Coloration of moving images goes back to Athanasius Kircher's projection system of 1646, in which sunlight reflected against painted mirrors cast an image on a wall. This was a harbinger of many of the early efforts at tinting films in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In tinting, color was applied by hand to individual frames of a film; in toning, entire shots were bathed in a colored solution. The French company Pathé used a stencil process for hand-tinting, which reduced the variability that was characteristic of American tinted films; prints rented from Pathé tended to be more similar to each other than those rented from, say, Edison. Two of the films on the first program at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York on 23 April 1896, made use of hand-tinted color. The impresario Siegmund Lubin (1851–1923) premiered mono-tinting around 1904, offering films in which various scenes had been tinted different colors; this same technique, used within the context of a narrative strategy, characterized D. W. Griffith's The Lonedale Operator (D. W. Griffith, 1911), where blue and red cast shots were alternated with untinted black-and-white to striking effect.

Hand-tinting can be found in The Great Train Robbery (1903), the most celebrated moment being the reddish gun blast we see when the principal robber fires his gun into the camera. (Depending on the whim of the entrepreneur who rented one of two different versions for

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) signalled the triumph of Technicolor.
showing at his nickelodeon, this shot could have been seen either at the beginning or at the end of the film.) Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) pays homage to that moment in the tinted gunshot at the finale of Spellbound (1945), a film otherwise shot in black and white. Numerous examples of hand-tinted color earlier in The Great Train Robbery include the acidic yellow explosion of the strong-box on the train; the yellow marks made by dancers as their shoes touch the floor; the lavender cloak of the stationmaster's daughter; and the orange explosions of gunfire that are produced by the advancing posse riding toward the camera as they pursue the robbers through the woods. In this film, color has a punctuating effect, enhancing certain moments or features of moments and making them seem hyperreal, exceptionally vivid, penetrating.

Through toning, one obtains a wash of color in a black-and-white image. In Un homme et une femme ( A Man and a Woman , Claude Lelouch, 1966), various black-and-white scenes are colored in this way, one royal blue, one burnt tangerine orange, one sepia. Much of the narrative unfolds in high-contrast black and white (a car ride from Normandy to Paris in the rain, for example, in which the couple, lost in thought about one another, hear on the background radio that "a man and a woman have been killed" in an automobile accident), with these tinted scenes interposed to suggest the subjective, even transcendental, emotional filter through which the two lovers experience their reality together. For other scenes involving memory, untoned color film was shot and slightly over-exposed to wash out the color. The filmmaker's desire to mix directly seen action with remembered action and emotionally desired action determines his use of both the presence and absence, and the type, of color.

One of the earliest additive color systems was Kinemacolor, developed in 1906 by G. A. Smith (1864–1959). Successive frames of the film were tinted alternately red-orange or green-blue, then finally projected through a rotating double-color filter at thirty-two frames per second. Through persistence of vision the eye of the spectator conjured the color onscreen, but not without developing eyestrain and seeing color migrating across the screen from scene to scene. In 1912 two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Herbert Kalmus (1881–1963) and Daniel Comstock, went into partnership with W. Burton Wescott (along with Kalmus's wife, the former Natalie Dunfee [1878–1965]). Kalmus, Comstock, and Wescott wanted to go beyond tinting or toning black-and-white frames, and beyond the crude filtration system of Kinemacolor, to develop a viable independent color process for film. The company called Technicolor was born in 1915, and two years later premiered the first "color film," The Gulf Between (1917). A camera was designed that would take duplicate frames of every image, one through a green filter and one through a red filter. Whereas the Kinemacolor process had projected these different frames sequentially, Kalmus and Comstock developed a pair of identical black-and-white release prints that could be projected simultaneously through different filters with the images combined by means of a prism.

By 1922 Kalmus and Comstock had moved on to Technicolor Process No. 2: rather than adding the color through projection, it would be recorded for the first time as information coded directly on the film, in this case, on black-and-white film that was filtered during shooting. Two color records were made on filtered black-and-white stock, red and green-blue, each showing through highlights and shadows the relative amount of the respective color in the photographed scene. These were transferred to what came to be known as a color matrix, a strip of film half as thick as normal film and coated with a gelatin that could harden. The hardened gelatin had something of the quality of a rubber stamp, with intensively colored areas showing up as troughs and lighter areas as peaks. Each record having been imprinted onto its matrix and the two matrices having hardened, the red and green-blue matrices were dyed either green-blue or red respectively and cemented together for projection. The first feature to exhibit this process was The Toll of the Sea (1922), followed by The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1923). Before the process was superseded in 1927, twenty-four feature films were released, shot all or in part in Technicolor Process No. 2.

Process No. 3 improved on the method by using the two color matrices not for direct projection but as the basis for printing onto blank stock. In a machine that impressed the dyed matrix against the blank stock between pressurized rollers, the stock became colored after it was passed through twice, once for each matrix. This process of pressing dye against a blank, receptive stock is called imbibation. Process No. 3, conceived in 1928, became the basis for all of what Technicolor achieved from that time until, for some years beginning in the 1970s, it went out of business (the company later revived). Between 1928 and 1929, thirty-one silent or part-talkie films were made through this process, culminating in Warner Bros.' The Show of Shows (1929); forty-nine color talkies were made between 1929 and 1933, ending with Warner Bros.' Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).

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