Color Movies from 1902!


The technology of photography and the history of that technology has fascinated me for years. I’m always interested to learn about obsolete photographic processes and love seeing surviving examples of photographic work from the era when tech pioneers were essentially inventing the new medium. So I was particularly interested in this video clip I saw on the website It’s a fantastic video from the National Media Museum in the United Kingdom documenting some digital restoration work that brings back to life the earliest color motion picture footage yet found. The film footage by inventor Edward Raymond Turner dates to 1902, an amazing hundred and ten years ago and, tragically, a year before the inventor died of a heart attack.

What’s striking to me about this example and other early efforts in color still photography is how soon they appeared in the lifetimes of their respective media. Color photography wasn’t some sort of “optional afterthought” compared to the monochrome imagery of that time—inventors were trying to get color imaging to work almost from the very beginning.

Given the technology of the time, the solutions tended to be somewhat imperfect and overly complex. Systems such as Turner’s and Kinemacolor, the first commercially successful color cinema process, relied on motion picture cameras equipped with revolving filter wheel/shutters that recorded images onto black-and-white film through different color filters in succession. For showing the film, each respective frame had to be projected through it’s proper color filter and the images superimposed on the screen to create the complete color scene.

These were “additive” color processes; the source colors (three in Turner’s system, two in Kinemacolor) had to be added together to create the complete image. Imaging technology progressed quickly to subtractive color systems, which didn’t suffer from the projection registration challenges of additive color and had the further advantage of being able to be projected with the same equipment used to show monochrome movies. These technologies led to our modern color films, now, sadly, about to become history themselves.

A tip of the hat to NoFilmSchool for bringing this fascinating story to wider attention.


One Response to “Color Movies from 1902!”

  1. Now that is cool! Thanks for sharing!

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