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Digital Scanning Unlocks the Earliest Known Color Motion Pictures Ever Found

09.12.12 @ 6:40PM Tags : , ,

Ironically, thanks to digital technology, we are now able to appreciate what is the earliest known color motion picture film ever made. The Lee-Turner color process was developed by Edward Turner and Frederick Lee over a hundred years ago. The first known example of that process was found in the National Media Museum in the UK and has finally been made available through digital scanning. The film has been dated to 1901/02, and with the help of BFI National Archive experts, they were able to restore the footage and view it as it was intended. Check out the video below for some motion picture history:

It’s fascinating that a process which was considered a failure because it didn’t work properly is now able to be viewed because of digital scanning technology. Since the film wouldn’t run in new projectors, it would have been impossible to view any other way. Speaking of non-standard format, the frames of that film are absolutely gigantic — it looks like they are as big as full-frame 35mm, except they are running vertically instead of horizontally like Vista-Vision (which is the only motion picture equivalent that uses 35mm with a frame size that big).

The scariest part of the whole process is that the film had been in the collection for three quarters of a century and no one had done anything with it since they didn’t have the technology. One thing that celluloid purists still have a point about, what will we do with all of these digital files that may not last 30 years, let alone 100 (or more)?

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  • Print it on film again? lol

    • There is a short featurette on the new Jaws Blu-ray about the restoration of the film. After the film had been scanned, gone through clean-up and digital intermediate they did print it back on to film for archival purposes. This is still apparently the most reliable method for long-term preservation. So future digital versions of movies that were shot digitally may be struck from 35mm prints. Go figure.

      • government agencies still use casette tapes to write data onto. they’re just more reliable.

  • The original Technicolor.

  • Fascinating that they did an analogue 35mm intermediate film and then scanned that. I would have thought that a direct digital would give better results, basically photographing each frame with a 5dii/iii/1dx and a macro lens you could get the same detail or better and would be much faster than the 24 frames per hour they captured it at.
    or if they had a projector that they could work with it something like james miller does with 8mm
    https://vimeo.com/20950590

  • they were way ahead of their time back then – doin RGB splits 80 years before MTV made it cool.

  • I believe Turners system was 38mm at 48fps.

  • Jason Billczak on 09.13.12 @ 8:10AM

    Joe — you guys should hold a color grading contest with this original footage! I’d love to see how nice it could look with today’s technology and it’d be a lot of fun for some of your community.

  • Yep store your film on film, so 100 years from now someone can spend tremendous amount of money and time at converting it to a useable format, as opposed to digital, which can easily be converted at the press of a button.

  • 35mm got legs! It will be projectable and archival for many years to come. The Mellon Foundation funded a multi-year joint project between WNET, WGBH, NYU, and the Library of Congress to figure out how to archive digital video (MAMs, LTOs, RAIDs, file operability, file integrity, metadata, and access).

    Here is a dandy piece of history as well, Kodak’s first color system for 16mm:

    http://www.homemovieday.com/livingroomcinema/1928_kodacolor2.html

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