Though only one process in a very long history of film coloring techniques, from hand-tinting to chemical and mechanical means, Technicolor has had the most influence of them all. During the Golden Age of cinema, the 1930s and 40s, the technology was “undoubtedly,” write Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell in their Film History, “the most striking innovation” of the era, and it came to dominate by way of massive hit films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. It didn’t hurt that “the Technicolor company monopolized the process, supplying all cameras, providing supervisors for each production, and processing and printing the film.”
But Technicolor didn’t arise overnight. Founded in 1914, the Technicolor company produced color films for two decades that were “still experimental,” notes Atlantic editor Adrienne LaFrance, “oftentimes to the point of being absurd.” But by the mid-30s, Technicolor No. IV—which used prisms to split the light onto three strips of film for the three primary colors—could produce hyperreal, strikingly beautiful images. By 1939, when audiences saw the yellow brick road, lion, scarecrow, green-faced wicked witch, and those sparkling ruby slippers come alive before their eyes, Technicolor had triumphed.
In the video essay above from Vox, Phil Edwards explains what this means, and how “the technology shaped the look of the twentieth century,” and debunks three misconceptions about The Wizard of Oz, including the idea that it was the first Technicolor movie. Edwards explains the origins of the company with three colleagues from M.I.T., from which the “Tech” part of the name derived, and how the three-strip process came into its own seven years before The Wizard of Oz, in a 1932 Disney cartoon called “Flowers and Trees.” This animation was the first to feature the three-strip innovation, which used an “insanely difficult” dye-transfer process. (In the follow-up video below, Edwards addresses comments, questions, and corrections to his essay above.)
Despite Technicolor IV’s advance, live-action films throughout the 30s still used earlier features of the technique, “amping up” the contrast with a black and white layer of film underneath the color. Other technical limitations contributed to Technicolor’s distinctive, eye-popping look. The Wizard of Oz, for example, does not actually move from black and white to color when Dorothy leaves her displaced Kansas house and walks into Oz. Instead, the filmmakers painted the set sepia and used a Judy Garland double (also painted). Massive, and massively loud, cameras and a considerable expense added more burdens for Technicolor filmmaking, but the advantages outweighed these problems, Edwards argues, including the ability to adjust the dyes to use color in strikingly different ways from movie to movie.
Brilliant, oversaturated greens, yellows, and reds in films like The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain led to new ways of using color to tell stories, such as those perfected by Stanley Kubrick over 40 years after Technicolor IV’s debut. “The three-color process,” LaFrance explains, “created films punctuated by colors so electric they were surreal.” Imagine the effects of these visions on young impressionable audiences in the forties and fifties—who went on to design the look of the sixties and seventies. We may forget that the dawn of Technicolor “was itself a reflection of film processes that created a richer, color-flooded version of the real world,” yet both film and the design of the real world came to look the way they did due in large part to Technicolor film.