When my mother was about six years old she was taken to see the newly released movie The Wizard Of Oz. Until the day she died she never forgot the awe and amazement she experienced when Dorothy opened the front door of her just-landed Kansas farmhouse to the most splendid display of color she had ever seen in her life. Mom always had we kids watch the movie with her whenever it was on TV and I too fell victim to the film’s charms. Even through a television screen I could tell that the color was different from what I was used to.
I eventually learned that the brilliant color in those old movies was due to a unique and long-obsolete process called Technicolor. What I did not learn until recently was that those Technicolor movies were actually filmed in black & white. Maybe you didn’t know that either. And the way they did it is fascinating.
If you are a fan of old movies you have surely seen at least one of them that was filmed in glorious Technicolor. Technicolor was not just a brand name (though it was certainly that as well) but an entire company built on a truly unique process for putting brilliant colors on a motion picture screen. And I do mean brilliant. The process brought a vivid, highly saturated color that was better than lifelike. Even though the process was commercially viable for a relatively short time, you can be sure that any Hollywood production with a really big budget would feature the eye candy that only Technicolor could provide.
When most of us think of “Technicolor” we think of the perfected process that coincided with the golden age of Hollywood, but the process actually got started around World War I. Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock were both 1904 M.I.T. graduates and each received a PhD in Europe two years later. After spending some time teaching at M.I.T., they started an R&D firm in 1912. After being asked to evaluate an inventor’s “flicker-free” motion picture system they got interested in the technical aspects of film.
People had experimented with ways to make color motion pictures since the earliest days of film. Like this example by English filmmaker George Albert Smith from 1908 in a short film called A Visit To The Seaside, which used a process he called Kinemacolor. But the process, which involved rotating wheels with red and green color filters in both the camera and in the projector, was complex and saw no more than modest application in the years before WWI.
The earliest known use of Kalmus’ and Comstock’s Technicolor process (called Process 1) was in 1917 for a film that no longer exists, but for a few isolated frames – The Gulf Between. Instead of Smith’s spinning filters, Technicolor’s innovation was a camera that split an image in two, with one image run through a red filter and the other through a blue-green one. Both images went onto a single strip of black & white film which ran at double speed so that the two images could be exposed one after the other, in a 1-2-1-2 sequence. Special projection equipment was required, which ran the print back through red and blue-green lenses which displayed as an approximation of the actual color scene. The film was only shown in four eastern cities, mostly as an exhibition of the process rather than as entertainment.
The first commercially made color film was also produced and made by the Technicolor company – The Toll Of The Sea in 1922. This film, an adaptation of Madam Butterfly, provided the first leading role for groundbreaking Asian actress Anna May Wong, who was just seventeen. This film employed an improved Technicolor process (Process 2) which put the color into the print instead of through a projector’s colored lenses, thus compatible with standard projection equipment. How did they do this with black and white film? This is the part I find really cool.
As before, the lens split to put two images on a strip of film in the same 1-2-1-2 sequence. One image came through a red filter and the other through a green filter. The film shot through the red filter had most of the green filtered out, recording mostly the red parts of the image. The part shot through the green filter did the opposite, resulting in a print which favored the green parts of the image.
Each negative was developed into print on a film specially designed to soak up dyes. Each of the prints was dyed in the color opposite of what was recorded on the film – the red information print was soaked in a cyan (blue-green) dye and the green information print was dyed magenta (green’s opposite). Both prints were then glued together and – COLOR! More or less.
[Caution: Technical Dive – take a breath.] Why opposite colors? Remember that white light is the total color spectrum, so the idea is to block or absorb certain parts of the spectrum opposite of the ones you want to show. They call this “subtractive color”. See how on the red-filtered black & white print the red dress is quite pale? This is because red colors were highly exposed on the film while green ones (like the mountain) got low exposure and are dark. The cyan tint absorbs anti-red, thus making the red dress appear red on the screen. Ditto the way the magenta tint absorbs anti-green, thus allowing the green mountains and light green-ish sky to come through. If this were done to identical black & white prints, the cyan and magenta would cancel each other out. But with the differently filtered prints that red dress allows lots of red light to get through through red half of the combined print while little or no green light makes it through that part of the green half. So on the dress, red wins. [End Technical Dive. Breathe deeply a couple of times and take a drink of water so we can continue.]
Several films used this process in at least parts, one of the most famous being in the 1925 feature The Phantom Of The Opera, starting Lon Chaney. There were problems, however. First, there was a teeny depth difference between the two images. Worse was the film’s tendency to “cup” after multiple showings. Because there were two strips, the cupping randomly switched from inward to outward and back, which caused endless headaches for projectionists trying to keep things from going ablur on the screen.
The final two-color version (Process 3) hit in 1928 with The Viking. Tangent alert – most if not all of these early Technicolor films are available for the watching on YouTube. I watched bits of them and they are fascinating. As objects of wonder if not as movies. End tangent.
Anyway, Process 3 was the version I encountered in researching a piece on musicians Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. They had a short feature segment in the 1930 film, The King Of Jazz. This was a budget-busting failure of a musical review on film. I watched the whole thing and it is an acquired taste, but compelling nonetheless. This restored frame gives you a look at a 28 year old Bing Crosby, long before he was crooning about a White Christmas.
This process got the print onto a single strip by pressurized dying of two different strips on special film that absorbed dye at different rates based on the lightness or darkness of the image and then pressing this dyed “matrix” film onto a print film, one after the other. This process saw some modest success, but did not really get more people into theater seats.
Have you noticed it yet? That all of the vintage color shots we have seen to this point are great in the areas of magenta-red and cyan-green, and pretty good with skin tones too. However, there is nary a hint of blue or yellow to be seen in any of them. This was, of course, the big drawback to this two-color system – they simply could not get the entire spectrum covered with two colors. You may not be surprised that not a lot of these two-color films survive in their color versions. Many of the negatives of this era were dumped along the way after B&W prints were made for television.
Technicolor finally hit the big time with the “three strip” process in the early 1930’s. Complex (and horrifically expensive) Technicolor cameras fed three strips of b&w film through at a time. With three strips they could split the image to end up with a red record, green record and (finally) a blue record. The green worked as before, but the third strip was a blue-sensitive film that doubled up with the red strip, sharing the image that came through a magenta filter (which allowed both red and blue light to pass through). Now each strip captured about 1/3 of the spectrum .
Those 3 oddly shaded black & white negatives were then each printed, as before, onto a special “matrix” film which would attract dye only in the tinted areas. Each matrix strip was coated with cyan, magenta or yellow dye and those dyed strips of anti-red, anti-blue and anti-green were one at a time pressed into a print film specially treated to suck up and hold the dyes. And voila – three strips of black & white film, each dyed a single color, resulted in the most luxurious full-color movies ever made!
The very first film using the 3 strip Technicolor process was the 1932 Walt Disney Silly Symphonies cartoon Flowers And Trees. It must have been pretty enthralling back in the day, as it won the first Oscar for an animated short. Just look at those yellow flowers and that blue sky! Disney was so high on the process he negotiated a three year deal for exclusive rights to the process. There would not be a “regular” movie made entirely with three-strip Technicolor until the 1935 film Becky Sharp – which I have never seen.
There was actually an earlier live-action short from Technicolor’s own Pioneer Pictures studio (in partnership with RKO Radio Pictures), 1934’s La Cucaracha. It was clear that the film’s makers were working on finding the right touch for best use of the system – the extremely slow film (ASA 5) required LOTS of light and this first attempt showed the system’s weaknesses in low light conditions. How much light was necessary? It was reported that during the filming of The Wizard Of Oz in 1939, the sound stages reached temperatures of 100 degrees F due to the overwhelming lighting demanded by the Technicolor cameras.
I only sample-watched LaCucaracha, and there was an odd reliance on red and green in some of the costumes – odd because those were the colors the public was already used to seeing. But there were scenes where the technology was allowed to strut its stuff, like the one above. The picture won an Oscar in 1935 for best comedy short, which very likely made the business case for a process that could quadruple the cost of making a black and white film.
But sometimes the expense was well worth it. If you have ever seen the epic 1939 film Gone With The Wind, you no doubt remember the fire scene. The movie takes place before, during and after the Civil War and one scene involved the wartime burning of Atlanta. The stagehands had either built or re-used a large part of the MGM studio’s backlot as an antebellum Atlanta. Then filmmakers burned the whole thing down in spectacular fashion.
Technicolor cameras were owned by the Technicolor company (which controlled its process from beginning to end) and leased to the studios by the day. All of creation contained only seven of those cameras and producer David O. Selznik made arrangements for all seven of them to be locked and loaded for what may still be the largest fire scene ever filmed, with real fire so fierce that nearby residents jammed phone lines thinking that the film studio was ablaze. He knew that he would never get a chance to go back for a re-shoot if anything was unsatisfactory, so using every extant Technicolor camera was his way of not taking any chances. The result was a genuine spectacle.
So, if Technicolor was so great, what killed it off? The combination of eye-popping expense (triple the film, rented cameras with mandatory “color consultants” to insure that the process was not being abused, and expensive dye processing in dedicated Technicolor plants) was a big factor. The other was Eastman Kodak’s improved (and much less expensive) Eastmancolor films which could capture all three colors in the negative (and through a standard, studio-owned camera). As in most cases of obsolescence, it all came down to money. The 1955 Jane Russell musical Fox Fire was the last picture in beginning-to-end Technicolor.
Technicolor continued to produce dye-printed copies of “regular” color films until the last US dye-printing plant was closed not long after the 1974 release of The Godfather Part II – which was the last new American feature to have used the dye-transfer process for making theater prints. More screens and the need for more prints in less time for less cost doomed Kalmus’ aging concept – it has been reported that one print took one technician an entire day to produce.
The last Italian dye-printing equipment was used for a 1977 Italian horror film, Suspira. There was a brief attempt made to revive dye printing in the late 1990s but it was over again within a few years. The last of Technicolor’s dye-printing equipment made it from Britain to China but it was gone by the early 2000s as well. The Technicolor company still exists, theoretically at least, after a purchase by the French company Thomson.
Why does any of this matter? It doesn’t, really. But it does explain “the look” of some of those classic big-budget products of the old Hollywood studio system, a rich, luxurious and vibrant appearance that has never been duplicated. And for those of us who enjoy those decadently rich colors, it is comforting that film preservationists consider a Technicolor dyed-print to be of archival quality, and that the black & white negatives will last virtually forever if stored in decent conditions. As opposed to “normal” post-Technicolor films which can often look as bad today as those from the beginning of the color era.
The only real answer, I suppose, is that some things are just cool. Whether you are a movie-nerd like me or not.
For a much better explanation of how the two and three color processes actually work, go to this entry at The Widescreen Museum.
Opening photo – Frame from the 1939 MGM picture The Wizard Of Oz, from the Des Moines art Center
Frame from the 1952 MGM film Singin’ In The Rain – from the website nextprojection.com
Frame from the trailer for the 1953 Twentieth Century-Fox film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – in the public domain
GIF clip from George Albert Smith’s 1908 film “A Trip To The Seaside” – from Medium.com
Surviving frame from The Gulf Between, 1917 via IMDb.com
Still from the Technicolor film The Toll Of The Sea, 1922, from the website of film historian J B Kaufman (jbkaufman.com).
Technicolor 2 strip example – from historyoftech.umwblogs.org
Frame from a 1929 reissue of the 1925 Universal film The Phantom Of The Opera – Wikimedia Commons, film in the public domain
Screenshot from the 1928 MGM film The Viking, from a DVD copy offered for sale at Bonanza.com
Screenshot from the 1930 Universal film The King Of Jazz – from the YouTube page of HeathCliff Rothman
Blended color wheel – wikimedia commons, in the public domain
Technicolor 3 strip camera diagram – Wikimedia commons.
Frame from the 1932 Walt Disney animated short Flowers And Trees, from IMDb.com
Image of a promotional poster for the 1934 Pioneer Pictures/RKO Radio Pictures release La Cucaracha, via Wikipedia – in the public domain due to a non-renewed copyright
Frame from La Cucaracha, from the website of film historian J B Kaufman (jbkaufman.com).
Frame from the 1955 Universal film Fox Fire from the website of filmalert101.blogspot.com
Frame from the 1939 MGM picture The Wizard Of Oz, via the web page mutually.com