First movie First 3D movie First colour movie First 3D colour movie

First colour movie

1. The technology

2. The human subject

First colour movie

On 12 September 2012 the National Media Museum in Bradford announced that they had successfully reconstructed some short experimental colour footage made by Edward Raymond Turner (1873–1903), never previously shown, as at the time it had proved impossible to project. The Lee-Turner process involved shooting three successive frames through successive colour filters, with the frames being (in theory) projected in successive overlapping triplets (not as 123, 456, 789, but as 123, 234, 345 &c.), through rotating disc filters. Each frame having now been re-photographed, the successive colours have been digitally restored to each frame, and the sequences re-assembled. The restored footage is now on show in the Kodak Gallery at the National Science and Media Museum.

The short sequences (4000 frames in total) have been variously dated as 1902 or 1902–4, with one clip—a scene filmed in London's Knightsbridge, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, dated as 1901/2—arguably the earliest, but the scene with Turner's children playing with sunflowers is the most convincingly dated, as the summer of 1902. [Brown dates the two short sequences Parrot on Perch and Fish in Bowl as 1901.]

The process used was developed by Turner and his financial backer Frederick Marshall Lee, and their patent BP6202 Means for Taking and Exhibiting Cinematographic Pictures was taken out on 22 March 1899. The camera was made in October 1901 by Alfred Darling (1862–1931), who also built the (unsuccessful) projector in February 1902.

This footage was the subject of a BBC documentary, The Race for Colour, broadcast on 17 September 2012, on BBC One South East and Yorkshire.

[Lee & Turner timeline, Lee & Turner display, NMM blog, Race for Colour, The Telegraph]


Léon Gaumont (1864–1946) developed the Chronochrome 3-colour additive process—the first natural colour film—which was demonstrated to the Société Français de Photographie on 15 November 1912, in Paris; the patent had been registered on 11 February 1911 [Mannoni], and Gaumont's process had earlier been demonstrated at the Royal Institution in London on 10 May 1912, by Professor William Stirling of Manchester (3-colour cinematographs depicting butterflies and moths are the only subjects mentioned in The Times report the following day [1912-05-11, issue 39896, p4 col G]. The Gaumont Pathé Archives list twelve 3-colour films—over 82 minutes of footage—from 1912, of which colour stills are shown. Of these twelve, 20% of the 6 minute 30 second Deauville-Trouville. La plage et le front de la mer is shown above. 12 minutes of extracts from Gaumont trichromie films (Chronochromes) are included on DVD3 of the Kino boxed set Gaumont Treasures Vol. 2 1908–1916, and over 18 minutes are to be found on DVD2 of the Cineteca Bologna set Kinemacolor and Other Magic; the quality is stunning.

Chronochrome was first shown in public at the Coliseum in London on 16 January 1913. A successful 3-colour film, presumably in Chronochrome, was made of the wedding parade for Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia, daughter to Kaiser Wilhelm II, on 24 May 1913. The most notable Chronochrome film, however, was Victory Parade in Paris, made in 1919.

'Essai trichrome du Dr Doyen', from 1912, was made in Eugène-Louis Doyen's (1859–1916) own 3-colour additive process (using three black and white prints), but of the three colours the blue has decomposed, so that what survives is in two colours only. This film is currently available in the 2004 French DVD set Les Premiers pas du cinema. Doyen, with the support of Auguste Hulin, spent his final years working on his trichromatic process, with a view to filming his surgical procedures in colour. [Lefebvre]

The Glorious Technicolor documentary on disc 2 of the 2004 special edition DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood shows a few seconds of 3-colour Technicolor footage of Walt Disney and others, apparently from demonstration film made by Herbert Kalmus prior to Disney's 3-colour animation Flowers and Trees, released in July 1932. The latter short, though not live-action, was in fact the first commercially released 3-colour film. Disney was already in discussion with Technicolor, and assessing the 3-colour process, by the time the first black and white version of this cartoon was produced (from 3 March to 6 April 1932); after this version had been photographed the animation cells were washed on the reverse side, leaving the outline on the front, then repainted in colour on the back. The 8-minute short premiered on 15 July 1932 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It was a great success, and became the first Disney production to win an Oscar. [Layton and Pierce]



The delightful La Cucaracha, often claimed as the first live-action short film in 3-colour Technicolor, was far from the first, being in fact the eleventh such. Now recognised as the first is World's Fair, photographed at Chicago's Century of Progress world exposition during the last two weeks of October 1933 by Wilding Picture Productions, Inc., for Chrysler Motors. It wasn't in colour from start to finish, however, as the final four minutes consisted of black and white footage of cars racing round a track. The first filmed entirely in 3-colour Technicolor was the more widely-seen Mrs. Mortimer Jones Prepares "Dinner for Eight", filmed in two days in February 1934 for the Southern California Edison Company, and directed by Rodney Gilliam, with photography by Ray Rennahan. The ten-minute film depicted a housewife making dinner in a kitchen fitted out with electrical appliances. [Layton and Pierce]

Among feature films, the first live-action footage filmed in 3-colour Technicolor (described by Coe as "the first entirely successful colour process used in the cinema") was the finale of The House of Rothschild, filmed in December 1933; the film was directed by Alfred L. Werker (1896–1975), with cinematography by J. Peverell Marley. Internet versions are of decidedly poor quality. Although the final number of the MGM musical The Cat and the Fiddle was filmed the following month, it was released on 16 February 1934, whereas The House of Rothschild wasn't released until 14 March that year, so the former was the first live-action footage shown in 3-colour Technicolor. William K. Howard (1899–1954) was the director. The final scene is available on YouTube. [Layton and Pierce; Basten; IMDB]



First 2-colour feature film

With Our King and Queen Through India (aka Delhi Durbar, The Durbar at Delhi), 1911

This Kinemacolor documentary recorded the 12 December 1911 celebrations in India relating to the coronation of King George V. Released on 2 February 1912, the film was about 2½ hours long (the length varied according to the show). All that was known to survive, until very recently, is a single reel in the Russian state archive at Krasnogorsk; sequences from the original Kinemacolor version, depicting the review of troops at Badli-ki-Sarai that took place after the main ceremony, appeared in the TV series The British Empire in Colour. A further 5 minute sequence of the pageant procession was recently discovered, and can now be found in on DVD1 of the Cineteca Bologna set Kinemacolor and Other Magic. [IMDB, Karnad, McKernan, McKernan (2013), Luke McKernan (private communication), The Bioscope, Charles Urban, Motion Picture Pioneer]



First 3-colour feature film

Becky Sharp, 1935

The first feature filmed entirely in 3-strip Technicolor, Becky Sharp premiered on 28 June 1935 at Radio City Music Hall. The producers were Kenneth Macgowan and Rouben Mamoulian; it was directed by Rouben Mamoulian (1897–1987). [Basten; Layton and Pierce]  The 84-minute film was restored in 1992 by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and is available on DVD.



Earliest surviving colour videotape recording

Eisenhower WRC-TV, 1958


This is sample footage of the earliest surviving colour videotape recording, showing US President Eisenhower's inaugural address to WRC-TV on 22 May 1958. The first 15 minutes of the event were shot in black and white, then Robert Sarnoff, RCA Chairman, switches on the colour. For the remaining 15 minutes Robert Sarnoff, Dwight Eisenhower and David Sarnoff speak about the station and the colour television technology while themselves being recorded in colour. The whole program is available on Veoh. This sample shows the B&W portion where the president arrives, and the colour portion which Robert Sarnoff and Dwight Eisenhower speak.


Full references for printed works

Richard Abel, ed. (2005, 2010) Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. London and New York: Routledge

Fred E. Basten (2005) Glorious Technicolor. The Movies' Magic Rainbow

Simon Brown (2012) 'Technical Appendix', in Street (2012)

Brian Coe (1981) Colour Photography. The first hundred years 1840–1940. London

James Layton and David Pierce (2015) The Dawn of Technicolor 1915–1935. Rochester, NY: George Eastman House

Thierry Lefebvre (2005, 2010) 'Doyen, Eugène-Louis', in Abel

Laurent Mannoni (2005, 2010) 'Chronochrome Gaumont', in Abel

Luke McKernan (2013) Charles Urban. Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897–1925

Sarah Street (2012) Colour Films in Britain. The Negotiation of Innovation 1900–55. London: Palgrave Macmillan, for BFI

D.B. Thomas (1969) The First Colour Motion Pictures. London


© 2009–2023 Benjamin S. Beck

Return to Technology contents page


If you know of any earlier examples, please contact me.



Return to Firsts contents page

Return to website home page

This page was last revised on 2019-09-21.