The Technicolor Online Research Archive is Live!

Submitted by Guest Post,

After two years of carefully selecting, scanning, editing, tagging, and in many cases transcribing tens of thousands of documents from the George Eastman Museum's Technicolor collections, our work here is done. Thanks to the generosity of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Technicolor, and the DeMille Foundation, as well as the incomparable expertise of our colleagues at the George Eastman Museum, the Technicolor Online Research Archive is live and freely available to anyone interested in the history of one of the most important companies in motion-picture history.

The thrill we felt working on such a project will be familiar to anyone who has ever encountered an archival collection: It's the excitement of having first-hand contact with the stuff of history, the primary sources that, though fragmentary and necessarily incomplete, capture the threads of the past as they were spun. And to anyone interested in the technology of moving images, there are few archives as rich as these: Research notebooks from the 1910s, experimental film strips, correspondence with such key companies as Eastman Kodak, and the corporate records of the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation itself all tell stories of how the first widely successful commercial color film process rose to dominate color filmmaking around the globe. Not only do these archives record the development of a whole series brilliant inventions -- some would make Rube Goldberg's head spin -- they also reveal the very human side of research and development, such as the Technicolor scientists' often surprising sources of inspiration and the company's concerns about protecting the brand they worked so hard to build.

For much of the company's history, the maverick research scientists at Technicolor were on the cutting edge of color cinematography, a position that often left them alone on the vanguard and facing unprecedented challenges. Inspiration, therefore, came from unexpected sources. In 1949, as the film manufacturing industry began phasing out the volatile cellulose nitrate film base in favor of the much less flammable acetate, Technicolor went searching for a paint that could be used to blot out sections of a film soundtrack (a process known as "blooping") on both film stocks. In a characteristically inspired moment, Dr. John Andreas, then head of Technicolor's research department, thought to try ordinary nail polish: In order to last on fingernails, he reasoned, nail polish needed to be strong and flexible -- perfect, perhaps, for film. Dr. Andreas performed a series of tests using ordinary store-bought nail polish -- specifically, Revlon’s “Quiet Pink."  The experiment was ultimately a dead end, but the episode stands as colorful example of the company's open-minded approach to problem-solving that helped make Technicolor such a success.

John M. Andreas, March 9, 1949

As that success took hold, however, the company became acutely aware of a looming problem: the integrity of the Technicolor brand. Thanks to spectacles like The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind, by the 1940s the process had become so well-known, that "Technicolor" was becoming more than just a company name: It was fast becoming a household word, often used colloquially (and, to the chagrin of the company, with a lower-case "t") to describe everything from a vivid sunset to the color of a femme fatale's hair (the company took exception to the line "The girl with the technicolor hair appeared out of nowhere" on page 29 of the dime-novel Lady Don't Die on My Doorstep). Like the later "Xerox," "Kleenex," and "Vaseline," the trademark "Technicolor" was becoming genericized.

To combat this brand dilution the company's corporate council fired off one stern letter after another to publications such as the Readers Digest and Ladies' Home Journal, and publishers like Avon books, reminding them that "Technicolor" was in fact a registered trademark. The warning was often accompanied by the printed booklet "Your Business and Our Trademark," which outlined the ways in which "Technicolor" with a capital "T" should and should not be used. Brand management, it turns out, is nothing new.

So dive right into the Technicolor Online Research Archives. These documents are full of stories of the people and processes that revolutionized how we see cinema. And if you'd like to learn more about the history of Technicolor check out our episode of The Kodakery podcast.

Ken Fox & Kelsey Eckert

Wednesday, August 2, 2017