As a result of a conversation I looked up the history of Technicolor, and it turned out to be more complex than I thought. For those who don’t know: technicolor was the first technology which was used to create full color motion pictures that were widely distributed. That last part—widely distributed—is where the complexity lies; there were a whole bunch of technologies which came before the technicolor we know and love, but which never became popular. Technicolor was not the first color process, it was the first color process that won. It was expensive and difficult to work with, which was why the black-and-white era didn’t come to a close until (roughly) the 1970s, when Eastman Kodak’s much single-film color process brought the price of color film down so far black-and-white was no longer cheaper. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Technicolor corporation was founded in 1914 by Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Frost Comstock, two recent graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT. The first process used two strips of film and only captured red and green. The basic technology, would persist until Eastman Kodak’s single-film process, was to use a prism to split the spectra of light coming into the camera into different physical locations, which would be used to expose different negatives. Thus there would be a negative which only captured the red light and another that only captured the green light. These would be developed into films with only the respective colors of light on them, which would then be shown onto the same theater screen, superimposed, and so we’d see both red and green.
For those who don’t know, this works surprisingly well because our eyes only have three types of color-sensitive photosensitive nerve cells in our eyes. One is sensitive to green, one to red, and the third to blue. (There are some people, mostly women, who have a fourth, which is a slight variation of one of them, and gives them better color discrimination.) They’re not point-sensitive, they have fall-offs in how much light of different wavelenths stimulates each one. We can see the wide spectrum of colors that we can because for any given photon it stimulates all three to differing amounts, and we can thus reconstruct from how much the three types of nerve cells are stimulated what the original color was. However, it is possible to fool this system by manipulating the light to be made up of just the right amount of red, green, and blue in order to reproduce the other colors; this is what using multiple film strips projecting different colors does.
The original process went with red and green because our eyes are most sensitive to these colors, and so we see most of the brightness of an object from these. It further turns out that since looking at objects is not passive but actually a highly active process, our brains, which have trained for many years on the real world, are good at reconstructing missing information based on what’s available. A film made up of only red and green doesn’t look right, but it looks surprisingly good. Not really good enough, though, and neither this process nor the two that followed it—which were two-color processes that just improved the practicality of capturing and showing movies using them—really took off.
It was the three-color process, which produced a full range of lifelike colors, that would become popular. Technicolor had developed it to the point of it being usable by studios by 1931, and Walt Disney was the first to use it commercially. It was an 8 minute long short film, released in 1932. This three-color process used the same prismatic separation to expose multiple negatives, but this time it was onto three black-and-white negative strips, one for red, one for green, and one for blue. These would then undergo a complicated process that turned them into a single, color, strip of film which could be shown in the same projectors used for showing black-and-white films. This was a huge competitive advantage for Technicolor over its competitors, because they relied on specialized color-only projectors which were expensive and movie theaters didn’t already own.
The other half of this story, though, is why movie studios were willing to invest a large amount of money in making full-color movies. It cost more for the equipment, more for the film, the cameras were huge and bulky, there needed to be a “Technicolor Director” on set to make sure that the color was being captured properly (who had to be paid), and providing enough light to properly capture the color required enormous, powerful, and very hot lights. The heat from these lights was so intense actors needed more breaks, slowing down production. In short, Technicolor might have been the best color process available at the time, but it was way more difficult and expensive than black-and-white. Obviously, color would be the future, but the question is not why did movie studios switch to color at all, but why did they switch to color when it was so new and expensive?
Of course, one part of that answer is that they largely didn’t. Most films would be shot in black-and-white with color films only being a select few big-budget movies until the 1950s, with the introduction of the Eastman Kodak process. That said, another part of the answer is that in the 1930s the Great Depression was going on and movie-viewing was being hit by it. A new and exciting technology seemed like just the thing to get audiences excited to come to movie theaters again. (Always left unsaid, new technologies are much easier to introduce than making good movies is.)
I find it interesting how often I’ve heard that explanation for the adoption of new technologies. It seems that technological progress is often as dependent on someone desperate enough to give it a try as it is on someone clever enough to invent it.
Be that as it may, while this expensive and difficult process got color films off the ground, it was not what would make color the norm. To give a feel for this, there were twelve Technicolor films produced in 1940 and sixteen in 1941. 1942 saw a dip down to eleven Technicolor films. Granted, America officially entered World War in December of 1941, but if we fast forward to 1946, only twenty seven films were made in Technicolor. 1947 bumped that up to twenty nine. Color films being the norm would only come about in the 1950s because of the Eastman Kodak single-film color process.
This was not merely an effect of the Eastman Kodak process being cheaper, it was also vastly easier to work with. It didn’t need nearly so much light, the cameras were much less bulky, film developing could be done in-house—in short, it was significantly better in every way. Also interesting was that in the 1950s television viewing significantly cut into movie attendance, or at least that was the generally accepted explanation for the decrease in movie viewership the industry was experiencing. One of the approaches to combat this and bring people back to the theaters was changing the aspect ratio from the 4:3 which both movies and TV shared to Cinemascope, which was an anamorphic lens technique for recording and displaying movies in an aspect ratio close to the modern 2.35:1. Other approaches soon followed which had similar aspect ratios, as well as compromise widescreen aspect ratios such as 1.85:1 (which is pretty close to the modern 16:9 aspect ratio that TVs and monitors use). These shifts, which were not hard on a single-film camera, would have been very difficult on a prismatically separated three-film camera, and this helped to end the age of Technicolor.
Film would, of course, eventually come to be replaced by digital recording which was another big leap in being cheaper and more convenient, but that’s a story for another time.