Faster than Sound: Color in the Age of Silent Film

Green tinting on Kodak film (all images via

Looking back now, there is the impression that all old silent films were black and white, the advent of sound in the mid-to-late 1920s marking the first great milestone on the march to our 3D, high-definition contemporary world. Yet by the early 1920s — years before cinema found its voice — 80% of movies could be seen in color, hued by one of the many techniques that had been developed since the early days of film. Within a year of the Lumière Brothers’ first, historic film screenings in 1895, Thomas Edison was already projecting “two-colored films” during his first public exhibition of the kind in New York on April 23, 1896.

Color, then, was present from film’s earliest days, appearing in a variety of forms and techniques: tinting, toning, hand coloring, and stenciling. The result was a burgeoning, playful, experimental, and often spectacular experience, as color slipped and spread through the frame.

The Lumiére Brothers’ film of Loie Fuller’s “Danse Serpentine” (1897)

Early color stencil film from Pathé (1903)

Segundo de Chomón, “Les oeufs de Paques” (Easter Eggs) (1907) 

According to early-color-film scholar Joshua Yumibe, who’s written a book on the topic and lectured recently at Light Industry in Brooklyn, the advent and development of synthetic dyes gave rise a “chromatic culture” that cinema sought to emulate and reproduce. Blues, yellows, reds, and greens erupted on dresses, posters, and the walls of buildings. The world was abloom in color, and cinema imitated life, awash in the same revolutionizing dyes.

The film was still black and white — color was just being applied to it. In the case of tinting and toning, the film was immersed in dye and colored a single hue. Tinting colored the lighter areas; toning colored the darkest ones, leaving the white areas largely untouched. Both processes could be performed before or after shooting, with companies like Kodak selling pre-treated film stock.

As tinting and toning became part of cinematic practice, color codes emerged: blue stood for night, red for fire, green for a sylvan scene, yellow for a warm, sunny day. These codes weren’t always hard and fast, however; red could mean fire, or it could simply be an aesthetic choice.

Yellow Tint Courtesy,
Film with yellow tinting
Blue tone
Film with blue toning

In comparison to tinting and toning, hand coloring and stenciling yielded decidedly more remarkable, mesmerizing effects, scintillating in their multiple colors, like a fountain of shimmering rainbow water behind a flower stage. The process was laborious, though, the result of hand painting and cutting (stenciling) each frame in a film. This work was largely performed by women, one of the gendered ways that they participated in, contributed to, and were limited in the early era of cinema.

Stensil Work Showing Frames Cut Out
Stenciled frames showing cut-out details

With these techniques, Yumiba explained, directors like George Méliès, Segundo de Chomón, and others embellished their already imaginative films, creating fantastic worlds of color and movement. Loie Fuller, whose dazzling, dervish performances made her an idol of the European avant-garde, was a recurring figure. Filmmakers were eager to record and share her popular fin de siècle act.

In the 1900s and 1910s, as film grew more focused on narrative, color began to take on an increasingly allegorical, less decorative dimension. As coloring processes and color theory developed, color cinema, Yumibe argues, drew influence to varying degrees from Theosophy, utopian visions, Modernist design, and the Bauhaus movement. Some examples of these can be seen in the pioneering color works of Walter Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger, beginning in the 1920s.

Excerpt from George Méliès, “The Impossible Voyage” (1904) 

Gaston Velle, “Les Fleurs Animées” (Living Flowers) (1906)

Winsor McCay, “Little Nemo “(1911)

Walter Ruttmann, “Lichtspiel Opus I” (1921) 

Oskar Fischinger, “An Optical Poem” (1938)

Color in the early period of cinema was a multifaceted development, a reflection and result of the many technological, cultural, and artistic changes sweeping through life in Europe and America. The results are often beautiful and transfixing, achieving so much with seemingly so little. Imagination and effort, it seems, were more than enough to wow before the advent of sound and CG.

Joshua Yumibe’s lecture “Chromatic Modernisms: Color Cinema of the Silent Era” took place at Light Industry (155 Freeman Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn) on May 27, at 7:30pm.

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