As the saying goes, ‘many hands make light work’. In the late 19th century, it was women’s hands that made colour work on black-and-white film. The earliest hand-coloured films date back to the birth of cinema in the 1890s, when female colourists hand-painted 35mm and 60mm film frame-by-frame with acid dyes and delicate brushes. Two pivotal women pioneering the industry were French mother and daughter duo Elisabeth Thuillier and Marie-Berthe Thuillier, who worked in one of the few production roles in the film industry at the time and it's their story that paints a fuller picture of an almost forgotten past.
Painting films in Paris
Although little is known about the origin of Elisabeth’s career, her daughter Marie-Berthe's birth certificate indicates she was a cook and domestic servant before taking a job at an art dealer’s shop. After being widowed in 1875 at 34, it’s thought that she began practising colouring and opened her own colouring workshop in Paris around the same time, likely to support her family.
First specialising in painting magic lantern slides, Elisabeth’s firm expanded to colouring films in the late 1890s, with the techniques for hand-colouring lantern slides and the newly invented film much the same. Her daughter Maria-Berthe joined her in 1886, when she was 19, and took over the studio when her mother died in 1907. Not only did she continue her mother’s legacy, but also achieved her own acclaim by continuing to colour the fantastical films of Georges Méliès, which the studio had been doing from 1897 to 1912.
The painting process
Before capturing colour on film directly, either through the expensive British Kinemacolor system (1908–14) or the dominant Technicolor process (1916–50s), filmmakers brought vibrancy and colour to their stories through four techniques: hand-colouring, tinting, toning and stencilling. Hand-colouring was a time-consuming, labour intensive process. With the help of a magnifying glass, painters coloured each frame with brushes as fine as a single camel hair. Most films produced 16 to 20 frames per second and set colours were picked for individual frames, a stark contrast to the limitless colour palettes afforded by today’s digital technology.
It might’ve been the meticulous nature of this work that gave French colourists like Elisabeth Thuillier a foot in the door to work behind cinema’s scenes, but it was her own entrepreneurial spirit and unique skillset that saw her running her own firm and managing over 200 female colourists. Stereotypical female gender roles, coupled with the cheaper cost of their labour, made woman the most desirable candidates to paint frames. Film scholar Joshua Yumibi notesthat “women were not only cheaper in general to employ but also were thought to be, with their supposed sensitivity and nimble fingers, innately suited to the detailed work of coloring films”. In some cases, however, as the industry boomed, larger colouring lab’s like Pathé Frères fortuitously paid female colourists more than their fellow male workers.
Élisabeth Aléné, Veuve Thuillier (1841 - 1907) is documented by film historians for her work colouring for filmmakers Georges Méliès’, Pathé Brothers and Raoul Grimoin-Sanson. One famous example can be seen in Melies’ film, A Trip To The Moon.
Hand-coloured films were characterised by their soft outlines and multitude of hues, which changed from frame-to-frame. Unlike tinting and toning, which applied dye to colour large sections of a frame, painting allowed colourists to paint a hat yellow, a coat blue or props and sets red, all within the same frame like in Melies’ film. Unfortunately, the attention to detail required made it easy to make mistakes and time was an important consideration for each project.
The Thuilliers' contribution to Méliès’ films
Maria-Berthe must’ve been good at managing the clock and working under pressure. During an interview in 1929, she shared her experience colouring ‘all’ of Méliès’ films entirely by hand, shedding light on the expensive cost of the aesthetic and the complexity of the task itself.
“I spent my nights selecting and sampling the colors, and during the day, my workers applied the color according to my instructions. Each specialized worker applied only one color, and there were often more than twenty colors to apply on one film. We used very fine aniline dyes. They were then successively dissolved in water and alcohol. The tone obtained was transparent and luminous. The false tints were not neglected. (…) M. Dufayel was my last client. He always demanded that the films be hand-colored. The cost was higher, six to seven thousand Francs per copy, for a 300-meter film, and that was before the war. We made an average of sixty copies for each film. So, hand-coloring was a fairly heavy burden on producers’ budgets”.
Phasing out the hand painting process
To industrialise colouring methods, stencilling was introduced in Vincennes, France around 1903, and quickly took over hand-colouring through its efficiency, accuracy and cheaper cost to colour frames. As described by Barbara Flueckiger, stencil colouring required the manual cutting, frame-by-frame, of the area that was to be tinted onto another identical print, one for each colour. And the process was highly improved by the invention of a cutting machine. Although stencilling would soon eliminate the need for hand colouring, documents show the Pathe’ Brothers continued contracting the Thuillier workshop, paying 1.25 Franc per meter for 3,800 meters of film every month, while stencilling allowed colourist to charge only 0.5 Francs per meter. Maria Berthie continued running the workshop until 1912, with the exact reasons for its closure unknown.
Although the full scope of the Thuilliers’ work is largely undocumented, they’re now recognised as making an enormous contribution to the emergence of cinema and how colour is used. Both women pushed the boundaries of their time and were actively involved in production decisions that helped bring film to life through colour.
– Amber Gibson