Colorization is a computerized process that adds color to a black?and?white movie or TV program. The process was invented by Wilson Markle and was first used in 1970 to add color to monochrome footage of the moon from the Apollo mission. In 1983, Markle founded Colorization, Inc. The word "colorization" soon became a generic name for the adding of color to black?and?white footage.

The process of colorizing a movie begins with a monochrome film print, preferably a new print struck from the original negative. From the film print, a high?quality videotape copy is made. Technicians, aided by a computer, determine the gray level of every object in every shot and note any movement of objects within shots. A computer adds color to each object, while keeping gray levels the same as in the monochrome original. Which color to use for which object is determined through common sense (green for grass, blue for the ocean) or by investigation. For example, movie studio photographs or costume vaults may provide guidance as to what color a hat should be. In cases where no such guidance is available, colorists pick their own colors, presumably with some aesthetic sensibility.

Colorization is an expensive and time?consuming process. Popular Mechanics reported in 1987 that it cost more than $3,000 per minute of running time to colorize a movie. The economic justification for such an expenditure lay in audience demand. Variety estimated in 1988 that while it cost $300,000 to colorize an old movie, the revenue generated by the release of the colorized version was $500,000. This revenue came mostly from television syndication, although videocassette release was also important in some cases. Another important consideration was the opportunity to claim new copyrights on old films, thus extending the film's potential life as a profit center for the owner.

Colorization became extremely controversial in the late 1980s, especially with regard to "classic" monochrome films such as Citizen Kane (which ultimately was not colorized), Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and It's a Wonderful Life. With some exceptions, the dispute pitted film directors and critics (who opposed colorization) against copyright owners (who favored it). Among its opponents, TV critic Eric Mink viewed colorization as a "bastardization" of film. The Writers Guild of America West called it "cultural vandalism."

The case against colorization is most often couched in moral terms. According to this reasoning, colorization violates the moral right of the film director to create a work of art that has a final, permanent form and that will not be subject to alteration years later by unauthorized parties. Moral rights of artists, recognized in other countries, have no standing in United States law, which gives preference to the property rights of copyright holders. In film and television, the copyright holder is almost always a large film studio or production company, which employs the director as an author?for?hire, so to speak. To an extent, the battle over colorization was an attempt by directors and other creative artists to prevent further erosion of their power to control their own work.

This position was often framed, somewhat spuriously, in more high?minded terms. For example, it was argued that colorization is an affront to film history. According to this line of thinking, the color version of a film drives the original monochrome version out of circulation, with the result that some viewers may not understand that Casablanca was shot in black and white. Similarly, as Stuart Klawans notes, the viewer might erroneously conclude that a color film such as Gone with the Wind was originally shot in monochrome and later colorized. If colorization can deceive to this extent, it must have a fairly convincing appearance, and, indeed, image quality and craftsmanship were probably the least?often-heard objections to colorizing.

As more movie "classics" became involved, the reaction against colorization took on the flavor of a moral panic. With colorization frequently the object of ridicule, the case in favor of the process became largely a defensive one: colorization does not harm the black?and?white original, and in fact encourages restoration of the original film and the striking of new prints; colorization is no more meddlesome than other, generally accepted practices in the televising of movies, such as interruption for commercials, editing for TV, cropping, time compression, and panning and scanning (not to mention the reduction in image size and the possibility of watching a color movie on a monochrome TV set); finally, any viewer who is offended by the color image can turn off the chroma on the TV set and watch in black-and-white.

It is worth emphasizing that the product of colorization is a videotape, not a film print. When a movie is colorized, nothing bad happens to the original film print, and the colorized version can only be watched on TV. Ultimately, the greatest impact of colorization may be upon old, monochrome TV series, if and when colorization loses its stigma. Indeed, one of the original ideas behind colorization was the creation of quasi?new TV series. As Earl Glick put it in 1984, "You couldn't make Wyatt Earp today for $1 million an episode. But for $50,000 a segment, you can turn it into color and have a brand new series??with no residuals to pay." As logical as this may sound, only McHale's Navy and a few other series have been colorized.

As of 1995, colorization is no longer a hot issue. Demand for colorized movies has shrunk drastically. Ted Turner, owner of hundreds of MGM, Warner Bros., and RKO titles and colorization's most outspoken advocate, has quietly stopped releasing colorized movies. The main legacy of colorization is the National Film Registry, established by Congress in 1988 in response to the colorization controversy. The Registry is a list of films, selected by experts and expanded annually, that, if colorized, will have to be labeled with a disclaimer. As Klawans points out, the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on compiling the registry would be much better spent on actual film (not to mention television) preservation.

-Gary Burns


Cooper, Roger. "Colorization and Moral Rights: Should the United States Adopt Unified Protection for Artists?" Journalism Quarterly (Urbana, Illinois), Autumn, 1991.

Daniels, Charles B. "Note on Colourization." British Journal of Aesthetics (London), January, 1990.

Dawson, Greg. "Ted Turner: Let Others Tinker With the Message. He Transforms the Medium Itself." (interview). American Film (Los Angeles, California), Janurary-Februray, 1989.

Library of Congress, Copyright Office. Technological Alterations to Motion Pictures: Implications for Creators, Copyright Owners, and Consumers: A Report of the Register of Copyrights. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Copyright Office, 1989.

Leibowitz, Flo. "Movie Colorization and the Expression of Mood." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Cleveland, Ohio), Fall, 1991.

Moral rights and the Motion Picture Industry: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Administration of Justice. United States Congress. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991.

Sherman, Barry L. "Perceptions of Colorization." Journalism Quarterly (Urbana, Illinois), Winter, 1988.

Wagner, Craig A. "Motion Picture Colorization, Authenticity, and the Elusive Moral Right." New York University Law Review (New York), June, 1989.


See also Movies on Television