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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 12:43 AM

This new DVD has two documentaries on it, one of the history of sound in movies and the second on the history of color called "Movies Dream in Color".

I've always been fascinated by old color processes, in both still photography and movies. I've just started reading a new film theory/history book called "Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930's" by Scott Higgins. A bit dry, but interesting discussion on how attitudes towards color design developed.

Both the documentary and the book discuss the first 3-strip Technicolor live-action short film, "La Cucaracha", which I've always wanted to see. The doc has some scenes and the color is stunning, meant to show-off the new three-strip process, especially how it could finally create a true blue color. I've gathered some shots from the doc from different early color processes, ending with a frame from "La Cucaracha".

Kinemacolor
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Gaumont Chronochrome
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Lumiere color process (movie version of Autochrome)
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2-color Technicolor
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2-color Technicolor
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Three-strip Technicolor
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#2 Nick Mulder

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 12:57 AM

That last still is a killer - very nice ...

"the lady knows what she wants!"
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#3 Brian Rose

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 12:17 PM

Beautiful screengrabs, David. I have that DVD set on my Christmas list, and now I REALLY, REALLY want it! Love that three strip Tech. There is something so endearing about the older processes too, no? Perhaps the faded quality, or the not-quite-real tones. Maybe it's because we're used to thinking of the 1920s and earlier as BW or sepia toned. It's strange in a wonderful way to see it in color. Two strip Tech especially created such a lovely palette, even for all it's limitations. When used right, it was really something. Doctor X comes to mind. The Jazz Singer 3 dvd set has an excellent clip from the otherwise lost Gold Diggers of Broadway that was also quite wonderful, if not slightly faded. Oh to have been born eighty or ninety years earlier...what I would have given to be a Technicolor cameraman! Have you watched the second doc, on early sound experiments?
Best,
Brian Rose
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 12:20 PM

Yes, I think seeing color photographs or movies of a past normally shot in b&w (like the 1900-1930's) is interesting, but I also aesthetically like the unreal qualities to the color, the fading, the grain, it's all sort of dreamlike or like a painting.

The sound documentary is good too.
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#5 K Borowski

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Posted 25 November 2007 - 04:12 PM

Correct me if I am wrong, there'd certainly be a great deal of grain from stacking three stocks with the equivalent grain of Double-X neg stock, but I could have sworn that the Technicolor processes had color longevity comparable to Kodachrome, as the color dye was added during processing rather than being incorporated into the print stock itself.

When I think of faded color, what comes to mind isn't Kodachromes or Technicolor or the Autochrome processes, all of which held up very well, but rather the early Eastmancolor stocks, prints, and Ektachrome slides that didn't really come about until the mid- to late-1950s. These all have a sort of magenta twinge, most noticeable with caucasian flesh-tones, that I sort of like, as long as the fading hasn't become severe. Unfortunately there are many cases where this fading has become severe, even films and photos that have become monochromatic because the cyan and yellow dye layers are completely gone.

I don't have the link, but there is a French website somewhere that has a World War, the FIRST one, in color from the color autochrome process and it is sort of surreal seeing all of these long-dead soldiers in more-or-less accurate color. Sure it isn't like seeing a modern color print, but the colors are certainly more pleasing than a low-res JPEG. I believe there was a great deal of 2-strip technicolor footage shot at one of the Olympic games in either the '20s or '30s that is similarly surreal.

I'd have to say that Kodachrome and Technicolor colors are my favorites for their "gaudiness"; this is why I still shoot fall leaf pictures almost entirely on Kodachrome slide film. The best description I've heard is that these colors are "exagerated" as in being too pure or too saturated. Technicolor also has the magenta flare from shots with shiny objects that has been discussed to death here as well as the pulsation you see where color shifts from warm to cold. In some films it is worse than others, although I think some of this may be due to better "color consultation" where they tried to use colors that weren't as prone to shifting that would be noticeable to viewers, mostly shying away from pastels and whites.
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#6 Brian Rose

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Posted 26 November 2007 - 05:36 PM

Correct me if I am wrong, there'd certainly be a great deal of grain from stacking three stocks with the equivalent grain of Double-X neg stock, but I could have sworn that the Technicolor processes had color longevity comparable to Kodachrome, as the color dye was added during processing rather than being incorporated into the print stock itself.


In theory, you are absolutely right, but Technicolor abated this apparent flaw in multi-strip color methodology with a bit of photographic trickery. The printing matrices used for color processes 2,3 and 4 were flashed before processing. In addition to allowing for greater freedom in balancing the final color, flashing the positives boosted contrast, which reduced the degree to which film grain was apparent, and made the final print appear sharper. In essence, it was a bit of sleight of hand, directing the audience away from the grain with greater apparent levels of black, as well as the color and saturation of the print. On a really nice three strip print, the image takes on an almost three dimensional quality.

Now, some prints still wound up quite grainy (the color sequence in "Hell's Angels" being a rather notorious example). This occurred when the printing matrices were not properly balanced, and was not uncommon in Technicolor prints of the 1920s and early 1930s, when company operations were in limited space, and it's quality control departments were confined. This is also why fading and color shift is more frequent in their two-strip films of the era. It was due in part to this dissatisfaction with Technicolor's quality that founder Herbert Kalmus redoubled efforts to create a full color (aka three strip) process, and increased focus on quality control, as well as expanding the company's domestic and international plants.

Hence, Technicolor became synonymous with the absolute highest standards. It is why Technicolor prints are today so precious to collectors and film archivists. The quality and stability of the aniline dyes used are remarkably stable, reference quality, in fact. Most estimates I've read suggests a dye transfer print by Technicolor would last three centuries without color shift. Such a shame that the studios so readily abandoned three-strip Technicolor when Eastman mono pack came around. One of my favorite anecdotes involves a cameraman doing a test with the new Eastman negative stock. He took eight or ten shades of red lipstick, and drew lines with them on his arm, then photographed it. When he got the print back, he was shocked to find that the new color stock rendered all those red hues the SAME shade of brown! Were it not for the fact that Technicolor was able to produce dye transfer prints from those negatives, IMO, the early Eastman mono pack was poop.

I believe there was a great deal of 2-strip technicolor footage shot at one of the Olympic games in either the '20s or '30s that is similarly surreal.


I'd sure love to see some of that. Sadly, a lot of early Technicolor stuff was lost, along with a lot of silent era and early talkie footage. Nitrate decomposition, fire, lack of foresight. In some cases, like "The Toll of the Sea," they exist today only because the original negative was preserved. No prints are known. Most only survive in single prints, like Doctor X, and The Mystery of the Wax Museum. Technicolor themselves disposed of a lot of their negative material in the 40s and 50s, to clear up space. A lot of their early work sadly survives only as B/W dupes made for television broadcast in the 1950s when color broadcast and reception was largely experimental and highly costly.


Technicolor also has the magenta flare from shots with shiny objects that has been discussed to death here as well as the pulsation you see where color shifts from warm to cold. In some films it is worse than others, although I think some of this may be due to better "color consultation" where they tried to use colors that weren't as prone to shifting that would be noticeable to viewers, mostly shying away from pastels and whites.

The magenta flare you mention was a flaw inherent in the process, but one that I think was something of a blessing. Below is a diagram I drew up of how three strip Technicolor worked (based on Fred Basten's book):

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As you can see, the red color record was exposed as part of a bi-pack, and through several layers of filters. As a result, the red strip was slightly softer than the blue or green records. Thus, the resultant three strip prints had a slightly softness, and things with a lot of red, such as fire, practicals and human faces had a subtle, almost ethereal glow. It really actresses radiant, literally! See Deborah Kerr in "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp." She seems to glow at times! Despite being, technically, a mechanical flaw, it gave Technicolor a distinctive look, that set it apart from other color processes (although, the dye transfer helped JUST A LITTLE :)).

As for color shift, this could be for a number of reasons. One, the print you saw might have been restored from several sources. It is also possible that it was one of Technicolor's efforts before 1939, before Kodak debuted its higher speed BW negative, and Technicolor had to rely on a TON of light just to get a 2.8. In 1939, with the new stock, Technicolor gained a little more breathing room in terms of light demands, and cinematographers were able to work more freely, creatively and artistically. Compare, if you will, "The Wizard of Oz," which was one of the last shot with the older, slower film, and "Gone with the Wind," which was one of the first to use the newer high speed. To be sure, both are beautiful films, but the latter has just a bit more shadow play, a bit more depth and chiaroscuro.

I doubt it was due to the color consultants. Although Natalie Kalmus (whose credit appears on nearly every Tech film from 1935-1950) was something of a holy terror, she was not an all out dictator. Michael Powell once even threw her out for meddling too much on set. By 1950, she had yielded much of her authority, and with it, went much of the control over color. If anything, the color consultants helped ensure consistency, because they knew more about color and the capability of Technicolor than anyone. It is one reason why Jack Cardiff's work is so exceptional. Before becoming a DP for Powell, he was Technicolor cameraman, and new better than anyone what the process was capable of. And finally, because Technicolor captured three separate color records, it had an incredible amount of freedom in balancing the individual shots. Frankly, they worked miracles. For example, Cardiff once described a problem on location, when a particular shot had to be set against a clear blue sky to match the earlier footage, yet the particular day was overcast. So, what he did was shoot his subject's face with an incandescent light, sans the blue daylight correction filter, to give him an orange look. He then overexposed the film, rendering the gray sky a featureless white. Then in post, he had Technicolor print with a heavy emphasis on the blue record and bada bing: a normal looking face set against an (apparently) clear blue sky! (Magic Hour, 76-77). Their quality control and consistency was nothing less than superb. In fact, during Technicolor's heyday, a picture shot in three strip earned, on average, fifty percent more revenue than a black and white picture during the same period.

Hope this info helps!
Best,
Brian Rose
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 November 2007 - 07:05 PM

I posted these before, regarding the magenta halation:

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#8 Brian Rose

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Posted 26 November 2007 - 08:03 PM

Man, those shots are yummy!
BR
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#9 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 27 November 2007 - 04:24 PM

I believe there was a great deal of 2-strip technicolor footage shot at one of the Olympic games in either the '20s or '30s that is similarly surreal.


Two color Technicolor wasn't two strip, it was single strip each color frame pair was next to each other head to head.

It was a winter Olympic film in the 40s. That was shot 2-strip, it was mostly bi-pack which used slightly modified normal cameras, which were more plentiful and less cumbersome than three-strip cameras.

It was printed as a three-strip. The blue-green record was printed twice, yellow and magenta.
The blue and green could be adjusted according to the shot. a blue bias for a lot of sky, a green bias for a lot of pine trees.

The process was called Technichrome.
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#10 Brian Rose

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Posted 27 November 2007 - 06:59 PM

Two color Technicolor wasn't two strip, it was single strip each color frame pair was next to each other head to head.


The name itself goes back to Technicolor Process 2, in which the prints derived from the single strip negative consisted of two strips, one dye red orange, the other blue green, cemented back to back, hence the name. In that context, the term "two strip" was not wholly inaccurate. Of course, the cemented prints tended to cup and buckle in the projector, or even come apart, causing no end of grief for projectionists. They also were more susceptible to scratches and damage, which is why the few examples of Process 2 that are extant today tend to exhibit greater wear than a standard BW print (see the restored silent version of Ben Hur for a good example of this phenomenon). It was because of these problems that Technicolor switched to dye transfer printing (AKA process 3) in 1928. And while there were no longer two strips of film, the name stuck.

Best,
BR
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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 November 2007 - 09:58 PM

Officially, the correct term if "Two-Color Technicolor" though since it involved a single piece of film in the camera.
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#12 Brian Rose

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Posted 27 November 2007 - 10:34 PM

Officially, the correct term if "Two-Color Technicolor" though since it involved a single piece of film in the camera.


Absolutely right David.

It makes the most sense, considering the red/green color theory behind it. And yet I find myself continually calling it "two strip." There's something so old fashioned and quaint sounding about it, I think, in these modern days of mono pack and miniDV. Not to mention, when I say "two strip," people are always so perplexed, and wanting to know more. And I never get tired of explaining those wonderful old processes! Boy what I'd give for one of those old two color cameras. Seems it would still work today...it's not like you would need the special films required for three color Tech, just regular BW 35mm, and with digital processes, you could reconstitute the colors and produce a DI, no? According to imdb, the last few minutes of "The Toll of the Sea," lost from the surviving negative, were recreated, somewhat, using a working two-color camera in the possession of the UCLA archives. Then again, imdb is not Diderot. Anyone know more about this?

Best,
BR
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#13 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 28 November 2007 - 02:53 PM

Seems it would still work today...it's not like you would need the special films required for three color Tech, just regular BW 35mm, and with digital processes, you could reconstitute the colors and produce a DI, no? According to imdb, the last few minutes of "The Toll of the Sea," lost from the surviving negative, were recreated, somewhat, using a working two-color camera in the possession of the UCLA archives. Then again, imdb is not Diderot. Anyone know more about this?


Elsewhere I've read that it was an insert that was made to be cut into the original neg, not the last few minutes or reel. Unless the last few minutes consisted only of shots of the sea and waves hitting the shore,
how could the last reel be reshot?

But yes, it can used. & With a higher ASA than before.


Here's a diagram of the camera optical system from the widescreenmuseum:

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The negative:

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So they're foot to foot instad of head to head.

The two color print:

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Another 'Toll of the Sea' frame:

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A 1928 negative clip & a reconstruction:

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The illustrations are from widescreenmuseum.com.
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#14 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 28 November 2007 - 04:45 PM

It was that last shot of the sea and waves near sunset that was reshot. But since it was just an orange sunset over water, there really wasn't much color range in the shot (no cyans) -- they could have practically just shot it in regular b&w and given it an orange cast in timing.
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#15 Brian Rose

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Posted 28 November 2007 - 07:49 PM

It was that last shot of the sea and waves near sunset that was reshot. But since it was just an orange sunset over water, there really wasn't much color range in the shot (no cyans) -- they could have practically just shot it in regular b&w and given it an orange cast in timing.


But it sure is cool that they went that extra mile. I just love the prism set up on that two color system. But boy that sure must have been a strain on the poor cameraman who had to crank it.
Brian
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