Photographic History Collection: Early Cinema: Color


The Early Color Cinema Equipment Collection [COLL.PHOTOS.000039] includes equipment, media and ephemera related to color motion pictures from the birth of the cinema to the mid twentieth century. This collection is comprised of 5 motion picture cameras, 3 movie projectors, more than 34 pieces of editing and other apparatus, more than 60 pieces of early color film and two notebooks illustrating the Technicolor process.

Reproducing natural color on film had been an industry goal since the earliest days of motion picture production, but it took several decades to perfect a technology for making movies in color. Motion picture directors often toned or hand-tinted monochromatic film in the industry’s early days to add life and emotion to their productions. Though movie producers continued to use toning and tinting, these costly and inefficient processes could never produce the full range of color that movie cameras failed to record. Therefore, innovators increasingly focused on the use of color filters during capture and projection to reproduce color detail.

Danish-American inventor August Plahn built and patented a camera and projector that split motion picture images through three color lenses using 70mm film. When the film, with three images printed across its width, was projected through the same colored filters, movies’ natural color was restored. The collection includes forty five short lengths of processed film and documents related to Plahn’s work as well as one camera, three projector heads and over seventy-five pieces of apparatus used by the engineer.

While Plahn had little success marketing his inventions, the Boston-based Technicolor Corporation effectively marketed their similar technology to become the industry standard. The color cinema collection includes four Technicolor cameras as well as over twenty-five pieces of equipment related to the Technicolor process and a book of photographs illustrating Technicolor film processing in a train car.

The Society of Motion Picture Engineers, the industry’s leading trade group, donated examples of a number of other early color film technologies, including Prizma, Kelley-line screen, Krayn Screen, Naturalcolor, Multicolor and Morgana color processes.

This finding aid is one in a series documenting the PHC’s Early Cinema Collection [COLL.PHOTOS.000018]. The cinema-related objects cover the range of technological innovation and popular appeal that defined the motion picture industry during a period in which it became the premier form of mass communication in American life, roughly 1885-1930. See also finding aids for Early Sound Cinema [COLL.PHOTOS.000040], Early Cinema Equipment [COLL.PHOTOS.000037], Early Cinema Film and Ephemera [COLL.PHOTOS.000038] and the Gatewood Dunston Collection [COLL.PHOTOS.000021].

Date Made: 1885 - 1930

See more items in: Work and Industry: Photographic History, Popular Entertainment, Photography


Exhibition Location:

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: COLL.PHOTOS.000039

Object Name: Early Color CinemaEarly Color Cinema Collection


Record Id: nmah_1342312

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.