Which is Hollywood's first color film

Color by Technicolor

Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Burton Wescott, who didn't even have a college degree, was said to be a genius at mechanics. Together, the men founded Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott in 1912. Initially, the company was not involved in the film industry, but then found its passion: color film in natural colors. And other little technical details that should make life easier for the burgeoning film industry.

Kalmus ’wife Natalie was also there at the time. And if the countless, but poorly described, rumors about this woman are to be believed, then she had a lot to say in this company from the start. And Natalie Kalmus would later mutate into a creative nightmare when, after a split of Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott in 1915, the company approached its real goal and the spin-off company began to produce color films. With colors from TECHNICOLOR.

The history of color film by Technicolor began in 1917 and comprised five consecutive processes in its development. Of these, the fourth process is not only the most interesting, but also the one that fundamentally changed the film landscape.

One should never lose sight of the fact that there has always been color in films. Long before TECHNICOLOR was founded in 1915. Some attempts have been successful, some experimental, most unsatisfactory and often unaffordable. Technicolor's processes one to three were already very promising, but required immense additional work that Hollywood was not yet ready to pay for. With the introduction of the three-stripe procedure in 1932, everything changed. The industry cheered, the public was enthusiastic and the triumphant advance lasted until 1955.

Explaining the exact process of the three-lane procedure is a bottomless pit to say the least. Quite simply explained, and there the emphasis is explicitly and explicitly on "simple", three individual film strips run through the specially manufactured Technicolor camera at the same time. Back then, William Young built this camera for Herbert Kalmus according to his specifications.

Each film strip had the usual silver and gelatin layer. Behind the lens of the camera were filters that separated the blue, red and green light and transferred it to one of the respective film strips. The film negative looked almost like the negative of a black and white film, only that the respective color components of blue, red and green were exposed on it. The silver layer was removed from these three camera negatives so that only the gelatin layer remained on the negative like a relief. The deeper the relief, the stronger the color contrast later on at that point.

So that no misunderstandings arise, the three differently exposed negatives were still black and white. These were copied onto a specially prepared blank film, where only the black and white values ​​were exposed. That was the basis of a single screening copy. This blank film was embedded with a special stain, which was supposed to take up the subsequent coloring and to consolidate the colors so that they could not be washed out on the copy.

Now the actual coloring process followed. The three matrix films, on which the gelatin layer was embossed as a relief of the respective color exposure, were embedded with their complementary colors. The black-and-white film exposed through the blue filter received yellow colorant, the red film got cyan, and green was colored with magenta. The matrix films dyed in this way were then pressed onto this special blank film and the colors were transferred. A screening copy was ready, because the blank film already had it
finished soundtrack copied.

So much for the very, very simple technical explanations about the three-stripe process, the GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR. They are necessary to make it understandable what really made Technicolor so unique. There wasn't just the colors, but the tone as well. The tone on Technicolor copies was superior to all other sound film copies because the blank film mentioned above no longer underwent any chemical post-treatment, but the colors were applied dry and under great pressure. The audio tracks of the copies of other laboratories were, if necessary, subjected to the complete process of post-development and copying.

The other great advantage was the precision with which the three negatives could be recorded and the matrix films processed. It was boasted that the coverage of all four images on the screening copy was a fiftieth of a millimeter. On a ten-meter-wide screen, at most, hair would double in a close-up. Contours would not even be seen as the slightest blurring.

Color films from other suppliers were exposed on a single strip. Corrections could therefore only be made to one copy and then to the entire image. And that delighted cameramen and producers alike with the extremely elaborate Technicolor: You could still influence the color design afterwards. Desaturate each color individually or highlight certain hues. You could play around and experiment because you were using the matrix films and not having to resort to the camera negatives. These could be spared.

And as the very last word for technical understanding. The previous three Technicolor processes between 1917 and 1932 worked on a similar principle. However, a single film strip was used and the first image was exposed with a green-blue filter and the second image was exposed with the red filter. Although convincing, the entire color spectrum could never be covered.

Dr. Herbert T. Kalmus

The co-existing companies Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott and TECHNICOLOR did not do profitable business. They were successful, but the income pretty much covered the expenses for new developments. Daniel Comstock accused Herbert Kalmus of concentrating too much on color film, while Kalmus complained that Comstock was never really interested in Technicolor. In 1925 they both decided to go their separate ways. Kalmus got out of Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott and Comstock pulled out of Technicolor. In this way everyone could indulge in his own convictions without constantly having to answer to the other. But the collaboration was able to continue fruitfully.

Color film found its way into Hollywood, but not with the overwhelming success that had been promised. The procedures were too expensive and time-consuming. The "new" Technicolor in the three-stripe process was then received in 1932 much more benevolently, but no studio produced a feature film with the new process. Only Walt Disney jumped on this train enthusiastically and threw the half-finished cartoon FLOWERS AND TREES, much to the horror of his employees, in the garbage can and started with the three-stripe process from the beginning.

Disney and TECHNICOLOR signed an exclusive five-year agreement. The other studios didn't want to be left out because high hopes were placed in the new process. The Disney contract was shortened to just one year. That brought up former ambassador and millionaire 'Jock' Whitney, who had long wanted to be in the film business. Whitney began producing Technicolor films with Merian C. Cooper. The first was called LA CUCARACHA, was made in 1934, had a running time of 20 minutes and cost as much as a full-length feature film with 90 minutes.

LA CUCARACHA was the final kick in the buttocks of the big studios. In the same year, the production of 5 or 6 big films in Technicolor began. The information fluctuates. One of these productions was BECKY SHARP - ANNUAL MARKET OF VANITIES. Historians agreed to declare BECKY SHARP to be the first feature film in GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR.

Even if the triumphant advance could not be stopped, it was not in the sprint, but rather in the marathon. In fact, the strong colors and the all-encompassing color spectrum confused the audience. At BECKY SHARP, for example, the blue color moods were criticized. Blue had never really been seen in the previous color film processes. Fortune Magazine devoted a very long article to this change in the cinema, in which it also said, "Color does not mean the revolution, as it was the sound film". Even if this article was objective, it repeatedly questioned the meaning of color in film. Fortune Magazine also dealt extensively with the history of the people around Technicolor and remained aloof.

Technicolor was expensive, but the alternatives available were not convincing to perfectionists. A three-strip camera cost $ 15,000, while conventional cameras were available for $ 3,500. Rental fees were $ 90 a week including a Technicolor-trained cameraman. The quality demanded its price. From an artistic point of view, there was no question that Technicolor was unique in terms of color, tone and copy. And nobody really wanted to do without the advantages during post-processing. Except for the actors, maybe. Because of the prisms and filters in the camera, a lot more light was needed in the studio to properly expose the material.

From the shooting of WIZARD OF OZ - DAS ZAUBERHAFTE LAND it is reported that it was sometimes up to 40 degrees Celsius in the studio. Cinematographer and picture designer Harold Rossen recalls the filming of OZ: “We had enormous batteries of arc lamps on the ceiling. We borrowed every vacant spot in Hollywood. It was brutally hot. People were constantly passing out and had to be carried out of the set. "

On the yellow stone path to Emerald City

So, of course, the light also drove up production costs. It was always the increased production costs due to Technicolor that made the studios increasingly dissatisfied. For TECHNICOLOR it was now time to stay in focus. The company had to orient itself in the direction of other areas, the elaborate three-stripe process would not survive the times anyway.

But how TECHNICOLOR continued to develop and Natalie Kalmus became a horror for the producers will be reported another time.

The second part can be found by clicking under this line.

Image sources: Kalmus & Logo - Technicolor / Wizard of Oz - MGM-Warner