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How Color Changed the Movies

Our guest blogger today is film historian Eric Grayson who writes about Technicolor, the theme for this year's Winter Nights film series.

As soon as the first photographs were produced in the 1830s, there was a desire to make an accurate color photograph.  Images were painted, dyed, and colored with various inks for years until James Clerk Maxwell devised a way to make true color images that finally worked in 1861.

The first color photograph, a tartan ribbon, using Maxwell’s method.

Maxwell’s idea was to use standard black and white film and to take three images: the first with a red filter, the second with a green filter, and the third with a blue filter.  It was a clever idea that merged the idea of art’s color wheel with the scientific ideas of light frequency.  Almost all color imaging uses Maxwell’s principles to this day.

When motion pictures were invented in the 1890s, there was once again a desire for color images.  By 1900, the Pathé company in France had designed an elaborate system to hand-color film frames with the use of stencils.  Others developed ways of tinting film to make certain scenes have a different artistic feel.

Still photographers had no trouble using Maxwell’s method of making color images, but it was more difficult for motion picture cameramen.  While the still photographer could simply load a new plate, put up a new color filter, and reshoot, the motion picture cameraman had to take at least 16 images per second!

By 1910, The Kinemacolor company perfected a way to synchronize a camera to take red and green alternating frames. It was the first system to record any form of actual color in motion pictures.  They were unable to make the third color, blue, work in their camera.  Kinemacolor’s owners discovered that the film could not move fast enough to record three images.  The film shredded in the camera whenever they tried it.

Kinemacolor was very flickery and required a special projector, two factors that caused it to be abandoned fairly quickly.  Given that it was a red and green process, it did not fully reproduce the color spectrum and gave even its best images a strange look, with greenish, washed-out skies.  Gaumont’s Chronochrome process solved the problem of film shredding by making the frames smaller, becoming the first viable three-color process, although it died out before 1920.  Its odd film size combined with the need for a special projector doomed it.

A 3-strip Technicolor camera from the 1930s.

Technicolor started up in 1917 and was able to record simultaneous red and green images.  They struggled with projection and printing issues throughout the 1920s, until they developed their dye transfer process in 1928.  Technicolor faced the same trouble that Kinemacolor had–they would destroy the film by recording three images on the same strip.  Red and green would work, but blue was out.  Technicolor immediately realized that their films must work in standard projectors without the use of special equipment, a factor that made their process more durable that others had been.

Several other rival color companies started up during the 1920s and 1930s, including Prizmacolor, Cinecolor, and Multicolor.  Again, these processes were only able to produce red and green images, without the full spectrum of color.  It was not until the introduction of Technicolor’s three-color camera in 1934 that the first viable full-color system came to the movies.  It was a smashing success and it rocketed Technicolor into profitability.

Technicolor’s solution turned out to be bulky and cumbersome, however clever it was.  Instead of using a single piece of film, the three-color camera used bulky optics to split the image so that it could be recorded simultaneously on three strips of film.  This meant that Technicolor had to be shot with a special camera that weighed several hundred pounds.  It also required much more light than black and white cameras: the lights often made the temperature on film sets rise over 100 degrees, and swimming star Esther Williams still has to wear protective eyewear because of her exposure to the lights.

Technicolor looked wonderful, with its rich hues and vibrant color, but Hollywood hated it because it was expensive and required special equipment.  When Kodak developed Kodachrome in 1935-6 there were high hopes that it would become the new standard.  Unfortunately, Kodachrome, which also produced beautiful, vibrant color, was difficult to process.  Hollywood needed something that was easy to process and could make good quality copies for distribution, both of which were difficult for Kodachrome.

It was not until 1948 that Kodak released its first Eastman color films, which were all that Hollywood had ever wanted–easily developed, easily copied, color prints.  As always, the ease of use and cost benefits came with problems.  Early Eastman color prints tend to be unstable.  Many films shot using the process have faded drastically, some irretrievably.  Still, it was so much easier and more flexible that most studios quickly favored Eastman color.

"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," 1953.

By 1955, Technicolor discontinued its bulky, heavy three-strip camera.  They still were a dominant force in the color industry, because the studios discovered that their method of printing, their patented dye transfer process, produced superior color prints.  Eastman color prints, while nice, did not have the color range that Technicolor’s prints produced.  Technicolor maintained their dye transfer line until 1974 in the US, until 1977 in the UK, and until 1980 in Italy.  At that time, Technicolor became an Eastman color laboratory.  Eastman was cheaper and easier to process, and by the late 1970s, the color prints had improved significantly.

Film collectors and archivists still value the old dye transfer prints highly.  While Eastman color prints fade an unflattering pink color after 15 years or so, the dye transfer prints retain their full color range for many years.  Even some nitrate dye transfer prints from the 1940s still look as stunning today as they did when they came out.

Each color process had its own advantages and disadvantages.  Many of them have a distinctive look.  The History of Color in Film class on February 10 will showcase as many color processes as possible, mostly in original prints.  It will start with an actual, not Photoshopped, demonstration of Maxwell’s color experiment, and continue with examples of Technicolor (both two-color and three-strip), Cinecolor, Kodachrome, and Eastman color.  The class is designed to be as hands-on and non-technical as possible.  Come have fun and see how color changed the movies!

Filed under: Film, Public Programs, The Toby

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