AskDefine | Define Technicolor

Dictionary Definition

technicolor n : a trademarked method of making color motion pictures

Extensive Definition

Technicolor is the trademark for a series of color film processes pioneered by Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation (a subsidiary of Technicolor, Inc.), now a division of Thomson SA. Technicolor 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 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).
The Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation was founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1915 by Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Frost Comstock, and W. Burton Wescott.

Name usage

The term Technicolor historically has been used to describe four separate concepts:
  • Technicolor process/format - the several image origination systems used in film production, which culminated in the "three-strip" process. (1922–1954)
  • Technicolor dye imbibition printing (aka "dye transfer") - a stable photolithographic system used for the creation of color prints, originally conceived for the Technicolor format but also compatible with standard monopack film. (1928–2002, with differing gaps of availability post-1974 depending on lab)
  • Technicolor labs - a collection of film laboratories across the world owned and run by Technicolor for post-production services including developing, printing, and transferring films in all major developing processes, as well as Technicolor's proprietary ones. Films using these labs thus retain a "Color by Technicolor" credit even though no Technicolor format or printing have been offered recently. (1922–present)
  • Technicolor - an umbrella company encompassing all the above as well as other ancillary services. (1915–present)


Two-color 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. Only a few frames of The Gulf Between, showing star Grace Darmond, are known to exist today. Technicolor became a subtractive color process with Process 2 (1922) (cited by academics originally as "two-strip" Technicolor, although the term is erroneously used for Technicolor's first three formats). 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. The frames exposed behind the green filter were printed on one strip of black and white film, and the frames exposed behind the red filter were printed on another strip. The "green" positive was then toned red and the "red" positive was toned green, thereby coloring each positive with their complementaries to the negative. The two strips, made of film stocks thinner than regular film, were then cemented together base to base to create a projection print. The Toll of the Sea debuted on November 26, 1922 as the first general release film to use Technicolor.
The second all-color feature in this process, Wanderer of the Wasteland, was released in 1924. Process 2 was also used for color sequences in such major motion pictures as The Ten Commandments (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and Ben-Hur (1925). Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate (1926), became the fourth feature to be filmed entirely in Technicolor. The first sound Technicolor feature (with a synchronized sound track and sound effects) was The Cavalier (1928), which was also the last feature to be photographed in Process 2.
Although successful commercially, Process 2 had technical problems of its own: the film images on the two cemented matrices did not share the same plane, sometimes creating a soft focus, depending on the depth of field of the projector's optics. More destructively, the uneven thickness of the film would cause it to cup irregularly, taking it further out of focus and damaging the film. The presence of the image on both sides of the print could lead to twice the amount of scratches being visible onscreen with normal wear. Prints would buckle as the strip of celluloid nearest the light would contract from the heat, and a great amount of light was needed to project an early Technicolor film. Splicing became difficult as both emulsions had to be scraped before applying cement, and the irregular thickness of the base could cause splices that were either too heavy or too weak, breaking the film as it went through the projector. Technicolor had to print up replacement reels that were constantly being shipped between its Boston, Massachusetts plant and exhibitors, with the buckled prints being ironed out by Technicolor employees before being shipped back on the exhibition circuit.
Based on the Handschiegl Color Process created in 1916 by Max Handschiegl, Technicolor Process 3 (1928) was developed to eliminate the projection print made of double-cemented prints, in favor of a print created by a process similar to lithography called dye-imbibition. 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. 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 matrices 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 matrices were floated in dye baths of complementary colors — the strip containing the red record was dyed green, and the strip containing the green record was dyed red — in which the gelatin would absorb the dye. The thicker the gelatin, the more dye it absorbed. The matrices were then placed in contact with a third, blank strip of film (coated with a substance to absorb dye), and the dye was transferred from the matrices to the new print.
The first feature made entirely in the Technicolor Process 3 was The Viking (1928), which had a synchronized score and sound effects. Redskin (1929), with a synchronized score, and The Mysterious Island (1929), a part-talkie, were photographed almost entirely in this process also but included some sequences in black and white. The following talkies were made entirely in Technicolor Process 3: On with the Show! (1929) (the first all-talking color feature), Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), The Show of Shows (1929), Sally (1929), The Vagabond King (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Golden Dawn (1930), Hold Everything (1930), The Rogue Song (1930), Song of the Flame (1930), Song of the West (1930), The Life of the Party (1930), Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), The Bride of the Regiment (1930), Mamba (1930), Whoopee! (1930), King of Jazz (1930), Under a Texas Moon (1930), Bright Lights (1930), Viennese Nights (1930), Woman Hungry (1931), Kiss Me Again (1931) and Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931). In addition, scores of features were released with Technicolor sequences. Numerous short subjects were also photographed in Technicolor Process 3, including the first color sound cartoons by producers such as Ub Iwerks and Walter Lantz. Song of the Flame became the first color movie to use a widescreen process (using a system known as Vitascope, which used 65mm film).
In 1931, a new Technicolor process was developed which removed grain from the Technicolor film and resulted in a more vivid and vibrant color. This process was first used on a Radio Picture entitled: The Runaround (1931). The new process not only improved the color but also removed specks (that looked like bugs) from the screen, which had previously blurred outlines and lowered visibility. This new improvement along with a reduction in cost (from 8.85 cents to 7 cents per foot) led to a new color revival. Warner Brothers led the way once again by producing three features (out of an announced plan for six features) in the new process: Manhattan Parade (1932), Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Radio Pictures followed by announcing plans to make four more features in the new process. Only one of these, Fanny Foley Herself (1931), was actually produced. Although Paramount Pictures announced plans to make eight features and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promised two color features, these never materialized. This seems to have been as a result of the lukewarm reception of the public to these new color pictures. Two independently produced features were also produced in this improved Technicolor process: Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1934) and Kliou the Tiger (1935).
Very few of the original camera negatives of movies made in Technicolor Process 2 or 3 survive. In the late 1940s, most were discarded from storage at Technicolor in a space-clearing move, after the studios declined to reclaim the materials. Those that survived into the 1950s were often used to make black and white prints for television and simply discarded thereafter. This explains why so many early color films exist today solely in black and white.
Warner Bros., which had vaulted from an extremely minor exhibitor to a major studio by its introduction of the talkies, latched onto Technicolor as the next big thing. Other producers followed Warners Bros.' example by making features in color, with either Technicolor or one of its competitors, such as Brewster Color and Multicolor (later Cinecolor). However, the aspect of color did not increase the number of audiences to the point where it was economical. This, and the Great Depression severely strained movie studios' finances, and spelled the end of the first Technicolor boom.

Three-strip 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. Hollywood made so much use of Technicolor in 1929 and 1930, that many believed that Hollywood would soon be turning out color films exclusively. By 1931, the Great Depression took its toll on the movie industry, and they began to cut back on expenses. The production of color films had decreased dramatically by 1932, when Technicolor unveiled its first three-color process in an attempt to entice the movie studios. Light passed through the lens and was then divided 50-50 by a beam splitting prism block. The green aspect of the scene was recorded through a filter on an orthochromatically sensitized film strip, while the light behind a magenta filter was further broken down by a bipack of a film strip panchromatically sensitized for red and a non-sensitized for blue light. The blue record film bore a red gelatin filter layer. This process accurately reproduced the full color spectrum and optically printed using a dye-transfer process in cyan, magenta and yellow.
Kalmus convinced Walt Disney to shoot one of his Silly Symphony cartoons Flowers and Trees (1932) in Process 4, the new "three-strip" process. Seeing the potential in full-color Technicolor, Walt Disney negotiated in 1934 an exclusive contract for the use of the process, going to September 1935. Competitors such as the Fleischer Studios and the Ub Iwerks studio were shut out — they had to settle for either the two-color Technicolor systems or use a competing process such as Cinecolor.
Flowers and Trees was a success with audiences and critics alike, and won the first Academy Award for Animated Short Film. The next Silly Symphonies to be shot with the process, Three Little Pigs, engendered such a positive audience response that it overshadowed the features it played with. Hollywood was buzzing about color film again. According to Fortune magazine, "Merian C. Cooper, producer for RKO Radio Pictures and director of King Kong (1933), saw one of the Silly Symphonies and said he never wanted to make a black and white picture again."
Although Disney's earliest Technicolor cartoons utilized the general three-strip camera, an improved process was adopted in 1934 solely for cartoon work: the camera would contain one strip of black and white negative film, and each animation cel would be photographed three times, on three sequential frames, behind alternating red, green, and blue filters. Three separate dye transfer printing matrices would be created from the red, green, and blue records in their respective additive colors, cyan, magenta and yellow.

Shooting Technicolor footage, 1934–1954

Technicolor's advantage over most early, natural color processes was that it was a subtractive synthesis rather than an additive one. Technicolor prints could run on any projector; unlike other additive processes, it could represent colors clearly without any special projection equipment or techniques. More importantly, Technicolor held the best balance between a quality image and speed of printing, compared to other subtractive systems of the time.
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 beam splitter allowed ⅓ 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 ⅔ 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 and then onto a red-sensitive strip of panchromatic stock. The "blue" and "red" films were layered into a "bipack". The "green" film was a separate strip.
To print the film, each colored strip had a print struck from it onto a light sensitive piece of gelatin film. When processed, "dark" portions of the film hardened, and light areas were washed away. The gelatin film strip was then soaked with a dye complementary to the color recorded by the film: cyan for red, magenta for green, and yellow for blue (see also: CMYK color model for a technical discussion of color printing).
A single clear strip of black and white film with the soundtrack pre-printed was first treated with a mordant solution and then brought in contact with each of the three dye-soaked colored strips in turn, building up the complete color image. This process is referred to as "dye imbibition", a technique which was commonly used in conventional offset printing or lithography but which the Technicolor process utilized on film. The final strip of film would have the dyes soaked into its emulsion and not simply printed onto its surface. The end result was a bright and clear representation of natural color.
Early in the process, the clear film would be pre-exposed with a 50 percent density black-and-white positive image derived from the green matrix. This process was used largely to cover up fringing in the early days of three-strip printing, and to print frame lines that would otherwise be white. Because the layer was of neutral density, the contrast blacks in the picture was increased, but colors were muted to an extent. By the early 1940s, however, Technicolor streamlined the process to make up for these shortcomings and this practice ceased. However, a black-and-white silver image was still used for the frame line and sound track.

Convincing Hollywood

The studios were willing to adopt three-color Technicolor for live-action feature production, if it could be proved viable. Shooting three-strip Technicolor required very bright lighting, as the film had an extremely slow speed of ASA 5. That, and the bulk of the cameras and a lack of experience with three-color cinematography made for skepticism in the studio board rooms.
Fortune magazine's October 1934 article stressed that Technicolor, as a corporation, was rather remarkable in that it kept its investors quite happy despite the fact that it had only been in profit twice in all of the years of its existence, during the early boom at the turn of the decade. A well-managed company, half of whose stock was controlled by a clique loyal to Kalmus, Technicolor never had to cede any control to its bankers or unfriendly stockholders. In the mid-'30s, all the major studios except MGM were in the financial doldrums, and a color process that truly reproduced the visual spectrum was seen as a possible shot-in-the-arm for the ailing industry.
Live-action use of three-strip Technicolor was first seen in a musical number of the MGM feature The Cat and the Fiddle, released February 16, 1934. On July 28, 1934, Warner Brothers released Service With a Smile, followed by Good Morning, Eve! on August 5, both being comedy short films starring Leon Errol and filmed in three-strip Technicolor. Pioneer Pictures, a movie company formed by Technicolor investors, produced the film usually credited as the first live-action short film shot in the three-strip process, La Cucaracha released August 31, 1934. La Cucaracha is a two-reel musical comedy that cost $65,000, approximately four times what an equivalent black-and-white two-reeler would cost. Released by RKO, the short was a success in introducing the new Technicolor as a viable medium for live-action films. The three-strip process also was used in some short sequences filmed for several movies made during 1934, including the final sequences of The House of Rothschild (20th Century Pictures/United Artists) with George Arliss and Kid Millions (Samuel Goldwyn Studios) with Eddie Cantor.
Pioneer/RKO's Becky Sharp (1935) became the first feature film photographed entirely in three-strip Technicolor. Initially, three-strip Technicolor was only used indoors; then, in 1936, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine became the first production to have outdoor sequences, with impressive results. The spectacular success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which was released in December 1937 and became the top-grossing film of 1938, caused the studios to sit up and take notice.

Limitations and difficulties

One major drawback of Technicolor's 3-strip process was that it required a special, bulky, and very heavy Technicolor camera. Film studios could not purchase Technicolor cameras, only rent them for their productions, complete with a number of camera technicians and a "color supervisor" to make sure sets, costumes and make-up circumvented any limitations imposed by the system. More often than not on many early productions, the supervisor was Natalie Kalmus, ex-wife of Herbert Kalmus and part owner in the company.
The process of splitting the image reduced the amount of light that reached the film stock. Since the film speed of the stocks used in the camera were fairly slow, early Technicolor productions required a greater amount of lighting than a black and white production. 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 claimed to have suffered permanent eye damage from the high levels of illumination.
Because of the added lighting and triple amount of film necessary, Technicolor's productions demanded a high budget film for its usage.

The introduction of Eastman color and decline

By the late 1990s the dye transfer process still had its advantages in the film archival community. Because the dye transfer process used stable Azo dyes, Technicolor prints are considered of archival quality. A Technicolor print from the dye transfer era will retain its original colors virtually unchanged for decades with proper storage, whereas Eastmancolor prints prior to 1983 would suffer color fading as a result of less stable photochemical dyes. Fading on some prints was so rapid that in many cases, after as little as ten years only the magenta record would remain on the film.
Furthermore, Technicolor's negatives before 1954 were all on silver-based black and white stock, which stayed unaltered over the course of time. This has become of importance in recent years with the large market for films transferred to video formats for home viewing. The best color quality control for video transfer by far is achieved by printing from Technicolor negatives onto low-contrast Color Reversal Internegatives.
In 1997, Technicolor reintroduced the dye transfer process to general film production. It was also used on the restorations of films such as The Wizard of Oz, Rear Window, Funny Girl, and Apocalypse Now Redux. An article on the 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 during its initial run, 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. However, because of the variation in color balance per print, dye-transfer prints are used in the professional restoration world as only a rough guideline.

Reintroduction of the dye transfer process

After its reintroduction in 1997, the dye transfer process was (somewhat unexpectedly) used in several big-budget, modern Hollywood productions. These included Bulworth, Pearl Harbor, and Toy Story. The distinct "look" this process achieves, often sought after by film makers looking to re-create the period of time at which Technicolor was at its most prominent, is difficult to obtain through conventional, high-speed printing methods and is one explanation for the enduring demand and credibility of the process.
The latest motion picture dye IB (imbibition) transfer process developed during the 1990s is greatly superior to the process used during the 1970s and of much higher quality than modern Eastmancolor stocks. The prints exhibited a higher color gamut and color satauration than modern Eastmancolor stock and could be made consistently and accurately for large numbers of prints. There were no longer visible density and contrast variations that occurred most often with earlier three color Technicolor. The new process was also about as sharp as modern Eastmancolor process with slightly higher contrast, but they appeared sharper due to the higher contrast.
Technicolor was purchased by French company Thomson in 2001 from the British company Carlton Communications, which discontinued the dye-transfer process in 2002.
The visual aesthetic of dye transfer Technicolor continues to be used in Hollywood, usually in films set in the mid-20th century. Parts of The Aviator, the 2004 biopic of Howard Hughes, were digitally manipulated to imitate color processes that were available during the periods each scene takes place. The two-color look of the film is incorrectly cited as looking like Technicolor's two-color systems, and is in fact a facsimile of Hughes' own color system, Multicolor. The "three-strip" Technicolor look begins after the newsreel footage of Hughes making the first flight around the world.


Further reading

  • Fred E. Basten, Glorious Technicolor: The Movies' Magic Rainbow. Easton Studio Press, 2005. ISBN 0-9647065-0-4
  • Richard W. Haines, Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing. McFarland & Company, 2003. ISBN 0-7864-1809-5
  • John Waner, Hollywood's Conversion of All Production to Color, Tobey Publishing, 2000.
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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

3-D, Cinemascope, Cinerama, Western, animated cartoon, black-and-white film, bright color, brightness, brilliance, cartoon, chiller, cinema, color, color film, colorfulness, creepie, documentary, documentary film, educational film, feature, film, flick, flicker, gaiety, gorgeousness, horror picture, horse opera, intensity, motion picture, motion-picture show, movie, moving picture, newsreel, nudie, photodrama, photoplay, picture, picture show, pornographic film, preview, pure color, richness, saturation, short, silent, silent film, skin flick, sneak preview, spaghetti Western, talkie, talking picture, thriller, trailer, underground film, vividness
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