How Technicolor changed movies


You know this scene from The Wizard of Oz. It happens just after Dorothy croons in sepia-toned
Kansas, Toto wags his tail,
and the house gets caught in a tornado. She travels from a faded film strip to a Technicolor
world. But there are three things about this scene
you might get wrong. And each one helps show the real history of
Technicolor. These misconceptions explain what the
“Technicolor triumph” really was, from the technical aspects that made it work, to
exactly why it took over the movies, to the way in which the technology shaped the look
of the 20th century. Lie #1 – Wizard of Oz is not the first Technicolor
movie. Not even close. You might know that, but a lot of people don’t. Come on Maryland Science Center, you’re
better than this. Historian Barbara Flueckiger has an exhaustive
timeline of color in film, from hand-painted film
to the first movie filmed in “kinemacolor,” A Visit to the Seaside. But Technicolor stood out, and even it has
a history that long predates The Wizard of Oz. Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Frost Comstock, and
W. Burton Wescott founded the company in 1914, with the “Tech” referring to MIT, where
Kalmus and Comstock met. It started by merging red and green – into
a new image that roughly looked like this. You can see the look in this range of movies
from the late 1920s and early 30s. It could do passably well with skin tones,
but there’s no blue in these dresses for a reason. Blue came into the mix in 1932, when Technicolor
added the key third strip. They showed off the process in Walt Disney’s
Flowers and Trees, a gorgeous animated feature that was a botanist’s nightmare. You know, there are evil trees in Wizard of
Oz, too. “What do you think you’re doing?” Anyway, in order to get Technicolor to work,
it was an insanely difficult process. Technicolor distributed
guides like these and we can make a reasonable simulation digitally,
with a scene like this. So here’s a scene of some Lego people who
are apparently worshipping Lawrence of Arabia? Not sure what’s going on here, but it’s
our starting image. A technicolor camera would typically take
that picture and shoot it through a prism that split the light into red, blue, and green
negatives for the picture. Those negatives were then flipped into positive
“matrices,” which eventually got soaked with dyes of the
complementary colors. So the red matrix turned cyan, the green one
magenta, and the blue one yellow. Then the dye was transferred — this was
called a “dye transfer process” to create a final gorgeous Technicolor image. So if you’re anything like me, that explanation
might make you feel like the scarecrow. “Oh I’m a failure because I haven’t
got a brain.” So let’s try it again, but only look at
that red channel. So keep your eye on the View-Master, the red
in the Rubik’s cube, or maybe the Lego guy’s hat. It is all kind of dark now, because that’s
just the red color in the negative. Now flipped in the matrix, that red is really
bright, which means that when it’s dyed, it won’t get a lot of
cyan. And that makes sense. Cyan is the complementary color — it’s
the anti-red. So where you want a lot of red, you do not
want a lot of cyan. That way, when it comes together, you get
a ton of magenta and some yellow. You don’t have a lot of cyan, because the
cyan cancels out the red. In the earlier days of Technicolor, they also
had to amp up the contrast. The company would add a black and white layer
underneath the matrices to serve as something called “the key.” You can see the results early, in films like
1934’s La Cucaracha, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,
and Robin Hood, all of which came out well before the Wizard of Oz. It’s easy enough to roughly copy the technology
that “Technicolored” the Wizard of Oz. RGB split, color bath, mesh, repeat. But the film strip processes are just part
of the story. Lie #2: this scene? It’s not going from a black and white world
to a color one. The set was actually painted sepia-tone so
the same Technicolor process could be used for the bright Oz reveal. Today, it’s much easier. I can draw a box with my hand and with a click,
black and white and color play together. They even had techniques to do stuff like
this in the Oz days. But the fact that they built a sepia house
shows how Technicolor’s technical limitations shaped all color movies. “This is one of the cameras that was used
to film The Wizard of Oz.” “It weighs 4 to 500 pounds, and these cameras
were bigger than ordinary motion picture cameras because they had to run three strips of film
through them at any given time.” So remember — this scene? That had to be done with this beast of a camera. Those three strips didn’t just require more
space, they needed tons of light. That set had to be blazingly overlit to get
enough light through to these three strips of film. The set was reportedly 100 degrees Fahrenheit
at times. Sound was an issue, too. “It’s so loud when you’re running three
strips of film through a camera, so they had to build this blimp around it. It’s filled with soundproofing material
so when you’re making a sound film you don’t get all the sound from the camera throughout
the studio there.” Technicolor’s advantages outweighed its
limitations. It’s main advantage was the way in which
it could capture the tone of a scene. Two movies made in the same year could have
a different look, not just because of the choices made in front of the camera. Technicolor consultants and directors tweaked
the palette of the film by adjusting the cyan, magenta and yellow dyes. The complicated dye transfer process gave
Singin’ in the Rain some of its magenta-hued skin and deep saturated colors. The film and technology weren’t the only
things that gave Technicolor movies their distinctive look. It also shaped the world that they chose to
film. Lie #3: This isn’t the real Dorothy. It’s Judy Garland’s body double. She wore specially designed clothes and makeup
to match the sepia world, so Judy Garland could swoop in, in the same shot and
a blue dress, to join Technicolor Oz. These movies, and Oz, were shaped around Technicolor’s
abilities, from head to toe. “The second page that you see here is the
part of the script that shows the ruby slippers being unveiled, but what it shows is that
they were still silver shoes at this point, but the producers of the film really wanted
to show off that Technicolor that they were paying for, so they wanted them to be sparkly
ruby slippers that would look good against the yellow brick road. So they changed it at the middle of production
to ruby slippers.” Today, the shoes are kept under low light
to preserve them, but during the shoot they were blasted with light to accommodate the
camera and make those sequins sparkle. These weren’t just on-set decisions — Technicolor
was always pulling strings behind the curtains. Look at the credits for Wizard of Oz, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and A
Star is Born, and so on and so on. You’ll see one name over and over. Natalie Kalmus. Once married to Technicolor cofounder Herb
Kalmus, she ruled with an iron fist over Technicolor productions for many of the early
years. Kalmus had over 300 film credits where she
gave Technicolor advice — and sometimes told directors what to do. This is the IMDB page for a woman born in
1882. In
documents like “Color Consciousness,” she extended her reach into art — the essay
includes aesthetic color theory. “Red: danger, blood, life, heat. Green: Nature, outdoors, freedom, freshness.” Kalmus’s influence was significant, but
it’s as important as a reflection of Technicolor’s power. Technicolor had its own processing facilities,
and its own camera crew that continued Natalie Kalmus’ work after she left the company. The technology and the production process
gave Technicolor a significant competitive advantage to alternatives being used. Despite all those alternatives shown on Barbara
Flueckiger’s website, studios stuck with Technicolor for a long time. It had a reliable system and
could be shown in any theatre in splendid color, without requiring special equipment. Technicolor eventually fell to cheaper processes
through the 1950s, like Eastman Color, that used a single strip. The Godfather, Part II was one of the final
major releases to use the Technicolor we recognize. But old prints remain surprisingly vibrant
today due to the dye transfer process used. Today, I can snap my fingers and be in
The Matrix or in Stranger Things’ Upside Down. Ok. What are all these dust particles? Is this asbestos? Am I covered in asbestos right now? Technicolor was never just a click —
the look was formed by the camera’s strengths and weaknesses, the artistic choices made
for color, and the Technicolor company’s infrastructure and supervision. In that key scene from the Wizard of Oz, you
might not have known the trivia about Dorothy’s double, or the sepia doorway, or even that
it wasn’t Technicolor’s debut. But one thing is easy to understand, intuitively. The movie is all about it. Technicolor wasn’t a switch or a doorway. It was a whole world, just waiting on the
other side. You can nerd out a lot more on Technicolor
by checking out Barbara Flueckiger’s website, or Eastman House, which was really generous
with their time and a lot of the images that you saw in this video. I’ve linked both of those below. You can see the director’s commentary for
this video in an additional video that we’ve made where I share some behind-the-scenes
info and a few of the details that couldn’t quite fit in.

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