The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Pierce: They had a master salesman in Herbert Kalmus, and Kalmus, who was a Ph.D. engineer, quite consciously developed himself into a very accomplished businessman, an excellent communicator. He knew how to cultivate mentors who helped him acquire captains of industry for the Technicolor board of directors, and he was able to communicate about the technology to non-technical people. So the industry saw him as the technical expert, the ‘genius,’ and the engineers saw him as the business leader. He was not the inventor of Technicolor; he was the one who marshaled the resources the engineers needed in order to deliver, and he got them enough time. In that way, he was very much like Steve Jobs. He didn't write the code, but he hired the right people, he set the goals, and he was able to ensure that what they delivered had an impact on the industry and was what people wanted.

Another factor in Technicolor's success seems to have been that it was championed by people like Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Jack Warner and Walt Disney, who really understood color's potential. Among Technicolor's patrons, who do you think was the most crucial?

Pierce: I think Disney was in many ways the most important, because the test film Flowers and Trees [1932], where they didn't know if they were going to release it in color or black-and-white, got such an enormous response that Disney decided to release it in color even though United Artists said, ‘We've already sold these pictures at a flat rate! We're going to make less money by releasing this in color!’ Disney, as always, was thinking ahead. This really pulled the entire animation industry into color, and that built up the three-color printing and really helped Technicolor work out the bugs for three-color before there was much live action [in the format].

Do you consider Ray Rennahan the greatest of the Technicolor cameramen?

Pierce: Technicolor did. He started as an assistant and lab guy, and he had an instinctive understanding of all the skills of black-and-white and how to create effective color. And the quality of his work continued to improve as he grew into that role. Of the other people that Technicolor recruited, including some first-class cameramen, none was really able to work at Rennahan’s caliber. The black-and-white cameramen tended to look down on Technicolor because it didn’t require you to set up your three-point lighting to make the person stand out from the background — color does that for you. So [Technicolor] wasn't seen as sophisticated in terms of the lighting you used and the knowledge you had to have. But it was much more sophisticated in some ways. For example, you had to understand how to use color balance to draw the viewer’s eye to the right things within the frame.

Filmmaking technology is in a constant state of evolution, and the story of Technicolor's first 20 years seems to offer a world of lessons to modern innovators. What would you say those lessons are?

Pierce: I think investors are far less forgiving now than they were back then. Today there’s the need to deliver something that can go commercial faster. Technicolor was not a licensing company; it was a 'we do it for you' company. If you were doing something comparable now, you'd probably say, for instance, ‘We've come up with a camera phone. Do we build it ourselves so that we're the only cell phone that has a camera, or do we decide to become a patents company and license it out to everybody?’ Given the technical hurdles, I think engineers coming up with Technicolor today would probably develop the components and then offer it out so that everyone else could become a color company.

Do you plan to follow this book with one that looks at the next era of Technicolor?

Layton: We’ve kind of joked about it. We've already found a lot of research material that was related to the later period. We've joked that we could do one that just covers the next five years, up to Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz [1939]. There are a lot of stories!

Click here to watch a short video produced by George Eastman House about the two-color process.

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