Even dedicated moviegoers may be surprised to learn that color has been an important part of filmmaking from the very beginning. Particularly fascinating are the various attempts to add color to films during the formative years of cinema, from hand coloring in the 1890s to “Glorious Technicolor” in the 1930s and beyond. Yet despite MoMA’s efforts to collect representative samples of different staining techniques, widespread access to some of these films in their authentic colors has been hampered by unstable film stocks and poor quality copies. Now, as part of a series of new 4K digital restorations, 17 first color films from the Department of Film’s collection are once again available for review and appreciation. Three highlights of this selection are presented here.
The Infernal Cave (La Grotte Infernale). 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. Photograph by Segundo de Chomón
Acquired by the Museum in 1935, this inventive stenciled film has not been seen in its original color version for many years. In the caves of hell, Satan stirs up the eternal flames and evokes the souls of the damned, whom he reduces to dust and plunges into the infernal depths. The coloring here is an integral part of the film’s sense of whimsy and wonder, harmoniously blending the stop-trick substitution effects (a la Georges Méliès) and reinforcing the fiery magic of the devil.
This film marks one of the first uses of Pathé’s stencil coloring process, the effect of which is similar to hand coloring. The stencils were prepared by hand using a pantograph, and had the same length as the 35 mm film: several thousand images. A different stencil was cut for each color dye to be applied. After this meticulous initial work (usually undertaken by women), the black and white prints were colored one dye at a time using an automated process, reducing the cost and labor required to make each print. and further increasing the prevalence of color in early cinema.
The voice of the nightingale. 1923. France. Directed by Władysław Starewicz
Made almost 20 years after the introduction of stencil coloring, this charming animated short demonstrates the pinnacle of the artificial coloring technique. Directed by the Russian emigrant Władysław Starewicz, The voice of the nightingale mixes stop-motion animation of real beetles and birds with live action scenes, creating a modern fairy tale of why the nightingale only sings at night. At times unrealistic, but always artistically applied, the coloring in this film excels most in moving scenes, especially delicate night shots, sometimes combining a toned image with three or four other dyes.
The voice of the nightingale was released in the United States in 1925 and won the prestigious Hugo Riesenfeld Gold Medal from the National Board of Review for Best Short Film of the Year. Throughout the late 1910s and into the 1920s, colored shorts were prevalent. In fact, when he went out for an evening of entertainment at the movies, audiences at the time would have expected to see a full-color short film on the program alongside a newsreel, cartoon or of a comedy, and the presentation of the feature film. Stencil coloring has been used on hundreds of “scenic” (travelogues), documentaries and fashion shorts, as well as some feature films. But other “natural color” techniques were also common, from Kinemacolor to Prizma and early Technicolor, among others.
Technicolor testing. 1933-1936, compiled in 1954. United States. Produced by Pioneer Pictures. With Nan Sunderland, Luis Alberni, Frank Morgan, Douglas Walton and Dolores Del Rio
Technicolor was formed in 1915, but worked hard through years of technical development and studio resistance to color before launching its famous tricolor process in 1932, with the Walt Disney animated short. Flowers and trees. This new tricolor process has finally been able to capture all the tones of the spectrum.
This 1930s series of tests, compiled from several reels by MoMA in 1954, reveals an often hidden side of cinema. The footage is a showcase of how Technicolor tried to present this new process to its customers in the film industry, while also demonstrating the need for extensive behind-the-scenes testing of actors, costumes, makeup, lighting. , sets and even visual effects techniques. (Keep your eyes peeled for a stop-motion dinosaur animated by Willis O’Brien, from King Kong Fame).
This footage and several other Technicolor test reels and supporting documentation, including one we featured at last year’s Film Vault Summer Camp, were donated to the Museum in 1939 by Pioneer Pictures, a production formed in 1933 by MoMA administrator John Hay Whitney and his cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney to produce productions exclusively in Technicolor.
Cinema at MoMA is made possible by CHANEL.
Additional support is provided by the Annual Film Fund. Executive support for the Annual Film Fund is provided by Steven Tisch, with major contributions from Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.