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How MIT And Technicolor Helped Create Hollywood

technicolor.jpg
Deborah Stoiber shows the three color technicolor film process at the George Eastman House Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center in Chili, N.Y., Thursday April 24, 2008.
AP Photo
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We, of course, live in color. But the world that early Hollywood presented was almost exclusively black and white. Chelsea-born Herbert Kalmus, his college buddy Daniel Comstock and gadget guru Burton Westcott wanted to change that. So in 1915 they launched a company, Technicolor, to do just that.

"Kalmus and Comstock went to MIT — Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and that’s where the term 'tech' comes from in Technicolor," said film producer Richard W. Haines, author of "Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing."

The $1.2 billion plan to remake Kendall Square that MIT announced this week is just the latest example of how tech is transforming that area of Cambridge. But the startup culture here long predates the digital and biotech revolutions.

Now, Kalmus and company didn’t start in a garage, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but pretty close.

"They were set up in Boston — and actually. set up in a railroad car," Haines said. "So they had a processing plant, everything, so they could go from location to location and process it and make your prints."

It would take more than 15 years to get it right. Their first attempt was a two-strip process, meaning two strips of film, shot at the same time. Their camera had two lenses. One recorded the green spectrum, the other the red spectrum, but the film itself was printed in black and white. They added the color back with a complicated projector that had both a green and a red lens.

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A frame from 'The Gulf Between,' the first Technicolor movie.

"So you had additive color," Haines said. "There’s no color in the print. It was a black and white print filtered, and that’s how they made their first film, 'The Gulf Between,' but it didn’t work that well."

Onto process two, which used the same camera. Only this time they added the color to the filmstrips in processing.

"They made two dyed prints, very thin prints: one red, one green and then cemented them together," Haines said. "And that’s how they projected them, but of course with nitrate film that’s terribly dangerous. If the print starts coming apart you got yourself a major fire on your hands."

But Kalmus and company kept at it. They moved operations to Hollywood as they perfected process three: They would now use three lenses, capturing reds, blues, and yellows – and three strips of film, giving them a full range of color. And as John Belton, who teaches English and Film at Rutgers University explains, they figured out how to combine it all onto a single strip of film.

"Like color printing in lithography, where you put one color down at a time and precisely superimpose three colors until you get your full color reproduction," Belton said.

It was a major breakthrough. All Kalmus needed now was a backer. Haines says he found one in 1932, when a 30-year old Walt Disney decided to give Technicolor’s expensive, unproven new process a whirl.

"He made a deal with Kalmus and he was very clever," Belton said. "He told Kalmus: I’ll take a chance on this three-strip Technicolor but I want a five-year exclusive and they agreed to that."

The animated short, "Flowers and Trees," would earn Disney his first Academy Award and unleash a Hollywood color rush was that would transform Kalmus' company into a household name.

"It was this imbibition printing that really defined Technicolor and its ability to provide very, very vibrant, saturated, luscious colors," Belton said.

While other companies would get into the full-color game, Haines says Technicolor was the first — and the best. Technicolor brought us the ominous red skies in "Gone with the Wind," the impossibly yellow rain slickers in "Singin’ in the Rain," and a city of Emerald Green in "The Wizard of Oz." In short, Belton says, it helped create Hollywood.

"If Hollywood has a reputation for communicating dreams and fantasy and luxury and splendor, I think it is in part due to this Technicolor era — the high Technicolor era of the 1930s and 1940s," he said.

An era ushered in when Walt Disney released the first film to use Massachusetts’ own Herbert Kalmus’ three-strip, dye transfer Technicolor process, 83 years ago this week.

If you have a tale of forgotten Massachusetts history to share, or there's something you're just plain curious about, email Edgar at curiositydesk@wgbh.org. He might just look into it for you.

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