The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 is a new book written by myself and David Pierce, and published by George Eastman House. It is the cornerstone of the museum’s 100th anniversary celebrations of Technicolor—the pioneering company that successfully brought color to the movies.
This lavishly-illustrated book recounts the first two decades of one of the most widely recognized names in the American film industry. As authors, David and I have painstakingly reconstructed Technicolor’s early years from a wealth of previously untapped internal documentation, studio production files, firsthand accounts, and unpublished interviews. The book features more than 400 images, and includes a comprehensive annotated filmography of all two-color Technicolor titles.
This is part one of two blog posts delving into the book, giving you a glimpse into its scope and contents. Part two, which will follow in a few weeks, will introduce the work that went into creating the filmography and sourcing the accompanying frame enlargements.
The Dawn of Technicolor investigates the people and technology behind this pioneering motion picture corporation. And these are supplemented with production histories and further context on the state of the motion picture industry, competing color technologies, and exhibitor and audience response to color films on the screen.
The book is broken down into ten chapters, covering the years 1915 to 1935 in depth. Although Technicolor was formally incorporated in 1915, the story really begins in 1912 with the company’s predecessor, Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott, Inc., an industrial research firm from Boston, Massachusetts. Over the following twenty years, Technicolor developed a series of two-color processes as necessary steps toward full-color photography and printing. But despite success in the laboratory and in small-scale production, the company was plagued by repeated disappointments. The feature films The Gulf Between (1917), The Toll of the Sea (1922), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926) each showed tremendous promise in photography and color design, but implementation flaws resulted in technical problems and commercial failure. With the support of patient investors and the visionary leadership of Herbert T. Kalmus, Technicolor eventually prevailed against daunting odds to create the only commercially viable color process for motion pictures.
The Dawn of Technicolor investigates these vital make-or-break years, as the firm grew from a small team of exceptional engineers into a multimillion-dollar corporation. Color provided new creative tools for filmmakers, but also introduced new challenges on set, in the laboratory, and during projection. We chart the making of pivotal films in the process, from the troubled productions of Ben-Hur (1925) and The Mysterious Island (1926-29), to the early short films in Technicolor’s groundbreaking three-color process: Walt Disney’s animated Flowers and Trees (1932) and the live-action La Cucaracha (1934). The book spotlights the talented engineers and filmmakers associated with Technicolor, and the remarkable technical innovations that finally made color films practical, changing the film industry forever.
Researching this under documented period of Technicolor’s history was both challenging and rewarding. The backbone of the book is drawn from documentation in the Technicolor Corporate Archive and other collections at George Eastman House, including research notebooks by the engineers behind the company’s early processes. These were supplemented and contextualized with important but untapped collections from other institutions and private individuals, including previously unaccessed court files, Herbert Kalmus’s unedited autobiography notes and memoranda books, and a series of unpublished interviews with former Technicolor personnel conducted in the 1970s. These provided an unprecedented glimpse into the activities of Technicolor’s operations during the 1920s and 30s from the men and women directly responsible.
One of the strengths of The Dawn of Technicolor is the emphasis it places on wider context. Technicolor never operated in isolation; the firm was an active part of the film industry, influenced by business and audience trends, and a string of technological advancements, such as the introduction of sound. Studio files from some of Technicolor’s most important clients during this time, such as M-G-M, Warner Bros. and Walt Disney, reveal the struggles the company faced in scaling up its operations and providing consistent quality.
The wealth of documentation consulted during the research for this book is matched by the quality and diversity of its illustrations. Crystal Kui was the book’s research and illustration coordinator and was responsible for locating and selecting the best images from a potential pool of thousands. She worked with a host of museums, libraries, and archives around the world to secure high quality reproductions of photographs and original film elements. Our goal was to faithfully reproduce the look of two-color Technicolor prints from as many surviving examples as possible. We are proud that of the 428 illustrations in the book, 217 are made directly from nitrate prints and negatives.
James Layton is a Research and Information Specialist in Eastman House's Moving Image Department. He is also the co-author of the publication The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935.