The Transition and Use of Color in Film 

Category: Movies
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Color has and forever will be a large part of art as a whole. Each color creates a very specific feeling to each person and means something different to everyone across all cultures and communities. Every color that one sees every single day was very specifically chosen to be in that place and that’s how it is in film as well. Color has added to film in multiple ways since the introduction of film, from the way it is used to the methods that create color. That being said, the transition to colored film was a long process that took decades, due to its expense and impracticality as opposed to standard black and white film. One could argue that nothing quite shaped the way that film is perceived now the way that color changed film. All in all, film was forever changed with the introduction of color.

Color adds to the entire plot of a film in every way imaginable. It can be used as a theme for a film all on its own. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, green is used to establish the link between Madeleine and the main character (May). This is shown in lots of other films as well. In the end, it all really depends on how the film chooses to use the color to portray its feeling, context matters. “In The Sixth Sense”, M. Night Shyamalan uses the color red to represent fear, dread, and foreshadowing whereas, in Pleasantville, Gary Ross uses red to represent hope, love and sensuality” (StudioBinder). Hue, saturation, value, color contrast, and context all are what makes color so useful in film the way that it is today. Color creates psychological reactions within every person, and every color creates a different reaction (Welles 31). The color blue and the color red are very different in their reaction people have to them. Red represents more anger and extreme feelings whereas blue is more calming and serene. People have the strongest emotional reaction to the color red than any other color; some people view red as aggressive where others view it as passion, love (Welles 31). The hue and saturation of a color can also change the mood of a person (StudioBinder). Colors can have different physical effects on a person as well, changing blood pressure, red being heightened and blue being more calming (StudioBinder). 

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Every Color has its own emotion and meanings. Commonly, red is used to show love, passion, or anger, pink is used to show innocence, sweetness, or femininity, orange is used to show warmth, friendliness, or youth, yellow is used to show madness, naivety, or sickness, green is used to show nature, corruption, or an ominous settings, blue is used to show cold, isolation, or calmness, and purple is used to show fantasy, eroticism, or mysticism (StudioBinder). In earlier films color was used to show setting change and mood change more because the whole strip of film would have to be colored with tinting or toning, rather than the color we have today that is much more realistic and not so much there to just add to the feeling; the color also did not follow the modern connections that we have with these colors because of how they were more limited in their use of color, with only more basic colors available (McKittrick).

Tinting, toning, and hand coloring where the earliest versions of color within film. Tinting involved submerging the film into a dye bath (Flueckiger). Toning involved a chemical process that replaced the silver in the film with other color compounds and dyes (Flueckiger). Hand coloring, on the other hand, involved dying the frames one by one by hand with dye and a brush, being the most time consuming of all the original coloring processes (Flueckiger). Stencil coloring involved cutting stencils from the positive prints and using them to color in specific areas of the frames using brushes or velvet strips (Flueckiger). The first hand-painted film was Annabelle Serpentine Dance by Edison’s Studio for the Kinetoscope (Wirth). Two more famous examples of hand-painted films are A Trip to the Moon, by Georges Méliès, thought to only exist in black and white until 1999, and The Great Train Robbery, by Edison (Wirth). Tinting was the most common of these versions because it was the least costly and time-consuming (McKittrick). The issue with these types of coloring techniques is that a lot of them have faded from the bright colors that they once had been. When these methods were all people had to add color to films, the director had to be entirely sure that this was the decision they wanted to be made. There was no changing the color after a change had already been in effect, as they did not have the digital potential that people have today. The tinting or toning of a film could be seen as the most meaningful form as that color would then be associated with the entire project.

The first color photographs could be taken using an additive color process. This involves shining three colors of light, green, blue, and red, so that when they combine, create any other color on the projected screen (“How Color Came to Films”). The first color photograph was taken by Thomas Sutton and James Clerk Maxwell (“How Color Came to Films”). They make three black and white transparencies from the negatives and projected them by the light of the color which its negative was taken, this would then project the colors that the image was meant to show. This was used also later in Technicolor for film to project the colors through different negative films and show on the screen as the colors that the additive light would allow (“How Color Came to Films”). The issue that would come with Technicolor’s two-color projection is that for true additive color to occur there would need to be three colors rather than just two, which caused some of the colors in their films to have different blue colors (“How Color Came to Films”). Later Technicolor would change to a three-color film.

Later films would come to use Technicolor to create the color that they wanted. This process used two projectors, one projecting red and one projecting green light, that would then combine on the screen through a prism, creating the color (McKittrick). This was much more expensive than previous versions of color because it required a specific type of filming and camera (McKittrick). The Gulf Between is the only film produced using this method due to the difficulty that came with filming in this style (McKittrick). Technicolor developed other styles of colored film after this to try and make it less expensive and easier to produce. “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” (McKittrick). After this they then created a three-color film using dye transfer that had the best results in terms of color quality because of the way the additive light would project onto the screen rather than the two-color process; the first film this would be used on was Walt Disney’s short, animated film Flowers and Trees (McKittrick). Color was limited to more prestigious films until the late 1950s due to how much more expensive it was as opposed to the traditional black and white films (McKittrick).

There were lots of issues that came with switching to color film that made it more of a drawn-out process for color film to come to be as common as it would be today. Technicolor required way more lighting to create the correct color and light balance than black and white film needed, making film sets too hot due to the intense illumination that was in the studios (Bitoun). The shadows were much more likely to be too dark and the lights were too likely to be too white and bright, invisible because of this (Bitoun). “The cinematographer Franz Planer said that ‘in colour, you may have an exterior sequence that […] requires three or four days to shoot the sequence. Shooting throughout the day you run into vast changes in colour and lighting’” (Bitoun). If color film did not require so much of the intense lighting that was necessary to create a balance in contrast then it would have become a lot more popular much more quickly. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer for Citizen Kane, once said “Color will continue to be improved but will never be a hundred percent successful. Nor will it ever entirely replace black and white film because of the inflexibility of light in color photography and the consequent sacrifice of dramatic contrasts… the low-key, more dramatic use of light seems to me automatically to rule color out in pictures of [non-musical or non-comedic] type” (Wirth).

Black and white film will continue to thrive as an artistic choice even today. When film switched to color entirely, black and white film transitioned into a more budget question than an artistic one (McKittrick). Some more modern examples of films that are in black and white include Schindler’s List, by Steven Spielberg, Clerks, by Kevin Smith, and Pleasantville, by Gary Ross. According to Barbara Flueckiger, a film professor at the University of Zurich, roughly 80 percent of original black and white films had color that was added to them (May). Today black and white film is more of an artistic choice once again, as color film was an artistic choice when cinematography was first invented. The way color is used in films will forever be changing with new technology but one thing is for certain, color will always play an important role in the making of films, whether that be all color, some color, or even no color at all. 

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The Transition and Use of Color in Film . (2022, Apr 29). Retrieved from