World's first colour film footage viewed for first time


"It's very significant indeed, it's the world's first natural colour film and the fact that it's a Brit who invented it is fantastic."

Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film at the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archives, said the 1902 footage was of international significance for the cinema world.

"There's something about watching film in colour that deceives you into believing it's more real, so to see this from 110 years ago adds something very substantial.

"It's really quite beautiful."

The films were made by Edward Raymond Turner from London who patented his colour process on 22 March, 1899. Some of the footage features Mr Turner's children in the garden of their home in Hounslow.

'Strange format'

Miss Dixon said the footage itself had been known about for some time, but the ability to now watch it was groundbreaking.

She said: "This is the earliest natural colour film in the world, not just the UK.

"There were colour films but they are not what we call 'natural colour' - producers were painting on the surface of the film from a very early time.

"This is definitely the first example of trying to get colour photographically or naturally, so it's very significant."

The reason it has taken so long to actually view it is the film's "strange" format.

Image caption,
Brian Pritchard and David Cleveland built a special gate through which to project the film

Miss Dixon said: "It's 38 and a bit millimetres, which is larger than the standard 35mm, and it wouldn't work on any of the 35mm machines.

"You project it through spinning wheels, that's what creates the colour effect using a successive frame system."

It was so unusual that a specially-made gate, a mechanical device in projectors, had to be built, Miss Dixon added.

It was made by Brian Pritchard and David Cleveland, experts in early cinema apparatus.

"Because it was a non-standard size we couldn't just take it somewhere and have it printed, so we decided to make our own gate," Mr Pritchard said.

"The idea was that we would move the frame by hand one at a time and just copy each frame separately."

Mr Cleveland added that the process had been very difficult as it had to be held in the right position so that the frames matched each time.

"It took a long while, there was a lot of leaning over," he said.

'Myth busting'

Miss Dixon described viewing the footage featuring its natural colour as being of historical importance.

She said: "I think this is a key step in busting the myth of the old black and white films - 80% of films between the 1890s and 1920s were coloured deliberately.

"It's the beginning of sound that does away with colour film for a little while and then it comes back later with the rise of Technicolor."

Britain was at the forefront of pioneering the invention of cinema at the time, she added.

Image caption,
Britons knew colour film would be very desirable, the National Media Museum said

Charles Urban, an American film entrepreneur, and a man from Brighton called George Albert Smith developed a similar system, Kinemacolour, using two colours.

Miss Dixon said: "That nearly made it into production and it couldn't be made to work practically for complicated reasons, and they got involved in a patent dispute that went through the courts.

"At the end of the 1900s the French were big news and the Americans were coming in fast behind, but the Brits were being driven by the passion for invention.

"They knew colour film was going to be very desirable and there was a big commercial incentive."

Turner died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 29 in 1903.

The film has been restored by the National Media Museum and is being shown to audiences for the first time.

Michael Harvey, from the museum, said: "I embarked on the process thinking it's got a very good likelihood of being successful, but there's always in the back of your mind the thought that maybe it would not [work].

"Then we saw it on screen. We looked at it and we were absolutely astonished with it. We never expected it to be so good.

"Knowing all about colour reproduction, and all the pitfalls along the way, to do something as good as that coming from 1901, 1902 was really totally unexpected. It was very exciting."

He added: "The importance is that fact that we've established the first colour moving images.

"As far as we know, and I've done as much research as I can, there is nothing that exists before this in terms of colour moving images."

The Race for Colour is broadcast on Monday, 17 September 2012 on BBC One South East and Yorkshire, at 19:30 and nationwide for seven days thereafter on the iPlayer.

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