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1915-1935

Technicolor was incorporated in 1915 to develop and commercialize color motion pictures. Its founders, Herbert T. Kalmus, Daniel F. Comstock, and W. Burton Wescott, were Boston engineers who specialized in industrial research. The company’s first process was additive, meaning it needed to recombine its color records during projection to obtain color on the screen. Achieving a full-color image using this technique was too challenging—at least as a first step—so a two-color system was adopted, limiting the range of colors that could be reproduced. The Gulf Between (1917) was made as a demonstration film to highlight the virtues of the process to the film industry and audiences, but its launch turned out to be a failure.

After The Gulf Between, Technicolor returned to the laboratory for five more years of research. The result was an entirely redesigned camera and printing process as well as a new feature-length demonstration film. The release prints of The Toll of the Sea (1922) incorporated the color into the film print itself, eliminating the need for special projection equipment and allowing them to be shown in any theater in the world.

Technicolor’s business grew throughout the 1920s as the Hollywood studios gradually began exploring the use of color with short inserts into black-and-white films. Several all-color features were made as well, such as Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926), but color was expensive and otherwise remained limited in its adoption. It was not until the arrival of sound films in the late 1920s that Technicolor’s business really took off. Audiences found the combination of color, sound, and music irresistible, and in 1929 Technicolor signed with Warner Bros. for twenty all-color feature films. However, after a year of color musicals of varying quality, audiences began to tire of the genre. Warner Bros. and other studios canceled their contracts, and Technicolor struggled to find business in the ensuing years.