Notations by a pioneering filmmaker suggest that a color animated film may have been made in 1911, predating the earliest previously known example by over a year, the New Zealand Film Archive announced Friday.
A recently examined notebook by Colin McKenzie describes the making of a stop-action film featuring a lit candle, a table and a soup ladle, all of which are made to appear to move. The entry, dated September 5, 1911, mentions the use of dyes from a Tahitian berry to color the film stock.
If the film indeed was made, it would break the record for oldest color animation now held by In Gollywog Land, a Kinemacolor production by Charles Urban for the Natural Colour Kinematograph Company. Combining puppet animation with live action, the November 1912 release was credited by historian Denis Gifford in British Animated Films, 1895–1985 as the first animated film in color.
“This would appear to put New Zealand on the map again as far as film history is concerned,” said Thelma Catherine Ryan, the Film Archive’s director of acquisitions. “We all knew of Mr. McKenzie’s outstanding contribution to the technology of motion pictures. The latest find just adds to our country’s reputation as a pioneer in film industry.”
“It was already known that McKenzie created the first color film in 1911, a generation before Technicolor,” said Joseph F. Keaton, director of the archive’s technological division. “He and his brother Fred painstakingly distilled the juice from an exotic tropical berry to get the right dyes.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t notice, when they tested Colin’s film stock in Tahiti, that they had shot footage of some topless island girls. When they exhibited it in Waipahu, they were arrested for an ‘indecent exhibition.’”
Keaton also regrets that no footage of the supposed animated film survives, but believes that McKenzie was daring enough to have made it.
The ups and downs of McKenzie’s inventions — along with those of his colorful personal life — were explored in the hour-long 1995 made-for-TV documentary Forgotten Silver, directed by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes.
The possibility that the earliest color animation may come from New Zealand thrilled the creative director of Weta Digital Ltd., a leading visual effects company based in Wellington and co-founded by Jackson.
“No one can say we aren’t all excited here at Weta,” said Pauline Phillips. “Kiwis can’t fly, but they sure know how to invent!”