It happened today - February 26, 2016 Oh look. Colour movies. How cool is that? It sure makes February 26 a red, blue and green letter day.

Oddly enough, I’m thinking of February 26 1909, when 21 short films using the process were shown to the public at the Palace Theatre in London. Fully 30 years before the famous breakthrough of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

It’s easy to laugh at these early efforts, which are not realistic by our standards or, indeed, interesting. Inventor Albert Smith of Brighton, England, had earlier exhibited his riveting 8-minute A Visit to the Seaside (shown above) at a trade show. And the process itself, shooting alternatively through red and green gelatine filters and plain ones, is obviously a million miles away from Technicolour let alone today’s digital techniques for producing banal epics.

Likewise, it’s easy to laugh at films like Nosferatu, struggling to make the transition from stage to screen, or indeed King Kong, not just for the guy in the gorilla suit and the iguanas with toothpicks on their heads (or was that Flash Gordon)? But wipe your eyes and show some respect. Because at the time it was an amazing accomplishment and, indeed, a triumph of technique.

I mean that literally. I personally benefit today from Adobe’s Creative Cloud, and think the world of it. It allows you to do virtually anything you can think of on a laptop (or in my case, a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, a laptop in the body of a tablet). I still have to think of things, and master the controls. But behind the scenes, amazingly complicated miracles make transitions, colour correction and even animation super-user-friendly.

How did they do it back then? I mean gelatine can melt. Old-style celluloid film was highly flammable, which has cost us more than a few old-tyme. And how would you even do a simple dissolve without a computer?

The more I do my own video editing the more I ask that question with genuine awe. I know people in the industry who remember splicing sound literally, by using a razor blade on a strip of magnetic tape. No Ctrl-Z there, lads. But I watch old black and white films and try to figure out how they did simple transitions without having to continually expose new negatives, a process we would today term highly “lossy”.

It's humbling to think what the giants of yesteryear could have done with our technology, and how little we could have done with theirs. Even 1902’s A Trip to the Moon commands our respect in that regard, especially the hand-coloured version. Hey, you use what you have, right? And if we can put aside our jaded pseudosophistication and learn to see these with the eyes of an audience that does not regard Luke Skywalker’s light sabre as clumsy and outmoded, we will realize what we are seeing.


It happened todayJohn Robson