Colourful stories no. 8 – Painted by hand


Hand-coloured print of Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1895), from Before Hollywood: Turn-of-the-Century American Film (1897)

So far our history of colour in silent cinema has focussed on Kinemacolor and its antecedents. However, as significant as the ‘natural’ colour system was technically and aspirationally for the new industry, for most filmgoers of the period their experience of colour was more likely to be one of the several ways producers found of adding colours to film artificially.

We’ll be covering each of these various methods – stencil colour, tinting and toning, dye colours, coloured celluloid – but the method that came first, a direct inheritance from magic lantern practice, was painting individual frames by hand.

The first motion pictures to be shown to the public were those exhibited on the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow. These presented too small an image to the viewer to make colouring them a sensible course of action. But as soon as films were projected on a screen, producers thought about colouring them. The first such examples were therefore films originally shot for the Kinetoscope and now re-shown on a big screen, such as Annabelle dancing her butterfly dance, illustrated above. A coloured film of a serpentine dance (another of Annabelle’s specialities) was included in the first programme of the Edison Vitascope projector at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall, New York on 23 April 1896.

Loie Fuller

Loïe Fuller, a hand-coloured Pathé film dated 1905, from

Only a handful of films were selected for colouring, however. The process was immensely time-consuming, and hence expensive. Subjects for colouring were chosen with care, and were naturally those subjects which came over as most naturally ‘colourful’ in themselves. Films of dancers were among the first such subjects in the 1890s, with the colours not only reproducing the appearance of costumes but in the case of the renowned French dancer Loïe Fuller attempting to echo the striking use of coloured light in her stage performances.

Hand-colouring meant applying colours by means of tiny brushes to one frame at a time, a space measuring just one inch by three-quarters of an inch. It was reported of Edward Henry Doubell, a noted producer of coloured lantern slides (which were a far easier three inches square), that he was able to colour two to three frames per day of the Robert Paul films that he was colouring in 1896 – and, of course, we are talking about around sixteen frames for every second of projected film. The colours used were water-based or alcohol-based dyes, which were applied to the emulsion side of the film.

La Biche au Bois

Hand-coloured Demeny-Gaumont film on 60mm, from 1896, showing dancers from La Biche au Bois stage show at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, from Brian Coe, The History of Movie Photography (1981)

The great problem with hand-coloured films, apart from their expense and the time needed for their production, was accuracy of registration. The artist had to ensure consistency of colouring from frame to frame, allowing for movement, and surviving examples frequently demonstrate some haphazard application of colour as the subject moves, even while selected examples (such as La Biche au Bois above) are exquisite in their meticulous effects. The established practice came to be of teams of colourists – almost invariably women – to each of whom would be assigned a single colour for painting. The method continued into the mid-1900s, and there are dazzling examples for example in the recent Flicker Alley DVD release Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema.

However, as films became longer the hand-colour method inevitably became impractical. Audiences evidently valued coloured films, and higher prices would be paid for them by exhibitors, but a mechanised means of their production had become essential, and in the mid-1900s both the Pathé and Gaumont firms developed such systems. As Britain became home of natural colour cinematography, so France developed methods for mass producing artificially coloured films for worldwide export. Which we shall move on to next time.

Recommended reading:
Brian Coe, The History of Movie Photography (1981)
Paul Read and Mark-Paul Meyer, The Restoration of Motion Picture Film (2000)