How Are Black And White Films Colorized?

The inception of filmmaking finally saw the promulgation of ideas visually. This relieved us of the strenuous task of conjuring the imagery that reading imposed on us for ourselves. The plot could now unfold in front of our real eyes. However, even though films achieved in a few hours what books took days, the media still mimicked its textual cousin – the films were black and white.

The generic name, however, is misleading. The films weren’t black and white, but actually, greyscaled; all objects in the films reflected a certain shade of grey. This was, of course, due to technological constraints. As the technology advanced, filmmakers could illustrate their ideas more “naturally”, or rather, more humanly. The panoramas grew more resplendent as the palette of colors expanded. However, revered masterpieces such as Casablanca couldn’t simply be remade in color.


(Photo Credit: Casablanca Movie (1942) American romantic drama film Trailer screenshot)

To witness Humphrey Bogart’s turquoise eyes and the glowing orange butt of his cigarette, one would have to reassemble the entire cast and make the film all over again, which would lead to a public outcry –  partially because Bogart has been dead for the past 60 years. More importantly, however, remakes have always been frowned upon. While making a remake, one isn’t just tinkering with a highly cherished work of art, but people’s expectations and beliefs attached to it.

Remakes aside, the films can be colorized.

Painting films, literally!

Elisabeth Thuillier was a French colorist who excelled at coloring facets of magic lanterns and other kinds of photographic work. Elisabeth and her workforce of 200 employees – all women – were often hired by French filmmaker George Melies to color his films. Some classics include A Trip to the Moon and The Kingdom of Fairies.

They began coloring film around 1897 in a coloring lab in Paris. The colorization method was initially hand done by individuals. Yes, the employees literally painted every object in every frame one color at a time. They formed an assembly line in which each colorist was assigned a single tone, filling particular parts of each frame before passing the film to the next employee. Some areas were so minute that the employees resorted to brushes with a single hair!

The screening of The Last Days Of Pompeii

The screening of The Last Days Of Pompeii. The Last Days of Pompeii was colored by hand. This is quite evident in the washed out colors in this scene.

Elisabeth used aniline dyes, which produced transparent and luminous hues. She first dissolved the dyes in water and then in alcohol before smearing them on the films. Like on the palm of a standard palette, distinct colors were mixed to produce a plethora of different hues. Elisabeth used four primary colors: orange, blue-green, magenta and bright yellow. These basic hues could produce more than 20 unique colors. The tones to be used depended on the shade of grey on the film beneath.

Manual colorization was too arduous

Yet, regardless of recruiting an assembly line like Ford did, the efficacy of this process was questionable. This was, of course, a remarkably time-consuming process. Colorization by hand was done as late as the 1920s, but it was seldom used to create entire films, such as The Last Days of Pompeii. These inefficient methods soon saw themselves fall out of fashion as computerized colorization technologies were introduced.

Digital colorization

Coloring with a computer not only made the image quality more crisp and exquisite, but it also took less time. The advent of computers made colorization far more effective. The process was similar to colorization by hand, but now the film was colored on a computer. Studios were able to resurrect black-and-white pictures by digitally tinting individual objects in each frame of the entire film until it was entirely colorized.

American Buzz Aldrin during the first Moon walk in 1969

American Buzz Aldrin during the first Moon walk in 1969 (Photo Credit: NASA / Neil A. Armstrong
/ Wikimedia Commons)

Inspiration from NASA’s mission

This technology was invented by former NASA engineer Wilson Markle after he was assigned to color monochrome footage of the Apollo missions to the moon. The fundamental logic was reminiscent of hand colorization — in every scene, Markle ascribed predetermined colors to shades of grey. He foresaw the technology’s commercial prospect and subsequently founded Colorization Inc., which caused the term “colorization” to become ubiquitous.

Still, the techniques generated tawdry images with minor contrast, and they were often mildly pale with an appearance of colors being washed-out. A few years later, advancements in technology facilitated the advent of digital signal processing and graphic software to better manipulate complex imagery.

Working on pixels

The technique required a digitized copy of the film’s best monochrome print. Again, the range of grey levels is central to the transmutation. This time, the shades are assigned by the complex software. The objects are divided into infinitesimal indivisible areas known as pixels. The technician then colors every pixel. Our eye then perceives, or rather, blurs the pixels into a continuous image.

Pixels smiley

Markle’s method used up to 4000 shades of color to fill individual pixels. Other than simply coloring, the software is also capable of sensing tiny variations in the level of light in the frames to detect movement and correct them if necessary. To account for movement, the moved pixels were simply recolored.

A majority of colors are “obvious” colors, such as blue sky, white clouds and green grass. Other colors were assigned based on acquired information of the props used in the film or the film’s available pictures. In case the technician is unsure about an object’s color, he decides on a color he feels is consistent or is characteristic of the grey scale. Or, he may presumptuously select a color he feels the director might have chosen!

The software then colors the object in every frame until it exits the frame. The entire procedure is then repeated for every object.

Marilyn Monroe

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

Without algorithms to detect consistent boundaries, such as a boundary to distinguish between an actor’s hair and face, coloring every pixel can be an exceedingly tedious process. Other than region discrimination, region-tracking algorithms are also scarce or underdeveloped.

The criticism of colorization

Digital colorization would cost an exorbitant 3000 dollars per minute for a film! The average cost for a whole feature film would amount to a preposterous $300,000! Why would media organizations deliberately burn such a deep hole in their pockets? Is it because they are effusive philanthropic aesthetes?

Not really. People from even the most remote corners of the world were allured by the prospect of their favorite films being shown in color. The average revenue generated by these renovated films was around $500,000, almost double the expenditure!

A filmmaker could earn a fortune by simply plucking a movie out of the classics list, colorizing it and selling it back to the masses.

Casablanca colorised

(Photo Credit: screenshots from the colorized version of ”Casablanca”)

Roger Ebert on film colorization

This sort of tampering is vehemently detested by film critics, filmmakers and artists. For Roger Ebert, this tampering was tantamount to vandalism. He writes: “They arrest people who spray subway cars, they lock up people who attack paintings and sculptures in museums, and adding color to black and white films, even if it’s only to the tape shown on TV or sold in stores, is vandalism nonetheless.”

He added, “What was so wrong about black-and-white movies in the first place? By filming in black and white, movies can sometimes be more dreamlike and elegant and stylized and mysterious. They can add a whole additional dimension to reality, while color sometimes just supplies additional unnecessary information.”

Critics particularly detested media giant Ted Turner who went on a classic colorizing spree. The resentment exacerbated significantly when he decided to colorize Citizen Kane.

Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan (1979) Directed by Woody Allen (Photo Credit: BAMcinematek’s 9/11 MANHATTAN screenings / Flickr)

Technically, black-and-white movies illustrate the truest representation of reality. Seduced by the enamor of black and white, filmmakers persisted to make grey-scaled films, despite the availability of color technology. Consider Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which used greyscale to illustrate his untainted view of New York, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was shot in black and white to intensify visceral imagery. Or the recent, The Artist whose visual monotony elicits nostalgia.

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About the Author

Akash Peshin is an Electronic Engineer from the University of Mumbai, India and a science writer at ScienceABC. Enamored with science ever since discovering a picture book about Saturn at the age of 7, he believes that what fundamentally fuels this passion is his curiosity and appetite for wonder.

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