What is Technicolor&Reg;?

Technicolor® is a patented process that combines two or three separate strips of exposed film tinted with special dyes to create vibrant color films from essentially black and white film stock. This is a time-consuming and costly process that results in hyper-realistic colors that are best suited for larger-than-life films like musicals, period pieces, and epics. Technicolor® is still used in modern films on occasion to give them the same look as the era they depict.

Technicolortechnical ®’s aspects are a little complicated. This article should cover the essentials of the process unless you’re a confirmed movie technophile with a burning interest in color timing and dye imbibation processes.

Many people believe that color films didn’t appear until the 1930s, but there were several silent films that were tinted hand or processed using the first Technicolor® two-strip technique. The Technicolor® company was founded in 1915, and the first silent films using the process premiered in 1922. Because color film stock was not available at the time, the challenge was to create realistic color films using black and white film stock shot with single lens cameras.

The Technicolor® engineers created a beam splitter that split the original image coming through the camera lens into two (later three) separate but equal images that would strike two different strips running in a special camera. One film strip would have a red filter between it and the beam-splitter in the original two-strip process, while the other film strip would have a green filter. This meant that the “red” and “green” film strips would appear black and white to the naked eye, but each would have different gradations of gray that corresponded to the red, yellow, and blue color spectrum.

When these filtered black and white film strips were developed into negatives, they were processed with dye-saturated gelatin-based film stock. The Technicolor® process was similar to how color comic strips were produced in newspapers. A red-tinted film strip would be glued to a green-tinted film strip, which would then be placed over the original black-and-white stock footage. The result was a color film with fairly realistic skin tones and backgrounds when the strong light of a Technicolor® projector passed through all three layers.

With the addition of a third yellow-filtered film strip in the 1930s, the process was improved. The Technicolor® process was used to film many of the best-received musicals and costume dramas of the 1930s. Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz were two of the most notable films to benefit from it. The mid-story transformation from sepia-toned black and white to dazzling color in The Wizard of Oz was particularly memorable.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Technicolor® remained a profitable process for its creators. Many studios, however, were using color film stock processed a competitor, the George Eastman Company, the 1960s. Because it was much more labor-intensive and expensive than the Eastman process, the original process also suffered in the marketplace. Color saturation and archival quality were thought to be superior in Technicolor® films, but studios could produce and market many more Eastman-processed films in the time it took to finish a single Technicolor® film.

Although the company is still in the film processing business, the actual process is no longer used in mainstream films. Many companies have stopped producing the necessary dyes, and modern color film processing techniques have largely rendered Technicolor® obsolete. The original method has been used in a few major Hollywood releases, such as the 1940s-set films The Aviator and Pearl Harbor, but it is generally used as a novel effect rather than a regular way to process color film.