How Movies Went From Black and White to Color

The Long History Behind "Color Movies"

The Wizard of Oz

It's commonly thought that "older" movies are in black and white and "newer" movies are in color as if there is a distinct dividing line between the two. However, as with most developments in art and technology, there isn't an exact break between when the industry stopped using black and white film and when it started using color film. On top of that, film fans know that some filmmakers continue to choose to shoot their films in black and white decades after color film became the standard—Notable examples include "Young Frankenstein" (1974), "Manhattan" (1979), "Raging Bull" (1980), "Schindler's List" (1993), and "The Artist" (2011). In fact, for many years in the earliest decades of film, shooting in color was a similar artistic choice—with color movies existing for far longer than most people believe.

An often-repeated—but incorrect—bit of trivia is that 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" was the first full-color movie. This misconception probably comes from the fact that the film makes great symbolic use of brilliant color film after the first scene is depicted in black and white. However, color movies were being created more than 35 years before "The Wizard of Oz!"

Early Color Films

Early color film processes were developed very shortly after the motion picture was invented. However, these processes were either rudimentary, expensive, or both.

Even in the earliest days of silent film, color was used in motion pictures. The most common process was to use dye to tint the color of certain scenes — for example, have scenes that occur outside at night tinted a deep purple or blue color to simulate the nighttime and to visually distinguish those scenes from ones that took place inside or during the day. Of course, this was merely a representation of color.

Another technique utilized in films like "Vie et Passion du Christ" ("Life and Passion of the Christ") (1903) and "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) was stenciling, in which each frame of a film was hand-colored. The process to hand-color each frame of a film—even films much shorter than the typical film of today—was painstaking, expensive, and time-consuming. Over the next several decades, advances were made that improved film color stenciling and helped to speed the process, but the time and expense that it required resulted in it being utilized for only a small percentage of films.

One of the most important developments in color film was Kinemacolor, created by Englishman George Albert Smith in 1906. Kinemacolor movies projected film through red and green filters to simulate the actual colors used in the film. While this was a step forward, the two-color film process did not accurately represent a full spectrum of color, leaving many colors to appear either too bright, washed out, or missing entirely. The first motion picture to use the Kinemacolor process was Smith’s 1908 travelogue short "A Visit to the Seaside." Kinemacolor was most popular in its native U.K., but installing the necessary equipment was cost prohibitive for many theaters.


Less than a decade later, U.S. company Technicolor developed its own two-color process that was utilized to shoot the 1917 movie "The Gulf Between"—the first U.S. color feature. This process required a film to be projected from two projectors, one with a red filter and the other with a green filter. A prism combined the projections together on a single screen. Like other color processes, this early Technicolor was cost prohibitive because of the special filming techniques and projection equipment it required. As a result, "The Gulf Between" was the only film produced using Technicolor's original two-color process.

During the same time, technicians at Famous Players-Lasky Studios (later renamed Paramount Pictures), including engraver Max Handschiegl, developed a different process for coloring film using dyes. While this process, which debuted in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1917 film "Joan the Woman," was only used on a limited basis for about a decade, the dye technology would be utilized in future colorization processes. This innovative process became known as the "Handschiegl color process."

In the early 1920s, Technicolor developed a color process that imprinted the color on the film itself—which meant it could be exhibited on any properly-sized film projector (this was similar to a slightly earlier, but less successful, color format called Prizma). Technicolor’s improved process was first used in the 1922 film, "The Toll of the Sea." However, it was still expensive to produce and required much more light than shooting black and white film, so many films that used Technicolor only utilized it for some short sequences in an otherwise black and white movie. For example, the 1925 version of "The Phantom of the Opera" (starring Lon Chaney) featured a few short sequences in color. In addition, the process had technical issues that prevented it from widespread use.

Three-Color Technicolor

Technicolor and other companies continued to experiment and refine color motion picture film throughout the 1920s, though black and white film remained the standard. In 1932, Technicolor introduced a three-color film utilizing dye-transfer techniques that depicted the most vibrant, brilliant color on film yet. It debuted in Walt Disney’s short, animated film, "Flowers and Trees," part of a contract with Technicolor for the three-color process, which lasted until 1934’s "The Cat and the Fiddle," the first live-action feature to use the three-color process.

Of course, while the results were terrific, the process was still expensive and required a much bigger camera to shoot. In addition, Technicolor did not sell these cameras and required studios to rent them. Because of this, Hollywood reserved color for its more prestigious features throughout the late 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. Developments by both Technicolor and Eastman Kodak in the 1950s made it much easier to shoot film in color and, as a result, much cheaper.

Color Becomes Standard

Eastman Kodak's own color film process Eastmancolor rivaled the popularity of Technicolor, and Eastmancolor was compatible with the new widescreen CinemaScope format. Both widescreen film and color movies were the industry's way of battling against the growing popularity of the small, black and white screens of television. By the late 1950s, most Hollywood productions were being shot in color—so much so that by the mid-1960s new black and white releases were less a budgetary choice than they were an artistic choice. That has continued in the subsequent decades, with new black and white movies mainly appearing from indie filmmakers.

Today, shooting on digital formats renders color film processes nearly obsolete. Still, audiences will continue to associate black and white film with classic Hollywood storytelling and also marvel at the bright, vibrant colors of early color movies.