Technicolor, An Explanation

I’ll bet you all didn’t know that Technicolor films were shot on black and white film.

Sorry beforehand for the lecture.

Though Kodak color film existed in the 30s, its clarity and contrast weren’t up to the rigorous demands of large dimension projection, a necessity for movies. Enter Herbert Kalmus, and his invented technology, Technicolor.

A Technicolor camera is a simple 35mm camera with a very odd modification — behind the lens is a prism splitting the white light three ways, into red, green and blue light. Inside the camera are inserted three black and white nitrate film stocks, two back to back and one on the side, with a small mirror reflecting the light to the side film. Each strip of film recorded one color of a color picture, and the recording is on fade-proof black and white nitrate stock film.

The 3 strips are developed, and made into positives, called matrices. Each of these looks like a complete black and white film, but when examined closely, they look odd (because they only contain one color out of the total). The matrices are bathed in gelatin, and then when the silver is washed away, the gelatin adheres to the surface of the film at the exact saturation level of the color — presumably the darker the color, the more density of gelatin. And then each of the matrices is dyed one of three colors, the substractive colors yellow (for the blue record), magenta (for the green record) and cyan (for the red record). After dyeing, the matrices are pressed one at a time into prints, a process called dye-sublimation printing, at a registration precision of 1/10,000 an inch.

The original 3-strip Technicolor movies have a color palette and beauty far surpassing chemical color processes which came later (in the 50s), and they will never fade. However, because a single print requires 3 separate negatives, other problems arose over time. Each of the negatives, made of plastic celluloid, began to shrink and crack, and of course, each would shrink and crack differently from the others. When re-printed, registration of the 3 colors becomes a problem — magenta and yellow “halos” around objects could be seen, from mis-registration.

Enter computers and the 21st Century. Warner Brothers has patented a digital technology called “Ultra-Resolution” which basically involved scanning in each negative separately, digitally correcting shrinkage, and re-compositing the files digitally, and then outputting onto DVD (or whatever digital file).

So far, only 4 films have benefitted from this, the first being Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and the others The Adventures of Robin Hood (1937), Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), and the piece de resistance Gone With The Wind (1939). The first three were done with a resolution of 2K, meaning 2000 vertical lines, plenty for high-definition digital presentation, and not quite up to the 35mm original film quality. But the latter was done at 4K, a far better resolution, and it will probably be re-output to negative celluloid. Currently in Ultra-Resolution production, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

I recommend all these films highly, not least because of their splendid and eternal worlds of ravishing color.

32 thoughts on “Technicolor, An Explanation

  1. I should also mention that Technicolor was a patented technology, but also the name of a company run by Herbert Kalmus. If you see a movie from about 1954 on with the name Technicolor attached to it, that means it was processed at the Technicolor labs, but wasn’t actually utilizing Technicolor technology — probably it was filmed on Eastman color stock (and probably, it has faded).

  2. Those are some good movie picks… I’ve seen three of them at least a half dozen times or so. So D., I’ve briefly heard of the history of Technicolor but never in this kind of detail. Does the universe just grant you this knowledge when you surpass the 1,000 DVD mark?

  3. Yes.

    Actually, I learned about all this through my hobby, home theater and DVD-collecting.

    I didn’t put this in the lecture, but I find it quite fascinating that 3-strip Technicolor films are more akin to painting than I previously understood. They are basically black and white pictures which have been painted.

    There were interesting limitations to Technicolor, colors which couldn’t be achieved, and other colors which looked completely different onscreen than what they were (in life). For instance, when Dorothy enters Oz (Munchkinland), it’s in Technicolor, but many of the colors aren’t reproduced exactly as they were intended. Her blouse looks white and her dress is a light blue-checked gingham. But the blouse was actually a very light pink — they designed it this way, because white actually “glows” and the last thing they wanted was a radioactive Dorothy. You can’t see the pink at all.

    Another very interesting thing in Oz: the original movie was printed by Technicolor, because the sections at the beginning and end are sepia-colored — actually a brownish color that is quite different from black and white. But there is a shot of Dorothy opening the door from her bedroom and walking out into Munchkinland in full color. Today this might be achieved digitally, but back then they had to paint her room sepia color, make a sepia-colored costume and makeup for Dorothy, Judy Garland’s stand-in wears this and opens the door, and then Judy herself (in full color regalia) walks out into Oz.

  4. Thanks D. — this was really interesting. Of course, now that some films are being directly shot onto digital media, the whole issue of colorization takes on new meaning — there’s a lot more control (and potential for abuse).

    Say, do you want to convert this post to an excerpted 1st paragraph and then a continuation?

  5. By the way, “colorization” has a completely different meaning, though I see how you might confuse what I’ve posted about Technicolor with “colorization.” Technicolor films were always intended on being in color, and colors and lights chosen specifically for that purpose. “Colorization” really refers to digitally painting over a black and white film, making it look like color. Turner was really into this in the 80s, but most people don’t really like the color look, and it does diminish the artistic importance of the original cinematographer and art director (of these amazing black and white films).

    I do think that in future we’ll see b&w films digitally “reconstituted” into color films, probably lots of older children’s stuff, light comedies like Laurel and Hardy, and musicals.

  6. Actually, by colorization I was referring to the tweaking of palettes in already-color films, such as the enhancing of the green spectrum in LOTR: Fellowship. Clumsy vocabulary.

    I’m not a fan of colorized B&W films such as those you mention. I think they’re a mockery of decent movies.

  7. In the case of the early Turner colorizations, it was a mockery — the colors were all wrong and made the actors look like some sort of Kabuki characters. Truly horrible stuff.

    But even with the technical problems of colorization resolved, I still have a problem with it being done, since it is a departure from the original cinematic artifact. In other words, I feel like we’re not being ‘true’ to the real movie. Some films just won’t work in color — take The Third Man for instance, which is all about haunting darkness and stark reality. Even if it were to be colorized, it would be a washed out color that would scarcely add anything.

    You’ve got to keep in mind that B&W films were shot as such, and the directors/cinematographers understood the limitations of their medium and adjusted appropriately. Exposures and film grain were a big deal to these filmmakers, and a movie like Citizen Kane is a clear example of how they were testing out the potentialities of the medium. For us to throw some color onto their product is to disregard their efforts in a sense, and to view a completely different product.

    You can make the argument that films really belong to no one, and that we should be free to reinterpret them as we wish. It’s like remixing a song, or like Rod Stewart reinterpreting Van Morrison. For me, it’s a travesty.

  8. Well, I’m gonna take this conversation in another direction. The problem with colorization as implemented by Turner and his minions is that it was done for commercialization — to sell these pieces to younger audiences who “don’t like” black and white movies. So, the ultimate goal wasn’t artistry, and that’s what’s wrong, although one could make a case that the movies might be more available to more people if colorized. I myself have known plenty of people who don’t like watching a movie in black and white.

    I also think that the colorized movies looked bad, but not because of wrong colors. They had to paint in the colors on top of gray pictures, so it had a paint-by-numbers effect, hardly lifelike and hardly rich and artistic.

    But personally, I would have no problem with someone making a new artistic product out of an old movie, reinterpreting it for a different audience. Some years ago, La Belle et La Bete (Beauty and the Beast), the Cocteau film, was projected in Avery Fisher Hall with a live orchestra playing a Philip Glass score, including singers singing lines “lip-synched” to the actor’s originals. The sound in the movie was turned off, eliminating the dialogue and original score. This reinterpretation of an old movie may not be to everyone’s taste, but it didn’t ruin the old movie, just using it to make a new piece. Well, why not?

    There are plenty of old movies that could use new music scores. And there are some that might be reinterpreted in color — as long as that’s the intention, I say, go for it.

  9. Well, now, this just raises the age-old issue of artistic re-interpretation and the legitimacy of redoing masterworks. When ‘Psycho’ got re-done a few years back in a shot-by-show remake, there was a lot of this discussion going around. My sense is that D.’s comment about the purpose of the remake is central; that is, remaking a movie just to make some coin is not a legitimate purpose, and ultimately the viewer will see it as fraud because the artistry will be lost.

    I don’t view what happened with La Belle et La Bete as really remaking the film, any more than the showings of Nosferatu in St. John’s Cathedral at Hallowe’en do so. Now colorizing Cocteau? Not so good.

    I take it, D., that you’re not so big on preserving artistic intent? You don’t take original works to be sacred?

  10. “I take it, D., that you’re not so big on preserving artistic intent? You don’t take original works to be sacred?”

    Steve, it’s not like painting over a painting. Original art preservation is not really affected when new art is born.

    The old art is still in its original form. And in fact, in this case, the new art usually helps attract newcomers to the old art.

  11. “The old art is still in its original form”

    I wish that were true, Bob. Unfortunately, there are many cases when the old art may still exist, but will not be distributed, because the rights holders refuse to do so.

    The most prominent example of this is the original Star Wars Trilogy. Most aficionados (myself included) prefer the original versions to the souped-up “Special Editions” that were later released, despite their superior sound and cleaner look. However, Lucas refuses to put those original versions out on the market anymore, so I need to hold on to my old VHS versions to watch them.

    This is a bit of a weird case, I’ll admit, since Lucas is the original artist (and claims that the SEs are what he always wanted to produce), but you see how it’s not always as simple as you’re making it out to be.

  12. “The old art is still in its original form. And in fact, in this case, the new art usually helps attract newcomers to the old art.”

    Yes, in fact, when colorization was big in the 80s, when there was the biggest riot about ruining these great old films, there was one group which was particularly silent on the issue — the film restorers. Because in order to colorize a movie, a new print had to be made and all the scratches removed. Colorization actually did film archiving and restoring a big favor.

    I myself like the old movies just as they are, but my home theater has made bad source material — old scratchy prints — barely watchable. I like to see the movies as they were meant to be seen.

    But I think that Cocteau movie might be really interesting if reinterpreted in color.

    Here’s another example: Le Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (1927), one of the world’s great masterpieces, is a silent film directed by Carl Dreyer. Some years ago a perfectly sound print was found in a Norwegian mental hospital, and this print became the source of all the digital presentations, tapes, laserdiscs and now DVDs. On the DVD, there is a music score composed in 1997 called Voices of Light, a choral work that “interprets” the movie. It works as a music score, and I enjoy watching the movie with the music on, though it is optional (one can watch the movie completely silent).

    This is how I would do colorization: as an optional choice, recognizing that it isn’t the original. I also would only choose movies to interpret into color those where color would add a new dimension. Citizen Kane would not be one of these, nor The Third Man. The Third Man is famous for its zither music score, but I sure would like to watch the movie without those zithers…er…zithering.

  13. Steve, I think the example of Star Wars is a different animal completely. Those movies are George Lucas’s babies, and he’s free to do whatever he wants to them. You may like the original versions better, but in George’s eyes, those were drafts which he later improved.

    I happen to like the workshop version of Sunday in the Park with George, because I saw it a couple of times and fell in love with it. I later got a bootleg audio tape, which I’ve listened to about 100 times.

    The Broadway show version is quite different, and in many ways (in my opinion) inferior. But I wouldn’t bother to tell that to Sondheim or Lapine — I think they know what they’re doing.

    Art isn’t pure the way you’re thinking it is, and it certainly should be up to the artist to make any changes desired.

  14. Bringing it back to technicolor…I love it!

    D., do you think the technicolor look could be duplicated today? I mean, I suppose it could, but it looks just ever slightly unnatural, and in a good way. You can tell they aren’t accurately reproducing colors, they’re just making them pop off the screen. Great stuff.

    I’ve been obsessing over my Gone with the Wind DVD that just came out. Though I weep at the thought that during the burning of Atlanta, it’s really the set pieces from previous films, including the Gates of Kong. For shame.

  15. Hi, John H.!

    I think the Technicolor “look” is a misnomer — Technicolor could reproduce any look desired. The new DVD of Gone With The Wind proves my point, because overall it has a sepia (yellowish) cast, adding a dimension which might be described as “historical.” It’s a beautiful look, apparently quite similar to the movie when it was first released.

    P.S. If they hadn’t burned those outdoor sets, there wouldn’t be that fantastic fire in the movie. It’s a tradeoff, but since RKO was dead anyway (as was King Kong), I don’t think there was anything lost. The sets built on the burned backlot survived through many decades and movies.

  16. D.,

    Tell me more! I’d always assumed that Technicolor had some limitations, given that the look never quite comes off as natural (which, as I said above, I prefer). Where did you learn all this? My weak knowledge comes from DVD featurettes – is there a book on Technicolor?

    Do you think the ultra-resolution will produce a noticeable difference in Wizard of Oz? Unlike Gone with the Wind, which was an early DVD, The Wizard of Oz got some decent treatment and has a pretty nice looking transfer.

  17. The Wizard of Oz was an early DVD as well. I suspect there will be some benefit to this new process, though it’s true that The Wizard of Oz holds up nicely as it is.

    The colors don’t look particularly natural here, but it was always intended this way. I think Gone With The Wind has looked “unnatural” for years, and this recent version restores a naturalness to it that is surprising. Because Technicolor had a legend of being “brighter than life,” as the movies were printed, the colors were extra-saturated, making it appear brighter. But all this is controllable.

    I do own a great book, David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, which has many sections on Technicolor. Also, try this site:

    and go to the section on color processes.

  18. D., you should now sign your commments as “D. Fletcher, Slate approved Technicolor expert”

    That’s awesome.

  19. Here’s something I wrote at Home Theater Forum about the Gone with the Wind DVD set which came out in November:

    If you’ll all indulge me, I’d like to express my astonished enthusiasm for this disk.

    I’ve always enjoyed the movies, particularly older Hollywood product, since I watched those movies when I was a kid in the 60s. I saw many movies on a little black and white television, often watching the same one night after night (Million Dollar Movie, on Channel 9 in NY, would show the same movie for a week). The movies were often completely incomprehensible to me, but it didn’t matter — I was still fascinated.

    And I started to see movies in the theaters. I too saw Gone With The Wind in its 70mm incarnation in 1968, when I was 10 years old, and I saw it a number of times after that. I couldn’t quite understand the movie… and I remember it as being all brown and pink-colored, with a lot of facial closeups. I didn’t know, of course, that it had been drastically cropped.

    Cut to 1998, when I first started buying DVDs, to watch on my 19″ Sony television. DVDs brought color, clarity and life back to older movies. Many of my favorite remembered movies were widescreen and in color! a fact that so pleased and energized me that I had to get a bigger television just to experience them properly. Yes, I got sucked into the DVD revolution, and now my home theater hobby has cost many thousands of dollars (including the Fujitsu 50″ plasma TV and 1800 DVDs).

    The pleasure has never been so manifest as it was when I got this current DVD of Gone With The Wind a couple of weeks before its release date. I stayed up until 4:00 AM to watch the movie, sitting quietly in tingley amazement at what I was seeing (and hearing). I believe that I have seen Martin Scorsese in an interview where he talked about the “ageing” of movies, and how the constant duping, scratching, and patching of prints ultimately resulted in loss of expression, dullness of emotional resonance, and even loss of coherence. All nuances become… muddled. Add to that the problems inherent in pan-and-scan versions, and then add to that many years of black and white broadcasting on tiny little monitors. No wonder I couldn’t understand the movies when I was a kid.

    Here is this movie that I’ve seen perhaps 20 times before, and I’m experiencing it like new: the details, nuances and colors not only as seen originally, but perhaps more visible, more detailed, and more colorful than ever before. The movie hasn’t been added to, but simply brought back to life. And as these details become apparent, the quality of expression is communicated more easily, and it is far more subtle and freshly alive than I have ever known, or remembered. Vincent Minnelli has said that the best movies are made up of thousands of details, details that are taken in by the audience unconsciously, but are nonetheless there, all adding up to the pleasurable aesthetic experience.

    Here, finally, in GWTW, can the details be seen and given their due. I believe this disk to be the culmination of the DVD/Home Theater Experience — perhaps the most important and famous of all Hollywood products finally returned to its original high standard of cinematic expression.

  20. 4000-line scanning exceeds the DCI 4096×2160 standard resolution that has recently been selected for future digital cinema projection by the major studios.

  21. This news about Technicolor being recorded on B&W stock may be the key to something that’s been bugging me for nearly 60 years. My grandma used to take me to the movies on Saturday afternoons; on one occasion, at the Gateway Theater in Kenosha, we saw a trailer for a swashbuckler in color, and the following week we saw the film — in black and white. I well remember my disappointment. (I have always thought it was The Black Arrow, a British picture from 1948, but the reference books say that film was B&W only.) If you only have three primary colors to start with, how can the finished film have enough depth without a black screen somewhere? Could they have shot the film in color and changed their minds, distributing it in B&W to save money? Does anyone have any possible explanation for this, or have I been dreaming all this time?

    Donald Clarke

  22. I’m sorry to tell you Donald that you have been dreaming. The Black Arrow is indeed, in black and white. Is it possible that the trailer you saw was for another film? Or perhaps, you saw two trailers and mixed them up?

    It is now possible to film a movie in color but print and project it only in black and white, but this would not have been possible in 1948.

  23. anyone is welcome to duplicate the Technicolor system if thy wish …. I hold the complete inventory of the dyes in my warehouse in Orange County, California … Interested? …. email me

  24. hey
    you lot seem like your in the know. can i ask you a question….maybe unrelated?
    i have a technicolor super 8 film from the late 70’s that has not been developed.i am trying to get it developed. does anyone know if its a reversal or a negative type film?

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