Watch: The Twisted Story of How Color Came to Hollywood
We often take the idea of color in film for granted. Here's why you shouldn't.
Color owes its prominence to some unsuspected films. In a new video essay, Shonae Weeks shows that had it not been for these films, we might still be watching movies in black and white.
Technicolor, as we know it, employs what is called a three-strip process across the board; in the past, it used a two-strip process, with less luck. But what is the three-strip process? What do the different strips do?
The audience sees a screen ablaze with color, when in reality these colors have been blocked as light travels through the lens of the projector.
Well, each strip is actually a strip of black and white film. The strips allow viewers to see color by blocking out certain colors on the spectrum as the light passes through each strip. The audience sees a screen ablaze with color, when the reality is that these colors have been masked and blocked as light travels through the lens of the projector.
Technicolor's three-strip process first showed up in Hollywood in 1933. At the time, it was thought far too expensive to use, at $30,000 per film. However, some producers were willing to take a risk; the film Becky Sharp, the first movie to use Technicolor, made its appearance in 1935. The film was a failure: too many flashy colors, too little story. The underlying feeling among viewers and critics was that Technicolor's bright presence might overwhelm the natural drama of a film. If viewers were too busy looking at the beautiful colors onscreen, would they notice the drama being depicted?
After the failure of Becky Sharp, Hollywood directors who planned to use Technicolor hired color designers, whose job was to make sure that color in a film didn't overwhelm its story structure. To this end, the color designer would adjust the lens so that less dramatic scenes would have a far less dramatic color palette, whereas high-action scenes would be bold and colorful. This was called the "restrained model" of Technicolor usage, and the first film that used this model was the western Land of the Lonesome Pine, in 1936.
After that film achieved moderate success, The Adventures of Robin Hood was released in 1938. It would prove to be one of the most famous and popular films of its era. The success of that film helped to pave the way for future Technicolor usage; we might, in fact, have Robin Hood to thank for being able to watch films in color today.
Of course, color isn't for everyone. Filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch have ben able to make films that expressed a wide range of emotion without using color—and, in fact, were all the more intense for their use of black and white.
Do you have a preference? Let us know in the comments.