Hue & Cry : In spite of protests, editing firms continue to inject color, frame by frame, into black-and-white films

To Woody Allen, colorization of old movies is “totally venal.” Director John Huston cursed a blue streak about the practice. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg condemned it. Lauren Bacall said it was obscene.

But colorization is here to stay. Efforts to stop it, including star-studded congressional hearings last summer, ended with lawmakers backing a U.S. Copyright Office ruling that colorized movies are “derivative works” and can be copyrighted. Classics to be released this year include “Jail House Rock,” “Woman of the Year,” “Boys Town” and “Treasure Island.”

Which leaves the question: How do they do it, anyway? How is color added to a strip of black-and-white film that contains 130,000 or more individual frames?

“First of all, it’s not done to the film,” said Charles Powell, executive vice president of Color Systems Technology in Marina del Rey, which has colorized such classics as “Miracle on 34th Street” and “The Maltese Falcon.”


“This is a videotape process. When we’re done, the black-and-white movie still exists, and we’ve made a color version on videotape.”

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The work begins with duplication of the black-and-white movie onto 1-inch videotape. Colorization companies proudly point out that often they restore damaged film, thus helping to preserve classic movies, before making the videotape copy.

The coloring then is done frame by frame, Powell said, with a computer process performing much of the work. At present, four companies colorize old movies: Color Systems Technology, American Film Technology in San Diego and two companies in Toronto. Each uses a different computer process and declines to be specific about the finer points of the technology, citing patents either acquired or pending.


All, however, make use of the fact that black-and-white movies are not black or white, but various shades of gray. The gradations are called “luminance.” A computer prepares the film for colorization by assigning values to these shades, creating a kind of paint-by-numbers kit.

At Color Systems Technology, the next process is called “color adding” and uses a networked system of machines--Macintoshes and other small computers, sophisticated video recorders and mainframe computers. The machines start with a “key shot,” often the first shot in a scene, that has been colored by graphic artists. The computers then add color to subsequent frames by tracking movement as it takes place.

A technician called a colorist oversees the process, correcting the computer system’s mistakes. In general, these are of two types.

The computers track movement by drawing a straight line between the points of origin and arrival. Thus, if a football in flight is being colored, the ball will appear to travel in a horizontal line rather than an arc. The colorist must provide points along the ball’s arc for the computer to follow, like someone supplying numbers for a child’s connect-the-dots game.

The second frequent problem comes from colors bleeding into one another, especially when flesh tones are present. If two men shake hands and behind them is a red wall, the hands will take on magenta hues.

The colorist corrects this with a technique called masking. Masking is possible because colors are laid down on the videotape in five layers or planes, like tracings done on acetate. Using a computer mouse, the colorist draws a dark block or mask over the hands. He then calls up only the videotape’s red plane and, mask in place, re-records it, thus killing the color that bled through.

The content of a scene will dictate the amount of time needed to color it. Two people sitting and talking is easy. Two people waltzing is harder. Barroom brawls, and action pictures in general, are a colorist’s nightmare.

“Shirley Temple movies give you ulcers too,” one colorist said. “She’s tiny and very pale, and just when you think you’ve got her colored right, she gets up and starts dancing.”


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As workers gain experience and advances are made in equipment, many of the problems common in early colorization have disappeared. These included blurry movement and unnatural colors in skin and eyes. However, if a black-and-white movie was poorly lit when it was made, it will reproduce poorly in color.

Even with computers doing much of the work, colorizing is a time-consuming process. At Color Systems Technology, with $40 million in equipment and 18 coloring bays operating around the clock, only 15 minutes of videotape, the equivalent of 21,600 film frames, are colored a day.

“Technically the quality is fine, but speed is our problem,” Powell said. The company hopes to increase productivity by adding equipment that more quickly records onto tape the thousands of corrections made by a colorist.

American Film Technology has 350 employees, compared to 230 at Color Systems Technology, but the pace of colorization also is slow. The company uses state-of-the-art, all-digital equipment and has colored “Casablanca,” “King Kong” and 32 other movies. Executive Vice President Barry Sandrew, who invented the firm’s Color Imaging process, said the year-old company takes four to seven days to color a movie.

At both companies, a good deal of preparation must be done before the colorists begin their work.

“It takes four to six weeks to pre-produce a movie,” Sandrew said. “We have nine design teams that do all the planning.”

At Color Systems Technology, Powell said the pre-production work involves three departments: research, continuity and art.


Researchers might have to find out the color of eyes of an actor from the black-and-white era, or the color of emblems on Civil War uniforms.

“We don’t try to match the exact color somebody wore on the day a scene was shot, but we make sure it’s believable,” Powell said. “Bette Davis wore certain colors because of her complexion. What did she wear?”

The continuity department numbers and describes the contents of the scenes. Movies are colorized like they are made--out of sequence. Close-ups of an actor or scenes at a particular location will be done together, and the results assembled later.

The art department chooses the colors and produces 200 or so key shots, which serve as blueprints for the computers and the colorists. Members of the art department at Color Systems Technology said they must consider several factors in assigning colors. With Bette Davis’ clothes, for example, there will be a range of acceptable colors. The artists pick one that fits the mood of the movie and will not conflict with the colors to be worn by another actor.

Mood dictates other choices. An awning outside a Manhattan nightclub might be colored red in a musical comedy, brown in a drama.

“Depth perception is very important,” Powell said. “Something in the background should not be a dark color, unless you want to draw attention to it and make it seem ominous. The trick is to add color to a frame without making it Mickey Mouse or cartoony.”

The company has a “still storage library,” a collection of colorized frames that can be used as samples on future projects. After a Western barroom scene has been researched and colored, for example, a still from it goes into the library.

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Both Color Systems Technology and American Film Technology have contracts to color movies for Turner Entertainment Co., owner of the vast MGM film library and the major force behind colorization. Last month, Turner Entertainment released a colorized “King Kong” for home video. It will eventually come to television, according to Turner Entertainment spokeswoman Alison Hill.

The company makes money by showing the movies on its own stations, by marketing syndication packages to other stations and by selling home videocassettes, Hill said. Revenue from television outstrips that from videocassettes, she said, although the growing popularity of home video may one day alter the balance.

Both Color Systems Technology and American Film Technology have acquired libraries of black-and-white movies and television shows for colorization. Some of the titles include “David and Lisa,” “A Taste of Honey” and 52 half-hour Abbott and Costello TV shows.

Turner Entertainment says it is making money from colorization. However, Sandrew said American Film Technology just concluded its first profitable quarter, and Powell said Color Systems Technology still operates at a small loss after more than three years of production.

But there is plenty of opportunity to get rid of the red ink. A vast number of black-and-white movies and television shows are available for colorizing.

“Maybe someday we’ll run out, but it’s not going to happen in our lifetimes,” Powell said.

No wonder Woody Allen always looks so unhappy.