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Technicolor

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Technicolor is a three-strip color film process pioneered in the 1930s by the Technicolor Corporation, a company created by the husband-and-wife team of Herbert and Natalie Kalmus. Technicolor became widely known and celebrated for its hyper-realistic, saturated levels of color, and was used commonly for filming musicals (such as The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain) and animated films (such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia).

Contents

About the Technicolor process

Shooting Technicolor footage

The Technicolor process used colored filters, a beam splitter made from a thinly coated mirror inside a split-cube prism, and three strips of black-and-white film (hence the "three-strip" designation). The mirror was semitransparent, and allowed part of the light to shine straight through into a green filter and onto a strip of panchromatic black-and-white film, which registered the green part of the image. The other part of the light, reflected sideways by the mirror, went through a magenta filter to remove green light, exposed a layer of blue-sensitive orthochromatic film, passed through a red filter to remove blue light, and exposed a final layer of panchromatic film, which registered the red part of the image. The "blue" film, red dye filter, and "red" film were layered into a single "bipack" strip. The "green" film was a separate strip.

To print the film, each colored strip had a "relief-positive" print struck from it, which was then bleached to remove the silver and soaked with a dye that was the exact chromatic opposite of the color recorded by the film: cyan for red, magenta for green, and yellow for blue.

A single clear strip of film was brought in contact with each of the three dye-soaked colored strips in turn, building up the complete color image. Such a process was referred to by Technicolor as "dye imbibition", which was commonly used in conventional offset printing or lithography but which the Technicolor process adapted to film. The final strip of film would have the dyes soaked into it and not simply printed onto its surface, which produced rich and deeply saturated color.

Sometimes the clear film would be pre-exposed with a composite panchromatic black-and-white positive image derived from the other three negatives, as a way to deepen the blacks and heighten the contrast of the image.

From a technical standpoint

The rich colors that the Technicolor process gave came in part from the fact that the color was not added to the process until the final stages. The color information was recorded and processed as separate black and white images which were relatively easy to control and preserve. The Eastman process, by contrast, had color actually on the processed color negative, which then had to be transferred photographically to the final color print.

The color control that was available in the Technicolor process was even available to the directors of photography, and many actors and actresses can recall standing on the set for long periods holding a board of colored squares (known as "The Lily") while the camera technicians balanced the colors in the camera. The Eastman color directors of photography, conversely, was largely stuck with the color balance of the negative stock as supplied. The Eastman company produced two versions of their film stock, one balanced for studio lighting, the other balanced for daylight. The directors of photography did have a limited amount of control using colored filters over the camera lens or even the lighting.

History of Technicolor

Two-strip Technicolor

Technicolor originally existed in a two-color (red and green) system, and then as a subtractive color system where the color information was carried directly onto the film and not projected through filters. Toll of the Sea debuted on November 26, 1922 as the first general release film to use two-tone Technicolor (The Gulf Between was the first film to do so but it was not widely distributed). These early films were not popular with projectionists because the two colored strips were glued together, which gave a very thick inflexible film, which separated and damaged easily. Although there was no blue present in the image of this process, the eye somehow manages to perceive a very limited amount of blue in the projected image. This may be because the brain expects some familiar parts of the image to have blue coloring and itself fills in the missing information.

Three-strip Technicolor

Development and introduction

During the early 1930s, the Technicolor company worked with Walt Disney Productions to produce a true three-strip full-color process. Seeing the potential in three-strip Technicolor, Walt Disney negotiated a two-year exclusive contract for the use of the process. Competitors such as the Fleischer Studios and the Ub Iwerks studio were shut out; they had to settle for either two-tone Technicolor or use a competing process such as Cinecolor.

The first three-strip Technicolor releases were Disney cartoons, with the first appearance of the three-strip process in a "teaser" animated clip starring Mickey Mouse, which premiered at the 1933 Academy Awards ceremony. The first animated cartoon in three-strip technicolor also premiered in 1933, Disney's Flowers and Trees. In 1935, the first feature-length motion picture was produced in three-strip Technicolor, RKO's Becky Sharp.

A four-strip Technicolor process was also used on a few films in the 1930s. The fourth strip was simply black-and-white and improved contrast.

Problems and difficulties

One major drawback of Technicolor's 3-strip process was that it required a special Technicolor camera. Film studios were never allowed to buy these cameras. Instead they had to hire them from the Technicolor Corporation, complete with a number of camera technicians and a 'color coordinator', more often than not, Natalie Kalmus herself. Natalie's name appears in the credits of virtually every Technicolor film made, in spite of the fact that she was frequently banned from film sets because her concept of color coordination usually differed from that of the artistic directors. Herbert Kalmus's name very seldom appears anywhere because he did not like publicity.

The process of splitting the image reduced the amount of light that reached the film stock. Since film speeds were fairly slow in the 1930s-1940s to begin with, early Technicolor productions required an excessive amount of lighting. It is reported that temperatures on the film set of The Wizard of Oz frequently exceeded 100 F (38 C), and as a result some of the more heavily costumed characters required a large water intake to replace loss by perspiration. Some actors and actresses have suffered permanent eye damage from the high levels of illumination.

The introduction of Eastman color and decline

When George Eastman (of Kodak fame) released his one-strip color negative film it meant that Technicolor prints could be struck from a single camera negative exposed in a standard camera. However, in the mid-1950s Eastman also introduced a means of producing prints through standard photographic processes (as opposed to the expensive dye imbibition process). This meant studios could make color prints in their own labs, rather than having to send them to Technicolor. However, the major blow for Technicolor was that since the Eastman system used just a single strip of film, any standard film camera became capable of filming in color.

In 1953, the Technicolor lab adapted its dye transfer process to derive matrices and imbibition prints directly from Eastmancolor negatives. In the case of post-1953 Technicolor movies, the release prints never faded whereas the color negatives they were derived from lost their cyan record. In 1954, Technicolor made reduction dye transfer prints of the large format VistaVision negative. Their process was also adapted for use with Todd-A0, Ultra Panavision 70 and Technirama formats, All of them were an improvement over the three strip negatives since the negative print downs generated sharper and finer grain dye transfer copies.

Technicolor eventually fell out of favor in the United States as being too expensive. In the late sixties and early seventies, the number of release copies were smaller than they had been in the past. Dye transfer printing was only cost effective in large runs when the cost of the matrices was amortized. However, the superior image quality was still favored by some directors and cinematographers. The last major American film released in Technicolor was The Godfather, Part II (1974). In 1975, the U.S. three-strip plant was closed. In 1978, the British line was shut down and sold to Beijing Film and Video Lab in China. A great many films from China and Hong Kong have since been made in the Technicolor process (and one American film: Space Avenger [1989, director: Richard W. Haines]). The Beijing line was shut down in 1993.

The Technicolor Corporation in the modern era

The Technicolor company remained a highly successful film processing firm and later became involved in video and audio duplication (CD, VHS and DVD manufacturing) and digital video processes.

By the late 1990s the dye-transfer process still had its advantages. Its distinctive "Technicolor look" was hard to obtain by any other means, and it remained the most archivally stable color process. In fact whereas many earlier Eastman color movies have almost completely lost their original colors, Technicolor movies have retained their color practically unchanged. This has become of importance in recent years with the large market for films transferred to video formats for home viewing. The best transfer by far is achieved by transferring the original Technicolor (monochrome) negatives, and adding the color electronically using a Technicolor print to provide the reference point for the color.

In 1997, Technicolor reintroduced the dye-imbibition process to film production. It was used on the "Wizard of Oz", "Rear Window", "Funny Girl", and "Apocalypse Redux" restorations. Other productions that utilized dye transfer printing were "Bulworth", "Pearl Harbor" and "Toy Story". The color was superior to other features that used conventional Eastmancolor prints for release.

An article on the 1997 restoration of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (original version 1977) claimed that a rare dye-transfer print of the movie, made for director George Lucas at the British Technicolor lab, had been used as a color reference for the restoration. The article claimed that conventional color prints of the movie had all degraded over the years to the extent that no two had the same color balance.

The company was purchased by Thomson Multimedia in 2001, which subsequently discontinued the dye-transfer process the next year.

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