Through connection with Walt Disney (1901–1966), the three-strip Technicolor process that achieved worldwide fame was brought into being. In a process of "successive exposure," animated material was filmed three times through a red, a blue, and a green filter to produce three black-and-white records that were transposed onto three dyeable matrices. Important here was the use of panchromatic—rather than orthochromatic—black-and-white stock: this responded not only to blue and violet light but also to yellow and red light, thus making possible a fulsome and richly accurate record in black and white of the full range of color in a scene. The blank stock was rolled three times in order to pick up the three vital color dyes—magenta, cyan, and yellow. In this way twenty-six animated features were made between Flowers and Trees (1932) and Robin Hood (1973), including all of the most celebrated full-length Disney features: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953).
Herbert Thomas Kalmus, principal founder of Technicolor, remains one of the most important contributors to the development of motion pictures. Like only a handful of technological innovators, Kalmus deftly blended a shrewd but charming business sense—which was instrumental in attracting investors and Hollywood studios—with a probing and imaginative scientific mind. Were it not for Kalmus's persistence and vision, not to mention his business acumen, the industry-wide adoption of three-color processes for shooting films in full color would have occurred indefinitely later. The man who became synonymous with Technicolor thus changed the course of film history. Like synchronized sound, color required an industrial overhaul of every phase of movie making, but what tested the resolve of Dr. Kalmus and his company was the need to enhance and improve the process until Hollywood would start making the switch to color movies—a period lasting some three decades.
Orphaned at a young age, Kalmus worked his way into and through Massachusetts Institute of Technology (then called Boston Tech). There he met the school's only other physics major at the time, Daniel F. Comstock, who would become his business partner. After graduating from M.I.T. and then, in 1906, receiving their doctorates in Europe, the pair of young physicists returned to the United States. Between 1910 and 1915, Kalmus worked at Queen's University in Canada, where he performed his first research on the Technicolor process. In 1912, when they teamed up with W. Burton Wescott, an "engineering genius" in Kalmus's estimation, the trio started a patent company called Kalmus, Comstock, and Wescott (KCW). The young firm made several profitable inventions, but it was not long before Technicolor was its exclusive focus.
As early as 1915 KCW took out patents (mainly on special equipment for color cinematography and projection) for the first Technicolor process. Within two years they were shooting their first color film, The Gulf Between (1917), with a special Technicolor camera that used a beam splitter to simultaneously expose two different strips of film, one sensitive to the green spectrum and the other to the red spectrum. However, the procedure was imperfect and costly, and it was not until the fourth Technicolor process, patented in 1935, that they were successful. The first of Technicolor's three-strip processes, it was used with enormous success in films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939). Later, after inventing a mono-pack color process, which could be shot with a standard one-strip, black-and-white motion picture camera, Technicolor briefly cornered the market and initiated the industry's full conversion to color.
Of the three original founders, Kalmus was the only one to see Technicolor through to its most successful and profitable period, in spite of a series of highly publicized and scrutinized lawsuits by his ex-wife, Natalie Kalmus, who held a stake in Technicolor for decades.
Cardiff, Jack. The Magic Hour . London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996.
Neale, Stephen. Cinema and Technology: Image, Sound, Colour . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Technicolor features were remarkable for the sharpness and saturation of the colors to be seen. No other process before or since has matched the quality of the Technicolor red, for example, or has produced a screen black so intense. There is a potent sense of color contrast that produces at once clarity, saturation, depth and roundness of color, and vivacity. This effect is largely due to the quality of the long-lasting dyes that are used
in the imbibation process. In general in color photography, color effects fade when film is projected repeatedly, or exposed to heat or the air, and the most long-lasting and saturated color effects are possible through dye-transfer printing. Whereas animated cels, themselves quite motionless, could be photographed any number of times through different filters to produce film color, in order to achieve this startling screen effect with live action a new technology was required: actors moving on a soundstage presented a new challenge altogether, as became evident in the first three-strip production, Becky Sharp (Rouben Mamoulian, 1935). With this film, produced by Technicolor shareholder John Hay (Jock) Whitney (1904–1982), it became clear how the increased production cost of Technicolor could make sense in the overall economy of filmmaking. In Becky Sharp the color blue, not present in the earlier two-strip process, was emphasized. Technicolor's investment in motion pictures was literally the startling and enriched color effect it could contribute to the process, luring audiences to see something they could not see anywhere else.
The film historian Tino Balio notes that to guarantee this effect, because Kalmus refused to trust studio cameramen and lab facilities, the company's contract with producers stipulated that they rent camera equipment as well as film stock from Technicolor, arrange all processing through the company, and use a company-approved cinematographer. A special color consultant had to be on set at all times, to consult with, and advise, the director and the cinematographer as to lighting, set design, costuming, and makeup so as to achieve the best possible color effects. Natalie Kalmus favored the dark background as ideal for showing facial tones clearly and strongly. In 1937 Max Factor developed a special makeup called Pan-Cake, yellow in hue, that would allow skin tones to be recorded "naturally" under the intense (bluish) studio light required for the process. All cameras, lenses, and stock had to be procured directly from Technicolor, which took responsibility for the upkeep and repair of the camera and the quality of the black-and-white stock used on set and the matrix and printing stock used in its own lab. A minimum print order of three hundred was typical in the Technicolor contract. Through a process called color timing, it was possible in the laboratory to achieve the precise printing of each black-and-white color record so that once it was dyed and printed an exact coloration could be obtained, shot by shot.
The three-strip Technicolor camera, a monstrous, noisy, and bulky machine that required special dollies and cranes, as well as a "blimp" to cover and dampen it acoustically, was originally designed by J. Arthur Ball, George Mitchell, and Henry Prouch. The camera was fed with three threaded black-and-white reels of negative stock—with a very low speed rating, thus requiring immense quantities of studio light—and admitted light through a gold-coated prism that would split the incoming beam into two equal parts. One beam was sent directly to the back of the camera, where it was recorded through a green filter on a single piece of film. Because of the directness of the passage of this beam, and the fact that green filtering always produces the highest-quality contrast, this "green record" was the one used later on to control for the contrast of the entire picture. The remaining light went at 90 degrees toward two strips of film laid back to back, hitting them after passing through a magenta filter (that would allow blue and red light to go through). The "blue record" was made on top and the "red record" at the back. As time went by, the coating of the prism was changed to permit more and more specifically controlled light to reach each piece of film. The three black-and-white film records were subsequently converted to matrices, which were dyed and printed directly onto a piece of blank stock. Well over one thousand features were made in the three-strip Technicolor process from 1934 onward.