History of Cinema 18 – color in silent film

By 1895, 80% of film was in color. It was hand colored, tinted, dyed, or bathed frame by frame. George Melies was the pioneer of using color in motion pictures.

Color was heavily used in fantasy films. It more closely emulated stage fashion which was very colorful. The Fearie Stage genre of theatre was the target. These were dance films that used stage effects and colored lights.

Color was used interchangeably for literal representations and for metaphorical enhancements. Color was a facet of the artwork, thought out like any other process of filmmaking.

The French used hand painted and stenciled color. Each frame would be colored by hand, lending it to an intentional creative expression of color. Stencils were used to focus color on specific areas of a frame to sharpen and highlight specific colors and shapes.

Women did the painting for the most part. Madame Thullier was the most famous stencil color artist. She selected colors one at a time with Pantograph.

2 color Technicolor was beginning as well. This is color limited to red and green. It sounds simple but extraordinary color could come from it in the hands of a master.

Another process was tinting and toning. They would tint areas of the frame for whites and tone it for blacks.

In 1933, The Wizard of Oz was celebrated from its transition from sepia tones to full color when Dorothy arrives in Oz. This was far from the first film that used this technique.

Common knowledge of silent film is based on experience. Most surviving films of that era are struck from negatives and are black and white. Very few tinted prints remain and far less full color films. Filmmakers kept solid notes allowing for computer assisted tinting and toning but the fine art of hand painting seems to be lost.

A few films to check out for their use of color: 1909 Voyage Son Jupiter

1911 Legende des Ondines

1923 The Burning Crucible


1925 Cyrano de Bergerac


1925 Phantom of the Opera

And 1925 Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

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