Cinema Color History

Ever since the existence of cinema, filmmakers have been working hard to explore different aesthetic options in order to better represent their vision for the screen. One tool that can be used by filmmakers is color. Color can be manipulated and changed to affect mood, change perspective, and even provide insight into the story and characters.
Color has actually been around since the beginning of cinema. It all started in the early 1900s when there were those dedicated people who gave 110% to go in and paint their film frame by frame. Some of those who were dedicated included Thomas Edison and GeorgeMéliès. The were so dedicated that they hired other people to do it for them, at least in the case of Méliès who in 1902 had 21 women hand color his film “ATrip to the Moon”.



This process got old fast and it wasn’t long before tinting became the more popular way to colorize your film (1). There were several different processes used to color or tint film including Pathecolor which Charles Pathe created in 1905. This process took different parts of frames that were tinted using a separate stencil to apply different colored dyes. This stencil was cut by an operator using a pantograph to trace the projected image. On the opposite end of the pantograph arm was a needle that electronically vibrated and cut away the stencil.

This was done frame-by-frame, scene-by-scene. Obviously this was not a quick or easy process either. However it became quite popular and by the early 1920s around 80-90% of films had at least some scenes tinted.

Unfortunately for tinting enthusiasts, the introduction of sound eliminated the use of this technique. The wavelengths of radiation most sensitive to the sound reproducer cells were being absorbed by the dyes that were being used. This caused a loss in audio quality that was significant and unacceptable to filmmakers and moviegoers alike. However, color had become important to several producers and audiences so companies scrambled for solutions. One substitute was Kodak’s Sonochrome series released in 1929 providing 17 differently colored film stocks that worked with sound and silent films.

However, by this time, color in film was moving in a more advanced direction than just tinting or dying the film While tinting and coloring in post became somewhat popular, it was far from the solution in terms of creating color motion pictures. True, accurate, and realistic color needed to be captured in camera and on set. Enter the 2 color additive system, Kinemacolor. The Kinemacolor camera was actually modified several times starting out as a three-color process before downgrading to a two-color system due to fringing problems in projection. This two-color system used bluegreen and red-orange filters contained within the opening of the shutter. The film was then exposed at 32 frames/s with alternating exposures between the filters. The frames were then projected the same way essentially merging the two images (via visual integration) into what was perceived as a color picture (2). Besides Kinemacolor there were many other systems that used a 2D color space to render color. These included Douglass Color, Gilmore Color, and Kesdacolor. While many of these systems improved upon each other, none of them were able to eliminate the awful gamut created by a two-color system.


The reason for this awful gamut. The graph is a representation of every color that is visible by the human eye. The black line in the center represents which colors a two-color system such as Kinemacolor can reproduce. Since there are only two primaries the gamut is not able to cover an area beyond what this line portrays. This figure also shows why the whites of many two colors systems appeared yellowish. It was determined that skin tones were the most important color to portray accurately so this line was placed such that skin tones would be represented correctly. However this usually resulted in the white point falling in a place with a yellow tint instead of being completely neutral. The reason a three color system is such a vast improvement over a two color system is because with three primaries a triangle is able to be created which can cover a much larger gamut of colors. This larger triangle also allows for accurate skin tone reproduction while maintaining a neutral white point.
Cinema Color History Cinema Color History Reviewed by Blog Share on 5:32 PM Rating: 5

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