July 17, 2020 posted by Jim Korkis

In His Own Words: H.T. Kalmus on Disney in Technicolor

Suspended Animation #276

Many references may be found regarding two-strip Technicolor. I have been guilty of discussing Walter Lantz’s King of Jazz (1930) and the animated cartoons that Ub Iwerks did when he left the Disney Studios in the 1930s as being done in “two strip” Technicolor. Technically, that is probably incorrect terminology.

The Technicolor two-component system used a single roll of black & white negative film that alternately recorded both the red and green color records. Multiple films were not used until the introduction of three-strip Technicolor in 1932 that was infinitely superior to the two component system and is what is thought of as truly Technicolor when people use the term.

The October 1934 issue of Fortune magazine stated: “Walt Disney saw a sample, liked it, began using color in Silly Symphonies. One of the Silly Symphonies, the Three Little Pigs, stole the program from every ‘feature,’ and everybody in Hollywood began talking about and thinking of color films again. Merian Caldwell Cooper, producer for RKO-Radio Pictures, saw one of the Symphonies and said he never wanted to make a black and white picture again …”

Walt Disney in 1940 said, “The Silly Symphony didn’t give Mickey much competition until we added Technicolor in 1932. We thought that color would be worth the heavy extra cost. Color was part of life. A black-and-white print looked as drab alongside Flowers and Trees, as a gray day alongside a rainbow. We could do things with color! We could do many things with color that no other medium could do.”

Herbert T. Kalmus goes over Technicolor details for “The Three Caballeros” with Walt Disney in 1944.

H.T. Kalmus, the founder of Technicolor, wrote an article entitled “Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland” for the December 1938 Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Editors. It was basically the text from the address he made at the Fall meeting of the S.M.P.E. in Detroit, Michigan in October of that year. Here is an excerpt from that article that relates to Disney’s use of Technicolor:

“During 1931 the base price of Technicolor prints was reduced from 8 3/4 to 7 cents per foot.

“But Technicolor had persisted in its research and development work so that by May 1932 it had completed the building of its first three-component camera and had one unit of its plant equipped to handle a moderate amount of three-color printing.

“The difference between this three-component process and the previous two-component process was truly extraordinary. Not only was the accuracy of tone and color reproduction greatly improved, but definition was markedly better.

“However, we could not offer the three-component product to one customer without offering it to all, which required many more cameras, and the conversion of much of our plant. To allow time for this and to prove the process beyond any doubt, we sought first to try it out in the cartoon field.

“But no cartoonist would have it. We were told cartoons were good enough in black and white, and that of all departments of production, cartoons could least afford the added expense.

“Finally Walt Disney tried it as an experiment on one of his Silly Symphonies. This first attempt was the delightful Flowers and Trees, following which Disney contracted for a series. For Christmas, 1932, came Santa’s Work Shop, the following Easter, Funny Bunnies; in May 1933, came Three Little Pigs, which made screen history, and in March, 1934, Big Bad Wolf.

“I needn’t relate the story of Disney’s extraordinary success with Technicolor. The Silly Symphonies in Technicolor surpassed the ‘Mickey Mouses’ in black-and-white, and then both ‘Mickies’ and ‘Sillies’ adopted Technicolor.

“Both the Disney Company and Technicolor were rather undersized at birth and in recent years both have grown rapidly in importance. A frequent conversation has been as to which helped the other most. Much like the conversation between two Irishmen after a considerable session at the bar: ‘Yer know Clancy, when I was born I weighed only five pounds’. ‘Yer did, and did yer live?’ “Did I live? Yer ought to see me now.’

“What Technicolor needed was someone to prove for regular productions, whether short subjects or features, what Disney had proved for cartoons. But the producers asked, ‘How much more will it cost to produce a feature in three-component Technicolor than in black and white?’

“This question is always with us and it seems to me the answer must be divided into two parts; the added cost of prints, negative raw stock, rushes, and lighting can be numerically calculated and requires little discussion.

“But then there are the less tangible elements about which there is much discussion. I have said to producers and directors on many occasions: ‘You have all seen Disney’s Funny Bunnies; you remember the huge rainbow circling across the screen to the ground and you remember the Funny Bunnies drawing the color of the rainbow into their paint pails and splashing the Easter eggs.

“You all admit that it was marvelous entertainment. Now I will ask you ‘how much more did it cost Mr. Disney to produce that entertainment in color than it would have in black and white?’ The answer is, of course, that it could not be done at any cost in black and white, and I think that points to the general answer.

“A similar analogy can be drawn with respect to some part of almost any recent Technicolor feature. If a script has been conceived, planned, and written for black-and-white, it should not be done at all in color. The story should be chosen and the scenario written with color in mind from the start, so that by its use effects are obtained, moods created, beauty and personalities emphasized, and the drama enhanced.

“Color should follow from sequence to sequence, supporting and giving impulse to the drama, becoming an integral part of it, and not something super-added. The production cost question should be, what is the additional cost for color per unit of entertainment and not per foot of negative.

“The answer is that it needn’t necessarily cost any more. In 1932 we marked our base print price down from 7 cents to 5 1/2 cents a foot.”


  • As I understand it, prints of Technicolor films produced prior to 1928 consisted of two strips of film, one made using a green filter and the other using a red filter, which were then cemented together. Therefore “two-strip Technicolor” doesn’t exactly strike me as a misnomer. But if “two-component” and “three-component” are the terms that Kalmus preferred, then those are the ones that should be used.

    On the other hand, it’s no wonder that Joe Barbera’s preferred term for limited animation, “planned animation”, never caught on. After all, all animation is planned.

    Herbert Kalmus was a very private man, so it’s good to have his perspective on the early Disney Technicolor cartoons. I like his story about the two Irishmen. Reminds me of when I once told a friend’s daughter about the time a tornado blew through my town, and she asked me, very seriously: “Did you survive?”

    • The “strips” in 3-strip Technicolor actually refer to the number of films running through the camera in initial photography, each recording one of the primary colors. The camera used for Technicolor’s two-color version used one strip of film making successive red and green exposures. Here’s what the late Martin Hart said about the terminology in his American WideScreen Museum:

    • Bill Hanna was quoted in several articles using the term, “Planned Animation.” He referred to Limited Animation as “getting away with less,” which is what is was.

    • Thanks, Paul, that’s an excellent article.

  • Disney’s Silly Symphonies definitely were the best choice for Technicolor (As opposed to the Mickeys). They lent themselves to a creative use of color. Something I’ve wondered about Disney’s three-year monopoly on Technicolor. How and why did that come about?

    Was the monopoly limited to animation studios? I came across a 3-color WB short subject GOOD MORNING EVE from 1934.

    • Not sure I’d use the word “monopoly”, but Disney signed an exclusive contract with Technicolor in July 1933 for 3-color prints – that remained in effect until August 1935. It was only for animated shorts. Warner Bros., MGM and Paramount made live action shorts in 3-color (as well as 2-color Technicolor cartoons) during this same period.

    • All animated cartoons are the best choice to be on Technicolor, They stick together like Peanut butter and Jelly.
      In order to do this process, the Animator have to make the cels and backgrounds in color in order to be photographed in technicolor, when photographed, They use Red, Green and Blue filters, Then use matrices, with Cyan, Yellow and Magenta filters, combine them together, and then you make an perfect animated cartoon in Technicolor.

      • For Live-action it’s use three-strip cameras, also documentaries, but documentaries use Kodachrome camera in order to get photographed in Technicolor film.

  • Terrific insights into this pivotal process within Hollywood – with animation leading the way – but let’s not forget the team of women who actually made this colorful magic happen! Hazel Sewell and her Ink & Paint teams, helmed by Dot Smith, Grace Christianson & Martharose Bode were the true artists behind bringing this colorful advent to cinema. It was no ‘easy’ task as they were working with paints from the local hardware store which was not refined enough for cel painting, nor would the colors appear true to the intense lighting necessary for the photographing of the final cels. Hazel and her teams endured months of exhaustive exploration, trail & error, extensive testing and long hours to make this a reality and garner the first Oscar for animation! Brava!!

    • Big fan and your books are in my personal library. Thanks for bringing recognition to so many outstanding women and their contributions that were anonymous for too long. My education on ink and paint came from Phyllis Craig who I got to know thanks to my friend and then writing partner John Cawley and we included her insights in one of our books. I learned that the mixture of a particular color might change due to heat or humidity. Having done some limited cel painting myself and taught it at the Disney Institute, I absolutely acknowledge that the women who did this for a living were not just doing a job but were artists in their own right. Without them, Technicolor would have been much less magnificent.

  • There was a competing full color system. in 1933 Hungarian chemist Dr. Béla Gáspár developed Gasparcolor. It was one of the earliest 3-color processes on a single film strip. Abstract animator Oskar Fischinger helped develop the process and used it to dazzling effect in his films. Technicolor bought it primarily to eliminate the competition.

  • Does anyone know if Flowers and Trees was chronologically Walt’s first Technicolor effort, or was that preceded by the Parade of 1932 Nominees special piece for the Oscars audience (included on the first Mickey Mouse in Living Color DVD from Walt Disney Treasures). Whatever, that was a nice post, Jim.

    • Flowers and Trees was released in July 1932. The 1932 Academy Awards was held (and that special Parade of the Nominees film was shown) in November.

  • Does anybody know where the “Technicolor Plant” was physically located in the 1930s? As a high schooler, I got a tour of an idled three strip printing room at their Springfield, MA plant in July 1974, shortly after Technicolor switched over to what they called “High Speed Production.” The Fiberloid Corporation, located across town, was a major producer of celluloid film stock and may explain the reason for the plant’s existence 3,000 miles away from “where the action was.”

  • That one-off “Wizard of Oz” cartoon fits into this somewhere. The gist, I’ve read in a few places, is that it was produced as a showcase for Technicolor. But then Disney signed the exclusive contract, and it was pulled from distribution.

    For those interested, Warner Archive has several collections of live action shorts including miniature Technicolor epics, some as crazy as “Good Morning Eve”.

    Douglas Fairbanks’s silent “The Black Pirate” was shot in two-strip Technicolor; it shows how skilled filmmakers could make the limited palate convincing (I recommend the Kino release).

  • I believe that Disney used one of the very few three strip cameras available on his camera stand for several years, but it was not popular with the camera staff, being difficult to load and, at almost 500 pounds, very heavy to handle.
    Around 1936 Disney reverted to his usual single-strip Bell & Howell 2709, with which he would photograph each cartoon frame setup three times onto Panchromatic B/W film, through a a rotating red, green and blue filter color wheel. The film was later step-printed onto 3 different strips of film and then processed in the normal Technicolor system.

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