How Technicolor Changed Storytelling

A century ago, people worried that color would ruin motion pictures; instead, it changed visual narratives forever.

In the dawn of the age of cinema, adding color to black-and-white films was something like "putting lip rouge on Venus de Milo." That is to say, it had the potential for disastrous, garish results. And that's how the legendary director Albert Parker referred to the process of colorizing motion pictures in 1926, according to The New York Times that year. Parker’s lipstick-on-the-Venus de Milo line wasn’t originally his—it was the same comparison famously used by silent film star Mary Pickford to lament the rise of talkies. As with sound, adding color to motion pictures represented a revolutionary shift in onscreen storytelling—and not everyone was convinced that change was worthwhile. Even those who were excited about color filmmaking felt trepidation.

“The color must never dominate the narrative,” Parker told the Times. “We have tried to get a sort of satin gloss on the scenes and have consistently avoided striving for prismatic effects... We realize that color is violent and for that reason we restrained it.” Today, we’re accustomed to seeing color choices set the tone for a scene, a film—even an entire body of work. A supercut of Stanley Kubrick's use of supersaturated reds to ratchet up tension recently made the rounds on the Internet. (It contains some graphic footage from films like The Shining.)

There’s Movies in Color, a wonderful Tumblr devoted to extracting individual color tones from scenes of classic films. There you'll find the Wes Anderson canon deconstructed into bright swatches. The same teals and reds pop up in The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, mustards and caramels repeat themselves in The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox. All of which highlights the extent to which color schemes help establish the feel of a director's work. (See also: Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sofia Coppola.)

Technicolor turns 100 this year, a milestone being celebrated by George Eastman House with a centennial website, a special exhibition, and a book. And though Technicolor was incorporated in 1915, it wasn't until after World War II that full-color films began to be accepted by audiences as more than just a passing fad. In the 1920s and 1930s, Technicolor was still experimental, oftentimes to the point of being absurd. "Especially in the early days in the 1920s, it was a two-color process so it couldn't capture the whole spectrum," said James Layton, one of the authors of The Dawn of Technicolor. "You couldn't get proper blues or purples or yellow. If you filmed something that was purple, it might come out black or brown."

The two-color process worked by filming with a beam-splitting prism behind the lens that would divide light into two paths; one filtered red and the other filtered green.

George Eastman House

Filmmakers could only prioritize certain colors for naturalness—they chose red for skin tone and green for foliage. "Which meant skies would never reproduce accurately, and water wouldn't," Layton told me. "But they didn't mind sort of the color palette being a bit thrown off because if people appeared natural then audiences were willing to forgive it a bit, or accept the rest as natural even though it wasn't. There are some great examples. A beach scene... where the sky is this very vivid green, it's very unnatural."

In the beginning, only brief sequences—sometimes just five minutes long—would be colorized in otherwise black-and-white films. Technicolor was a proprietary process, and it was expensive. "Very often, fashion shows [would be] in color," Layton said. "It was also kind of common to have, if the lovers in the film got married, the wedding would be in color. Really splashy things. If you were paying for color, you wanted to see color. It wasn't always subtle or artistic use."

That began to change with The Black Pirate, one of the most famous early Technicolor films shot entirely in color—and painstakingly so. "Douglas Fairbanks decided he was going to make an entire film in color, which was very expensive," Layton said. "He actually decided after months and months of tests that he would shoot it entirely in the studio and control every single color. He built the ship in his studio and had a pool. It was completely artificial down to the palm trees. He would paint the leaves on the trees, effectively painting the set how he knew it would turn out."

Fairbanks, considering the project to be an artistic masterpiece, took inspiration from the Dutch masters. He even put background characters in extra dark costumes to achieve a sense of depth, an idea he got from looking at paintings, according to The New York Times in 1926.

As Technicolor was further developed, scientists in the 1930s were at work establishing an "emotion spectrum" that might reflect the way different colors made people feel. Researchers developed a spectrum based on the use of color at playhouses. From The New York Times in 1937:

Makers of Technicolor movies, naturally, are deeply interested in the capacity of color to induce emotion. The affinity is a heaven-made one—emotions being, so to say, the primary colors of the movie palette...

Gray, blue and purple are associated with tragedies; while yellow, orange and red complement comedy scenes. Red was the color that best accentuated scenes of great dramatic intensity... with gray and purple the next most effective.

Meanwhile, the film industry was considering what the addition of color meant as a narrative device. "Something living had been brought into the world that was not there before," the Broadway set designer Robert Edmond Jones wrote in 1935 of the newly honed Technicolor process. The Wizard of Oz, in 1939, employed one of the most famous uses of Technicolor as narrative: the moment when Dorothy leaves her sepia-toned reality for the colorful land of Oz. It was in the 1930s, too, that Technicolor cameramen, previously seen as mere technicians, were beginning to be honored for their artistic work.

“But as we see the actors of the screen cast aside their veils of gray shadow and emerge one by one into this bright new world of color, it is impossible not to feel that we are standing on the threshold of a thrilling adventure into a new form of dramatic art.”

There’s some irony in the fact that colorizing film—ostensibly to make it look more like the real world—may have cemented the medium's dreamy, escapist quality. The three-color process, in particular, created films punctuated by colors so electric they were surreal. That continued through the era in which Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Betty Grable, and others became superstars—an era that is still referred to as Hollywood's golden age. “Technicolor had developed this very vibrant, saturated palette,” Layton told me. “When these films started getting more colorful, that’s what audiences reacted to. They loved this artificial, fantasy, over-the-top palette. And that's the way color shifted. It’s idealized.”

The colorizing processes that followed built on this supersaturated aesthetic—so much so that people now associate richly colored films and photographs with nostalgia for the past. The Instagram filter “1977,” for example, is explicitly named for the moment in film technology it mirrors. In the same way, the bright and brassy aesthetic people now associate with the early days of Technicolor was itself a reflection of film processes that created a richer, color-flooded version of the real world. “We have these rosy perfection memories kind of looking back,” Layton said, “but a lot of that comes down to the technology.”