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Meet The Inventor Of Kinemacolor, The First Successful Colour Film Process

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George Albert Smith, one of this writer’s favourite early film-makers, is perhaps amongst the unluckiest men in all of cinematic history in terms of reputation.

Whilst many historians and film fans will often throw up names as diverse as Louis LePrince, Thomas Edison, Alice Guy and Georges Melies as amongst the most important figures in the development of the moving image, Smith will often find himself overlooked.

George Albert Smith

George Albert Smith

Indeed, even his invention of Kinemacolor as the first piece of technology able to successfully shoot in colour was superseded with our discovery of Edward Turner’s incredible early movies.

So – who exactly was G.A. Smith and why is he such an important figure in the history of film and cinematography?

Armed with curiosity, access to our archives and the expert knowledge of curator Toni Booth, I decided to investigate.

Who was George Albert Smith?

Smith, it transpires, was a man of many interests – before discovering cinema, he enjoyed the dual careers of stage hypnotism and astronomy. It is perhaps because of this that when Smith decided to pursue film-making, his work featured an array of trick photography, illusions and, above all else, a sense of wonder.

From 1897 through until 1908, Smith fashioned one of the most inventive and innovative of all the filmographies of early cinema and, in doing so, helped create some of the earliest examples of movie grammar.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmSJ5SAXHws?rel=0&w=546&h=410]

Credited with being perhaps the first film-maker to utilise parallel action (in 1898’s Santa Claus), Smith’s wide array of technical marvels also included the use of close-up, double exposure and the medium’s first use of narrative editing with his witty and tender The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899).

On top of his directorial imagination, Smith was also something of a skilled technician; something which led to American entrepreneur Charles Urban approaching him to continue the work of Edward Turner in developing technology which could film moving images in colour.

G. A. Smith and unknown man, Warwick Trading Company, c.1899, National Media Museum Collection

G. A. Smith and unknown man, Warwick Trading Company, c.1899, National Media Museum Collection / SSPL

Using alternating red and green filters, Smith was able to create, in what would be his last movie as a director, the first successful motion picture filmed and projected entirely in natural colour with A Visit to the Seaside. The 8 minute feature, using the technology he developed, also launched Kinemacolour – an invention which was an enormous success for the following few years.

Kinemacolor advertisement, c.1911, The Natural Color Kinematograph Company Ltd, National Media Museum Collection / SSPL

Kinemacolor advertisement, c.1911, The Natural Color Kinematograph Company Ltd, National Media Museum Collection / SSPL

Kinemacolor in the National Cinematography Collection

Taking advantage of Insight, our Collections and Research centre, I was able to see with my own eyes the cameras which Smith had used over 100 years ago to lens his short movies.

Kinemacolor 35mm projector, 1910, The Natural Color Kinematograph Company Ltd, National Media Museum Collection / SSPL

Kinemacolor 35mm projector, 1910, The Natural Color Kinematograph Company Ltd, National Media Museum Collection / SSPL

Whilst it’s possible to have an abstract notion of inventions and ideas of film-makers, seeing such technical ingenuity in the flesh is a real profound and humbling experience which can really help with processing and understanding for the observer.

Toni Booth also showed me a selection of negatives and positives from our extensive collection of artefacts and technology relating to Kinemacolor.

Perhaps the most interesting of these were the cells taken from the fascinating Delhi Durbar (also known as With Our King and Queen Through India), a smash hit documentary from 1912.

Man's head advertisement for Durbar, 1912, Charles Urban Trading Company, National Media Museum Collection

Man’s head advertisement for Durbar, 1912, Charles Urban Trading Company, National Media Museum Collection / SSPL

Looking at the strip of film, it is possible to see that each individual frame was marked with an alternating filter colour (red or green) so as to let the projectionist know how to load the film-reel correctly so as to co-ordinate it with the Kinemacolor projector.

As Smith’s Kinemacolor process dominated early colour cinema, the pioneer himself stepped back from active film-making and found himself embroiled in legal battles regarding his inventions and systems. Partially because of this, much of the work and technical innovations he had created became overshadowed or forgotten.

It was not until some while later, apparently over thirty years, that British film historians re-discovered the incredible levels of sophistication Smith showed in his early work and realised how truly, historically important the film-maker was to the medium.

Thankfully, due to the preservation and restoration work here, alongside the expert knowledge of our curators, it is unlikely that any historical oversight like this will ever take place again. In fact, the opposite is true – as time goes by, it is possible to see how truly remarkable and ground-breaking so much of the work created by Smith and his contemporaries was. Seeing them in person makes this even more obvious.

For more information about G. A. Smith and his work, download Pioneers of Early Cinema: George Albert Smith (PDF)

Written by Kieron Casey

  1. Luke McKernan

    A nice post, but the photo from c.1899 does not show Charles Urban (i.e. the man on the ladder)

    1. Emma Thom

      Hi Luke – thanks so much for bringing this to our attention. I’ve passed your comment on to our curators who’ll update our records.

  2. Charles Urban and Britain’s first war propaganda film | National Media Museum blog

    […] although the scenes of the British fleet at Scapa Flow were filmed in Kinemacolor (invented by George Albert Smith; launched by the Charles Urban Trading Company). To experience these scenes in colour, audiences […]

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