Early color photography fascinates me. There was a long period of time between when the color theory was worked out and when it translated into a financially viable medium. It took so long, in fact, that between the eras of black and white and true color, a forgotten process appeared to fill the gap.
Technicolor – probably the most famous of the color processes – matured into a system that required three separate rolls of film to run through a special camera at the same time. That level of complexity didn’t come cheap, which is why you had independent movies like Clerks and Pi being made in black and white as late as the 1990s.
Technicolor had three strips of film because it had three color channels – one strip was for red, one for green, and one for blue. Black and white has one channel, and takes one strip of film. But, for a time, if you wanted something like color, you could have it through what was known as a bipack or two-strip color system.
To understand what that means, let’s look at the different kinds of color the human eye can see. The top row is normal human sight, with balanced RGB cones. The others are various kinds of color blindness.
Tritanopia – third from the bottom – is what happens when an eye has no working blue cones. Blues become greenish; greens become bluish. This is what bipack color offered – red and green color channels, combined to make something sort of like full, natural color.
Technicolor had started as a two-strip process before evolving up. But there was still a price point for two-strip color, and it was exploited by a process called Cinecolor. According to Wikipedia, it was only a quarter more expensive than black and white, and could use modified black and white cameras.
The effect in live-action was slightly disconcerting. Here, for instance, is a still from Song of Old Wyoming, which was released in 1945 by a company called Producers Releasing Corporation. I don’t know if they made another color film. They might have blown all their money on this one.
Cinecolor fared better in cartoons, which nevertheless seemed to feel honor-bound to point out what Cinecolor couldn’t do by showing rainbows:
Cinecolor’s adoption in animation was brought about by artificial scarcity. For a time, Disney had a monopoly on Technicolor, and other studios were forced to look elsewhere. You can see Cinecolor in Van Beuren’s Felix the Cat cartoons, or the Fleischer Studios Betty Boop cartoon where she has red hair, which everyone agrees to pretend never happened.
This legacy lives on in the game Cuphead, which is a homage to early color cartoons. If you can beat all the run-and-gun levels on standard difficulty, you unlock two-strip mode. This adds an additional level of complexity, because certain world elements are color-coded pink, a color Cinecolor couldn’t reproduce. It shows up here as orange – as does actual orange.
Weird as it sounds, I’d like two see two-strip color make a comeback, as a stylistic choice. To the best of my knowledge, the only time it’s been used for that is in the first part of The Aviator. I saw it in the theater as a teen, and only noticed it in the scene with the peas, which are blue:
Without understanding the context, it drove me nuts.
The Cinecolor Corporation folded in the 1950s, unable to compete. (They rolled out a three-trip process called SuperCinecolor, the traitors.) With film itself now largely in the rear-view of movie making, two-strip color’s best hope of returning is as a filter option for video production suites. A topic for another time – perhaps Thriftstorm, if I can get the article to scan – is when two-strip color was experimentally revived for television.