To many, the idea of watching a black and white film is as antiquated as listening to music on a record player. In a time of green screens, computer-generated actors and so many other special effects we take for granted the seemingly simplistic element of color in a movie.
The first films to ever utilize color were tinted by hand. Color was put to use to better separate actors from monochromatic backgrounds and allow them to stand out on screen. Women were employed by studios to meticulously fill in areas of spot color on each individual frame of a film reel. Spot color could be used to emphasize certain parts of a particular scene. This technique worked satisfactorily for shorter films, but when the length of movies began to increase a more efficient method had to take its place (Cook 214-21).
First developed in Europe, this new technique employed the use of stencils which were placed over the film so it could be stained all at once without the worry of color ending up where it need not be. A similar process was developed in the U.S. and used to colorize such well-known works as Phantom of the Opera and Greed. By tinting or toning a film, a director could more effectively convey a mood or time period. Sepia toning for example suggested an old southern feel, much like the "Old Tyme" photos one can get in malls today. A more recent example of this can be seen in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? Other ways color is used to set a mood in film are: red to symbolize danger, fire or love; blue is associated with the sea, rain or darkness; green to represent nature (Cook 387-89).
When studios began to add sound directly to film, color created by tinting or toning became problematic. The dyes used in the processes interfered with the sound tracks by absorbing too much light. So old processes were abandoned and out of their ashes grew new full-color systems. Many came and went, but the first completely successful system was created by the Technicolor Corporation, which is well known even today.
Technicolor held a monopoly over color production until the 1950s when Eastmancolor offered a new process, which was cost equivalent to black and white film. As a direct result, by the end of the decade, ninety-six percent of all American movies were being filmed in color. Its one major flaw was serious color fading, which could not be remedied until the recent development of digital color correction technology (Cook 905-09).
Beyond advancements in technology, the knowledge of color psychology allows for a highly sophisticated use of color in film. Horror films are dark and gloomy for a reason, so when director F.W. Murnau is forced to depict Nosferatu stalking around in the daylight the idea of vampires lurking after sunset gets lost. We associate colors in an extremely specific way, and they are a very necessary subtlety for most movies.
Directors are able to do more today with color than ever before. Films have surpassed the realm of color as a suggestion of mood, time period, or symbolism. A wonderful example of this is Pleasantville, in which the very plot revolves entirely around the ability to use finely tuned color. The town of Pleasantville hearkens back literally to the era of family oriented, black and white television. Color is allowed to seep into scenes only as the actors have moments of self discovery--they are brought to color as an indication that they have been brought to life.
Sin City is also an excellent example of what could not be achieved without new color technology. This movie would never have achieved the quality of Frank Miller's original comic concept without the capacity to digitally render a world such as Sin City. The film version bends the rules of color association in wild ways beyond what is on the surface, such as having blood represented as both red and white.
The use of color in the cinema has come a very long way and transformed greatly thanks to the development of numerous processes and techniques. But its true and original purpose has not been lost over these many decades. The elements of mood, symbolism, fantasy, and even realism in a film can only go so far without the magic of color.