Colourful stories no. 7 – Reviving Kinemacolor

David Cleveland

David Cleveland operating a Kinemacolor projector

We continue with our series on the history of early colour cinematography, but take a diversion out of the past to the present day – Monday February 25th, to be precise – for the very best of reasons. Because today, at the British Film Institute’s J. Paul Getty Conservation Centre in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, we witnessed a rare recreation of ‘true’ Kinemacolor.

The screening was organised by film archivists David Cleveland and Brian Pritchard, who decided to mark the centenary of Kinemacolor by exhibiting the world’s first natural colour motion picture system in its correct form, using an original Kinemacolor projector. Kinemacolor films have been shown in composite colour or computer synthesized forms, or so customised that they will run at normal speed on a normal projector, but not since 1995 at the Museum of the Moving Image has anyone attempted to show Kinemacolor as it was originally done – black-and-white film run through a projector fitted with a red and green rotating filter, at double speed (thirty or more frames per second). It is rarer still to employ an original projector (the MOMI show used a customised 1920s Ernemann projector).

Kinemacolor projector

Kinemacolor projector no. 19 (rear view showing colour filter)

The projector was generously loaned by Wirral Museum, which also allowed the archivists to replace missing parts and to make the machine operable, so long as it would be returned to its original museum state once they had finished with it. It is Kinemacolor projector no. 19, with original colour filter. Cleveland and Pritchard aimed to be as authentic as possible, with two limitations – they could not show nitrate films, fairly obviously, and for similar health and safety reasons they could not use an arc light (they used a filament blub instead).

We gathered in a small room, with chandelier adding an appropriate touch of class to the proceedings (less so the windows necessarily blacked out with black bags and tape). The small audience comprised archivists from the BFI National Archive, a smattering of academics, and as guests of honour, Kinemacolor’s producer Charles Urban’s step-grandson Bruce Mousell and his two daughters.

David introduced the event and the projector, then we were shown three of the sample Kinemacolor films held in the BFI National Film Archive. Tragically few Kinemacolor films survive today, and all that the UK’s national archive holds are some test films which were never shown publicly. These were retained by the system’s inventor G.A. Smith, who passed them on to Brighton collector Graham Head, whose collection in turn went to the Cinema Museum in London. Two of the prints we saw were therefore struck from original negatives, with a third taken from a dupe neg. This film was shown first, Cat Studies (c.1908), a short single shot of a cat (a black-and-white cat at that), which served to help make adjustments to the filter, since we started off with the wooden board with a hole through which the cat looked appearing green, because the rotating filter had been aligned incorrectly.

Woman Draped in Patterned Handkerchiefs

Projection of Kinemacolor test film Woman Draped in Patterned Handkerchiefs

There then followed Woman Draped in Patterened Handkerchiefs (c.1908), whose action is self-explanatory, a film clearly designed to demonstrate basic colour effects; and Pageant of New Romney, Hythe and Sandwich (1910), an actuality film rejected at the time for being too contrasty. In truth, the sample Kinemacolor films held by the BFI are poor examples of the colour system, showing little in the way of effective colour, and the latter film in particular demonstrating the hazards of fringing (the alternating red/green records meant that the film record could not always keep up with movement, resulting in red or green ‘fringes’).

But, after a pause for reloading and a talk from Brian Pritchard on the customising of the projector and Smith’s ingenious use of sensitizing chemicals (without which Kinemacolor would not have worked at all), we were shown a beautiful Kinemacolor film loaned by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. This was Lake Garda, Italy (1910), a travelogue of the Italian beauty spot, whose picture postcard images showed up the colour to exquisite effect. We saw panoramic views of the lake, buildings, boats with red and yellow sails, and a delightful sequence where three musicians in a small boat serenaded the camera. Being full of gentle motion, the muted, subtle colour was shown to its best effect, being particularly good at rendering white buildings and reflections in the water. Kinemacolor, using as it did red and green filters, could not logically depict blue, yet blue we saw in the sky and water. This is all down to our gullible brains, reconstituting what seems optically logical to us. The sky should be blue, so we see blue.

What was also interesting was the colossal noise. The motorised projector had to rattle through at a speed of thirty frames per second, and the racket drowned out all conversation. The image on the screen had to be kept quite small, to retain as much brightness as possible (Kinemacolor absorbs a great deal of light). We all wondered how on earth they coped projecting Kinemacolor in large theatres, where the throw would have been considerable. We also marvelled at the skill of the original projectionists, who had to cope not only with a double-speed projector, but changing colour effects owing to differences in filters used (the cameramen would change then accoding to the light conditions encountered) and all of the hazards of correct colour synchronisation.

Bruce Mousell

David Cleveland (right) with Charles Urban’s step-grandson Bruce Mousell and his daughters

The demonstration revealed many of the problems, but also several of the beauties of Kinemacolor, and made one wish for more such screenings to be organised. As David Cleveland explained in his notes to the show:

Several archives have a few examples of Kinemacolor films in their collections, and the usual process is to make a composite film copy of the red and green images onto one new Eastman Color inter-negative, and normal colour prints therefrom. Of course this takes on Eastman Color characteristics, and the colour is not the same as originally seen. Scanning is probably the answer, but here again it needs to be carefully done so that the colour is as near to the original filters as possible … and that the result is not a smooth ‘television’ type picture, but an image that resembles the projected picture of a century ago. Only this way can Kinemacolor be put into context with the development of colour films.

It is a great shame that, in its centenary year, Kinemacolor remains so elusive. Cleveland and Pritchard had the greatest difficulty getting films from other archives, and it is to be hoped that there may be greater co-operation over any future events. So few Kinemacolor films survive (maybe thirty or so, out of the hundreds originally produced), and more must be done to preserve them, to make them accessible in original as well as the more convenient composite form, and to uncover more – because there are undoubtedly ‘lost’ Kinemacolor films out there. Kinemacolor appears to be ordinary silent black-and-white film to the untrained eye. Only when you look closely do you see alterations in tonal emphasis from frame to frame. Many archives, I am sure, are sitting on Kinemacolor films and are not aware of the fact. 2008 would be a good year in which to start conducting a search to locate them.

The Handbook of Kinematography

William Friese-Greene

William Friese-Greene, from The Handbook of Kinematography

Just in at The Bioscope Library is one of the standard technical manuals of the period, and boon to many a film historian ever since, Colin Bennett’s The Handbook of Kinematography. Bennett was a cameraman, inventor (he devised a colour cinematograph process, Cinechrome, in 1914) and regular contributor on technical subjects to the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly. This handbook, published by the Kinematograph Weekly in 1911, is a thorough and handsomely illustrated account of early motion picture technology and the practicalities of producing and exhibiting films.

It is easiest to give an idea of the range of the book by listing the chapters:

Part 1:
1. Photographic Principle
2. Kinematograph Camera
3. Choice of a Camera Kit
4. In the Field. Scenic Work
5. Topicals
6. The Dark Room
7. Development
8. Positive Making or Printing
9. Tinting, Toning and Titling Positives
10. The After-Treatment of Negatives and Positives
11. Drying
12. Trick Kinematography
13. Rehearsed Effects

Part 2:
1. The Elements of Projection
2. Persistence of Vision
3. Apparatus used in Projection
4. The Illuminant. Electricity
5. Limelight and Minor Illuminants
6. In the Operating Box

Part 3:
1. Acting before the Kinematograph (by Henry Morrell)
2. Playing to Pictures (by A.E. Taylor)
3. The Still Slide
4. The Kinematograph Camera Abroad
5. Scientific and Technical Kinematography
6. Self-Preservation in the Trade
7. Management of a Picture Theatre
8. The Law and the Kinematograph

All you needed to know, really. Some of Bennett’s understanding of film history is askew (particularly his patriotic championing of William Friese-Greene’s nebulous achievements), but for the motion picture technologies of the day his knowledge is prodigious, leavened with a lot of practical commonsense, and the illustrations alone (along with some contemporary advertisements) are a rich source of information. The book is available from our old friends the Internet Archive, in DjVu (16MB), PDF (44MB), b/w PDF (19MB) and TXT (689KB) formats.

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.

The Lodger on HD

The Lodger

The opening images from The Lodger (1927), from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

This Friday sees what I think is a first for a silent film – exhibition in HD format. The US channel MGMHD is showing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927) at 4.20am on February 1st. It is, I believe, derived from the BFI National Archive’s restored print, and was transferred in the UK by Granada International. I have seen a bit of it, on a non-HD screen alas, but even so the image quality looks quite stunning.

The image above of the opening frames of the film comes from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock, “an attempt to reduce each of the 52 available major Hitchcock films down to just 1000 frames”. It’s an offshoot of the remarkable HitchcockWiki, which I commend to you. 1000 Frames of Hitchcock provides the same service for The Pleasure Garden (1925), Downhill (1927), The Ring (1927), Champagne (1928), Easy Virtue (1928), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), The Manxman (1929) and Blackmail (1929, but the sound version only). And all the others, of course.

Colourful stories no. 4 – The unbearable effect

Edward Turner three-colour system

Three examples of the Lee and Turner three-colour process, c. 1901, from D.B. Thomas, The First Colour Motion Pictures (1969). Note the different tonal effects (e.g. the girl’s sash on the left-hand film) for the same image taken through red, green and blue filters.

The first patent for colour cinematography was that of the German Hermann Isensee, in 1897, but activity in this field now moved to Britain.

There were four names actively pursuing the goal of practical colour cinematography. One was William Friese-Greene, a figure who used to turn up in many film histories as one of the ‘inventors’ of cinema, and whose supposed discovery of motion pictures was romantically dramatised in the film The Magic Box (1951). That complex story can be told at another time. Suffice to say that Friese-Greene did not invent motion pictures (though he and his supporters claimed loudly that he did), and he turned his attention to colour cinematography. He patented a system (British Patent no. 21,649) in 1898 which posited use of a rotating disc with red, green and blue sectors, which echoed Isensee’s ideas but showed little comprehension of how the theory might work in practice. The other inventor was Captain William Norman-Lascelles Davidson, an experimenter in colour photography as well as cinematography, who in the same year patented (B.P. 23,863) a triple-lens camera with three filters (red, green, blue) behind each of the lenses. This was a step nearer in its thinking, though it led to no working model. There will be more on Friese-Greene and Davidson, who would soon be working together, later on in this series.

Lee and Turner three-colour projector

Lee and Turner three-colour projector (1901), from D.B. Thomas, The First Colour Motion Pictures

The first patent to be followed by a working model was B.P. 6,202 of 22 March 1899. The patentees were Frederick Marshall Lee of Walton-on-Thames, a racehorse breeder and financier of the project, and Edward Raymond Turner, of Hounslow, London. Turner had previously worked for Frederic Ives, inventor of the Kromskop, the device which employed the additive principle to create still colour photographic images. Ives wrote the following in 1926 about Lee and Turner:

The first recorded suggestion is the British patent of Lee and Turner, two young men who were employed in my workshop in London, and who with my consent patented a scheme which I disclosed to them but which I told them was of more theoretical than practical interest at that time. I considered it a great joke when their patent rights were afterwards sold for real money; but, as I predicted, the method was not practically satisfactory.

There is no evidence nor likelihood that Lee worked for Ives, but the latter was in effect right that Turner’s invention owed a lot to his ideas. Turner took a conventional cine camera and had its shutter replaced by a rotating disc with red, green and blue filters, interspersed with opaque sections, in synchronisation with the movement of the film through the camera. The black-and-white film passing through the camera would therefore record in succession a red, green and blue record. The film was to be shown through a three-lens projector (illustrated above), with each frame projected through each lens in turn, and again a rotating shutter was used to reintroduce the colour.

As with Isensee, Friese-Greene and Davidson, what looked fine in theory proved to be far more difficult to put into practice. Lee and Turner were certainly able to take films – some sample frames from three of the films they made around 1901 are illustrated at the head of this post – for which they employed a unique 38mm-wide film. What they could not do was project the results. If you look at the lenses of the projector you will see that there are three of them, arranged vertically. Each frame of film had to be projected through each lens in turn (the lenses had to be perfectly aligned so that the separate images whould synchronise on the screen). This was to avoid the huge strain on the film were each frame to be projected once, because the film would have to move three inches intermittently. As it is, the strain was still too great. If the original film had been shot at a likely 16 frames per second, the required projection speed would be a manic 48 f.p.s (i.e. successive red, green and blue records shown simultaneously). There is an eye-witness account of the results:

It was when we came to superimpose the pictures on the sheet through three-coloured glasses that we found the process unworkable. As soon as the handle of the projecting machine was worked the three pictures refused to remain in register, and no knowledge that any of us could bring to bear upon the matter could even begin to cure the trouble. The difficulty is mainly due to the fact that cinematograph pictures are small to begin with, and they have to be enormously magnified in exhibiting, as you all know. The slightest defect in registration it pitilessly magnified, and when the minute defects of registration in the first three pictures are followed by minute defects of another sort in the next three, and by yet another sort in the succeeding three, and so on throughout the length of a film, the effect on the observer is almost unbearable.

The witness is George Albert Smith (writing in 1908), a Brighton-based filmmaker and film processor, who processed Lee and Turner’s films and who would go on to invent Kinemacolor.

Synthesized Turner three-colour image

Computer-synthesized colour image of a Lee and Turner experiment, created by Martin Hart

How do you bring three successive frames of the same image into synchronisation by such mechanical means? Lee and Turner’s invention seemed only to show that it was impossible – certainly unwatchable. That there was a colour record there that in theory be uncovered is shown by the above simulation, taken from the black-and-white separations illustrated at the top of this post (the two children may be those of G.A. Smith). A strip of Lee and Turner film exists in the BFI National Archive, which shows a goldfish in a bowl and then a parrot on perch (see top of this post, right-hand image). But it cannot be projected, and would not work even if it could – it is the oldest motion picture colour film in the world, but we cannot see it.

Lee and Turner turned to the Warwick Trading Company to support their work. With the unfortunate results reported above, Warwick and Lee lost interest. However, Warwick’s manaing director, Charles Urban, was not one to give up so easily. He sunk his own money into the futher development of Turner’s invention, though this hit a problem when Turner dropped dead of a heart attack in his workshop on 9 March 1903. Sadly we still know very little about Turner – there does not seem to be a photograph of him. Urban handed on the problem of making the Turner system work to G.A. Smith, with whom he had worked at Warwick. Could the three-colour records be brought into synchronisation, or was there some other solution?

Recommended reading:
D.B. Thomas, The First Colour Motion Pictures (1969)

Colourful stories no. 3 – The first patent

Isensee diagram

Diagram accompanying Hermann Isensee’s 1897 patent, from DEPATISnet

There was colour on film as soon as there was projected film. The Edison Kinetoscope, a peepshow device which introduced commercial motion pictures in 1894 presented too small an image to the viewer for hand-painted colour to be seen distinctively. But once films were shown upon a screen, colours started to be added – including some subjects originally exhibited through the Kinetoscope. Edward Henry Doubell, slide painter at the Royal Polytechnic in London, is known to have painstakingly added colours to Robert Paul films, at a rate of two or three frames per day. Paul showed coloured films at the Alhambra music hall on 8 April 1896, and on 23 April a coloured Serpentine dance was included on the debut programme of the Vitascope projector in New York.

A history of artifically-coloured films would follow, which we shall return to later in this series. For now, we are interested in the dream of the inventors, natural colour. Achieve true colour on the motion picture screen, and fortunes would be made.

And so the history of natural colour cinemaography begins in 1897 with a patent passed on 17 December 1897, in Germany. The inventor was Herman Isensee, and it reads (in translation) as follows:

Imperial Patent Office
Patent Specification
No. 98799
Class: 57: Photography
Hermann Isensee, of Berlin

Device for the Depiction of Coloured Animated Photography
Patented in the German Reich from 17th December 1897

With the help of this device, image projections that could hitherto only be shown in monochrome will, by means of a very quick succession of consecutive frames that are projected in the colours red, green and blue at regular intervals, appear to the eye of the beholder in their true natural colours.

For this purpose a disc with three sectors r, g and b, made up of red, green or indigo blue glass (or else any other suitable films), is placed eccentrically in front of the lens o of a series apparatus.

The movement of this disc is regulated in such a manner that for the duration of a photographic recording a coloured section moves past in front of lens o each time, so that the film strip consists of a regular succession of negative images generated by red, green and blue light-rays.

From these negatives, positives are made and the same are projected with the help of the series apparatus.

During this, in a way similar to the process that takes place during the photographic recording, the red, green, and indigo blue sectors move past in front of the lens, so that on the screen red, green and blue pictures develop in quick succession, in correspondence with the said negatives generated by the coloured rays.

While the known analogous procedure for the attainment of coloured pictures, for example the Ivesian Heliochromy (cf. Eder’s Jahrbuch der Photographie 1891 [Yearbook of Photography 1891], p. 174 ff., and Krone, Die Darstellung der natuerlichen Farben durch Photographie [The Representation of Natural Colours Through Photography], Weimer 1894, p. 103 ff.) involves the successful reproduction of three differently coloured pictures of one object from the same period of time, in this case differently coloured images from consecutive periods of time follow each other with sufficient speed, and it is in such a way that an animated picture in its natural colours is seen by the eye of the beholder.


Appliance for apparatus used for the exhibition of animated photography, for the presentation of images in their natural colours, characterised by the fact that in front of the lens a disc with three light-filters in primary colours necessary for the creation of three-colour pictures moves in such a way that with every new recording, as well as projection of the same, a differently coloured section appears in front of the lens.

Attached 1 sheet of drawings.

(My grateful thanks to Eve for providing the translation)

As will be clear enough from the drawing reproduced above which accompanies the patent, this is not the most detailed of patent specifications. It outlines in general and idealised terms the principle of three primary colours being brought together additively, with the optimistic assumption that this could readily produce a motion picture colour record in the same way that Frederic Ives (inventor of the Kromskop, which employed the principle of ‘Heliochromy’) had demonstrated could be achieved practically for still photography. Nevertheless, it does establish the key idea of using a rotating colour shutter in front of camera and then projector, which others would soon adopt.

There is no evidence to suggest that Isensee had any sort of a working model to back-up his claims, and he disappears from this point on as far as colour cinematography is concerned (though he went on to patent other motion picture devices). Because he only patented his idea in Germany, it had no bearing on the experiments that were to take place in Britain the following year which (unwittingly) took up Isensee’s ideas and led to the first practical results in colour cinematography, in 1899. Which you’ll hear all about next time.

Recommended reading:
Adrian Klein, Colour Cinematography (1936)

Isensee’s patent is available online from DEPATISnet, the online German patent service (search under reference number DE000000098799A).

Colourful stories no. 2 – The Kromskop

The road to colour cinematography began with the efforts of those pioneering colour photography itself. For the second part in our series, we look at the work of Frederic Eugene Ives, whose remarkable device the Kromskop was to play a key part in the history.

Frederic Ives (1856-1937) was an American inventor. Best-known for having developed the halftone printing process, he also experimented extensively with colour and stereoscopic (3-D) photography. From 1877 onwards Ives worked on ways of taking and viewing three-colour images with a camera known variously as a Heliochromoscope or Photochromoscope. The result of this experimentation resulted in the Kromskop, first marketed in 1895, a stereoscopic viewer which combined the Photochromoscope images from six monochrome transparencies through colour filters to created a stereoscopic colour image called a Kromogram.

Kromskop camera and viewer

Kromskop camera and viewer, from

Kromskop colour filters

Kromskop colour filters, from

The camera, by a combination of mirrors, prisms and colour filters, took three pairs of images of a given object (an exposure time of a minute was required, which made it impractical for portrait work), respectively red, blue and green on a single plate that measured 2½ x 8 inches. The eventual positive was cut into three and mounted in a folded cardboard frame to form the Kromogram. The three pairs of transparencies were, of course, monochrome, but preserved a record of the alterations in the colour of the object as taken through the three separate filters. The Kromskop itself, by an arrangement of mirrors, coloured glass screens, red, green and blue filters, and a light source, produced a full colour and stereoscopic image.

Kromagram images

Kromagram images, from

Ives believed that his invention formed part of a remarkable triumvirate – the Phonograph, which captured sound; the Kinetoscope, which captured motion pictures; and now the Kromskop, which captured colour:

The Kromskop is an optical instrument which accomplishes for light and color what the Phonograph accomplishes for sound and the Kinetoscope for motion … The Kromskop photograph is … although not a color photograph, a color record, just as the cylinder of the phonograph, although not a cylinder of sound, contains a record of sounds, and the kinetoscope ribbon, although not an animated photograph, contains a record of motion. The phonograph cylinder must be placed in the phonograph before it can be made to reproduce the sounds recorded; the kinetoscope ribbon must pass through the kinetoscope in order to visually reproduce the moving scene; and the Kromogram must be placed in the Kromskop in order to visually reproduce the object photographed.

Frederic Ives, Kromskop Color Photography (1898)

However, the Kromskop and its Kromogram put too much technology between the viewer and the object. Ives elsewhere admitted: ‘this is not the kind of color photography that the world has been looking for … because it does not produce fixed color images which can be framed and hung upon the wall’. It was possible to produce fixed colour prints from Kromskop negatives, but ‘only by so greatly complicating the process as to make it comparatively impracticable’. It was the additive synthesis (as demonstrated by James Clerk Maxwell) that was fundamentally impractical, and was soon to be abandoned as a means of securing photographic still images. However, the Kromskop enjoyed a brief period of popularity, marketed as being ‘invaluable for Evening Parties, At Homes, Conversaziones, Garden Parties &c, &c’. Showmen exhibited it alongside magic lanterns and other such visual marvels, and it caught the eye of some motion picture inventors, among them showman/inventor G.A. Smith, who owned a Kromskop, and would go on to invent Kinemacolor.

Ives established a British company in 1898, the Photochromoscope Syndicate. He took on as an assistant that year one Edward Raymond Turner. The following year Turner left Ives’ employment. Excited by the additive principle expressed through the Kromskop, Turner wanted to see if it could be utilised for cinematography. Turner built and patented his three-colour motion picture system in 1899, the story of which we will tell soon, but this in fact was not the first patent for a motion picture colour system. But you’ll have to wait until part three to learn about that.

Recommended reading:
William Ward, ‘The Newest Marvel of Science’, Pearson’s Magazine, December 1897

Don’t give up the day job, William

William Friese-Greene’s hat

William Friese-Greene’s advertising hat, from

While working on some patent records for the forthcoming colour series, I came across some would-be inventions which never took off. It’s interesting, for example, to see how someone like William Friese-Greene was a serial patenter, not only patenting early cinematographic devices (and colour cinematography systems) but applying for patents for such wildly varying subjects as means to measure electricity, paper manufacture, and even airships. George Albert Smith, a rather more successful inventor of a colour system, certainly thought beyond film. His huge range of patent submissions over twenty years (1895-1918) includes cycle cranks, spinning mules, means to extract corks from bottles, garden ploughs, golf bags, means to preserve fish, and bacon slicers.

But the Friese-Greene invention above is my favourite wrong turning, and I had to share it with you. Dating from 1898, Means or apparatus for producing and exhibiting animated or changing pictures on advertising appliances &c. is, essentially, a system for displaying motion pictures on your hat. As you can see, the motion picture band goes around the hat, a crank handle is operated by the right hand, and batteries in a jacket pocket are connected to an illuminant in the hat. But let the patent application itself describe what’s going on:

The invention chiefly consists in the combination of a transparent or translucent screen, means for attaching it to the person, a film or sheet bearing a series of successive pictures, preferably such as are adapted to produce what are generally called “animated” pictures, means whereby the said film or sheet is caused to travel opposite the screen, so that the pictures are thrown upon or exhibited through it, and a lighting or illuminating device for lighting up the pictures and screen.

Friese-Greene offers us two versions of the invention. Above is the hat version (the hat is meant to be translucent). Below is the alternative, marginally less hazardous if not less improbable version where the man carries a screen above his head.

William Friese-Greene’s screen

Needless to say, the human motion picture advertising did not make it to reality. Brighter minds than mine could tell you whether it could be built, and whether the wearer would soon burst into flames or not. But you do want to imagine just what the effect would have been of a Victorian gentleman confidently striding down Oxford Street with motion pictures (how would anyway one actually see them?) playing across his headgear.

I wrote a post some while ago on how to locate early motion picture patents online. The above is a US patent (no. 623,242), which was filed 7 July 1898 and patented 18 April 1899. It comes from Google Patents, which is very easy to use, and quite addictive. Maybe there’s a mini-series here, on wildly wrong early cinematograph patents. I’ll see what I can find…

Update (February 2008): Astonishingly, it seems that William Friese-Greene was a man ahead of his time. A company, Wearable Video Inc., has come up with a ‘vest’ with a screen for showing “full motion video with stereo sound”, with the idea of using the same as a promotional tool at trade shows, city events etc. William, I’m sorry to have wronged you – you were a visionary after all.

Wearable Video

(Patent Pending)

From 1896 to 1926 – part 7

We return to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner of the Walturdaw company, pioneer film distributors. Turner is now talking about their business situation in the 1900s, when they turned to production as well as distribution. As is usual with Turner, what gives him equal pleasure is the mechanical side of the business, here devices for preventing fire, and getting the better of the London County Council.

Prior to our moving to Dane Street, the three partners had not definite duties. We all put our hands to whatever was required of us during the day, and acted as operators at night. We were buyers and sellers of everything in the kinematograph Industry, new or secondhand.

There was one member, however, whose inclinations were photographically inclined, and so we took lease of Wembley Park and erected there something novel in the way of outdoor studios – a revolving platform, which allowed us to put up three sets of scenery at a time, when the wind allowed it, and each could be brought to the camera as required. Further, it was so constructed that we could always get the best of the light and sunshine.

[Ernest] Howard took charge of this department – his lieutenants being J.B. McDowell and E. Bloomfield – these latter were our cameramen.

Albert Bloomfield left Walturdaw in 1908, forming the British & Colonial Kinematograph Company, J.B. McDowell soon joining him. McDowell would go on to achieve lasting fame as a cameraman in the First World War, filming much of the documentary feature The Battle of the Somme (1916). Interestingly, one of the companies he worked for before Walturdaw was the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which had a revolving open-air studio (on the Thames embankment) much as Turner describes, dating around 1899.

[J.D.] Walker took over the Film Hire Department, [G.H.J.] Dawson the Entertainment Department, and myself the Sales and Accessory Department. The business thus became sectionalised, each man devoting himself exclusively to his own side of the business, whereas in the past we had been cosmopolitan in this respect. Things grew apace, and we were doing business with all parts of the world.

A Fireproof Spool

One day at Dane Street, the late Mr. Holmes, of Essex Road, who was the chief kinematograph mechanic to Levy Jones, of Horton Square, called to see me, and found me experimenting with a tin box. Instantly he said to me, ‘I see what you are after, I am working on the same thing; suppose we join forces?’

While we were discussing the point, my eye fell on a kinematograph camera film box (in those days the boxes were outside the camera). At once we had solved the problem. Why not make a copy of the camera film box in metal, fit it to the top of the kinema machine, make a similar box for the bottom spool-arm and so get fire-proof spool boxes?

The first pair were made of mahogany, and Mr. Holmes used them pretty regularly. They answered their purpose perfectly. We then had them made in metal and thus came about one of the greatest improvements in the kinema world.

A Lost Fortune

I took the model to Mr. Wrench and asked his advice as to taking out a patent, as I had done previously with the fireproof gate. I shall remember his words as long as I live:

He told me he had taken out over 100 patents on his lanterns, and never made any money out of any of them; other makers copied, and rarely was he able to stop them, except at great expense. Further, non-flam film was bound to be perfected in a month or two (it was always to be a month or two as it is to-day), and when non-flam film did come out, that would solve all our difficulties with the L.C.C., insurance companies and other authorities.

Alas! I took his advice and lost a fortune. The owner of those patents would be rolling in untold wealth to-day, as spool-boxes are compulsory all over the world.

Films, of course, were of cellulose nitrate, and were highly inflammable. ‘Non-flam’, or safety films (cellulose acetate) were often talked about, but in general they lacked the robustness of nitrate. Some safety systems were available around 1908, but cellulose acetate really only found use for narrow gauge systems designed for non-theatrical and amateur use, of which Edison’s 22mm Home Kinetoscope system, introduced in 1912, was the first.

The L.C.C. Butts In

No more was heard of fireproof spool-boxes until the demonstration which was given at the London Hippodrome, on December 17, 1908, when no fewer than ten firms exhibited, before the representatives of the London County Council and insurance bodies, their machines, showing how they had tackled the question of making the machines safe.

Incidentally, I claim to have had a good deal to do with this demonstration. It came about in this way. Passing the Hippodrome about a fortnight previously, I found that a demonstration of fire extinguishing apparatus for kinematographs was being given inside the Hippodrome. I walked in to see what was moving, and discovered that the apparatus was similar to an ordinary water cistern, such as are used in w.c.’s, fitted on four rods and suspended over the machine; this was the ingenious arrangement that the trade had been called together to see.

The apparatus was so arranged that if a piece of film caught fire it released a spring and the water supposed to come down and put the fire out. I, with a number of other exhibitors, saw this absurd apparatus, and laughed it to scorn, but certain members of the County Council were strongly in favour of foisting this wretched thing upon the trade.

The Test that Failed

Mr. Brandon (one of the oldest exhibitors) and myself, stepped into the ring and challenged the efficacy of this absurd invention, and I, as spokesman, asked that a fair test might be given, first to the apparatus which the various makers were selling, and secondly, that the County Council would call us together to demonstrate. The test was to be under the same conditions that we would have if we were actually showing, and this challenge was accepted.

Frank Allen kindly granted us the use of his ring, and on December 7 the demonstration was given, and proved the death knell of the water cistern, for when the film was set fire to by means of the rays from the arc lamp, the wretched invention failed, the water instead of coming down all over the spool and putting the fire out, simply fell over the bottom spool and damaged the film – and let the rest flare away.

All the other machines were tested very severely by the judges, and each came out triumphant. Some of the tests were really severe, inasmuch as they fired the film on the top sprocket, the bottom sprocket, and in the gate, and yet in no instance did the fire enter into the spool cases.

Stay turned for the next episode, when Turner tells us about ‘Flicker Alley’ and discusses the rise of the exclusive.

Brian Coe 1930-2007

Brian Coe

Brian Coe

It is sad to have to report the death of Brian Coe on 18 October 2007. To anyone with an interest in the history of the technologies of cinematography or photography his work over four decades has been, and remains, indispensible. He joined Kodak in 1952, where he helped found its education service. He made a particular impact with his writings in the early 1960s which forensically overturned the romantic myths which had seen William Friese-Greene chauvinistically championed as a pioneer of cinematography.

He was Curator of the Kodak Museum from 1969 to 1984, building up the collection to be one of international renown, and curating many pioneering exhibitions. When the collection moved to the National Museum of Photography Film and Television in Bradford, Brian became Curator at the Royal Photographic Society’s collection in Bath. In 1989 he joined the Museum of the Moving Image as special events co-ordinator, organising shows, events and organisations on an extraordinary range of topics, all underpinned by exemplary research and presented with enthusiasm, finding a perfect balance between scholarship and entertainment.

At Kodak he built up not only a great collection but considerable personal expertise, which found lasting expression in his many publications. The remarkable thing about his books is that they have not dated. Twenty or thirty years on they are still relied upon as standard reference works, notable as much for their clarity of exposition as their steadfastly reliable content. They include The Birth of Photography (1976), Colour Photography (1978), Cameras: From daguerrotypes to instant pictures (1978), and the incomparable The History of Movie Photography (1981). This is still the best book on cinema technology that exists, and it is hard to see how it could be bettered. It is particularly strong on early cinema technologies – magic lanterns, the optical toys and chronophotographic experiments of the so-called ‘pre-cinema’ era, the first cameras and projectors, the development of colour cinematography, early widescreen systems, the birth of home movies. Its illustrations have been plundered by countless other sources. Film archivists swear by the book – it used to be (and I hope it still is) standard reading for anyone working at the National Film and Television Archive’s preservation centre. Another gem is Muybridge and the Chronophotographers (1992), a small exhibition book reportedly thrown together in a great hurry, but a handy reference guide that I turn back to again and again.

Sadly Brian suffered a serious stroke in 1995, and took no further active part in the worlds of film and photography to which he had contributed such invaluable knowledge. It was a sad curtailment to a varied and richly productive career, recognised through such honours as his Fellowship of the Royal Society Arts, but leaving him little known to the general film enthusiast. Check out one of his books – they’ll be in the local library or second-hand book store. They look beautiful, and they wisely and reliably inform. Thank you, Brian.