What Type of Film and Camera Technology Was Used to Shoot the Wizard of Oz?


These days, the fact that movies (and images) may be seen in color is something that we take for granted. Nevertheless, the production of motion pictures in full color was an incremental process that required several decades to complete. Even though it wasn’t the first full-color feature film, “The Wizard of Oz” is often considered to be the most iconic example of early color cinematography.

MGM, one of the most influential studios in the Golden Age of Hollywood, was the company that was responsible for producing the classic film The Wizard of Oz, which was released in 1939. MGM’s various studio divisions are emblematic of an era in which movie magic was made in factory-like environments. They represent a cross-section of cinematic crafts and serve as an emblem for that era.

The Use of Color in The Wizard of Oz Film

  • One of the most remembered aspects of The Wizard of Oz is its clever application of color, which was one of many brilliant aspects that contributed to the film’s success. Although the picture was not the first one to be shot in color, it stood out due to its vivid production design and saturated color palette. It was released in 1939.
  • The question then becomes why the filmmakers chose to shoot Kansas in black and white while they did Oz in color. One reason for this is that L. Frank Baum, the author of the original novel, characterizes Kansas as being devoid of color on purpose. The book refers to Kansas as having “the great gray prairie,” “the house as dull and gray as everything else,” and “the sky, which was even grayer than usual.” Baum even portrays Aunt Em and Uncle Henry as having a dull and colorless personality.
  • The filmmakers didn’t have much of an option but to shoot everything in Technicolor. They even made minor adjustments to the source material to make the most of the color film. For example, the MGM costume designer known simply as Adrian transformed Dorothy’s silver slippers into dazzling ruby-colored shoes for the film. Because the filmmakers placed such a strong emphasis on color, it took them several days to settle on a specific tone for the yellow brick road. Unfortunately, the color technology available at the time necessitated the use of exceedingly intense illumination, which meant that the studio lights had to be quite hot. There have been reports of temperatures reaching up to one hundred degrees on the set of The Wizard of Oz.
  • It’s possible that the scene in which Dorothy first steps foot in the Land of Oz features the most fascinating usage of color film. After she has landed, there is a view that completely covers her shoulder that depicts Dorothy strolling from her monochromatic house into the colorful Munchkin Land. There is no use of any photographic effects; the entire image was captured in color. Sepia tones were utilized to paint the interior of Dorothy’s house; however, you can’t see Dorothy’s face in this picture, so Judy Garland’s body double acts for the first half of the scene instead, and she wears sepia makeup and attire. Judy Garland arrives in the picture just as the “double” Dorothy is opening the door and moving out of the camera. She is the first person to enter the vibrant, full-color set.

Lobby card from the original 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz

The Technicolor Camera

  • The transition from black and white to technicolor serves as a metaphor throughout “The Wizard of Oz” for Dorothy’s trip from Kansas to Oz. This journey is represented by the change. The sequences from Oz were filmed with a variety of cameras, including this one.
  • The first Technicolor cameras were developed in 1932, and they recorded images on three independent negatives: one each of red, blue, and green. These negatives were then merged to produce a full-color positive print. During filming, the sound of the camera was muffled by the “blimp,” which is a box that encases the camera.
  • From the invention of motion pictures to the middle of the 20th century, the Early Color Cinema Equipment Collection (COLL.PHOTOS.000039) contains equipment, media, and ephemera connected to color motion pictures. This collection includes two notebooks that explain the Technicolor process, five motion picture cameras, three movie projectors, more than 34 editing and other tools, and more than 60 pieces of early color film.
  • Since the beginning of motion picture production, one of the industry’s primary goals has been to accurately reproduce natural color on film. However, it took several decades to create a technology that would allow films to be made in color. In the early days of the film industry, directors of motion pictures would frequently tone or hand-tint monochromatic film to infuse their movies with more life and feeling. Even though movie makers continued to use tone and tinting, these expensive and excessive procedures could never generate the complete spectrum of color that movie cameras could not record. As a result, inventors began placing a greater emphasis on applying color filters throughout the capture and projection processes to accurately represent color information.
  • August Plahn, a Danish-American inventor, created and patented a camera and projector that used 70mm film and separated moving images into three separate colors using three different lenses. When the film, which had three images printed across its width, was projected through the identical colored filters that were used during production, the film’s original color was brought back. The collection contains around seventy-five pieces of apparatus that were utilized by the engineer, as well as forty-five short lengths of processed film and documentation relating to his work. Additionally, the collection contains one camera, three projector heads, and one camera.
  • While Plahn was only moderately successful in marketing his innovations, the Technicolor Corporation of Boston was able to successfully market a technology that was quite similar to Plahn’s and make it the industry standard. The collection of color cinema comprises four Technicolor cameras, more than twenty-five pieces of equipment related to the Technicolor process, and a book of images demonstrating the processing of Technicolor film in a train car. 
  • Examples of various other early color film technologies, including Prizma, Kelley-line screen, Krayn Screen, Natural color, Multicolor, and Morgana color processes, were contributed by the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, the most influential trade body in the industry.
  • This finding aid is part of a series that documents the Early Cinema Collection that is held by the PHC [COLL.PHOTOS.000018]. The cinema-related artifacts cover the breadth of technological innovation and public appeal that distinguished the motion picture industry during the period in which it became the preeminent form of mass communication in American life, which is around 1885-1930. This period spans the birth of the motion picture industry and its rise to prominence in American culture.

The Technicolor Df-24 Beam Splitter Camera

  • The Technicolor camera, which is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Places of Invention exhibit in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., serves as a poignant reminder of how far the technology used to create images has progressed. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the DF-24 utilized a beam splitter in conjunction with color filters to divide an image into its constituent elements of red, green, and blue.
  • Subsequent motion picture cameras simply used color film. Each of the three distinct fields was recorded onto a separate strip of black-and-white 35-millimeter film. Later on, a complicated process of developing and dying the film would combine the images from all of the fields onto a single strip of film. This would make it possible for movies to be projected using normal equipment and to display in full color on the silver screen.
  • It’s interesting to note that the principle of creating color by splitting an image into red, green, and blue fields is exactly how modern digital cameras function, despite the significant advances in technology that have occurred since the invention of the Technicolor camera. A digital image sensor “sees” in just black and white, just like the film that the DF-24 utilized. The ability of the camera to record information about colors is made possible by an array of RGB color filters that sit above the sensor.
  • In recent years, there has been a shift toward digital cinema, which has resulted in lower costs and increased use. The size of the camera, on the other hand, is likely the most noticeable contrast between modern cameras and the DF-24. The Technicolor camera, which was mounted atop its wheeled sled, measured more than eight feet in height. That is a far cry from digital cinema cameras like the Red Scarlet or the Blackmagic URSA Mini, which are small enough to be carried in handheld gimbals or connected to shoulder mounts.
  • However, the size and intricacy of the Technicolor camera were necessary. There was a lot more going on behind the scenes with the development of color technology than just creating visual delight. The release of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, at a time when Americans were caught between the Great Depression and the looming fear of another war in Europe, offered moviegoers the much-needed opportunity for escapism at a time when those opportunities were scarce. In the same way that Dorothy was awed when she left her home in Kansas and entered the wonderful world of Oz, the audience had the opportunity to leave its world behind, even if just for a few hours at a time.

The Man Behind the Camera: Victor Fleming

  • Victor Fleming became the third director on the team working on “The Wizard of Oz” after joining the cast and crew of the film. The Wizard of Oz was a collaborative effort by four different directors. After only two weeks on the job, Richard Thorpe was sacked. First, George Cukor covered for Victor Fleming for three days, and then Victor Fleming took over.
  • In the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, an event such as this one was not nearly as significant of an indication of a project in difficulty as it would be today. It wasn’t unheard of for a studio to put one of its many contract directors in charge of a certain part of a film according to the strengths of the director in question. Although there were indeed issues on the set of the film, and MGM was not pleased with Thorpe’s progress, Cukor was selected because he was recognized for working with women, which was an advantage in a film with a female lead character.
  • Fleming was hired as the director of the majority of the film’s sequences because of his talents in efficiency and craftsmanship. These scenes involved vast numbers of actors, extras, and dancers performing on big-scale sets that were intricately designed. On set, Fleming often found himself with his hands full dealing with the three actors who played Dorothy’s traveling companions.
  • Fleming had a blunt manner of directing that was reflective of his workmanship approach to the profession, which was inspired by his early experiences. This approach was also well-versed by his early experiences. After their home in the Midwest was destroyed by a tornado, Fleming’s parents took jobs in the orange orchards in Pasadena, California, before Fleming was born in 1889. This turn of events led to the migration of Fleming’s parents to the United States. Fleming, who as a child acquired an interest in the fast-emerging world of engineering and equipment, dropped out of school at the age of 14 to perform several jobs, including stints as a machinist, car racer, cab driver, and chauffeur.
  • During his time in the latter capacity, he crossed paths with the innovative film filmmaker Allan Dwan. Fleming got his start in the film industry by accident when Dwan, noticing Fleming’s knack for mechanics, put him to work tinkering with cameras. This was Fleming’s first job in the film industry. In the end, Fleming decided to pursue a career in cinematography, and it was in this capacity that he caught the notice of Douglas Fairbanks, the greatest action star of the silent era of film.
  • Between the years 1919 and 1931, Fleming directed nearly thirty films, the majority of which were commercially successful and featured some of the most popular actors and actresses of the time.
  • The year 1931 marked the beginning of Fleming’s connection with MGM. The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind films were both challenging projects that MGM was working on, and he was the obvious pick to take over those projects. In both instances, Fleming was required to take command of a production that had already begun filming but was infamously difficult and expensive to pull off. 
  • King Vidor took over as the director of Oz for the film’s final few days of production when Victor Fleming resigned to become the new director of Gone with the Wind following the firing of the film’s original director, George Cukor, due to creative differences with producer David O. Selznick and star Clark Gable. Vidor’s decision to fire Cukor came after he had issues with Selznick and Gable. Nevertheless, Fleming’s influence could be seen throughout the set. Vidor adapted Fleming’s storyboards, and Fleming participated in the post-production editing process after his return to the production. In the end, his contributions to the movie were some of the most noteworthy parts of the whole thing.

Dorothy in Munchkinland


Technicolor wasn’t a specific kind of color film; rather, it was a method by which three separate strips of film were used to capture the same scene using three distinct colored filters and a specially designed motion picture camera. Following separate processing, these strips were utilized to print colors onto each completed print of the movie that was shipped to theaters. A movie studio had to rent the company’s specialized movie cameras as well as a crew of two professionals to help manage the complex apparatus if it wanted to produce a Technicolor movie.