Daniel L. Symmes


NOTE: This article is dynamic in that it will change over time as new or different information is found. 25NOV2006

There are any number of books, articles, lectures, and many Web sites that have chronicled the development of color moving pictures. Most have been written with errors, misconceptions, or worse, myths.

To help the researcher, the following is an illustrated guide as to the concept of certain early color systems. Specifically, I present the way the basic additive and subtractive color systems LOOKED, back then.

This chapter relates to the history of stereoscopic moving pictures because the earliest, practical method of presenting 3D movies to the public at large was (and still is) the anaglyph method. This requires color film, and with the growth of color came anaglyph films.

Photography was introduced to the public ca. 1840, and quickly became part of life as few technologies have.

The principles of color photography came from the attempts at color printing. Both had intertwined, and mutually confusing developments.

But methods of producing true color—versus hand colored—pictures weren’t well defined, even with a lot of patent claims over a lot of years. The earliest processes were very difficult for scientists, let alone the weekend family photographer.

And to obtain color moving pictures? An amazing feat of concept, engineering, finance, luck, and stamina.

The interesting nexus for me is that the film stock needed for early color processes (and the others to follow), panchromatic, wasn’t available until just the minute it was needed.

The main figure was Dr. Hermann Wilhelm Vogel (1834-1898) who apparently was the first to find a practical way to extend the color sensitivity of the earliest film, which was only blue to UV sensitive (reds and greens would appear dark to black). In 1873 Vogel found a dye that allowed the film to “see” into the green part of the spectrum. This became orthochromatic film, which was dominant in photography well into the late 1920’s. By about 1884 he found a way to add red sensitivity, but not simultaneously with green.

Frederic Eugene Ives also laid claim to this accomplishment, though he often did for many things that he didn’t. Vogel’s position seems to be upheld historically.

Panchromatic film, which is sensitive to all visible colors, apparently became commercially available in various qualities in the first five years of the 1900’s.

Apparently the various color methods prior to that time were seriously flawed, color-wise, since there was seemingly no way to make the appropriate B&W separations. Prior to panchromatic film, three color separations made via B&W film were made on individually-sensitized films. This was prone to considerable variation and was simply a lot of trouble.

In 1899, Edward Raymond Turner and Frederick Marshall Lee of the UK filed a patent for a color camera, projection concept. Turner was the scientist, and Lee his backer.

Turner/Lee three-color camera, ca. 1899. Blue-violet, green, red.


Arguments abound as to who did what first, but the fact is, this patent lead to the first, commercially successful color moving picture process.

However it was a seriously flawed concept. In 1901, Lee and Turner approached film entrepreneur Charles Urban (1867-1942) who showed enough interest to become involved, and when Lee eventually moved on, Urban continued as the backer.

This i
Charles Urban and George Smith.


In 1903 Turner died, and Urban hired the talented cameraman, lab man George Albert Smith (1864-1959) (some have attributed the concept of close-up shots to Smith) to work out the bugs. He did, and it was reported he shot his first two-color test (red/green) in 1906. The first public showing of Kinemacolor was 26FEB1909 in London.


Smith detailed his improvements in a UK patent filed in 1906 (1909 in the U.S.).

It was already clearly understood by the scientific community that color photography requires recording three colors, from which all other visible colors can be derived. While the arguments as to what the three colors were continued into the 1900’s, red, green, and blue (attributed in 1855 to James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)) were established and proven.

Turner’s system was based on a color filter wheel that rotated in front of or behind a camera lens. As the film moved, so did the wheel. When the film stopped to take a picture, one of the colored filters would permit the film to only see that color. This produces a B&W negative having the “color values” of the scene (now called a color separation). Next frame, next filter, and so on.

The result was a B&W film with three successive frames, exposed through red, green, and blue (blue-violet, in this case).

The B&W print from this negative was projected through a machine having a color wheel like the camera. As the red-filtered image came up, the red filter would be in place to color it red on the screen (it was hoped—yes, it did get out of sync at times leading to very weird colored images).

Raleigh/Kelley patent (filed APR1914) with a variety of colors
yellow-orange/ blue-green/purple
with the last becoming the standard for two-color systems from
about 1920 on until 3 color Technicolor in 1932.


If this idea uses slide projectors—still pictures—then the color can be quite spectacular.

But motion pictures have special issues.

The entire concept was predicated on the very core principle of motion pictures: persistence of vision.

By running the projector faster than normal (48 frames per second versus 16 fps, also a major drawback), the rapidly alternating red, green, and blue images sort of produced a mental color effect. Sort of. But it was widely reported to be very uncomfortable to watch for any length of time because of severe color flicker.

Smith found it impossible to achieve acceptable results with a three color wheel and decided he could reduce the system to two colors, red and green. This would reduce the color pallet but more importantly reduce the flicker and reduce the projection speed from 48 fps to 32 fps.

Thus, Kinemacolor was born.

Debrie Parvo with the front open for loading
revealing the Kinemacolor shutter conversion ca. 1924)


This method of creating the color on the screen (versus the image itself being colored) is called additive color. Simply, color is added to the image by passing through a colored filter in projection. Another way to see it, if you beam a red light at a screen, and a green light, you get a third, brighter color, yellow.

All additive color systems to follow were cursed from the start.

The “normal” projection speed up through 1920 or so was “about” 16 frames per second. Even at this rate there was a flicker on the screen, and thus the term “flickers.”

But when you added the color wheel, the flicker was magnified, even with only two colors. The solution at the time was to often project at twice the normal speed, 32 fps. This helped, but doubled film costs (for a given running time), and wasn’t appreciated at all by projectionists who at this time generally cranked the projectors by hand. Faster!

The second additive curse is from temporal parallax. For every one NORMAL frame, two were made. Red frame plus green frame = color frame. But, as we’re talking MOVIES, the subject more often than not would move between the two exposures. This creates a mismatch of the images, which (as the filters are red and green) can be easily seen as red and green edges, or ghosts, or fringing around the moving object.

This was not a pretty sight.

Example of a three color, sequential exposure. Fringing (temporal parallax) can
be seen on several of the subjects (particularly the children - look far left).
This wonderful early color specimen was shot in 1909 by Russian photographer
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, using a unique three, successive exposure camera.
More of his images can be seen on the Web at:

Various methods of dealing with parallax were devised over the years, and even into the late 1930’s.

Kinemacolor was flawed but, particularly in Europe, was quite successful. The novelty of colored, moving pictures captured people’s imagination.

In the U.S., there was a weak reception to Kinemacolor possibly because it wasn’t an "American" invention (though Urban was originally American, becoming a UK citizen in 1906), and Edison’s Motion Picture Patents mafia tended to keep outsiders, out.

Kinemacolor did set up an office in New York, and films were shown regularly at the Eden Musée in NYC from perhaps 1914 on.

Kinemacolor was never a “feature” process, per se, though I believe at least two features were produced. It was seen mostly for non-fiction shorts such as travelogues and the like.

But in 1911, Urban took perhaps five to eight Kinemacolor cameras and crew to India to shoot WITH OUR KING AND QUEEN THROUGH INDIA. It was a remarkable film running two and a half hours in length, premiering at the Scala Theatre in London (then home to Kinemacolor), 2FEB1912. It was a documentary, but brought to the UK (still governing India) amazing, colorful sights that played to capacity audiences for 15 months, and was seen world-wide thereafter in five, touring road shows, and latter in various shorter versions.

In fact, the world's first "color" (versus tinted) feature film was the Kinemacolor 1914 THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL.

The above mentioned Scala Theatre (1,200 seats, opened in 1903, demolished in 1970), was the location used in the Beatles' HARD DAYS NIGHT TV studio/theater sequences.

While all this was going on, others worked feverishly to improve methods to bring practical (read affordable) color to the industry. It was a technological gold rush.

And this brings us to the second method of producing color: subtractive.

The fellow normally looked upon as the first to properly define additive and subtractive color photography is the genius Louis Ducos du Hauron (aka Duhauron) (1837-1920). One of the oldest true color (subtractive) photos is attributed to du Hauron in 1872 ( Not the oldest as the page says, but one of THE oldest to survive.

Subtractive color is what we first learn when using crayons. If you take a blue crayon and a yellow crayon, you get green on the paper. Red and blue, purple (magenta).


Not to bog this chapter down in too much detail easily found elsewhere, there are two sets of color “primaries.” Primaries are the minimum three colors from which all others can be derived.

The additive primaries, as mentioned above, are red, green, and blue. The secondaries or subtractive primaries are cyan, magenta, and yellow.

Looking at the color chart, you can easily see how the combination of any two points on a triangle will produce a third color, on the other triangle.

In additive, magenta and cyan and yellow cancel each other out (black).

Yellow (subtractive) and magenta (subtractive) gives subtractive red in crayons, but green with additive light.

This confused the early color workers, so the first color films were less than spectacular.

Additive color processes worked by projecting through colored filters, which “added” on the screen.

Subtractive was achieved by combining two or more color films, such as gluing them together (Technicolor #2). Superimposed as such, when you shine a light through the film, the desired color of the image is subtracted from the white light.

Subtractive images are in color to the eye, and don’t require color filter projection. This is superior in all respects to additive, and can run at the normal projection rate.

All printing we see (as on paper) is subtractive, using yellow, cyan, magenta inks along with black ink to improve the quality.

So du Hauron sent the many experimenters off to mix colors and it wasn’t until the relative perfection of panchromatic and double coated films (virtually concurrently) that color had a chance of being commercially viable.

Double coated film (duplitized) has an emulsion on both sides of the film. And while this principle was apparently first “suggested” in 1910 by a fellow named E. Lewy, the idea had to go through many minds before Arturo Hernandez-Mejia (?-1922) apparently succeeded, but also apparently didn’t manage to commercialize.

And while the following developments weren’t in the strictest sense “the first,” they were the first to commercialize key color film concepts.

In 1916, Eastman Kodak introduced their original Kodachrome process (not to be confused with the 16mm Kodachrome reversal process introduced in 1935). Originally intended for still photography, the film version seems to have looked good in spite of being a two-color process. This was the first commercial subtractive process.

According to one source, the two color separations (red/green) were shot with a special two-lens camera, shooting two frames at a time. This would eliminate the temporal parallax (fringing) of Kinemacolor, but, would introduce spatial parallax, because of the two lenses. There were ways this flaw was minimized though not eliminated.

One of the two images was printed on one side of the duplitized film, and the other on the other side. One side is toned red, the other green (or red-orange and blue-green). Toned, versus tinted.

I have no evidence of Kodachrome having theatrical exposure at this time. It disappeared for the duration of WWI and reappeared in MAR1922. But oddly, it was promoted specifically for use in close-up and "specialty" shots. That is, not recommended for 90% of normal cinematography! I suspect this was attributable to the parallax from the twin-lens camera. I can't quite figure where the other 90% of the shots were to come from.

The process was acquired ca. 1929 by another film pioneer, William Fox (1879-1952), who named the process Nature Color. He's also the "Fox" of 20th Century-Fox.

And now we come to William van Doren Kelley. As I have written about him in other chapters, I’ll keep it short by saying he patented a duplitized printing method in 1918 (filed in 1917). It was an odd patent using an odd color theory, but the basic principle was there.

Information is sketchy at this point, but by ca. DEC1919, Kelley apparently had switched fully to the subtractive printing process which was called Prizma.

From the written record, it seems Prizma worked well enough to make it the leading color print system from 1919 through about 1924.

Technicolor’s first subtractive process (process #2) involved cementing two, toned prints back-to-back at a very high cost, and with well-known problems. Technicolor didn’t improve until 1928 when they introduced their two-color, imbibtion printing process (#3), followed in 1932 by three-color (#4).

Prizma evolved to Kelley Color, which appears to have closed the doors in 1928. The Kelley patents were ultimately acquired by Cinecolor, which devolved to Color Corporation of America, and oblivion by 1954.

There are other color processes that I could have covered, but in this time period, these were the U.S. players. Further, other books and articles are out there for more thorough coverage.

But Kelley’s contribution to film history is shockingly under reported.

This is a color, uncorrected reference image.

this is
On the left, the red filtered separation, on the right, the green filtered separation.

this is
On the left, the red TINTED red separation, on the right, green TINTED green separation.
Tinted images cannot feature white but do have "black."

This is a a simulation of an ADDITIVE screen image
as would have been seen from Kinemacolor when using
strictly red and green filters. White not possible.

this is
On the left, the blue-green TONED red separation, on the right, red-orange TONED blue-green separation.
Toned images have white but no black and for subtractive
systems are toned the opposite color of the separation filter color.

This is a a simulation of a SUBTRACTIVE screen image
as would have been seen from Prizma when using
red-orange and blue-green filters and dyes.
Better filters and dyes, and the use of a black "key"
allowed for even better image quality.

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© 2007, Daniel L. Symmes
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