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.

'Adventures of Robin Hood' (1938)

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.     

Featured image: A three-strip Technicolor camera from the 1930s. Credit: Wikimedia 

Your Comment


That was a waste of time. I have expected more details.

For those of you who are interested in the technical stuff:

October 27, 2016 at 11:23AM

Steadicam Operator/Owner

The introduction and use of Technicolor's three strip process is a fascinating part of cinema history. Sadly, this film does not do it justice. The monotonous voice-over coupled with incoherent facts - $30,000 compared to what? - and the repeated use of clips make for a dull viewing experience. There's a clip from a Laurel & Hardy film that looks post-colourised and not Technicolor (shoot me if I'm wrong!). And one last thing, the phrase "coloured film" suggests films about people of colour; wouldn't "colour film" be more appropriate?

October 28, 2016 at 3:12AM

Sebastian Dewsbery
Director of Photography

A good example of why color doesn't always improve the
viewing experience might be the comparison between
"All The King's Men" - 1949 and "All The King's Men" -
2006. You also might want to consider if such classics
as "The Bicycle Thief", "Breathless", or "A Brief Encounter"
would have been improved if shot in color. Was "The
Conversation" improved by color? I think not. How about
"Cries And Whispers"? Color had a huge influence on how
this movie was interpreted, as was "Empire of the Sun". We
often forget that black and white is an abstract medium.
Such a view of the world does not exist in reality. The
removal of color focuses the viewer on interior motivation.
It's a subliminal cue that the nuances of human interaction
are the force driving the plot of this story.

October 28, 2016 at 3:16AM