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The Colorization of Black-and-white Movies

The Colorization of Black-and-white Movies

The process of adding color to black-and-white films, sepia films, or monochrome moving pictures is known as film colorization. This article gives you the details on how black-and-white movies are colorized.
Malvika Kulur
Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès,  a French illusionist and filmmaker, was one of the first filmmakers to hand-paint color in black-and-white films.

Movies and cinema have been a part of our lives since the late 1800s, with Thomas Edison's invention - the Kinetoscope, which was the first movie camera of its time. The Lumière brothers are considered the pioneers in filmmaking, as they conceptualized a motion picture camera called the cinématographe, which was far more superior than Edison's Kinetoscope. The cinématographe also served as a projector and a developer.

Earlier movies were shot entirely in black-and-white, devoid of any color. When movies were shot on a black-and-white film, they were projected using different color filters, which gave the entire movie a tinted effect. But that changed after Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, a French illusionist, introduced hand-painted color films to the world, along with special effects, the substitution stop trick, use of multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, and dissolves. 'A Trip to the Moon' (1902) was one of Méliès' most famous works to be hand-colored.

Earlier, colorization was done by hand using the Pathéchrome or the Handschiegl color process. Due to certain limitations of hand colorization methods, digital or computerized colorization was developed in the 1970s. Sadly, the method of hand-coloring black-and-white films or projecting them with different color filters are not in use anymore, as the movies that are shot today, are shot in color, either digitally or on specialized films. But if we were to color old black-and-white movies, documentaries, or news programs, digital colorization is used. Today, if at all movies are shot in black-and-white, they are colorized using various video editing software, like Final Cut Pro 7, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, etc. In this article we'll have a look at the different techniques of coloring black-and-white films.

Hand Colorization
Hand colorization means adding color in the form of tints to black-and-white films by hand. It was a difficult and tedious manual process, which was carried out for each individual print of the movie that was being colored. The two widely-used methods of hand colorization were, Pathéchrome stencil system (invented in 1905) and the Handschiegl color process (invented in 1916).

Pathéchrome Stencil System
The 1903 French movie La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ, was one of the first to use the Pathéchrome process.

The Pathéchrome stencil system was also called the Pathécolor. This process made use of stencils that were cut manually. The method required the use of a device called the pathograph. The working of this method is as follows -
  • First, the print was projected using an opaque glass; a celluloid film strip was placed on the same projection area so that a technician could trace out the borders or elements in the shot, that were to be colored.
  • After the stencil was cut, it was put along with the movie print and processed in the pathograph, where color was applied to the positive print using a velvet ribbon.
  • A series of brushes were used to apply color to the velvet ribbon, to prevent overflow of color on the print.
  • A single stencil was used for applying one color. Every time a new color was added, a new stencil had to be cut.
However, this process had some drawbacks - it was time-consuming and very expensive.

The Handschiegl Color Process
The 1917 movie Joan the Woman, was the first movie to use this coloring technique to add a dramatic effect for the scene of Joan of Arc burning at the stake.

The Handschiegl process was invented in 1916 by Max Handschiegl and Alvin W. Wyckoff. They invented this process for the movie Joan the Woman, which was released in 1917. Following its invention in 1916, this process became the most widely-used artificial coloring process in motion pictures. Given below is the working of this coloring method -
  • Cinematographic films that were exposed, developed, and ready for screening were used for colorization.
  • Color was added to selected portions of the film by transferring the color (opaque paint, synthetic or aniline dyes, soluble ink, etc.) on to the negative.
  • After this, a duplicate negative print was made and worked on. This duplicate print was developed using a tanning developer.
  • Once the prints were developed, the areas that were colored (in the original negative), acquired a soft texture and were capable of absorbing the dyes, which were used in the coloring process.
  • This duplicate print was aligned laterally with a positive print, and was repetitively passed through dye transfer machines.
  • The drum in the dye transfer machine presses the two prints, so that the color from the negative print gets transferred to the positive print.
Drawbacks of this process - complexity in the working process and the application of maximum three colors.

Digital Colorization
The 1937 film Topper was one of the first few films that was digitally colorized and redistributed in the 1980s.

Digital colorization was a process that was developed during the 1970s by Wilson Markle. Initially, when digital or computerized colorization was introduced, the quality of the end product was not very good. The contrast was soft and pale, and the color looked flat and washed out. After 1980, this technology showed some remarkable improvements, and the movies that were reprinted in color looked fabulous.

Computerized colorization is a process that requires labor, and those working on this process are called technicians or video editors. To colorize monochrome movies digitally, the best print of the movie has to be first transferred on to a computer, using software specially made for this process. Explained below is the conventional way of digitally colorizing black-and-white footage -

  • A range of gray is associated with every object present in a shot. The colorizing software enables the computer to recognize every movement of these objects, based on the concentration of gray in the object.
  • The differences in brightness and contrast are also corrected wherever necessary.
  • Once the above step is accomplished, the editor selects a color for every object that needs coloring.
  • Color is applied to the objects, maintaining continuity in shade and density, especially when new elements enter the frame.
  • The technician has to track the regions from one frame to the other where movement occurs, and also identify the regions that have fuzzy or complex boundaries.
Let's take a scene to explain the process better. A girl is sitting in a room and looking into a bag. Five seconds later, a woman enters the room. In this case, the editor selects colors for all the objects or elements of the room in the frame, namely the girl, the bag, and the wall. Once he selects the colors, he adds them to each and every frame containing the scene, matching it with the girl's movements. When the woman enters the room, the editor has to repeat the same process with the woman as well as the girl, maintaining the continuity of the previous shot.

Latest in Digital Colorization
Today, there are various video editing software like Final Cut Pro 7, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Vegas™ Pro 12, etc. that have made the process of colorization very easy. All you have to do is transfer the film to your computer, and start editing it by using these software. You can give special effects, filters, shadow, luminosity, change, remove, or add colors, with just the click of your mouse. Video editing has become so advanced, that multiple frames can be selected and edited simultaneously.

Today we see our movies in color due to the innovative drive of our past filmmakers. The beauty with which they made their films and meticulously colored them is remarkable. The techniques used today are much faster, and the quality of prints coming out today are far more superior than what it was earlier.