Peter Hoskin

How Technicolor came to dominate cinema

Peter Hoskin celebrates 100 years of a revolutionary process that gave birth to some of the greatest films ever made

How Technicolor came to dominate cinema
Text settings

They’ve already found a cure for the common cold. It’s called Technicolor. My first dose of it came during the Christmas holidays when I was about 12. There I was, ailing and miserable, when The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) came on the television at the end of my bed. Nothing had prepared me for this. A Sherwood Forest that was aflame with green. Clothes that shimmered purple and blue. Olivia de Havilland’s oh-so-cherry lips. Under two hours later I cast off the duvet and leapt from the fug. The sickness had gone.

I now know that this medicine, Three-strip Technicolor, was a revolutionary process, the first to properly mix the three primary colours of light — red, green and blue — so that film could capture all of the colours in nature. From this technique came movies such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Meet Me in St Louis (1944) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). It’s responsible for that hyper-saturated look we now associate with almost an entire era of cinema. It intensified colour, making nature appear preternatural.

Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation filed its start-up papers in Maine on 18 November 1915, 100 years ago this week. They weren’t the only innovators in colour cinematography — let alone the first. Experiments with tinting film and with projecting it through filters had begun in the late 19th century. This new company would have to struggle past the competition, as well as the vicissitudes of the economy and of taste, to be remembered as it is.

Technicolor’s incorporation date is a useful marker, but technological advancement doesn’t really celebrate birthdays. It was three years earlier that an investor went to Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Comstock and W. Burton Westcott seeking their advice on a smoother form of motion-picture projection. None of these men cared much about Hollywood, but they were renowned scientists out to make a buck. They experimented far beyond their original remit and the investor ended up with a new system for shooting and screening colour films.

The first Technicolor experiments weren’t, to be fair, so very different from what two British inventors had been doing with Kinemacolor since 1906. Both companies filmed using red and green filters (neither had yet worked out a way of dealing with blue). But while Kinemacolor did this consecutively (one frame in red, one frame green), Technicolor filmed each and every frame in red and green simultaneously, which avoided the fuzz of Kinemacolor’s output. The next question was how to project these two-tone films? The first Technicolor feature made this way, 1917’s The Gulf Between, underwhelmed as cinemas struggled to synchronise two projections at once. Kalmus later complained that the system required ‘an operator who was a cross between a college professor and an acrobat’.

Kalmus, who became the driving force behind Technicolor, was undeterred. The next development involved taking the red and green frames of footage, transferring them on to two separate pieces of dyed film strip, and sticking them together. This way, the colour was built into the combined strip. No filters were necessary. In scientific terms, this changed Technicolor from an additive to a subtractive process. In business terms, it made Technicolor much more viable. Cinemas could use their normal projectors.

With viability came interest. In 1926, Douglas Fairbanks lavished $1 million of his own savings on a Technicolor production called The Black Pirate. The studios joined in with two-tone efforts such as Doctor X (1932). These films play as wonderful oddities nowadays. Their avoidance of blue gives them a brown and algal look, like antiquities.

But Technicolor still hadn’t made it. There may have been interest, but there was little enthusiasm. Studio chiefs regarded this newfangled whatsit as an expense with few returns. It irritated some of their filmmakers, who resented the cumbersome equipment that was brought on set. Their actors believed that it erased the beautiful mysteries of shadow and light. And as for the public? They weren’t particularly eager for more. After all, none of them had yet experienced the revelation of Dorothy’s journey from sepia Kansas to the full-colour land of Oz.

As with so much else in the 20th century, it took the involvement of Walt Disney for things to really get going. He was approached by Kalmus in 1932. By that time, the three-strip system — now with added blue! — had been developed, and Walt liked what he saw. It was used for the animated short Flowers and Trees that same year. Then for Disney’s first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The movie-making community and the movie-going public were enthralled. This was the colour that they had been promised all along.

After years of invention and perseverance, the Age of Technicolor began. Like any age, it had its titans. Vincente Minnelli, who had always been interested in painting, quickly realised what a colour palette could mean — and he demonstrated it in movies such as The Pirate (1948) and An American in Paris (1951). The cinematographer Winton Hoch brought autumnal shade and sentiment to the Old West for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Even actors began to revel in it. No one ever glittered like the Queen of Technicolor, Maria Montez, in Cobra Woman (1944).

But we Brits did it better than anyone else. Or, rather, three Brits did: the directorial team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger with their frequent collaborator Jack Cardiff. Whether it’s the joys of terrestrial existence in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the encroaching exoticism of the Himalayas in Black Narcissus (1947), or the very redness of The Red Shoes (1948), theirs is Technicolor that you can feel. Synaesthesia for the masses.

The heights of Technicolor are among the heights of cinema, which brings a degree of sadness with it. Kalmus died in 1963, not long after his three-strip format had been supplanted by cheaper and easier varieties of photography. The Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation has since been bought, sold and repackaged many times. It now specialises in processing films that have already been shot by other means.

Still, there’s always the solace of the unknown. From silence to sound to colour to 3D to whatever next, the art of film has always relied on technological development. It will yield other wonders.