Coloring of individual frames by the use of very fine brushes. The process was previously applied to lantern slides. Any water based translucent dye was suited for the process, most often the colors were acid dyes.
The process was very time-consuming and tedious. Therefore it was mostly abandoned when stencil coloring was introduced.
In contrast to stencilled films, hand-colored ones often have soft outlines and the application of color varies from frame to frame.
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Métamorphoses du papillon (FRA 1904, Gaston Velle)
Credit: Library of Congress. Photographs of the nitrate print by Barbara Flueckiger.
“In Gaston Velle’s simple but spectacular hand-colored trick film Métamorphoses du Papillon (A Butterfly’s Metamorphosis, Pathé, 1904), a yellow caterpillar crawls along a green branch and leaf set against a black background. The caterpillar dissolves into a white cocoon, out of which a multicolored butterfly wing then emerges directly toward the camera. There is a cut to the butterfly fully exposed, and its fluttering wings shimmer in various colors (orange, greenish-blue, yellow). Next, a physical transformation takes place in which the butterfly leans forward to reveal that it is actually a woman in a butterfly costume (her full body now visible), and she continues to flutter and pirouette (color plate 18). The black background serves a dual purpose here: it both masks any fringing that may have occurred in the coloring process (the dyes do not show on the dark surface), and it contrasts with the moving colors that seem to protrude from the screen. The coloring adds a sense of depth to the image, yet it does not construct a deep space that beckons one to enter. Rather, the colored image seems to project off the screen toward the spectator in a quasi-erotic direct address that resonates with various colorful and bestial representations of feminine sexuality at the fin-de-siècle?
Given how films such as Pathé’s A Butterfly’s Metamorphosis most often localize color upon the female body, these haptic projections are charged with eroticism.
As in A Butterfly’s Metamorphosis, color’s projective dimensionality is exemplified through Pathé Frères’ work with color during the first decade of the 1900s. From the early 1900s to World War I, the company was the leading producer of colored films around the world. The popularity of these films in part fueled Pathé’s global success during the early years of the 1900s. With the broad changes in film production, style, and circulation at the end of the first decade of the 1900s, the company’s dominance slipped, though color still played an important role in its fortunes during the 1910s through its nonfiction and historical dramas. However, as we will see, Pathé subdued the style of its coloring with these genres. Pathé maintained its projective style of coloring evident in A Butterfly’s Metamorphosis when it transitioned to stenciling in the early 1900s.”
(Yumibe, Joshua (2012): Moving Colors. Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism. New Brunswick et al.: Rutgers University Press, pp. 78 f.)
Original Technical Papers and Primary Sources
Brock, Gustav, F. O. (1931): Hand-Coloring of Motion Picture Film. In: JSMPE, Vol. 16, June 1931, pp. 751-755.
Cherchi Usai, Paolo (1996): The Color of Nitrate. Some Factual Observations on Tinting and Toning Manuals for Silent Films. In: Abel, Richard (ed.): Silent Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp.21-30, on p. 23.
Cherchi Usai, Paolo (2000): Silent Cinema. London: BFI, pp. 21-22.
Fossati, Giovanna (1998): When Cinema Was Coloured. In: Luciano Berriatúa et al.: Tutti i colori del mondo. Il colore nei mass media tra 1900 e 1930. = All the colours of the world. Reggio Emilia: Edizioni Diabasis, pp. 121-132, on pp. 122-123and p. 127 .
Hertogs, Daan; De Klerk, Nico (1996): Disorderly Order. Colours in Silent Film. The 1995 Amsterdam Workshop. Amsterdam: Stichding Nederlands Filmmuseum, on p. 12.
Ledig, Elfriede / Ullmann, Gerhard (1988): Rot wie Feuer, Leidenschaft, Genie, Wahnsinn. Zu einigen Aspekten der Farbe im Stummfilm. In: Der Stummfilm. Konstruktion und Rekonstruktion. Hrsg. v. Elfriede Ledig. München: Schaudig, Bauer, Ledig, pp. 89-116. (in German)
Mazzanti, Nicola (2009): Colours, audiences, and (dis)continuity in the ‘cinema of the second period’ In: Film History. Vol. 21, No. 1, 2009, pp. 67-93.
Nowotny, Robert A. (1983): The Way of All Flesh Tones. A History of Color Motion Picture Processes, 1895-1929. New York: Garland Pub, pp. 10-14.
Oliveira, Joao S. de (2002): Black-and-White in Colour. In: Roger Smither (ed.): This Film is Dangerous. A Celebration of Nitrate Film. Brussels: FIAF, pp. 117-122, on p. 118.
Pinel, Vincent (1992): La forêt des techniques. In: Michel Ciment (ed.): Ciné mémoire. Colloque international d’information (7-9 octobre 1991). Paris: Femis, pp. 17-24, on p. 18. (in French)
Read, Paul (2009): ‘Unnatural Colours’. An Introduction to Colouring Techniques in Silent Era Movies. In: Film History, 21.1, pp. 9-46, on pp. 13-14.
Read, Paul; Meyer, Mark-Paul (2000): Restoration of Motion Picture Film. Oxford, p. 181.
Yumibe, Joshua (2007): Silent Cinema Colour Aesthetics. In: Everett, Wendy (ed.): Questions of Colour in Cinema. From Paintbrush to Pixel. Peter Lang: Oxford, pp. 43-44.
Yumibe, Joshua (2012): Moving Colors. Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism. New Brunswick et al.: Rutgers University Press, pp. 3-4.
Hertogs, Daan; De Klerk, Nico (1996): Disorderly Order. Colours in Silent Film. The 1995 Amsterdam Workshop. Amsterdam: Stichding Nederlands Filmmuseum, on pp. 6-7, on pp. 12-14 , on pp. 18-19 , on pp. 23-25 , on pp. 71-76 and on pp. 87-88.
Read, Paul; Meyer, Mark-Paul (2000): The Duplication of Early Coloured Films. In: Restoration of Motion Picture Film. Oxford, pp. 191-193.
Aubert, Michelle (1992): Pour une déontologie de la restauration des films en couleur. In: Ciné mémoire. Colloque international d’information (7-9 octobre 1991). Org. et prés. par Michel Ciment. Paris: Femis, pp. 25-28.
Brock, Gustav (1930): Artist Explains Hand Color Role. Pioneer in Work Sees This Method as Indispensable to Treatment of Fire Sequences. In: Motion Picture News, Vol. 41, No. 9, 1930, p. 62.
Coustet, Ernest (1921): Le cinéma. Paris: Librairie Hachette, on pp. 162-163. (in French)
Fossati, Giovanna (1998): When Cinema Was Coloured. In: Luciano Berriatúa et al.: Tutti i colori del mondo. Il colore nei mass media tra 1900 e 1930. = All the colours of the world. Reggio Emilia: Edizioni Diabasis, pp. 121-132, on pp. 126-131.