Ever wonder how artists bring old black and white footage to life with vibrant colors? Discover how colorists meticulously revitalize vintage images.

For a period of about 60 years after the creation of the film camera, history was recorded in black and white. Our perception of historical photos and videos has been through a monochrome lens – until now. In a recent trend, graphic artists and colorists are restoring old black and white photos and videos in accurate, pristine color.

Getting to see historical footage in color gives us a new perspective. It humanizes the memories recorded in photography and lets us connect deeper to the past. The recolored photos have become a phenomenon on the internet, gaining a cult following on Reddit. They’ve even spawned a TV show called “America in Color” on the Smithsonian Channel.


Maintaining Historical Accuracy

In this Vox short about the colorization of photos, they interview Jordan J. Lloyd of Dynamichrome about his process of coloring photos. He claims that a good colorizer has a good network to call upon when trying to stay true to what colors the subject of the photo might be donning. This takes loads of research into old advertisements, diaries, clothing descriptions from tailors, etc. After researching, the color artist can grasp what shades and color types they’re going to use in their restoration.

Take his colorization of King Tut’s tomb for example. He dug through old archives of the archeologist’s journals and cross-referenced those with pictures of the preserved artifacts on display currently in Cairo. This research allowed him to create a true color image of what we would see on that day if the photographer had used a color camera.

Dynamichrome also makes sure to keep lighting in mind when recreating old photos. Since light alters our perception of color, the colors would need to darken or lighten depending on where the source is coming from. The intensity of light also plays a role.

Jordan’s team at Dynamichrome primarily focuses on photos, though. The real juggernaut of the craft is restoring footage.

Turning Film into Color

Zach Smothers of POP COLORTURE has set out to do something that few have approached before: coloring old TV shows such as “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters.” In a recent interview with PremiumBeat,  Zach revealed his process of recreating these classic TV shows like you’ve never seen them.

My process is constantly evolving with the goal to increase speed and improve quality. Before The Munsters opening, I had colorized images and I knew there were more efficient methods for video, but I figured doing at least one frame-by-frame project would be good for me.  Now for efficiency, I use motion tracking and rotoscoping to animate color on top of the black and white footage. I’ve timed projects and using motion tracking, I work almost 10 times faster than painting frame by frame (UMU).

Zach’s process is similar to the folks over at Dynamichrome. He edits the photos in Photoshop, layer by layer. He also peruses photos of the sets to get a sense of the color schemes he needs to be staying faithful to. What makes POP COLORTURE stand out is that instead of editing just a photo, they painstakingly go frame by frame to color the sequence. This involves hundreds of layers and colors that need to be repeated for thousands of frames. Zach has since changed his workflow over to using motion tracking and rotoscoping to animate color to speed up the process.

Colorizing in DaVinci Resolve

In the Smithsonian Channel’s “America in Color,” Art Director Samuel Francois-Steininger of Composite films takes historical footage and brings them to life. From what we can tell in this promotional video, Samuel is using DaVinci Resolve to color these films. To incorporate color, they create layers for every piece of information on the screen. Once the color has been added, they rotoscope the scene to maintain the spacial accuracy. To make something such as a human face photorealistic, which includes a multitude of colors, there will be a large number of layers that add different colors to the face.