Still, L'Antre Infernale

Even dedicated film fans may be surprised to learn that color has been an important element of filmmaking from the very beginning. Of particular fascination are the various attempts at adding color to motion pictures during cinema’s formative years, from hand-coloring in the 1890s to “Glorious Technicolor” in the 1930s and beyond. Yet despite MoMA’s efforts to collect representative samples of different coloring techniques, widespread access to some of these films in their authentic colors has been hampered by unstable film stocks and poor-quality copies. Now, as part of a series of new 4K digital restorations, 17 early color films from the Department of Film’s collection are available again for study and appreciation. Three highlights from this selection are presented here.

L’Antre infernal (The Infernal Cave). 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. Cinematography by Segundo de Chomón

Acquired by the Museum in 1935, this inventive stencil-colored trick film has not been seen in its original colored version for many years. In the caves of hell, Satan stokes the eternal flames and evokes the souls of the damned, whom he turns to dust and plunges into the infernal depths. The coloring here is integral to the film’s sense of fantasy and wonder, seamlessly blending the stop-trick substitution effects (à la Georges Méliès) and enhancing the devil’s fiery magic.

This film marks one of the earliest uses of Pathé’s stencil-color process, which is similar in effect to hand-coloring. Stencils were prepared by hand using a pantograph, and ran the same length as the 35mm film print: several thousand frames. A different stencil was cut for each color dye to be applied. After this meticulous initial work (usually undertaken by women), black-and-white release prints were colored one dye at a time using an automated process, reducing the cost and labor involved in making each print, and further expanding the prevalence of color in early cinema.

La voix du rossignol (The Voice of the Nightingale). 1923. France. Directed by Władysław Starewicz

Made almost 20 years after the introduction of stencil-coloring, this delightful animated short demonstrates the apogee of the artificial coloring technique. Directed by Russian emigré Władysław Starewicz, The Voice of the Nightingale mixes stop-motion animation of real beetles and birds alongside live-action scenes, creating a modern fairytale about why the nightingale only sings at night. At times unrealistic, but always artistically applied, the coloring in this film excels most in the animated scenes—particularly the delicate nighttime shots—at times combining a toned image with three or four other color dyes.

The Voice of the Nightingale was released in the United States in 1925, and was winner of the National Board of Review’s prestigious Hugo Riesenfeld Gold Medal for best short subject of the year. Throughout the late 1910s and into the 1920s, color shorts were prevalent. In fact, when going out for an evening’s entertainment at the movie theater, audiences at the time would have expected to see a colored short on the program alongside a newsreel, a cartoon or comedy, and the feature presentation. Stencil coloring was used on hundreds of “scenics” (travelogues), documentaries, and fashion shorts, as well as some feature films. But other “natural color” techniques were also common, from Kinemacolor to Prizma and early Technicolor, among others.

Technicolor Tests. 1933–36, compiled 1954. USA. Produced by Pioneer Pictures. With Nan Sunderland, Luis Alberni, Frank Morgan, Douglas Walton, and Dolores Del Rio

Technicolor was formed in 1915, but toiled through years of technical development and studio resistance to color before launching its lauded three-color process in 1932, with Walt Disney’s animated short Flowers and Trees. This new three-color process was at last able to capture the full hues of the spectrum.

This series of tests from the 1930s, compiled from multiple reels by MoMA in 1954, reveals an often hidden side to filmmaking. The footage is a showcase for how Technicolor tried to present this new process to its clients in the film industry, while also demonstrating the need for extensive behind-the-scenes testing of actors, costumes, make-up, lighting, sets, and even visual effects techniques. (Keep your eyes open for a stop-motion dinosaur animated by Willis O’Brien, of King Kong fame).

This footage and several other reels of Technicolor tests and supporting documentation—including one we presented in last year’s Film Vault Summer Camp—were gifted to the Museum in 1939 by Pioneer Pictures, a production company formed in 1933 by MoMA trustee John Hay Whitney and his cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney to make productions exclusively in Technicolor.

Film at MoMA is made possible by CHANEL.

Additional support is provided by the Annual Film Fund. Leadership support for the Annual Film Fund is provided by Steven Tisch, with major contributions from Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.