Technicolor's Dye Transfer Process Reviewed

by Bill Hogan, Sprocket Digital
Published with permission of the author
©1999 Sprocket Digital All rights reserved worldwide

Over the past 6 years Technicolor has "reinvented" the Dye Transfer Release Print Printing Process. Several years ago they made several prints of Batman. Then there were a few prints of Bullworth and Godzilla. These prints were promising for the color quality, dynamic range and deep blacks with no crushing of the image. Then came more prints of archive material "Gone with the Wind" and "Wizard of Oz". These last two releases suffered from the quality of the archive material available. Now today.

Last Friday, August 27, 1999, history was made. Over two hundred prints of "The 13th Warrior" were released in Technicolor's new process. These prints from Buena Vista Releasing (Disney) are showing in the metro areas of Los Angeles, New York and Orlando, Florida.

RUN, RUN, RUN to see one of these prints. They are truly spectacular. See for the first time in modern history what is really on the negative translated to the print.

Last May I and the rest of the Hollywood SMPTE Education Committee were privileged to see a side by side comparison of one reel of 13th Warrior comparing Eastman Kodak Vision and a Dye Transfer print. The comparison was most interesting. The dynamic range was far greater on the Dye print and the color was wonderful. Deep blacks. Truly black with no hint of cyan tint as most Eastman/Fuji prints tend to be. And the whites truly white. And from Black to White true tracking of the color and black and white gray scale. Skin tones to die for. Skin tones that showed that everybody has a different skin tone and not everybody is some shade of orange. Color like we remember Technicolor to be.

On this anamorphic film resolution was better than the Kodak print. And absolutely steady pictures. This is because every step of the process is pin registered. Now the only unsteadiness is in the theater projector and they are better than we think after seeing 4 prints on 4 different theaters in the LA area over the weekend. Technicolor told us at the May USC/SMPTE conference that they were making these Dye Transfer prints at over 800 feet per minute pin registered.

This picture was shot 2 years ago and has been on the shelf waiting for release. There are two scenes in particular that show the process to the fullest. The arrival of the band of 13 warriors coming to save the king's kingdom as they enter the tribal house. The wood interior decorated with animal skins, leather objects and the wood trappings shows the incredible blacks and tracking into the shadows with no hint of color contamination. The other scene is the trek through the woods with shafts of sunlight. Incredible dynamic range with full detail still visible.

I have never seen video pictures like this displayed on any type of display. The most costly studio monitor cannot show images like this. And Digital Cinema comes no where close. The lack of film grain is amazing in this dye transfer print. This film is obviously shot with a lot of high speed negative (probably pushed) and many practical lights (flaming torches) and there is little to no grain in the projected image. This indicates that much of the projected grain we see is added in the intermediate film stages or in the Eastman/Fuji projected print. Kodak does make both the matrix and blank stock used in the printing process.

The director of photography was Peter Menzies, Jr., ACS and the camera operator was Robert Prestley, SOC. Menzies also filmed "The General's Daughter" released this year. They are to be commended. This may well be one of the year's best photographed features.

For background on how the Technicolor Process works look at the following links:

The Technicolor Process of Three-Color Cinematography

The History and Technology of TECHNICOLOR

These sites are a great source of information on all early color processes. This picture may not last too long in the first run theaters. In the LA area I know that the picture is playing at most AMC's, General Cinema theaters and at the Pacific Winnetka. At the Pacific Winnetka it is in two theaters including one with a 70 foot wide screen. It looks great and looks much better that the trailers proceeding it. The 70 foot screen is a real test that digital cinema cannot come close to. At the AMC 14 theater in Burbank it is ironic that it is in the same theater as the June TI Phantom Menace technology demo. This film image is much better. The best theater image that I watched over the weekend was the Glendale General Cinema at Central and Milford. And for those sound fans the sound track is one the best I have ever heard. A great theatrical presentation with a Jerry Goldsmith music score and some of the best sound mixing I have ever heard. The sound effects editing and the use of the surround channels is incredible. Disney's own (Pacific managed) El Capitan theater in Hollywood is playing a Kodak print. More production details can be found at The 13th Warrior.

As usual these opinions are my own. I believe that this Dye Transfer image quality raises the bar way up. It will be very hard for Digital Cinema to equal, although I think digital presentations will come eventually. With Technicolor's Dye Transfer, there were no pixels or compression artifacts visible on the film screen.