Colour In Film: A Journey Through The Spectrum

Why do some filmmakers still choose to make black and white films?

What techniques did the pioneers of cinema use to colour their black and white frames? What year was colour in film first introduced to audiences? In what way is colour used to match period sets and to assist mood? Why are more young filmmakers stripping back the colour in their films to give it a desaturated look?


When discussing the particular look and feel of a film, one needs to take into consideration many creative spheres. The film’s pacing and framework, set and costume design, lighting and use of colour all contribute to the overall aesthetic of what is known as mise-en-scéne.

Associating colour with feeling or mood, it is no coincidence that filmmakers have utilised this to enhance the nature of their work.

Intolerance (Tints)

During cinema’s early stages, the painstaking techniques of hand tinting and colour stencilling individual frames were widely implemented. As the demand for film grew exponentially, filmmakers began using bath processes to tint and tone their films. Placing the film in a bath of dye, the tinting process would colour the entire frame, whereas toning would only colour the darker sections of the frame by chemically converting the silver in the film to colour.

In the American cinema of the 20’s, as much as 80-90% of all films produced were using some form of tinting or toning. Such pioneers as D.W Griffith, George Méliés and F.W Murnau were experimenting with colour techniques to indicate day or night, warmth or cold, romance or horror, reality or surrealism.

John Ford in Technicolor. The Searchers (1956)

Founded around the time of the First World War, it wasn’t until a quarter of a century later however, that the Technicolor Company would burst onto the Hollywood scene.

Initially their two-colour additive process, in which a beam splitter would essentially split the light on two separate film stocks didn’t exactly take off as planned. It would be the 30’s that they were to perfect the 3-strip Technicolor system that became so widely used; ushering in the lush sets and over-saturated look of such greats as The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938), Drums Along The Mohawk (1939), and The Wizard Of Oz (1939).

The glory of Technicolor. Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus (1947)

The whole process proved costly and ultimately grew unpopular however; the cameras were about $30 000 US a piece and the company monopolised on this by ensuring you could not make a Technicolor film without administering Technicolor for almost all production methods.

Coming into the 50’s it would be the accessibility and more conventional methods of Eastmancolor that would necessitate the shift of colour in cinema.

Comparatively cost-effective and with simpler processing methods, the Eastmancolor Standard would also prove compatible with most motion film cameras. With this introduction came the shift away from colour-rich films of the Technicolor era.

By 1967 nearly all motion pictures were shot in colour. A decade later, one major adversity became starkly apparent with the Eastmancolor Standard. The film quality tended to fade much quicker than other processes- in some cases as fast as 5 years if not stored properly. With this discovery came the immediate urgency of the film preservation movement.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984)

Matching the colour-grade with a particular period– be it past, present or future, has proved an effective tool implemented by filmmakers throughout the decades of the modern era.

As if looking with fond nostalgia over some old family photos, that grainy, yellowish sepia look has been used in such memorable films as McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), The Cotton Club (1984), Once Upon A Time In America (1984) and more recently O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Equally, the sterile sets and metallic colours of the Science Fiction genre paint these films with a futuristic, impersonal and at times dystopian brush.

Some notable examples worthy of a mention are THX 1138 (1971), Solaris (1972), Gattaca (1997) and Moon (2009).

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai on set for In The Mood For Love (2000)

Colour selection to assist mood and convey theme has been another clever tool in the filmmaker’s box of tricks. Playing on our association with colours and emotion, the subtlety is modest, it’s effect profound.

From Jean-Pierre Melville’s meticulous effort to create a rain-washed grey set in Le Samouraî (1967)… to David Lynch’s disturbing attempt at what he described as ‘darkness in colour’ with Blue Velvet (1986)… to the warmth and sexual innuendo of a red backdrop in the beautiful Wong Kar Wai film In The Mood For Love (2000), the upshot is certainly not one to be underestimated.

Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986)

Taking it one step further, Polish director Krzystof Kieślowski used the three colours of the French flag and the three corresponding political ideals in the motto of the French republic (liberty, equality, fraternity) to thematically base his Three Colours Trilogy epic in 1993 and 1994.

Three Colours: Red (1994)


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