retelling of the story of Madama Butterfly, was the first color film released to the wide screen.



The adventure film "The Black Pirate", filmed in black and white and turned into color after post-processing, is released. This is the fourth film made using this technology. Unfortunately, the film was damaged and cracked by the projection and temperature of the beam, and two-channel projection was soon abandoned.



Hollywood's first color and sound film, On with the Show, is about a failing show and its rescue. In the 1930s, the bigwigs of the industry finally began to invest in color films - musicals, historical films and adventure films are shot in color. Almost immediately after that, America is covered by the Great Depression, and investments in expensive movie entertainment are frozen for several years.



Technicolor standardization. Huge and clumsy cameras can now be rented (but by no means bought) along with a cameraman and a lighting specialist. Sites for creating a bright picture consume a lot of electricity, which is why projects in color are still a rarity.


The appearance of the first color films without filters - Kodak and Agfa.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is released - the first hand-drawn color cartoon with impressive visuals and soundtrack even today. The beginning of the industry of children's and family entertainment in the cinema is finally laid.


Paramount Studios invents the improved Vista Vision widescreen film and its projection engine. The film is becoming incredibly popular not only in the studio - the technology is taking over the multiplying theaters.


The last Hollywood film shot in Technicolor technology is The Godfather 2.


The Italian Dario Argento completes the European romance with Technicolor with Suspiria.

Summarizing the history of the development of color films, we can say that the first attempts were not always successful, but thanks to the development of technology and new equipment, people managed to improve this complex and long process.

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