‘I Love Lucy’: The Story Behind the Hit TV Series Transitioning to Color

by Jacklyn Krol
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How did I Love Lucy transition from black and white to color? Did you know that they were originally going to shoot a special episode in color?

In 1954 CBS actually considered transitioning into color filming. Essentially, it would have cost them almost double what the expense would have been to shoot in black and white. However, according to TV Series Finales, the network allocated funds for experiments like this.

TV Guide announced that the December 6, 1954 episode, “Ricky’s Contract” would be broadcasted in color. Unfortunately, the show ended up shooting in black and white for whatever reason.

After I Love Lucy’s run, colored television became standard and people actually stopped watching black and white television. Because of the want for color, syndicated shows like I Love Lucy began to have less of an appeal. The technology to color shows was introduced in 1980. At the time, the process was extremely expensive but didn’t have great quality.

The I Love Lucy spinoff series, The Lucy Show, was also first shot in black and white. They began to shoot in color during the 1963 season. The show still aired in black and white until 1956. At that time, the majority of homes did not have color televisions.

The Colorizing Process

“It’s all about being true and respectful to the time period,” CBS home entertainment exec Ken Ross told TV Guide. “The only reason I Love Lucy wasn’t shot in color is because the technology didn’t exist then. The colorization is so much better than it was 25 years ago. We can make it look like it was shot in 2019.” Ross’ statement isn’t quite accurate, as color shows began showing up frequently in 1951. The NTSC standard for color television was put in place in 1953.

So, how exactly did they take black and white shot footage and turn it into color? They use a special process that began with the team identifying the original colors of sets, props, costumes, etc. Luckily, some color photos from the set existed which seemed to help. Former staff members from the show even aided in their color search.

After CBS approved the colors, West Wing Studios took each frame of the episodes and spent 45 to 60 days colorizing the selected episodes. The exact process begins when the technicians create a “matte” for each layer of a scene (objects or sets in the foreground, background, etc. had different appearances). A specific software takes the layers and creates one single image. Once each frame is done being colored, the program helps distinguish which object is which when dealing with movement.

The ‘I Love Lucy’ Episodes

CBS decided to re-air the I Love Lucy Christmas special in 1990. The special was shot and aired in 1956 and wasn’t included in the show’s syndication. CBS decided to colorize only portions of the episode for the 1990 airing.

Finally, in 2007 Gregg Oppenheimer approved the colorization of the episode “Lucy Goes to Scotland.” The episode was chosen by the original show’s producer’s son because of the vibrancy of colors. They were also able to use photographs as references for select color hues.

Since then, CBS and fans alike have colorized a handful of episodes that are available in DVD sets.

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