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Technicolor Wall of Dyes at George Eastman Museum 

September 29, 2022

Hi Deb, we heard that you know pretty much everything about the Technicolor dye bottles, tell us about what you do at GEM?

I am the Collection Manger in the Moving Image Department at George Eastman Museum, where I have worked for almost 24 years. I am responsible for the day-to-day operations for the film, video and audio collections, as well as some special collections, such as the Technicolor dyes. I oversee new donations and collections on loan from private individuals as well as some corporations, over 115,000 objects. I also work on film returns, deaccessioning and monitoring the temperature and humidity’s in all of the vaults – located in three separate buildings around the city. I am also an instructor for The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation here at the museum. My area of the department inspects and prepares films for loan to other venues and institutions for preservation and access. I am currently supervising a staff of five people to make this all happen.

The Technicolor wall of dyes can be seen at George Eastman Museum today, what can you tell us about it?  

The Technicolor dye collection consists of 3,037 bottles that used to be in workroom of Dr. John M. Andreas, who was head of the research department at Technicolor from the 1940s to ’60s. He kept these bottles at home in his private workshop off the family garage in California, where he would continue to work with dyes on his free time, to see what could work for film.  These dyes are from a variety of manufacturers, ranging from to American Cyanamid Company in the United States to Durand & Huguenin S.A., of Switzerland. Many of these dyes were used for clothing and food coloring – some bottles are just organic matter in a glass jar, where Dr. Andreas would try to remove the color for use. Many of these were donated by the John and Lucile Andreas Family Trust in 2005, with additional bottles by the son Dave Andreas, in 2017.   

When they arrived, the bottles were clearly in need to some cleaning and care, and were placed in storage, as no one knew if they were safe to handle.  There was a stack of index cards that gave some information to the name of each bottle, but not much else.  In 2011, when the bottles were assigned to me by my then curator, Paolo Cherchi Usai with the idea they would be put on display in 2015, we began the conservation process.   

We transcribed the index cards to begin researching the health and safety before handing these items.  It took several months by two volunteers (both of whom were retired chemistry and lab technicians to look up each bottle’s name and Material Safety Data record) to determine we could handle the materials. This was completed after nine months, when it was determined to be safe. At that point I began to clean each bottle, create an accurate inventory, check the caps, and accession them for cataloging purposes. Many of the bottles did have mould and some water damage, so we used a special air vent and PPE supplies to be on safe side.  

I worked on the bottles every few weeks, taking careful notes and passing research information to the two volunteers to help us get an idea as to what we had any why.  We also designed special storage boxes with Gaylord library supplies to make custom boxes to store the bottles we simply could not fit on the display wall in the galleries (some bottles are very large!)  

Each bottles as a tag marking an accession number so we have all of the label information and any Material Safety Data information linked together in one database, either under the title of the bottle, or the number on the label (many bottles have similar names, so the individual numbers help organize it.)   

Check out how these dyes were used by Technicolor:

 Talk us through how today’s color process compares to traditional dying? 

Where Technicolor’s dye-transfer printing mechanically dyed the image on the release stock, processes like Eastmancolor depend on coupler development, that is, the formation of dye by the interaction of chemicals within various layers of the emulsion. These multilayer films are far more complex, both physically and chemically, than the materials used by Technicolor.5 Since the great majority of color films available today are Eastmancolor versions, we must be aware of the differences between them and a Technicolor original.

Dr. Richard Goldberg, vice president of research and development for Technicolor during the 1950s, oversaw the reformulation of the dye-transfer process for use with Eastmancolor stock, and he has expert knowledge of the differences between the processes. Goldberg explained to me that one strength of dye-transfer was color separation, or the ability to precisely control individual color components. Release prints would be dyed three times with a different matrix, a sort of rubber stamp, carrying yellow, cyan, and magenta dye. Each matrix could be independently controlled to alter tone scale and color rendition, and the density of each dye could be modified to control color contrast. Further, the matrices used to produce prints were made from the original negative. The processing of Eastmancolor stocks, on the other hand, involves the creation of internegatives and interpositives, steps between the original negative and the final print, leading to interimage contamination, or “cross-talk,” between the various layers of color. As an example, Goldberg noted that Eastmancolor printing has difficulty withholding cyan information from flesh tones, which should be very rich in magenta and yellow.6 For similar reasons, yellows in Eastmancolor tend more toward orange than in Technicolor.7 Most significantly, the complexity of the chemical reactions in Eastmancolor film is responsible for the well-known problem of color fading, in which the image loses its blue information and takes on a pinkish or salmon tint. Color in a Technicolor print has much greater stability, partly because the dyes they used.

Which Technicolor movie do you think is the most memorable in the history of color? 

To me, the most memorable film to show the history of color is Singin’ in the Rain (1952).  It shows bold, bright colors in the dance sequences and how Technicolor could make a true black dye.  Color is important to tell that story, with the ‘Broadway Rhythm’ number with the red and blue backgrounds as well as the rhinestones on the costumes showing a flashy style.  The film also tips its hat to dark blues, textures and hues in the famous title song with Gene Kelly on the street with the umbrella. 

Seeing the pretty pink dress that Debbie Reynolds wears at the end of the film, compared to the pink outfit worn when she first meets Gene Kelly at the beginning is interesting.  To me, it says that while things have changed for Debbie’s character in the film, she is still the same young woman who has more confidence in herself and in those around her.  The shades of pink are subtle, but the texture is amazing. 

That is one thing I do like about Technicolor, it showed not only amazing color, but the cameras, lighting and film could capture the texture of what is on the set.  You can read a lot into the materials used.  Their meaning was reflected in Technicolor.   

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

How long did it take to create the wall of dyes feature? 

It took almost four years to complete, but it has been a wonderful addition to the collection and used for educational and research access.  Plus, it looks amazing to see all of these bottles in one place.  It shows how much work, time and perseverance is needed to create such an amazing thing like Technicolor.   

How far do the color dyes date back to and how do you preserve them? 

They date back to 1927-1975, or when Technicolor began to work with dye transfer process (Technicolor Inhibition Process #3) on film to when the company ended the dye transfer process and it was dismantled. 

Are there any interesting facts that we should know about? 

Some of these bottles have creative names by the manufacturing company, such as “Buffalo Black” Niagara Blue” “Victoria Cyan” “Spirit Yellow” and “Ink Green.”  I wonder who came up with these names! 

How easy is it to visit this installation? 

It is very easy! They are on display in the Potter Peristyle Gallery of the museum, which is open during regular museum hours. Find out more here.

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