What is Technicolor? Whether you knew at the time or not, you’ve probably seen a Technicolor movie. If you’re trying to recall an example, just think, color, color, color. Technicolor changed the course of cinema forever with bright and bold visuals, saturated to the point of near-surreality. We’re going to look at some examples of Technicolor in films like The Wizard of Oz and The Godfather but, first, let’s check out a quick video to see where it started.
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History of Technicolor
Bringing color to cinema
Did you know that development of Technicolor began in the early 20th century? It took some time for the developers to iron out the kinks, but by the time they did, a new vision of motion pictures emerged.
Let’s check out a great video that shows us how Technicolor was founded and how it was used by filmmakers:
Now that we’ve refreshed our memory with a look at some Technicolor examples, let’s just jump into a Technicolor definition.
What is Technicolor?
Technicolor is a series of processes used to first produce color in motion pictures. From 1916 to 1932, the Technicolor company tinkered with its system so that the process of coloring films became accessible to Hollywood. Today, Technicolor is perhaps more known for the end result of the coloring process than the process itself. Technicolor films are known for their bright, bold, saturated colors.
How Does Technicolor Work?
- Process 1 (1916-1917):
- An additive prism beam-splitter was used to expose one red and one green filtered image onto a single strip of film.
- Process 2 (1917-1928):
- A two-color process that used subtractive complementary colors onto a single strip of film.
- Process 3 (1928-1932):
- A two-color process that used dye imbibition to chemically color two complementary images onto a single strip of film.
- Process 4 (1932-1952):
- A three-color process that used a split-cube prism to expose three independent strips of film that would capture either red, green or blue.
Putting the ‘tech’ in ‘Technicolor’
When did color movies come out? When did movies get color? These are the questions that many of us asked as kids, after seeing our first black and white movie.
Technically speaking, the first movie in color, Cupid Angling, came out in 1918. But the process used to colorize the picture, the Douglass natural color process, was incredibly hard to pull off.
It took a long time for Technicolor to settle on the best process for getting the full spectrum of color in its pictures. One reason for this is that the company was using a two color system in their cameras which only produced one strip of negatives. Looking back, it’s pretty remarkable that this system worked at all.
In this next video, we’ll see how Technicolor used processes 1-3 to achieve revolutionary, but painstaking results:
It’s amazing how many films from this era have been lost to time. Although it is great to see that some of them are being restored.
If you’re still wondering about how Technicolor used the dye-transfer process to color its films, check out this next video:
Although the dye-transfer process was incredible for its time, it proved to be a logistical nightmare. If Technicolor was going to move forward, it was clear it needed a new system.
By the early 1930’s, Technicolor developed a brand-new camera, which utilized a three-color system (otherwise known as three strip Technicolor) rather than a two-color system. And instead of recording only one negative, this new camera recorded three. Each of the three negatives were responsible for either red, blue, or green.
Still confused? Don’t worry, this next video does a great job of showing us how the process was done:
The three strip process required a gargantuan amount of work from the Pre-Production process all the way through Post-Production. Just think about how big that “blimp” camera was! It’s easy to forget just how different the filmmaking process was then compared to now.
Today, everybody with a smartphone has an HD camera at their disposal. It’s entirely mobile, operable, and easy to use — meanwhile the “blimp” required an insane amount of knowledge and technical skill to operate. But by this point, and really for the first time, Technicolor filmmaking was made widely possible.
Color in Cinema
What was the first Technicolor movie?
The first Technicolor film shot entirely in Technicolor’s three color process was Becky Sharp in 1935. At the time, this was viewed as a quantum leap forward for cinema. From 1920 to 1935, the cinema industry had gone through enormous change, institutionally (from Pre-Code to Hays-code), structurally (silent to “talkies”), and technologically (black and white to color). But although many knew about the changes, few had seen them all put together in a single picture.
There were two movies that changed everything for color in film and the world of animation: these were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz. It’s no secret that Walt Disney put his career on the line with his remake of the famed Brothers Grimm fairytale. Snow White wasn’t the first Technicolor film, but it’s largely synonymous with the company’s foray into the limelight. It was also the first full-length cel-animated film and first animated feature in the English language.
This next video shows how Walt Disney pulled off a miracle through technical expertise:
There’s no doubt about it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a masterpiece of its time and one of the best animated movies of all time. But many film-goers were still curious to see how three color Technicolor would look in live-action. Enter The Wizard of Oz — perhaps the most famous Technicolor movie of all time.
The Wizard of Oz doesn’t start in color though. All of the scenes in Kansas are shot in sepia. But when Dorothy is whisked into the land of Oz, the visuals saturate with color, which brings us with her into another world. Let’s remind ourselves of how it all came together:
For many, this was the first time they had seen a film in color. It’s easy to forget just how difficult the process of coloring films was. A lot of studios didn’t think it was worth the time or energy. But after The Wizard of Oz, things started to change.
Not only is The Wizard of Oz enshrined in the annals of cinema history for its production design, but for its technical brilliance as well. The visuals in the film are perhaps more immersive and more staggering than any of its contemporaries.
However, it’s no secret that they came at a cost. At the time, Technicolor cameras required incredibly bright lights to work as intended. Numerous reports say that throughout filming, the sound stage was hotter than 100°F.
On top of that, many of the actors were in elaborate costumes, especially Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow), Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion), and Jack Haley (The Tin Man). It got so hot in those costumes that people on the set feared for their safety. Fortunately, the cast and crew made it through production mostly unscathed. But many were left traumatized or sick from the filming — including the original Tin Man actor Buddy Ebsen, who was poisoned from the silver make-up.
Moving into the Technicolor age
After the release of The Wizard of Oz, studios around the world rushed to get their hands on Technicolor. During the 1940s, hundreds of Technicolor films were made — and people loved them.
However, the difficulty of producing them continued to annoy studios and filmmakers. By 1950, there were more than a few competitors carving out Technicolor’s market share. Films were starting to be shot in widescreen through processes like Cinemascope and VistaVision. If Technicolor was going to survive, it needed to adapt.
Enter Technirama: an anamorphic process with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
This next video shows us how the Technirama process was done and how it was different from its competitors:
End of an Era
The death of Technicolor
Technirama worked for a time, but it didn’t solve the challenges that the dye-transfer process presented. As the years went by, fewer and fewer movies used Technicolor. Two of the last movies to use the process were The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II — two of the best mafia movies of all-time.
Here’s director Francis Ford Coppola talking about his perspective on Technicolor. He reflects on what it was like to work with the company on films like Apocalypse Now and their instrumental aid in the restoration of his film The Cotton Club:
So, what is Technicolor? To Coppola, “Technicolor was synonymous with quality.” The aesthetic of technicolor is one of the most revered in cinema history. Coincidentally, Technicolor faded away around the same time as the Hollywood New Wave did, which was a movement Coppola helped start.
In the end, Technicolor simply became a relic of another age. Today, dozens of Technicolor cameras still exist, dormant and rusty from lack of use. Most of the dye-transfer plants throughout the world have been shut down. Only a few still exist for archival purposes. In the 21st century, color in film typically falls under the domain of color grading and color correction.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia, perhaps it's the colors, perhaps it’s the films themselves. Whatever it is, this much remains certain: cinema wouldn’t be what it is today without Technicolor.
How to use color in film (FREE Ebook)
You may not be able to make a film in Technicolor anymore, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t tools available to make great use of color in your films. Today, it’s easier than ever before to put your signature touch on the visuals. In this article, we look at 50+ examples of color palettes with films from David Fincher, Wes Anderson, and more.