"July 8, 1908: Some Movies Get Colorful"
July 8th, 2011
July 8th, 2011
1908: Kinemacolor, the first successful color motion-picture process is demonstrated at a scientific meeting in Paris.
1908? Really? It seems as if most of the ’30s movies were produced in black-and-white, with the occasional color blockbuster like Gone With the Wind. Even the 1940s seemed to reserve color for big-budget productions. Were color movies really around more than a century ago?
Yes. But no.
British inventor Edward Turner actually received a patent on a three-color motion picture process in 1899. The problem is, his system didn’t work all that well. He teamed up with Charles Urban, an American expatriate who was already a force in the fledgling British film industry, in 1901. Turner died soon thereafter, and Urban put Albert Smith on the project.
Smith couldn’t make Turner’s process function and decided in 1906 to try a simpler two-color system using standard black-and-white film. But, instead of exposing the then-standard 16 frames a second, the new process exposed 32 frames.
A spinning wheel of transparent filters exposed alternate frames in red and green. A similar wheel was used to project the film, and just as persistence of image makes movie frames merge into seemingly continuous motion, so the viewer’s brain merged the two partial-color images into full color.
Sort of. The system was notoriously deficient in presenting blues and getting a true white. And because the red frame and the green frame were shot 1/32 of a second apart, rapid motion caused color fringing where the red and green images didn’t exactly overlap. (Not that we’ve ever seen any modern, digital entertainment technology that blurs with rapid motion. Oh, no.)
Urban previewed the system for the press in London before giving it a scientific debut in Paris, where film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière attended. Kinemacolor got its name in 1909 and was used to film George V’s coronation as emperor of India at the Delhi Durbar in 1912.
The process was more economical than the frame-by-frame hand tinting employed by some producers at the time, which sometimes used stencils to create several hundred color prints for commercial distribution. Kinemacolor also spawned some offshoots, including color-wheel systems that exposed side-by-side, rather than alternating, red and green images.
Kinemacolor had plenty of drawbacks. It was one thing for a top-notch cinematographer to synchronize the spinning color wheel with the camera shutter, but quite another to expect projectionists all over the world to master the complicated system, even if their employers were willing to pay for the expensive equipment.
Urban also had to fight patent battles. Then came World War I, which — besides its tremendous toll in blood — devastated European economies.
Kinemacolor never caught on in the United States, some say because of opposition from the Motion Picture Patents Co., a trust of producers and film-stock suppliers (namely Eastman) that had huge power in the film industry.
Starting in the late teens, it also had to face a superior technology, one that used stationary prisms instead of moving wheels to film and project color separations. Devised by MIT-trained engineers in Boston, it was called: Technicolor.