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Film colorization is any process that adds color to black and white, sepia or monochrome moving-picture images. It may be done as a special effect, or to modernize black and white films, or to restore color films. Examples date from the early 20th century, but colorization has become common with the advent of digital image processing.


The first film colorization methods were employed before effective color film processes was developed: each projected copy was individually colorized. The process was done by hand, sometimes using a stencil cut from a second print of the film. As late as the 1920s, hand coloring processes were used for individual shots in Greed (1924) andThe Phantom of the Opera (1925) (both utilizing the Handschiegl Color Process); and rarely, an entire feature-length movie such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1926) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1925).

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, black and white Betty Boop and Looney Tunes cartoons were redistributed in color—the colorization process was done by tracing the original black and white frames onto new animation cells, and then adding color to the new cells. With computer technology, studios were able to add color to black and white films by digitally tinting single objects in each frame of the film until it was fully colorized (the first authorized computer-colorizations of B&W cartoons were commissioned by Warner Bros. in 1990). The initial process was invented by Canadiansmarker Wilson Markle and Brian Hunt and was first used in 1970 to add color to monochrome footage of the moon from the Apollo mission.

Colorization typically begins with a monochrome film print. From the film print, a high quality videotape copy is made. Technicians, aided by a computer, identify the grey level of every object in every shot and note any movement of objects within shots. A computer adds color to each object, while keeping grey levels the same as in the monochrome original. This technique was patented in 1991.

Movies colorized using early techniques have softer contrast and fairly pale, flat, washed out color. However, the technology has improved since the 1980s, and several black and white TV shows and films have what some find to be completely lifelike colors.

A major difficulty with colorization has been its labor-intensity. For example, in order to colorize a still image an artist typically begins by dividing the image into regions, and then assign a color to each region. This approach, also known as the segmentation method, is time consuming. The process of dividing the picture into correct segments is painstaking. This problem occurs mainly since historically there have been no fully automatic algorithms to identify fuzzy or complex region boundaries, such as between a subject’s hair and face.

Colorization of moving images also requires tracking regions as movement occurs from one frame to the next (motion compensation). There are several companies which claim automatic region-tracking algorithms.

Legend Films describes their core technology as pattern recognition and background compositing which moves and morphs foreground and background masks from frame to frame. In the process, backgrounds are colorized separately in a single composite frame which functions as a visual database of a cut and includes all offset data on each camera movement. Once the foregrounds are colorized the background masks are applied frame to frame in a utility process.

Timebrush describes a process based on Neural Net technology which produces saturated and crisp colors with clear lines and no apparent spill-over. It is claimed that the process is cost effective and equally suitable for low-budget colorization, as well as for prime time broadcast quality or theatrical projection.

A team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalemmarker's Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering describe their method as an interactive process which does not require precise, manual, region detection, nor accurate tracking and is based on the simple premise that nearby pixels in space and time that have similar gray levels should also have similar colors. At the University of Minnesotamarker, a color propagation method was developed that uses geodesic distance.

Partial colorization

The earliest form of colorization introduced limited color into a black and white film using dyes, as a visual effect. The earliest Edison films, most notably the Anabelle Butterfly Dance series were also the earliest examples of colorization, done by painting aniline dyes onto the emulsion.

Around 1905, Pathé introduced Pathéchrome, a stencil process that involved cutting glass stencils for each frame with a pantograph.

In 1916, the Handschiegl Color Process was invented for Cecil B. DeMille's film Joan the Woman (1917). Another early example of the Handschiegl process can be found in Phantom of the Opera (1925), in which Lon Chaney's character can be seen wearing a bright-red cape while the rest of the scene remained monochrome. The scene was toned sepia, and then the cape was painted red, either by stencil or by matrix. Then, a sulfur solution was applied to everything but the dyed parts, turning the sepia into blue tone. The process was named after its inventor, Max Handschiegl. This effect, as well as a missing color sequence, were recreated in 1996 for a Photoplay Productions restoration by computer colorization (see below).

Partial colorization has also been utilized on footage shot in color to enhance commercials and broadcast television to further facilitate the director's artistic vision. As an example, Cerulean Fx provided partial colorization for Dave Matthews Band's music video The Space Between as well as Outkast's music videos "Bombs Over Baghdad" and "Roses."


A number of Britishmarker television shows which were made in color in the early 1970s were wiped for economic reasons, but in some cases black and white telerecordings were made for export to countries that did not yet have color television. A notable example is the BBC's 5-part Doctor Who story The Dæmons. Only one episode survived in color; the rest existed only as black and white film recordings. The only known color recording was a poor quality off-air recording of an abridged American broadcast. In the 1990s the BBC colorized the black and white copies by adding the color signal from the off-air recordings. The result was judged a success by both technicians and fans. In March 2008, it was announced that new colorization technology, which involves detecting color artifacts ("dot crawl") in high-resolution scans of black-and-white films, will be used to restore other Who episodes as well as shows like Steptoe and Son where some episodes only exist in black and white.

However, there are no plans to use colorization on BBC programmes originally made in black-and-white, such as the 1960s Who episodes.


Colorization is also sometimes used on historical stock footage in color movies. For instance, the film Thirteen Days uses colorized news footage from the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

The full-color feature film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), which already made heavy use of digitally-generated sets and objects, integrated black and white 1940s footage of Sir Laurence Olivier into scenes by colorizing him.

In his feature film, The Aviator (2005), Martin Scorsese seamlessly blended colorized stock footage of the Hell's Angels movie premiere with footage of the premiere's re-enactment. The colorization was designed to look like normal three-strip film but was then color corrected to match the two-strip look of the premiere's re-enactment. Also in The Aviator, Scorsese used colorized footage of Jane Russell from the original black and white film, The Outlaw and dog fight scenes from Hell's Angels.

Technical difficulties

Colorization still faces some difficulties in achieving a fully natural look, despite great improvements in technology compared to the process in the 1980s.

One difficulty arises from budgetary constraints, since colorization must have a reduced cost compared to the creation a new film. For example, it would be very expensive to add all color variances related to each object surface for each light source or light reflection within a given scene which, in a real color film, creates fine hues and saturation variances. Colorization adds variation mostly along the grayscale spectrum (black to gray to white), creating little differences from an object form, its shadow, its mildtones and its highlights, fitting such variations in a way which look appropriate with the ambience: like day, night, sunset, candle light, etc.

The colorization systems from the 80s had poor resolution, very poor color palettes, a lack of precision in elaboration of the color spectrum and poor color design.

From the late 80s to today's technology, film colorization tools had a much larger and more precise dynamic range of colors, being able to add a richer color palette to a given scene and a precise color spectrum to a given object. Particularly, it can be seen that a precise color spectrum is one of the key points to get a convincing colorization.

Scenes with fog, gas or smoke usually show some limitations in the colorization process, with difficulties tackling their transparent shades, or objects involved in those situations. Fog or haze situations tend to gradually fade elements, like a street faded from the first plane (close to camera) to a distant plane (far from camera), and the colors need to desaturate along the fade portions of a element to achieve a natural look, which is still a challenge even today.

3D estimation of elements in a scene may well be required to achieve a completely lifelike colorization. Situations with direct light, or sun light, usually appear more convincing when colorized because sunlight replicates the basic colorization principles that create a uniform color distribution.

Colorization "realism" varies greatly due to individual perception. Some later colorized films, like the last color version of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, receive positive reviews from viewers who said that the colorization looked fully natural, whilst others said it was interesting but still not fully convincing.

Another important condition that affects colorization realism is the condition of the source print, negative or film elements used for telecine or scanning. A vintage print will still look vintage even after colorization, although restoration to remove dirt and scratches can be done. Excessively contrasted images tend not to colorize well, nor prints with excessive grain. Faded B&W images will result in a color image that looks like a faded color print.

Original photography, lighting and make-up of original B&W films also influence the colorization's final look. Many B&W films were shot using a color filter to make objects appear brighter or darker in monochrome. Green filters were often used to achieve brighter trees and leaves, or brighter grass. As a result of this, the colorization process (which does not change the gray luminance values for grass or leaves) results in a colorized film with unnaturally bright grass, sometimes to the point of looking a little strange.

Actors make-up was also quite heavy in most B&W films, creating a brighter face. The strong make-up also tends to make skin appear rather homogeneous, and as result the skin colorization will also look too homogeneous.B&W films shot in almost natural conditions, with slight make-up and in good condition, are the best to get a fine and convincing look after colorization.

Disney's Zorro TV series is a good example of fine colorization from B&W material. It was filmed in close-to-natural conditions, with no exaggerated make-up or filters, and achieves a higher standard of colorization considering it was processed in the early 1990s (by American Film Technologies).

The Technicolor challenge is another interesting aspect of colorization. No film colorization has succeeded in looking like an original Technicolor film. That is because the Technicolor process was all prepared for with strong, saturated sets and costumes. Highly saturated objects require that they are not too bright or too dark. B&W films used a lot of bright costumes and sets that cannot hold much saturation. Make-up choices were used to give strong color shades to the skin in Technicolor films, while B&W films preferred a bright and soft look.

Also, the Technicolor process had a special particularity. It was able to change the grayscale values in order to make elements more saturated. For example, by day the sky was almost always strong blue in Technicolor, while in many B&W films it was almost pure white.

The dyes used in the special Technicolor printing process (dye transfer process) were deposited in different strips of B&W film (for each primary color, red, green and blue). After the emulsion was removed by a chemical process, a kind of "finger print effect" on the film gelatin was left. This special process was able to create saturated colors like no other color film can. That is why, allowing colorization, a monochrome-sourced sky which is too bright will never look a deep blue.

In theory, if a good condition B&W film, shot in conditions similar to Technicolor, receives a high quality colorization, and after that be submitted to the Technicolor process, it could look similar to an original Technicolor film. But it would alter the original relation of the grayscale values from one object to another within a scene, which is against a general colorization philosophy of not altering the luminance values. The use of colorization in special effects are not restricted by this philosophy.

Entertainment make-overs

In the mid-1980s, the process drew controversy when Topper became the first black and white film to be redistributed in color using the colorization process. Defenders of the process noted that it would allow black and white films to have new audiences of people who were not used to the format. Detractors complained (among other reasons) that the process was crude and claimed that even if it were refined, it would not take into account lighting compositions chosen for black and white photography which would not necessarily be as effective in color. Figures opposed to the process included Roger Ebert, Jimmy Stewart, John Huston, and Woody Allen.

Cary Grant was reportedly "very gung-ho with the outcome" of the colorization of Topper. Director Frank Capra met with Wilson Markle about colorizing the perennial holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe and Lady for a Day based on Grant's enthusiasm. Colorization, Inc.'s art director Brian Holmes screened ten minutes of colorized footage from It's a Wonderful Life to Capra, which led Capra to sign a contract with Colorization, Inc. However, the film was believed to be in the public domain at the time, and as a result Markle and Holmes responded by returning Capra's initial investment, eliminating his financial participation, and refusing outright to allow the director to exercise artistic control over the colorization of his films, leading Capra to join in the campaign against the process.

Media mogul Ted Turner was once an aggressive proponent of this process, by employing the San Diego firm American Film Technologies. When he told members of the press that he was considering colorizing Citizen Kane, his comments led to an immediate public outcry. Orson Welles had retained control over the film in his original contract, which would prevent any editing or other tampering with this film, without the express permission of Welles or his estate. Turner Pictures had never actually announced that this was an upcoming planned project. Turner later stated that this was a joke designed to needle colorization critics, and that he never had any intention of colorizing the film.

John Huston's opposition to the colorization of his work led to a landmark 3-year French legal case after his death, sparked by a colorized version of The Asphalt Jungle. His daughter Anjelica Huston successfully used French copyright law to set a binding precedent in 1991 that prevents the distribution or broadcasting in France of any colorized version of a film against the wishes of the original creator or their heirs.

Because of the high cost of the process, Turner Entertainment stopped colorizing titles. With the coming of DVD technology, the notion of colorization was once again gaining press. Because the DVD format was more versatile, studios could offer viewers the option to choose between both versions without switching discs, and thus, the release of colorized titles once again seemed profitable. Some companies re-released the older colorized versions from the 1980s—an example of this is the Laurel and Hardy box set being released in the UKmarker.

Other studios, such as Sony Entertainment, commissioned West Wing Studios to colorize several Three Stooges films for DVD release. The studio was given access to the original Columbia Studios props and sets to lend authenticity to the colorized versions. Some critics hailed the pristine colorization as "breathtaking", adding "for the first time, it looks as if the movies had actually been filmed in color". Details of the comedy team's wardrobe, hairstyles and surroundings could be appreciated. The Stooge DVDs included black and white and colorized versions.

Both film and television restoration and colorization is produced by the company Legend Films. Their patented automated process was used to colorize around 100 films between 2003 and 2009. Shirley Temple Black, Jane Russell, Terry Moore and Ray Harryhausen have worked with the company to colorize either their own films or their personal favorites. Two movies that Legend Films are noted for is the colorization of the exploitation film Reefer Madness, for which certain color schemes were used to create a psychedelic effect in its viewers, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Recently (2007), Legend Films colorized It's a Wonderful Life for Paramount Pictures (whose subsidiary, Republic Pictures, had regained control of the copyright in the 1990s) and Holiday Inn in 2008 for Universal Pictures.

In 2005, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the first season of Bewitched on DVD. Because the first season was produced in black and white, Sony released two versions of the set: one with the episodes as originally broadcast and a second with the episodes colorized. A year later, the second season of Bewitched and the first season of I Dream of Jeannie, another show owned by Sony, were released the same way. These releases were colorized by Dynacs Digital, which was bought over by Florida based, West Wing Studios, Inc. in 2003. Their production facility is located in Goa, Indiamarker.

Documentary make-overs

Colorization is sometimes used on documentary programmes. The Beatles Anthology TV show colorizes some footage of the band, most notably the performance of "All You Need Is Love" from the TV special Our World (1967). In the documentary this scene begins in its original black and white before dissolving into seemingly realistic, psychedelic color. The color design was based on color photographs taken at the same time as the special was shot.

The documentary series World War I in Color (2003) was broadcast on television and released on DVD in 2005. There had previously been full-color documentaries about World War II using genuine color footage, but since true color film was not practical for moving pictures at the time of World War I, the series consists of colorized contemporary footage (and photographs). Several documentaries on the Military Channel feature colorized war footage from the Second World War and the Korean War.

The 1960 Masters Tournamentmarker, originally broadcast in black and white and recorded on kinescope, was colorized for the documentary Jim Nantz Remembers. This was the first time a major sports event had been re-broadcast using colorization.

The Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants was colorized by ESPN for a sports broadcast special in December, 2008.


  1. Also known as film colourisation, film colourization, or film colorisation; see American and British English spelling differences.

Further reading

  • Anthony Slide, Nitrate Won't Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States (pg 9, August 1, 2000), ISBN 0-7864-0836-7

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