The ubiquitous phrase "In Technicolor" was present throughout my youth on title cards at the beginning of favorite films, from the transporting "Wizard of Oz" to Disney's animated hit, "Dumbo." A fascinating new exhibit at Eastman House explores the history, technology, and artistry of Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation at its hundredth anniversary. The exhibit has undoubted local significance as film and Kodak fade into history, though large parts of the show will appeal most to those interested in the more technical aspects of filmmaking.
Technicolor was the first commercially successful color motion-picture process, and until about the 1980's, it was used widely for motion pictures shot in color. It may not be at the forefront of our minds when we are engrossed in viewing great art, but there has always been a deep-rooted covenant between artists and scientists. "In Glorious Technicolor" explores this connection between innovation and art, telling the story of how color technology affected the film industry.
Before entering the gallery space, visitors are confronted by a striking installation of two thousand glass bottles containing powdered synthetic dye samples, lined up brightly on narrow shelves. Wall texts state that the samples were collected from a number of international chemical and dye companies by Technicolor's research scientists throughout a 45-year period, and some were used in the company's sophisticated dye transfer process.
Inside the dim first gallery, four large screens are suspended from the ceiling, immersing viewers in looping, projected clips of Technicolor films from different genres — from musicals to, amazingly, some color film-noir flicks. This section showcases the range in subject matter and complementary tones, from oversaturated to subdued hues, that Technicolor provided.
In the second gallery, the exhibit is superbly organized and easy to navigate, with a careful balance between thorough information and the objects, photographs, and equipment displayed in order to illustrate this very technical subject.
Technicolor, which had its origin as a tiny team of Boston-based research engineers in 1915, was by no means the first company to attempt to apply color to film. Curator and Eastman House Research and Information Specialist James Layton, who co-authored the just-published book, "The Dawn of Technicolor" with David Pierce, says that a variety of companies explored tinting, toning, and hand-painting films.
"Technicolor always wanted a full-color process, but the technology just wasn't there at the time," he says. "So they set that as their end goal and had to work to get there in stages."
A brief section explores rival companies' efforts before turning over to focus on the detailed story of Technicolor's successes and failings, expansions, and adaptations to technological advances by competitors, including Eastmancolor.
Particularly fascinating is the exploration of the use of prisms within the beautifully crafted, iconic cameras to split light and record color onto one, two, and then three reels of black and white film simultaneously spinning side by side.
The show also tells the stories of people who staked large parts of their careers on the success of color film — and who in turn aided its success — from red-headed starlets, to designers of vibrant costumes, to Academy Award-winning, star cameramen based in America and England.
Also on display are the work diaries of Technicolor's founders; stations with tablets offering additional technical and historical information; rigorous color tests of costumes, sets, and makeup; and examples of how the Technicolor films were marketed, including beautifully composed behind-the-scenes photographs.
For those who want to delve even deeper into the history of Technicolor at their leisure, Eastman House has set up a supplemental website at eastmanhouse.org/technicolor100, which is organized to include decade-by-decade historical highlights, a careful look at the technology behind the art, the history of the company, and Technicolor's national and international presence and impact.
Tucked in the darkened gallery on the far side of the Technicolor exhibit are two recent video works by British artist Aura Satz, whose work incorporates film, sound, performance, and sculpture.
One of them, "Doorway for Natalie Kalmus," is a high-definition digital video Satz made in homage to the former wife of one of Technicolor's founders. Kalmus was a color design consultant for Technicolor who helped clients perfect the use of their product. Kalmus created color scores for various films according to her theories of the use of color to lead or manipulate emotion.
The short film is series of abstracted views of a Bell and Howell lamphouse used in color grading. Through the combination of close-up photography of industrial textures — scratches, dust, mechanical minutiae — and an eerie soundtrack, the interior of the apparatus is transformed into echoing corridors saturated in constantly flipping combinations of colorful light.
The music, composed by Satz and Steven Severin, is punctuated by clicking that marks each shift in light from sizzling crimsons to moody violets, bitter mustards, and every conceivable combination of the hues. It's easy to feel swallowed up by the wall-sized projection, entirely in the moment with each color cue's signal to the subconscious.
The second film, "Chromatic Aberration" — which is having its North American premiere here — was created in 2014 and features close-ups of eyes from early experiments in color printing.
Satz used film from the Eastman House collection to explore the aesthetics of "color fringing," a type of distortion in which the camera lens fails to focus all colors to the same convergence point. Like the former video, this work is slightly unsettling in its industrial-noise soundtrack (this time composed by the British sound artist and composer Scanner) and abstraction of the familiar. What is vaguely recognizable as eyes becomes haunting; the slow-motion opening and closing detectable amid miniature prism rainbows cast on mottled skin tones.
Through April, Eastman House's Dryden Theatre will present "In Glorious Technicolor: a 35-film Celebration," a companion to the exhibit. For more information on this and other related events, visit eastmanhouse.org.