August 28, 2015

For as long as there have been moving pictures, there have been people trying to bring them to life in color: Edison was hand painting his movies in 1895, and Kodak sold pre-tinted film in the early 20th Century with colors like Purple Haze and Candle Flame.

But capturing all the complex hues and subtlety of our colorful world proved a tough nut to crack. As early Hollywood’s ambitions grew, the increasingly complex and majestic world they presented remained almost exclusively black and white.

Enter Herbert Kalmus, who in 1915, along with Daniel Comstock and Burton Westcott, launched a company to finally solve the mystery. They called it Technicolor.

Now, Kalmus and company might not have started in a garage, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but… pretty close.

"They were set up in Boston, and actually, set up in a railroad car," Haines says. "So they had a processing plant, everything, so they could go from location to location and process it and make your prints."

It would take the gang at Technicolor more than 15 years to get it right.

Their first solution was a complex projector, which played multiple strips of black and white film simultaneously through different colored lenses. They made their first film, “The Gulf Between,” this way, but they were dissatisfied with the result.

After their failure, they completely rebooted, focusing this time on the film itself, dying two strips of film in different colors, and then gluing them all together. Unfortunately, with the flammability of nitrate film, this was just a tad dangerous.

But iterations weren’t enough. The real genius of Herbert Kalmus was his ability to keep spirits high, and capital flowing in, as the team toyed, toiled, and tinkered.

“Kalmus kept the company together, kept building the process and kept the investors happy while they waited for [a] very, very slow kind of payoff,” says John Belton, who teaches English and Film at Rutgers University.

That payoff finally came in 1932. Technicolor had moved operations to Hollywood as they perfected their breakthrough process: an ingenious camera – this time loaded with three strips of film, each capturing a different spectrum of color. More important, says Belton, is that they also worked out how to process all three negatives – one dyed blue, one dyed red and one dyed yellow - onto a single strip of film.

The results were stunning. All Kalmus needed now was to find a forward-looking, risk-taking filmmaker to give Technicolor’s expensive, unproven new
process a whirl. Haines says he found one in a 30-year old Walt Disney:

"[Disney] made a deal with Kalmus and he was very clever," Belton says. "He told Kalmus: I’ll take a chance on this three-strip Technicolor but I want a five-year exclusive and they agreed to that.

"The animated short, Flowers and Trees, would earn Disney his first Academy Award and unleash a Hollywood color rush was that transformed Kalmus’ company into a household name.  

"It was this imbibition printing that really defined Technicolor and its ability to provide very, very vibrant, saturated, luscious colors," Belton explains.

While other companies would get into the full-color game, Haines thinks Technicolor was the first - and the best. Technicolor brought us the
 ominous red skies in Gone with the Wind, the impossibly yellow rain slickers in Singin’ in the Rain, and a city of Emerald Green in the Wizard of Oz. In short, it helped create Hollywood.

"If Hollywood has a reputation for communicating dreams and fantasy and luxury and splendor, I think it is in part due to this Technicolor era — the high
Technicolor era of the 1930s and 1940s,” says Belton.

It was an era ushered in by three geeks in a railroad car with the courage to fail and the tenacity to get it right.

Historic Innovation, Culture, Technicolor, Kara Miller

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