Clicking through the Reddit subthread for “Colorization” feels like entering a timewarp. It’s a far cry from Ted Turner’s much-derided efforts to "modernize" black-and-white classics like Casablanca. Colorization has become more and more popular lately, and the creators behind this new breed of updated imagery use all the technological resources of the last 20 years to strive for more than just plausibility—their aim is for historical authenticity.
“I have one goal with colorizing,” says Jordan J. Lloyd. “I try and make it so realistic that the final image becomes unremarkable—until you become aware the original was in black and white.”
Lloyd is a specialist at digital image agency Dynamichrome. His work there is something of a digital counterpart to what waxworkers at Madame Tussauds do: he provides the nuance that creates an illusion of vitality. While anyone with a computer and the financial resources could potentially try their hand at colorization, like most pursuits, it takes someone devoted to the craft to master it, with coloring that looks natural and real.
“The details really count towards giving the impression of realism,” Lloyd says. “For instance, something like the sclera [the white part of the eyes] is a giveaway. They are not brilliant white unless they've been retouched in Photoshop. When colors are too perfect, it's a sign of a colorization no matter how flawless the execution.”
The first step is taking the black and white image, which often has some damage, and restoring it to how it looked before any physical deterioration of the negative. Before applying base layers or attempting to build up the necessary amount of depth, though, comes the research—another aspect of the process that separates the pros from the amateurs.
“Anyone interested in doing serious colorization must be willing to conduct methodical research for days at a time, and get in touch with actual experts on everything from military history to the soft drink industry,” says Lloyd. “Additionally, we already have folders full of reference shots—from old fashioned magazines to academic studies of particular uniforms. It's not restricted to eras either, but can also change depending on region too. When dealing with tribal clothing, for example, there are very specific colors based on everything from natural dyes to the climate.”
The working knowledge that image specialists accrue over time, combined with the custom research that comes up on a case by case basis, form the backbone of the entire procedure. In order to apply layers of color to a face, you have to be deeply familiar with anatomy, for instance.
Similar considerations also factor in when working on clothing, props, and anything that might appear in the background of the photo. The coloring for these objects needs to have the randomness of reality, but also include as much variation as possible within a believable visual range. It’s an imprecise mixture that’s tricky to achieve.
“I think even the best colorizers and restorers only get about 80% of the way there,” Lloyd says. “There is so much complexity in color variation, no matter how many layers you apply it's impossible to get it 100% right.”
The image specialist advises amateurs trying their hand at colorization to pay close attention to how light affects the colors of certain materials, especially machine parts. Along with his advice for developing one’s technique, Lloyd also suggests developing a thick skin.
“The irony is that colorizers are accused of destroying history,” he says, “when in fact we have the utmost reverence for the source material.”
Have a look through the photos above for examples of quality colorization from several sources.