Natural Color is for People with No Imagination: A Small Stencil & Hand-Color Movie Sampler

“Old black and white silent movies” is a pretty common phrase. It’s also baloney as the majority of silent films were at least tinted. But today, I’m going to share my favorite kind of movie color: pigments applied by hand and by stencil. And I’ll be using GIFs to do it!

Bonus Question Round! How is this different from the infamous computer colorization of the 1980s? Well, these films were designed to be released in color from the very beginning. This wasn’t something slapped on decades after the initial release, the colors were carefully planned and applied by the original creative team.

Here’s a hand-colored scene from Georges Melies’ masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon. The rediscovering and restoration of the original colors is one of the great success stories of film preservation. It also shows us that umbrellas make great weapons for fighting aliens.

(Read my review here. Warning: it gets nerdy.)

Here’s some hand-color from America in The Great Train Robbery. As you can see, the color is much less elaborate and is only added to the explosion, not the background. Color films were sometimes sold in different degrees of detail. A movie might be available in full color or with just the important figures given the color treatment. Obviously, the latter option would be cheaper.

(Read my review of The Great Train Robbery here.)

The 1900 version of Cyrano de Bergerac is another example of limited hand-coloring. However, this version has a secret weapon: synchronized sound. Yep, this is a talkie.

(Read my review here.)

Speaking of Cyrano, the 1925 feature version is stencil colored from beginning to end. By creating stencils to guide the color process, studios were able to dramatically increase the speed of production and the level of precision. The precise shades for the film were selected based on paintings of the period in which it was set and whole process took years to complete. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

(Read my review here.)

The 1926 version of Michael Strogoff has an opening scene for the ages! It combines stencil color, tinting and bold editing to replicate the emotional turmoil of a monarch. While hosting a ball, the czar is informed that Siberia has been invaded and as his guests caper, he imagines a more deadly charge. Absolutely prime visual storytelling with the stencil color helping the viewer mark reality.

(Read my review here. And if you want to see the entire ball scene– sans stencil color but still stunning– you may view it here.)

5 Replies to “Natural Color is for People with No Imagination: A Small Stencil & Hand-Color Movie Sampler”

  1. Such wonderful gifs- thank you so much! A Happy Yuletide Season to all who post and thread here!

    Before we are off to the Frozen North for nine days, would like to make a wish on the Fairy on top of our tree: could it feel, just on Christmas Eve, just for a few hours, like it’s 1917 coming into view instead of 2017…?

  2. While discussing the different types of color in silent film with a friend, someone nearby informed me that I was wrong, “All films in the 1920s were black and white, there were no color films”. After my friend revived me, I tried to explain, but this person was having none of it. This person did admit to have never actually watching a silent movie before hmm…

    1. Oh dear. Yes, that seems to be the strangest thing about silent movies: a great many people claim to be experts without viewing them. Must we carry stills of The Black Pirate and Ben-Hur with us at all times? (Not to mention some color Melies pictures!)

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