Kinemacolor was the first successful colour motion picture process. Used commercially from 1909 to 1915, it was invented by George Albert Smith in 1906. It was a two-colour additive colour process, photographing a black-and-white film behind alternating red/orange and blue/green filters and projecting them through red and green filters. It was demonstrated several times in 1908 and first shown to the public in 1909. From 1909 on, the process was known and trademarked as Kinemacolor and was marketed by Charles Urban’s Natural Color Kinematograph Company, which sold Kinemacolor licenses around the world.
Edward Raymond Turner produced the oldest surviving colour films around 1902. They were made through three-colour alternating-filters. Turner's process, for which Charles Urban had provided financial backing, was adapted by George Albert Smith after Turner's sudden death in 1903 into Kinemacolor. Smith was also influenced by the work of William Norman Lascelles Davidson. He was granted a patent for the Kinemacolor process in 1907.
"How to Make and Operate Moving Pictures" published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1917 notes the following:
Of the many attempts to produce cinematograph pictures... the greatest amount of attention so far has been attracted by a system invented by George Albert Smith, and commercially developed by Charles Urban under the name of "Kinemacolor." In this system (to quote from Cassell's Cyclopædia of Photography, edited by the editor of this present book), only two colour filters are used in taking the negatives and only two in projecting the positives. The camera resembles the ordinary cinematographic camera except that it runs at twice the speed, taking thirty-two images per second instead of sixteen, and it is fitted with a rotating colour filter in addition to the ordinary shutter. This filter is an aluminium skeleton wheel... having four segments, two open ones, G and H; one filled in with red-dyed gelatine, E F; and the fourth containing green-dyed gelatine, A B. The camera is so geared that exposures are made alternately through the red gelatine and the green gelatine. Panchromatic film is used, and the negative is printed from in the ordinary way, and it will be understood that there is no colour in the film itself.
To shoot Kinemacolor films, cameramen had to choose between a variety of red/orange and blue/green filters depending on the subject. Despite this, the films were projected through a single set of red and green filters. Modern research has matched the red projection filter to 25 Sunset Red (with a peak transmission above 610nm) and the green projection filter to 122 Fern Green (with a peak of around 510 to 540 nm). Projected frame rate was also confirmed to be between 30 and 32 frames per second.
Kinemacolor faced several issues, including its inability to reproduce the full color spectrum due to being a two-color process. Other issues included eye strain and frame parallax because it used a successive frame process, as well as the need for a special projector. The color filters absorbed so much light that studios had to be built open-air.
At the press opening of the Urbanora House in London on 1 May 1908, Charles Urban presented Kinemacolor films which he stated were not taken with the intention to be shown in front of an audience. A second demonstration in England took place once again in the Urbanora House on 23 July 1908, in front of the Lord Mayor of London as well as 60 other guests. Kinemacolor was shown in Paris on 8 July 1908, featuring a film of the Grand Prix motor race taken the previous day. Among the guests were the Lumière brothers, inventors of the autochrome color photography process. George Albert Smith presented Kinemacolor before the Royal Society of Arts on 9 December 1908.
On 26 February 1909, the general public first saw Kinemacolor in a programme at the Palace Theatre in London. By this time, the process was known as Kinemacolor, a suggestion from Arthur Binstead, a journalist at Sporting Life, after Urban offered a £5 prize to anyone who could come up with a name. The programme consisted of 21 films mainly shot around Brighton and the French Riviera.
On 6 July 1909, George Albert Smith presented a programme of 11 Kinemacolor films at Knowsley Hall before King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The films included military subjects as well as a party at Knowsley Hall and the King himself. Edward was pleased with the films.
Success and decline
In 1909, Urban, who had acquired the Kinemacolor patent from Smith, formed the Natural Color Kinematograph Company, which produced most Kinemacolor films.Urban sold Kinemacolor licenses around the world through the Natural Color Kinematograph Company. Outside of the United Kingdom, the only successful Kinemacolor companies were located in Japan and the United States.
The Natural Color Kinematograph Company produced The Funeral of King Edward VII (1910), the first notable Kinemacolor film which proved to be a financial success. That year, the company released the first dramatic film made in the process, By The Order of Napoleon. In 1911, the Scala Theatre became Urban's flagship venue for showing Kinemacolor films, which included From Bud to Blossom (1910), Unveiling of the Queen Victoria Memorial (1911), Coronation of George V (1911), The Investiture of The Prince of Wales (1911). The company also produced the documentary films With Our King and Queen Through India (1912) and the notable recovery of £750,000 worth of gold and silver bullion from the wreck of P&O's SS Oceana in the Strait of Dover (1912). The dramas The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1914), and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1914) were among the last feature films released in Kinemacolor.
Kinemacolor enjoyed the most commercial success in the UK where, between 1909 and 1918, it was shown at more than 250 entertainment venues. Kinemacolor was popular with members of the British royal family. Pope Pius X saw Kinemacolor films in 1913.
The Natural Color Kinematograph Company re-purchased the French rights for Kinemacolor. In 1913, Urban built the Théâtre Edouard VII in Paris for the purpose of showing Kinemacolor, but the process remained commercially unsuccessful in France.
In April 1910, the Kinemacolor Company of America was formed, which initially relied on showing British Kinemacolor films. They filmed The Clansman in 1911, based on the controversial novel of the same name by Thomas Dixon. The film was finished and never released or left unfinished, and inspired D. W. Griffith to produce The Birth of a Nation (1915). The Kinemacolor Company of America produced several narrative and documentary films, such as Making of The Panama Canal (1912) and The Scarlet Letter (1913). The company had studios in Hollywood from 1912 until 1913 and ceased production in 1915.
The Japanese Kinemacolor rights were acquired by the Fukuhōdō film studio in 1910 and were passed on to Toyo Shokai. Emperor Taishō was presented with a three-hour long Kinemacolor programme in August 1913. Two months later, the first Kinemacolor programme was shown in Tokyo. Toyo Shokai reformed itself to Tenkatsu in March 1914 and produced primarily fiction films. With World War I film stock became more expensive, so the company limited production of Kinemacolor films. The last Japanese film produced in Kinemacolor was Saiyûki Zokuhen (1917).
In 1913, after years of dispute, William Friese-Greene, inventor of the rival Biocolour system, challenged Smith's Kinemacolor patent at the Royal Courts of Justice. Although the court initially favoured Kinemacolor, the original verdict was overturned in March 1914. Consequently, Kinemacolor lost not only its patent protection but its commercial value and exclusivity.
Urban liquidated the Natural Color Kinematograph Company in order to protect the shareholders. He took the case to the House of Lords and continued the company as Color Films Ltd., which produced the documentary With The Fighting Forces of Europe during World War I. In April 1915, the House of Lords upheld the Court of Appeal's decision and the patent was revoked. Charles Urban filmed the British fleet in Kinemacolor for the documentary film Britain Prepared in late 1915. Most Kinemacolor films are now considered lost.
With his associate Henry W. Joy, Charles Urban continued his research in colour cinematography and developed a process called Kinekrom, an improved version of Kinemacolor. Kinekrom was shown to the public in New York in November 1916. The process was intended to enable Urban to continue showing his vast library of old Kinemacolor films. However, public interest for Kinemacolor had faded and there were few screenings.
The first (additive) version of Prizma Color, developed by William Van Doren Kelley in the U.S. from 1913 to 1917, used some of the same principles as Kinemacolor.
List of films made in Kinemacolor
This section needs additional citations for verification. (September 2019)
- US941960A, Smith, George Albert, "Kinematograph apparatus for the production of colored pictures", issued 1909-11-30
- Smith (25 July 1907). Improvements in, and relating to, Kinematograph Apparatus for the Production of Coloured Pictures - British patent 26,607 (PDF).
- I colori ritrovati. Kinemacolor e altre magie. / Kinemacolor And Other Magic. Edizioni Cineteca di Bologna. 2017. ISBN 978-8899196417.
- "World's First Colour Film Discovered", BBC News (12 September 2012)
- "William Norman Lascelles Davidson". Who's Who of Victorian Cinema. Retrieved 31 October 2007.
... Although his work was ultimately unsuccessful, it played its part in influencing the development of Kinemacolor, the world's first successful natural colour motion picture system, invented by Davidson's neighbour in the English south coast town of Southwick, near Brighton, G.A. Smith. ...
- Widescreen Museum
- "Recreating Kinemacolor on the Screen". www.brianpritchard.com. Retrieved 7 April 2023.
- "LEE 025 Sunset Red - Colour Filters & Gels". LEE Filters. Retrieved 7 April 2023.
- "LEE 122 Fern Green - Colour Gel for Lighting". LEE Filters. Retrieved 7 April 2023.
- McKernan, Luke (2018). Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925. University of Exeter Press. ISBN 978-0859892964.
- Anonymous (July 1909). "Animated Pictures in Natural Colours". The BioScope. 144.
- urbanora (15 June 2008). "Colourful stories no. 11 – Kinemacolor in America « The BioScope". Bioscopic.wordpress.com. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
- "Natural Color Kinematograph Company Limited 1909 - 1915". Science Museum Group.
- McKernan, Luke (1999). A Yank in Britain: The Lost Memoirs of Charles Urban. Projection Box. ISBN 9780952394129.
- Salvage Operations of S.S. Oceana Produced by the Natural Colour Kinematograph Co., Brighton at IMDb
- Victoria Jackson, "The Distribution and Exhibition of Kinemacolor in the UK and the USA 1909–1916" (University of Bristol, 2011).
- Stokes, Melvyn (2007). D.W. Griffith's the Birth of a Nation. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198044369.
- "Film Releases". The Bioscope. 24 June 1915.
- Kindem, G (1981). "The Demise of Kinemacolor. Technological, Legal, Economic, and Aesthetic Problems in Early Color Cinema History". Cinema Journal. 20 (2): 3–14. doi:10.2307/1224830. JSTOR 1224830.
- "Surviving Kinemacolor". Charles Urban. Retrieved 8 October 2023.
- The New York Times, 2 April 1912: 24. Accessed via ProQuest ("Display Ad 28-No Title").
- "An Expression | Details of the work | Japanese Animated Film Classics".
- Kinemacolor on Timeline of Historical Film Colors, with primary and secondary sources, patents, and photographs of historical film prints.
- Kinemacolor frames of William Howard Taft.
- "My Impressions of 'Kinemacolor'", Wilson's Photographic Magazine, 1912.
- "Animation in Natural Colours", Moving Pictures, 1912.
- "Catalogue of Kinemacolor film subjects", Catalogue of Kinemacolor films, 1913.