“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.
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?
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.