The Inventor

Herbert Thomas Kalmus was a born in Massachusett.  Well-educated, Kalmus earned a bachelor of science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1904. During this period he met and married fine arts student Natalie Mabelle Dunfee on July 23, 1902. He began his career in Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada,  during 1910 as a talented young assistant professor of physics.

When he and colleagues were hired to analyze a Boston lawyer’s invention of the Vanascope projector,  a flicker-free motion picture system for the silent movies. They became intrigued with the art and science of film making, particularly the possibility of colour motion picture processes, leading to the formation of Technicolor in 1915. The film projector did not meet expectations, but Kalmus was inspired by the lucrative potential of colour film-making and continued his research to produce a perfect colour motion picture.


Previously, any colouring in movies at that time was done by labour-intensive and expensive hand painting. Kalmus began experimenting with colour photography and the creation of colour film while his wife, Natalie Kalmus, ran arts studies in Kingston. Called Colour Kalmus on campus, the professor used his laboratory at Queens for a number of lucrative experiments — the most eye catching being colour movies. “His mind was much occupied with the possibilities to apply his scientific mind to profitable ends,” wrote the then head of physics, Arthur Clark. Not smitten in sponsoring entrepreneurs and perhaps not seeing the enormous potential in colour movies, Queen’s did not support Kalmus’s sideline. Dismayed with his non-academic focus, the school administration sent a letter to the professor in September 1914, telling him to work only on his metallurgy research.

By early 1915, Kalmus and his partners had developed a two-colour camera prototype, one that filmed reds and greens only, blues were not accessible. Though not yet perfected, the camera was good enough for Kalmus, Comstock and Wescott to incorporate a new company called the “Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation.” Kalmus quit his job at Queen’s University in March 1915 and moved back to Boston. The lawyer who earlier brought them the Vanascope projector to test provided an investment of $10,000 for Technicolor’s operating capital.

Initially, Technicolor’s first laboratory was a inconspicuous railway boxcar in Boston. “In 1916, Technicolor process No. 1, a two-component additive system was developed,” according to the Canadian Society of Cinematographers in “Technicolor at 90: Changing with the Times” by Don Angus. A first colour film was shot the next year, “The Gulf Between.” Finding the initial system awkward, the scientists devised a second process. “No. 2 made two separate relief images which were then welded together in register, dyed, dried and loaded into a specially equipped camera designed to allow two exposures of the same scene to be made simultaneously through the single lens,” according to the Society. Bidding a fond farewell to the boxcar in 1927, Kalmus moved the Technicolor firm to Hollywood for better access to movie-makers and funding.

Several films were produced that caught the imaginations of audiences — the 1929 movie Gold Diggers of Broadway brought $3.5 million for Jack Warner of Warner Brothers’ fame — but the coloured frames were still not quite right. Kalmus refined his system and in 1932, developed a three-strip colour system that captured the complete spectrum of colour.

Walt Disney was captivated by Technicolor. He used the process for several shorts then in 1938 for his spectacular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Kalmus and company finally reached a long awaited pinnacle of success with the 1939 release of the Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer Studios’s treasured classic movies Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.


In his very private life, things were not looking so good.Divorcing Natalie in 1921, the unhappy couple strangely still lived and worked together until the mid-forties. She would insist on being called Mrs Kalmus. Between 1934 until 1949, Natalie Kalmus was screen credited as “Technicolor Director” for nearly every Technicolor film, with no mention of Herbert. Using the excuse of her fine art background, Natalie Kalmus would advise about the colours captured on film. According to her view “The principles of colour, tone, and composition make a painting of fine art. The same principles will make a coloured motion picture a work of art”. The cost of her advice per movie was in the region of $60.000. As film makers became more savvy with creating their own choice of colour content,  Natalie’s advice was regarded as a deep aggravation rather than assistance. Whenever movie-makers were discussing her invasion, the name”bitch” would invariable be used.

Requiring his professionals to operate the Technicolor process, Kalmus developed a service which he contracted to filmmakers. The deal consisted of a flat rate charge to the studios. The service included Technicolor equipment, camera operators, set and costume designers, art directors and the film processing, and the mandatory services of his controversial ex-wife, Natalie Kalmus, as the on-site colour consultant.


Dubbed the “Glorious Age Of Technicolor” it reigned between  the late 1920s until the mid-1970s. Eventually competition made inroads into the company’s domain. The Eastman Kodak company produced a more convenient, yet inferior single-strip printing of film in 1949, quickly followed by other companies. Unlike Technicolor the dyes quickly faded on these early single strip films, and the colour consistency was poor throughout the feature. According to MGM star Arlene Dahl “many times studios and their stars were so unhappy with the results of the single strip colour that Technicolor labs were brought in to try to improve the colour saturation.

Legal battles continued throughout the years between Herbert and his first wife over finances, and a share of the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation. At the end of the 40s decade, Natalie’s name was removed from the big screen credits, and she was removed from Technicolor itself. According to court papers, Herbert  was extremely wealthy, with a net worth of millions. With her ego badly damaged, Natalie continued her legal pursuit of Herbert, attempting to get their divorce annulled. In 1949 Herbert was remarried to Eleanore King.  This time he achieved a happy marriage, putting the trauma of Natalie far behind him.


His contribution to the motion picture industry, for his part in the development of the colour process, which enhanced the great classics of film indefinitely with his brilliant work, this innovative scientist at last accepted the credit he so richly deserved and had previously shunned on screen, receiving a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. Dr. Herbert Kalmus had initiated a Technicolor industry that provides the sparkling magic of colour to movies, television, and all the new media of the future.

At the age of 81, Herbert Kalmus died on July 11th 1963 after suffering a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles, California. Many would agree that his life was as colourful as Technicolor itself.



The 3 Strip camera was designed by J. Arthur Ball. 

Between 1933 – 1950, 29 cameras were manufactured. Additionally there were 3 for animation, 3 for high speed and four for the UK studios.

Click on the above frame to view the George Eastman House video~ How the camera worked. 

How the 3 Strip camera worked

Technicolor is a colour film printing process invented in 1916. It was the most widely used colour process in Hollywood from 1922 to 1952 and celebrated for its saturated levels of colour. It was used most commonly for filming musicals such as The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain and used for Disney’s animated classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia.

“Technicolor” is the trademark for a series of colour motion picture processes pioneered by Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation (a subsidiary of Technicolor, Inc.), now a division of Technicolor SA. The process involved capturing the individual colour components red, green and blue on three individual black and white negatives.

Technicolor 3 Strip Camera & Prism Assembly Diagram

Above is a 3-strip Technicolor camera from the 1930s. Two strips of 35 mm black and white film negative, one sensitive to blue light and the other to red light, ran together through an aperture behind a magenta filter, which allowed blue and red light to pass through. A third film strip of black and white film negative ran through a separate aperture, behind a green filter. The two apertures were positioned at 90 degrees to each other, and a gold-flecked mirror positioned at 45 degrees behind the lens allowed 1/3 of the incoming light to go directly through to the green-filtered aperture, and reflected the remaining light to the magenta-filtered aperture. Because of this division of light between three film strips, Technicolor photography required much more lighting than black and white photography.

Three black and white films are transported through the prism assembly. The light coming through the camera lens, (A), travels to the double prism beam splitter, (B) and a portion of the light passes straight to the film behind the green filter, (C). The balance of the light is reflected by the gold flecked surface (later changed to silver) and passes through a magenta filter, (D) that removes the green light and transmits only red and blue. The red and blue films, (F) are bipacked emulsion-to-emulsion. Since this light must pass through the base of the blue film, the images recorded on the blue and red films are slightly less sharp than the green element, but the difference is minimal. The blue film had a red orange dye coating on top of its emulsion which acted as a filter to prevent any blue light from reaching the red element film, which was sensitive to both red and blue light. During development the filtering dyes were washed from the black and white negative. Note that the red and green films were panchromatic, (sensitive to all colours in the visible spectrum), while the blue film was orthochromatic, (sensitive to blue, green and violet light, but not to red).

A number of slight variations to the printing of Technicolor films were used over the years. Described below is the typical method used through 1945. The images are taken from African Queen which used the Technicolor process. (The director of photography was Jack Cardiff.)

Three negatives from Technicolor camera



Receiver Film

The production of prints began with a “blank” receiver film which was a black and white stock coated with chemicals called dye mordants. The function of a mordant is to attract and hold colour dyes so they do not spread or bleed during the high pressure dye application. The “blank” also held the soundtrack, black frame lines, and usually a 50% density copy of the green component exposed to it, (although sometimes the blue component was used.)

The efforts involved in creating the “blank receiver” offered several benefits over other methods of producing prints. Being a black and white stock, the soundtrack could be optimized for the best reproduction, which was not possible with dye soundtracks such as were used on Cinecolor and other inferior processes. Technicolor’s sound track was even considered superior to that of conventional black and white films in which variations in producing the picture would affect the nature of the sound. Die hard Cinephiles of Warner Bros. and MGM films can distinguish that each studio’s product had a distinctive look and sound. The black framelines covered the edges of the printed dye images so that variations in the actual component size were not visible. And the 50% black and white “key” image improved contrast and increased the apparent sharpness of the photography.

Printing Matrices – Step 1

The three printing matrices begin life looking like conventional black and white films with differing tones because of their exposure to red, green or blue. The negatives are printed to the matrix stock and the silver image is washed from the resulting print. This leaves a gelatin “topographical map” impression of the colour content in each matrix. The gelatin is transparent and the image is nearly invisible.

Printing Matrices – Step 2

Each matrix is coated with a complimentary colour dye. The red matrix using cyan, the green magenta and the blue using yellow. One at a time the matrices were brought into contact under high pressure, with the prepared receiver film and the dye is transferred to the receiver. With each successive step the colour image takes form on the final print. (The depth of the gelatin impression is exaggerated for the sake of illustration.)

The final print requires an accuracy for registration
of 8/10,000 of an inch or better

Recreating & Restoring Technicolor 3 Strip Today

By the late 60s, the dye-transfer process eventually fell out of favour because the process was too slow in turning out large print runs. Growing number of screens worldwide increased print runs exponentially. No one argued dye-transfer printing yielded superior colour printing, however the number of high speed prints that could be struck in labs was limited to Technicolor and cost more. The last American film released before Technicolor closed their dye plant was The Godfather, Part II (1974).

In 1975, the US dye transfer plant was closed and sadly Technicolor became an Eastman-only processor. In 1977, the final dye-transfer printer left in Rome was used by Dario Argento to make prints for his horror film Suspiria and finally in 1980, the Italian Technicolor plant ceased printing dye transfers.

Reintroduction of the Dye Transfer Process

In 1997, Technicolor reintroduced the dye transfer process to general film production. A refined version of the printing process of the 1960s and 1970s, it was used on a limited basis in the restorations of films such as The Wizard of Oz, Rear Window, Funny Girl, and Apocalypse Now Redux.

After its reintroduction, the dye transfer process was used in several big-budget, modern Hollywood productions. These included Bulworth, Pearl Harbor, and Toy Story. The distinct “look” this process achieves, often sought after by filmmakers looking to re-create the period of time at which Technicolor was at its most prominent, is difficult to obtain through conventional, high-speed printing methods and is one explanation for the enduring demand and credibility of the process. Finally though, the dye-transfer process was discontinued by Technicolor in 2002 after the purchase of the company by Thomson, which in 2010 changed its name to Technicolor SA.


The 3 strip Technicolor camera enclosed in a Blimp

The 3 strip camera Blimp free!

Enclosed in A BLIMP!

For sound proofing in certain studio situations the 3 strip camera was enclosed in a large metal container known as a blimp.  It measured 4’x2’x4′ and weighed between 400 / 500 lbs

CLICK ON THE FRAME BELOW TO WATCH… How Technicolor changed the movies



“SINGING IN THE RAIN” Theatre trailer










Errol Flynn in one of the early 3 Strip Technicolor features “ROBIN HOOD”

“ROBIN HOOD” ” Theatre trailer feature




“SNOW WHITE” ” Theatre trailer