The World’s First Color Film

A discovery was made last year in the British National Media Museum that forever changed the history of color motion picture.

The of single reel of film dating from 1902 seems to contain seven simple shots in black and white. However, from slight differences in the highlights and mid-tones between frames, and from the bizarre motion if produced when projected at standard frame rates from the time, archivists at the museum deduced that the film must have been an early color test. This film from the collection of American film pioneer Charles Urban was found to be that of color photographer Edward Turner and his financial backer Frederick Lee, who deposed the first patent for a color film process that would be later perfected by Urban and Albert Smith. The short film features images of Turner’s daughter on a swing, of his children playing with flowers, of a colorful macaw, and of a military parade in London’s Hyde Park. The colors are soft and rich blends of the three additive primaries, which flicker in and out, seem to dance around the edges of objects and figures move as they onscreen and as imperfections in the print are revealed.

From a technical perspective, each frame consists of a black and white negative exposed through a red, green or blue filter projected three at a time to reveal the full spectrum of natural color, a process confirmed by the National Media Museum’s meticulous restoration efforts. For the first time, color in film, though fleeting and imperfect, originated in the surfaces of the physical world. Color theorist Richard Misek, author of Chromatic Cinema, calls this phenomenon ‘surface color.’ Through technology, the real colors of real surfaces came to life for audiences before the screen. Testing this earliest form color cinematography on real subjects, filming candid moments rather than a staged situation, Turner speaks to a certain longing for realism in film sought out by early color photography and then cinematography. This sense of “being there,” however, would not be afforded documentary films until well after Hollywood and the other major film industries in France and Britain had begun producing color films regularly. The film seen today hearkens to a time before color cinematography techniques would be perfected by Technicolor and controlled by the film industry for use in narrative film. It offers a point of reflection on the difficult and long processes of innovation that would make color processes one again available to the early documentary filmmakers of the 1950s.

The process that Turner’s film underwent in 2012 at the behest of the National Media Museum seems poetic. Copying its original, irregular film format to modern 35mm film, scanning each red, green or blue negative, digitally compositing the frames, and re-printing the film and publishing it online brings the first ever color film full circle in film history. From the status of lost object in the archives of the National Media Museum, it is transposed to the immaterial world of digital color-correction and streaming on YouTube, where millions of its technical descendants reside.

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