Thursday, March 18, 2010

Color in the movies - Part 1 - Kinemacolor

Since my second child, my beautiful daughter Juni was born January 22 there has been little time left for writing. Now things are slowly finding their tracks and new routines are being created. Uninterrupted sleep really does wonders for the creativity!

This is thus part one of a series I have planned for a long time. Many people seems to believe the first color feature was Gone With the Wind in 1939 which of course is untrue. In the series I will try to explain and show examples of some of the early color systems, all of them predecessors to 3 strip Technicolor (the system that was used in GWTW). I will try to leave out most of the technical details and concentrate on the basic principles in each system. Enjoy!

”3D films will be the next big thing”. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I wonder if this modern day tagline was used in September 1922 when the first known 3D film opened. The film was called The Power of Love and was shot with a modified Prizma color camera. Prizma color was a primitive color system that was invented in 1913, but color movies were of course yesterdays news even in 1913.

The first successful color motion picture process was Kinemacolor. From the start it was a three color system. The roots of the system dated back to the work of Edward R. Turner, a British inventor who had received a patent for a three color motion picture system in 1889. This is really interesting since a working three color system for motion pictures didn't hit the public until 1932. Turner's early three color method was based on a mid-19th century discovery that virtually all colors could be produced by a combination of the three primary colors red, green and blue. This additive principle (bringing together the separate color parts to create a composite full color result) would be the inspiration for Kinemacolor.

In 1901, Turner went to Charles Urban, an American businessman residing in London, to request assistance in developing the patent, in return for exploitation rights. Urban was instantly enthusiastic, and got his engineer Alfred Darling to design a camera and projector. Research to produce a workable three color system went on for a year until early 1903 when Turner suddenly died of a heart attack in his laboratory. A few individual frames and one short strip of film show that the camera could take pictures, but in projection the images were almost impossible to enjoy because of the heavy flickering.

This short fragment shows the earlier three color experiments of Edward Turner. Note the distinct presence of the blue color in the footage.

To obtain a normal projection speed of 16 frames per second Kinemacolor had a speed of 48 frames per second, one frame for every color that was projected in sequence red, green and blue.
Charles Urban and George Albert Smith
Charles Urban quickly bought up the patent rights and set his associate George Albert Smith to work on the project. Several more years of trying to put three colors on the screen failed to yield acceptable results. Ultimately a simpler system using two colors was developed in 1906 and the results were deemed workable. The Kinemacolor system was born.
One impediment to producing natural color motion pictures had been the fact that existing film stocks were orthochromatic which means they were basically insensitive to red light. This was probably the major reason color film wasn't invented earlier. Until the commercial availability of true panchromatic black and white film that was equally sensitive to light of all wavelengths in the mid 1920s, color pioneers had to chemically sensitize their film so that it would record more or less of the entire visible color spectrum. Thus Smith and Urban had to make their own panchromatic film stock.
The Kinemacolor camera and projector
The Kinemacolor camera exposed black and white film through alternating red and green filters so that alternate frames were exposed through either the red or the green, but resulting in a black and white positive. The camera speed was 32 frames per second. The blue element in the earlier version was left out which also as a bonus meant less flicker. In projection the movie was shown through a filter wheel, similar to that in the camera. The filters added the red and green tints to the successive frames. The results were remarkably good, but like all sequential color processes, Kinemacolor suffered from color fringing when objects moved, since the two color records were not recorded at the same time. Many color processes used this approach and all suffered from fringing on moving objects. The images demanded a stronger light in the projector but were often still seen as rather dark and muddy. Sometimes the film was not loaded in the projector in appropriate sync with the color wheel. This gave a undesired almost psychedelic effect. None of the two-color processes could reproduce blue or pure white, but various tricks were used to fool the eye into thinking it was seeing a neutral white.
Here is a 1906 demonstration of the two color Kinemacolor. The first motion picture exhibited in Kinemacolor was an eight-minute short filmed in Brighton titled A Visit to the Seaside, which was trade shown in September 1908. On 26 February 1909, the general public first saw Kinemacolor in a programme of twenty-one short films shown at the Palace Theater in London. The process was first seen in the United States on 11 December 1909, at an exhibition staged by Smith and Urban at Madison Square Garden in New York. Kinemacolor projectors were eventually installed in some 300 cinemas in Britain, and 54 dramatic films were produced. Four dramatic short films were also produced by Kinemacolor in the United States in 1912–1913, and one in Japan, Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (1914). However, the company was never a success, partly due to the expense of installing special Kinemacolor projectors in cinemas. Kinemacolor in the U.S. became most notable for its Hollywood studio being taken over by D. W. Griffith, who also took over Kinemacolor's failed plans to film Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, originally intended as a color feature. The project eventually became The Birth of a Nation (1915) but the color was left out. Urban's greatest triumph was the Kinemacolor film of the Delhi Durbar. This spectacular ceremony, held in Delhi in December 1911 to celebrate the coronation, was filmed by several film companies, and their black-and-white records had already been seen in Britain by the time Urban returned from India with his team of eight and many thousands of feet of colour film of the ceremonies. The film opened at the Scala on 2 February 1912, and many felt that the filmgoing public would now be tired of the Durbar. Urban proved them very wrong. Offering the public an unprecedented two and and a half hours of film (16,000 feet)was unheard of at the time when a feature film rarely had a duration of more than 50-60 minutes. Urban presented the film with a stage setting that represented the Taj Mahal, and accompanied it with a 48 piece orchestra, a chorus of 24, a fife and drum corps of 20, and three bagpipes. Its success was phenomenal. Patriotic London flocked to see it, and the proceeds from the Scala run and five road shows made Urban a wealthy man.
A Kinemacolor fragment of Lillian Russell from 1913.
Kinemacolor was quite successful in Europe and promised to grow and improve. However two events ultimately killed the company. First, another excentric British inventor, William Friese-Greene sued for patent violation. Friese-Greene claimed to have invented virtually everything relating to motion pictures but he lost his suit through all the lower courts in England. He finally did win when he appealed the lower court decisions to the House of Lords. Friese-Greene had discovered a technicality that made the original patents "incomplete" according to British law. This didn't get Friese-Greene anything but it did open up the Kinemacolor technology so that anyone could take advantage of it. The second event was World War I, which nearly destroyed all the European film companies. By the time Europe started to make a comeback Kinemacolor was nearly defunct and Technicolor in Boston, Massachusetts had taken the lead in producing a workable color process. Other additive color processes were also waiting in the wings. More on those in part 2 so stay tuned. Most of the information here is to be found on Luke McKernans brilliant site about Charles Urban. Please visit it for the full story about Urban and Kinemacolor.
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