Photographic colour entered the cinema at approximately the same time as sound, although, as with sound, various colour effects had been used in films since the invention of the medium. Georges Méliès, for example, employed 21 women at his Montreuil studio to hand-colour his films frame by frame, but hand-colouring was not cost-effective unless films were very short. In the mid-1900s, as films began to approach one reel in length and more prints of each film were sold, mechanized stenciling processes were introduced. In Pathé’s Pathécolor system, for example, a stencil was cut for each colour desired (up to six) and aligned with the print; colour was then applied through the stencil frame by frame at high speeds. With the advent of the feature and the conversion of the industry to mass production during the 1910s, frame-by-frame stenciling was replaced by mechanized tinting and toning. Tinting coloured all the light areas of a picture and was achieved by immersing a black-and-white print in dye or by using coloured film base for printing. The toning process involved chemically treating film emulsion to colour the dark areas of the print. Each process produced monochrome images, the colour of which was usually chosen to correspond to the mood or setting of the scene. Occasionally, the two processes were combined to produce elaborate two-colour effects. By the early 1920s, nearly all American features included at least one coloured sequence; but after 1927, when it was discovered that tinting or toning film stock interfered with the transmission of optical sound, both practices were temporarily abandoned, leaving the market open to new systems of colour photography.
Photographic colour can be produced in motion pictures by using either an additive process or asubtractive one. The first systems to be developed and used were all additive ones, such as Charles Urban’s Kinemacolor (c. 1906) and Gaumont’s Chronochrome (c. 1912). They achieved varying degrees of popularity, but none was entirely successful, largely because all additive systems involve the use of both special cameras and projectors, which ultimately makes them too complicated and costly for widespread industrial use.
One of the first successful subtractive processes was a two-colour one introduced by Herbert Kalmus’s Technicolor Corporation in 1922. It used a special camera and a complex procedure to produce two separate positive prints that were then cemented together into a single print. The final print needed careful handling but could be projected by means of ordinary equipment. This “cemented positive” process was used successfully in such features as Toll of the Sea (1922) and Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926). In 1928 Technicolor introduced an improved process in which two gelatin positives were used as relief matrices to “print” colour onto a single strip of film. This printing process, known as imbibition, or dye-transfer, made it possible to mass-produce sturdy, high-quality prints. Its introduction resulted in a significant rise in Technicolor production between 1929 and 1932. Colour reproduction in the two-colour Technicolor process was good, but, because only two of the three primary colours were used, it was still not completely lifelike. Its popularity began to decline sharply in 1932, and Technicolor replaced it with a three-colour system that employed the same basic principles but included all three primary colours.
For the next 25 years almost every colour film made was produced by using Technicolor’s three-colour system. Although the quality of the system was excellent, there were drawbacks. The bulk of the camera made location shooting difficult. Furthermore, Technicolor’s virtual monopoly gave it indirect control of the production companies, which were required to rent—at high rates—equipment, crew, consultants, and laboratory services from Technicolor every time they used the system. In the midst of the Depression, therefore, conversion to colour was slow and never really complete. After three-colour Technicolor was used successfully in Disney’s cartoon short The Three Little Pigs (1933), the live-action short La Cucaracha (1934), and Rouben Mamoulian’s live-action feature Becky Sharp (1935), it gradually worked its way into mainstream feature production (The Garden of Allah, 1936; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937; The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938; The Wizard of Oz, 1939; Gone with the Wind, 1939), although it remained strongly associated with fantasy and spectacle.