Technicolor at 100: No Film, All Digital

Technicolor
The 3-strip Technicolor camera. 1932-1955. R.I.P.

1.

In his memoir, Magic Hour, cameraman Jack Cardiff shares an affectionate nickname for the three-color Technicolor blimped movie camera that reigned supreme for color cinematography from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s; he and fellow British cinematographers called it “The Enchanted Cottage.” Initially used for cartoons and shorts, the Technicolor three-color process made its feature-film debut with Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp (1935), and it soon revolutionized American filmmaking. In 1939, the now iconic feature films Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, both photographed in this still unrivaled technique, made “Technicolor” a household name.

One of the munchkins from the Land of Oz could have snoozed inside the Technicolor camera’s cavernous sound blimp, but even all three of Dorothy’s fellow travelers — the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Straw Man — would have found it a challenge to lift the near 400-pound behemoth with its push rods and mount it onto a camera dolly.

During Technicolor’s hegemony as the go-to process for accurate color in the movies, more than 500 films were photographed in the 3-strip “Color by Technicolor” process, including many of the greatest triumphs of cinematographers such as Cardiff, Leon Shamroy, Oswald Morris, Harold Rosson and George Folsey. But after Kodak’s single-strand Eastman color negative was introduced in 1950, the number of movies photographed in three-strip Technicolor declined rapidly. In 1952, there were nearly four dozen; in 1953, only 10; and in 1954, only two, The Barefoot Contessa and The Caine Mutiny. The last film to be photographed in Technicolor three-strip was 1955’s Foxfire, starring Jeff Chandler and Jane Russell. However, Technicolor continued to make its famed dye-transfer imbibition prints for theatrical release until 1975, when the process was sold to China.

This past year has seen a lavish centennial celebration of Technicolor, including screenings at the Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and the publication of an in-depth book by David Pierce and James Layton on the early days of the company.

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Layton and Pierce also produced a brief video with the National Gallery of Art for an address that was given in Washington, D.C., in December 2015. It outlines the creation of Technicolor's two-color technique as it evolved from the English Kinemacolor system, and the adoption of a single-strip camera negative of alternating red and green filtered frame exposures (which followed the failure of a two-strip, cemented-print experiment). Even with an enviable Warner Bros. contract, Technicolor was saved from bankruptcy only by the intervention of the upstart Walt Disney, who embraced the new three-color system for his 1932 animated short, Flowers and Trees.

Anthony L’Abbate narrates another Eastman House video, explaining how the three-color Technicolor camera recorded the full color spectrum of live action onto three separate black-and-white negatives, separating the colors with a beam-splitting prism:

Key to the success of the Technicolor process was the production of positive projection prints in the low-fade technique of dye transfer. For years after Technicolor abandoned three-strip photography, this very complicated printing process offered an efficient and cost-effective method for making large numbers of positive release prints, especially where Technicolor had a near symbiotic relationship with the geographically adjacent Universal Studios. (My very first movie as a camera assistant, 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop, was photographed in Techniscope, another proprietary Technicolor technique, and released with some imbibition prints.)

Another video from the Eastman House demonstrates how the dye-transfer print process worked:

2.

Time out for a quick tutorial on the history of color courtesy of John Hess, the fast-chatting but winsome teacher in a 20-minute video from Filmmaker IQ. After posing the slightly elemental question, “What is color?”, Hess gives a reasonable survey of the development of color theory that may be of interest to non-cinematographers — and maybe even to the point-and-shoot digital generation. Hess gives considerably more time to the 1920s evolution of the two-color system than the Eastman House videos do, though he often mistakenly refers to the early technique as “two-strip,” when in fact it was a single-strip system photographed with Technicolor’s own Mitchell Camera Corp.-manufactured camera bodies. (The correct name of the process is “two-color.”) Hess discusses the important breakthrough of accurate color in The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Garden of Allah. The latter film, released in 1936 and starring Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer, marked producer David O. Selznick’s first foray into Technicolor. The desert epic won the very first Academy Award for color cinematography, which was given to Harold Rosson, whom I will write about in an upcoming post. (Rosson’s win was for “special achievement in color,” as color cinematography did not become a separate Oscar category until 1939.)

Garden of Allah

Hess also mentions the monopack Technicolor system from 1941 that employed a conventional 35mm camera. He continues his tutorial by tracing motion-picture color through the introduction of Eastman color negative, and even into the digital-intermediate era with Roger Deakins’ adoption of innovative color control beyond photochemical limits on the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?

3.

In 1998, TCM and director/producer Peter Jones made an hour-long documentary titled In Glorious Technicolor. Though it begins with interviews of actresses such as Esther Williams, Arlene Dahl and Evelyn Keyes and is narrated by Angela Lansbury, it is no mere glitzy movie-star tribute. Substantive comments by cinematographers such as John Alton (the great black-and-white noir advocate), Jack Cardiff (who never photographed a black-and-white feature as a cinematographer), Oswald Morris and Vittorio Storaro (who equates color with psychological/emotional states) define the documentary as a serious examination of Technicolor’s primacy in motion-picture history. It also details the company’s origins from its first offices in a railroad car on through the uneasy relationship between Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus and his assertive ex-wife, Natalie. Herbert was not a businessman, but a nerdy scientist whose promising career as a concert pianist had been thwarted by a baseball injury. Even after their divorce, Natalie continued to exercise considerable influence (and antagonize cinematographers and art directors) on many of the most memorable Technicolor features of the 1940s.

Natalie Kalmus and director Sam Wood at a Technicolor 3-strip camera in a maverick sound blimp.

Though the major Hollywood studios exhibited a push/pull attitude toward the Technicolor process in the early years of three-strip, Selznick seemed to have no such qualms, embracing it for A Star Is Born after the success of The Garden of Allah. But it was his decision to use Technicolor for Gone with the Wind that made the process so broadly accepted that there was no looking back. (The film won Oscars for production designer William Cameron Menzies and cinematographers Ray Rennahan and Ernest Haller.) For many A-list motion pictures, color was here to stay.

In 1939, the Academy began awarding a second cinematography Oscar to recognize movies photographed in color. In Glorious Technicolor limns the great color work of artists such as Leon Shamroy, George Folsey, Harry Stradling and Charles Rosher. (All four of Shamroy’s Oscars were for films in color.) Two great English cinematographers, Morris and Cardiff, along with directors Michael Powell, Vincente Minnelli and John Huston, created ever-new expressionistic possibilities for Technicolor. Huston’s Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick, both photographed by Morris (who made eight films with the director), expanded the color potential of the three-strip matrix process in ways beyond even Gone with the Wind.

Oswald Morris
Oswald Morris

By 1966, so few films were photographed in black-and-white that the Academy voted to eliminate the separate color Oscar. Haskell Wexler won the final black-and-white trophy for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Half a century has passed. Only a decade ago, it looked as though motion-picture film itself might be “eliminated.” With more and more feature productions embracing high-definition digital video as a capture medium, it came as no surprise when Technicolor abandoned film entirely. Rest in peace, “Color by Technicolor.” Now a foreign-owned digital business, the company finds itself basking in a purely nostalgic centennial.

At least the entertaining and wistful In Glorious Technicolor reminds us of a heroic era, and of a company whose very name once promised the ultimate in audience satisfaction.

the-gulf-between-surviving-cell
The only existing frame from The Gulf Between (1917), the first motion picture made in early 2-color Technicolor.

NEXT: The Archers: A Very British Affair

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