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Tech Talk


The "Tech" Behind Technicolor: The Advent of Classic Color Films

by John Cunningham 1997

First of all, let me recommend the book Glorious Technicolor by Fred E. Basten. It is not too technical at all, and has a lot of good information as well as a fan's perspective on Technicolor and Technicolor films. I think it was published around 1978 or so. If your library doesn't have it, ask them to get it for you on inter-library loan.

Technicolor was first developed in the 20's, I believe, as a two-color process by Dr. Henry Kalmus. At that time it was composed of red & green only, and, since there was no blue, it reproduced rather sickly skies in location long shots. Some silents had Technicolor sequences, and these were done in this primitive "two-strip" process. (I won't go into the technical side of "two-strip" Technicolor, lest this explanation get too long!)

What we film fans commonly refer to as Technicolor is "three-strip" Technicolor which came along in the mid-30's (BECKY SHARP being the first 3-strip Technicolor feature). It utilized red, blue, and green so that all of the colors could be faithfully reproduced and, hence, was a big improvement over the two-color process. (Blue skies at last!)

It is referred to as "three-strip" Technicolor because it utilized a custom-made camera which actually ran three separate strips of film through it at the same time. The camera was so noisy that it required a huge "blimp" (sound-proof housing) and the actual camera plus the blimp weighed a ton (figuratively speaking). It is this huge square blimp that you see in the on-the-set production stills from classic Technicolor films. (Look at some of the behind-the-scenes still from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), for example.)

BUT the actual film that ran through this camera was NOT color film at all! It was three strips of black and white film each of which was exposed through a different colored filter (red, blue, and green). This produced a black-and-white record of each color. (I won't go into a lot of color theory here.)

THEN, these black-and-white camera negatives were used to make what were called "imbibition matrices" which could be made to absorb differing amounts of the complementary colors (cyan, yellow, and magenta). These matrices were soaked in the proper color and then used to make the positive print by adding, one on top of the other, the cyan, yellow, and magenta. (Much like your newspaper prints a color photograph today--three colors added on top of each other to make the final full-color copy).

Actually, the three colors were laid down over a faint black-and-white positive "key" image. It was this, in addition to the imbibition process itself, which gave Technicolor it's characteristic richness.

Thankfully, there are still a relatively large number of true Technicolor prints still out there, even though the process was discontinued in this country in -- I believe -- the early 70's. You see, it is possible (and frequently done) to make an Eastman color PRINT (copy) of a Technicolor film. That is, you can make a print of a Technicolor film on today's modern filmstock---which, try as they might, doesn't look as good as a true imbibition print. So, nowadays, just because a classic film was shot in Technicolor (and there is a Technicolor credit on the film credits) does not necessarily mean that you're watching an actual Technicolor PRINT.

The company Technicolor still exists today, but they do pretty much the same thing that the other film labs do, and the Technicolor process of old is now gone. The reason for it's demise was primarily two-fold:

First, in the early 50's the film chemists developed what was known as "momopack" color film stock. That is, color film that was all on one strip (like we have today). Although the color wasn't very good at first, (and still today isn't as good as 3-strip Technicolor) it was much more convenient to use because it could be used in any normal film camera. They no longer had to use that monstrosity of a huge camera. And, they had the advantage of seeing the "rushes" (the previous day's developed film) in color, whereas in the days of 3-Strip, most of the actual editing, mixing and scoring was done using black-and-white workprints, simply because it took so long to get a color print from Technicolor Co.

Also, during the heyday of 3-strip, the Technicolor Co. actually owned all of the 3-strip cameras (those monstrosities), and rented them out to the studios. This meant that there were a very limited number of these cameras available and, in addition to costing a heck of a lot more than a black and white production, the studios had to schedule the rental of Technicolor cameras sometimes years in advance.

(When they shot the "burning of Atlanta" shots for GONE WITH THE WIND, there were only 7 Technicolor cameras in existence, and Selznick demanded all of them -- he was burning his backlot and had to make sure he had enough angles!)

The other primary reason for the demise of 3-strip Technicolor was economic. Imbibition printing was, we are told, very economical when making a large number of prints for large theatrical release. When you're making 700 or 900 prints of a single film your per-foot cost was amortized over a lot of feet. Such huge numbers of release prints were common in the Hollywood heyday. By the 1950's, however, studios had begun to experiment with different patterns of releasing and started to use fewer and fewer release prints. They began "bicycling" prints--which means that when a print finished at one theatre it was sent to another, and another, etc.---instead of furnishing all (or most of) the theaters with a new print to begin with. Imbibition printing just was not economically feasible for smaller print runs, and this in combination with the development of "single strip" or "monopack" color pretty much spelled the end for Technicolor as a process.

Ever heard of WarnerColor or CineColor or MetroColor, etc? Well, another advantage (to the studios) of using the newer monopack film was that they were permitted to use their own trade name for the color -- which gave them an extra way to plug the studio's name.

One other thing that is interesting to note--during the 50's, after the development of monopack, and while true Technicolor imbibition printing was still available, some studios would shoot their film on the new and easier to use monopack film, and then have Technicolor make imbibition prints. This way they could still advertise the film as being "in Technicolor," although it had not truly been shot in Technicolor. Later, the Technicolor people got wise to this and made them place the credit as "Print by Technicolor" -- and this is why you see that credit on some films, especially from the late 50's.

So, nowadays, as classic film viewers, you will see some films shot in Technicolor which are actual Technicolor imbibition prints; some which were shot in Technicolor but which are later Eastman prints; and some which were shot in monopack but which are genuine Technicolor prints. It can get confusing! Of course, the best ones are those which were shot in 3-strip Technicolor and for which you can still find a genuine Technicolor imbibition print.

There's much more to the technical side of this, but the bottom line is that Technicolor produced a rich, vivid, lush color, which was capable of capturing very subtle differences of tone and hue. There are some colors which even today's modern professional film stocks cannot reproduce as faithfully as the Technicolor process did.

It was truly a technological wonder of days gone by. Thankfully, there are still enough genuine Technicolor imbibition prints around so that we can still occasionally experience what it was really like. (By the way, a true Technicolor print will not fade, which makes these prints very popular--though very expensive--on the film collectors market. And that too, is something that cannot be said of today's modern filmstocks--because in time they will fade, but not a genuine Tcolor print!).

They called it "glorious Technicolor" and, boy, were they right!

© 1997 John Cunningham

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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