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The 1935 fantasy film She, colorized.

Film colorization[1] is any process that adds color to black and white, sepia or monochrome moving-picture images. It may be done as a special effect, or to modernize black and white films, or to restore color films. Examples date from the early 20th century, but colorization has become common with the advent of digital image processing.



The first film colorization methods were employed before effective color film processes was developed: each projected copy was individually colorized. The process was done by hand, sometimes using a stencil cut from a second print of the film. As late as the 1920s, hand coloring processes were used for individual shots in Greed (1924) andThe Phantom of the Opera (1925) (both utilizing the Handschiegl Color Process); and rarely, an entire feature-length movie such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1926) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1925).

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, black and white Betty Boop and Looney Tunes cartoons were redistributed in color—the colorization process was done by tracing the original black and white frames onto new animation cells, and then adding color to the new cells.[2] With computer technology, studios were able to add color to black and white films by digitally tinting single objects in each frame of the film until it was fully colorized (the first authorized computer-colorizations of B&W cartoons were commissioned by Warner Bros. in 1990). The initial process was invented by Canadians Wilson Markle and Brian Hunt[3] and was first used in 1970 to add color to monochrome footage of the moon from the Apollo mission.

Colorization typically begins with a monochrome film print. From the film print, a high quality videotape copy is made. Technicians, aided by a computer, identify the grey level of every object in every shot and note any movement of objects within shots. A computer adds color to each object, while keeping grey levels the same as in the monochrome original.[4] This technique was patented in 1991.[5]

Movies colorized using early techniques have softer contrast and fairly pale, flat, washed out color. However, the technology has improved since the 1980s, and several black and white TV shows and films have what some find to be completely lifelike colors.

A major difficulty with colorization has been its labor-intensity. For example, in order to colorize a still image an artist typically begins by dividing the image into regions, and then assign a color to each region. This approach, also known as the segmentation method, is time consuming. The process of dividing the picture into correct segments is painstaking. This problem occurs mainly since historically there have been no fully automatic algorithms to identify fuzzy or complex region boundaries, such as between a subject’s hair and face.

Colorization of moving images also requires tracking regions as movement occurs from one frame to the next (motion compensation). There are several companies which claim automatic region-tracking algorithms.

Legend Films describes their core technology as pattern recognition and background compositing which moves and morphs foreground and background masks from frame to frame. In the process, backgrounds are colorized separately in a single composite frame which functions as a visual database of a cut and includes all offset data on each camera movement. Once the foregrounds are colorized the background masks are applied frame to frame in a utility process.

Timebrush describes a process based on Neural Net technology which produces saturated and crisp colors with clear lines and no apparent spill-over. It is claimed that the process is cost effective and equally suitable for low-budget colorization, as well as for prime time broadcast quality or theatrical projection.

A team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering describe their method as an interactive process which does not require precise, manual, region detection, nor accurate tracking and is based on the simple premise that nearby pixels in space and time that have similar gray levels should also have similar colors. At the University of Minnesota, a color propagation method was developed that uses geodesic distance.[6]

Partial colorization

The earliest form of colorization introduced limited color into a black and white film using dyes, as a visual effect. The earliest Edison films, most notably the Anabelle Butterfly Dance series were also the earliest examples of colorization, done by painting aniline dyes onto the emulsion.

Around 1905, Pathé introduced Pathéchrome, a stencil process that involved cutting glass stencils for each frame with a pantograph.

In 1916, the Handschiegl Color Process was invented for Cecil B. DeMille's film Joan the Woman (1917). Another early example of the Handschiegl process can be found in Phantom of the Opera (1925), in which Lon Chaney's character can be seen wearing a bright-red cape while the rest of the scene remained monochrome. The scene was toned sepia, and then the cape was painted red, either by stencil or by matrix. Then, a sulfur solution was applied to everything but the dyed parts, turning the sepia into blue tone. The process was named after its inventor, Max Handschiegl. This effect, as well as a missing color sequence, were recreated in 1996 for a Photoplay Productions restoration by computer colorization (see below).

Partial colorization has also been utilized on footage shot in color to enhance commercials and broadcast television to further facilitate the director's artistic vision. As an example, Cerulean Fx provided partial colorization for Dave Matthews Band's music video The Space Between as well as Outkast's music videos "Bombs Over Baghdad" and "Roses."


A number of British television shows which were made in color in the early 1970s were wiped for economic reasons, but in some cases black and white telerecordings were made for export to countries that did not yet have color television. A notable example is the BBC's 5-part Doctor Who story The Dæmons. Only one episode survived in color; the rest existed only as black and white film recordings. The only known color recording was a poor quality off-air recording of an abridged American broadcast. In the 1990s the BBC colorized the black and white copies by adding the color signal from the off-air recordings. The result was judged a success by both technicians and fans. In March 2008, it was announced[7] that new colorization technology, which involves detecting color artifacts ("dot crawl") in high-resolution scans of black-and-white films, will be used to restore other Who episodes as well as shows like Steptoe and Son where some episodes only exist in black and white.

However, there are no plans to use colorization on BBC programmes originally made in black-and-white, such as the 1960s Who episodes.[8]


Colorization is also sometimes used on historical stock footage in color movies. For instance, the film Thirteen Days uses colorized news footage from the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

The full-color feature film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), which already made heavy use of digitally-generated sets and objects, integrated black and white 1940s footage of Sir Laurence Olivier into scenes by colorizing him.

In his feature film, The Aviator (2005), Martin Scorsese seamlessly blended colorized stock footage of the Hell's Angels movie premiere with footage of the premiere's re-enactment. The colorization by Legend Films was designed to look like normal three-strip film but was then color corrected to match the two-strip look of the premiere's re-enactment. Also in The Aviator, Scorsese used colorized footage of Jane Russell from the original black and white film, The Outlaw and dog fight scenes from Hell's Angels.

Entertainment make-overs

Colorization in 1986. From Night of the Living Dead.
Colorization in 2004 from the same film.

In the mid-1980s, the process drew controversy after Topper and then Way Out West became the first black and white films to be redistributed in color using the colorization process.[9] Defenders of the process noted that it would allow black and white films to have new audiences of people who were not used to the format. Detractors complained (among other reasons) that the process was crude and claimed that even if it were refined, it would not take into account lighting compositions chosen for black and white photography which would not necessarily be as effective in color.[10] Figures opposed to the process included Roger Ebert, Jimmy Stewart, John Huston, and Woody Allen.[9]

Cary Grant was reportedly "very gung-ho with the outcome" of the colorization of Topper.[9] Director Frank Capra met with Wilson Markle about colorizing the perennial holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe and Lady for a Day based on Grant's enthusiasm.[9] Colorization, Inc.'s art director Brian Holmes screened ten minutes of colorized footage from It's a Wonderful Life to Capra, which led Capra to sign a contract with Colorization, Inc.[9] However, the film was believed to be in the public domain at the time, and as a result Markle and Holmes responded by returning Capra's initial investment, eliminating his financial participation, and refusing outright to allow the director to exercise artistic control over the colorization of his films, leading Capra to join in the campaign against the process.[9][11]

Media mogul Ted Turner was once an aggressive proponent of this process, by employing the San Diego firm American Film Technologies.[12] When he told members of the press that he was considering colorizing Citizen Kane, his comments led to an immediate public outcry.[13] Orson Welles had retained control over the film in his original contract, which would prevent any editing or other tampering with this film, without the express permission of Welles or his estate. About two weeks before he died in 1985, Welles asked filmmaker Henry Jaglom, "Don't let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons."[14] Turner Pictures had never actually announced that this was an upcoming planned project. Turner later stated that this was a joke designed to needle colorization critics, and that he never had any intention of colorizing the film.

John Huston's opposition to the colorization of his work led to a landmark 3-year French legal case after his death, sparked by a colorized version of The Asphalt Jungle. His daughter Anjelica Huston successfully used French copyright law to set a binding precedent in 1991 that prevents the distribution or broadcasting in France of any colorized version of a film against the wishes of the original creator or their heirs.[15]

Because of the high cost of the process, Turner Entertainment stopped colorizing titles. With the coming of DVD technology, the notion of colorization was once again gaining press. Because the DVD format was more versatile, studios could offer viewers the option to choose between both versions without switching discs, and thus, the release of colorized titles once again seemed profitable. Some companies re-released the older colorized versions from the 1980s—an example of this is the Laurel and Hardy box set being released in the UK.[16]

Recent colorization of Three Stooges films received praise and criticism.
To appease critics, the original black and white versions of Three Stooges films were included with their colorized counterparts (Beer Barrel Polecats.

Other studios, such as Sony Entertainment, commissioned West Wing Studios to colorize several Three Stooges films for DVD release. The studio was given access to the original Columbia Studios props and sets to lend authenticity to the colorized versions.[17]

Both film and television restoration and colorization is produced by the company Legend Films. Their patented automated process was used to colorize around 100 films between 2003 and 2009. Shirley Temple Black, Jane Russell, Terry Moore and Ray Harryhausen have worked with the company to colorize either their own films or their personal favorites. Two movies that Legend Films are noted for is the colorization of the exploitation film Reefer Madness, for which certain color schemes were used to create a psychedelic effect in its viewers, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Recently (2007), Legend Films colorized It's a Wonderful Life for Paramount Pictures (whose subsidiary, Republic Pictures, had regained control of the copyright in the 1990s) and Holiday Inn in 2008 for Universal Pictures.

In 2004, an Indian classical B&W Mughal-e-Azam was colorized for the theatrical release all over the world by the company called Indian Academy of Arts and Animation (IAAA) in association with Sankranti Creations. Founder of IAAA and Owner of [Sankranti creations], Rajeev Dwivedi brought this technology first time in India. Rajeev Dwivedi bagged this the very first project of colorization from Sterling Investment, a subsidiary of Shapoorji and Pallonji and completed successfully. Rajeev Dwivedi also colorized few films of Legends Films which was outsourced to IAAA.

In 2005, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the first season of Bewitched on DVD. Because the first season was produced in black and white, Sony released two versions of the set: one with the episodes as originally broadcast and a second with the episodes colorized. A year later, the second season of Bewitched and the first season of I Dream of Jeannie, another show owned by Sony, were released the same way. These releases were colorized by Dynacs Digital, which was bought over by Florida based, West Wing Studios, Inc. in 2003. Their production facility is located in Goa, India.

Documentary make-overs

Colorization is sometimes used on documentary programmes. The Beatles Anthology TV show colorizes some footage of the band, most notably the performance of "All You Need Is Love" from the TV special Our World (1967). In the documentary this scene begins in its original black and white before dissolving into seemingly realistic, psychedelic color.[18] The color design was based on color photographs taken at the same time as the special was shot.

The documentary series World War I in Color (2003) was broadcast on television and released on DVD in 2005. There had previously been full-color documentaries about World War II using genuine color footage, but since true color film was not practical for moving pictures at the time of World War I, the series consists of colorized contemporary footage (and photographs). Several documentaries on the Military Channel feature colorized war footage from the Second World War and the Korean War.

The 1960 Masters Tournament, originally broadcast in black and white and recorded on kinescope, was colorized by Legend Films for the documentary Jim Nantz Remembers. This was the first time a major sports event had been re-broadcast using colorization.

The Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants was colorized by Legend Films for ESPN for a sports broadcast special in December, 2008.


  1. ^ Also known as film colourisation, film colourization, or film colorisation; see American and British English spelling differences.
  2. ^ "The colorized cartoon database". Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  3. ^ "The History of the Motion Picture". Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  4. ^ "COLORIZATION". Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  5. ^ "Canadian Intellectual Property Office". Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  6. ^ Daniel Sýkora. "Annotation of colorization methods". Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  7. ^ Charles Norton (6). "Putting colour back in the Doctor's cheeks". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-03-14.  
  8. ^ "Doctor Who Restoration Team Official Site". Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  9. ^ a b c d e f Edgerton, Gary R. (Winter, 2000). ""The Germans Wore Gray, You Wore Blue"". Journal of Popular Film and Television. Retrieved 2009-12-24.  
  10. ^ "Casablanca In Color?". Time. 1987-01-12. p. 3.,9171,963207,00.html. Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  11. ^ "Carpra's Movies Lead New Lives". MSNBC.,1564442. Retrieved 2009-12-24.  
  12. ^ "AMERICAN FILM TECHNOLOGIES INC /DE/ - AFTC Annual Report (10-K) ITEM 1. BUSINESS". Retrieved 2009-11-01.  
  13. ^ "''The Museum of Broadcast Communications'': Ted Turner". Retrieved 2009-11-01.  
  14. ^ Lebo, Harlan (1990). Citizen Kane:the fiftieth -anniversary album. Doubleday. pp. 194. ISBN 9780385414739.  
  15. ^ Riding, Alan (25 August 1991). "Film Makers Are Victors In a Lawsuit on Coloring". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-24.  
  16. ^ "The Laurel and Hardy Collection". DVD Beaver. Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  17. ^ "Stooges DVD revives colorization debate". MSNBC. Retrieved 2007-01-01.  
  18. ^ "Anthology Home Video". Beatles Reference Library. Retrieved 2007-01-01.  

Further reading

  • Anthony Slide, Nitrate Won't Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States (pg 9, August 1, 2000), ISBN 0-7864-0836-7

External links



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