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Monday, September 30, 2013

Early Colour Film

If you never knew colour film existed this long ago, there's a reason.

The earliest movie film stock was made of cellulose nitrate. There were not many other materials that were feasible for film making. However cellulose nitrate had a couple horrifying drawbacks.
First, it was extremely volatile. If not stored under carefully controlled conditions, the film would deteriorate rapidly

Fact: 90% of all film before the late '40s is lost forever due to deterioration of their nitrate film .
If the film lamp was too hot, the entire reel would instantly burst into flames or even explode. And the fire/heat would ignite other film reels in the projection booth. This caused several theater fires.

So the early theater industry came up with a horrifying solution. Should the film catch fire (as sometimes did), some theaters had an automatic shut down mechanisms that would not only close the projector portholes, but also in some cases actually locked the projection booth door, incinerating the projectionist alive or suffocating him (it was usually men who were projectionists. Female projectionists were very rare) using them as a sacrifice to save the theater. Until safety film became standard in the 1950s, it was truly a dangerous job and only for the highly skilled.  

I volunteered as a projectionist at an old theater (and luckily, this was modern safety film I worked with) and I remember seeing the old portholes and the shut down doors above them. It truly is creepy. And those booths were HOT!


  1. Oh my. This is scary. Yes. Old film reels really had the tendency to deteriorate over time. Exposure to sunlight can destroy the frames, and over time, damp and varying temperature also deteriorates the picture quality and the film reel material itself. This is the reason film archives keep them in media vaults because they’re damp and light free.
    Ruby Badcoe

  2. I'd noticed there were some artifacts on the faster-moving objects suggesting that the colour was generated using frames with alternating blue and red filters. I'd also guessed they were using a two rather than three colour process.

    Then I switched back to the video and noticed the end credit to "Claude Friese-Greene the inventor of the Friese-Greene Colour Process".

    Bingo! Wikipedia confirms my guesses were right; it was an alternating two-colour process.


    So, essentially they were using black and white film to generate colour.

    As for those old nitrate films, they're scary indeed. They were dangerous when new, and age-related decomposition makes them even more dangerous and unstable.

    This video of a reel of nitrate film being burned is particularly interesting:-


    (Check out how fiercely it starts burning from around 5:14 onwards...!)


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