How (and Why) Are Black and White Films Colorized?

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Anyone who spent time flipping channels and watching movies on cable during the 1980s and early 1990s probably remembers screening a few colorized films. The films, which had originally been shot in black-and-white, didn’t look quite the same as “real” color movies, but they seemed a bit more familiar than the old black-and-white prints. How did that colorization process work, though? Let’s take a look at the controversial technique.

Early film colorization dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. These processes were decidedly low-tech, though; artists would hand color copies of films before sending them to theaters.

The computerized colorization process with which we’re familiar didn’t come into play until former NASA engineer Wilson Markle invented it in 1970. Markle’s first project involved adding color to the original moon landing footage, but he gradually turned his eye to commercial projects and founded Colorization, Inc. in 1983.

Markle’s process required a lot of technology, but its underlying concept was simple and fairly elegant. His technicians would make a copy of a film and feed it into a computer that would determine the precise shade of gray of every object in a scene. The technicians then used a palette of over 4,000 shades of color to color the first frame in each scene. For each successive frame, technicians only had to recolor any pixels that had moved.

The process wasn’t completely digitized, though. The technicians had to figure out what color to assign to certain objects in each scene. As the Museum of Broadcast Communications notes, some objects would get their colors assigned via common sense (e.g. the ocean is usually blue), but others required technicians to engage in a bit of movie archaeology. Studio photographs of productions and romps through studio costume shops often helped determine what color a prop or costume really was. If those methods failed, technicians could fall back on coloring items at their own discretion. As you might expect, this process wasn’t cheap; it set producers back upwards of $3,000 per minute of film.

Why did studios and copyright holders go to all the trouble of colorizing films? It was an easy way to breathe new life into their back catalogs. Audiences didn’t want to watch old black-and-white films, but they would show up in droves for colorized versions. The Museum of Broadcast Communications cites a 1988 Variety report that estimated the cost of colorizing a feature film was somewhere around $300,000. The average revenue generated by re-releasing the films topped $500,000, though.

It’s easy to see why studios loved colorization. What business wouldn’t like a little trick where it could nearly double its investment just by dusting off an old product it had sitting on the shelf? Filmmakers weren’t as crazy about it, though. They had spent hundreds of hours painstakingly crafting their films, and they didn’t want anyone mucking around with their visuals.

Ted Turner was perhaps the most visible proponent of colorizing films throughout the 1980s. Turner International owned a gigantic library of old films, and Turner reasonably saw these old movies as a potential cash cow.

This position didn’t endear Turner to directors, though. In 1985, Turner announced that he was considering colorizing Citizen Kane. Orson Welles was in failing health by then, but just a few weeks before he died he asked a friend, “Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons.” Turner eventually opted not to touch Citizen Kane.

Other filmmakers had tougher sledding in battles over colorization. In 1988, Turner International licensed the French broadcast rights to John Huston’s 1950 film noir masterpiece The Asphalt Jungle to La Cinq. Huston had died the previous year, but his daughter, actress Anjelica, was horrified at the thought of her father’s dark heist film being colorized. She sued in France to stop the airing of the colorized version of the film.

Huston initially won a lower court ruling, but after a series of appeals her case ended up in front of the French Supreme Court. Finally, in 1991, the court ruled in favor of Huston by saying that creators and their heirs had a “moral right” to determine the ultimate fate of their works of art. (It’s worth noting that not all artists loathed the colorization process; Cary Grant was said to be a big fan of the 1985 re-release of his 1937 comedy Topper.)

By the early 90s, though, film colorization had pretty much burned out as a hot-button Hollywood issue. Audiences stopped clamoring for colorized versions of classics, and such an expensive process needed strong, steady demand to remain lucrative. Colorized versions of movies still pop up occasionally – Legend Films released a new colorized DVD of It’s a Wonderful Life in 2007 – but the raging debate from the 80s is all but dead.

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January 25, 2011 - 6:11am
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