Colourful stories no. 6 – Inventing Kinemacolor

Urban and Smith

Charles Urban (left) and George Albert Smith

Kinemacolor, the world’s first successful motion picture colour system, was invented by George Albert Smith. Smith (1864-1959) is one of the most fascinating figures in early cinema, and had already enjoyed a remarkable career prior to his work on colour cinematography.

In 1881, when aged seventeen Smith began a career as a stage mesmerist. He joined up with journalist Douglas Blackburn in a ‘second sight’ act. In such an act, very popular during the 1880s, the performer ‘transmitted’ information, ostensibly by thought alone, to his blindfolded accomplice about objects presented to him by members of the audience. The act attracted the attention of the credulous Society for Psychical Research. Smith took up with the SPR, becoming the subject of many of its experiments in hypnosis over the next few years, as well as being made private secretary to the SPR’s honorary secretary, Edmund Gurney. Leaving the SPR, in 1892 Smith developed a pleasure garden at St Anne’s Well, Hove, where people could encounter refreshments, lawn tennis, fortune tellers, a monkey house and Smith himself giving lantern shows. It was probably only natural that Smith would show a keen interest in moving pictures, and by 1897 he had acquired a camera and was making films. The creative imagination behind such titles as Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900), As Seen Through a Telescope (1900), The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899), Santa Claus (1898) and Let Me Dream Again (1900), with their use of cross-cutting, close-ups and subjectivity, has seen Smith acclaimed today as one of the important filmmakers of the period.

Let Me Dream Again

G.A. Smith’s Let Me Dream Again, with Tom Green and Smith’s wife Laura Bayley, from

Smith’s most significant film work of the time, however, and certainly the most profitable, was his film processing business. It is unclear how Smith, with his background in psychical research, magic lanterns and pleasure gardens, came to acquire the necessary technical knowledge to pursue such a business with such success, but – already selling his films through them – he took on the processing work of the Warwick Trading Company in November 1898, as well as dealing with a number of independent filmmakers.

It was through this work that Smith came into close contact with Charles Urban, Warwick’s managing director. As already described, Urban had encouraged and then personally invested in the Lee and Turner three-colour system, and when Turner died in 1903 Urban turned to Smith to try and make the stubborn system actually work.

Smith knew his colour photography. He had an Ives Kromskop (covered in an earlier post), and he was well aware of the experiments on still and motion colour photography by his Hove neighbours William Davidson and Benjamin Jumeaux. They had come up with the idea of employing two rather than three colour filters to create a motion picture colour record, and though their efforts met with failure, Smith recognised that here was the germ of a practical solution.

It took him three years. His breakthrough was not simply in choosing two-colour filters (red and green, or close variations on those basic colours) but in his understanding of the sensitizing chemcials needed. Film stock at the time was orthochromatic; that is, it was not fully sensitive to the full colour spectrum. It was good for the blues and greens, but excluded oranges and reds. This was fine enough for monochrome results, but fatally flawed for convincing colour. For that they needed panchromatic stock, which would be sensitive across the whole visible spectrum, but such stock did not exist at the time.

So Smith had to panchromatise his own film stock, and he was fortunate that at the very time he began his experiments, German chemists were coming up with satisfactory sensitisers. However, the right way forward was far from instant, and the method of bathing the negative stock in the dyes frequently yielded very uneven results. Smith worked his way through a wide range of colour sensitisers, finally achieving an acceptable balance that in particular had a sensitivity to red.

Charles Urban recorded the moment when their trials achieved success. There are a number of suspect features in his account (he seems to be confusing the scene with the earlier Lee and Turner experiments), but he is surely right in recalling the emotion of the moment:

One Sunday – we were ready for the first real two-colour test. It was beautiful sunshiny day. Smith dressed his little boy and girl in a variety of colors, the girl was in white with a pink sash, the boy in sailor blue waving a Union Jack; we had the green grass and the red brick house for a setting. This was in July 1906. It took about thirty seconds to make the exposures on a specially prepared negative film after which we went into Smith’s small dark room to develop the results in absolute darkness. Within two hours we had dried the negative, made a positive print of the 50 feet length, developed and dried it – and then for the grand test. Even today – after seventeen years, I can feel the thrill of that moment, when I saw the first result of the two-colour process – I yelled like a drunken cowboy – ‘We’ve got it – We’ve got it’.

Smith patented his colour system in November 1906 (it would only become known as Kinemacolor in 1909). This is the outline description from the patent:

1. An animated picture of a coloured scene is taken with a bioscope in the usual way, except that a revolving shutter is used fitted with properly adjusted red and green colour screens. A negative is thus obtained in which the reds & yellows are recorded in one picture, & the greens & yellows (with some blue) in the second, & so on alternately throughout the length of the bioscope film.

2. A positive picture is made from the above negative & projected by the ordinary projecting machine which, however, is fitted with a revolving shutter furnished with somewhat similar coloured glasses to the above, & so contrived that the red & green pictures are projected alternately through their appropriate colour glasses.

3. If the speed of the projection is approximately 30 pictures per second, the two colour records blend & present to the eye a satisfactory rendering of the subject in colours which appear to be natural.

The novelty of my method lies in the use of 2 colours only, red and green, combined with the persistence of vision.

This patent was later to cause no end of trouble, and eventually would be revoked, owing to the imprecision of its language. But that was nine years away. The full text of the patent (B.P. 26671 of 1906) can be found on the esp@acenet web site or in its American version (issued 30 November 1909) from Google Patents.

Kinemacolor camera

Kinemacolor camera, showing the red and green rotating filter

Kinemacolor therefore worked like this. Black-and-white film was exposed through a camera which was equipped with a rotating red and green filter. The film had to be taken at approximately double the normal speed, thirty frames per second. Thus successive frames recorded a ‘red’ and a ‘green’ record (a consequence of this was colour fringing when filming an object in motion, because what were supposed to be exactly adjacent records were slightly separated in time). The result was then exhibited through a projector similarly equipped with a rotating red and green filter, at thirty f.p.s. The result, after much experimentation with the exact type of filters and chemicals (not covered in any detail by the patent), was a motion picture colour record with a remarkably convincing natural colour effect. It could not be natural colour, of course (there was no blue, in effect), but it was convincing enough for most purposes, and what is more audiences became convinced that they could see the colours that were not there. Smith, the former mesmerist and trick filmmaker, knew all about the propensity, even the need for audiences to be fooled by what appeared on the screen. He described the illusion thus:

One has a very curious illustration about that with flags. I very often amuse myself about it, because this matter of blue has been on my mind a good deal, and I have discussed it a good deal. There is a rather curious thing that crops up in everyday life about blue, and that is in the Union Jack. You will find a Union Jack is very often indeed in a shocking state; it is a sort of dull drey [sic], red and black almost, and yet if you were to say to anybody, What colour is that? he would say, Red and blue; but when you took it down you would find there was no blue in it, it is red and black and dark grey, but no blue at all. I do not deny that you do get blue in Union Jacks, but it is called blue often when it is not; it is described as the good old blue and red Union Jack.

Kinemacolor was to be as much an act of faith as it was a plain technical achievement. It was the nurturing of that faith in audiences that was to bring out the genius in Charles Urban, as the entrepreneur behind Kinemacolor, and it is with Urban that we will take the story out of the inventor’s laboratory and on to its spectacular appearance on the world stage.

Recommended reading:
Brian Coe, The History of Movie Photography (1981)
D.B. Thomas, The First Colour Motion Pictures (1969)

Note: The quotation by Charles Urban comes from an unpublished (at the time) 1921 paper, ‘Terse History of Natural Colour Kinematography’. The Smith quotation on the colour blue comes from the documents accompanying the 1913 court case Natural Color Kinematograph Company, Limited (in liquidation) v Bioschemes Ltd.

4 responses

  1. Over a century of Color! That’s incredible! Color used to be rare in the early 20th century, the opposite is true today.

  2. Luke: Thanks for the good summary of the development of Kinemacolor. The first time I heard of it was when I found Linda Griffiths’ “The Movies, Mr Griffith, and Me” at the library. She talked about her experiences with the American Kinemacolor company after she parted company with Griffith.

    Joe Thompson ;0)

  3. Hi Joe,

    I’ll have more on Kinemacolor in America in due course. Linda Griffith’s memoir is a good source; so to is Karl Brown’s “Adventures with D.W. Griffith”, Brown have worked for Kinemacolor (when it was on its last legs) before joining Griffith. I’ll certainly need to write something on the Kinemacolor version of “Birth of a Nation”, “The Clansman”, which seems to have been completed but was not released, and then was superseded by “Birth of a Nation” in any case.

    Look out for a special item on Kinemacolor next Monday.

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