Capturing Colour

fire 1_300h250w‘Colour is life: for a world without colours appears to us as dead.’ – Johannes Itten, 1961

We take colour in the moving image for granted. But the search for a way to capture this colour is a story of ingenious inventions, personal obsession, magic and illusion, scientific discovery, hard work and determination.

This is an international story with significance for Brighton & Hove, where some of the earliest successful ways of capturing the world in colour were developed.

sun eat train a_300h250wThe exhibition which was held at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery from December 2010 to March 2011, explored and celebrated this quest for colour on film. It focused on the moving image in Britain from the origins in magic lanterns, early colour photography and Kromskops, to applied colour films, Kinemacolor, Technicolor and Kodachrome. Fantasy worlds, fairy tale genies, the wonders of the natural world, pageantry, cinema blockbusters and home movies all illustrate the stories of our desire to capture the world in colour.

Capturing Colour was a collaboration between Royal Pavilion & Museums (Brighton & Hove City Council) and Screen Archive South East (University of Brighton). It was funded by Renaissance South East, Screen South and UK Film Council’s Digital Film Archive Fund supported by the National Lottery, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

How we see and capture colour on film

‘Learning that colour is a fiction of light is one of the primary shocks of growing up.’ – Tacita Dean, 2007

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Applied colour films

The earliest films in the exhibition use applied colours. Colour is added directly onto the black and white film strip. It could be hand–painted, creating a striking and beautiful effect. Or tinted, producing a monotone but atmospheric result.

Colour films

The three primary colours are red, blue and yellow. This is true for mixing paint, but it is not true for projected light. The colours in a film are created using a mixture of the primary colours of light – red, green and blue.

In relation to films, coloured light can be mixed in one of two ways: additive or subtractive.

Additive colour systems

tartan 3_300h250wEarly attempts to capture colour on film used additive systems. The film used is black and white, but the projected screen image appears in colour by the use of either a colour filter wheel or by adding individual dye stains for each frame. The fast speed at which the film frames are projected tricks the brain into seeing a full coloured image rather than the limited colours of the colour wheel or the individual dye stains.

The colour is added as the image is projected, hence ‘additive colour’.


Subtractive colour systems


From the 1930s onwards subtractive colour systems have been used. Here the individual image is recorded in three layers. It is processed using dyes in the three primary opposite colours, cyan, magenta and yellow. These layers act as filters, only allowing their opposite colours to be projected. When white light is projected through the filter layers, only red, blue and green light is projected onto the screen.

The desired colour is subtracted from the white light, hence ‘subtractive colour’.

Penny Plain, Tuppence Coloured

Since the invention of the first printing presses in the 15th century, coloured versions of books, prints, photographs and films have always been prized and desired.

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During the 19th century, new innovations allowed images from all around the world to be captured and presented to the public. Pictures were everywhere. But most of these images were in black and white.

To meet the demand for colour, special editions were produced. Images were coloured using time-consuming and labour-intensive methods like hand-colouring and chromolithography. The quality of the image was variable but they all reflected the desire to see the world in colour.

Early Film and Colour Photography in Brighton and Hove

Film and colour photography was the exciting new wonder of 1900.

James Williamson
James Williamson

Brighton and Hove were influential centres for these new vision technologies. As popular seaside towns, they had many photographers’ studios, an active Camera Club, frequent magic lantern shows and large audiences with a real enthusiasm for modern spectacle.

George Albert Smith

Each town had its own hub of new media activity.

Two of Britain’s early film pioneers lived in Hove. George Albert Smith and James Williamson. They each established a film studio and made innovative films that were seen all over the world. The cameras they used were built by the Brighton-based mechanical engineer, Alfred Darling. Smith also led the invention of Kinemacolor, the first colour motion picture system.

20 Middle Street in Brighton, served as a colour ‘research centre’. Here Captain William Davidson and Dr Benjamin Jumeaux ran their Tri-colour photographic printing business and conducted their experiments into colour film and photography. Otto Pfenninger used their system to take his photographs. Davidson and Jumeaux’s premises also provided William Friese-Greene with a laboratory. It was here that he developed his Biocolour system.

The Arrival of Film – and in Colour

‘Yesterday I was in the kingdom of the shadows. If only you knew how strange it is to be there. There are no sounds, no colours. There, everything – the earth, the trees, the people, the water, the air – is tinted in a grey monotone … This is not life but the shadow of life…’ – Maxim Gorky after seeing a black and white film for the first time, 1896

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Motion pictures were launched in London and Brighton in March 1896. The world could now be seen moving on a screen. But only in black and white.

Colour film did not exist. But both film-makers and viewers desired the beauty and realism that colour could bring. Film-makers looked for ways to achieve this.

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The process of tinting, involved dyeing a section of film. The colour reflected the action taking place. This practice was used in Hove film-maker James Williamson’s film Fire! (1901). Williamson used red to signify a house on fire. The effect was not precise but was quick and cheap.

Another process, seen in Georges Méliès’ The Impossible Voyage (1904), involved the hand-painting of thousands of individual film frames. It could take weeks to complete a single short film. As film became more popular film-makers looked for alternatives that were less complicated and time-consuming.

Stencilling, seen in Aladdin and His Magical Lamp (1906), was an ingenious mechanical process. Once stencils had been produced, new colour prints could be made at considerable speed. Using this process it was possible to produce multiple colour versions of a film economically.

James Clerk Maxwell: Demonstrating the Concept of Additive Colour

The mixing and projecting of the primary colours of light (red, green and blue) can create every shade of colour on screen. Known as additive colour, this theory is the basis of the first motion picture colour film systems.

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This concept was first demonstrated by Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. He photographed a tartan ribbon three times. Each time a different filter was placed in front of the camera lens: red, green and blue.

James Clerk Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell

The resulting three lantern slides were projected using three magic lanterns, each with the relevant colour filter – red, green and blue. When the three projected images were superimposed they combined to create a colour image that reproduced the original colours of the tartan ribbon.

Maxwell’s additive colour model provided the basis for the early colour projection systems such as the Kromskop and Kinemacolor. It still informs the RGB Colour Model which is used for our television and computer screens.


Launched in 1895 the Kromskop enabled the viewer to see a full colour and stereoscopic image. For a few years it was very popular and was marketed as ‘invaluable for Evening Parties, At Homes … Garden Parties &c…’.

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It was invented by the American Frederic Ives. He abandoned efforts to create a practical way of printing colour photographs on paper and turned his attention to the work of James Clerk Maxwell. He decided to create an additive colour viewing machine.

kromskop diagram v3_300h250wThe Kromskop shows the viewer an image, through a viewfinder, that is created using three stereoscopic lantern slides. One is taken using a red filter, one blue and one green. Using a system of coloured filters and mirrors, the viewer saw ‘the three images … blended as to appear as one to the eye’.

Ives also invented the Lantern Kromskop. This when used with a magic lantern, enabled the colour images to be presented to a large audience.

The Kromskop was only available commercially for a short time. Yet the demonstration of colour images created using colour filters inspired the first moving image colour experiments.

Tri-colour Motion Picture System

Frederick Marshall Lee and Edward Turner attempted to create motion pictures in full colour. Colour film was not yet created but they invented a system to create colour images using black and white film.

IMG_2098_300h250wThey managed to film moving images in colour. However, when the film was projected using their three-lens projector, there was excessive juddering and flickering. Still, their work inspired other inventors who refined the system they developed.

Patented in 1899 the Tri-colour Motion Picture System was inspired by James Clerk Maxwell’s experiments and the Kromskop.

A colour screen, a rotating filter wheel of alternating red, blue and green filters, was synchronised with the camera’s shutter. Each new frame of film was then exposed to one of the filters.

The processed film was then projected through a three-lens projector that had the same three colour filter wheel. The frames were projected at the same time onto a screen. In theory the superimposition of these three frames combined to create coloured motion pictures.

This complicated system was not practical. It was expensive and the image quality was very poor. However it laid the foundation for Kinemacolor, the first commercially successful colour motion picture process.


two_clowns.‘I yelled like a drunken cowboy – “we’ve got it – we’ve got it!” ‘ – Charles Urban remembering his first viewing of Kinemacolor

For the first time the world could be seen on the cinema screen in colour. Kinemacolor offered its amazed audiences realism and a colour that was claimed to be true to nature.


It was launched in 1908 and known as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. People flocked to see the new films ‘in all the colour and movement of life’

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It was devised by George Albert Smith of Hove and Southwick and promoted by the entrepreneur and film producer Charles Urban. Kinemacolor films were promoted by The Natural Color Kinematograph Company. The films were shown exclusively in Kinemacolor cinemas across the country including the Academy Cinema, Brighton.

Kinemacolor camera hi res_300h250wThe process used a simplified version of the Frederick Marshall Lee and Edward Turner system. Kinemacolor reduced the number of filters within the colour filter wheel of the camera and the projector to two – red and green. Enough blue was recorded through the green filter to give an illusion of blue in the finished film.

Kinemacolor was the first commercially successful colour motion picture process. However, after a hard-fought court battle with William Friese-Greene, Hove resident and the inventor of Biocolour, Charles Urban lost the patent rights to the Kinemacolor system in 1915.


William Friese-Greene’s research and experiments contributed to the development of moving pictures from the early 1890s. In 1905 he began work on a new colour film system in the Davidson & Jumeaux workshop at 20, Middle Street, Brighton.

1994-5013_7_1Showcased in 1911, Biocolour was similar to Kinemacolor but the film itself was stained red and green on alternate frames. This meant that Biocolour films could be shown on existing cinema equipment without the need for expensive alteration.

Hampered in his efforts to market his new colour system by the patents protecting the rival system of Kinemacolor, Friese-Greene turned to the courts. After a long court battle he was finally successful in having the patent for Kinemacolor revoked in 1915. However, with the outbreak of World War I and personal difficulties, he was never able to capitalise on his invention.

In the 1920s his son Claude Friese-Greene further developed his father’s system. He produced The Open Road in 1926. However, the flicker visible on projection of the film and the new developments in the USA of Technicolor and the talkies meant that there was no commercial interest in Biocolour.

The process was forgotten until the British Film Institute restored the film and it was shown on BBC television in 2007. It is the best surviving example of a two-colour additive film in the UK.


Color has undoubtedly again shaken Hollywood to the depths of its cinematic being – Fortune Magazine, October 1934

IMG_2086_300h250wTechnicolor thrived from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. At a time when most films were made in black and white, seeing a Technicolor film was a special event.

Martin Scorsese described his first viewing of The Red Shoes as ‘The vivid reds and deep blues, the vibrant yellows and rich blacks,… such a swirl of color and light and sound, all burned into my mind’.

The Technicolor process produced stunning colour prints that could be used in any standard projector. However it was a complicated process to film. Special cameras had to be used and it required a very high level of lighting.

It was led by Dr Herbert Kalmus and his associates in Boston, USA. Technicolor began in 1916 as a two-colour additive process. It evolved, after 20 years of research, into a three-colour subtractive system.


However process fell into decline. It was expensive, difficult, time-consuming, and the company demanded that it supervision of every production. The last film to be shot in Technicolor was made in 1954, but the company continued to print films shot on various different filmstocks.

Len Lye

’After watching the waves, stripes, blobs of violent tints, suggesting tartan, bandanna, boarding-house wallpaper, fruit salad, chromatic spaghetti and an explosion in a cocktail bar, I have expected to find myself coming to in a dentist’s chair.’ – Daily Herald’s review of Len Lye’s A Colour Box, 1935

Len Lye was a pioneer abstract film-maker in London in the the 1930s. His creations explored film, music and colour. They were known as direct films because they were made without a camera. He hand-painted, scratched and stencilled shapes, patterns and words directly onto the film.


Pattern, texture and colour cascade playfully across the screen in his abstract films. They were popular for their beauty aswell as bold and innovative use of colour. Yet these free and playful films were merely advertisements for the General Post Office or Shell Oil.

The film stock he used was the latest in colour film technology. The music he chose ranged from Cuban and Hawaiian to popular songs such as The Lambeth Walk. When combined, his work created streams of colour and form, unified with the rhythm of the music.


Lye was an active surrealist in the 1930s. He believed that by being free of the camera, he could create a visual world that expressed his spirit and its energy.


Dufaycolor was a short-lived additive colour film process that was used in the 1930s and 1940s. Because its colour filters were built into the film it could be used in any film camera and projector.

Dufay 7 copy2_540h450w

At the height of its popularity in 1935 it was used to film the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of King George V, In the same year, the film-maker Len Lye used Dufaycolor for his first abstract film A Colour Box.

Dufay 7 copy_300h250wThe film had a mosaic pattern of colour filters – blue and green squares crossed at right angles by red lines. When projected, the image was made up of a pattern or screen of colours that the eye combined to form a complete picture.

It was a relatively inexpensive process but there were complications. If you sat too close to the screen you could see the mosaic pattern and the image was quite dark. It was a reversal film which meant that the same film was developed twice – once to make a negative and then again to create a positive image. Because there was no separate negative film it was difficult to make multiple copies.


’The Whole Wonderful World of Colour is Yours’ – Kodak on Kodachrome, 1962

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Kodak’s Kodachrome film allowed photographers and film-makers to capture the world in colour.

Launched in 1935, it became one of the most successful colour films for still photography and amateur filming. It marked the real beginning of amateur and professional film-makers creating movies that captured the everyday world in motion and in colour.

3740b_300h250wInspired by the early work of Ducos du Hauron in the 1860s, it was developed by the musicians and chemists Leopold Mannes and Leo Godowsky at the Kodak Research Laboratory, Rochester, USA. The film could be used in all standard cameras and projectors. It was little used by the film industry due to the reversal developing process making it difficult to produce multiple copies. However it was very popular with amateur film-makers.

Only Kodak could process a Kodachrome film. Each film was sold with the cost of processing by a Kodak laboratory included. The process was improved many times. It was known for producing colour of high quality and high resolution until it was withdrawn by Kodak in 2009.


eastman color002_300h250wThe panchromatic hues of nature stand truly revealed – The New York Times review of The Lion and the Horse, 1952

Eastmancolor offers film-makers a simple and cost effective means of making films in colour. It has been the standard for colour motion picture films for the past 60 years.

Almost every film most of us have seen  in the cinema has been shot and printed on Eastmancolor. Black and white feature films were still commonly made throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but by 1970 nearly all movies were made in colour using Eastmancolor.

Launched by Kodak in 1950 and later refined, it was simple to use and its colour negative film could be processed by any laboratory. Copies were easily made from the negative film to its colour print film.

It is only occasionally credited as Eastmancolor. It was widely licensed to the big film studios and known by many names, including Columbia Color, WarnerColor, Metro Color and Deluxe.

Colour Television

‘A million phosphor dots begin to glow in… red… blue… or green. Form takes shape, color blends. Then suddenly – color comes to life on your TV screen.’ – RCA Colour Television, 1963

The introduction of widespread colour television broadcasting brought the world in colour into the home.

Colour TV_300h250wColour in the cinema became common from the 1960s. But in the home the moving image on the television set was still in black and white.

Attempts to create colour television started in the 1920s. In 1954 the NBC network launched the first American colour television service.

In 1960 Parliament’s Television Advisory Committee recommended the introduction of colour television in Britain. After debate and experimentation with the different technologies that were available, Britain adopted the PAL system.

Progress was slow. Initially the only colour programmes were outside broadcasts and films. But by 1968 BBC2 was broadcasting 75% of its schedule in colour and there were over 100,000 colour television sets in Britain. In 1969 both BBC1 and ITV began colour transmissions and within five years colour television sets were outselling black and white.

The camcorder became a popular way for people to make their own colour films. The first consumer models were launched in the late 1970s but they were awkward and shoulder-mounted. The introduction of small digital format cameras from the mid 1990s enabled a surge in the production of home-movies and independent films.

A Digital Revolution

pixel_300h250wDigital technology is transforming the ways in which moving images in colour can be made and used by all of us.

Computers, digital cameras and mobile phones have enabled us all to make, store and view our own colour films whenever we wish.

In the past 20 years film production has been radically changed by the impact of digital technology. Some productions are still shot on film – although this is becoming less usual. Editing and special effects are developed using computers. Increasingly cinemas are investing in digital projection, which now produces high quality screen images.


Digital motion picture cameras capture an image on an image sensor as a pattern of electronic signals. These are converted into data and stored on a memory card. As data the moving image exists as a set of binary numbers – sequences of 1 and 0. A computer reassembles the data into moving images which can be viewed on a screen. When viewed, the thousands of individual pixels on the screen combine to create a moving image in colour.

Capturing Colour?

Nick 1_300h250wDuring the past 110 years of film-making many different techniques have been used to capture colour.  From hand-painting to additive colour processes like Kinemacolor and subtractive colour processes like Eastmancolor, and now digital technology.

Individuals and large corporations have invented, experimented and persevered in their determination to bring the real world in real colour to the screen.

Now, with digital technology we seem to record the world in colour effortlessly.

But – has colour now been captured…?

Film archives and digitisation

The films in the Capturing Colur exhibition have all been transferred from film onto a digital format. Digital restoration gives us an understanding of what the original film might have been like when it was first seen.

Film archives, such as the British Film Institute and Screen Archive South East at the University of Brighton, use digital restoration as part of their routine restoration and access work.

Nearly all of the film in the exhibition originates from specialist film archives. It was originally developed and fixed through a wet-chemical production process. To enable it to be exhibited it has been digitised. It was transferred from film to data using a scanning process, which then allows it to be restored.

Digital software can remove evidence of damage. Including torn frames, flickers and scratches and can even add missing titles and enable colour correction, especially where fading has taken place. These changes are all made by archives based on their understanding of the original film and its history.

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