Technicolor is the trademark for a series of color film processes pioneered by The Technicolor Corporation, now a division of Thomson. The Technicolor Corporation was originally founded by Dr. Herbert Kalmus in 1915. It was the second major color film process, after Britain's Kinemacolor, and the most widely used color motion picture process in Hollywood from 1922 to 1952. Technicolor became known and celebrated for its hyper-realistic, saturated levels of color, and was used commonly for filming musicals (such as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind and Singin' in the Rain), costume pictures (such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Joan of Arc), and animated films (such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia).
- 1 About the Technicolor process
- 2 From a technical standpoint
- 3 History of Technicolor
- 4 Gallery
- 5 External links
About the Technicolor process
Shooting Technicolor footage, 1934-1954
The Technicolor Process 4 used colored filters, a beam splitter made from a thinly coated mirror inside a split-cube prism, and three strips of black-and-white film (hence the "three-strip" designation). The mirror was semitransparent, and allowed part of the light to shine straight through into a green filter and onto a strip of panchromatic black-and-white film, which registered the green part of the image. The other part of the light, reflected sideways by the mirror, went through a magenta filter to remove green light, exposed a layer of blue-sensitive orthochromatic film, passed through a red filter to remove blue light, and exposed a final layer of panchromatic film, which registered the red part of the image. The "blue" film, red dye filter, and "red" film were layered into a single "bipack" strip. The "green" film was a separate strip.
To print the film, each colored strip had a "relief-positive" print struck from it, which was then bleached to remove the silver and soaked with a dye that was the exact chromatic opposite of the color recorded by the film: cyan for red, magenta for green, and yellow for blue.
A single clear strip of film was brought in contact with each of the three dye-soaked colored strips in turn, building up the complete color image. Such a process was referred to by Technicolor as "dye imbibition", which was commonly used in conventional offset printing or lithography but which the Technicolor process adapted to film. The final strip of film would have the dyes soaked into it and not simply printed onto its surface, which produced rich and deeply saturated color.
Sometimes the clear film would be pre-exposed with a 50% density black-and-white positive image derived from the green matrix, as a way to deepen the blacks and heighten the contrast of the image.
From a technical standpoint
The rich colors that the Technicolor process gave came in part from the fact that the color was not added to the process until the final stages. The color information was recorded and processed as separate black and white images which were relatively easy to control and preserve. The Eastman process, by contrast, had color actually on the processed color negative, which then had to be transferred photographically to the final color print.
The color control that was available in the Technicolor process was even available to the directors of photography, and many actors and actresses can recall standing on the set for long periods holding a board of colored squares (known as "The Lily") while the camera technicians balanced the colors in the camera. The Eastman color directors of photography, conversely, was largely stuck with the color balance of the negative stock as supplied. The Eastman company produced two versions of their film stock, one balanced for studio lighting, the other balanced for daylight. The directors of photography did have a limited amount of control using colored filters over the camera lens or even the lighting.
History of Technicolor
Technicolor originally existed in a two-color (red and green) system. In Process 1 (1917), a prism beam-splitter behind the camera lens exposed two adjacent frames of a single strip of black and white negative film simultaneously, one behind a red filter, the other behind a green filter. Because two frames were being exposed at the same time, the film had to be photographed and projected at twice the normal speed. Exhibition required a special projector with two apertures (one with a red filter and the other with a green filter), two lenses, and an adjustable prism that aligned the two images on the screen. Technicolor itself produced the only movie made in Process 1, The Gulf Between, which had a limited tour of Eastern cities, primarily to interest motion picture producers and exhibitors in color. The near-constant need for a technician to adjust the projection alignment doomed this additive color process.
Technicolor became a subtractive color process with Process 2 (1922) (often erroneously called "two-strip" Technicolor). As before, the special Technicolor camera used a prism beam-splitter to expose simultaneously two adjacent frames of a single strip of black and white film, one behind a green filter and one behind a red filter. The difference came in the creation of the print. Every other frame of the camera negative was printed onto one strip of blank film (or "matrix") to create a red record, and the remaining frames were printed onto a second strip of blank film to create a green record. These matrixes were coated with a gelatin that hardened in relation to the amount of light that struck it from the negative. The softer gelatin was then washed off the matrix, leaving a relief image created by the hardened gelatin. The matrixes were floated in dye baths of complementary colors — the strip containing the red record was dyed blue-green, and the strip containing the green record was dyed red-orange — in which the gelatin would absorb the dye. The thicker the gelatin, the more dye it absorbed. Finally, the two matrixes were cemented together to create a projection print. The Toll of the Sea debuted on November 26, 1922 as the first general release film to use Technicolor, and the first color movie that did not require a special projector.
Process 2 was used for color sequences in such major motion pictures as The Ten Commandments (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and Ben-Hur (1925); and Douglas Fairbanks produced The Black Pirate (1926) entirely in Technicolor.
However, Process 2 had problems of its own. Because the film images on the two cemented matrixes did not share the same plane, a perfectly focused image was not possible. The extra thickness of the film would cause it to cup irregularly, taking it further out of focus. And the presence of the image on both sides of the print would lead to twice the amount of scratches being visible onscreen with normal wear.
Technicolor Process 3 (1928) was developed to eliminate the projection print made of two matrixes cemented together, in favor of a print created by a process like lithography. The Technicolor camera for Process 3 was identical to that for Process 2, simultaneously photographing two adjacent frames of black and white film behind red and green filters. And as with Process 2, gelatin-coated matrixes were created, one for the green record, one for the red record, and floated in dye baths of complementary colors. At this point, Process 3 differed. Instead of two dye-coated matrixes being cemented together to create a projection print, the matrixes were used as printing presses, each placed in direct contact with a blank strip of film to transfer the dye.
Because the dye transfer process used stable metal-based dyes, a Technicolor print from the dye transfer era would retain its original colors virtually unchanged for decades, whereas an Eastmancolor print from the 1950s or 1960s using less stable photochemical dyes would suffer color shift so drastically after as little as ten years that sometimes only the magenta record would remain in the image.
Notable features made entirely in the Technicolor Process 3 include The Viking (1928), On With the Show (1929) (the first all-talking color feature), Golddiggers of Broadway (1929), The Show of Shows (1929), Sally (1929),The Vagabond King (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Bright Lights (1930), Golden Dawn (1930), Hold Everything (1930), Song of the Flame (1930), Song of the West (1930), Life of the Party (1930), Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Under A Texas Moon (1930), The Bride of the Regiment (1930), Mamba (1930), Whoopee! (1930), The King of Jazz (1930), Viennese Nights (1931), Kiss Me Again (1931), The Runaround (1931), Fanny Foley Herself (1931), Manhattan Parade (1932), Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).
The first cartoon that Ub Iwerks made for the Flip the Frog series was called Fiddlesticks (released on August 16, 1930), and it was also the first color sound cartoon ever made. Fiddlesticks was photographed in two-color Technicolor.
Development and introduction
As early as 1924, Technicolor envisioned a full-color process, and by 1929, the company was actively developing such a process. Seeing the potential in full-color Technicolor, Walt Disney negotiated a two-year exclusive contract for the use of the process. Competitors such as the Fleischer Studios and the Ub Iwerks studio were shut out; they had to settle for either two-tone Technicolor or use a competing process such as Cinecolor. Disney's Oscar-winning cartoon Flowers and Trees (1932) marked the debut of Process 4: three-strip Technicolor. Although for Disney's earliest Technicolor cartoons a three-strip camera was used, an improved process was soon developed solely for cartoon work: the camera would contain one strip of black and white negative film, and each animation cell would be photographed three times, on three sequential frames, through alternating red, green, and blue filters. Three separate dye transfer printing matrixes would be created from the red, green, and blue records.
Live-action use of three-strip Technicolor was first seen in a musical number of the M-G-M feature The Cat and the Fiddle (1934). RKO's Becky Sharp (1935) became first feature-length motion picture photographed entirely in three-strip Technicolor.
Problems and difficulties
One major drawback of Technicolor's 3-strip process was that it required a special Technicolor camera. Film studios were never allowed to buy these cameras. Instead they had to hire them from the Technicolor Corporation, complete with a number of camera technicians and a "color coordinator", more often than not, Natalie Kalmus, ex-wife of Herbert Kalmus. Natalie's name appears in the credits of virtually every live-action Technicolor film made to 1950, in spite of the fact that she was frequently banned from film sets because her concept of color coordination usually differed from that of the artistic directors.
The process of splitting the image reduced the amount of light that reached the film stock. Since film speeds were fairly slow in the 1930s-1940s to begin with, early Technicolor productions required an excessive amount of lighting. It is reported that temperatures on the film set of The Wizard of Oz frequently exceeded 100 °F (38 °C), and as a result some of the more heavily costumed characters required a large water intake to replace loss by perspiration. Some actors and actresses have suffered permanent eye damage from the high levels of illumination.
The introduction of Eastman color and decline
Color film processes that recorded all three primary colors on one strip of camera film had been developed for amateur film gauges (16mm and 8mm) in the 1930s by Agfa in Germany and Eastman Kodak in the United States. Technicolor introduced Monopack, a single-strip color reversal film (actually a 35mm version of Kodachrome), in 1941 for specialized uses where the bulky three-strip camera would be impractical. But the higher grain of the image made it unsuitable for general work.
Eastman Kodak introduced its first 35mm color negative film in 1950, and then in 1952 an improved version of a quality suitable for Hollywood production. This change meant that Technicolor prints could be struck from a single camera negative exposed in a standard camera. Foxfire (1955), filmed in 1954, was the last American-made feature photographed with a Technicolor three-strip camera.
In 1953 Eastman also introduced a high-quality color print film, allowing studios to produce prints through standard photographic processes as opposed to having to send them to Technicolor for the expensive dye imbibition process. That same year, the Technicolor lab adapted its dye transfer process to derive matrices and imbibition prints directly from Eastmancolor negatives. In the case of post-1953 Technicolor movies, the release prints never faded whereas the color negatives they were derived from lost their cyan record.
In 1954, Technicolor made reduction dye transfer prints of the large format VistaVision negative. Their process was also adapted for use with Todd-AO, Ultra Panavision 70 and Technirama formats. All of them were an improvement over the three-strip negatives since the negative print-downs generated sharper and finer grain dye transfer copies.
Technicolor eventually fell out of favor in the United States as being too expensive. In the late sixties and early seventies, the number of release copies were smaller than they had been in the past. Dye transfer printing was only cost effective in large runs when the cost of the matrixes was amortized. However, the superior image quality was still favored by some directors and cinematographers. The last new American film released in Technicolor dye transfer prints was The Godfather, Part II (1974).
In 1975, the U.S. dye transfer plant was closed. In 1978, the British line was shut down and sold to Beijing Film and Video Lab in China. A great many films from China and Hong Kong have since been made in the Technicolor dye transfer process including Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou and even one American film, Space Avenger (1989, director: Richard W. Haines). The Beijing line was shut down in 1993.
The Technicolor Corporation in the modern era
The Technicolor company remained a highly successful film processing firm and later became involved in video and audio duplication (CD, VHS and DVD manufacturing) and digital video processes.
By the late 1990s the dye transfer process still had its advantages. Its distinctive "Technicolor look" was hard to obtain by any other means, and it remained the most archivally stable color process. In fact whereas many earlier Eastman color movies have almost completely lost their original colors, Technicolor movies have retained their color practically unchanged. This has become of importance in recent years with the large market for films transferred to video formats for home viewing. The best transfer by far is achieved by transferring the original Technicolor (monochrome) negatives, and adding the color electronically using a Technicolor print to provide the reference point for the color.
In 1997, Technicolor reintroduced the dye transfer process to film production. It was used on the restorations of films such as The Wizard of Oz, Rear Window, Funny Girl, and Apocalypse Now Redux. Other productions that utilized dye transfer printing were Bulworth, Pearl Harbor and Toy Story. The color was superior to other features that used conventional Eastmancolor prints for release.
An article on the 1997 restoration of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (original version 1977) claimed that a rare dye-transfer print of the movie, made for director George Lucas at the British Technicolor lab, had been used as a color reference for the restoration. The article claimed that conventional color prints of the movie had all degraded over the years to the extent that no two had the same color balance.
The company was purchased by French company Thomson in 2001, which subsequently discontinued the dye-transfer process the next year.
- Technicolor official site
- Kulturblog: Technicolor, An Explanation
- Technicolor History at the American WideScreen Museum
- Thomson Corporate Website
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