Early Technicolor: Part 2

In his immensely informative commentary track to The Black Pirate (1926), film historian Rudy Behlmer cites the cautious steps produce/co-writer/star Douglas Fairbanks took in making sure the new 2-strip Technicolor format was worth the cost and extra planning for his next film.

It was a still relatively new, sexy technology that could improve the filmmaking process by adding yet more creative options in designing a film’s look. The concept of shooting color for a gimmicky scene to give a film a value-added feature was commonplace – notably in musicals like Dixiana (1930), where the last reel presented the show-stopping sequence in 2-strip Technicolor – but making a complete feature in colour and pre-planning the cinematography to achieve a specific look was, as Behlmer explains, quite novel.

That isn’t to say the colour sequences in other films were basically point-and-shoot exercises where everyone hoped the footage would turn out okay. Technicolor looked good only if the costumes, the lighting, the paint on the walls, the hair colours, and the pencils in a desk jar were right.

(Examples of striking 2-strip Technicolor films include 1932’s Doctor X, and 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, and to get an idea of the process’ look, one need only watch the golfing sequence in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, where Katherine Hepburn does a round of golf with Howard Hughes.)

That’s why the company employed an elite group of consultants (Natalie Kalmus being the biggie) to ensure rules of what was known to work were followed; getting it wrong made things look funny, which is why some of the format’s early critics found Technicolor’s flesh tones seemed salmony, the colours were too hard on the eyes, and feared long-term exposure could yield unknown trauma(s).

This was apparently a serious concern, because there were critics / Luddites who felt audiences simply wouldn’t be able to handle colour. The switch from black & white to blazing Technicolor would be too much for the average moviegoer weaned on black & white movies.

The eye strain would be abominable. The headaches would come. Add sound to the mix, and Jesus, people would get sick and explode into human goo.

Even though there had already been three feature-length colour movies– Toll of the Sea (1922), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), and the first colour & sound feature, The Cavalier (1928) - this was a real concern for Fairbanks, so he consulted psychologists to see if colour moving pictures were really bad for the eyes and brain, and of course, the results showed people didn’t get heavy eye strain or headaches.

That proved colour was fine, but the next issue was the actual filming, developing and exhibition processes at hand. Without going into techno-babble, there are four types of colour film processes developed during Technicolor’s early years:

Process 1 (dubbed additive colour process) was used on a film called The Gulf Between (1916), and it involved the use of red and green filters and a prism beam-splitter in the camera. Because adjacent frames on a single strip of black & white film were exposed simultaneously, the film had to be photographed and projected at twice the normal speed.

The key problem? One also needed a two-aperture projector that played the film back at the same higher speed, and the combination of two lenses, filters, and a prism in the projector made it a chore to keep colour registration accurate.

What’s interesting about this method is its slight relation to William Friese-Greene’s Biocolour, a British system that used filters in the camera to expose each subsequent frame in either red or green using a shutter with attached colour filters. When making prints, the adjacent black & white frames were tinted red and green, and were shown using one projector.

The problem? The faster projection speed essentially relied on persistence of vision to make it appear one was seeing a single frame of colour film, but the end result was a flickering, strobe-like image that probably did give people headaches. (I’ll have more on this process shortly, via a wonderful BFI DVD set from Region 2 land called The Open Road.)

Process 2 (known as subtractive colour process) was the first version of 2-strip Technicolor, and consisted of a similar camera exposing two frames simultaneously with filters and the prism beam-splitter, except two strips of black & white film were exposed in the camera – one for the red, the other for the green. The stock was thinner because in the end the red and green film strips were sandwiched together to great a 2-colour master print.

When Fairbanks opted to shoot The Black Pirate in colour, it was Process 2 that was used, but Behlmer also cites more apocrypha in his commentary. The cameras exposed duplicate frames to create protection masters for foreign prints – which seems inventive, but obviously gobbled up an enormous amount of film stock. When exhibition prints were struck, the final results were thicker than standard black & white prints, and small bumps in a married print could cause the projected film to flutter, or worse.

Still, the movie was in colour, and that’s what Fairbanks used to thrill audiences with his zippy pirate movie. A restoration effort during the early seventies essentially rescued the film from oblivion, and not only brought the film back into circulation in colour, but ensured it was available for home video distribution (via laserdisc, and then DVD).

Eventually, Process 3 (a dye-transfer process) was introduced in 1928, eliminating the need to cement two halves to create one print. Process 3 is what RKO used for the last reel of Dixiana, a mish-mash of drama and music and spectacle set against the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

When 3-strip Technicolor debuted in 1934 via the animated Disney short Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees (1932) and the live-action short film La Cucaracha (1934), the process involved three strips of film exposed in a camera that were used to create a single strip exhibition print. Becky Sharp (1935) was the first feature film shot in the new process, and Foxfire (1955) was the last, when a single-strip camera negative became the new standard.

Tracking down on home video early 2-strip Technicolor films – either those with sequences or shot entirely in the process – isn’t easy because a number of these films have fallen into public domain. A few have appeared on major labels, while others are in budget sets whose source materials and transfer quality are a big question mark.

(Trying to find an accurate online list for the 2-strip films is also tough, although a 3-strip list exists HERE, and makes for an excellent reference guide.)

In the case of The Black Pirate, the Kino DVD is loaded with important extras, and while the film print is good, the transfer is vintage 1996, and the limitations are apparent, making this a film in serious need of a new HD transfer.

Dixiana and La Cucaracha were released on DVD by the Roan Group in 2000, but the disc is apparently out of print (though some distributors like Canada’s E1 may still have old stock). Neither film is ideally presented on the DVD, but Dixiana is uncut, and that final reel is indeed in 2-strip Technicolor.

La Cucaracha mandates restoration, and what really should be done (ahem: Criterion?) is solving the rights issues, securing extant sources and releasing the film in a set that includes the two other Pioneer Pictures that followed – Becky Sharp, and The Dancing Pirate (1936). Having them together would ensure continuity with the extra features, such as historical essays or commentary tracks, as well as any surviving archival art, reviews, and company history.

Just a suggestion.



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