20th Century, Culture, Institutions, People

Technicolor’s Kingston Beginnings

100 years ago, some very interesting experiments were taking place within these walls. (my photo)

100 years ago, some very interesting experiments were taking place within these walls. (my photo)

When I was taking FILM 250 in my second year at university, our class learned a little about the history of film at Queen’s. One of the most interesting stories I remember was about a professor named Herbert Kalmus. This name may not be familiar to most people, but it has a very important place in film history: Herbert Kalmus was the co-inventor of Technicolor. Technicolor is mostly associated with films made from the late 1930s onward. Indeed, the Technicolor process achieves some of its greatest effects in films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Red Shoes (1948). However, Technicolor was actually created way back in 1915 thanks in part to some (*cough* off-the-record) research done at Queen’s.

An American who had studied science at MIT and the University of Zurich, Herbert Kalmus came to Queen’s University in 1910 after previous teaching positions at MIT and the University School in San Francisco (which he founded).

Herbert Kalmus listed in Queen's faculty in the 1915-16 City Directory. By this time,  Kalmus had decided to leave academia and pursue his work in colour film.

Herbert Kalmus listed in Queen’s faculty in the 1915-16 City Directory. By this time, Kalmus had decided to leave academia and pursue his work in colour film.

Kalmus took up residence at 70 Barrie St., a nice home across from City Park and steps away from campus. He worked at the School of Mining and became a professor of electro-chemical and metallurgical research – headquarters: Nicol Hall.

In 1912, Kalmus created a research company with two other Americans, Daniel Comstock and W. Burton Wescott. The team worked with an inventor to develop a system that would reduce the flickering of motion pictures, but the endeavour ultimately failed. However, by this point Kalmus was smitten with cinema, and began to work on his next project – finding a way to shoot film in colour.

While this sounds thrilling today (especially to an early film enthusiast like myself), films had quite a different reputation in the early twentieth century. They were seen by many as cheap throwaway entertainment, and going to see a film sometimes had working-class connotations – probably not something the studious Scotsmen of Queen’s University wanted much to do with. Excellent films certainly existed at this time, but they were only truly recognized by a few brave souls outside the entertainment industry. (For a funny and telling example of this, check out the post The Silent Life in 1915: “What I Have Learnt from the Movies” on the excellent blog Movies Silently.)

In September 1914, the university found out about Kalmus’s tinkering and warned him to stop fooling around with film and concentrate on his academic work. However, Kalmus probably wasn’t too perturbed, as by the following March he and his colleagues had developed a working prototype of a colour camera. Kalmus left Queen’s, moved back to Boston, and created the “Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation.” Of course, there were bumps along the road, but for the purposes of this blog, the rest, as they say, is history.

Advertisement from the trade paper Motion Picture Daily. Herbert Kalmus had made it to the big leagues.

Advertisement from the trade paper Motion Picture Daily. Herbert Kalmus had made it to the big leagues.

It should be noted that Kalmus’s wife, Natalie, was an important part of Technicolor as well. Her name appears on the credits of nearly every Technicolor film until 1949 as a “Colour Consultant,” as shooting in colour was a tricky process at first, requiring calibration and an understanding of what colours would look like onscreen. However, her input was apparently often regarded as annoying!

Another thing to note is that Technicolor was not the first or only colour process for film. Important precedents were techniques such as Pathécolor (1905), which required hand-stencilling colours in frame-by-frame, and Kinemacolor (1908) which had a mechanism similar to the first version of Technicolor. Black and white silent films were often tinted as well: for example, tinting the entire frame blue to represent a night scene. Of course, as filmmaking progressed, other colour processes were also invented. But Technicolor was the one that really became a household name.

Herbert Kalmus died in Los Angeles in 1963, having gained a star on Hollywood Boulevard and a technical achievement Oscar in 1940 for Technicolor. Although he only spent about five years in Kingston, the time he spent here was the time in which his ideas about colour film hatched and took flight. Took flight so well, that he left Kingston and became a Hollywood sensation – but we can claim some credit, can’t we?

 

Sources and more information:

Susanna McLeod’s article for the Kingston Whig-Standard, “Dreaming in Technicolor.” (my main source)

More on the history of film at Queen’s from the Film and Media department website.

The Los Angeles Times page on Herbert Kalmus’s Walk of Fame star.

Timeline of Historical Film Colors, an in-depth record.

Technicolor advertisement from Motion Picture Daily from the Media History Digital Library.

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