Earliest films shot in natural color digitally restored

In 1899, British photographer Edward Raymond Turner and his financier Frederick Lee patented a process for making natural color moving pictures. Color was seen in film from the very beginning. The Annabelle Serpentine Dance was filmed in Edison’s Black Maria Studios in 1895, but it was hand-tinted after the film was shot. At least three inventors had patented natural color processes before him, but Turner’s system was the first that led to a working model.

Turner had worked for still photographers since he was 15 years old. Ten years later in 1898, he worked as an assistant to photographic pioneer Frederic Eugene Ives on his newly-invented Kromskop (pronounced “chrome scope”) color still photography system. Ives’ method involved taking three black-and-white photographs on a single glass plate through red, green and blue filters. When viewed through the Kromskop device’s color filters and mirrored surfaces, those three pictures would combine into one brilliantly colored image. Ives sold prepared sets of pictures called Kromgrams for viewing through a Kromskop. These were immensely popular for Victorian audiences in Britain and the US, especially the stereoscopic model which showed the pictures in 3D as well as color. You can see some beautiful examples of Kromgrams of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake in this post.

While assisting Ives, Turner worked simultaneously on a way to take moving pictures using the three-filter additive process. What he came up with a camera that had a rotating wheel with sections of red, green and blue filters placed in front of the lens. This would record a frame of film three successive times, one in each color. Since the subjects were in motion, each frame was slightly different from the next.

The patent was the easy part. The hard part was making a working a model which would record the film and then a projector that could do the work of the Kromskop on moving pictures. After two years of failures and with money running out, in 1901 Lee and Turner went to American film producer Charles Urban who financed continuing development and enlisted engineer and camera inventor Alfred Darling to help make theory reality.

Darling built a camera that used 38mm film to record moving pictures through Turner’s filter system. They filmed a variety of test subjects — Turner’s three children playing with sunflowers in their back yard, his daughter Agnes on a swing, a goldfish in a bowl, a scarlet macaw, the Brighton pier, a street scene of Knightsbridge in London.

In 1902, Darling built a projector that would play films recorded using the Turner and Lee process. It had a speed of 48 frames per second (much faster than most black-and-white films which ran at 16 frames per second) and a lens that superimposed the red, blue and green frames simultaneously onto the screen. A rotating filter wheel behind the lens applied the proper filter color to each frame. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in practice. The timing of the rotating filters had to be exact relative to the speed of the film and the distance from the screen precisely calibrated or else the results were painfully blurry and unwatchable. They kept working on it until Edward Turner died suddenly of a massive heart attack in his workshop on March 9th, 1903. He was 29 years old.

Urban still thought the process had potential, so he brought in his associate George Albert Smith, a pioneering filmmaker and inventor, to keep developing it. Smith kept slogging at it for a while, then realized if he abandoned the blue, the remaining red and green would produce respectable color pictures with much less trouble. G.A. Smith patented the two-color system in 1906 calling it Kinemacolor. Kinemacolor cameras used rotating red and green filters to record alternating frames which were then projected through two-color filters. Here are two of G. A. Smith’s early films using the Kinemacolor process. He chose his subjects — Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906) and Woman Draped in Patterned Handkerchiefs (1908) — wisely to be particularly flush with reds and greens.


Smith’s system was successful for five years. At its peak, 300 theaters in Britain had Kinemacolor projectors installed. Smith was sued for patent infringement by William Friese-Greene in 1914 who had patented a red-green system of his called Biocolour before Smith. Friese-Greene won and put Smith out of the film business for good.

In 1937, Charles Urban donated his collection of films, including the Lee & Turner test films, to the London Science Museum. Four years ago the collection was transferred to the National Media Museum where it was kept in storage until Curator of Cinematography Michael Harvey found it languishing there and decided to see if modern technology could make Turner’s colors come alive.

The first obstacle was the non-standard 38mm film size. In order to scan the frames, experts first had to create a custom gate — a devise that holds film in projectors — that would isolate a frame. They would center a frame of film in the gate, place it into an optical printer, scan the frame, and then start again with the next frame. It was a painstaking process, centering the film to ensure it’s in exactly the same position as the frame before; they topped out at 26 frames per hour.

Once the frames were scanned, the digital file was sent to Prime Focus, a special effects, conversion and restoration company, which used digital editing software to put the proper red, green or blue filter over each frame. Turner lent a hand from the grave, since he had noted which frames were which colors in the margin of the film. They used the exact process as described in the patent: that is, filter frames 1, 2 and 3, and combine them, then frames 4, 5 and 6, and combine them, etc.

Finally, they found themselves watching Edwardian color movies.


The Lee and Turner films, the recording and projecting equipment are now on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford.


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1 Comment »

2012-09-14 10:13:45

In its day color photography must have been seen as an amazing technological advance


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June 2022


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