Technicolor’s innovative beginnings…and its reinvention today

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For almost one hundred years, the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation (now a division of Technicolor SA) has been associated with the innovative color motion picture process used in Hollywood starting in 1922. What most people don’t realize is that the Technicolor process was only used for 30 years; by 1952 it had been replaced by a better, and much simpler process engineered by Kodak. So how has this storied film company managed to stay in business for the past 58 years?

Simple…it became really good at reinventing itself.

Technicolor’s early roots

The company was founded in 1914 by two MIT students–Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock–who developed a two-color motion film system using red and green filters, with two images being formed by a prism behind the camera lens. They soon improved this two-color process by creating separate negatives for the red and green images. They then combined the positive images from each and rolled them into contact with a strip of clear film with a dye absorbing emulsion. While the quality of the color produced for the motion picture was good, they realized that the next big improvement in the process required the combination of red, green and blue colors – a true three-color process.

In 1932, Technicolor’s innovative three-color process was introduced using a specially designed (and quite bulky) camera. It was a significant innovation because at the time, most Hollywood producers were abandoning color films because current quality (using existing two-color process) was underwhelming but quite expensive. Technicolor’s introduction of “Glorious Technicolor” was a game-changer. For the next 20 years, it was used in most every major motion picture including Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It became the industry standard for which all other color systems were measured. And as these new systems were developed and introduced by competitors, the quality comparisons always favored Technicolor.

Kodak mounts a successful counter-attack

Everything changed in the early 1950s when Kodak introduced their multi-layer Eastmancolor negative which could be used in any camera. Unlike the Technicolor method where a specially designed camera–owned by Technicolor, but rented to the studios at a high price–was required, the new Kodak process required no special cameras. Kodak quality met or exceeded that of Technicolor, film processing was much simpler and overall costs were significantly reduced. Almost overnight, the Technicolor process became virtually obsolete.

Technicolor reinvents itself

After the almost immediate demise of Technicolor’s market position, the company expanded into other services within the movie industry. It became a leader in the dye transfer printing process and other color film techniques and handling. It later became involved in video and audio duplication (CD, VHS and DVD manufacturing) and digital video processes. It has also become a major player in the movie restoration business.

Today, Technicolor is part of the French-headquartered electronics and media conglomerate Thomson. The name of Thomson group was changed to “Technicolor” as of February 1, 2010, re-branding the entire company after its American film technology subsidiary.

Here’s the takeaway: Technicolor has survived for almost 100 years by mixing one-part innovation with two-parts agility. And unlike Polaroid–another highly innovative technology company that failed to adapt to market changes–Technicolor is entering this decade as a growing, profitable firm.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.

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