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Inspiration, Innovation and Re-invention Through the Decades

January 11, 2023

Color – vibrant, living color! We’re so used to color in movies and in the media we consume everyday, but there was a time when film photography could only record the stories in black and white. So – what happened?  How did it come to pass that movies came alive in every color of the rainbow? Well creating the magical, colorful stories from the imaginations of film artists and delivering those dreams onto a screen took visionaries who came together with the purpose to invent, innovate and re-invent how to tell stories on film. Ultimately a team of dreamers from a small startup company that launched in 1912 would find the way to give us the…Technisphere of Technicolor!

From the time I started watching movies at the ripe age of 3 in the family living room in Los Angeles, I was hooked. We were 20 minutes south of Hollywood – but we might as well have been on the moon. Yet, by what felt like a miracle that world came to us through the movie theatres and the 22” screen on our Magnavox TV – films new, old and animated marvels were all around us, including Disney classics like, Snow White (1937), Pinnochio (1940), Mary Poppins (1964), Dumbo (1941), 101 Dalmatians (1996) and Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1940). Whether at The Meralta on Downey Avenue or on TV 3 networks, 3 local stations and one public, PBS – there was a smorgasbord of animated and live action movies – the world was awash in Technicolor.

Speaking of Mickey Mouse, I’m going to jump back a bit in our journey and take a look at a creative match made in heaven in 1932.

It Took 3; Red, Green and Blue – Disney and Technicolor

In May 1932, the first three-strip Technicolor camera was completed. This mounted animation camera had a fixed focal plane that could only shoot animation, but it did have the three negative strips of film stock, that recorded the animation frames through the color filters. Herbert Kalmus, (one of Technicolor’s founders) wanted to test the new 3-strip film camera with an animated work and financial backers paid for the production of the 35 Technicolor 3-Strip cameras that would serve the visionary studios and filmmakers who wanted to put color on the screen. Kalmus reached out to Walt Disney and after some negotiating Walt Disney agreed to try this new process as an experiment ona short animation cartoon, from his Silly Symphonies series (1929-1939), with a short film, Flowers and Trees (1932),which was already in production in black-and-white – the process worked. Flowers and Trees became the first color cartoon and short to win an Oscar at the Fifth Academy Awards in 1932. Technicolor would work on all Silly Symphonies after this success. The last ‘Silly Symphony’, no. 75, was The Ugly Duckling (1939) based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson.

While the three-strip process showed it worked in animation, a lot of studios and filmmakers had been working with Two Color film processing – around 375 films were shot in two-color well into the 1930s. So, how did Technicolor get to this point in 1932?  And how did Technicolor happen? Like any good ‘Whodunnit’ let’s see – Who did it!? Who were the tech-geeks that finally cracked the process to start bringing color to film?

Intoxicated by Color – 1912

Let’s go back to twenty years earlier when two MIT friends: Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock teamed up with mechanical engineering prodigy, W. Burton Westcott to form an industrial research and development firm in 1912, called KCW. From the start, film was clearly part of their destiny as the firm was hired to analyze an inventor’s flicker-free motion picture system. They became fascinated with the nascent color motion picture processes. Their zeal led to the incorporation of Technicolor in 1915, and the world of cinema would eventually see color raining down on the screen.

Since 1899 dozens of inventors and companies worldwide had been trying to capture the rainbow, but had failed or were stuck. The film business from 1893 onwards was the Wild West with patents, productions and wannabe filmmakers flooding into London, New York, Paris and – yes – the real Wild West – of California to tame this new novelty entertainment.

It Takes Two To Tango And It Takes Two (Colors) To Start The Revolution – 1917

There would be failures and false starts for our tech geniuses, but by 1918 Dr. Leonard Troland – who had joined the KCW team – worked with Westcott to create a color subtractive process with two strips of colored film (red and green) and glued them together for theatrical projection. (KCW was the de facto research department keeping everything going through the challenging development phase for Technicolor until 1925.)

By 1920 Dr. Troland started working with J. Arthur Ball, a 27-year-old inventor-engineer who had a passion for film. Ball devised a radical new idea and designed a special camera, a two-color subtractive camera, using red and green filters onto two different strips of film stock mounted inside the camera:

Two negatives would be recorded, exposed through the color filters (red and green) and then – the film would be printed on two color prints  – then sandwiched together to merge the reds and greens and have a colored strip of film stock.

The vision and dream of making films explode in color was at hand.

Team Technicolor decided to try out the new 2 Color Process by producing a film themselves. They packed up their portable film lab which had been set up in a train car so they could go to locations and took the rails to Florida to shoot a film where the Florida coast would double for the China Sea.

Toll of the Sea (1922) directed by Chester Mortimer Franklin was their maiden voyage into color. The 2 Color Process, while not perfect, worked and the possibility of color films that would reflect the full world of color in nature seemed just a step away – the team still needed “it”.

The positive reception of Toll of the Sea made the investors in Technicolor more insistent that the film innovations take the lead. However, Kalmus and team managed to run KCW and Technicolor for three more years before the team would have to decide – do they stay with KCW or abandon their initial company and go the whole nine yards into the movie business? In 1925 Hollywood came calling – and Kalmus, his wife Natalie (more on her in moment), Troland and Ball would head to Los Angeles to conquer Hollywood. Westcott and Comstock took over KCW.

California Here We Come – Building The Bridge To Color, 1925 – 1934

Troland and Ball oversaw the design and innovations of the next wave of color with Ball overseeing the manufacturing of these unique cameras. They had success with The Black Pirate (1926); a Douglas Fairbanks film…but winning over Hollywood took a few more years. They were still missing the secret ingredient – ‘Blue’ (Cyan).

The team finally cracked Three-Strip-Color recording technology in 1932 while Ball focused on the camera technology. Since 1922, Troland had been consistently pushing his ‘imbibition (Dye Transfer) printing’- first with 2-Color-Strip. Technicolor contracted the Mitchell Corporation to manufacture the cameras to Ball’s exacting instructions.

Three 35-mm negative filmstrips were inside the camera and each had a different filter color: Yellow, Cyan and Magenta working in subtractive color. Suddenly an entire film could be in color. No more small color sequences of the past – like the red cape in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) or the song sequence in The Cat and Fiddle (1934). Now you could be awash in color, side-to-side and top-to-bottom (see example here).

Testing it out led to that next big step. What they’d done for Disney with Flowers and Trees in 1932 was about to take off like a rocket with a movie from Pioneer Pictures with producer, Merian C. Cooper. They would distribute the films through Sam Goldwyn’s RKO Pictures and this collaboration would bring about the first feature length live-action film in color. (At this point RKO had been involved in producing and or distributing 253 films made since 1929 – this film would be no. 254 – depending where you put the film on the 1935 list.)

What would this breakout film be you might ask? It wasn’t an action movie or a Western or a comedy, “No!”, it was an adaptation of a great literary work from 1844. To see a world that once existed coming to life, in color as well – now that was miraculous! 

Pioneer announced that ‘Vanity Fair’ the William Makepeace Thackery classic novel about a Regency period gold-digger, Becky (Sharp), who was a woman nobody could say no to – not even Hollywood. Simply titled, Becky Sharp 1935, the story captured the cinematic passion of legendary director, Rouben Mamoulian and actress Miriam Hopkins was immediately hired to star – she proved to be a spot on and perfect ‘Becky’.

Technicolor had made its quantum leap. The film received an Oscar nomination for Miriam Hopkins. Incredibly, coincidentally, one of her co-stars, Billie Burke, would also be in the first feature film color musical four years later as Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz”, (1939). So with Makepeace’s bad girl in Regency London and Dorothy, Glinda and the yellow brick road – Technicolor would forever change movie making – Technicolor had finally got “it.”

First Full Length Animated Feature…The Pinnacle of Perfection With Pinnochio!

The success of Becky Sharp was topped by another ‘color’ jewel in the Technicolor crown – a feature length animated movie, and a first in animation – it wasn’t a cartoon or a short film. This new venture was an 83 minute long movie – just like live action features. Snow White (1937) was the first feature film collaboration between Disney and Technicolor – taking story number 53 from the Brother’s Grimm and their Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ written in 1812. Filmmakers sure do love 19th Century stories showing us that humans don’t change too much. Disney and Technicolor would prove that Snow White, The Dwarves, The Evil Step-Mother and Prince Charming could charm and captivate with a decidedly American Spin, including several hit songs and some very adorable forest animals who only spoke to Snow White. As lovely as she was, Snow White was just the pre-game warm up for Disney and Technicolor would wow the world with their next animated film that to this day is a visual marvel – and they hit their next one out of the park.

Wishing Upon That Star -1940

Pinocchio (1940), cost more than twice as much as its Grimm predecessor, and made back only half its production costs in its initial theatrical run – but that would be made up in multiple re-releases cycled periodically into the market.

Pinnochio was an obsession for Disney and his team for over two years. It was worth the time and heart as the movie proved once and for all that animated films could be at the same production table as live action filmmaking. But Pinocchio was and is the true marvel of Walt Disney’s Full Length Feature Animated movies. It’s a lush, expensive labor of love that found Disney and his original team of animators, including nine young men – who went on to become the company’s storied ‘Nine Old Men’, developing and refining the techniques that would define Disney for decades to come. Pinnochio would include; a wooden puppet that becomes a boy, a cricket mentor who sings, creepy donkey-boys, and some other crafty and not so altruistic animals.

The magic that the nine animators created included: The Blue Fairy’s twinkling wand, life-like flickering candles, to the wild, watery seascape in the final Monstro and the Whale chase. Pinocchio is filled with hand-drawn effects that had never even been attempted before, even Figaro’s whiskers were drawn on with white chalk flourishes on top of the painted cells. Technicolor’s process brought their exquisite animation to life.

At this time, only Technicolor could do what live action films could not do with cameras in 1940. The audiences were taken suspended in the air over the villages and dove under water in sequences that astonished, it would take decades and the development of superb effects techniques for live action movies to catch up to Pinnochio. Pinnochio also took home two Oscars – for Original Song, “When You Wish Upon a Star” and Score.

Technicolor Process IV 1932-1955, The Ringmaster of the Rainbow

To help feature films get to the next step in visual brilliance, Herbert’s wife, the color-obsessed, Natalie Kalmus had become the expert of the color grid. Natalie had studied art at Stetson University in Florida and later at the Boston School of Art. She married Herbert in 1902. Though they “secretly” divorced in 1922 – she stayed on with the team and was “the” Technicolor Color Director, until 1949. Natalie became involved with the movie color schemes working with the Art Directors and Costumers and would, when she felt it necessary, go to the Director. Natalie is the reason Dorothy’s shoes weren’t the originally designed silver sequinned pumps, but ruby red. For good reason her nickname was ‘The Ringmaster of the Rainbow’. Some of her landmark contributions are in: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Gone With The Wind (1939) – to name but a few.

By the mid 1950’s Eastman Kodak and other companies were working on how to get away from the massive 3-strip film cameras. The quest, how to deliver the same gorgeous colors without the cumbersome camera and process that would free up productions from the lighting requirements and sets. Eastman Kodak developed a film stock that would do just that and slowly Technicolor 3-strip cameras were retired for good in 1954. Technicolor would then revise and perfect the dye-transfer imbibition process, Process V that they’d been working on since 1949.

The Last One Was A Killer! The Ladykillers (1955)

Long before he was Obi Wan Kenobi, Oscar winner, Alec Guinness was a star in England. He holds a special distinction in Technicolor film history for his role in the 1955 darkly comic film directed by Alexander McKendrick, The Lady Killers. Besides being a hit, it was the last film to be shot with the 3-Strip Camera. The story of four bumbling criminals planning a heist and eventually killing one another instead came to screenwriter William Rose in a dream. This black comedy is beautifully shot by DoP Otto Heller.

Fifth Time’s The Charm – Technicolor Process V, Dye Transfer From Negative, 1955-1979: And The Hollywood and London Labs

Technicolor created Technicolor Process V in 1953 but, the color science had to evolve so the process would meld with the Eastmancolor 35mm film. The new dye-transfer formula, of 1954, brought the Technicolor process magic to Eastmancolor film. Now, the films shot on Eastman film stock, and printed in Technicolor would have the same rich, saturated kaleidoscope of colors filmgoers had come to love.

One of the many standout films during this period was William Wyler’s 1959 masterpiece, Ben Hur. The film would be heralded for its cinematography, winning the most Oscars ever in film history. If you haven’t seen this film: it is perfection. With an authentic Roman chariot race that was shot in real-time; no CGI or effects, it’s amazing. Thirty-eight years would pass before a film equaled the 11 Oscar wins, Titanic (1997).

Ben Hur and the thousands of films in this amazing watershed time of color feature films would owe their astonishing look to Technicolor’s dynamic Process V.

Then in 1972, innovation was moving on again as Technicolor’s Hollywood Processing Lab took the dye transfer printers off line. What, you might ask was the last film printed in dye-transfer in Hollywood? Why none other than that cinema leviathan, The Godfather, Part 2 (1974). Coppola and his remarkable team began with The Godfather, in 1972 and exceeded expectations with the brilliant sequel. Then, the last color lab in Rome took dye transfer off-line in 1977 but, not before processing Dario Argento’s 1978 film, Suspiria.

Remember the wonderful Alec Guinness who starred in The Ladykillers, the last 3-Strip film shot on the ingenious big Technicolor cameras?  Well, Guinness would be in two seminal Technicolor movies, just like Billie Burke. Burke was in the two Technicolor feature firsts – first color film, Becky Sharp and first color musical, The Wizard of Oz, while Guinness would be in two benchmark films that signaled the transition of Technicolor innovations.

The Last Dye – Transfer in London – 1975

Alec Guinness starred in a host of Technicolor films, including; Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1965) but, he also starred in the last dye-transfer film processed in London in 1975. So besides starring in the last 3-Strip Camera movie, he did this risky little space film called – Star Wars (1975). George Lucas’ industry-changing movie took us into a brave new world, as cinema leaders would dip not just a toe – but their whole foot, into computers.

1990’s DYE Transfer VI  – Enhanced Prints And The High Speed Printer From 1976 Keeps On Going In The 21st Century

From 2001 onward, a quantum leap happened in film effects and the new kid on the block in terms of “blockbuster” films turned out to be a sensational film adaptation of a children’s book – which happened to win over many adults as well.

Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

When Technicolor acquired MPC in London, 2004, the team there was deeply involved in the Visual Effects for the world of Harry Potter, 2001- 2011. By this time, the first generation High Speed Printer created in 1976 had been constantly refined and was ready for the world of Hogwarts. Technicolor handled the negative processing, printing and DVD manufacturing of the Harry Potter films. In 2011 Technicolor made as many as 9500 release prints for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 for the U.S. market and 20,000 prints for the entire world, not to mention the 58 70mm prints for the IMAX theatres. Lucky are those who have seen those gorgeous 70mm prints!

DI Gets Busy And Color Gets A 21st Century Makeover – 2003

In 2001 Technicolor created a stand-alone Digital Intermediate division just as directors David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino were ready to embrace digital cinematography and digital mastering and Technicolor was ready.

Director Quentin Tarantino continued as a ‘hit-maker’ with Kill Bill (2003). Using slick, brightly saturated colors and high-key, expressionistic lighting, Tarantino and team created a Grindhouse-looking classic. The use of a superb anime sequence was directed by Kazuto Nakazawa and produced by Production I.G. The film is also an homage to Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film Yojimbo and Francois Truffaut’s, 1968 French film, The Bride Wore Black.

With Aviator (2004) – (High Definition) Martin Scorsese; DOP Robert Richardson, Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Production Designer Dante Ferretti, Art Director Luca Trachino and Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato re-created old Hollywood with over 405 effects shots; hundreds of second unit shots and color grading to achieve the early two-strip and three-strip Technicolor Film’s ‘look’ of the 1920’s and 30’s movies, recreated within the film looking at Hughes’s life as a kingmaker in Hollywood’s heyday.

Scorsese then made a love letter to early filmmaking with the magical movie Hugo (2011). Scorsese would use the same creative team from Aviator. The film celebrates the genius and beauty of the birth of film. Every frame an homage of cinematic moments from the 19th and early 20th Century innovators; the animated little mouse toy harkens to early Disney, while a real train sequence that owes everything to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (and the like) takes your breath away. The brilliant journey of Hugo through the station is the show-stopping moment.

This Brings Us Forward To 82 Years Later, To Pinocchio (2022). Filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), The Shape of Water (2017), recently embarked on a journey to create an animation masterwork. The movie is a stop-motion animated musical-drama based on the book, “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi. Isn’t it fitting that del Toro’s 21st Century retelling is being done with MPC and Technicolor Creative Studios? It’s been 82 years from when Technicolor teamed up with Walt Disney to make the most beautiful animated film of the 20th Century, so Pinnochio, the little wooden puppet, is in the best hands possible to come to life on screen, once more.

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