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Three-strip Technicolor 

Joseph Arthur BellDefinition: Introduced in 1932 by Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, Three-strip Technicolor was the first film process to deliver the full spectrum of colors as opposed to the limited red-green range of previous processes. Special cameras custom-made for Technicolor by Mitchell Camera Corporation and rented by Technicolor to studios contained prisms that separated light into three beams, The beams were directed respectively through blue, red and yellow filters to record the same shot on three strips of black-and-white film. An emulsion process enabled images to be printed in the spectrum of their filtered color and combined onto a single film strip. The process would be used to produce Hollywood’s first color megahits and be the standard for color filmmaking through 1955.

History: Technicolor, so-called because founders Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Frost Comstock were alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began inventing and applying processes for color filmmaking in 1916. Although introduced in 1932, Three-strip Technicolor would require five years to gain traction in a Hollywood whose ticket sales were stymied by the Great Depression.

three=strip technicolorThree-strip’s first major hit was Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which was released in December of 1937. Disney deemed color necessary for what would be the first animated feature film ever produced. It was a project that many in the film industry labeled “Disney’s folly” and that forced Walt Disney to mortgage his home to help pay for the film’s whopping $1.5 million production cost. However, the movie’s initial release grossed $4.2 million domestically and $7.8 million internationally to rank it as 1937’s highest grossing film and the highest grossing film in history until “Gone with the Wind” (1939).

May 1937 saw the release of “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which employed Technicolor to showcase elaborate costumes and sets that would win the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. The film’s $1.9 million price tag made it the most expensive movie ever produced by Warner Brothers. The initial release grossed $1.9 million domestically and $2 million overseas to became 1938’s sixth highest grossing film.

Technicolor entered the picture for MGM in 1939 with the release of “The Wizard of Oz” in August and “Gone with the Wind” in December. The former’s portrayal of Kansas in black and white and the Land of Oz in Technicolor reflected Hollywood’s mindset that color made sense only for fantasy genre films. “Gone with the Wind” added epic to the mindset, although this was to be expected given that the epic, even during the Silent Film Era, was no genre for penny-pinchers. Later Technicolor films such as “Quo Vadis” (1951), "The Robe” (1953), “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “Ben-Hur” (1959), “Spartacus” (1960) and “King of Kings” (1961) would make the epic synonomous with color spectacular.  

The cost of Three-strip Technicolor was not the only reason for its limited use, although the cost was considerable and included the rental of cameras and film processing in Technicolor’s Massachusetts laboratory. Other issues included:

Lighting: Technicolor filming required far more intensive lighting than that used filming in black and white. This caused temperatures to soar on sound stages. While filming “The Wizard of Oz,” for instance, temperatures rose to more than 100° F (37° C) and caused health issues particularly for heavily costumed cast members.

Makeup: Makeup used for black-and-white filming was non-porous and caused actors to perspire beneath Technicolor lighting. However, a more serious defect was the reflectivity of the make-up which caused colors of scenery and wardrobes to tint the flesh of actors. So serious was the problem that actresses Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Carol Lombard refused to appear in Technicolor films. Pan-cake Make-up would be invented by Max Factor & Co. to solve both problems.

Art Direction and Cinematography: What one saw on the set was not necessarily what one would see in Technicolor. Consequently a Technicolor consultant was required to be on set to advise filmmakers on color schemes and, if necessary, veto any shot deemed incompatible with Technicolor cinematography. For art directors, cinematographers, special effects directors and costume designers, color filmmaking was a learning experience that required unprecedented coordination. During the filming of “Gone with the Wind,” David O. Selznick sent a memorandum to all personnel that stressed “the final word” over everything related to Technicolor and the look of the production was his art director, William Cameron Menzies. Menzies’ new responsibilities made him Hollywood’s first “production designer.”

Competition from television in the 1950s led studios to produce fewer films in favor of films with bigger budgets. Color became a key element in what the motion picture industry regarded as its advantage over television—“production value.” The Three-strip process would be improved by Technicolor and then replaced by formats such as Technirama, VistaVision and Ultra Panavision 70.   

Related Terms:: Studio System    production value  Star System    Pan-Cake Make-Up

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