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Technicolor Look: Costumes, Sets, and Makeup Or Color Timing Trickey

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The super-saturated look of classic Technicolor, was that all done in the lab? Or did the art and  wardrobe departments contribute by using very brightly colored paints and fabrics? Was there a ratio of how much of the effect was practical and how much chemical? 

And, if at least some of the effect was created by using vivid costumes, sets, and props how on earth did they deal with the skin tones? Was there specific Technicolor pancake? 

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It's a fair bit of both. You have to also remember, Technicolor grading was fairly limited in the sense that in order to tweak the color balance, they're have to tweak the RGB ratio with the gels when the print was made. This is apparently why some Technicolor films had a specific color tinge in comparison to others. So really, though the format lends itself naturally to the hyper-saturated look, films like The Wizard of Oz made use of art design in the set design and whatnot to make full use of the look. The same can be said for a movie like Suspiria, for example, which pushed the saturation further with heavy usage of colored lighting. In short, I'd argue it's a 50-50 where both heavily come into play.

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It's a mix of everything, from the 3 b&w negatives used in the camera through filters to record red, green, and blue information, to the dye transfer printing process where you could use better (and more archival) cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes than color-coupler technology, to the contrast of the dye transfer print process (more contrast + deeper blacks = better color saturation)...

And outside of that, and even more importantly, there is the color design of the movies and the lighting used to bring out the color.

And yes, the process was designed around skin tones... but heavy pancake makeup by Max Factor helped.

The dye transfer print process didn't really use gels, it was dye coated onto positive b&w matrices that was then transferred onto a clear base with a dye mordant, one color layer at a time, like printing a book with color photos. It was not a photochemical process. However, to color-correct the b&w positive matrices from the b&w negatives, you had to time the densities of each record individually to create the balanced color in the final image. I don't think gels were involved since it was a b&w to b&w system for color-correction.  You are probably thinking of RBG / YCM printing for color negatives onto color print stock.

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Also, the saturated look was partly the result of marketing. 

The Technicolor company wanted to show off their technology, and so sent out consultants to ‘encourage’ the filmmakers to use saturated colors in wardrobe and set design, and to use frontal lighting in order to make the colors pop. They could be very specific about color combinations and the types of fabric to be used.

Some filmmakers did manage to eventually break away from the consultants and use smoke, fog filters, and other techniques to create more subtle color, but those are more the exception than the rule.

It would be like an 8K camera manufacturer coming to set with the rental camera, dictating sharp lenses with no diffusion, deep stops, and hard lighting to show off the resolution of the sensor. Outside of equipment demo films today, it’s rather hard to imagine how much control the company had over the look of it’s product.

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Technicolor didn't strictly want a high-saturated look, not at first -- they were worried about audiences getting tired of looking at color for a feature-length movie so they recommended more muted color schemes. However, they did like a lot of contrast and variety in the colors to show off the range not possible with 2-color Technicolor -- the color blue in particular was something they wanted to show off.

Some early Technicolor movies were designed on the more pastel side, dramas like the first "A Star is Born" or "Trail of the Lonesome Pine".  But considering the expense of the process, the studios and most of the directors wanted a bolder use of color, to show it off, and this particularly made sense for musicals.  The Technicolor color consultant, Natalie Kalmus, wanted control over the colors according to her tastes, but she didn't push heavy saturation, she just had very particular ideas about color coordination.

Technicolor's objection to diffusion and smoke was mainly because they struggled to maintain sharpness in the dye transfer printing process -- because any misalignment printing the passes of yellow, cyan, and magenta would affect the sharpness. So they were very conservative about that.  Same goes for exposure.

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Great info. And I understand why color consultants might be needed in the early years, color gremlins are not easy to tame all by yourself.

The need to plan out your color is kind of a surprise, but the human eye adapts to color so quickly that if you just keep hitting the audience with color, color, color they’re going to ignore it after a few minutes. 

Sounds like Technicolor was as much an approach to filmmaking as it was a technology. 

 

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