The Technicolor film process was the dominant technology for shooting movies in color in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. It affected the way two film projects on the Land of Oz reached (or failed to reach) their audiences.
On the negative side, animator Ted Esbaugh was unable to distribute his 1933 Oz cartoon because of a legal dispute with the Technicolor Motion Picture Corp., which kept a tight control on its processes.
On the positive side, the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz was triumphantly realized in Technicolor, in the company’s new 3-strip color process. (The first Hollywood film using the 3-color process was made in 1935; five more were made in 1936, and twenty in 1937.) It was a major logistic achievement: the enormous cameras needed for the 3-strip Technicolor process had to be rented from the Technicolor Corp., and required daily testing and cleaning. For a complex shot that needed multiple cameras (and the Oz production needed as many as nine for some scenes), the MGM crew sometimes had to film at night, since that was the only time the needed number of cameras would be available.
The Technicolor Corp. supplied its own consultant to oversee each Technicolor movie. (For The Wizard of Oz, that man was Henri Jaffa.) Technicolor also insisted that each studio hire at least one of its cameramen for each Technicolor film: either a Technicolor First Cameraman ($250 weekly), a Second Cameraman ($125), or a Third ($62.50). For Oz, MGM hired both a Second and Third Cameraman from Technicolor, but left its own man Harold Rosson in charge overall.
Guidance was needed, since the Technicolor process did not reproduce colors with absolute fidelity, and adjustments were necessary. The color white was an established problem; costume and set designers learned to substitute off-white shades to get the appearance of white on the end-result film. Every scene that was shot needed a color test strip: a white test card called the “lilly” was inserted in the scene, and an extra three or four feet of film would be shot, so that the development could be adjusted toward the blue or yellow to result in white on the screen.
(This type of care and adjustment was not new for Hollywood. Designers had previously learned to employ outlandish combinations of colors, to produce appealing shades of gray on black and white film.)
The Oz project presented some unique challenges: the Tin Woodman’s shiny surface and the sparkling ruby slippers could cast reflections into the cameras that spoiled shots.
The process also required intense lighting; MGM used 150 36-inch arc lamps for the production, and had to borrow lights from other studios. (The final cost of merely lighting the movie was $226,307.) Temperatures on the sound stages sometimes reached 100 degrees F. It was common for people to faint from the heat. The elaborate set for Munchkinland was patrolled by a fire inspector, who looked for hot spots and sometimes ordered the lights turned down in specific places. The bright illumination caused cases of eyestrain (dubbed “klieg eyes”); some performers later complained that their eyesight was permanently affected.
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