The fascinating world of color in film has a rich history that may surprise you. In the early days of cinema, color was introduced through intricate hand-painting techniques, as seen in rare prints of the iconic “A Trip to the Moon.” However, it would still be some time before the more widely recognized and removable technicolor process emerged, providing filmmakers with a more convenient route to full-color cinema. Yet, even before this breakthrough, color films were being explored.
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Determining the very first color film depends on the criteria one sets. Numerous experiments with color were conducted in short films, with one of the most renowned being “A Visit to the Seaside,” often credited as the earliest natural color film. However, it’s worth noting that this film runs for just eight minutes. When it comes to feature-length color films, the story takes a different turn.”
‘The Wizard of Oz’ Was Not the First Color Film
It’s a common misconception, but “The Wizard of Oz” was far from being the first color film. It’s easy to see why people might think so—the film’s use of color is truly sensational. Who can forget that iconic moment when Dorothy, portrayed by Judy Garland, opens the door to Oz? The sepia-toned world gives way to a breathtaking explosion of color in the fantastical realm of Oz. Over 80 years since its initial release, it’s understandable why people might overlook the fact that it wasn’t the first color film.
The true pioneer in the realm of color cinema, at least when it comes to short films, is the 1908 classic, “A Visit to the Seaside.” This groundbreaking achievement was made possible through the Kinemacolor process, which primarily employed alternating red and green filters. While it did introduce some color, early tests revealed its limitations, especially the absence of colors like blue. Subsequent processes addressed this issue by adding blue to the filters, but they still couldn’t replicate the full spectrum of colors. While these were remarkable achievements in their time, they couldn’t hold a candle to the later emergence of Technicolor, which revolutionized filmmaking by offering the complete range of colors we enjoy today.”
The First Feature Film in Color Is ‘The World, The Flesh and the Devil’
After the success of ‘A Visit to the Seaside’ in pioneering color filmmaking, the first full-length feature film to boast color is credited to ‘The World, The Flesh and the Devil’ in 1914. Using the same Kinemacolor process as its predecessor, this film, while not reaching the dazzling heights of the Technicolor era, etched its name in history as the first full-length color feature. ‘The World, The Flesh and the Devil’ runs for approximately 50 minutes. Unfortunately, this film has suffered the fate of many early movies—it’s considered a lost film, a tragic loss to cinema history. The plot revolved around a case of mistaken identity, as a woman devises a plan to switch babies between a wealthy family and a poor one. Beyond this basic premise, not much more is known about the film’s content.
But don’t despair. Even though ‘The World, The Flesh and The Devil’ is lost, the legacy of the Kinemacolor process lives on. ‘A Visit to the Seaside’ has survived, and you can easily find clips of this short film on YouTube (some of which are included at the bottom of this article). The film itself provides a fascinating glimpse into the early days of color filmmaking, showcasing the innovation and challenges of the era. While reds pop vibrantly on ladies’ outfits and umbrellas, sometimes resembling the Technicolor palette, other colors don’t quite achieve the same level of vibrancy. Nevertheless, it serves as an intriguing early look at the path that color cinema would ultimately take.
What Happened to ‘The World, The Flesh and the Devil’?
As mentioned, the first full-length color film has been lost to the ravages of time. In today’s world, where almost everything is available at our fingertips, it seems like an odd fate for a piece of cinema history. However, early cinema was a different beast altogether. There were no home video releases, no streaming services, no copies that would find their way into viewers’ hands shortly after a theatrical run. Movies were shown in theaters, and once that run ended, they essentially disappeared. A fortunate few were preserved by dedicated filmmakers, archivists, and collectors in their private collections. Sadly, the majority were lost to the sands of time. An astonishing 75% of early silent films are estimated to be lost, according to the Library of Congress. That’s a staggering number of artistic creations that we may never have the privilege of experiencing.
It’s worth noting that while there’s some hope that a print of an early film might still exist somewhere, most of them met their demise through destruction. During the silent film era, it was widely believed that once a film completed its theatrical run, it had served its purpose and was no longer of value. The prevailing notion was that nobody would want to watch these films again. Of course, we now know better, but that was the prevailing wisdom at the time. Films would finish their run, and then they would be discarded and often recycled. It’s important to remember that all of these films were stored in physical canisters, requiring space and incurring significant costs. Unlike today’s digital files, which take up minimal space, physical film reels took up considerable storage space and posed logistical challenges.
Interestingly, we may be entering another era of lost film and television content. Some streaming services, including Disney+, have announced plans to remove content from their platforms. For example, the Willow series, which exists solely on Disney+, could potentially disappear from the streaming landscape. This highlights the importance of preserving and archiving our digital media.
While ‘The World, The Flesh and The Devil’ may remain elusive to us in its full form, its impact on the world of cinema is enduring. It will forever be remembered as one of the pioneers, a crucial stepping stone toward the vibrant and colorful cinematic spectacles that have since become the norm. The advent of the Technicolor process opened doors to entirely new cinematic realms filled with dazzling hues, even though Technicolor itself has evolved and changed over the years. ‘The World, The Flesh and The Devil’ may be lost to us, but it deserves our respect for blazing a trail forward in the history of cinema.