Is it The Wizard of Oz?
The Wizard of Oz turned out to be a revolution in cinema by using colour. However, the movie, by no means, pioneered the use of colour. Released in 1939, the musical changed filmmaking history right when Judy Garland (Dorothy Gale) opens the doors to the wonderful realm of Technicolour when a tornado transforms her abode into the magical world of Oz. Accompanied by Toto, her iconic pet dog., they start their journey of finding the Great Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) and request him for sending them back to Kansas.
However, the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, begins pursuing them. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East, meets with accidental death, and she seeks revenge for it. Joined by the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Dorothy embarks on the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. The Witch is defeated by Dorothy before she returns to Kansas.
The Old and the New
It is commonly believed that “older” films are in black and while the “newer” ones come in colour. One must keep in mind that there are no distinct dividing boundaries between the two. As with most artistic and technological developments, we do not have a precise break between when the film industry moved to colour film from black and white. Moreover, film lovers are aware that some filmmakers still choose to film their movies in black and white, even decades after the standardization of colour film.
Notable examples of this include The Artist (2011), Manhattan (1979), Young Frankenstein (1974), Raging Bull (1980), and Schindler’s List (1993). You will be intrigued to know that shooting was a similar artistic preference in the earliest decades of movies for many years. Colour movies have existed for way longer than many people believe.
The Brilliance of Technicolour
It didn’t take long for The Wizard of Oz to be a film and pop culture icon. It was acclaimed for its brilliant musical score, creative special effects, great storytelling, and heartfelt performances. But what made the movie move towards sheer excellence was Technicolour. It is the most popular colour process in Hollywood. The process used a natural representation of real-life colours and highly saturated hues. The process worked as a precedent for mainstream usage of colour in every movie which came afterwards.
However, as is the scenario with most innovations such as CGI, special effects, sounds, the movie made Technicolour not the one to invent it. Films in colour existed way before the idea for adapting The Wizard of Oz book into an iconic Hollywood adaptation was even conceived. Close to 200 motion pictures experimented with various colour techniques before 1939. Sadly, many of these experiments were lost.
The First Movie in Colour
In 1895, Thomas Edison was already projecting frame by frame or short hand-painted non-narrative films for Kinetoscope. Kinetoscope was a predecessor for the movie projectors made for individual viewing through a peephole window. Annabelle’s Serpentine Dance was the first as well as the most popular out of the lot. A Trip to the Moon by George Méliès, which came out in 1902, is regarded as vital to the future of VFX in films. It used a hand-coloured print.
The very first motion picture exhibited in Kinemacolour (natural colour) was A Visit to the Seaside. It was a British short film of eight minutes. It showed little snippets of people going about their day-to-day activities. It was followed by The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, a silent drama that used the same technique. It was the first feature-length film. This proves that the latter is indeed the first-ever non-documentary feature film made in full colour.
Looking at the Colours in The Wizard of Oz
It is an often-repeated but incorrect slice of trivia that this movie was the first-ever full-colour film. The misconception arises from the fact that The Wizard of Oz makes brilliant symbolic usage of the great colour film right after the first scene shown in black and white. The Wizard of Oz is regarded as the first colour film due to the effect the film left on the industry.
Oz’s land being explored by Dorothy showcased the evolution from a monochromatic and sepia environment of “Old Hollywood” to a new world loaded with happiness and lively colour. The emblematic sequence was carried forward in a very simplistic but incredibly innovative style. The movie was already filmed in Technicolour, but a sepia tone was used for painting the stand-in and set for Dorothy. Opening the door, the stand-in reveals the bright and vibrant lands of Oz. It prompts Judy Garland in entering in full colour. The vivid sets, graceful makeup work, and magnificent details put into the costumes work, consequently blowing the viewers’ minds in theatres.
So, even though the film was not the first colour movie, it was the most influential one. All the adaptations of Wizard of Oz have failed in comparison to the original. This is mainly because they do not give away any innovation, which compares to accomplishing the 1939 masterpiece. Oz’s land, even by the standards of today, continues to be a beautiful paradise, all thanks to the colours that evoke the childlike wonder in all of us.
Earlier Films in Colour
Shortly after the invention of the motion picture, early colour film procedures were developed. However, such processes were either expensive, rudimentary, or both. Even in the initial days of making silent films, motion pictures used colour. Dye was most commonly used for tinting the colours of specific scenes. For instance, blue or deep purple colours were used in scenes that happened outdoors at night.
This was for simulating the nighttime and visually distinguishing those scenes from the ones which took place indoors and/or during the day. It was just a representation of the colour. Stencilling was another technique used in movies like A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Vie et Passion du Christ (Life and Passion of Christ, 1903). In the process of stencilling, each frame of a movie was hand-coloured. This procedure of hand-colouring every frame, even of movies that were way shorter than today’s films, was expensive, time-consuming, and painstaking.
Following the next few decades, advancements were made which improved the film colour stencilling while speeding the entire process. However, the expense and time it demanded caused it is being used just for a tiny percentage of movies.
The Rise of Kinemacolor
Among the most significant development in colour film was Kinemacolor. It came into being in 1906 when Englishman George Albert Smith created it. Kinemacolor movies showed film through green and red filters for simulating the actual colours used in the movie. Even though it was a step ahead, this two-colour film procedure did not aptly represent the full spectrum of colour. It left many colours appearing washed out, too bright, or not visible at all.
The first motion picture which used the process of Kinemacolour was A Visit to the Seaside. It was a short travelogue by Smith which came out in 1908. The process was most used in its native United Kingdom, but many theatres saw the installation of the needed equipment as cost-prohibitive.
Let’s Move on to Technicolour
It didn’t take even a decade after the invention of Kinemacolour for the development of Technicolour. Technicolour, a U.S. company, came up with its two-colour process, which was used for shooting the 1917 film The Gulf Between. It was the first-ever United States colour feature. The process needed a movie to be projected using two projectors. One projector had a green filter, while the other had a red.
The projections were combined on one screen using a prism. Like other colour procedures, the early Technicolour was also cost-prohibitive due to the projection equipment and special filming techniques it needed. As a result, The Gulf Between was the only movie produced using the original two-colour process of Technicolour. Simultaneously, the workers at Famous Players- Lasky Studios (now known as Paramount Pictures), along with engraver Max Handschiegl, came up with a different process to colour film using dyes.
The process saw the light of the day in 1917 with Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan, the Woman. For almost ten years, it was utilized only on a limited basis. However, dye technology came to use in colourization processes in the future. The innovative procedure came to be known as the ‘Handschiegl colour process’.
Developments in Technicolour
During the early 1920s, a new kind of colour process was developed by Technicolour. In this, the colour was directly imprinted on the film itself. So, this meant the film could be projected over any well-sized film projector. It was similar to an earlier, but not so successful, colour format known as Prizma. The improved process of Technicolour was first utilized in The Toll of the Sea. This film came out in 1922.
However, the process was still costly for production and need a lot more light than filming in black and white. Hence, many movies which utilized Technicolour only used it for a few short sequences within an otherwise black and white film. For instance, The Phantom of the Opera (the 1925 version) starring Lon Chaney had some short sequences in colour. Also, the procedure had technical issues which prevented it from being widely used.
Throughout the 1920s, other companies and Technicolour kept on experimenting and refining colour motion picture film. However, black and white remained the standard. A three-colour film was introduced by Technicolour in the year 1932. It utilized dye-transfer techniques which projected the most vibrant and brilliant colour on the film yet. This method debuted in Flowers and Trees, a short, animated film by Walt Disney. The film was also included in a contract with Technicolour to use this three-colour process and lasted till 1934 with The Cat and the Fiddle, the first live-action movie that used this three-colour process.
Even though the results were splendid, the process was yet to be cost-effective. Also, it required a way bigger camera for shooting. Also, cameras were not sold by Technicolour, so studios had to rent them for the filmmakers. Due to this, the colour was reserved by Hollywood for the more prestigious feature films all through the late 1930s, 40s and the 50s. In the 1950s, Eastman Kodak and Technicolour came up with more developments, making it much easier for shooting movies in colour. It also made the process cheaper. (See What Is The Difference Between A Movie Premiere And Its First Official Release?)
The Standardization of Colour
Eastman colour was the colour film process brought out by Eastman Kodak. It competed with the mass popularity of Technicolour. The CinemaScope format, the new widescreen, was compatible with Eastmancolor. Both colour movies and widescreen films were the industry’s way to fight against the growing popularity of tiny, black and white TV screens. Towards the late 1950s, most productions in Hollywood were using colour to shoot. This grew so much that towards the mid-1960s, new black and white films were more of an artistic choice than a budgetary one.
This continued even in the coming decades, as new black and white films primarily came from indie filmmakers. In today’s time, shooting on digital formats make the colour film processes almost obsolete. Yet, viewers will continue to link black and white movies with the classic storytelling of Hollywood while marvelling at the vibrant and bright colours of the early colour films. Isn’t it fascinating?