Film Studies Faculty Speaks on Technicolor Process at Museum of the
the 1930s, Hollywood unveiled a new way of watching film with the
introduction of three-color Technicolor.
Scott Higgins, left, associate professor of film studies, will speak on the
75-year-old color film process technique during a three-weekend
retrospective of Technicolor films at the Museum of the Moving Image in New
York City. His lecture, which begins at 2 p.m. Nov. 17, will be held in
conjunction with the publication of his book Harnessing the Technicolor
Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s (University of Texas Press).
“Filmmakers had already mastered the art of monochrome, of translating
stories into a world of black and white, light and shadow. Technicolor was
both a threat and a gift,” Higgins explains. “Now cinematographers, set
designers, and directors had to consider how to guide the viewer’s
attention, highlight key actions, and underline dramatic developments with
this new tool. On one hand, color was thought distracting, glitzy and
detrimental to drama. On the other hand, it could offer a new emotional
register, a new form of spectacle, and a fresh way to shape the image.”
Although many producers and filmmakers initially resisted the use of color,
Technicolor designers developed an aesthetic that complemented the classical
Hollywood filmmaking style while still offering innovative novelty. By the
end of the 1930s, color in film was thoroughly harnessed to narrative, and
it became elegantly expressive without threatening the coherence of the
film's imaginary world.
Higgins' book, published in November, is the first scholarly history of
Technicolor aesthetics and technology, as well as a thoroughgoing analysis
of how color works in film. He draws on extensive primary research and close
analysis of well-known movies, including “Becky Sharp,” “A Star Is Born,”
“Adventures of Robin Hood,” and “Gone with the Wind,” to show how the
Technicolor films of the 1930s forged enduring conventions for handling
color in popular cinema.
Higgins argues that filmmakers and designers rapidly worked through a series
of stylistic modes based on the demonstration, restraint, and integration of
color—and shows how the color conventions developed in the 1930s have
continued to influence filmmaking to the present day.
Technicolor taught filmmakers how to use a broad palette to tell stories.
But in the past 10 years or so, digital techniques have returned color’s
pride of place in popular filmmaking.
“Filmmakers again face a new color technology and we can see them repeating
some of the aesthetic struggles of the early Technicolor era,” Higgins says.
He sites films like “O Brother Where Art Thou “and “The Aviator,” which use
this digital technology to emulate the old Technicolor look. Other
productions like “Sin City” and “300” revel in color’s power and experiment
with its potentials in a manner akin to the earliest three-color Technicolor
“It is a very exciting time for color in the cinema, quite like the 1930s in
that regard,” he says.
He also formulates a new vocabulary and a method of analysis for capturing
the often-elusive functions and effects of color that, in turn, open new
avenues for the study of film form and lay a foundation for new work on
color in cinema in the 312 page book.
Higgins will host a book signing after his lecture, and the museum will
continue its celebration of Glorious Technicolor! through Dec. 2. The first
three-strip Technicolor feature, “Becky Sharp” (released in 1935), and the
first commercial three-strip cartoon, “Flowers and Trees” (released in
1932), will be shown at the museum. A rare, three-strip camera used by the
Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation will be on display.
For more information about the Museum of the Moving Image Glorious
Technicolor event go to:
For more information about Higgins’ book, or to order the book, go to:
By Olivia Bartlett, Wesleyan Connection editor