From Black & White To Technicolor
IN THE SPRING OF 1932, WALT DISNEY previewed a work in progress titled Flowers and Trees , a new cartoon short for his studio’s “Silly Symphony” series. A perfectionist, he was not happy with what he saw. Although the black-and-white woodland fantasy was already half-finished, he decided to scrap it, start from scratch, and do it in color.
It was an audacious move. Until recently, the best color for films had been produced by a somewhat crude two-color process that yielded only a limited range of hues. Movie studios had tried it, but poor box-office returns had made them revert to the less expensive black and white. Disney had heard about a new process, though, that used three colors and promised to put the full spectrum on the screen. He made up his mind that he would make Flowers and Trees in Technicolor.
Today there’s a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame dedicated to Herbert Kalmus, the driving force behind Technicolor. He helped put the color into not only Flowers and Trees but also The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Red Shoes , and hundreds of other movie classics.
Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1881, Kalmus graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1904. While in college he had found a wife, a lively redhead named Natalie Dunfee who would play her own important role in Technicolor. After he graduated, MIT offered him a fellowship to study in Europe, and Kalmus and his wife embarked for Zurich, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1906. Traveling with them was an MIT classmate and friend named Daniel Frost Comstock, another fellowship winner. Kalmus and Comstock returned to MIT to teach, and there they eventually joined forces with an engineer named William Burton Wescott, with whom in 1912 they formed a general scientific consulting firm called Kalmus, Comstock, and Wescott. They attracted the attention of William H. Coolidge, a lawyer and investor, and in 1912 he asked the firm’s opinion of a device that promised to eliminate flickering from motion pictures. They advised him against investing in it and suggested that he instead back them in an effort to create color movies.
The basic physics of color had been understood for years. In the mid-1660s, Isaac Newton directed a beam of sunlight through a prism and created a spectrum, demonstrating that white light is composed of various colors. It requires only three of them, the primary colors red, green, and blue, to create all the hues of the rainbow. Red and green light combined add up to yellow, which is also the opposite, or complement, of blue (yellow plus blue makes white). Blue and green make cyan, which is red’s complement. And so forth.
In 1861 the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated a process for creating color photographs. He had to do so using blackand-white film, the only kind that existed then. His solution was to photograph the same object three times, through red, green, and blue filters, to create three black-and-white negatives, each one recording the level of its respective color. He then made transparencies of each and used a three-lens lantern to project all three images simultaneously through their original colored filters. Lined up properly, the three images combined to re-create the subject’s original colors.
But that was just a still image. Motion-picture film, which traveled at a good clip through both camera and projector, posed greater challenges. In Britain, inventors attempted various processes. A typical method, the Lee and Turner three-color process, used a camera with revolving filters to record the three primary colors on successive frames of a single piece of film. Because the camera captured the image three times, once for each color, the film had to travel three times as fast as in an ordinary blackand-white camera. Projection was even trickier. The projector had three lenses arranged vertically, one with a filter for each primary color. When everything was working properly, which was rare, the three colors would be projected simultaneously onto the screen, where they would blend to form a natural-looking image.
The Lee and Turner process proved so unwieldy that its backers started working on a simpler two-color process called Kinemacolor. It enjoyed some success despite its limited palette and tendency to show objects surrounded by a fringe of color when its red and green records weren’t in perfect registration. The Kinemacolor camera captured the green record on one frame and the red on the next. Since a moving subject would change position, however slightly, between frames, the red and green images were often misaligned. As Kalmus pointed out, “It was nothing for a horse to have two tails, one red and one green.”
Kalmus, Comstock, and Wescott thought they could do better, and in 1915 Coolidge agreed to finance them in a new firm called Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation (which became Technicolor, Inc., in 1922). Their first attempt, Technicolor Process Number One, was, like Kinemacolor, a twocolor process. The camera captured the green and red records on a negative, then used filters in the projector to put the colors on the screen. But Technicolor improved on Kinemacolor by using a beam splitter, a prism that divided the light entering the camera so that red and green records could be captured simultaneously as black-and-white images on alternating frames. Before reaching the negative, half the light went through a green filter and half through a red one. The camera was a definite step forward from Kinemacolor’s successive exposures, but the projector still used filters and required a thin glass adjusting element to line up the green and red records on the screen.
To prove its mettle, Technicolor set out for Florida in 1917 to make its own movie, The Gulf Between . That February, Kalmus screened a demonstration reel in New York City and received an unforgettable lesson in the inadequacies of an approach requiring that multiple images be projected together. “During my lecture something happened to the adjusting element and, in spite of frantic efforts of the projectionists, it refused to adjust,” Kalmus recalled 20 years later. “And so I displayed fringes wider than anybody had ever before seen.” Kalmus immediately resolved to abandon the technology and turn to a subtractive, instead of additive, color process.
Additive colors are based on the addition of light to make white, as when beams of red, green, and blue are projected onto the same surface. Subtractive colors are based on the absorption or removal of light. We see colors through a subtractive process. A stop sign, for instance, appears red because the paint on the sign absorbs, or subtracts, all the other colors of the spectrum, leaving only light in the red wavelength to bounce back to our eyes. A subtract!ve film process would subtract light by means of transparent colored filters.
Technicolor set out to develop Process Number Two in a new laboratory in Boston. Like the first process, it used a beam splitter and filters in the camera to make simultaneous exposures recording levels of red and green onto paired frames of ordinary black-and-white film stock. The film was developed the usual way, to form a negative image of silver halide on a clear backing. Then this master copy was duplicated on two reels of a special film stock that contained a gelatin, which formed a raised surface where there was no silver halide. One of these copies contained the red image and the other contained the green, which had been inverted by the optics of the camera. Lab workers rinsed away the silver and left the raised gelatin pattern to harden. Then they glued the two copies together back to back, using stock specially manufactured at half the ordinary thickness so that the final double-sided print could still run through standard projectors. Finally, they dyed each side of the glued-together film with its complementary color, which would set in the areas not covered by gelatin. For instance, on the green record of a photograph of a red ball, the image of the ball itself, showing little green, would have been covered by silver halide in the original negative and thus would not have received a layer of gel; after the silver halide was removed, a dye of green’s complement, magenta, which is close to red, would thus cover the ball. The resulting color wasn’t perfect, since it omitted blue, but it was a step forward because all the color information was contained on a single strip of film.
Once again, Technicolor demonstrated its latest process by making a movie, a Chinese variation on Madame Butterfly called Toll of the Sea . Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer distributed the film, and it debuted in New York City in November 1922 and actually turned a profit. “We were told that with prints as good as we were manufacturing,” Kalmus recalled, “if offered at 8 cents per foot the industry would rush to color.”
Unfortunately, the best price Technicolor could offer was 20 cents a foot. Nonetheless, a number of filmmakers tentatively embraced the new process in its first couple of years. The Famous Players-Lasky studio, which later became known as Paramount, used it for parts of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923) and throughout Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924). MGM included Technicolor sequences in Ben-Hur and other films. In general, though, Hollywood resisted color. The company needed a break or, more specifically, a star. It found him in Douglas Fairbanks.
Fairbanks understood the resistance to color. “The argument has been that it would tire and distract the eye, take attention from acting and facial expression, blur and confuse the action,” he said in the mid-1920s. Nonetheless, after $125,000 worth of color tests, Fairbanks moved forward with a color swashbuckler called The Black Pirate . Released in 1926, it won over critics and audiences. “So far as audience reaction, press reviews, and box-office receipts were concerned, it was a triumph from the start,” Kalmus reported, “but for the Technicolor company it was a terrible headache.”
The company became a victim of its own success. Its limited lab facilities could produce only a small number of prints. Making matters worse, the two-sided film damaged easily. It scratched and had a tendency to “cup,” or flex, throwing the movie out of focus, and Technicolor had to replace it often.
Just as the firm began addressing these problems, it suffered a pair of major setbacks. First, in 1924 Coolidge backed out, after having sunk some $400,000 into the venture. Kalmus soon found a new financial savior in William Travers Jerome, a political reformer, judge, and lawyer who had gained fame by prosecuting the millionaire Harry Thaw for killing the architect Stanford White in 1906. Over the next few years Kalmus struggled to keep Jerome, who “possessed a violent impatience,” committed to the company.
Kalmus, a flinty New Englander used to doing things his way, developed his diplomatic skills to deal with Jerome, but he failed to use them with his friend and partner Comstock. In 1925 the two men had a falling-out, the second big setback. As Fortune magazine noted in 1934, “Dr. Kalmus is more likely to think of people working for him than with him, and his relations with Dr. Comstock had become distinctly strained.” Perhaps Comstock, who contributed more technically than Kalmus did, tired of taking direction from a man who was fond of saying, “If you cannot do what is expected of you promptly, give reasons why it cannot be done. And if reasons cannot be given, give reasons why reasons cannot be given!”
Even without Comstock, Technicolor continued to make slow but steady progress, introducing Technicolor Process Number Three in 1928. Rather than use two-sided prints, Technicolor developed a process called imbibition, or dye transfer, in which the original gelatin-containing negative functioned like a printer’s block and applied dye to a separate final print. First one dyed image and then the other were pressed against blank stock that had been treated to keep the colors from smearing or spreading. The result was a positive with both color records on a single side.
Once again the company dove into production, this time making a series of historical shorts. They were impressive enough that MGM offered to distribute a feature if Technicolor would make it. When the studio’s production chief, Irving Thalberg, saw an early screening of the movie, The Viking , he offered to buy it outright. Warner Brothers, flush with the success of nascent sound technology, jumped onto the color bandwagon as well and signed with Technicolor for more than 20 films, paying $25,000 in advance for each. Then interest in the process waned. “This premature rush to color was doomed to failure if for no other reason because the Technicolor process was then a two-color process.…” said Kalmus. “Color must be good enough and cheap enough. The old two-component Technicolor was neither—hence it failed.” So the firm began to work on Process Number Four, the system that finally included blue.
The camera for this process used three separate pieces of black-and-white film. A beam-splitting prism-and-mirror combination divided the light after it went through the lens. Half the light was sent through a green filter and preserved the green record on one negative, while the other half went through a magenta filter, which subtracted all but the red and blue light. Behind this filter were the negatives for the red and blue records, running back to back through the camera. The light first reached the blue negative, whose specially prepared emulsion was sensitive only to blue light. The back of the blue negative had a coat of yellow dye, blue’s complementary color. It blocked blue light, allowing only the red information through to the final negative.
The three-color camera was extremely complicated and expensive. It required specially designed lenses, and the beamsplitting prism, flecked with gold, was considered so delicate that Technicolor trainees had to use a wooden substitute for their sessions. (They also learned to break its impact with their foot if they were unlucky enough to drop it.) For a time Technicolor cameramen on location had to sleep in the same room with the cameras to discourage their theft.
The three black-and-white negatives were turned into color prints using the method perfected for Process Number Two and printed as in Process Number Three. The result was a print with vivid colors unlike anything seen on the screen before, yet at first Hollywood was indifferent. Then Kalmus demonstrated the process to Walt Disney. “That was what we were waiting for,” Disney said. “When I saw those three colors all on one film, I wanted to cheer.” Remade in color, Flowers and Trees won Disney his first Oscar, but the studios still hesitated before taking the plunge into color features.
Two men were willing to take the gamble, though: Merian C. Cooper, a World War I aviator, documentary filmmaker, and Hollywood producer (including, most notably, of King Kong ), and John Hay (“Jock“) Whitney, a wealthy financier looking for a way to break into the movie industry. Fortune in 1934 listed the pair’s credentials: “One is an expert cinema director, producer, executive; the other is commonly credited with the possession of $100,000,000.” Together with Jock’s cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, the men formed Pioneer Pictures and signed an agreement with Technicolor to make eight movies.
First they made a short test film, a liveaction musical confection called La Cucaracha . Dramatically, it was nothing special, though it did win an Academy Award for best comedy short. “But the colors are clear and true,” reported Fortune : “When a gentleman in close-up turns red with anger you can see the color mounting in his cheeks.” For its first feature, Pioneer adapted William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair . Entitled Becky Sharp , the film was slow and talky. Critics were generally impressed by the colors (though one said the players resembled “boiled salmon dipped in mayonnaise”), but the movie failed to make an impression at the box office.
In 1936 Pioneer merged with Selznick International Pictures, whose founder, David O. Selznick, was busily making himself into a film legend. After the merger, Selznick used the three-color process to make The Garden of Allah, A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred , and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer .
Still, unlike the sound revolution, which transformed filmmaking almost overnight, color made only gradual inroads. The studios had good reason to hesitate: The Technicolor process was very expensive. Since the camera required triple negatives, any production would use three times as much film as if it were being shot in black and white. The film was slow and demanded an unprecedented amount of light. “We had enormous banks of arc lights overhead,” remembered Harold Rossen, the cinematographer for The Wizard of Oz . “We borrowed every unused arc light in Hollywood. It was brutally hot. People were always fainting and being carried off the set.”
Another problem for the studios was the Technicolor company itself, which insisted on maintaining control over its process. It didn’t merely supply the technology; it also required that the studios rent its cameras, hire its cameramen to work alongside the studios’ cinematographers, and use a Technicolor color consultant—usually Natalie Kalmus.
By now she was actually no longer Mrs. Kalmus. She and Herbert had divorced in 1921, though they kept it a secret, and everyone in Hollywood thought the couple, who lived in neighboring houses, were still married. In the aftermath of the divorce, either to placate Natalie or to console her, Kalmus made his ex-wife the head of Technicolor’s color advisory division. In this capacity she received billing on almost all the color movies made through 1948.
Her artistic background nourished her strong opinions about color, and she didn’t hesitate to express them to filmmakers. “When we receive the script for a new film, we carefully analyse each sequence and scene to ascertain what dominant mood or emotion is to be expressed,” she wrote in 1938. “When this is decided, we plan to use the appropriate colour or set of colours which will suggest that mood, thus actually fitting the colour to the scene and augmenting its dramatic value.” She would take an active role in choosing fabrics for costumes and colors for the sets.
“Film-makers regard Natalie Kalmus with somewhat mixed feelings, especially if they are new to Technicolor,” wrote one journalist in a late-1940s profile. “It seems to many of them that she is too interfering, too insistent on things being done the way she wants, and determined not to allow experiments to be made.” Many directors bristled at the idea of taking her advice. After being introduced to Natalie when he took over direction of Becky Sharp , Rouben Mamoulian said, “Look, tomorrow, either she is not there or I am not there.” (As it turned out, they were both there.)
David O. Selznick, who had more experience with Technicolor than any other producer, was tired of hearing the “squawks and prophecies of doom from the Technicolor experts” whenever he refused their advice. He wanted to make Gone With the Wind in Technicolor, but he would do it his way. “I have tried for three years now to hammer into this organization that the Technicolor experts are for the purpose of guiding us technically on the stock and not for the purpose of dominating the creative side of our pictures as to sets, costumes, or anything else.…” Selznick said. “If we are going to listen entirely to the Technicolor experts, we might as well do away entirely with the artists that are in our own Set and Costume Departments and let the Technicolor company design the picture for us.” When Natalie Kalmus insisted that the mulberry wallpaper on one set wouldn’t work in color, Selznick used his influence to have her sent to England to work with the Technicolor operation there, though she still received a credit on the film.
After Gone With the Wind wrapped, Selznick’s company calculated how much Technicolor had added to the film’s $4,000,000 price tag. The tangible costs—of film, cameramen, and so forth—totaled $428,594.92; the intangibles, like the extra time it took to light sets and deal with Technicolor consultants, $118,750. But the investment paid off. On February 29, 1940, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held the twelfth annual Academy Awards ceremony. It was such a triumphant night for Gone With the Wind ’s producer that the emcee, Bob Hope, called the event “a benefit for David Selznick.” The film won 9 Oscars, including best picture.
For Kalmus and Technicolor, 1939 had made the difference. It marked the first time in the company’s history that Technicolor stockholders received dividends. A batch of great color films—not just Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz but also John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk and Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex —hit theaters. In fact, quality color filmmaking achieved such a level that year that the Academy created a separate category for “best color cinematography.” Technicolor had provided the color for all six of the films nominated. And almost 25 years after its formation—years spent toiling step by hard, unremunerative step—Technicolor, Inc., received an honorary Oscar “for its contributions in successfully bringing three-color feature production to the screen.”
Technicolor continued its reign over color movies for almost a decade, until the United States filed an antitrust action against it in 1947. A consent decree issued in 1950 forced the company to share some of its technology. By then Eastman Kodak had perfected its own color process, in which chemicals on a single negative captured the full color record. Eastmancolor soon eclipsed three-strip Technicolor, and after 1955 Technicolor shifted its emphasis to lab work, developing Technicolor Process Number Five to make dye-transfer prints from Eastmancolor negatives. It continued making these until the 1970s, when that process, too, was phased out.
In the mid-1990s, the company introduced Process Number Six, an improved dye-transfer method that it said promised more vibrancy than any existing system. Kalmus, of course, was not around to see it; he had died in 1963 at the age of 81. But surely he had been there for his company’s finest hour—that night in 1940 when the films it had contributed to took home 12 Academy Awards. The man who had made the Brick Road yellow and Emerald City green had accomplished something more remarkable: He had shown the world how to dream in color.