Step Right Up- See It Here: The World’s Oldest Color Motion Picture!


I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for things like this. The National Media Museum in the UK has discovered and restored the world’s oldest color movie, made by a one Edward Raymond Turner in 1902. I think the process (which Turner invented) is quite neat, even if it’s a little complicated.

For the uninitiated: Color film or video relies on the combination of three primary colors that mix to form the various hues that we see. Those colors are red, green and blue [1]. Later color processes like Technicolor would have a separate film strip for each color- a red one, a blue one, and a green one- that were layered on top of each other projected with a single lamp.

There’s a brief animation in the video above that shows Turner tried a different idea: Instead of three strips of different colors, each “frame” of film is actually three frames, one of each primary color, adjacent to each other on the same strip. Three lamps illuminate the three frames simultaneously, projecting the single color image.

Turner’s process also requires a filter during projection for each of the frames to separate out each of the primary colors. Apparently, as the film moves through the projector, the filters rotate as well, so a blue frame will always have a blue filter following it through the gate, just like the other colors.

This obviously would require a complicated projector with a lot of breakable parts, but I think it’s a neat idea, and the colors that Turner captured look absolutely gorgeous.

  1. [1] This is different from mixing inks and paints, where the primary colors are red, blue and yellow, or more accurately, cyan, magenta, yellow (and black). Print stuff uses CMYK colors, video and film uses RGB colors.
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2 Responses to Step Right Up- See It Here: The World’s Oldest Color Motion Picture!

  1. That really sounds like a complicated although interesting process. 1902 sounds so early to have any kind of color film, but the color comes out really incredible. How come they didn’t film in color more back then? Too expensive/complicated?
    I know you are talking about actual color filming, but I also want to comment about colorization. March of the Wooden Soldiers with Laurel and Hardy was made in 1934 and the colorization done in 1991 was terrible…I have no idea why. The colors are kind of weird at times and sometimes they completely forget to colorize things. There are a couple of long scenes where Hardy is dropped into water and remains there for a while, and they didn’t even colorize the water – kind of a major thing! Maybe that’s because digital colorization was pretty new then (assuming it was digital, not computerized) and labor-intensive. Still…the water is most of the shot, and grey water is pretty distracting.

    • admin says:

      I think for most things, color photography was too expensive and complicated- the only processes I’m aware of were specialized inventions like this one. Even when they did get color working, like for The Wizard of Oz in the 1930s, the amount of light needed to get a good exposure is mind boggling. Before then, silent black and white movies might have certain scenes tinted one color- dark blue for night scenes, or yellow for sunny ones, but that just put one color over the whole shot. To get more detail, you could paint different parts of the photo by hand- but that would only be for stills.

      If you’re looking for really cool color still photos, this guy, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, has some stuff from the early 1900s. I have to do a double take and tell myself they really are from before World War I (although I think these prints might’ve had some help from more recent computers.) These two are probably my favorites: The Emir of Bukhara, 1911, and A Monestary of St. Nilus, ca. 1910

      When it comes to colorization, I’d stay away from any version. They’re probably using some kind of paints or dyes, and it’s all subjective, so it may look nothing like what you’d actually see. On the off chance it’s done well (and it usually isn’t, like you saw), it’s still not the way the film was meant to be seen. If it’s shot in black and white, the lighting and exposure are designed for black and white. Certain high contrast film noir effects, for instance, with deep shadows and bright white outlines, wouldn’t look as good in color, if you could pull them off at all.

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