This database was created in 2012 and has been developed and curated by Barbara Flueckiger, professor at the Department of Film Studies, University of Zurich to provide comprehensive information about historical film color processes invented since the end 19th century including specific still photography color technologies that were their conceptual predecessors.
Timeline of Historical Film Colors is started with Barbara Flueckiger’s research at Harvard University in the framework of her project Film History Re-mastered, funded by Swiss National Science Foundation, 2011-2013.
In 2013 the University of Zurich and Swiss National Science Foundation awarded additional funding for the elaboration of this web resource. 80 financial contributors sponsored the crowdfunding campaign Database of Historical Film Colors with more than USD 11.100 in 2012. In addition, the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Zurich University of the Arts provided a major contribution to the development of the database. Many further persons and institutions have supported the project, see acknowledgements.
Since February 2016 the database has been redeveloped in the framework of the research project Film Colors. Technologies, Cultures, Institutions funded by a grant from Swiss National Science Foundation, see project details on SNSF grant database.
Follow the links “Access detailed information ›” to access the currently available detail pages for individual processes. These pages contain an image gallery, a short description, a bibliography of original papers and secondary sources connected to extended quotes from these sources, downloads of seminal papers and links. We are updating these detail pages on a regular basis.
In June 2015, the European Research Council awarded the prestigious Advanced Grant to Barbara Flueckiger for her new research project FilmColors. Bridging the Gap Between Technology and Aesthetics, see press release of the University of Zurich and short abstract on the university’s research database.
Subscribe to the blog to receive all the news: http://filmcolors.org/ (check out sidebar on individual entries for the “follow” button).
The development of the project started in fall 2011 with stage 1. Each stage necessitated a different financing scheme. We are now in stage 3 and are looking for additional funding by private sponsors. Please use the Stripe interface to pay conveniently online or transfer your financial contribution directly to
Account IBAN CH2509000000604877146
Account holder: Barbara Flueckiger, CH-8005 Zurich, Switzerland
SWIFT Code / BIC: P O F I C H B E X X X
Bank: PostFinance AG, Mingerstrasse 20, CH-3030 Bern, Switzerland
Clearing Nummer: 09000
Read more about the financial background of the project on filmcolors.org.
The author has exercised the greatest care in seeking all necessary permissions to publish the material on this website. Please contact the author immediately and directly should anything infringe a copyright nonetheless.
“Jusque dans un film entièrement en couleurs, une séquence explicitement bariolée constitue par là même un exemple de spectacle non narratif, s’apparentant à un intermède musical ou dansé: je pense a la scène de La Diablesse en collant rose (Cukor, 1960) où les Indiens, ayant pillé les chariots des comédiens ambulants, improvisent un carnaval, s’affublent de casques dorés (les mêmes exactement que portent les Philistins dans Samson et Dalila), saturent l’image de voiles multicolores, orangés, jaunes, mauves, bleus… Une fois encore, la couleur apparaît comme ornement, costume de scène tiré du magasin des accessoires, sans véritable lien avec la réalité quotidienne (on rapprochera la scène de Becky Sharp, où l’héroïne tire d’un coffre les vêtements et accessoires de théâtre qui ont appartenu à sa mère).”
(Bourget, Jean-Loup (1995): Esthétiques du Technicolor. In: Jacques Aumont (ed.): La couleur au cinéma. Mailand: Mazzotta, pp. 110–119, on p. 111.) (in French)
“In 1932, Joseph A. Ball created a three-strip method that offered much better color rendition. (For this method, Ball added a three-color beamsplitter and a third strip of film, so that each matrix – red, blue, green – had its own separation negative.) Tested on Walt Disney cartoons (beginning with Flowers and Trees ), a live-action short (La Cucaracha ), and then on a feature (Becky Sharp ), Technicolor attracted attention again. The success of Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1935), A Star Is Born (1937), Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), and Gone With the Wind (1939) confirmed Technicolor’s new powers. Soon the firm could not keep up with the producers’ demands. Presided over by Herbert Kalmus, Technicolor virtually monopolized Hollywood color filming until the early 1950s.3
To win Hollywood’s support, Technicolor employed a time-tested business tactic, that of supplying research prototypes. Every new Technicolor process was demonstrated in a sample film financed by the company itself or by a sympathetic backer. Kalmus and his colleagues produced The Gulf Between (1917) to display the additive process, Toll of the Sea (1922) to exhibit the initial two-color procedure, and The Flag (1927) and The Viking (1928) to publicize the revised two-color process. By the time Technicolor was ready to showcase the three-strip process in a feature film, Merriam C. Cooper and John Hay Whitney formed an independent firm, Pioneer Films, to make La Cucaracha and Becky Sharp.4 Again and again Kalmus’s company had to assume responsibility for proving that its color method could meet the industry’s standard of quality.
The issue of production economies also dogged Technicolor. Even after the three-strip method was proven viable, the studios did not rush to convert. One principal reason was that Technicolor was hard to adjust to demands of cost and labor-time. In 1936, Technicolor could increase a picture’s budget by $100,000 to $300,000, an enormous amount during the Depression. A Technicolor film consumed more production time, required more electrical power, and could not draw upon the studio library of stock footage. Many producers doubted that Technicolor’s novelty compensated for the expense. As American Cinematographer put it, if the color was unnatural, the audience noticed it (and that was bad); if the color was good, the audience forgot about it (thus it was not worth the cost).5
Technicolor was sensitive to demands for cost effectiveness because its founders were experienced engineers. Both Kalmus and Comstock were graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had taught there; they employed three MIT physics students to work on the process; even the firm’s name paid tribute to ‘Tech.’ As industrial consultants, Kalmus, Comstock, and Wescott had gained a sound reputation for research. And as engineers, Technicolor’s directors decided on a ‘progressive step development’ strategy for nurturing their color process little by little, with a three-color process as the ultimate goal. It was Ball, one of Comstock’s students and a prominent member of the SMPE and the Academy, who designed the three-color camera and guided Technicolor research through the 1930s.6 It was generally acknowledged that Comstock, Leonard Troland, and Ball were the inventors while Kalmus was the promoter: ‘Businessmen regard Dr. Kalmus as a scientist and scientists regard him as a businessman.’7 But even Kalmus continued to experiment in solving engineering problems in his spare time.
Throughout the years, Technicolor followed many industrial-engineering principles to maximize efficiency. The company started a research laboratory. It retained a staff to design and build special printers and processing machinery. Laboratory chief Gerald Rackett pointed to his operation as a model of successful engineering. Although the cameras were built by Mitchell, they were designed and repaired in the optical and machine shops of Technicolor. The plant was a paragon of industrial organization. Management carefully divided the labor, limited knowledge to specialties, and discouraged transfers across departments. Entering sensitive areas required security passes. Only the firm’s executives had a total view of research development and patented processes.8
After the 1935 color boom, Technicolor controlled its quality by placing restrictions on production practices. Because the 1929-31 color vogue had resulted in untrained cinematographers using the process, the firm wanted to supervise production to a great degree. Filming procedures became standardized. To make a Technicolor film, a producer had to rent the cameras, hire a Technicolor cameraman (eventually to be called a ‘camera optical engineer’), use Technicolor make-up, and have the film processed and printed by Technicolor. The producer would also have to accept a ‘color consultant’ who would advise what color schemes to use on sets, costumes, and make-up. Every day the camera magazines were inspected in the Technicolor laboratory, checked out by the cinematographer, and returned at the end of the day. Only trained crews could operate the camera, and the production’s cinematographer had to work closely with the Technicolor cameraman. The firm also adjusted itself to studio differences, supplying motors for various studios’ electrical and sound requirements.9
Before 1950, few of Technicolor’s research innovations spilled over beyond the improvement of its own color process. In the mid-1930s, the firm devised a remote-control focusing device that was occasionally used on black-and-white films. Technicolor also spurred the development of bright process-projection equipment. The most significant innovation of all occurred in 1935. Since the three-color process was balanced for daylight, arc lighting most closely approximated the film’s needs. But most studios’ arc equipment dated back to the 1920s. Technicolor commissioned Mole-Richardson to design silent, efficient arc units that would yield a uniform, flat distribution of light. Two years later, Mole-Richardson introduced a new line of side arcs, overhead ‘scoops,’ and spotlights. These lamps soon became common in both color and black-and-white filming.10
As a service company, Technicolor maintained almost complete control of its product; as a color process, it had to conform to classical norms. Hollywood’s use of Technicolor was almost entirely motivated by genre. It was to the firm’s advantage to stress that color was simply an increase in realism applicable to any film, but the argument did not convince.11 On the whole, Technicolor was identified with the musical comedy, the historical epic, the adventure story, and the fantasy – in short, the genres of stylization and spectacle. […]
Even after Ball devised the more ‘realistic’ three-strip color method, color films remained codified by genre. There were musicals (The Dancing Pirate , Vogues of 1938 , Goldwyn Follies , Down Argentine Way , The Gang’s All Here ). There were historical spectacles and adventure tales in exotic locales (Adventures of Robin Hood , Drums Along the Mohawk , Northwest Mounted Police , Western Union , The Black Swan , For Whom the Bell Tolls ). A Western (e.g., Jesse James ), a comedy (e.g., Nothing Sacred ), or a romance set in an exotic locale (e.g., The Garden of Allah ) also had an occasional chance of being filmed in color. The Women (1940) justified color by its lengthy interpolated fashion show, while *An American Romance (1944) uses color to reinforce its ‘epic’ account of an immigrant making good. It is probable that two films of 1939 played a central role in defining color’s generic range: Gone With the Wind, a historical spectacle, was credited with having proven that color could add to a film’s box-office appeal, and The Wizard of Oz used Technicolor only for the central Oz fantasy, not for a rendering of Dorothy’s everyday life in Kansas. Like certain kinds of music or lighting, the presence of color was governed by genre conventions.13
Other conventions of the classical paradigm limited Technicolor’s use. While Technicolor could play up the spectacular and the artificial, the industry cautioned that color must not distract from the story. It was widely felt that two-strip Technicolor musicals had been weak films bolstered by the novelties of color and sound; this diagnosis was confirmed by the lukewarm response given to Becky Sharp (1935). ‘Never use color for the sake of color alone,’ warned a Selznick art director in 1937. ‘It is only something which is added to the story, and the story should not be made for the sake of it.’14
Technicolor was aware of Hollywood’s demands. From the outset, the firm had understood that in order to succeed commercially color would have to favor principal narrative elements. Around 1920, a producer explained the problem to Comstock:15
The human being is the center of the drama, not flowers, gardens, and dresses. The face is the center of the human being. And the eyes are the center of the face. If a process is not sharp enough to show clearly the whites of a person’s eyes at a reasonable distance, it isn’t any good no matter what it is.
The plausible rendering of complexion and expression became the chief goal of Technicolor’s research. One critic pointed out problems of definition in the 1916-23 efforts: ‘When the figures retreat to any distance, it is difficult to distinguish their expression.’16 Complaints about Becky Sharp‘s ‘overripe’ and ‘scarletina’ skin tones made Technicolor ask Max Factor to devise pancake make-up. Throughout the 1930s, Technicolor calmed cinematographers’ fears that color would aggravate facial blemishes.17 The firm was at pains to compromise between developing a ‘lifelike’ rendition of the visible spectrum and developing a treatment of the human face that would accord with classical requisites of beauty and narrative centrality.
To fit Technicolor’s recording capacities smoothly to Hollywood’s needs, the firm created the role of color consultant. Natalie Kalmus, Herbert’s wife, had been the first model for Technicolor filming. She and Kalmus were divorced in 1921 (although they continued to live in the same house for another twenty-five years), and one condition of the divorce made Natalie the color supervisor on most Technicolor productions. A former art student, she insisted that sets and costumes be in cool colors, the better to set off the tones of the characters’ faces. She is sometimes credited with Technicolor’s reluctance to film bright or saturated colors, the assumption being that pastels were less harsh and distracting. The same worry that Technicolor would look artificial governed the ban on symbolically colored lighting, a constraint not completely overcome until South Pacific (1958).18
Natalie Kalmus also promoted the idea that Technicolor could yield not a flat and candy-box image, but actually a more rounded and deep one. With the proper color separation of foreground and background, she wrote, ‘it is possible to make it appear as though the actors were actually standing there in person, thus creating the illusion of a third dimension.’19 On the whole, cinematographers accepted this dictum. They shot Technicolor with softer and flatter light, using less backlight and letting the color difference separate the planes. […] As late as 1957, the SMPTE was still advocating low-contrast lighting for color (no more than a 3:1 key-fill ratio). Most cinematographers used the same arrangement of lighting units for color and black and white; only the intensity and number of the sources differed.20 The effect was far from transgressive, as can be seen from almost any shot in a 1930s or 1940s Technicolor film. High-key Technicolor shooting yielded an image that conformed to the norms of softness, low contrast, and diffusion characteristic of 1930s cinematography […]. The rarer low-key Technicolor shot still possesses a softness, especially in shadow areas, consistent with Hollywood norms. Classical ideals of volume, separation of planes, and dim backgrounds were amply satisfied by Technicolor cinematography.
Just as sound filming practices strove to recover the standardized procedures of the silent era, so Technicolor filming attempted to become as much as possible like monochrome filming. Color brought with it three changes: a very slow film stock, the need for arc lighting, and the awkward three-strip camera. Many cinematographers accepted certain inevitable demands, such as the necessity of gauging light by exposure meters. But knowing that light levels were a problem, Technicolor constantly tried to increase its film speed. The company’s efforts resulted in a faster, fine-grained stock first used on Gone With the Wind (1939). Combined with Mole-Richardson’s portable arc units, this film stock put color cinematography somewhat closer to monochrome methods. Nonetheless, by 1948, a cinematographer could still point out that for low-key filming, color required ten lighting units for every two used in black and white, and that changes in light intensity affected not only exposure but color gradations, often for the worse.21
From an engineering standpoint, Technicolor filming could not become fully consonant with mainstream production practice as long as it utilized a three-strip method. The bulky cameras were hard to maneuver, complicated to thread, difficult to maintain. It is clear that Herbert Kalmus set as a goal a monopack film that could be used in any camera. In 1939, he announced that in a year Technicolor would employ a single camera negative. Monopack was used for sequences in some films (Dive Bomber , Captains of the Clouds , Forest Rangers , Lassie Come Home ) and for one entire film (Thunderhead – Son of Flicka ), but the process was declared unsatisfactory. It was even slower than ordinary Technicolor stock, it rendered interior sets poorly, and the processing often gave contrasty results. Researchers were uncertain as to whether a single-strip negative film could ever yield consistently good release prints in large quantity. World War II delayed research on the process, but Kalmus was also hesitant, probably recalling the difficulties he had faced after rushing into an untried process in 1929. Expecting monopack to come eventually, Technicolor built no more three-strip cameras.22 (This decision caused further problems, since Technicolor could not satisfy the postwar demand for color.) When a color negative film arrived, however, Technicolor was not its originator.
3 F.J. Taylor, ‘Mr. Technicolor,’ Saturday Evening Post, 222 (22 October 1949): 131-3; ‘Technicolor,’ Fortune, 13 (June 1936): 40, 46, 54; Joseph Mascelli, ‘The million dollar bubble,’ IP, 23, no. 10 (October 1951): 6, 8-10; William Stull, ‘Technicolor bringing new charm to screen,’ AC, 18, no. 6 (June 1937): 237; Fred Basten, Glorious Technicolor (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1980), pp. 23-197; ‘Abstracts,’ JSMPE, 14 no. 1 (January 1930): 139-40; ‘Progress in the motion picture industry,’ JSMPE, 14, no. 2 (February 1930): 245; ‘Technicolor orders 18 new cameras,’ Hollywood Filmograph, 10, no. 16 (3 May 1930): 26; ‘Technicolor expansion program in operation,’ Technicolor News and Views, 1, no. 1 (April 1929): 1-2; ‘Increase in popularity of Technicolor productions graphically shown by 35-millimeter positive print footage output, 1932-1947,’ Technicolor News and Views, 10, no. 2 (August 1948): 2; ‘Technicolor gaining,’ AC, 25, no. 5 (May 1944): 178; J.A. Ball, ‘The Technicolor process of 3-color cinematography,’ IPro, 8, no. 6 (June 1935): 12; Howard C. Brown, ‘Will color revolutionize photography?’ AC, 17, no. 7 (July 1936): 284-5.
4 See Basten, Glorious Technicolor, pp. 29-58; ‘Color film increase,’ Business Week (22 May 1937): 47.
6 ‘Eliminating guesswork in cinematography,’ Scientific American, 115 (9 December 1916): 532, 535-6; Taylor, ‘Mr. Technicolor,’ p. 131; Basten, Glorious Technicolor, pp. 20-3, 29, 81, 199; ‘What? Color in the movies again?’ Fortune, 10, no. 4 (October 1934): 93-4, 161.
7 ‘What? Color in the movies again?’ p. 166.
8 Stull, ‘New charm,’ p. 236; ‘A cinema world wonder,’ IP, 2, no. 5 (June 1930): 84-6; Robert L. Greene, ‘The camera optical engineer,’ IP, 22, no. 5 (May 1950): 8-9; Basten, Glorious Technicolor, pp. 84-93.
9 ‘Technicolor system,’ IP, 10, no. 1 (February 1938): 9-10; Ira B. Hoke, ‘Grooming camera battery for 1931,’ IP, 2, no. 11 (December 1930): 15, 40; Stone, ‘Assistant cameraman,’ p. 13; Basten, Glorious Technicolor, pp. 66-7.
10 William Stull, ‘Following focus by remote control,’ AC, 17, no. 2 (February 1936): 53, 60; William Stull, ‘Process shots aided by triple projector,’ AC, 20, no. 8 (August 1939): 363-6, 376; Farciot Edouart, ‘The evolution of transparency process photography,’ AC, 24, no. 10 (October 1943): 380, 382; Elmer C. Richardson, ‘Production use tested the “Ultra H.I. Arc,”‘ IP, 8, no. 3 (April 1936): 26-7; Peter Mole, ‘Twice the light and twice the sunlight for color cinematography,’ AC, 16, no. 8 (August 1935): 332- 3; R.E. Farnham, ‘Lighting requirements of the three-color Technicolor process,’ AC, 17, no. 7 (July 1936): 282-3, 292; E.C. Richardson, ‘Recent developments in high-intensity arc spotlamps for motion picture production,’ JSMPE, 28, no. 2 (February 1938): 206-12; W. Howard Greene, ‘Low-key lighting may be as easy in color as it is in monochrome,’ AC, 19, no. 4 (April 1938): 146, 151; ‘Pan and sound put inkies on top,’ IP, 10, no. 3 (April 1938): 47; Ray Rennehan, ‘Rennehan talks Technicolor,’ IP, 9, no. 8 (September 1937): 24.
11 See, for example, Lyle Wheeler, ‘Art direction for color by Technicolor,’ Technicolor News and Views, 11, no. 2 (June 1949): 2-3.
13 For a good discussion of how color can be seen as lacking realistic motivation, see Ed Buscombe, ‘Sound and color,’ Jump Cut, no. 17 (1978): 23-5.
14 Lansing C. Holden, ‘Color: the new language of the screen,’ Cinema Arts, 1, no. 2 (July 1937): 64. See also Philip E. Rosen, ‘Believe color will not aid dramatic cinematography,’ AC, 4, no. 5 (August 1923): 4.
15 Quoted in Basten, Glorious Technicolor, p. 30.
16Ibid., p. 27.
17Ibid., p. 57; D.K. Allison, ‘Common sense of color,’ IP, 9, no. 8 (September 1937): 7-9.
18 Taylor, ‘Mr. Technicolor,’ p. 27; Basten, Glorious Technicolor, pp. 54, 70; Lansing C. Holden, ‘Designing for color,’ in We Make the Movies, ed. Nancy Naumburg (New York: Norton, 1937), p. 240; Natalie Kalmus, ‘Color consciousness,’ IPro, 8, no. 6 (June 1935): 17; Arthur E. Gavin, ‘South Pacific – New concept in color photography,’ AC, 39, no. 5 (May 1958): 294-6, 318-19.
19 Natalie Kalmus, ‘Colour,’ in Behind the Screen: How Films Are Made, ed. Stephen Watts (New York: Dodge, 1938), p. 122.
20 ‘Rennehan talks Technicolor,’ p. 25; Peter Mole, ‘Lighting equipment for natural-color photography,’ IP, 8, no. 5 (June 1936): 17; John Arnold, ‘Cinematography – professional,’ in The Complete Photographer vol. 2, ed. Willard D. Morgan (New York: National Education Alliance, 1943), p. 767; James Wong Howe, ‘Reaction on making his first color production,’ AC, 18, no. 10 (October 1937): 409-11; SMPTE, Elements of Color in Professional Motion Pictures (New York: SMPTE, 1957), pp. 44, 70; E.C. Richardson, ‘Recent developments in motion picture set lighting,’ JSMPE, 29, no. 2 (August 1937): 183.
21 Ray Rennehan, ‘Natural-color cinematography today,’ AC, 16, no. 7 (July 1935): 288, 294; ‘Faster color film cuts light a half,’ AC, 20, no. 8 (August 1939): 355-6; C.W. Handley, ‘Advanced technic of Technicolor lighting,’ IP, 9, no. 5 (June 1937): 10; William Stull, ‘New charm,’ p. 236; W. Howard Green, ‘Creating light-effects in Technicolor,’ IP, 8, no. 12 (January 1937): 10-11, 25; Winton Hoch, ‘The Technicolor cameraman,’ IPro, 21, no. 10 (October 1946): 20-2, 34; Robert Surtees, ‘Color is different,’ AC, 28, no. 1 (January 1948): 10-11, 31; Joe Valentine, ‘Lighting for Technicolor as compared with black and white photography,’ IP, 20, no. 1 (January 1948): 7-10.
22 Basten, Glorious Technicolor, pp. 137-46; Technicolor to employ standard camera negative in year, Dr. Kalmus predicts,’ Technicolor News and Views, 1, no. 8 (November 1939): 1-2; ‘Company’s feature volume largest in history,’ Technicolor News and Views, 3, no. 2 (April 1941): 1-2; Winton Hoch, ‘Technicolor cinematography,’ in The Technique of Motion Picture Production, ed. SMPE (New York: Interscience, 1944): 20-2, 34; Taylor, ‘Mr. Technicolor,’ pp. 133-4; ‘Technical news,’ JSMPE, 43, no. 1 (July 1944): 68; Charles G. Clarke, ‘Practical utilization of monopack film,’ IP, 18, no. 1 (February 1946): 11-12, 29; ‘Technicolor establishes new records in a troubled year,’ Technicolor News and Views, 4, no. 2 (April 1942): 1, 3; ‘The Technicolor monopack process,’ Technicolor News and Views, 7, no. 3 (September 1945): 1-2; Herbert T. Kalmus, ‘Technicolor’s post war plans,’ Technicolor News and Views, 5, no. 4 (December 1943): 1, 4; Herbert T. Kalmus, ‘Future of Technicolor,’ IP, 16, no. 4 (May 1944): 29; Charles G. Clarke, ‘We filmed Kangaroo entirely in Australia,’ AC, 33, no. 6 (July 1952): 292-3, 315-7; William J. Kenney, ‘Monopack as medium for three-color process,’ IP, 16, no. 12 (January 1945): 12.”
(Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin (1985): The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge, on pp. 353-357.)
“Plus volontariste, la pratique de Selznick n’est pas, dans sa nature et sa finalité, foncièrement distincte de celle de Mamoulian, à laquelle il se réfère d’ailleurs: “La seule chose dont on parle encore dans Becky Sharp, c’est les capes rouges des soldats lorsqu’ils partent pour Waterloo.” Dans la séquence de l’incendie d’Atlanta, Selznick a recours à une quasi-monochromie rouge, jaune et noire, qui rappelle les éruptions du Vésuve peintes par Volaire et s’apparente aux procédés traditionnels de teinture, et il a le souci d’utiliser la couleur à des fins moins décoratives que dramatiques (voire dramaturgiques), prodiguant tous ses soins à la séquence du bal d’Atlanta, riche en rouges et jaunes vifs qui contrastent tout à la fois avec la robe noire que porte alors Scarlett, et avec les tons plus éteints qui caractériseront ultérieurement les Sudistes vaincus ; il n’en reste pas moins qu’une esthétique de l’excès, de la saturation chromatique, se trouve ici affirmée (et récompensée par un Oscar nouvellement créé pour la photo couleur).”
(Bourget, Jean-Loup (1995): Esthétiques du Technicolor. In: Jacques Aumont (ed.): La couleur au cinéma. Mailand: Mazzotta, pp. 110–119, on p. 113.) (in French)