Daniel L. Symmes


NOTE: This article is dynamic in that it will change over time as new or different information is found.
First published 23OCT06 - current revision 24NOV2006

The first “commercial” color motion picture process was Kinemacolor, which was developed in the UK by George Albert Smith (based on the original 1899 patent of Edward Raymond Turner). First publicly seen in London in 1909, Kinemacolor was a “side show” program filler that played in various cities of the world attracting little serious interest at first.

By 1914, Kinemacolor shorts (nature, travel and the like) were being shown at the Eden Musée, in NYC.

The motion picture industry was developing almost weekly, but was still more of a novelty than art to the general public.

Both color and sound were years off, but attempts at both fascinated, and film people worked hard to be the first to develop either to a state of “perfection.” Just the patent history alone for both aspects can fill books the size of the Manhattan phone book – both business and residential!

Kinemacolor had a serious drawback: it was an additive color system. That is, the color of the images wasn’t on the film; it was “added” by colored filters on the projector in the form of a color wheel that would rotate in sync (most of the time) with the film.

This did “work,” but relied on persistence of vision to create a mental color illusion.

And because the images were “sequential” (red, green, blue in the first version), the flicker and color bombardment were horrendous.

The other key flaw with sequential systems was that the subject would move (naturally in “movies”) between frames. So when the green image was replaced by the red image, the subject, having moved, would be out of color register on the screen. Commonly described as “fringing,” the effect was doubly notable because the fringes were red and green. The faster the subject moved, the greater the fringe.

This defect was noted by some as being like the so-called anaglyph method of stereoscopic photography that some “in the know” knew about. More on this later.

To reduce the fringing AND the color flicker, Kinemacolor was simplified by 1906 to two colors, red and green. This did not make a full color impression, but did reduce though not eliminate the headache-inducing color flicker.

William van Doren Kelley (1876-1934) was a significant figure in motion picture technology, yet little is known of him, and what is known of his developments is often inaccurate. Lastly, his dabbling in stereoscopic films has been recognized, but largely misunderstood.

The first appearance of Kelley seems to be in 1913 (he was 37) when he formed Panchromotion, Inc. in New York, with Charles Raleigh. It seems the goal of the company was the development of color motion pictures.

Kelley was so impressed with the idea of color movies, that he purchased several patents and commenced to develop his own additive system.

On 23DEC1917 his first commercial venture apparently was a short, OUR NAVY, which played to good notices at the 44th Street Theatre, in NYC. He had by then named his process, and one believes his company, Prizma.

His first experiments were, like others, with three to four colors. But in sequential systems, the flicker was still unacceptable.

Sometime early in 1918, he teamed with another color worker, Carroll H. Dunning and one Wilson Salisbury and together they explored a (reportedly) “line screen” additive method that was then a cutting edge concept. The result was called Kesdacolor, and a 50’ short, THE AMERICAN FLAG, was shown at the Rialto Theatre in NYC on 12SEP1918. The lab was located at 205 W. 40th St., NYC. The technical aspect of this process is still open to debate.

Nothing more was heard of Kesdacolor.

Later in 1918, Kelley apparently dropped Panchromotion/Kesda, and back under the Prizma name, and with Dunning as company manager, the Prizma sequential, additive process was reduced from three or four colors to two, just as Kinemacolor had done.

The colors were orange-red and blue-green. Handled right in the photography and lab, and with good filters on the projectors, such schemes produced acceptable coloring, though still had color flicker.

I need to stress that the difference in the color filters was not arbitrary. Kelley's Prizma achieved superior color to that produced by the more narrow "red/green" filters of Kinemacolor.

In FEB1917 Kelley filed a patent for a printing concept using duplitized film stock (having an emulsion on both sides of the film). However, his concept of color wasn’t right in the patent, and such a scheme wouldn’t have worked.

But Kelley was on to something.

Using duplitized stock allowed one of the two colors to be printed on one side, the other color on the reverse thus producing a subtractive color system (in which the color is visible to the eyes on the film, and is the basis of color film today).

Subtractive color has no color flicker.

The smart aspect is that he could not only provide an appropriate camera for local production, any Kinemacolor (or similar process) could also be printed in Prizma, eliminating the impractical mechanical color wheel, color flicker, and it would run at 16 fps versus 32.

Kelley announced in DEC1919 that forthcoming Prizma films would not require the filter wheel, and could therefore play in any theater.

Making good on his promise, a short, EVERYWHERE IS PRIZMA, opened in JAN1920 at New York’s Rivoli Theatre to decent reviews.

He also wasn't the first to employ duplitized film for producing subtractive prints, but apparently was the first to have commercial success.

Apparently a significant number of shorts were produced from 1920 through perhaps 1926 or maybe 1927.

In 1919, Kelley produced a series of color cartoons in Prizma—PINTO'S PRIZMA COMEDY REVUE . They were drawn and animated by Pinto (Vance) Colvig, later to become Bozo the Clown, and father of Vance Colvig, Jr., who succeed him as Bozo on Los Angeles TV in the late 50's.

Several major productions featured Prizma scenes, adding a wonderful surprise to most spectators.

Yet, as the camera systems used to produce two-color were largely still sequential and even though the two color separation images were superimposed on the print, they were SHOT sequentially. Prizma would still have color fringing, though apparently steps were taken to minimize the flaw.

Kinemacolor lab technician and film editor William T. Crespinel (1890-1987) moved from England to New York in DEC1912 to work for the American office (opened in 1910), which apparently closed by 1916.

He joined Prizma sometime ca. 1916, and claimed to have worked himself up to being the cameraman on OUR NAVY, and was apparently often the cameraman or at least color technician on most of the Prizma films.

In 1921 Kelley recommended Crespinel as cameraman for Prizma’s first feature, THE GLORIOUS ADVENTURE. It helped that Crespinel had previously edited two films for the director, James Stuart Blackton (1875-1941), a founder of the Vitagraph company which later was acquired by Warner Bros.

The film did well in England (where it was shot by the two Englanders), and did rather poorly in the U.S., probably since the subject matter was understood specifically by the British.

In SEP22, cameraman Harry K. Fairall demonstrated in Los Angeles the FIRST stereoscopic feature film, THE POWER OF LOVE.

This seemingly major event mysteriously got modest publicity, mostly in trade publications.

At about the same time, a radical variety of 3D projection was being produced in New York that apparently had advance publicity and eventually opened on 27DEC1922. Teleview is a story of its own.

Kelley was very likely aware of both developments.

His job was to make prints. In reviewing his patents, I found he mentioned the option of using his duplitized print process for anaglyph (3D) prints as early as early 1916, which means as he was working on the patent in late 1915, he knew he could produce such prints.


My feeling is Kelley heard of one or most likely both 3D developments, and he quickly recognized the need to be the first to get stereoscopic film on the NY screen.

As Crespinel was in Italy at least through the end of NOV22, Kelley had an unidentified cameraman take a modified camera over to New York (Prizma was at 43 Townele St., Jersey City, NJ at the time) and shoot some demo footage in and around the “city.”

A mystery surrounds the camera used for Kelley's 3D short, as the single lens Prizma camera could not be used for 3D at that time. Yet, Kelley said (OCT23) “The camera pulls down two picture areas at a time and exposes both at once. Each lens is provided with a prism so that one lens sees about 1 3/8” to the right of center, while the other sees the same distance to the left. The same camera that is used for color pictures was utilized by making a new mounting for the prisms and lenses interchangeable with the color lenses. Two exposures are made simultaneously.

This was "the man” talking. I have to accept what he said as being accurate. The problem is the Prizma camera was known for having ONE lens. 3D needs two. Kelley said “...two picture areas at a time and exposes both at once“, “Each lens…” and “…two exposures are made simultaneously.” This clearly means a single camera with two lenses, simultaneous exposure. The Prizma camera I am aware of had a single lens, and shot two SEQUENTIAL (successive) images.

The missing puzzle piece is what cheap, fast, cheap method of making a stereo camera out of a Prizma camera would be possible and practical in 1922.

This, is the missing link.

Now, if we jump to 24JUL1924, Kelley files a patent (with Dominick Tronolone), for a double frame, over and under stereo format. The patent has a few distinctive problems, perhaps for another time.

But the camera of that patent has two vertically displaced lenses. The patent shows the use of rhomboid prisms to establish interaxial. The prisms were designed to be axially rotated – so the entrance face of one prism is one half of a film frame higher or lower than the exit face.

This would fit the indication of Kelley, and is a good solution technically. But, late 1922 to a patent in the middle of 1924? One is supposed to file for a patent within one year of using it in commerce.

The question still is: what camera was used for MOVIES OF THE FUTURE?

I suggest Kelley had in 1922 a dual frame, over/under, two-color camera which might have been just experimental.

In DEC1922 Kelley announced to the “industry” that he had just installed new equipment in the Jersey City facility, costing $60,000, to more than double Prizma’s capacity.

Two more features in 1923 didn’t help Prizma, and the company began to decline.

I have not found the date Prizma ceased to exist, but Kelley partnered with Max Handschiegl in 1926 to form Kelley Color, Inc.

Handschiegl was a noted worker in dye transfer, or imbibtion printing, which Technicolor didn’t use until about two years later. So Kelley was on to this important technology.

Seems the process didn’t/couldn’t perform acceptably and when Handschiegl died 1MAY28, Kelley again changed the process, but before the end of the year, Kelley Color was shuttered.

It needs to be understood that while Kelley’s Prizma was seemingly short lived, it was THE first practical subtractive printing process, and was the only kid on the block for the first half of the roaring 20’s.

The upcoming Technicolor process #3 (two-color imbibtion) wasn't seen until 1928, which took over where Kelley left off.

The major drawback to Kelley’s Prizma was that it apparently was always produced with sequential color cameras. Color fringing, and the two-color palette were simply not good enough.

Patents for motion picture cameras with “simultaneous” color exposure can been seen in patent records going back to the earliest days of the 20th century. Yet, as late as 1921, for GLORIOUS, the Prizma camera was still shot two-color with the filter wheel (sequential).

There are over 25 U.S. patents in Kelley’s name or those working for Kelley or acquired by Kelley, and most are for color printing processes, including in the early 30’s ideas for three-color printing.

Late in 1926 Crespinel moved to LA and went to work for the Harriscolor company, shooting “four or five one-reelers.”

Early in 1927 Crespinel met Fairall which involved him in the formation of Multicolor, a bi-pack, two-color process - as an offshoot from the effort to produce POWER OF LOVE!

Sometime perhaps in 1928 Kelley moved from Jersey City to Los Angeles (though he was visiting LA a lot as of 1927). At least one observer of the time felt Kelley would have rivaled Technicolor had he moved to “the coast” by the mid-1920’s.

One source reports that upstart Harriscolor bought Kelley Color in (late) 1928. Joseph B. Harris, Jr. had come up with his own two-color ideas, specifically using a B&W “key” image in the two color method. But when he heard Kelley was sinking, a deal was apparently made.

Harris’ interest in Kelley’s Kelly Color patent portfolio is pretty clear, as his first patent at that time (MAR1929) was virtually identical to a Kelley (Kelley Color) patent.

Harry K. Fairall invented a camera movement (shuttle) for bi-pack, two-color photography, filing the patent in MAR1928, granted JAN1934, and assigned to Harriscolor. He also filed a patent for a dual film, color camera in DEC1929, granted MAY1934 and also assigned to Harriscolor. Might be Harriscolor was out of business by then.

Late in 1928 Howard Hughes purchased Multicolor, which brought investment capital, but management issues forced Crespinel to leave ca.1929.

Perhaps in 1931, Crespinel joined Alan McCormick and Alan M. Gundlefinger to form Cinecolor, also bi-pack, two-color, but with the purchase of the Prizma patents from Kelley put them way ahead in print technology.

In 1932, Hughes decided to close Multicolor and Cinecolor bought up a lot of unique, costly machinery for little money. What went around came around as Crespinel’s four key patents assigned to Multicolor/Hughes joined the new venture.

Crespinel went on to be president of Cinecolor and was technical advisor of many Cinecolor films. He eventually co-formed Kinevox, a pioneer in portable audio tape recording for films.

In the late 20’s and until his rather early death in 1934, Kelley continued to invent and patent color process techniques, usually sold to other would-be color companies.

Kelley’s son, William Wallace (W. Wallace) Kelley worked with/for his father in the late 20’s (even sharing a patent with his father), and went on to become a noted cinematographer, known especially for his process work. He was Jerry Lewis’s favorite cameraman, working together on eight films. He was cameraman for Paramount’s first 3D film SANGAREE (1953), his first job as first camera.

Frederic Eugene Ives, Jacob F. Leventhal, and John A. Norling were other characers crossing paths with the above gang of four.

I declare 1920 through maybe 1928 (before the market crash) to be one hell of an era.

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