A Few of My Favorite Uses of Hand-Color & Stencil Color in Silent Film

Well, I had an interesting experience. I posted a GIF made from a hand-colored film when this happened:

I shudder to think what this person’s second point would be. In any case, this is not the first time I have run into the notion that hand-colored films are “colorized” and therefore illegitimate. For the record, this is absolutely not true as the applied color in silent films was part of the filmmaker’s creative vision, not something slapped on after the fact.

(By the way, my objection in this case was the fact that I was condescendingly lectured to by someone who had no idea what they were talking about. Honest curiosity and genuine questions are always okay. We all have to start somewhere.)

So, here are some of my favorite examples of hand-colored and stencil colored films. Most are French because they were the masters of these processes but there are a few American films mixed in. I’ll also include some fun factoids about applied color for your enjoyment. If you want more technical information, I recommend this excellent timeline of color in films.

The Great Train Robbery from Edison’s motion picture studio is rightly considered one of the great early American motion pictures and its hand-applied color adds considerably to its charm. Did you know that hand-colored movies were part of Thomas Edison’s very first program of projected films?

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

Georges Melies creates a charming fantasy in The Palace of the Arabian Nights, a kind of potpourri of orientalist fantasy elements. Did you know that colored films could fetch a much higher price? And did you know that varying degrees of color could be applied for different price points?

(Read my review of The Palace of the Arabian Nights here.)

One of the most famous early films of them all, the color version of A Trip to the Moon was only recently rediscovered and restored. Did you know that many archives only preserved hand-colored movies on black and white safety film?

(Read my review of A Trip to the Moon here.)

Segundo de Chomon’s ripoff film, An Excursion to the Moon, features a charming sequence of stencil colored ballerinas. Stencil color expedited the application of tints to film and made it easier to mass produce color movies. It’s very difficult to tell the difference between hand-color and stencil color and we often rely on dates to determine which process was used.

(Read my review of An Excursion to the Moon here.)

Cyrano de Bergerac is a rare example of a motion picture with 100% stencil color from beginning to end. Most films use the process in sequences but this movie uses it in every single frame, a color project that took years to complete.

(Read my review here.)

Michael Strogoff uses stencil color in its opening sequence to differentiate from reality (the stencil colored ballroom) and an imagined attack by the Tartars. The sequence is positively brilliant but, alas, the film is not on DVD. However, you can watch the entire opening scene (sans stencil color) on YouTube courtesy of Christopher Bird.

(Read my review of Michael Strogoff here.)


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8 Replies to “A Few of My Favorite Uses of Hand-Color & Stencil Color in Silent Film”

  1. Frirzi, I never fail to learn something from your posts. When I signed on to them I thought I knew a fair amount about silent films when in reality I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Now I approach each wondering what ! will learn next. I knew this about color because you had said so some time ago.

  2. A colorization fad could never come near to touching the art of original colorization, those painstaking hours, never touch the beauty of the films you clipped. Such a shame that this person couldn’t looked further than an “end of the nose” comment.

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