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The Advent of Technicolor

How three MIT physicists revolutionized the movie industry
August 18, 2009

A 1918 article in the Tech announced that several famous stage stars would be on campus to pose for photographs that would literally show their true colors. Physics professors Herbert Kalmus and Daniel F. Comstock, both graduates of the Class of 1904, had set up shop in a railroad car turned laboratory where they shot and developed color film for use in motion pictures. “There is no doubt that colored pictures are a scientific achievement,” the article said. “But there is always uncertainty … as far as popularity is concerned.”

Glorious Technicolor captured the blue sky over Tara in 1939’s Gone with the Wind.

Kalmus and Comstock had been interested in motion-picture technology since 1912, when an inventor approached their industrial-research firm, Kalmus, Comstock, and Wescott, to analyze a machine that aimed to remove the flicker from movies. The two physicists and their junior partner, W. Burton Wescott, concluded that the technology was impractical, and they decided to focus on perfecting color film. In 1915, they created a corporation called Technicolor–its name a nod to the Institute–and began working on what would be the first of four techniques.

Cameras split the light from a scene to simultaneously expose two adjacent frames on the negative, one behind a red filter and the other behind a green filter. As the film ran through a projector, separate beams of light passed through the identical frames; focused by a prism, they combined into a single color image on the screen.

In 1917, Kalmus and Comstock hauled their railroad-car laboratory from Boston to Florida to produce their first two-color movie, The Gulf Between. The result was far from perfect. Clear skies, water, and blue costumes looked muddy. And the precision required to align the prism meant that the projector operator had to be, as Kalmus put it, “a cross between a college professor and an acrobat.”

So they developed a second process, one that, in 1922, would lead to the company’s first profit. Again, adjacent frames were exposed behind filters to create mirror-image red and green records of a scene. Then the color records were printed on separate strips of gelatin-coated film that hardened upon exposure to light. The unexposed dark areas were washed away, so that on the red record the hardened gelatin represented areas with the most green light, and vice versa. The gelatin on each strip was then dyed its complementary color (cyan for the red strip, magenta for the green). The two strips were cemented back to back to create a single strip of colored film. When the projector’s white light went through the film, red light made it through wherever there was no cyan to block it, and green light got through wherever there was no magenta.

However, the new process also had flaws. The side of the film closest to the projector’s lamp tended to cup and buckle more than the far side, and workers spent hours ironing the film so that it could be reused. The company decided to move on to a third technique, called dye-transfer printing.

This process also involved identical negatives printed onto gelatin film, but instead of being pressed back to back, the colored records were pressed sequentially onto a new roll of specially coated film that absorbed dye. Now, color film was as easy to project in the theater as black-and-white. In 1928, Technicolor showcased this new technique in a film called The Viking.

But the third process still used only two colors. Comstock had left Technicolor in 1925; his successor (and former student) Joseph A. Ball ‘15 spent years developing a three-color process. In 1932, the company unveiled what is often referred to as “Glorious Technicolor,” in a Walt Disney Silly Symphony cartoon called “Flowers and Trees.”

Light from the scene was split in two directions: some went straight ahead through a green filter, creating one negative; the rest bent and passed through a magenta filter, which allowed both blue and red light through to two strips, one behind the other. The first absorbed the blue light, while the red light passed through to the second negative. The green, red, and blue gelatin strips were dyed magenta, cyan, and yellow, respectively, and pressed onto the final film.

In 1935, Becky Sharp became the first full-length feature to be filmed entirely in color. In 1940, the company won an Academy Award for Gone with the Wind and received a special award for successfully bringing three-color feature production to the screen. The reservations expressed by the Tech nearly 20 years earlier had been swept away.

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