Nowadays, as we sit on our sectional couches, watching movies on 60-inch HD televisions that give us a chance to explore all the pores on the face of our celebrity heroes, it’s hard to remember that there was once a time when it wasn’t even possible to produce movies in color. The age of black and white provides a very clear division between eras for most people and is the most obvious and immediate sign that something we happened across while flipping through the channels is not just old, but really old. While many of the greatest movies ever made were originally produced without color, including one of the best horror movies of all-time, there are still many people who would never force themselves to sit through a gasp, black and white movie. So, just when did movies go from black and white to color? And what caused it?
When Did Movies Go From Black and White to Color?
Well, the answer to that is not quite as clear as you might think. It is not as though the technology to make movies in color came along and everyone immediately jumped on board. In fact, many black and white movies have continued to be produced over the years, including one of the early 2019 Oscar favorites. Furthermore, in the same way that filmmakers continue to utilize black and white as an artistic choice, for many years the use of color was seen in the same way. Even though the technology was available, most still went with black and white, with color only used for films where it specifically added to the theme or feel.
Many people claim that The Wizard of Oz, in 1939, was the first full-color film. While this is not at all true, it is particularly well-known because of the contrast between the black and white opening scenes and the dramatic switch to color later on.
In fact, color was available essentially from the start of motion pictures. However, it was both very expensive and very basic and, therefore, considered either an unnecessary luxury or difficult hindrance. Some early films dyed entire frames to depict night or sunset for example, but were unable to work in detail. As early as 1902, the 13-minute short “A Trip to the Moon” used extremely labor-intense hand-stenciling to color each frame. This continued as a little-used alternative for decades. Also, in 1906, Englishman George Albert Smith created Kinemacolor, a technique of using red and green filters to simulate other colors. This two-color system was quite limited and very cost-prohibitive.
Early Experiments with Color
In 1917, the American company, Technicolor, developed its own two-color process that was used to shoot the first U.S. color feature: “The Gulf Between”, but the process never gained popularity due to cost issues. Meanwhile, Famous Players-Lasky Studios (which would later become Paramount Pictures), had produced their own coloring process (the Handschiegl color process), using dyes which they used in the 1917 film, “Joan the Woman”. While also limited in use and efficiency, this did actually form the basis for future innovations in the technology.
The 1922 film, “Toll of the Sea” was the first to utilize a slightly more advanced Technicolor process that imprinted the color on the actual film. While an improvement, it still rarely proved worth the added cost and was only used sparingly, often just for a few scenes within an otherwise black and white film such as in 1925’s: “The Phantom of the Opera”.
Technicolor’s Breakthrough and Beyond
In 1932, Technicolor’s latest innovation (the three-color dye transfer method), was used in the Disney animated short: “Flowers and Trees”, and eventually, in 1934, “The Cat and the Fiddle” became the first live-action feature to employ this revolutionary new process. This is considered the beginning of true color films, although the expensive process and special proprietary cameras that Technicolor was only willing to rent out meant that color was reserved for only the most important big-budget films from then until well into the 1950’s.
By the 1950’s, Eastman Kodak had developed a similar process to that of Technicolor and by late in the decade, further advancements by both had drastically reduced the cost of shooting in color. At this point, the popularity of color began to skyrocket and by the mid-1960’s, black and white were only being chosen as an artistic option. Click here to see if you can name these post-1970 black and white films.
As a result, most people consider the 1960’s the start of the color era, and it was certainly the point when the vast majority of movies switched over. However, most people would be shocked to learn that movies actually featured the rudimentary beginnings of color technology all the way back in 1902.