Film

Explore the Early Years of Technicolor Film in 40,000 Documents

The George Eastman Museum’s Technicolor Online Research Archive has newly digitized documents from 1914 to 1955, chronicling the development of Technicolor film.

"Laboratory Transfers of the Current Production Dye Formulae and Components" (1938), 35mm (John M. Andreas Collection, courtesy George Eastman Museum)
“Laboratory Transfers of the Current Production Dye Formulae and Components” (1938), 35mm (John M. Andreas Collection, courtesy George Eastman Museum)

Over 40,000 documents related to the early years of Technicolor film are now available to explore online in high-resolution. The George Eastman Museum’s Technicolor Online Research Archive (TORA) was launched this month, with newly digitized technical drawings, photographs, notes, correspondence, and other rare items from the Technicolor Motion Picture Company archives dating between 1914 and 1955.

Technicolor 3-strip camera (1930s), photograph (Technicolor Corporate Archive, courtesy George Eastman Museum)
Technicolor 3-strip camera (1930s), photograph (Technicolor Corporate Archive, courtesy George Eastman Museum)

“The idea was to capture the beginnings of the company and the important research that brought about what we all think of as Technicolor today,” Jared Case, the museum’s head of collection information, research, and access and the lead on the project, told Hyperallergic. “The first six months were dedicated to scanning, which were full weeks of work. We gathered what information we could as we scanned, such as where the original papers were stored, in case we needed to find them again.”

TORA was supported by a 2015 National Endowment for the Humanities grant. While some early film was tinted, toned, or colored by hand, Technicolor used a multi-strip process to more naturally bring color to cinema. And it started years before Dorothy famously stepped into a Technicolor Oz in 1932, with early experiments going back to the 1910s. “Technicolor No. 1” involved a beam-splitting prism and colored filters, and was used to shoot on black and white negatives the now-lost The Gulf Between (1917). “Technicolor No. 2” added a two-print system to the setup, resulting in the groundbreaking The Toll of the Sea (1922). Then an innovative dye-transfer technique, although still based on two colors, resulted in more subtly colored films like The Doll Shop (1929). Finally, “Technicolor No. 3” was developed with a three-strip process, producing the depth of “glorious” colors seen in The Wizard of Oz, as well as films such as Becky Sharp (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

“The archive is massive, and what we’ve scanned so far is not the complete collection,” Case said. “In order to approach this kind of digitization, we knew that we would have to set boundaries on what we made available, so we limited our scanning to the first 40 years of the company, from 1915 to 1955.”

This span encompasses some of the most famous Technicolor films, recognizable for their saturated hues, such as Gone with the Wind (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Within TORA are several individual collections. The Technicolor Notebooks Collection chronicles the company’s early attempts at color filmmaking; the Technicolor Corporate Archive has company ephemera, advertisements, and other records; and the Technicolor News and Views Collection features promotional newsletters from 1939 to 1955. The papers of Dr. John M. Andreas, who was head of the research department at Technicolor from the 1940s to ’60s, include documents on dye and chemical research.

Together on TORA, these collections create a timeline of the company, now searchable by date, film title, author, and subject. Previously, this material was only viewable by appointment on-site at the Rochester, New York, museum. “By making it available online to everyone, we hope that it will spur further research into the company, the techniques they employed, and in a more general sense, color theory and its history,” Case said.

“What we are particularly excited about are all the ways we haven’t yet anticipated that the database will be used,” he added. “It’s a large collection, and we’ve made some connections, but we know there will be others out there — historians, scientists, the avid connoisseur of classic film — that will make connections we haven’t seen. We hope that having these 40,000 documents open and available to all will allow everyone to become their own researcher and produce something no one could have anticipated.”

George Eastman Museum's Technicolor Online Research Archive (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
George Eastman Museum’s Technicolor Online Research Archive (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Technicolor camera in its blimp, having studio light attached to the top right and having light shield for the lens, shown in use on the set (Technicolor Corporate Archive, courtesy George Eastman Museum)
Technicolor camera in its blimp, having studio light attached to the top right and having light shield for the lens, shown in use on the set (Technicolor Corporate Archive, courtesy George Eastman Museum)
Precision for Three-Color Prisms (1916) (Technicolor Notebooks Collection, courtesy George Eastman Museum)
Precision for Three-Color Prisms (1916) (Technicolor Notebooks Collection, courtesy George Eastman Museum)

The Technicolor Online Research Archive from the George Eastman Museum is now available to explore online.

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