The Dawn of Technicolor: a new book from George Eastman House (Part One)

Posted by on Jan 13 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Exploring the Archive, Motion Pictures

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years from a wealth of previously untapped internal documentation, studio production files, firsthand accounts, and unpublished interviews.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.

Left to right: Frame enlargements from Melodie (Martin Justice, Colorart Pictures, Inc., US 1929), It’s a Great Life (Sam Wood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., US 1929), Redskin (Victor Schertzinger, Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., US 1929), and Manhattan Serenade (Sammy Lee, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., US 1929).

Left to right: Frame enlargements from Melodie (Martin Justice, Colorart Pictures, Inc., US 1929), It’s a Great Life (Sam Wood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., US 1929), Redskin (Victor Schertzinger, Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., US 1929), and Manhattan Serenade (Sammy Lee, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., US 1929).

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.

Technicolor’s president and co-founder Herbert T. Kalmus, 1930.

Technicolor’s president and co-founder Herbert T. Kalmus, 1930.

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.

The Technicolor collections at George Eastman House include internal memos, research notebooks and work diaries from the 1920s and 30s.

The Technicolor collections at George Eastman House include internal memos, research notebooks and work diaries from the 1920s and 30s.

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.

he book is available to purchase from the Eastman House store.

The book is available to purchase from the Eastman House store.

The Dawn of Technicolor can be purchased now from the Eastman House store, and will be available from Amazon, and other good online retailers in February.



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.

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The Films That Never Were

Posted by on Jan 07 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Motion Pictures

Conceptual artwork for The 13 Clocks

Conceptual artwork for The 13 Clocks

One of the joys of processing paper collections in the Moving Image Department is seeing some of the truly astounding work that was done before a film made it to screen (for example, the conceptual artwork above). But occasionally the story of a movie ends with this pre-production work.

Those with an interest in film are well aware of the concept of “lost films,” which are films that have no known existing copies in either archives or private collections. In most cases these films are from the earliest decades of film production and all we have go on are the promotional materials and production correspondence.

But what about those proposed film projects that were never completed, for which there was never any filmed evidence? In these cases the paper materials are all we have to document this phase of a filmmaker’s career and interests. Correspondence with collaborators, draft scripts, preliminary budgets—these paper items give us all we know about what might have been.

I am currently employed as a Project Archivist in the Moving Image Department, processing the manuscript collections of four independent filmmakers: Leo Hurwitz, Douglass Crockwell, James Reese, and Lothar Wolff. This project has been funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) as part of their Hidden Collections program. “Hidden collections” are collections housed in repositories that have no basic inventory, no online presence, and no way for potential researchers to discover them. CLIR’s program funds projects that help make such collections more easily discoverable in an online environment.

Wolff at The March of Time

Wolff at The March of Time

Wolff, the first filmmaker I worked on, started his career as a publicity agent in Germany in the 1920s. He emigrated to America prior to World War II and was the chief editor and assistant producer for the newsreel series The March of Time, before working as an independent producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. Towards the end of his diverse career he focused on a scientific interest that had lasted throughout his work (he referred to himself a “scientific moron”), producing projects for the National Geographic Society and others, many of which were made for public television.

As is often the case in dealing with filmmakers, the films that Wolff actually produced are dwarfed by those that never made it out of the planning stages. In these collections, one gets a sense of the whole of a filmmaker’s career—topics that interested them, hurdles they had to cross, and just simply how amazing it is that anything ever gets produced in the first place.

Wolff’s collection is full of material like this, allowing us to see the process from start to finish as well as what problems could potentially kill a project (usually financial). For example, in Wolff’s collection there are three proposed series of particular note. One is Then and Now, a suggested retrospective of The March of Time comparing and contrasting then-current events with archival footage. Such a production would have recontextualized the newsreel for a more modern time.

Then and Now proposal

Then and Now proposal

Then there is The TV Bible, a proposed German television dramatization of The Old Testament for which Wolff was hired as a script editor. After completing his work, Wolff was no longer involved in the project, and a note in the collection materials indicates that he was unsure of its status or if it ever was completed. This project – which consists of 94 folders – shows the vast amount of paperwork that can be behind an uncompleted project.

The TV Bible materials

The TV Bible materials

These materials for unproduced works not only encompass scripts and screenplays, but other material as well, such as artwork for a proposed adaption of James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks (photo at top). The story had been adapted for The Motorola Television Hour in 1953, but in the 1960s there was a proposal to do a feature length version. The project went through preliminary stages, and at one point Alec Guinness was approached for a role (when he turned it down he cited, in part, potential commitment to David Lean’s similarly unproduced Gandhi).

Alec Guinness letter regarding The 13 Clocks

Alec Guinness letter regarding The 13 Clocks

Completed films do not represent the full scope of a filmmaker’s career. It is through the paper materials that we discover not only lost films, but ideas that never quite made it. Some of them may have evolved into other, later projects, and some may have been briefly considered and then tossed aside for one reason or another. The information these manuscripts contain is essential to a proper understanding of a filmmaker’s life and work, and with this project we hope to bring these paper collections—covering both produced and unproduced material—back into the light.

Stacey Doyle & Ken Fox on Manuscript Collections in Moving Image Archives
Saturday January 10, 2015 from 12:15 to 1 p.m., Curtis Theatre

Stacey Doyle and Ken Fox, project archivists in the Moving Image Department, will discuss the essential role of manuscript collections in a moving image archive and how these items are handled by archivists. This discussion will be framed by their work on the project “Documenting Their Films: Hidden Collections of Four Independent Filmmakers.” Free to members; incl. w/ museum admission, or $6/$3 students, talk only.


Stacey Doyle is a project archivist in the George Eastman House Moving Image Department.

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Nitrate Film: The Beginning

Posted by on Dec 28 2014 | Motion Pictures, Other

December 28 marks the anniversary of the first-ever public exhibition of motion picture film in 1895. The film, a continuing advancement of image capture, production, and technology, was made of nitrocellulose base, referred to colloquially as nitrate. Close in chemical composition to gunpowder, this film was known to be inflammable, but was not considered dangerous. Still, for portability and ease of use, open flames were the best way to project the flickering images, and on that first day the projector was set up in the middle of the room, in the midst of the audience, daring the patrons to decipher its magic. It wasn’t until the following year, and the first devastating fire, that nitrate began to garner its unique reputation.

It was a Saturday evening 119 years ago, in a basement room known as Salon Indien of the Grand Café, located at 14 Boulevard des Capuchins, Paris, that the first paying audience, of around 100, viewed projected moving images on a screen. The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, exhibited ten short films, actualities and simple comedies, that each ran less than a minute. Versions of these films survive today, including, most famously, La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory) and l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled).

 l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled)

l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled)

The Lumières used their own version of the Cinématographe, an ingenious device that was not only the projector, but also the camera and printer of the film. Specious rumors abound about that first show and the audience’s reaction to it, including stories that women screamed and fainted, but as every good reporter knows (or at least every reporter who has seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
the Cinematographe

Like the film Thomas Edison was using for his peep show viewer the Kinetoscope, the Lumière film was 35mm in width and printed on a flexible nitrocellulose base. Unlike the Edison film, however, the Lumière film only had one set of circular perforations per frame. Edison’s film used four perforations on each side of the frame, the industry standard that exists to this day. The Lumière Cinématographe brought better clarity to the projected image by using an intermittent motion in the projector that had the film resting as much as it was motion, a feature that would be adopted by all future projectors and remains in use in the 21st century.

On May 4, 1897, a devastating fire broke out at the annual Charity Bazaar in Paris. The fire started in the section of the bazaar where film was being projected, and 180 people, mostly aristocrats, perished. Nitrate film got the reputation that it was a dangerous explosive, but the fire was actually the fault of the projectionist lighting a match while filling ether into the tank of illuminating fluid and not the fault of the nitrocellulose base film. From that day forward heavy restrictions were placed on how motion picture film could be handled, stored and transported, restrictions that are still in place to this day. The projector had to be placed within a fireproof booth, and since projected film was becoming a regular feature on Vaudeville programs, several theaters needed to be fitted with projection rooms.

For the next 55 years nitrate was the standard for producing commercial motion pictures. All silent titles universally recognized today, and the first 25 years of studio sound product, were created on nitrate film. Titles as enduring and varied as Cabiria, Greed, Sunrise, All Quiet on the Western Front, M, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Rules of the Game, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, and All About Eve were recorded and exhibited on nitrate stock.

As a film archive and a film museum, the George Eastman House is committed to conserving and exhibiting films as close to their original disposition as possible. This is why we have built vaults to hold and keep nitrate film from deteriorating over the years. This is why we have collected nitrate film since the beginning of the museum. This is why we maintain the Dryden Theatre and its projectors to standards that will allow us to project nitrate film and maintain safety for the audience.

Projectionist Darryl G. Jones getting ready for a nitrate screening at the Dryden Theatre.

Projectionist Darryl G. Jones getting ready for our nitrate screening at the Dryden Theatre.

This is why we train staff, and instruct students of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, in the proper handling and projection of film objects. And this is the reason that we are embarking on The Nitrate Picture Show: A Festival of Film Conservation. We believe that film produced on nitrate should be seen on nitrate, and we are dedicating the weekend of May 1-3, 2015 to just this endeavor.

The legacy begun by two brothers in a basement in France 119 years ago this week continues at the George Eastman House in the present and in the future. If you would like to be a part, please visit

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Anthony L'Abbate is a preservation officer in the Motion Picture Department. Some of the films he has worked on are HUCKLEBERRY FINN; ROARING RAILS and FLOWER OF DOOM. He also created new English language titles for repatriated American silent films.

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Posted by on Nov 06 2014 | contest, Motion Pictures

This Saturday, November 8 at 8 p.m., the Dryden Theatre will present a rare, nitrate screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (US 1940, 130 min., 35mm).

The first—and best—film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic mystery story was also Alfred Hitchcock’s American directorial debut. Filled with sunlight and shadow, fueled by elegant, pitch-perfect performances from Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, and Judith Anderson, this version of Rebecca remains unequaled in its moody rendition of how the past can overtake and destroy the present.

We’re celebrating this special screening by giving away our Rebecca poster from the Dryden Theatre lobby. But we’re going to make you earn it! The first person to comment below the correct answer to the following trivia question receives this classic poster plus two tickets to the Dryden Theatre to a film of your choice!


Good luck and see you at the Dryden!

QUESTION: The final scene of Rebecca was filmed with a variable area soundtrack as opposed to the variable density soundtrack of the rest of the film. Why did Hitchcock choose to shoot just this scene in this way?

Please enter your answer in the comment section below.


Kolbe Resnick is the Theater Manager of the Dryden Theatre.

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Kodak Camera at 125: Eastman’s First Film Patent

Posted by on Oct 14 2014 | Exhibitions, George Eastman, Other, Technology

On October 14, 1884, George Eastman received his first “film” patent (#306,594) for Negative Paper. While this was a paper film (not very related to the transparent product most people think of today) and not very successful, it eventually lead to improved versions incorporated into the first Kodak camera introduced in 1888 – a milestone in the history of photography.


Over the years, Eastman acquired many patents related to both film manufacturing and film and the apparatus to use them including #317,050 dated May 5, 1885 for the Eastman Walker roll holder and more importantly #388,850 patented Sept 5, 1888 for the Kodak.


Our current exhibition Kodak Camera at 125 showcases the new system of photography that Eastman introduced to the world with the Kodak camera in 1888 and the innovative parts used to build the device. We encourage you to visit to see objects from our collection that show the evolution of his cameras and the snapshots each has captured.

Todd Gustavson is the curator of technology at George Eastman House, working with the collection for more than 20 years.

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