Banner of side-by-side comparisons of Film Colorization with Yankee Doddle Dandy
Colours Movies

When Film Colourization Goes Experimental

The controversial history about adding colour to black and white films from the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's. Also the modern day technological advancements to film colourization.

Before I wrote about how some movies can look too orange and blue. But when you are watching these movies you have the feeling that you are watching people not film that got smudged with translucent makeup.

Over the ages, many artists will experiment with mediums and media available.

What is Film Colourization

Before digital film made colour grading film easier, colourization of the film was a possibility. Colour grading is the process to enhance the colour of a film.

A Short List of Film Colour Techniques:

Lee–Turner colour process: This was when colour was added to the film, frame by frame, on black and white films, sepia films or other monochromatic films. Some films had colour added to the film to make films more modern. The first films that had colour added to them were by hand. Someone would add watercolour to each cell one by one.

Pathécolor: This was a frame-by-frame film technique to add colour for certain areas of a film; for effect or for emphasis.

Kinecolour: This was one of the first attempts of full colour by using red and green film combined. The film was void of blue and blurred green and red around objects when the frames were not registered.

Technicolor: This was a monumental change in colour use in the film. This was created by combining additive colours (RGB) and subtractive colours (CYM) into the filmmaking process. This created more vivid colours for the film. This film process lasted longer than most of their competitors like Eastman’s Kodachrome which some films were recoloured by the Technicolor technique.

Digital Color: This has been a new innovation in colourizing film since the 2000’s. The first movie that had digital colour throughout the whole movie was O Brother, Where Art Thou. There is multiple software available that could do colour grading and colour correction.

When adding colour to any media it’s important to remember it could change the story completely!

There were two times film was being colourized for experimental reasons to get more people into the seats and appreciate black and white films. In the 1980’s with Ted Turner colourizing work from the 1930’s and now with deep learning software.

Colourizing Old Classics

In the 1980’s Ted Turner bought the MGM collection of movies from the early 1930’s to the 1980’s in a business deal with the film industry. What he planned to have happened to the films were to add colour to these films. This was a 1980’s fade that didn’t last as long as much thought. It was mostly to bring people back to watch these old movie classics because most people don’t watch black and white movies, they find it boring. It’s like how people find movies with subtitles to be boring and hard to follow.

Orson Welles hated the idea that his film Citizen Kane, was going to be colourized by Ted Turner. He thought that his film was going to be terrible afterwards.

Please do this for me: Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons.”

Orson Welles in a conversation with Henry Jaglom two weeks before he died.

There was a 5-minute test footage done to Citizen Kane. The film test footage can only be seen in a 1991 BBC documentary The Complete Citizen Kane. There were an immediate backlash and threats of legal action by Orson Welles.

Movies that were fully colourized:

Yankee Doodle Dandy – Originally made 1939 / Colorized 1985

YankeeDoodleDandy Poster and Stills
Yankee Doodle Dandy: Poster and Movie Stills

Arsenic and Old Lace – Originally made 1939 / Colorized 1985

Arsenic and Old Lace Movie Poster and Movie Stills
Arsenic and Old Lace Movie Poster and Movie Stills

Miracle on 34th Street – Originally made 1939 / Colorized 1985

Miracle on 34th Street Movie Poster and Movie Stills
Miracle on 34th Street Movie Poster and Movie Stills

Casablanca – Originally made 1939 / Colorized 1985

Casablanca movie poster and movie stills
Casablanca movie poster and movie stills in black and white and colour

The person who invented film colourization was Canadian engineer Wilson Markle. Film colourization was the first steps into digital colourization.

The first company Wilson Markle had using this technique was Image Transform in Toronto, Canada. They first used the new techniques to the Apollo mission films. The process began with colourizing monochromatic film prints from its original negative. Then technicians determined the gray levels of every object in every shot with the assistance of a computer. The computer will note down any movement of any objects within that shot. Colour is then added to each object. The colours were determined by the technician and by researching what were the best-suited colours for that time period. Some productions had up to 700 reference stills from the original production artwork and photography. Then the rest was common sense; the sky is blue. The gray values remained the same throughout the film re-edited. It was one of the first major steps towards digital colourization.

In 1970, the company Image Transform became Colorizaton Inc. and a key player in the colourizing film in the North American market.

Studio company Hal Roach Studios were one of the first adopters to film colourization. They partnered up and bought Colorization Inc. to colourize some film to get people interested in old films again.

Movies that were fully colourized by Hal Roach Studio/Colorization Inc.:

It’s a Wonderful Life – Originally made 1939 / Colorized 1985

It's A Wonderful Life Movie Poster and Movie Stills
It’s A Wonderful Life Movie Poster and Movie Stills

Way Out West – Originally made 1937 / Colorized 1987

Way Out West Movie Poster and Movie Stills
Way Out West Movie Poster and Movie Stills

Night of the Living Dead – Originally made 1968 / Colorized 1987

Night of the Living Dead Movie Poster and Movie Stills
Night of the Living Dead Movie Poster and Movie Stills

This worked only for a short period of time. The style of colourizing old black and white film faded from the public eye. The majority of the films were re-edited without the director sitting beside the technician directing them on which colours go where or if a scene needed that particular colour in the first place. Most of the films re-done added short-term returns of revenue and renewed the copyright on old films.

Throughout the late 1980’s, film colourization became extremely controversial regarding classic critical achievement films like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, A Night At The Opera, All About Eve, The Maltese Falcon and It’s A Wonderful Life. Most directors, film historians and most film critics hated this technique. It was called a “bastardization” of film and “cultural vandalism.” These were pretty harsh words for this technological achievement.

What happened what that the narrative changed and the colours looked off. A lot of the faces had a very rich sepia tone that was not natural to see with colour bleeding into other objects in a scene.

It opened discussions on the moral rights for artists and the limitations of distribution companies. It was relentlessly attacked for crossing the line of artistic infringement. Most movies after a 1988 bill U.S. Congress passed to protect films of historical relevance.

The doors of Colorization Inc. closed in the mid-1990’s due to the declined popularity of the colourized film.

When AI’s colourize film

Film colourizing is still something done today. Digital editing for colour hasn’t gone out of style but now AI programming has started to colourize film based on input from search engine media found online to colour in the blues, reds and greens of a photograph or film. The colours are artificially created with no real input from humans. The colours in the photographs can look either great and flawless or very flawed and awful. Most of the time a marbling effect happens to photos. A mixture of gray-blue and the colour the program is trying to plug into the file.

The website that I found that performed artificial colour digitization was called Colourful Image Colorization. The website was created by Richard Zhang, Phillip Isola and Alexei A. Efros. They use vision algorithms from deep learning to colourize the photos. On their site, they have a demo link to test it out yourself and samples photos and film converted to black and white then colourized by a computer program.

Film converted from black and to colour with deep learning

Movies in colour when black and white film were common

Gone With The Wind (1939) – Technicolor

The Wizard of Oz (1939) -Technicolor

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1939) – Technicolor

Modern Movies in black and white
(pictorial list)


Still black and white but with some parts singled out in colour
(pictorial list)

Banner Credit: Under The Moonlight

%d bloggers like this: