Color versus Black and White Films*

         The history of film may be short compared to other forms of visual art, but it has seen perhaps more advancements than any other. Everyone who has been alive since the birth of motion pictures saw the history of film unfold over the last century. All of the technological breakthroughs that occurred in motion pictures happened rather quickly. If we could take a person from the birth of cinema through time to see a film with the fantastic special effects that some of the movies have today they would be amazed though. One can only imagine what someone from back then would think about seeing elaborate car chases, huge explosions, or living dinosaurs appearing to be real on screen. With all the technological advancements made in the history of film though, some stand out as radically changing the art form and the industry. One of these changes is the use of color in films as opposed to black and white.

         At a first glance, the use of color in films may seem like a big deal. As is the story with other visual art forms though, color happens to be a natural evolution from black and white as the technology advances. Compared to other technological advances in film making, the use of color in films took place rather slowly. Most movies before the 1930’s were made in black and white, with the shift towards all color gradually taking place until the 1960’s.

         One of the main pioneers in the use of color in films was a company called Technicolor. This technique of coloring film wise widely used in the early days of color films. Some examples of films using Technicolor are Victor Fleming’s 1933 film entitled The Wizard of Oz, and Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood. Technicolor was the name of the company and the processes that was used to add color to films. The company went through many different and interesting processes in adding color to films before Hollywood started producing all color films exclusively. They started out with a two-color process. The cameras used to film in this process used a prism beam splitter behind a lens to expose two adjacent frames onto one black and white filmstrip at the same time. One frame was behind a red filter, and the other was behind a green filter. The film was shown using red and green filters with a prism that realigned the image on screen to produce the color picture. After this, Technicolor tried some other methods using the two-color process that had problems with developing and showing the films. Around this time, The Great Depression happened in the United States and movie studios could not afford to use these more expensive techniques.

         Shortly after, Technicolor adopted a three-strip process to use for its colorization of film. This process was an evolution from the two-color process in that it used green and magenta filters to project light onto film. The green light was projected onto one strip, and the magenta was projected onto two more strips that were sensitized to blue and red light. This process ultimately captured all the colors accurately. The advantage Technicolor had over other film coloring techniques in this stage was that the Technicolor film was in color and needed no special projectors that used colored filters like other techniques.

             This advantage was soon overshadowed by some problems that occurred from filming in Technicolor. Technicolor filmstrips were shot using a slow speed camera, thus the light used in the production had to be much greater. Also, the special cameras that used three strips of film were big and needed special crews to work them. Eastman Kodak had produced a camera that could capture the full color spectrum on one strip of film. This coupled with new advancements in dye-coloring processes of films meant the eventual end of the Technicolor era in Hollywood. At this time, the expenses used in making color films had deceased to a level that was profitable for studios to produce all color movies and black and white films had become a thing of the past.

         Globally, developing film coloration techniques were taking place in other countries at the same time as America. The first motion picture coloration process actually took place in England with George Albert Smith’s invention of Kinemacolor. The process was similar to Technicolor’s two-color technique. Contrary to Technicolor’s technique of color filming on three different strips of film, Germany’s Agfa company developed technology to film color on one strip of film.

         Many film makers today may make a choice to shoot in black and white for artistic purposes. One reason might be to use black and white film in order to create an image reminiscent of the time period in which the story takes place. The 2005 film directed by George Clooney entitled Good Night, and Good Luck tells the story of respected television journalist Edward R. Murrow. The story takes place in the 50’s and is shown in black and white to reflect that decade in which television was still viewed in black and white.

         Historically, the greatest film of all time as voted by film critics was shown in black and white. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, was filmed in 1941, at a time when coloration techniques were available. They were not used for this production though. Perhaps that was because of budget reasons. The fact that a black and white film was voted the best of all time though presents a question. What if black and white films are just better than color? The answer lies in that the use of color in films is more of a symbol of changing times. When one thinks about black and white movies, the word "classic" comes to mind. Black and white films have nostalgia to them that you cannot get with color films. Black and white films came from an era where audiences remember seeing them as something that was new and fun but became a part of people’s lives.

Work Cited

“Technicolor.” Wikipedia (

Brian Schuldt

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