If I asked you to tell me what you think of when you think of silent films, one characteristic you may mention is that silent films are black and white. While it is true that most silent films were shot using black and white film, by the time they were projected many had vibrant colors added to them.
From nearly the advent of cinema, films would be colored in a number of ways. Sometimes dyes would be painted by hand or stenciled onto the image, frame by frame. A simpler way to apply color was by tinting or toning. Tinted films were immersed in baths of acidic dye that bonded to the gelatin in the emulsion. In a tinted film, the emulsion remains black, but the tinting is visible in areas that would otherwise appear grey or white. In toned films, a chemical reaction replaces the dark silver in the image with colored metal compounds. For example, if Prussian blue was used, the dark parts of the image would have a blue tint. Sometimes tinting and toning are found together in the same film.
It’s always exciting when we come across a tinted or toned film in the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. When we do, we treat it the same way we would treat any color film and work to preserve the tinted and toned hues of the image. We recently worked on several films made with these color processes in the early 1930s.
Seeing Yosemite from a Saddle is a film that was tinted yellow and toned blue.
The resulting color is a lush blue-green that complements the nature scenes captured in Yosemite National Park.
A second reel of film containing three National Park travelogues can be seen to be tinted yellow, a color commonly used in daytime outdoor scenes.
Identified as Glacier National Park/Lassen National Park/Sequoia National Park, this reel of film provides tours of Glacier National Park in Montana and California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park and Sequoia National Park.
The history of color in cinema is long and fascinating. If you would like to learn more about film color, we recommend Barbara Flueckiger’s Timeline of Historical Film Colors.