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  • 06.04.15

The Life And Death Of Technicolor

MoMA celebrates 100 years of Technicolor with 60 rare films.

When Joshua Siegel, MoMA’s curator of film, answers the phone, he has me hold for just a moment. He needs to leave his screening room to hear me. What was he watching? Not one, but two original prints of The Wizard of Oz. He was alternating a reel at a time, watching how the color of sets, makeup, and props differed between each print.

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Siegel is the curator behind the MoMA’s new exhibition Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond, a celebration of Technicolor’s 100th anniversary through the projection of over 60 Technicolor films that the museum will be screening through August 5. I assumed his Wizard of Oz comparison was for the upcoming film series. I was wrong.

“I wanted to compare them out of curiosity,” he says, as if original, mint-condition dye transfers of The Wizard of Oz were as easy to come by as cups of diet and regular soda.

“It’s never been bettered,” Siegel continues. “It’s the most faithful, and durable color technology that’s ever existed.“

But Technicolor has been dead since 1965, and for predictable reasons. It was an incredibly complex, expensive, and logistically difficult technology to shoot in. After 20 years of tinkering, it was perfected, but it still required a massive camera that could only be rented by Hollywood studios, and required three strips of black and white films to be simultaneously run through separate color filters. As a result, shooting in Technicolor also required absurd amounts of light, often coming in the form of giant bulbs that propelled set temperatures to over 100 degrees.

So when Eastman Kodak came along in the 1950s and released a 35mm color film stock that could capture color on a single reel, the ease of use and reduction in price quickly trumped any quality loss.

The Wizard of Oz. 1939. USA. Directed by Victor Fleming.courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek

However, there’s a benefit to doing things the old way. Technicolor’s antique prints hold up more accurately than their modern counterparts, which tend to fade to magenta over time. According to Siegel, the oldest surviving Technicolor print, Toll of the Sea (1922), still “looks great…like a giant postcard.”

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And to complete the visual time capsule, Siegel is even projecting the old prints using the warmer, carbonite lamps that were more characteristic of the early 20th century than the blue-ish, xenon bulbs used in projectors today. So attendees will very much see the prints as they were originally intended.

The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and Gone With the Wind–all of which were released in the 1930s when the technology was finished–will all be represented. But lesser known films, and earlier experiments in Technicolor from those days before the process was perfected will be included as well.

“I purposefully chose to show certain films that don’t get shown, rather than show The Band Wagon for the 100th time,” Siegel says. “I decided to show a film like Yolanda and the Thief which is a wonderfully misunderstood, maligned musical that brings out an almost hallucinogenic and fanciful dreamlike imagery that [director Vincente Minnelli] was unbelievably gifted in invoking.”

Over the course of 60 films, Siegel will showcase the full visual gamut of Technicolor, from its very naturalistic rendition of mountains and pines in Westerns, to its crisp capture of the garish props and costuming of early musicals. While I had always considered Technicolor to be an overstatement of color, Siegel argues something else–that the technology was true, but also so novel that it caused filmmakers to go overboard with it, actually staging a full production in candy colors. The Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City both spring to mind.

In this respect, Technicolor was a bit like 3-D film, or even the virtual reality of its day. In some hands, it was a gimmick. In others, it was an art. But in all, it was a spectacle.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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