Labor Makes Magic

Frame scan from nitrate film print of Les Tulipes (Het Tovertoneel), 1907, from Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, 2015. Published by Eye / Amsterdam University Press. Courtesy of publishers and the Eye Collection.
Frame scan from nitrate film print of Les Tulipes (Het Tovertoneel), 1907, from Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, 2015

The first time I saw Alice Guy-Blache’s hand tinted film when we covered early film innovations in class, I was intrigued and fascinated. It is amazing that she was able to produce even a short film in color over twenty years before the first true technicolor film, The Toll of the Sea, was released. At the time, it was revolutionary. No one had ever seen color captured in film; it was a dream of film makers.

Although hand tinted film is not true color, color is not actually captured by the film but meticulously added to the film with paint and dyes- in

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A still from Alice Guy-Blache’s Pierrette’s Escapades (1896-1900)

some ways it may even be better. The dyes used provide brilliantly vivid color, an effect which at the time was impossible any other way. It didn’t matter what color outfit the actors wore. With the use of hand tinted film, film makers could express to audiences the brilliance of what costuming could be. If

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A still from The Last Days of Pompeii (1926)

willing to put forth the time, this technique brought a whole new dimension to film making. With this innovation, film makers could express to audiences audiences the vibrant colors of a jester or the extravagantly bold colored robes of Roman politicians. 

The whole process of hand tinting film is extremely labor intensive. So much so that hand tinted films were normally shorts, or only select scenes from full length films were colored. The process involved hand dyeing each each single frame. This is what makes this technology so impressive to me. Everything from the shadowing and the creases in fabrics were hand colored frame by frame. The technique exhibits an absurd amount of patience and skill. But the desire to place color in motion was so strong it inspired film makers to expend this extraordinary effort. This desire led to the process being adapted to “mass produce” hand colored films. Film makers would cut out portions of a film to use it as a stencil for an underlying film.

“The image at left is a print of the film with portions of the image cut out to use as a stencil for a print placed beneath it. A separate stencil film was used for each color that would be applied. Each and every frame had to be cut in this manner.”

When we learned about this innovative technology in class, I had the idea that since it is so time intensive to color the entire film you could color only one thing across the film or in specific scenes to draw to audiences eyes or convey importance. Also it would just be a neat effect. While learning more about hand tinting I found that a film did just this in a very interesting and effective way. Vie et Passion du Christ (Life and Passion of the Christ) is a silent film released in 1903. The majority of the movie was in black and white but holy symbols and objects such as halos, angels wings, and Jesus and disciples’ robes were colored.

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The whole film available:

Upon doing more research of this topic, I found out that, although when most people hear “early film” they think black and white, an estimated 80 percent of early films were made in color- tinted or painted by hand. Because this technology required meticulous artistic detail on a very small working surface, most of the dyeing was done by women as well. I was able to find some incredibly innovative uses of this technology that resulted in visual effects that could not have been achieved by any other method until decades later. Animated GIF

A short film produced by the Lumiere Brothers – The Serpentine Dance circa 1899 ( 


Works Cited

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