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What is Technicolor®?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By ellefagan — On Apr 01, 2009

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!

By anon15081 — On Jun 30, 2008

"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.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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