This blog entry is intended for the film buffs, film historians, and cinematographers in my audience.
I'd like to revisit Technicolor, or more specifically the Technicolor film process—while I'll start with a quick historical recap, I really want to talk about the visual legacy and inspiration that it has left us with and how even while rarely in actual use today, Technicolor is still very much alive, in spirit if not in fact.
All of you will of course will be familiar at least to some extent with the Imbibition (or sometimes referred to as Dye Transfer) Technicolor Process which was used on hundreds of films pretty much non-stop from the mid-1930s until the mid-70s.
You'll probably also recall that the Technicolor process can be divided into three distinct "periods." The initial period, from the early 1930s until about 1953 or so, involved using a specially designed camera containing three separate film emulsions all layered and synchronized together—each designed to record a specific range of color—in this case, cyan, magenta, and yellow—from these three negatives—or color separations—a single print was struck by aligning—or registering—these three picture elements. The process was called Technicolor by its inventor Ray Renahan who worked at the California Institute of Technology a the time he developed it.
The results were striking. No other color process—notably the cheap processes of Eastman Kodak—could even come remotely close to achieving the vibrant, saturated look of IB Technicolor— owing primarily to the fact that the process employed actual lithographic printing dyes to make the prints—these Technicolor hand-created and mixed.
The 3-Strip IB Technicolor Process existed from 1935—with the first 3-Strip IB Technicolor film, Becky Sharp—until about 1953 or so—at this time the actual 3-Strip Camera was abandoned as color negative became prevalent and widescreen camera systems took hold. Here Technicolor enters its second period--still continuing to do the color separations and to make the IB (dye transfer) prints so that even if the film was shot on Eastman color negative, or in some other way, Technicolor still struck the prints using their dye transfer equipment and thus still imparted to them an unparalleled color depth and quality.
IB Technicolor printing continued until 1974, when the last film to be printed in IB Technicolor, The Godfather Part II was released. After this year Technicolor Corporation sold all of their dye transfer equipment to the Chinese government. "Technicolor" and "Color by Technicolor" while continuing to exist as a company and trademark ceased to be anything but another client of Eastman Kodak—joining the bandwagon so to speak and thereby adopting the latter's cheaper and inferior color process which employs mere organic food coloring as its chemical basis for making prints. In effect this was the third and final "phase" for Technicolor—essentially the name no longer meaning anything significant.
The reason for the emergence of the cheaper color systems such as Eastman was two-fold:
Ultimately it was cost—Dye Transfer Technicolor was just too expensive—Eastman Kodak introduced color negative in the mid-fifties as well as their alternative means of striking color prints—again using comparatively inexpensive organic food coloring.
Technicolor was able to hold firm in the movie industry for another twenty years or so because there was still a demand among producers, directors, and audiences for the vibrant, stylized color palette that only Technicolor could provide with its IB printing system.
However, beginning in the late 60s and early 70s this aesthetic changed dramatically. Filmmakers and audiences no longer wanted the vibrant, saturated "Technicolor Look" that was most often associated with spectacle films, musicals, or other types of subject matter that demanded an operatic treatment—this style of film making had largely gone away by the start of the 70s and been replaced by films that usually offered a gritty, documentary-style realism and were therefore much better suited to subdued color palettes and even went as far as to discard other techniques like widescreen anamorphic aspect ratio or stereo sound—some good examples of this so-called, at the time, new "aesthetic" were The French Connection, The Conversation, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle—all printed in barebones Eastmancolor and shot in flat 35mm aspect ratios. These are unquestionably terrific films but their style and content were as far away from the look of Technicolor movies as you could possibly get—and they helped to sound the death knell for Technicolor and the vivid, and as some at the time pointed out, its unnatural color reproduction.
Additionally, as independent film-making grew—small productions where every penny counted—Technicolor was seen as a waste of money that could be put into the content of the film rather than into its presentation.
The reason I've decided to discuss IB Technicolor is not for its historical importance as much as because of the visual legacy that it has left us—the countless filmmakers and cinematographers of the last few generations who have been moved and inspired by the gorgeous IB Technicolor movies—particularly during the late 1930s and all through the 1940s—arguably the "Golden Age" of IB Technicolor films.
Yet as more and more attention has been gradually returning to how films are presented to theater audiences—particularly owing to the advent of the IMAX film format—Technicolor has gradually re-introduced the IB process with selected films, most notably the recent re-release of Apocalypse Now (this is actually a new director's cut of that 1979 film, re-titled Apocalypse Now Redux) and if any of you have had a chance to see this film theatrically then you have no doubt been bowled over by the depth, range, and intensity of the color—in fact, Vittorio Storaro, who photographed the picture and who wanted to print the the film using IB Technicolor in 1979 but couldn't because it was no longer available in the U.S.--actually wept when he saw a new IB print screened in 2004.
But despite a few new IB Technicolor releases, it is unlikely that we will ever see the actual process return given that, as many people would justifiably ask the question: why do we even care about motion picture printing technology at a time when film is going away on a huge scale—being replaced by digital projection systems in theatres?
My response is that digital cinema is a blessing rather than a curse—in that we are now free from the inferior quality of Eastmancolor film printing—and the cheap processes like it—which has dominated the movie industry with its often poor quality control and lackluster color reproduction, for decades
With digital cinema you have a perfect print with every screening and most importantly the ability to have the same—or nearly the same--vibrant, saturated colors that were once only possible by using Technicolor's expensive IB printing process and costly, rigorous quality control. In fact, we have seen, in recent years, the return of epic scale films—Ridley Scott's Gladiator ,Oliver Stone's Alexander, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. to name just a few—films where a broad, operatic color palette are an integral part of the film.
Now a filmmaker who wishes to express his or herself on a broad canvas that demands operatic color reproduction no longer has to worry about his best cinematography being subordinated to the the vagaries of a film lab whose interest is not in creating the best quality film print but in getting the most bang for the buck—even if that means tossing out quality.
In a nutshell then, we now have, for the first time in decades, the ability to create an unrestricted,
It is my hope that this freedom from chemical film printing that digital cinema offers will motivate filmmakers to begin to again explore what rich color reproduction can lend a film—any film regardless of its subject matter or treatment—and what it can offer a theater audience, as well.
While IB Technicolor will likely never return in any kind of literal way—its visual legacy and influence are and will continue to be with us strongly, whether as movie makers or audiences.
Finally, here is a list of what I consider to be some of the best of the "Golden Age" of IB Technicolor releases—these are all films which are not only printed in IB Technicolor but were also shot with the 3 Strip Technicolor Camera:
Becky Sharp (1935)
A Star is Born (1937)
Robin Hood (1938)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
The Red Shoes (1948) (my personal favorite)
Moby Dick (1952) (worth seeing because of the special process that Technicolor designed to just for this film—to achieve a unique visual look—the whole movie has a daguerreotype quality in its images)
I also want to mention four other films which, while not shot with the 3 Strip Technicolor Camera—were nevertheless printed in IB Technicolor—and are among those I believe exhibit the finest uses of vibrant color:
Vertigo (1958) shot in the VistaVision
El Cid (1961) shot in Super Technirama 70
The Godfather (1972) and the aforementioned The Godfather Part II (1974)
These are all on DVD in pristine color restorations and I recommend that you watch them all.