For many modern audiences, silent films are virtually synonymous with black and white. Yet as far back as 1895, more than 80 percent of them were all or somewhat colored with dyes, stencils, color baths, and tints. These additives and techniques transformed an already magical medium into transcendent dreamscapes that were colored by craftspeople—mostly women—who painted every tiny black-and-white frame one-by-one, prefiguring the colorization process developed in the 1970s. Archived at Holland’s EYE Filmmuseum, more than 250 still images culled from 96 of these largely forgotten films are featured in an eye-popping new book, Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema.
Early color films, particularly fantasies, were widely screened in theaters during the silent era for both artistic and practical reasons. “Artistically, the fantasy genre was quite suited for elaborate coloring in that colorful costumes and special effects was widely associated with successful stage genres of the day,” says one of the book’s authors, Joshua Yumibe. Fantasy was also adapted early for film, beginning in the late 1890s by pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902). For practical reasons, says Yumibe: “It was easier for audiences to accept color in fantasy films as the aniline dyes used were fairly bright and spectacular—like the colors associated with the féerie stage genre and also with fairground attractions: colors that were meant to grab and dazzle one’s eyes.”
Dance films also had a following. The hand-coloring of these films was designed to emulate magical stage effects in which colored lights would be projected onto the robes of the dancers while they performed. There are a few spectacular examples of this in the book—Les Parisiennes (1897) for example. Other types of films that were colored during the period included Lumière nonfiction films of blacksmiths and backyard card games.