Why are titles on old shows yellow?

A generation ago, I was known as a bit of a color scientist. I’ve written a few articles on the subject like this one, but they tend to be a little off topic for this blog and haven’t performed well.

So, imagine how excited I was to find a video that talked about color science, was entertaining, and was even on topic? I’m talking about this one:

If you ever wondered why the titles of TV shows from the 20th century tended to be yellow, you’ll find this an interesting dive into the answer. It has to do with the way we perceive color, the way our brains understand color, and a liberal dose of science.

Yellow is really white

Yes, I said that right. If you don’t feel like watching that video and just want the quick answer, here it is.

Now, obviously yellow is not white. White is white. But when you’re dealing with the natural world, the world we evolved to live in, it sort of is. In the natural world, all light comes from the sun or from fire. Both of those are naturally yellow light sources that are so bright that we perceive them as white. Our eyes make the adjustment easily.

By using a golden yellow color for titles, our eyes perceive it and mentally register it as a dim natural light. This helps us subconsciously feel comfortable with what we’re looking at.

There’s another point to be made

The author of this video points out that in their days with local cable TV, there were a number of choices of colors. But, in the days before then, the choices were much more limited. There’s another reason that you get this sort of golden yellow used for titles, and it has to do with film and how titles were made.

In the days before fancy video effects, film titles were made painstakingly. First, the titles were created on paper. This was done with hand lettering, ruboff letters, or in later days using electronic typesetting equipment. The paper was then photographed and laid over the moving film in a technique called optical printing. It took several passes.

Doing it old-school

First, a “mask” was printed over the image that “knocked out” or eliminated what was underneath. Without this step, the titles would look transparent over the image. The mask was usually bigger than the text so that any small misalignments wouldn’t show. This made the commonly seen black border around the text.

Then, the titles were exposed. Depending on the time and the technology, this may have been done in multiple passes, or a single pass. If you were using multiple passes, you exposed the red and green layers but didn’t expose the blue. In single pass optical printing, you used a filter that let the yellow light be exposed and masked out the blue light.

This all explains that golden orange-yellow title. Real film, especially the film of the mid-20th century, had a very limited range of colors it could show. That golden orange was about as bright as it was going to get with an optical printer.

Later on, the color was just generally accepted and by the time the maker of this video got there, it just seemed like “the thing to do.”

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.