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What is Technicolor®?

Technicolor® is a series of color motion picture processes, the first version dating from 1916, and followed by improved versions over several decades. It was the second major color process, after Britain's Kinemacolor, and the most widely used color process in Hollywood from 1922 to 1952. Discover the vibrant history of Technicolor® and how it revolutionized the film industry. Ready to dive into a world of color?
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Technicolor® is a patented process for creating vivid color films from what is essentially black and white film stock by combining two or three separate strips of exposed film tinted with special dyes. This is a very labor-intensive and expensive process which produces hyper-realistic colors best suited for larger-than-life movies, such as musicals, period pieces and epics. Technicolor® is still used occasionally in modern films to give them the same visual quality as the era they depict.

The technical aspects of Technicolor® are a bit complicated. Unless you are a confirmed movie technophile with a burning interest in color timing and dye imbibation processes, this article should cover the essentials of the process.

The Wizard of Oz was among the first movie musicals to benefit from Technicolor®.
The Wizard of Oz was among the first movie musicals to benefit from Technicolor®.

Many people assume that color films didn't arrive on the scene until the 1930s, but there were a number of silent movies which were either tinted by hand or processed through the very first Technicolor® two-strip technique. The Technicolor® company itself was founded in 1915, and the first silent films to feature the process were released in 1922. At that time, there was no such thing as color film stock, so the challenge was to find a way to create realistic color films from black and white film stock shot with single lens cameras.

The Technicolor® process is rarely used in contemporary mainstream films.
The Technicolor® process is rarely used in contemporary mainstream films.

What the Technicolor® engineers developed was a beam-splitter which would take the original image coming through the camera lens and split it into two (later three) separate but equal images which would strike two different strips running in a special camera. In the original two-strip process, one film strip would have a red filter placed between it and the beam-splitter, while the other film strip would have a green filter. This meant that the "red" film strip and the "green" film strip would still be black and white to the naked eye, but each would have different gradations of gray which matched the spectrum of red, yellow and blue colors.

Technicolor may be used to colorize popular and classic films.
Technicolor may be used to colorize popular and classic films.

When these strips of filtered black and white film were developed into negatives, they would be processed with dye-saturated film stock made from a form of gelatin. The Technicolor® process was similar to how newspapers produced color comic strips. A red-tinted film strip would be cemented to a green-tinted film strip and both would be placed over the original black and white stock footage. When the strong light of a Technicolor® projector passed through all three layers, the result was a color film with fairly realistic skin tones and backgrounds.

Technicolor was a film strip technique.
Technicolor was a film strip technique.

The process was improved in the 1930s with the addition of a third yellow-filtered film strip. Many of the best-received musicals and costume dramas of the 1930s were filmed using the Technicolor® process. Perhaps the two most notable films which benefited from it were Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz was especially memorable for its mid-story conversion from sepia-toned black and white to dazzling color.

Old black and white films could be turned to color using Technicolor.
Old black and white films could be turned to color using Technicolor.

Technicolor® continued to be a profitable process for its creators throughout the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, however, many studios were using color film stock processed by a rival, the George Eastman Company. The original process also suffered in the marketplace because it was very labor-intensive and much more expensive than the Eastman process. Technicolor® films were considered to be superior in terms of color saturation and archival quality, but studios could produce and market many more Eastman-processed films in the time it took to finish a single Technicolor® movie.

The company is still in the film processing business, but the actual process is rarely used in mainstream movies. Many companies have stopped production on the necessary dyes, and modern color film processing techniques have rendered Technicolor® largely obsolete. A few major Hollywood releases have been processed in the original process, such as the 1940s-based movies The Aviator and Pearl Harbor, but the original method is generally used as a novel effect, not a regular way to process color film.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Technicolor and how did it revolutionize the film industry?

Technicolor is a series of color motion picture processes that revolutionized the film industry by allowing movies to be produced in vibrant, lifelike color. It was first introduced in the 1920s and became widely popular by the 1930s and 1940s. Technicolor's three-strip process, which became the standard, involved recording three separate color components on black-and-white film. This process significantly enhanced the visual appeal of films and set a new standard for cinematic storytelling.

How does Technicolor differ from modern color filmmaking techniques?

Modern color filmmaking typically uses digital technologies, which capture color through electronic sensors and process it with computer software. In contrast, Technicolor was a chemical process that required a special camera to record three strips of black-and-white film, each filtered for different colors (red, green, and blue). The images from these strips were then dyed and combined to create the final color print. Technicolor's analog nature gave it a distinctive look compared to the crispness of digital color.

Can you still see Technicolor films today, and where might one find them?

Yes, Technicolor films are still available for viewing today. Many classic films shot in Technicolor have been restored and are available on streaming services, Blu-ray, and DVD. Additionally, film archives, such as the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress, preserve Technicolor films. Special screenings at film festivals and revival houses also showcase Technicolor movies, allowing audiences to experience the unique quality of these films as they were originally intended.

What are some iconic films that were made using Technicolor?

Some of the most iconic films made using Technicolor include "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) and "Gone with the Wind" (1939), which showcased the vivid colors and lush visuals that became synonymous with the Technicolor brand. Other notable examples are "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), and "The African Queen" (1951). These films are celebrated for their pioneering use of color and remain influential in the history of cinema.

Did Technicolor have any limitations or challenges during its prime usage in filmmaking?

Technicolor, while revolutionary, had several limitations and challenges. The process was expensive and required a special camera that was bulkier and more complex than standard black-and-white cameras. Lighting requirements were also more demanding to properly expose the three film strips. Additionally, there were fewer facilities equipped to handle Technicolor processing, which could lead to delays and increased costs. Despite these challenges, the stunning visual results often justified the effort and expense for filmmakers.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular MusicalExpert contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular MusicalExpert contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

ellefagan

My son has his first degree in Film and I am a film buff, so this article was a neat treat for me today! Thank you!

anon15081

"The Aviator" used Technicolor Digital Intermediate (DI) designed to re-create the "look" of Technicolor during the 30's and 40's. No 3 Strip cameras or IB printing were involved.

Yes, Technicolor dye transfer (IB) was brought back to life for a few years but the project was abandoned in 2002 after only a few films were released with limited IB prints runs.

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    • The Wizard of Oz was among the first movie musicals to benefit from Technicolor®.
      By: aceshot
      The Wizard of Oz was among the first movie musicals to benefit from Technicolor®.
    • The Technicolor® process is rarely used in contemporary mainstream films.
      By: A_ya
      The Technicolor® process is rarely used in contemporary mainstream films.
    • Technicolor may be used to colorize popular and classic films.
      By: gstockstudio
      Technicolor may be used to colorize popular and classic films.
    • Technicolor was a film strip technique.
      By: Noel Powell
      Technicolor was a film strip technique.
    • Old black and white films could be turned to color using Technicolor.
      By: donatas1205
      Old black and white films could be turned to color using Technicolor.