Colourful stories no. 9 – They do it with stencils

Pathécolor machine printing room, from F.A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (1912)

As films grew longer, and their production increased, through the 1900s, so the idea of adding colours by hand became uneconomic. A mechanised system was required, and at around the same time that experiments were taking place in Britain to develop natural colour motion pictures, in France first Pathé and then Gaumont started developing processes for the mass production of multi-colour-tinted film prints through the use of stencils. This was a labour-intensive process (employing mostly female operatives – see pictures above and below) which could only be carried out by well-capitalised businesses with international distribution, and in the mid-1900s France dominated the world’s motion picture business. Hence France became the home of artificial motion picture colour.

Women workers preparing Pathécolor films, from Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked

Pathé introduced its stencil colour process in 1905, but the system in principle was not new, having been adopted from methods used for colouring postcards and wallpaper. A number of prints of any one film title would be made, each representing the different colours to be employed in the eventual film (i.e. a film featuring red, green, blue and yellow would require four original prints). The areas in each of the original prints to be coloured would be marked out and cut with scalpels. Each cut-out print would be laid over the final projection print and each colour would be applied in turn. 600 women were employed at the Pathé factory by 1906 to produce colour prints in this way.

However, great mechanisation was soon brought in, led by Henri Fourel, who ran the Pathé colour studio in Vincennes. In 1908 Pathé introduced a pantograph mechanism to improve production. A master print would be rear-projected onto a ground glass screen, one frame at a time, which enabled the operator to have a far clearer view of the image. She would then move a pointer over the screen, marking out the area to be treated with one colour. The pantograph allowed for greater precision of line, and a needle at the other traced marked out the corresponding area on a second print. This would be repeated for each colour required. It was painstaking work, and still very labour-intensive, with an estimated 300 women operators employed. About one metre of film per colour was produced in an hour. When all the stencils had been cut, the gelatin emulsion was removed from each and they were then run in turn through a staining machine in precise registration with the master print. The cumulative result was a finished print stained in multiple colours – or rather multiple prints, since at least 200 colour copies had to be produced to make the system economic.

This demonstration of the stencil colour process is taken from Brian Coe’s The History of Movie Photography. The original film is on the left; then follows (L-R) the stencils cut for each colour (top row) and the application of that colour (bottom row) for red, blue, brown, green and yellow respectively.

The Pathé system produced images of frequently exquisite quality, with a notable precision of colour. Colours were not applied to every kind of film, but generally to those kinds of films which it was felt would be best enhanced by colour: exotic travelogues, costume dramas, magical films etc. Such films would be billed as the highlight in cinema programmes, and were more expensive for exhibitors than common film titles. As indicated, the industrial, labour-intensive process could only be supported by major producers with extensive distribution, and Pathé’s only rival in stencil colour was to be Gaumont, which came up with a similar process around 1908.

An unidentified fragment of a Pathé stencil colour film, date uncertain (c.1910?)

Another stencil colour example, from the same collector, again undated (early 1910s probably) and location unknown. Anybody recognise the building and gardens?

Pathé and Gaumont would continue with stencil colour into the 1920s, and the finest examples of their art are among the treasured items of the world’s film archives (there is a particularly strong collection at the Nederlands Filmmuseum). Stencil colour films have also inspired a growing body of academic work looking at the aesthetics and meanings of early colour. Strongly recommended is Tom Gunning’s essay ‘Colorful metaphors: the attraction of color in early silent cinema‘, originally published in the Italian journal Fotogenia (there is a version online in English), which looks at the special nature of early colour, seen in the context of the use of colour in other media (posters, books, advertisements etc.). For Gunning, it was not that the stencil colour films were more true to nature, but that they were an attraction in themselves, offering a ‘sensual intensity’, acting as a ‘signifier of fantasy or as a metaphor’.

However, just as Pathé introduced its improved colour system to the world in 1908, a rival system from Britain was announced, which did not use artificial colour but instead boasted that only its photographic colour was true to nature. The commercial and ideological (i.e. in debates over reality) between the systems that would later be known as Kinemacolor and Pathécolor will be covered in a later post.

Further reading:
Bregtje Lameris, Pathécolor: “Perfect in their renditions of the colours of nature”, in Living Pictures vol. 2 no. 2 (2003)
Brian Coe, The History of Movie Photography (1981)