Color Processes in American Film



tinting: Not to be confused with hand coloring/hand tinting, the extremely labor-intensive, frame-by-frame process used in the early days of the movies, tinting was a more practical method of compensating for the (perceived) technical limits of silent film. Tints were used to indicate time of day, distinguish between plotlines, and evoke moods. Starting in 1921 Kodak offered pre-tinted stock in various colors, variations of which had names like straw amber, sunshine, peachblow, and inferno. Sepia survived the transition to sound in the late Twenties and has had the longest cinematic lifespan of the original tints.

examples: The Thief of Bagdad, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, Wings

two-strip Technicolor: After an abortive attempt at color in 1917, Technicolor unveiled its two-strip process in 1922. While more sophisticated than tinting, the two color (red and green) process had difficulty rendering blue tones and was easily damaged. Most two-strip Technicolor pictures have been lost, and the process is today seen primarily in short color sequences from black and white or tinted silent and early sound movies.

examples: Ben-Hur, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hollywood Revue of 1929

three-strip Technicolor: The most beautiful and by far the most iconic color process, Technicolor is celebrated for producing films more vivid than life itself. Three-strip Technicolor made its feature film debut in 1935 and had fully matured by the “golden year” of 1939. By 1954 most studios—with the notable exception of Disney, which had produced the very first three-strip picture back in 1932—had switched to Eastmancolor. Technicolor reappeared (and again declined) in the 1970s before being briefly resurrected in the new millennium.

examples: West Side Story, Nothing Sacred, The Bridge on the River Kwai

Cinecolor: A cheaper, less visually impressive two-strip alternative to Technicolor, Cinecolor was used in cartoons, documentaries, Westerns, and other short/low-budget pictures beginning in 1932. The 1948 Technicolor strike led Warner Bros. animators to employ Cinecolor in a handful of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, perhaps the best-known examples of the Cinecolor process. A three-strip version, Super Cinecolor, surfaced that same year but was still markedly inferior to its competitors. Technical issues, including blurry images and poor sound quality, led to the demise of Cinecolor. The company was absorbed by Technicolor in 1954.

examples: Odor of the Day, The Enchanted Forest, Olive Oyl for President

Agfacolor: Initially developed by the Third Reich in 1939 to foster domestic alternatives to Hollywood movies, Agfacolor Neu production methods were seized by U.S. forces during World War II and rebranded as Ansco Color and Anscochrome. Agfacolor was employed in several significant MGM and United Artists productions of the 1950s. The stock, like Eastmancolor, is referred to as Metrocolor in MGM film credits. Agfacolor ceased production in 1978.

examples: Lust for Life, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Brigadoon

Eastmancolor: The emergence of Kodak Eastmancolor in 1952 precipitated the fall of Technicolor, though viewers ironically tend to confuse it with the technology it replaced. Eastmancolor stock, while less striking than Technicolor and with a disastrous tendency to fade, could be developed in-house rather than at an expensive laboratory, making it an attractive option to studios battling the rise of television. Eastmancolor was often referred to as Warnercolor, Metrocolor, DeLuxe, etc. depending on the studio and is still in use today, making it the color film stock with which modern viewers are perhaps most familiar—the fame of Technicolor notwithstanding.

examples: Gigi, Dial M for Murder, Spartacus

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