I recently ran a poll on Twitter to find out which silent era color process people preferred and was somewhat surprised to see how many voters opted for black and white. This led me down a bit of a research rabbit hole and here we are. How did black and white become THE choice for older films even though silent films were awash with tinting, toning, hand-color, stencil color, natural color and assorted other color processes?
First, I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with preferring black and white from a place of knowledge. Later silent films did tend to have more black and white and some viewers feel that unless we know the original tinting colors, the tints should not be added back in. That is all fine and good and a perfectly legitimate point of view.
Others object to badly-incorporated tints and the sometimes eyeball-searing colors used in certain restorations. I definitely feel the pain because I tend to see yellow hotter than the average bear (and hear it due to synesthesia) and it is not pleasant when the colorist uses a heavy hand. For the sake of simplicity, let’s remove restored tints from the conversation for the moment and focus entirely on surviving original colors.
We’ve established that people CAN prefer black and white silent films without being philistines. However, I keep running into individuals who view any applied color (even color that was applied circa 1900) as an abomination on par with that short-lived push for computer colorization. They tend to find me when I post images from the rediscovered hand-colored version of A Trip to the Moon.
Now, such discussions are obviously extreme examples. I dare so most people just see vintage tinted, tones and hand-colored images, quietly assume that they are a modern colorization and go off to find the “original” black and white. It comes from a correct motivation: colorizing originally black and white films in order to appeal to the young ‘uns is wrongheaded vandalism. But the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater.
It’s clear that the backlash against colorizing originally black and white films has horrendously injured legitimate, authentic applied color processes. With some viewers, there is a kneejerk reaction to shout down any color, anytime, anywhere, or to at least shake their heads at the “colorization” of glorious black and white.
Here are some important facts to remember:
Tinting and toning were far and away more common than black and white.
Tinting and toning were introduced in 1896, the very dawn of projected film. Hand-color was present in the very first motion picture show that Thomas Edison presented. Estimates put the percentage of silent films with some form of color at 80-90%. With all that in mind, “original” black and white is absolutely nothing of the kind in most cases. I mean, to each their own but claiming that black and white is more accurate is simply not true for the majority of silent films.
The number of tinted films DID go down near the end of the silent era but then we have another interesting, little-known fact: tinted talkies. That’s right, a decent number of sound films were originally tinted too. A few were even hand-colored. “Glorious black and white” is a bit more of a simplification than we may have realized.
Reissues and transfers to safety film lost original color effects.
When silent films were transferred to safety film or reissued, preserving the original tints was simply not a priority and black and white film was used as either the only option or as a budget option. That meant that in many cases, the original tints were lost forever. Some new releases like Behind the Door and Destiny have been released on DVD and Bluray with their original tinting schemes restored and the results are stunning.
However, as stated above, some producers and viewers do not wish to restore tints without knowing the original scheme. This, however, can lead to narrative issues.
Tinting is sometimes essential to the plot.
Broadly speaking, there were two types of tinting uses: literal and metaphorical. So, a tint could be “blue for night, yellow for day” or it could be “rose because we’re feeling romantic, green because we’re feeling eerie.” With the former, there are times when the film does not make sense without tinted night scenes.
The film used for much of the silent era had trouble shooting night scenes. (An experimental technique was used in The Song of Love but I am not sure what came of it.) Tinting the night scenes blue was the preferred narrative solution but what if the story requires a character to be groping around in the dark but that blue tint was gone?
That was the issue I ran into when I was working on my release of Kidnapped. It had been transferred to 16mm black and white safety film and any tinting was lost but there was a scene that, to make any sense, HAD to be in the dark. I consulted Christopher Bird, who handled the technical aspects of the release, and we agreed that restoring the tints using our knowledge of period color was the best option.
(The release also contains two shorts that made heavy use of silhouettes and were screaming for color as well.)
Would everyone make this decision? No. Do I feel it worked for my release? Yes, I do. And, since I was in charge, I was able to ask for an authentic but softer yellow that does not cause immediate physical pain. My not-so-secret dream is also to try my hand at recreating original stencil color but the time investment would be enormous.
So, if you see color in a silent film, please give it a chance. It was a fascinating, hand-crafted period of filmmaking and learning to appreciate its signature look is infinitely rewarding.