History of Technicolor [Defintion, Process & Movie Examples]

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Before the invention of technicolor, people watched all motion pictures in black and white. Nowadays, audiences take color films for granted.

Technicolor was the first to create color films which they achieved by using light prisms to alter the film’s appearance. This new tech went on to shape filmmaking for more than 50 years.

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about technicolor, including a definition, breakdown, and examples of films.

What is Technicolor?

Technicolor is the name of the company and lab that creates color in film. By using a prism beam splitter they changed the film frames to color. The process was improved throughout the early 20th century and dominated the Hollywood Golden Age.

It changed the way audiences watched films forever. Because of technicolor, filmmakers now have more options and freedom to make films. Plus, if it weren’t for the color research by technicolor, there would be no color in digital media. 

However, the creation of color on screen took a lot of work. To invent color film, a series of actions had to take place. These tech advances are called the Technicolor Process.

The Technicolor Process

The Technicolor company changed and adapted throughout the years. Their first process started in 1916 with the final product released in 1932. Each step increased the quality and output of the color effect. Let’s break down the process in more detail. 

Process 1
Process 2
Process 3
Process 4
The first attempt at color involved a prism beam splitter that exposed one red and one green image onto a single film strip. Next was an improved version with a two-color process that uses a method called subtractive color on a single strip of film.Then there was a slightly improved, two-color process with a dye effect that chemically colors the images onto a single film strip.Finally, the three-color process with a split cube prism exposing three strips of film in red, green, and blue.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. If you watch a technicolor film today it’s most likely that you will watch a film using Process 4.

The History Of Technicolor

In 1912, Dr. Herbert Kalmus, Dr. Daniel Comstock, and engineer W. Burtin Westcott created a research company. Their research effectively led them to explore motion picture color.

To begin with, in 1916, they made Process 1 with the film The Gulf Between (1917). They made only one film with this Process because it had issues with blurring and a lack of color. The film is now lost, and only a few short fragments survive.

Soon after the team started work on Process 2 which relied on a new method called subtractive color. The effect was a huge improvement to the first attempt. However, the biggest setback was that the film struggled to run through a projector. To fix this, the team created a new bulb projector that you can still find in cinemas today.

In 1928, Process 3 was a huge advancement to technicolor in film with more depth, color, and contrast. The new tech was highly successful, and filmmakers began to take a chance on color in film. Although, to make the most of it films required bright high key lighting.

The last improvement, Process 4, allowed a full range of colors and saturation. Technicolor movies became the expectation in Hollywood, and audiences preferred to watch full-color films. So much so that between the 1930s-1950s, technicolor made around 1000 films.

Technicolor Movie Examples

Technicolor had a big impact on the film industry. At first, filmmakers hesitated to use color and audiences saw it as a gimmick. However, as the tech improved, everyone began to warm up to it’s possibilities.

Let’s look at some early Hollywood color films, how they used color technology, and their impact on the industry.

1. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

One of the first technicolor movies was Phantom of the Opera, directed by Rupert Julian. It was a pre Hays Code silent film based on the novel. The film’s original release had 17 minutes of color footage, including two opera scenes using technicolor Process 2.

The film was a commercial success, however, the tech found itself troubled with problems. The projectors in most theaters struggled to run the film, creating a cupping effect. In addition to this, the color scenes were blurry and had a limited color range.

2. King of Jazz (1930)

Technicolor in film continued to improve with Process 3. One of the first films with this new format was King of Jazz, directed by John Murray Anderson. The film was shot all in color and also had the first technicolor animation cartoon segment. 

The new process made the film sharper, however, there was a limit to colors. Because it was only a two-color process, most scenes had a red or blue tone. Around this time, technicolor had a few competitors, which allowed them to develop a higher-quality process.

3. Snow White and the Seven Dawfs (1937)

Walt Disney’s Snow White was the first full-length animated color film. Disney was an early adopter of the technicolor process. Snow White used a unique three-strip camera with a special dye transfer printer. This new tech created high-contrast color animation cels.

Snow White is the most successful animated film of all time. Disney made over 60 technicolor movies as well as live-action documentary films. The popularity and success of Disney color films encouraged other filmmakers to take a chance on technicolor.

4. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The most famous technicolor movie is The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming. The film features a transformation scene from black and white sepia tone, to color using Process 4. For many people, this was the first time they saw technicolor in a cinema.

However, to get the most out of it, the studio had to have very bright lights, which made the sound stage hot, reaching 40 degrees. Still, despite some technical setbacks, The Wizard of Oz was hugely successful and seen as one of the greatest films of all time.   

The End Of Technicolor

One problem with technicolor in film is that the three-strip process requires very large, bulky cameras. In addition, you could only get hold of a technicolor camera by renting directly. These issues made the technicolor process very expensive for filmmakers.

As mentioned, another setback with technicolor movies was that the sound stages needed to have a lot of light. Because of this, sets were incredibly hot and difficult to work within. So, when an alternative option came along, filmmakers quickly jumped ship.

In the 1950s, Eastman Kodak created a 35mm color film that captured color on a single reel. Now, filmmakers could use a standard film camera to create color on screen without needing technicolor. Kodak also gave the option to shoot more films out of the studio.

Still, technicolor had a long lasting influence on filmmaking. Before, filmmakers and audiences were worried that color would ruin movies. Now, we embrace color on screen, allowing more creative freedom in mise en scene, costume, and lighting.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, technicolor is the company that made it possible to watch films in color. The technology evolved in the early 20th century, improving the color and sharpness of images. However, technicolor had many problems that made filmmaking difficult and costly.

Technicolor was more of a spectacle in filmmaking, similar to 3D films. People flocked to the cinema when it came out, especially for huge movies like The Wizard of Oz. However, in time better options came along and technicolor became a thing of the past.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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