Early Kodachrome color motion pictures

There were color movies from the earliest days of cinema, including Edison’s 1895 short Annabelle’s Dance and George Méliès famous 1902 A Trip to the Moon which he sold in black and white and in color (for an additional fee, of course). They were hand-colored, however, not shot in color. The French film studio Pathé used a stenciling system starting in 1905. The process cut out sections from the film which would then be run through dye rollers of up to 6 different colors. It would remain popular for two and a half decades and would employ hundreds of women as stencilers.

Tinted film was also widely used. It was cheap and easy and filmmakers could match a scene to one of the pre-dyed color reels, so for instance, a fire scene would be shot on red tinted film. Hollywood kept using tinted film for effect well into the 50s.

Eastman Kodak started testing a new method which would bring naturalistic color to film, the Two-Color Kodachrome Process, in 1914. Two-Color Kodachrome was first used in a fiction film in a 1916 short called Concerning One Thousand Dollars. The Pordenone Silent Film Festival presented a restored version of that film in 2000 and here’s a clip of it:


Shot with a dual-lens camera, the process recorded filtered images on black-and-white negative stock, then made black-and-white separation positives. The final prints were actually produced by bleaching and tanning a double-coated duplicate negative (made from the positive separations), then dyeing the emulsion green/blue on one side and red on the other. Combined they created a rather ethereal palette of hues. Kodak introduced Two-Color Kodachrome to the industry in 1922 through a series of private screenings, first in New York City and subsequently at venues across the country. That first test reel contained shots of actress Hope Hampton, but it has not been determined if that reel is still extant.

Earlier this year, the George Eastman House’s Motion Picture Department restored some of those 1922 test films used to pitch the Kodachrome process to the studio bosses.

In these newly preserved tests, made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair. She is joined by actress Hope Hampton modeling costumes from The Light in the Dark (1922), which contained the first commercial use of Two-Color Kodachrome in a feature film. Ziegfeld Follies actress Mary Eaton and an unidentified woman and child also appear. Finally, the film includes panoramic scenes of homes in the Los Angeles area shot by Capstaff in July of the same year.


Fox eventually bought it, but it turned out to be a pig in a poke. In 1930, Fox spent huge amounts on special labs on each coast, plus special tens of 35mm and 70mm cameras for shooting using the Two-Color Kodachrome Process. By then one of Kodak’s competitors Technicolor had become the industry standard and expensive, complicated Kodachrome was over before it really began. Fox never got to use any of those specialty cameras for Kodachrome, although a few of the 35mm would be repurposed over 2 decades later for the widescreen, high resolution VistaVision process.

3 thoughts on “Early Kodachrome color motion pictures

  1. That’s p. cool. By hand, you say? Like under a microscope? Sounds very time consuming and artculate. Worse than the job of a single comic book colorist.

  2. Kinemacolor was a two-color process for the earliest still-life photographs. Details of how this was done is not known.

    By 1901, Urban and Smith from England began using the standard three-color process, and was remarkably quite simple. Usually red, blue, and yellow, as they are the primary colors. Sometimes, they would use a mix of one primary with one one secondary color, and mix the two mixes together. For instance: blue-green and red-orange.

    How it worked, was they would tint the film stock before exposure. They would load all three stocks into a camera with multiple lenses, and take multiple, successive exposures.

    The color fidelity turned out quite remarkable, especially for the first decade of the 20th century! However, because of the multiple exposures, and placing three different negative stocks together in order to create the color positive, this caused a lot of “fringing.” If you have ever seen any three-D photos or film on the 2-D stock without 3D glasses, that’s about what it amounted to. You can see the trail of the three primary colors bleeding off the subject.

    For film, they could only use one colored tint on the film stock. Usually a greenish-yellow tint. Instead of black-and-white, the film turned out to be greenish-yellowish throughout. It was actually pretty horrible, IMO. Personally, I much prefer the black-and-white.

    The hand-colored process was indeed tedious. As your article states, it required a bunch of women to create stencils. They only used a regular magnifying glass placed in a stand on the table-top of which these women were working on. Usually, they used 6 different colors. Obviously, the accuracy of the colors was off, as the color would sometimes bleed outside the lines in one frame, and not quite reach the line on the next frame. It’s pretty funny this day in age to watch film that was hand-colored. Kinda like a young child who hasn’t developed the skill to color inside the lines in a coloring book. Only the color on hand-painted film stock “jumps around.”

    It’s especially hilarious when you see…say…someone wearing a red dress move from from left to run, but the color does not not move with it, or it moves slower. Because, as I have said, in the first couple of frames, the red might be outside the lines. Say, further to the left than where the dress is in that frame. Then the next couple of frames, the stencil was nt the right shape or was not placed correctly on the film stock for painting, and would be too far to the right. Hard to explain, but when you see it in action, you would know what exactly what I mean. Knowing how it was done and comparing it to modern film-making, makes it all that much more hilarious.

    My favorite process, and obviously….OBVIOUSLY….the most successful process…was the additive process. The additive system was the first Technicolor process. Kinemacolor was the first company to experiment with the additive system. Remember the discussion in the first two paragraphs about how color was applied to still-life photographs, first by Kinemacolor, then by by Urban and Smith? Well, both Kinemacolor and Urban and Smith began experimenting with film. For the first two years of the twentienth century, it was largely a failure. Finally, in 1906, Kinemacolor was able to achieve a very good additive process using only two colors. (Three colors was unsuccessful with film. Whereas, with still photos, three colors was more successful than two.)

    The Kinemacolor camera exposed the normal black and white film through a red and green filter, alternating between each frame. A couple of problems: The film reel that was produced would suffer the same “fringing” effect as the still photos if the black and white film was not loaded exactly correctly and lined perfectly up with the color wheel. So the photographer had to make 100% certain everything was lined up correctly. One mistake, they wouldn’t know it until they went to develop the film. A week’s worth of production could be lost, because they would have to go back and re-do everything from scratch once again until they got it right.

    Another problem, was that there were no pure whites. However this was easy to fix, for there were a few tricks they used in order to trick the eye into seeing pure whites. But some of these tricks caused other problems of their own. It made the scenes appear either too dark, or too bright.

    The subtractive system was even better than the additive system. But this wasn’t developed until sometime in the….1920s I believe? It was around the time when Technicolor was becoming well-known, and decent color films were becoming less rare, and therefore, less of a novelty. The subtractive system would be used pretty widely throughout most of the rest of the 20th century.

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