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Cinematography by Michael Brooke
Introduction Pioneers The Silent Era Formats Aspect Ratios Colour
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Still from Black Narcissus

Jack Cardiff's Oscar-
winning cinematography
for 'Black Narcissus' (1947)

Colour films weren't widely exhibited until the 1930s, but colour processes date back to the early 20th century. Early film pioneer G.A.Smith devoted much of the end of his filmmaking career to experimenting with the Kinemacolor process, which involved black and white film being run at twice the normal speed, rotating filters ensuring that each alternate frame would be shot through a red or green filter. A similar process would be applied at the time of projection, creating a primitive but nonetheless quite effective colour system. Smith's Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906) is a good example of a film that would have been meaningless in black and white.

Other methods of adding colour include tinting, as seen in Percy Stow's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest (1908), and the far more elaborate stencilling process introduced by the French Pathe company but applied to some British films such as Oliver Pike's Glimpses of Bird Life (1910).

An even older pioneer than Smith, William Friese-Greene, also devoted much time to colour experiments, which were taken up by his son Claude after his father's death. After shooting some experimental shorts, Claude Friese-Greene made the ambitious round-Britain travelogue, The Open Road (1924-25) primarily to showcase his colour process, though his attempts at selling it to Hollywood proved fruitless, as the superior two-strip Technicolor system was already being used there. He spent the rest of his life working as a cinematographer on mostly minor British films, though the subsequent rediscovery and restoration of The Open Road has led to him being recognised as one of the key pioneers of British colour cinematography.

Technicolor would consolidate its dominant position in colour cinematography over the 1930s and 1940s, and by 1937 had opened up a British arm. The first British Technicolor feature, Wings of the Morning (1937), shot by the American Ray Pennahan. Alexander Korda's London Films quickly adopted the process, with The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939), both shot by Georges Périnal, offering the most impressive pre-war Technicolor photography in British features.

Technicolor would be by far the best known and most widely used colour process of this era, but other processes were also occasionally seen. Prizma Colour, Raycol and Ufacolor were flirted with before being dropped for technical or economic reasons, though Gaspar Colour and Dufaycolor made more impact. The former was used extensively in advertising, with Len Lye's lively abstract animations being its best showcase, while the latter was used to shoot the coronation of King George VI and one feature (Sons of the Sea, 1939), though the process needed so much light during projection that the resulting image was too dull to be competitive.

In the late 1930s, Technicolor also offered a training programme for British cameramen, and the first beneficiary was Jack Cardiff, who would become the outstanding British Technicolor cinematographer of the 1940s. Talent-spotted by director Michael Powell when lighting second unit shots on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Cardiff was promoted to lead cinematographer on A Matter of Life and Death (1946), for which he shot the black-and-white scenes in monochrome (i.e. Technicolor but without the colour being added) to achieve an effect he described as "sort of pearly". He won a well-deserved Oscar for Black Narcissus (1947), and would almost certainly have won another for The Red Shoes (1948) had Hollywood not had cold feet about recognising the same foreign cameraman twice in consecutive years.

But Technicolor, for all its visual qualities, had severe practical drawbacks: it was expensive, and the cameras (requiring three strips of black-and-white film, the colours being added at the processing stage) were correspondingly huge. By the 1950s, Kodak's single-strip Eastman Colour process (where the colour dyes were incorporated into the negative) was rapidly finding favour, despite the opposition of many cinematographers who found it harder to control specific colour effects. Eastman Colour was also more prone to fading, which has created significant problems for film preservation - not least because the dyes fade at different rates, with the film initially developing a strong pink or magenta cast. However, this was not a concern for film companies after a quick return on a lower investment, and the process rapidly took over from Technicolor as the British cinema's main colour process.

By the late 1960s, virtually all commercial British films were shot in colour, and by 1980 a film like The Elephant Man (1980) seemed like the relic of a bygone age, for all the undeniable magnificence of Freddie Francis's black-and-white cinematography. That said, a few black-and-white films are still made outside the art-movie sector, such as John Boorman's The General (1998) and Anton Corbijn's Control (2007), but the former was a major box-office flop and the latter arguably a special case, since its subject (the band Joy Division) had been almost invariably photographed in black and white during its short lifespan.