How Technicolor Revolutionized Cinema with Surreal, Electric Colors & Changed How We See Our World

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Film­mak­ers Like Kubrick, Jodor­owsky, Taran­ti­no, Cop­po­la & Miyaza­ki Use Col­or to Tell Their Sto­ries

The Col­or Palettes of Your Favorite Films: The Roy­al Tenen­baums, Reser­voir Dogs, A Clock­work Orange, Blade Run­ner & More

Ear­ly Exper­i­ments in Col­or Film (1895–1935)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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