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The "Technicolor Look" (2 replies)

2 months ago
dmsolano 2 months ago

Hello Mr. Deakins and Forum Members! In this thread I wanted to pose some questions concerning the "Technicolor Look". I am only a 3rd year in college so my knowledge on cinematography is rudimentary at best and largely self-taught, so please excuse any ignorance on the matter.

Over the past few months I've been watching more and more films shot with the Technicolor process. Films like 'The Red Shoes' and 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' and 'Black Narcissus' by Powell and Pressburger. Technicolor musicals like 'Singin' In The Rain' and 'An American in Paris', and most recently, 'The River' by Jean Renoir.

Obviously, these are all films with dazzling cinematography and visuals, but the more movies I watch and the more I learn about lighting and shooting, I'm wondering if we ( a very liberal we ) attribute too much of the "Technicolor Look" to the process itself. Many times I see others (I've certainly done it too) mourn Technicolor and feel as though no film could ever look like that again, but is this misguided?

The more Technicolor films and films in general I watch the more I feel like that look that we attribute to the process is in large part due to the styles of shooting and lighting at the time and of the technical limitations of the equipment available. For example, most of these movies were (afaik) shot in 4:3 or Academy ratio, and I know that for that ratio, focal length choice and composition must have been very different than what most are used to now where most productions are 16:9 or wider. There is also the fact that lenses have gotten much sharper now, and the comparatively soft lenses of the past might have a lot to do with Technicolor's creamy and dreamy feeling. I also notice that these films are also usually lit with very hard light, which is of course wildly different from the contemporary styles of lighting, which judging from the Billy O'Leary episode of the podcast (LOVE THE PODCAST BY THE WAY) have been trending towards softer and softer source for years now.

I also feel like that while, yes, different processes and film stocks do render color differently (I've been shooting 35mm stills for years now, no color negative stock renders color like Ektachrome), I feel like much of that colorful POP can be attributed to savy production designers, costume designers, and cinematographers who knew they were working on a TechniCOLOR picture and that they'd best take advantage of that. After all, my understanding of Technicolor productions is that they were supposed to be event films.

I recently watched 'La Collectionneuse' by Eric Rohmer, and although that film was shot on Eastmancolor and was smaller in scale than all of the Technicolor films I listed, I felt that there was an odd sort of similarity in the way 'La Collectionneuse' looked compared to the Technicolor films I had watched, and I feel like that is in large part due to the Academy ratio, the soft lenses, the hard (dare I say sometimes obvious) lighting, and the beautiful colors of the costumes and the French countryside.

Forgive me for the long post, I didn't expect to end up writing so much on the topic, but this question has been pinballing around in my head for the past few days. Was Technicolor really this magical unmatchable process? Is there something about the three strip and dyeing process that can not be emulated?

DO we attribute too much of the Technicolor look to the process itself? And could one, using the right techniques and equipment (maybe not signature primes and an 8K RED), make something that looked like a Technicolor film today?

Any comments and answers are greatly appreciated!! Thank you all!

Stay safe and Happy Holidays!

Mitchell P
2 months ago
Mitchell P 2 months ago

The Aviator was designed to emulate both the two and three strip Technicolor processes. It's look was achieved in the digital intermediate stage. It's definitely possible to create this look with digital grading tools in the modern era. I also agree that the production and costume design plays a big part in the "look" of Technicolor. 

2 months ago
dmullenasc 2 months ago

Most of the look comes from creative color design choices and the lighting of the period, some of it driven by the slow ASA of the process and that it was a daylight-balanced system until 1952, and then it was gone in 1955.

But there were technical differences that affected color. To be fair, you'd have to compare 3-strip Technicolor to the period of 1950-1955 when it was competing with Eastmancolor (and some AnscoColor). The 3-strip process used narrow cut filters that created more color purity than the Kodak color negative process, which had more crosstalk between the layers, which have some affect on saturation and color accuracy.  There were also unique artifacts to the 3-strip process, like a magenta halation around bright lights and hot skies. I think there is a visual difference between the two color processes, especially if you see the 3-strip images projected in dye transfer prints, versus the Eastmancolor negative images printed to Eastmancolor prints. To some degree, when people talk about the "magic" of Technicolor in terms of saturation, they are more referring to the dye transfer printing process.

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