Film Stock


Until 1925, Hollywood studios used orthochromatic Eastman Standard Negative stock. Orthochromatic film was only sensitive to the brightest natural light, so large ultraviolet lamps had to be used during shooting. It also registered only blue light, so anything colored red showed up on the film as black. This posed a problem for actors and actresses, whose flesh-toned faces appeared darker than normal on screen. Thus began the practice of using heavy white pancake makeup on the majority of screen personalities. In 1922, Robert Flaherty shot his documentary Nanook of the North on orthochromatic film stock, which beautifully accentuated the harsh, colorless landscape.

In 1922, panchromatic film, which was sensitive to all colors, became available for black-and-white filmmaking. The hard-edged blue orthochromatic gave way to the softer gradations of "pan," providing much more natural-looking visuals. But the film industry was hesitant to switch formats, believing orthochromatic was "good enough" to suit its purposes. In 1926, Flaherty shot Moana , a documentary containing lush, tropical scenery, using panchromatic film. It convinced Hollywood to make the change, and by 1930, orthochromatic film manufacturing had been discontinued.

Color was achieved in early cinema through methods of postproduction tinting and toning. Tinting is a technique that applies one or more colors to certain areas of the film stock by hand. The practice began as early as 1895, in an Edison-produced film, Serpentine Dances . In the film, a woman dances in circles as her dress and scarves change colors, as if by magic. Edison's crude tinting techniques proved difficult on the eyes, but by 1905, a stenciling process was perfected that created a bit more accuracy in color distribution on the celluloid. Georges Méliès (1861–1938) used tinting in Le Rêve d'un astrome ( An Astronomer's Dream , 1898) and the first version of Le Voyage dans la lune ( A Trip to the Moon , 1902); The Great Train Robbery (1903) contained tinted sequences, including the gunshot blast directed at the audience in the last scene.

Toning imparts a color to an entire black-and-white film. By 1920, over 80 percent of all Hollywood feature films used toning to represent particular settings or emotions: for example, amber for day or interior shots, blue for nighttime, red for battle scenes. In 1921, Kodak began manufacturing pre-toned film stock in nine different colors. After the arrival of sound technology in 1927, tinting and toning were temporarily halted because the processes interfered with the soundtrack, which ran alongside the image on the celluloid. By 1929, this problem had been corrected, and Hollywood continued to use tinted and toned stock copiously until more sophisticated color filming techniques were perfected—the preview trailer for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), for example, was shot on green-toned film stock.

Dozens of experimental processes were tried in the early 1900s to capture realistic color on film, but most lacked quality and were quickly abandoned. Technicolor was invented in 1917 by Herbert Thomas Kalmus (1881–1963) and Daniel F. Comstock and eventually became the industry standard in Hollywood. The first version of Technicolor superimposed two colored images (one green, one red) onto the screen simultaneously. The process was too expensive to use for an entire feature film, but Technicolor sequences in black-and-white films quickly became fashionable in Hollywood—for example, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923).

In 1932, Kodak introduced a Technicolor film stock capable of reproducing a reasonable range of hues, using a three-color process. With three strips of black-and-white film running together through the camera, the color image was recorded by separating its green, blue, and red properties onto each of the corresponding color-sensitive negatives. From these three negatives, three more strips of film (known as matrices) were printed; these were used to transfer corresponding dye images onto a single blank piece of film. Walt Disney was one of the first filmmakers to experiment with this process, creating Flowers and Trees (1932), the first animated short in full color.

During World War II, German manufacturers produced the first single-strip color negative, which is still in use. This process used three sensitive photographic emulsion layers, or tripacks , coated on a single base support. The eye perceives different wavelengths of light as particular colors in the spectrum. Special chemicals sensitive only to a specific group of light wave lengths allow for an image of a different color to be processed on each layer of film (blue, green, and red). This composite image is processed, much like black-and-white film, in negative, so colors are reversed until printed in positive. By 1953 this process was well established in the film industry; by 1955, the three-strip process had disappeared from use completely.

SEE ALSO Cinematography ; Color ; Lighting ; Technology

Collins, Douglas. The Story of Kodak . New York: Abrams, 1990.

Happé, L. Bernard. Basic Motion Picture Technology . 2nd revised ed. New York: Hastings House, 1975.

Kattelle, Alan. Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897–1979 . Nashua, NH: Transition, 2000.

Limbacher, James L. Four Aspects of the Film . New York: Brussel & Brussel, 1969.

McKee, Gerald. Film Collecting . South Brunswick, NJ: Barnes, 1978.

Erin Foster

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