I’m not writing about something I’ve learned this week but about something I recall learning a few years back. As I’ve said before, I’m a student of Depression-era movies and, being Halloween, my studies apply to scary movies as well. Two of my favorite scary movies from this era (and recall that this is the era with a lot of great scary movies with the likes of Bela Lugosi and Boris Kahloff) are “Doctor X” (1932) and “Mystery in the Wax Museum” (1933.) Both movies were directed by Michael Curtiz who directed a number of other great movies including “Casablanca” and both star Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, of “King Kong” fame.
They are both really good movies which hold up more than 70 years later but what fascinates me is that they are both good examples of Technicolor, specifically two-strip Technicolor. The two-strip process was first used in 1922 – so yes, there are a few full-color silent films out there for you to enjoy. The images produced by the two-strip process are composed of red and green and the result is odd to the eye. The color is unnatural and bold which creates an effectively eerie mood at the end of “Doctor X”.
The Technicolor that most people know followed this process and was known as three-strip Technicolor. If you’ve ever seen “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone With The Wind” you’ve seen a Depression-era example of the three-strip process. What is fascinating to me, and what I learned only a few years ago as I studied the two-strip process after watching my favorite scary movies, is that Technicolor movies were shot on black and white film – it’s an optical process rather than a film stock.
A Technicolor camera simultaneously films an image on three different rolls of B/W film. In very simple terms (simple is the best I can offer with my level of knowledge), light bounces off the object being filmed and into the camera lens. As the light enters the camera, it passes through a prism array which splits it into the three primary colors of light – red, blue, and green. Each color of light exposes a single roll of B/W film.
Again, in really simple terms, this means the image of the blue sky was exposed on the blue roll, the grass was exposed on the green roll and the sun was exposed on the red roll. Of course, most images are a combination of colors so each roll would have the specific color aspects of an object, for example a purple horse would be on both the red and blue rolls (I couldn’t come up with anything purple so let’s assume it might be a horse.)
These three rolls of film were developed and then dyed their complementary color (red was dyed cyan, blue was dyed yellow and green was dyed magenta.) The three dyed strips could then be stacked together to produce a high-quality color image. This color theory is used in the three-color off-set printing process to produce the color images for magazines and newspapers.
Fortunately, for people like me, the Technicolor dye is really stable so, unlike your Polaroids from 30 years ago, a Technicolor film strip is practically unchanged even 70 years later. Unfortunately, for people like me, it cost a lot to create a Technicolor movie print so, if the processor created a less than perfect print, it still went into circulation to a smaller market. This means that even though classic film is still in good condition, it is not necessarily easy to find a clear, well-produced print.
If you’ve never watched “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone With The Wind” on DVD, it is worth doing so. Remember that the images of these movies are made up of three strips of film being stacked on top of one another. This requires registration (the process of lining up the three images) but this was done by hand in a processing booth. So, even the clearest, most pristine dyed strips might appear blurry in the final print if it weren’t perfectly registered (it required an accuracy of at least 8/10,000 of an inch.) We've grown up with these iconic images that are actually second-rate blurry prints. Today, computers can perfectly line up the three color strips so DVDs present a perfect image. You will see the burlap texture on the Scarecrows face and when the Tinman says “oil can” you will see that he is rusty. It's like seeing the movies for the first time.
One final tidbit of local trivia to end this overly long post. The first three-strip camera was built by William Young who was born and lived in Springfield, Illinois until he was 48 years-old.
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