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A history of color in film

August 16, 2023


A golden tint with a vignette tells us we’re in a dream, or the harsh green light from a fluorescent office communicates a sense of sterile isolation; color in cinema gives the viewer visual clues to decode its meanings. Sometimes a palette is obvious and intrusive, or subtle and guiding. A color palette can transcend genre—Dorothy and a pair of slippers or Morpheus’ pill—the color red moves us not just from one place to another, but to another world. Read on for our take on a handful of impactful moments in the development of the use of color in cinema.


Color began to appear in cinema in the 1920s, though the transition away from black and white was not immediate. It took the better part of three decades to develop new standards and practices to accommodate the medium. In the film Nosferatu (1922), color film stock is utilized to create a filtration effect in a process called toning. With toning special film-stocks are selected, each of which create an overall color effect. Some uses were practical, such as a blue tint for a night sequence. Other uses of color were to communicate emotion, such as fear or anxiety. 17 different color-toned film stocks were manufactured during this time featuring shades such as Peachblow, Nocturne, and Aquagreen. Cinema production was still arguably monochrome, as there was only a single color on the frame at any time. And, many poorer transfers of films during this time did away with toning and distributed them in black and white.

Nosferatu image

Source: Nosferatu 100th Anniversary Trailer | Eureka Entertainment | YouTube.

1930s & 1940s

In the 1930s, color on screen continued to evolve, including the now famous Technicolor 3-strip process most famously utilized on The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939). This system recorded onto three separate pieces of film stock, one for red, blue, and green, and then was combined into a single image. Since triple the amount of film was required for these productions, budgets skyrocketed. The system also required much more production light on set to allow for an effective pass through so much celluloid stock, also raising costs. Technicalities of production aside, color is a central character in The Wizard of Oz with the yellow brick road, an emerald city, and a pair of red slippers.

Other early uses of color came from smaller pockets of cinema, including animation and Avant-garde production. Experimental pieces Polychrome Phantasy, A Phantasy in Colors and Loops saw director Norman McLaren hand-painting animation onto the filmstock itself, as well as masking multiple pieces of transparent celluloid filmstock into a single composite. These handmade processes laid the foundation for rotoscoping and compositing techniques utilized today. The short A Phantasy in Colors is a high-speed barrage of endless color combinations paired with animation inked onto the filmstock, with most images lasting only a single frame in duration.


Sources: Loops, A Phantasy in Colors, Pen Point Percussion | National Film Board of Canada (NFB) | YouTube.


The 1990s is when, arguably, traditional analog cinema started to migrate away in favor of new digital tools. Film editing “went digital,” with Walter Murch cutting The English Patient (1996) on Avid Media Composer over a traditional flatbed film editor. This process required new workflows to get film stock into editing software and back onto film for distribution. These same “digitizing” workflows were utilized in VFX and color correction as well, converting tape or film into video files.

Cherub Rock (1993) by Smashing Pumpkins showcases the abilities and limits of the celluloid workflow by highlighting just how far color and brightness can be pushed photochemically. Director Kevin Kerslake developed the negative himself in his bathtub; “instead of following the directions on the box, I skipped some deliberately. What I tried to do was totally indie-rock.” The result is a vibrant mess of images, peeling reels of film layered together and lovingly stitched together on a flatbed editor. And while each and every frame of the video is colorful and beautiful, the process was completely random; these levels of saturation could not be consistently controlled and wielded. Often, the splices move just as fast as A Phantasy in Colors.


Source: Cherub Rock | Smashing Pumpkins | YouTube.

Digital color correction started to reshape the landscape of moving images. On television, MTV, more specifically, colorists were exploring how to push images to stand out from a crowd. New software tools like Autodesk Flame and DaVinci Resolve made it far more reliable to adjust the overall brightness of both images and specific colors. More importantly, moving images could be layered to blend two separate aesthetics into a single image, something that was previously not possible. Bittersweet Symphony (1997) by The Verve combines a cold exposure wash look with a layering of red hues as if the red came from a completely different exposure. Global tinting and precision rotoscoping came together within a single frame.

Bittersweet Symphony

Source: Bittersweet Symphony | The Verve | YouTube.

Feature films quickly adopted these new techniques, though the pipeline was not entirely developed for such projects. Se7en (1995) is an interesting example because when the film was first theatrically released, it utilized a traditional film lab celluloid finish and distribution. However, the home video release received a proper digital intermediate and color correction that is aesthetically very different. In this night sequence, the original look was a somewhat cold-white fill, whereas the color-corrected release emulates the warmth from a sodium-vapor street lamp. Color correction was now supplementing on-set lighting, and the colorist was beginning to work in collaboration with the director of photography.

Images from Se7en

On the left, is the photochemical release of Se7en, and on the right is the color-corrected version for home video. Source: Se7en | DVD Extras


In the 2000s, feature films almost entirely began receiving proper color correction passes, also referred to as a digital intermediate. Many of these features would be shot on film, digitized for the color grade, and output back onto film for theatrical distribution. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was one of the first features to receive a full-color correction from beginning to end. Amélie (2001) features a variety of lush looks that push the image away from natural capture. With a color-correct session lasting an unheard of six weeks, Amélie breaks many established conventions on what a look ought to be; take these four frames, for example. What should a white point look like in these environments? Note the duo-tone split along the clothing from the environment. The film showcases how color can look wonderful on screen without a connection to motivated lighting.

Amélie images

Source: Amélie Trailer | YouTube

Simultaneously, the quality of entry-level cameras improved, and as video editing workflows became entirely digital, full-color correction was now affordable to more tiers of productions. Smaller independent productions such as 28 Days Later, Little Miss Sunshine and Mysterious Skin visually pushed the boundaries of how good cinema could look on a shoestring budget. High saturation and well-controlled contrast produced vibrant images that popped off the screen, especially when compared to the looks of the preceding decade.

Warm looks became increasingly popular, such as these frames from Juno. The entire set has a warm color temperature quality, but the secondary colors have a cold quality to them as if they were layered or keyed and adjusted to pop out from the background. With a traditional workflow, the vibrancy of the props would have been lost in the warm light. The warm glow of Amélie may have served as an influence for Juno, but the complexity of the look evolved to incorporate complimentary hues within a wash.

Juno images

Source: Juno Trailer (HD) | YouTube


Contemporary looks have deviated somewhat from the patterns from previous decades. Refreshingly, colorists and cinematographers borrow small aesthetic choices rather than an overarching motif. The Green Knight (2021) features bold and saturated colors. However, the lightness is rather muted; not all details are seen, and our subject blends into the background into complete darkness. And still, notice the separation in color between wardrobe and makeup; the duo-tone style from the 2000s continues forward.

Some sequences opt for a toning style deeply reminiscent of Nosferatu, with only minor adjustments in the cloak peeking through a near-complete monochromatic look. In these examples, subjects are layered upon layers, but the separation of those elements is increasingly subtle and purposeful.

Green Knight images

Source: The Green Knight Trailer | YouTube

The digital cinema cameras that have been in use over the last two decades continue to offer improvements in quality. Currently, cameras are capturing high dynamic range images that normally exceed what a television or theatrical screen and display. For example a bright sky may appear completely white on screen, but additional details of clouds are captured by the camera. Innovations in color science have created interesting solutions on how to manage all this extra camera information.

Past Lives (2023) showcases how precise high dynamic capture can be applied to the frame. In the example on the left, the exterior and interior setups offer completely different color palettes and lighting, yet they are both clearly visible. Adding even more complexity are the neon street signs in vibrant colors. Very hot light sources usually render as pure white upon capture and are normally unnatural looking, and this setup showcases a delicate balance of getting all the light sources to look equal in power.

In the right frame, characters in the foreground are nicely lit with a warm tone and clear shadows, while the cloud covering sunset is in full view. Until very recently, a colorist would have to decide if we are to see the characters or the sunset, but not both.

Better control of the image allows for the unique blending of two different setups.

Source: Past Lives Trailer | YouTube

While the tools have evolved over the better part of a century, the techniques in modern color correction span the gamut in terms of variety, execution, and originality. After two decades of digital innovation with the advent of new workflows and software, contemporary looks are borrowing and stealing influences, small and large, from the films that came before them. As techniques are refined, the results are more deliberate decisions being made in post. It is possible to incorporate a tinting look or to key a piece of wardrobe and reserve those decisions to a single scene within a larger film, and that kind of creative refinement is going to pave the way for more varied looks.

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Over the past fifteen years, Arthur Ditner has worked in post-production in a variety of roles including: Colourist, Editor, and Dailies Producer. He has had the pleasure of working with some of the top directorial talent in Canada, and has travelled the United States building remote dailies labs supporting network television series. He plays bass guitar on occasion and lives outside of Toronto in nearby Cambridge, Ontario.
Read more by Arthur Ditner