Today I Discovered How The Wizard Of Oz Went From Sepia To Technicolor In A Single Shot

Today I Discovered How The Wizard Of Oz Went From Sepia To Technicolor In A Single Shot
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The 1939 movie The Wizard Of Oz contains many iconic images. But at the time of release, the most astonishing shot was of a door opening to reveal the Technicolor world of Oz.

Most people in the audience had never seen a non black-and-white film before – and it was all done in a single tracking shot that transports Dorothy from sepia into colour. Today I discovered how this was done.

Click on the above video and try to imagine watching it in an era where colour films simply didn’t exist. Prior to 1939, almost every movie was shot and projected in black-and-white. While The Wizard Of Oz wasn’t the first film to employ 3-strip Technicolor, it did introduce the process to thousands of gobsmacked cinemagoers.

And what an introduction! Prior to Dorthy’s arrival in Oz, the preceding 20-odd minutes were presented entirely in sepia-tinted black-and-white. (Famously, this prompted the studio to demand Somewhere Over The Rainbow be cut so audiences could get to the coloured portion faster. Fortunately for classic musical fans, the director stood his ground.)

It is only after Dorothy crash-lands in Oz and exits her farmhouse that the film switched to colour. Impressively, this is achieved in a single shot, with a black-and-white Dorthy opening her front door and then stepping into the colourful vista beyond.

Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

These days, such movie trickery is a cinch to pull off in post production – just fiddle with a few sliders in the edit suite and you’re done. But in 1939, this all had to be achieved in-camera. So how did they do it?

In short, they hand-painted everything in the farmhouse sepia – including Dorothy. To achieve the effect, Judy Garland’s stand-in was decked out in a colourless gingham dress, black wig and white greasepaint. Immediately after opening the door, she steps out of frame and the real Dorothy enters the shot.

It’s a simple smoke-and-mirrors technique that still holds up surprisingly well today. I especially like how the camera zooms past fake-Dorthy as she opens the door. This allows the switch to take place without the body double slinking off camera for no reason. Ingeniously done.

Unfortunately, the use of paint was less successful in other areas of filming. The original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, experienced an allergic reaction to his silver makeup and had to be hospitalised. The role was hastily recast. Later in production, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) suffered third-degree burns on her hands and face after her greasepaint caught on fire. And there’s also that crap matte painting of the yellow brick road leading into the distance.

On a (somewhat) related note, did you ever hear the urban legend about the hanging Munchkin? According to numerous sleuthing cinephiles, one of the actors portraying a Munchkin killed himself on camera and the tragic footage made it into the final cut of the movie. You can judge the evidence for yourself below. (Spoiler: it was probably a bird.)

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of facts for Lifehacker readers – the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it’s just mind-blowing. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!

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