The American Society of Cinematographers

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Technicolor Turns 100

Technicolor celebrates its pioneering past and its continuing mission to influence the future.

Photos courtesy of Technicolor.

Footage of beachgoers reveling in the California sun, shot by Daryn Okada, ASC, with Sony’s F65 camera, is playing on two side-by-side monitors. The image on the right is markedly superior. We’re at Technicolor Hollywood, and Mark Turner, vice president of partnership relations and business development, is demonstrating the Intelligent Tone Management plug-in. “The whole point of [high dynamic range] is to add contrast and brightness,” he explains, “but maintain all the interesting shadow detail without changing the creative intent of what the cinematographer originally wanted. [Clients] can’t spend a week [remastering old TV shows for Ultra HD], so we developed this algorithm to save colorists about 80 percent of the time it takes to move a shot into HDR space. It’s like getting a little Technicolor color scientist in a box — a damn good algorithm you can drop into your pipeline.”

“Color science remains the cornerstone of Technicolor's legacy, and it is instrumental to our future,” says Tim Sarnoff, deputy CEO and president of production services. “As the industry transitions into next-generation video technologies, we remain committed to maintaining the integrity of the color pipeline with a holistic approach to each production, from on-set through distribution, bringing the creatives’ true artistic intent to the screen.”

ITM was unveiled in April at NAB, and in presenting the technology — which allows colorists to analyze video content in real time, and provides faster and more direct control of luminance in shadow areas, mid-tones and highlights — Technicolor is carrying on a pursuit of progress that has shaped moving-image technology for generations. From the day in 1915 when Herbert T. Kalmus, his MIT colleague Dr. Daniel Comstock, and W. Burton Wescott officially established the Technicolor Motion Picture Corp., to their revolutionary work in photochemistry in the decades that followed, to the birth and passing of the groundbreaking three-strip film camera, to the modern digital era and the dawn of the digital-intermediate process, and now into the realm of Ultra HD, Technicolor has been an ongoing force of radical advancement in the field of color science. This year marks the company’s 100th birthday.

Technicolor’s milestone anniversary brings its distinction into sharp relief. It is an organization that has repeatedly remade itself, surviving technological and economic upheaval and thriving even as dozens of other legendary names have fallen by the wayside. The company’s longevity gives it special status, along with just a few other industry mainstays, including camera manufacturer Arri, which will turn 100 in 2017, and the American Society of Cinematographers, which will celebrate its centennial in 2019. Indeed, Technicolor remains part of an elite group that profoundly and consistently influences the development and cultural impact of motion pictures.

The same week that Turner was in California detailing the company’s HDR strides, Technicolor’s annual Science & Technology Week was in full swing in New Jersey. The event is described by Stéphane Rougeot, deputy CEO and technology group president, as a key initiative for Technicolor’s Research and Innovation unit, which consists of three labs and 250 international researchers. S&T Week is “a gathering of the dreamers and engineers from across our global offices to share their research, discuss their ideas and collaborate,” notes Rougeot.

One attendee was ASC associate member Joshua Pines, Technicolor’s vice president of imaging research and development. Pines is among the industry’s most respected color scientists, and he has received two Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Technical Achievement Awards in partnership with others for his work in co-developing the ASC Color Decision List and Technicolor’s archival separation process from digital-image data. In 2011, he received SMPTE’s Herbert T. Kalmus Award, named for Technicolor’s founder, for his work on film scanning, recording, and color-science and image-processing techniques.

Pines knows a little something about the company’s color-science history, and when asked if Technicolor has remained true to that heritage in the digital era, he doesn’t hesitate. “Technicolor as an entity has always put a very high esteem on color science,” he says. “From the first day, they recognized the need for color scientists — the engineers — whether they were working with chemicals back in the lab days, or with image-processing software. That has been the one constant of the company.”

“The thing that is amazing to me is the way the business was run [in the early years] by Herbert Kalmus,” says Caleb Deschanel, ASC, an award-winning cinematographer who also rates as something of a Technicolor historian. “The company could have fallen apart at any time. There were so many technical problems to work out. The eventual success of the [Technicolor] process was due as much to the genius of Kalmus as a businessman-promoter as it was to the technical brilliance of his partners, Comstock and Wescott. Kalmus’ genius as a businessman is often overlooked.” He adds that investors “put up a lot of money” for the development of the various Technicolor processes that eventually led to the famous dye-transfer printing process and the three-strip camera in the 1930s. Investors “saw no return for a very long time,” Deschanel says. “It was one [misstep] after another, until Technicolor came up with [the three-strip camera]. Kalmus’ ability as a promoter is what kept it going.”

As Eastman Kodak’s 35mm color motion-picture film rendered obsolete the need for three strips of film negative, the three-strip cameras and imbibition (dye transfer) printing were gone by the time Deschanel was shooting such projects as The Black Stallion and Being There in the late 1970s. The unmistakable palette that authors James Layton and David Pierce describe in their new book about Technicolor’s golden years, The Dawn of Technicolor 1915-1935, as “a cinematic experience larger than life, a vibrant, multihued, and highly saturated world representing an escape from reality” had given way to new styles and color aesthetics emanating from new cinema movements and a variety of film stocks and lab processes. Even as times change, though, Deschanel suggests that the basic foundation of cinematic color —  “what our very understanding of movie color is” — remains a Technicolor achievement.

“Without Technicolor,” says Deschanel, “our understanding of color would be very different. When they developed the three-strip camera, Technicolor recorded through their own version of red, green and blue filters. Then they printed using the imbibition process, using their own idea of cyan, magenta and yellow dyes. Imbibition printing was a very important Technicolor invention. Scientifically, of course, there is no such thing as a perfect red, green or blue, so our understanding of color comes from what Technicolor decided, way back when, were the ‘perfect’ color dyes. Imagine if they had shot The Wizard of Oz on Kodak stock if it had been available. It would have been a very different movie.”

The development of the three-strip camera used to film Dorothy’s adventure, as well as many other classics, was made possible by some breathtakingly sophisticated engineering from a Technicolor team headed by Wescott and Joseph A. Ball. That camera’s significance continues to resonate, with ASC President Richard Crudo calling it “genius — an advanced mechanical technology even by today’s standards.”

Deschanel excitedly notes that his friend, visual-effects legend and multiple Academy Award winner Richard Edlund, ASC, “has a three-strip camera that runs!” And indeed he does — No. D-18, to be specific, out of the original 28 that were manufactured. It is a camera Edlund methodically reassembled over the course of the last 40 years, “from its merciless modification to 8-perf Technirama in 1956,” he says, and after he robbed it of its movement in the 1970s to build a pin-registered Moviola system to check motion-control shots on the original Star Wars. Edlund kept the body and hunted for the parts necessary to restore it to operating condition over the decades, a process he recently completed. It’s now one of only 17 three-strip cameras in existence — with three high-speeds built as well — explains Edlund, who proudly attests that it is “the only one that works.”

Edlund is quick to point out that the Technicolor dye-transfer system lived on into the 1970s, even after the three-strip cameras had left the scene. Technicolor prints continued to be struck from single-camera negatives in various forms — with the last IB prints from Technicolor London made for Star Wars. Edlund states, “The thing that is interesting to me is that prints made back then are still good today. Those dyes don’t fade. The colors in the early Eastman monopack emulsions, especially, have faded badly over time and are practically irretrievable. The Eastman color process came out when I was about 10, but even today, when I see those old [Technicolor] movies, I think of something special. Technicolor films were a big deal.”

At this point in Edlund’s chat with AC, the cinematographer carefully pulls out an extremely rare 1934 issue of Fortune magazine, which features a lengthy cover story that discusses the birth of the three-strip process and speculates on the future of color cinema. “They wrote a piece about the coming of color movies as it was happening,” he observes, “and they said it would be on the same level as the arrival of sound, that it would change the aesthetic of movies — and, of course, they were right. The original three-strip dye-transfer process reigned supreme for a relatively short period, maybe 18 years or so, but that happened to be the sweet spot in the history of cinema, in my opinion.”

Edlund is also careful to note that even after the dye-transfer era, elements of earlier Technicolor technology bled into several areas of motion-picture production, including his own discipline, particularly with large-format VistaVision cameras, which Edlund used in his early days. “And the company is right in the middle of it today,” he says. “The age of technology is [here]. It’s digital, and Technicolor is still innovating with color science.”

Pines also sees some parallels between the eras. He was among a small group of adventurers in the early 2000s, when Technicolor and other companies were investigating how to efficiently apply digital color correctors and look-up tables to digitally scanned film images in order to make the DI process feasible. Looking back, he sees similarities between what color scientists and software engineers experienced and what their forebears of the Kalmus and Comstock period accomplished during Technicolor’s early years. “I do think it's fair to call [the DI] process an heir, of sorts, to the old Technicolor processes, because it was a similar effort in terms of challenges," says Pines. "Maybe it was easier for us because some individual ‘pieces’ were already there, whereas Technicolor had to literally invent the three-strip dye-transfer process way back when, and design and invent machinery. But we did influence the creation of a lot of hardware and software platforms, and we were definitely early adopters. The first wave of DI facilities had to do a ton of technical work, R&D and engineering to make it easier for the second wave. So, there were certainly some Herculean efforts at the advent of DI.”

Through the years, Technicolor has added visual effects and audio to its offerings. The company was a founding member of MPEG in 1988 as a major stakeholder in the MP3-Audio and MPEG-Video standards, introduced MP3Pro technology for CD audio, and, most recently, teamed with Qualcomm and Fraunhofer to roll out the MPEG-H standard with the intent to accelerate the adoption of 360-degree sound perception for the broadcast industry. The company’s state-of-the-art audio facility on the Paramount lot, which recently performed Academy Award-winning audio work on the movie Whiplash, is considered one of the industry’s best.

To this day, Technicolor remains knee-deep in science, research, technology and product development. Its brand is of such time-tested value that in 2010, Thomson Multimedia changed the name of its entire corporation to Technicolor, its subsidiary since 2000, thus beginning a revitalization that has guided the company’s renewed commitment to leadership and progress.

Looking to the future, Sarnoff points to Technicolor’s current Drive 2020 initiative, which aims to fuel the company’s advance into the next generation of moving-image production. The project calls upon the resources of such Technicolor properties as MPC, which is among the industry’s largest visual-effects services companies, and recent acquisitions Mr. X, Ouido Productions and Mikros Image, among others. Sarnoff suggests that “such fundamental disruptions as virtual reality and augmented reality” will require companies like Technicolor to work with partners to “invent the next grammar of storytelling.”

Given the company’s storied history and its drive toward shaping things to come, what does the word “Technicolor” represent on the modern industry landscape? “Solutions,” says Rougeot. “Since 1915, the company was developing solutions to serve creative storytellers. Technicolor was always grounded in color science, engineering and innovation, but throughout its history, the company reinvented itself many times. And this legacy is consistent with how the company continues to innovate, most recently around the rapid evolution of digital as it relates to production photography, dailies, color finishing and distribution in a changing landscape of OTT streaming, and the emergence of HDR, UHD and other expanded-capture and viewing opportunities.

“Our mission is now and always has been to provide key solutions to filmmakers and the ecosystem of entertainment providers,” he continues. “I guess if you want to put a label on us, [we would be] a creative technology company for digital entertainment. But we don’t just create technologies; we leverage technology to create new ways of telling stories and engaging audiences.”

Rougeot refers to the contributions Technicolor made to Whiplash, and to the new color-correction techniques the company devised to accommodate the unique shooting style Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, employed on Birdman, for which he received an Academy Award. “It is similar to how my predecessors in this company would have been proud to cite Technicolor’s work on The Wizard of Oz,” says Rougeot.

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