Colorization of old film

Hello Everyone,

I’m watching a show about WWII that uses authentic black and white footage that has been colorized. It is simply amazing. How difficult is it to do this? I imagine it must take hours to do just a few seconds of footage. Is it done frame by frame, each piece of clothing, every hat, tree etc. Being too have color added to it? The amount of work required must be mind boggling.

I assume the original b/w film is digitized and stored in a computer, after which software can be used, for example, to add color to the sky for an entire sequence. I imagine the software used is a powerful version of Photoshop.

Colorization started being a thing about 20 or 25 years ago. It has progressed from applying plain tints to areas of the picture to some well-done nuanced shading.

Basically a film is digitized. In a scene, the manual step is to define the area and the colour in one frame; then the computer can usually follow the picture as it changes gradually and apply the colour to each frame in sequence by recognizing the same outlines even if they change (and then if the movement is fairly regular, it’s easy to follow a particular object to recognize and colour it). Consider that a lot of movies contain many scenes where the background is static or pans, where people are talking heads or just standing there. Colorizing moving objects may be a bit more problematic - but it’s amazing what software can do.

For some serious works, the colorizer does extensive research, looking for colour publicity photos, “behind the scenes” photos, or surviving props to determine the correct colouration. In other cases, they pull the colour choices out their ass.

No mention of Ted Turner?

His big money-making scheme, way back, was to buy rights to B/W movies (Casablanca, for instance) and do some ‘witchcraft’ to ‘colorize’ them. This was before digitization.

For use of color in movies, see ‘Wizard of Oz’ - the first to use color (Kansas is B/W; Oz is color).

Nope. Not even close. Wikipedia lists the earliest color feature as being released in 1902.

As for the “Wizard of Oz,” it wasn’t colorized. The part of the movie set in Oz was actually filmed in color. And this thread isn’t about movies filmed in color. It’s about the colorization of black-and-white film.

Fun fact: the state of kansas wasn’t colorized until 1972.

One technique of making color films in the silent days was to shoot them in black and white and then hand tint every frame. Melies’s “A Trip to the Moon” was colored in that manner. It was obviously very labor intensive and was usually only done for select scenes and not all prints.


Most of the world was black-and-white until the 1930’s.


Another was to simply print the film on tinted stick, which can be tremendously effective. I’ve seen the silent version of Peter pan at Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House, and the film uses subtle changes in tinting to alter the mood.

Of course, it was used in more blatant and obvious ways, too – printing the Volcano Eruption scenes in The Lost World on red-tinted stock, printing night scenes on blue-tinted stock (I’ve convinced that many of the scenes in Nosferatu were intended to be done this way, but have never seen a version that did so. as it now stands, there are scenes showing “Count Orlock” standing in what appears to be broad daylight, in the very film that established that vampires dissolve in sunlight!)

And for those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend checking out A Trip to the Moon (1902). It isn’t very long, and the coloring was done by hand-painting the film, and I thought it was a very enjoyable short film. It should be on Netflix (unless it has rotated off for some reason).

Thanks for bringing back an old laugh. That’s my absolute favorite C & H strip.

The colorized version on Netflix doesn’t have the title cards (or whatever they’re called – the black screens with words on them in silent pictures), FYI. But you can follow the story without them. Also, the colorized version has some weird, trippy electronic soundtrack.

I was impressed. It was fun to watch, especially what they thought the moon would be like back in 1902. It’s a one-reeler, so 10-15 minutes, tops.

Very good description of the process. The manual work is done primarily on a scene by scene basis. The early colorization processes were highly automated and not much attention was paid to detail, in addition limited coloring was used. Now the parameters for coloring faces, costumes, objects and background can be adjusted at any frame and carried through the succeeding frames. Unfortunately most black and white film was produced at too high a contrast to carry through the nuances of shading to get back to how the original would look if actually filmed in color. But the process has become good enough that it can be difficult to tell that the difference.

If all you are doing is fixing an image, the tech is pretty easy. You basically just pull the black and white image up in an editing program and then use a “brush” to paint over things in a special mode that changes the color but not the luminosity. Prior to digital, I assume you used light to do the same thing.

There’s some artistry in making skin tones and such look good–a bit of artistry that’s often missed–as it’s not all one hue. When they don’t to it, you get that weird effect where it looks like everyone is wearing thick foundation (makeup). I don’t know why it goes on in modern colorization at all.

Pretty sure that’s not true. Colorizing B&W films only became possible in the mid-80s with sufficient computer processing power. There’s not really any other way it can be done. Personally I think its a dying technology, because it never really worked that great (even today). And it has a very limited audience. Older viewers don’t really care to see old B&W films colorized. Channels like AMC and, ironically, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) rarely show colorized films. And even with the addition of color younger viewers still weren’t really that interested in the older films either. So it was lose-lose*!*

They tried it again recently on network TV, running some colorized episodes of I Love Lucy.

The result isn’t much better than during Ted Turner’s heyday. With computerization, the costs have got to be lower. OTOH, the demand isn’t great enough to make it all that worthwhile except for a few stunt conversions.

Even ordinary folk are doing colorizations and posting them on YouTube. But, again, the quality is about what you would expect.

(BTW, the colorized version of Plan 9 From Outer Space is doubly bad visually.)

If anyone knows a link to a video that makes people’s faces look “reasonably textured”, I’d appreciate it.

The problem is that items were chosen so they looked good in b&w, so the actual colors is just a guess.

Also, there are things that are very difficult. Red comes out looking black in B&W film. Red tint over black would still be black. To tint it properly, you’d need to remove all the black first, which would degrade the image. Turner’s colorization, despite its hype, was just a guess that was affected on what could be done.

The death knell of colorization was when they colorized Casablanca. IIRC, the units sold of the colorized version was in the mid-three figures.

The nadir of colorization has to be the 1954 film Suddenly starring Frank Sinatra, in which Ol’ Blue Eyes was turned into Ol’ Brown Eyes.