The History and Science of Color Film: From Isaac Newton to the Coen Brothers

Today we’ll look at the science and history that allows us to enjoy color in film.

What is Color?

Our Journey begins with the simplest of questions. What is this phenomenon called “color”? This question baffled people for ages.

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

It wasn’t until 1666 when a young Isaac Newton first began experimenting with optics that we began to think of color as a function of light. Color is really our psychological reaction to a very narrow band of electromagnetic spectrum which we call light – from the red on the low end of the spectrum through orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet at the high end.

Through his experiments Isaac Newton discovered that you could combine all the colors light together to create white light. From his experiments he devised the world’s first color circle, using seven colors like the seven notes of a musical scale.


Isaac Newton’s Color Circle based on the 7 notes of the Western Musical Scale

It turns out you only need three primary colors to create white or any perceivable color. This trichromatic theory was first put forward by Thomas Young in 1802 and refined by and Herman vonn Helmholtz in the 1850s. The Young-Helmholtz theory postulated that human retina was made of cones that were responsive to only three colors of light – red, yellow and blue (later revised to red, green, and blue).

But the Young-Helmholtz Theory (though mostly correct) was based on scientific reasoning not experimental evidence. Their theory would be refined in 1850s by one of the greatest scientists of all time James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell is famous for unifying electricity, magnetism and light into one field of study -electromagnetism, one branch of science which would set the stage for Albert Einstein and his Theories of Relativity in the 20th century.

James Clerk Maxwell holding a top from his color experiments

James Clerk Maxwell holding a top from his color experiments

But before he did that, Maxwell was interested in color. In his 1855 paper, Experiments on Colour, Maxwell used spinning tops to demonstrate that validity of the Young Helmholtz theory, refining the primary colors to Red, Green and Blue.

In 1861, with the help of Thomas Sutton, the inventor of the Single Lens Reflex camera or SLR, Maxwell applied his theory to photography, shooting a tartan ribbon with a black and white camera three times, once using a red filter, a green filter, and a blue filter. Combining the color separations back together, Maxwell and Sutton created the world’s very first permanent color photograph which would become the basis for all color photography to come.


World's First Colorful Photograph

World’s First Colorful Photograph

The Prequel to Color Film

Though Maxwell had demonstrated the principles of color photography in 1861, it would take a long time before capturing naturalistic colors could be employed in the motion picture industry. But that didn’t stop the early filmmakers from adding color back in after the fact.

Hand Tinting was a widely practiced technique of painting colors onto the film itself. During the early days of motion pictures, where features lasted only 10 minutes or so, it was economically viable – in fact Georges Melies employed 21 women to hand tint his films frame by frame.

As the demand for film became greater and greater, Charles Pathe mechanized the process of coloring film in France using a stencil process he called Pathecolor. By 1910, Pathe employed 400 women in his factory.

As film became an international mass media industry, even stencils could not meet the demands of production. Filmmakers began using bath processes to tint and tone their films. Tinting involved putting the film in a bath of dye – this would turn the entire frame a particular color. Toning on the other hand only colored the dark parts of the frame by chemically converting the silver in the film to colored silver salts

Some filmmakers like D.W. Griffith used the tinting and toning to enhance emotional mood of the film but often times, labs would just apply colored dyes based on the scene location or even just randomly. In 1920s, 80 to 90 percent of all American films were using some form of tinting or toning.

But these bath processed caused problems once sound was introduced in 1927 and printed as an optical track that ran along the film. Pre tinted film stock was created to solve this problem but it saw little use as more naturalistic ways of creating color were starting to become popular.

Color Begins


There are two methods of creating color: The Additive system is where primary colored lights are added together – when equally mixed, they create white light. This is the process used right now as you are watching this video – your screen is made up of tiny red green and blue pixels that when seen from afar, combine to create color.

The other system is the Subtractive system where primary colors (Cyan, Magenta and Yellow) are subtracted from white light to create colors and when all equally and fully subtracted create black.

Both additive and subtractive color were used to create color photography.

Charles Urban

Charles Urban

The first major venture into capturing color naturally in motion picture came in 1908 with Charles Urban and the Natural Color Kinematograph Company. The Kinemacolor system, invented by George Albert Smith was a sequential two color additive process

Kinemacolor camera hi res

Kinemacolor Camera

In the camera, one frame would be captured with a red filter and the next frame with a green filter and back and forth. When played back with a projector with a red green filter fly wheel, the red and green sequential images would “add” together because of our persistence of vision. The result was a surprising good color image despite being only a two color system.

Kinemacolor first big hit was The Dehli Durbar – a 2 and a half hour documentary on the coronation held in Dehli for the newly crowned King George V as the imperial emperor of colonial India.

But there were some major issues. Notice the registration problems in the marching soldiers legs – recording color sequentially meant each frame would be off slightly. And since only red and green filters were used, blue skies were impossible to reproduce. In fact it would be this inability to create blue which would spell the downfall of Kinemacolor.

Charles Urban, like any good industrialist, wanted to monopolize color film and crush all other 2 color processes. This created an enemy in William Friese-Greene, producer of a rival red-green color system, Biocolour.

William Friese-Green

William Friese-Green

Friese-Greene sued Urban’s Kinemacolor to invalidate their patent. The first court upheld the Kinemacolor patent, but on appeal, the judge sided with Friese-Green basing his decision on fact that Kinemacolor’s patent claimed it would reproduce natural colors and yet it failed to produce blue. Because of vague wording the technological limitations of the system spelled its downfall- Kinemacolor’’s patent was revoked and Urban’s company was liquidated soon after.

But Kinemacolor proved there was a market color film. Other additive techniques including Chronochrome, Cinechrome and British Raycol tried to establish a following but additive color systems for film proved to be too technically challenging to implement. They would find use in TV and electronics.

But The first truly successful color system for film would come the two-strip subtractive Technicolor.

The Rise of Technicolor

The Technicolor Company was founded in 1915 to exploit a two-color additive process. Their first film was an utter failure- so they changed direction and started working on a two color subtractive process.


The new process patented in 1922 used a beam splitter in camera to split the light onto two black and white film stocks – one which was ultimately dyed red orange and the other which was dyed blue-green. The resulting dyed positive images would be cemented together for a final color positive image which could be played back in the standard projectors with no special equipment.

The first film to recieve the Technicolor 2 strip subtractive process was The Toll of the Sea in 1922

The Toll of the Sear grossed over $250,000. Two strip technicolor was an instant hit. In 1928, Technicolor refined the process with a step called Imbibtion or IB – combining the color separations onto a third black gelatin coated film which gave technicoor a signature

As films evolved from the silent era to sound era, musicals became a big genre and perfectly suited for color. In 1930 Technicolor was under contract for thirty six major releases. But not all was perfectly rosy… just two years later in 1932, the production of Technicolor films had all but ended. The boom in technicolor resulted in many cameramen who werent trained to achieve quality results with the process. Also Eastman’ released a panchromatic film stock, a much more capable black and white film that produced beautiful images under normal incandescent light. This was much cheaper to use than the arc lights needed for Technicolor two strip.

But Technicolor wasnt out for long… they had an ace up their sleeve. In 1932, they perfected the three strip Technicolor system.


Using a beam splitter they captured light on to three pieces of film – Green on to it’s own strip and blue and red onto a bipacked strip. This three strip process was technically superior to anything that had come before it but it was really expensive – the cameras costing upwards of $30,000 a piece. And this time Technicolor would have an iron fist over quality control. In order to make a Technicolor film, you needed a Technicolor cameraman, use Technicolor makeup, have a technicolor consultant make sure your art direction had an acceptable color palette and have the film processed and printed by who else Technicolor,

Hollywood majors were hesitant to jump on board with this expensive process. So Technicolor offered the process to a small upstart – Walt Disney for his “Silly Symphony” cartoon series. Flowers and Trees (1932) and The Three Little Pigs (1933) -were both huge successes and even going on to winning Oscars for best animated short.

For live action, Pioneer Films produced Technicolor’s first feature film: Becky Sharp which had great buzz but was ultimately a failure. David O. Selznick’s independent studio produced the first commercially successful Technicolor feature with Garden of Allah in 1936.

But to me the showcase of technicolor would come from Warner Bros. with The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938 which won three Academy Awards for it’s aesthetic use of color.

And then came 1939 – considered the greatest year in the golden era of studio controlled Hollywood, 1939 was also a great year for Technicolor. The Wizard of Oz demonstrated the incredible richness of Technicolor in creating a magical land of Oz.

But it was Gone with the Wind that first put to use the company’s new faster fine-grain film stock- a major technological break through that reduced the light needed by 50%.

In 1941, Technicolor introduced the monopack – combining the three separations into one single roll of film that could be loaded in conventional cameras – great for location shooting.

Technicolor had come back with a vengence after the failure of 2 strip and now was on top of their game doing what Charles Urban could only hope to do with Kinemacolor… hold a virtual monopoly over color film production.

Eastmancolor Takes Over

Technicolor and it’s supplier Eastman Kodak controlled 90% of the color film market. The United States Justice department saw this as a problem and filed an anti-trust civil suit in 1947. In 1950, a court decree forced Technicolor to make available a certain cameras to small independent companies on a first come first serve basis. But this government interaction didn’t do much to Technicolor’’s power. What would break the monopoly was a new kind of cheaper film stock – Eastmancolor.

Eastman Color

Eastmancolor was based on the German Agfacolor process developed in 1936. Similar to the Technicolor monopack that sandwiched three color film separations in a single roll, Agfacolor was a crown jewel in Nazi Propaganda Machine. After the end of World War II the patents were released and the process was adopted all over the world, becoming Sovcolor in the USSR and Fujicolor in Japan. But it was Eastman’s refinement of Agfacolor that really made it popular. Using automatic color masking and released in 1950, Eastmancolor was relatively cheap, didn’t require specialized lights or lab processes, and would work in conventional motion film cameras. It didnt deliver the same rich color as technicolor but audience’s tastes were alredy shifting away from that technicolor look. Eastmancolor would go on to win a Technical Academy Award in 1952 practically putting to rest the three strip technicolor process which would cease to be used within two short years.

Eastmancolor film stock has come to be known by the names of the studios and labs that licensed it such as Warnercolor, Metrocolor Deluxe and Movielab. Though the richness of technicolor had started the move of film towards color, it was the ease and cost effectiveness of Eastmancolor that sustained the growth of color so that by 1967 virtually all major features being made were shot in color.

Even Technicolor ultimately switched over to the Eastmancolor process in 1975 selling off their imbibtion dye process to the Chinese Government.

There was one major problem with Eastmancolor film and it would not rear it’s ugly head for at least a decade…. Eastmancolor was not very stable and it tended to fade much faster than other processes – as quickly as 5 years if not stored properly. This would be a major issue in film preservation. In 1980 Martin Scorsese lead a campaign to push Eastman to develop low fade archival film which they did, but the a lot of films were already starting to disappear. The race against time for film preservation had begun.

Digital Color

Advancement to the color of films can come from all sorts of bizarre places. In 1985 media mogul Ted Turner set out to “colorize” a catalog of studio era black and white titles he had acquired during his brief ownership of MGM/UA. Using digital manipulation, the films were scanned and colored frame by frame in sort of the electronic version of George Milies hand tinting shops.

The colorization of old black and white films was a controversial move with Turner himself half jokingly stating he would not stop until he colorized Citizen Kane. Just three weeks before he died, Orson Welles who had a clause in his contract saying Kane could not be edited without his permission, told a friend, “Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons” – Citizen Kane was spared.

But Turner’s colorization got filmmakers thinking about the possibilities of selective color manipulation. In the 1990s, many filmmakers explored different lab processes such as bleach bypass to create unique film tones. Moving into the 2000s, computers had become powerful enough to handle entire films. Digital intermediaries came into use – a process of scanning a film frame by frame into a computer to be digitally manipulated.

The first film to get the digital intermediary treatment for the entire film was The Coen Brother’s O Brother Where Art Thou – in 2001. Cinematographer Roger Deakins worked for 11 weeks toning down the lush green summer foliage to achieve a dusty golden desaturated look.

As our filmmaking post production tools continue to move into the digital realm, the creative possibilities for color manipulation are endless. But perhaps just as important, our modern digital tools give us some weapons in the fight for film preservation. We have much better capability to restore the fading prints of films past, preserving our cultural heritage for future generations. The question will be, now how do we store those digital assets?

From the moment when Dorothy first opens the door to that technicolor world of Oz, it is clear that the use of color can move us and transport us – color is a subtle tool that can unlock a world that can be as normal, idealized, gritty or as fantastically different we wnt it to be. So use that tool – use color! Go and make something great!


The Science and History of Color in Film Quiz