What is colorization? Back in the early days of filmmaking, color was something reserved for movies few and far between. But as the years went by, more and more movies began to be made in color. However, many filmmakers and critics in Hollywood expressed outrage at the idea of adding color to classic black-and-white movies. We’re going to look at how film colorization led to one of the most contentious periods in Hollywood history. But first let’s analyze the colorization process.

How Are Black and White Films Colorized?

Film colorization process explained

How do they colorize black and white movies? Well, film colorization is the process of adding color to a picture. The earliest colorization techniques were done by hand with watercolor, paint, dye, etc. By the turn of the 20th century, hand-colored photographs had become incredibly popular with the upper-class. Now that we’ve reviewed the basics behind colorization, let’s formally outline a colorization definition.


What is colorization?

Colorization is the process through which color is added to a black-and-white or sepia photograph. Colorization began as a hand-drawn technique but slowly developed into a digital technique too. Today, photos and videos are colorized by colorization artists and historians attempting to recreate classical moments.

As the years went by, colorization became an important part of aesthetic and archival photography. This next video explores how colorization has given us a new perspective on some classic moments in history.

How Do You Colorize a Black and White Film or Photo?  •  Obsessive Artists Colorize Old Photos by Vox

Colorization artist Jordan Lloyd makes an important point in saying, “These things are not supposed to be substitutes for original documents. They sit alongside the original, but they’re not a substitute, they’re a supplement.”

Colorized photos make history more enveloping but they’re not original. The distinction between edited and original artifacts remains a predominant argument in the field of aesthetics. 

Colorizing Black and White Film

Explaining archival colorization 

Perhaps the greatest strength of colorization lies in its impact on artifacts. As laymen, we sometimes feel disconnected from objects of the past; especially pictures that are scratched, stitched, or otherwise damaged. But through the process of restoration and colorization, pictures breathe with new life. 

Few artifacts are more impressively restored and colorized than the footage in director Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old. This next video looks at how Jackson and his team of colorization artists and historians renovated archival footage from World War I with stunning results.

Film Colorization Process  •  How Peter Jackson Brought Color to WWI

I think it’s fair to say that Jackson’s work speaks for itself. They Shall Not Grow Old is one of the best supplementary pieces to a primary source in recent visual history. The colorization in the film draws us into the humanity and heartbreak of WWI like nothing we’ve seen before. 

Ted Turner Colorized Movies

Colorization in Hollywood created war

In the 1970s, studios began toying with the idea of colorizing classic black-and-white films, such as Orson Welles’ best movie Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life. Why? Well, general audiences mostly loved the idea. The consensus was that black-and-white photography and cinematography were relics of the past. And that color would only increase the accessibility of old films. However, many in Hollywood disagreed.

It’s been rumored that on his deathbed, Orson Welles requested that Kane never be colorized. Welles lost that battle when Ted Turner commissioned a colorized cut of the film. The result was…unimpressive and eventually the project was scrapped. This video takes a look at a not-so-distant future where neural networks will be able to accurately colorize monochrome films. 

The Future of Film Colorization by The Solomon Society

The tech needed to autonomously colorize monochrome films is nearly here. The question remains: why do we need it? Well, we certainly don’t need it. Some argue that we shouldn’t even want it. Let’s review this conversation from Siskel & Ebert from 1986 on why colorized movies can be "vandalism."

Film Colorization Colorized Movies  •  Siskel & Ebert on Film Colorization

Many critics argue that black-and-white cinematography wasn’t exclusively a matter of technical limitation. Rather it is a portal to historical context and aesthetics. The process of colorizing classic monochrome films was characterized by Siskel and Ebert as economic and artistic vandalism.

Colorized Movies

The death of cinematic colorization

Advocates of colorization were dealt a major blow in 1991. Anjelica Huston successfully defended her father John Huston’s film The Asphalt Jungle from being colorized by citing French copyright law. When combined with major institutional pushback for Ted Turner’s attempt at colorizing Citizen Kane, this led to the slow death of monochromatic colorization.

But today, it’s never been easier to colorize films. In the near-future, artificial intelligence will be able to colorize classic films in the public domain. Then release them on the internet, completely autonomously...which is just sad. 

Films are forms of artistic expression. Classic films should be protected and restored by those who love and admire the artists who produced them. Here's how Criterion is doing such great work in restoring classic films.

Film Colorization Process  •  How Criterion Collection Brings Movies Back to Life

The silver lining of colorization is that nobody is forcing us to consume it. There are still great technicians, like those at Criterion, who are working to preserve our natural film history. And if you like the colorized version, that’s fine too! But please, let’s not erase the history of our beloved medium.


What is Technicolor?

Technicolor is one area of colorization we didn’t talk about in this article. But don’t worry, we have a whole post where we discuss the technicolor process and history with examples from The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, and more! Don’t miss our breakdown of Hollywood’s most revolutionary film colorization technique.

Up Next: Technicolor Definition & History →
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