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Technicolor is 100 years old – or is it?

These days we take colour on the big screen for granted, but 100 years ago it was brand new – or was it?  Andrew Filarowski reports on the history of Technicolor

The wonder that is Technicolor bringing colour to the big screen movies is 100 years old. Exactly when is a moot point as Dr Herbert Kalmus set up the company in 1912 but it was incorporated in 1915.

Charlie Chaplin once famously said that people will never need either colour or sound and how wrong was he!

France introduced Pathechrome at the turn of the 20th century, but the film tinting process never took off. In 1908, Kinemacolor was invented in Britain, capturing natural color for only six years. But Technicolor was really the first to have a long lasting impact on the movie industry.

The first movie produced was “The Gulf Between” in 1917. This was shot using just a 2 colour system of red and green designed to highlight skin tones and foliage. What is surprising is that the lack of blues, purples and yellows was accepted as being representative of colour vision. How the mind plays tricks on our vision.

Initially it was an additive system based on filters in the projectors. Results were not fantastic. Improvements, which were based in the actual camera were based on prisms with red and green filters producing 2 negatives end to end. The red record was dyed green and the green record was dyed red. Done using acid dyes on gelatin, the more gelatin present the deeper the dye concentration on the film. and so within the projector became a subtractive system. Producing this dye transfer system was a major piece of engineering and too millions of dollars to perfect.

This short video describes the two colour process.

By 1939 a three colour process was invented using Cyan, Yellow and Magenta (again using acid dyes) and the audiences described the colours as gorgeous, and vivid and if you do look at these old films the colours are extraordinary, rich and bright.

This video describes the dye transfer printing process.

To achieve these first colour films it was not only necessary to have the equipment and the science but the company also realised that to maximise the benefits it was necessary to carefully control the costumes and designs.

The basic idea evolved as far back as 1855 when physicist James Maxwell employed Newtonian science to add colour to a bowl of fruit by superimposing three pictures through red, green and blue filters.

Ultimately other systems were developed by other companies e.g. Kodak’s Eastmancolor which were cheaper and easier to produce. However we now know that the Technicolor process provides a vital benefit which is that the colours do not fade, unlike Eastmancolor that fades to pink. Because the processing plants were broken up many years ago the vibrancy of colours will never be reproduced, the technology is extinct.

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