Casablanca. Metropolis. Nosferatu.
All defining moments in the rich tapestry that is cinema history, and all black and white… but why is it that monochrome filming has become an almost lost artform?
50 Shades of Black and White
Indeed, if you look up any list of the most critically acclaimed black and white movies, you’ll be hard pressed to find many released after 1960. Over time, the aesthetic is one that has been pushed to the fringes and seen as something that is inherently ‘arthouse’ (usually with a slightly pretentious air.) It’s a phenomenon exclusive to cinema, too—in photography school, students are usually urged to master black and white shooting (and especially film development) before moving to color, but not so in filmmaking. With the latter, black and white is a tool seemingly reserved only for the masters.
But as of recently, the tide seems to be changing and we’re seeing an increasing number of releases that are not only inspirational for those of us wanting to re-embrace monochrome, but that also serve as great examples as to why more people should do so.
Let’s start off with the most acclaimed black and white feature of recent times, and the one that immediately springs to mind as an industry game changer: 2012’s The Artist.
On paper, The Artist was a hugely big risk. In a world where only the most brash and lowest-common-denominator comic action movies earn big bucks, would anyone be tempted to watch a movie that’s not only black and white but also silent?
Indeed, the marketing team had a hard sell. At the time of writing, the most recent YouTube comment on that trailer reads: “No way I’m watching it. A silent movie? Please.”
And that’s even after it won awards and became high up the list of most recommended movies of 2011. But won awards it did, and it would be hard to imagine the movie presented in any other way. This gets to the crux of when it’s appropriate to shoot in black and white: when the subject matter calls for it.
Incidentally, it was the first monochrome film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture since Schindler’s List in 1993, which is another superb example of a story that wouldn’t have been enhanced had it been show in color.
Of course, there is a small amount of color within the film courtesy of the iconic girl in the red coat, the symbolism of which has given us a talking point for decades (As an aside, this small color feature technically means that The Artist was preceded by The Apartment in 1960 as the previous all-black and white winner of the Best Picture award.)
And this brings us on to our second takeaway point that cinematography school students should bear in mind: just because a movie is devoid of color doesn’t mean it has to be devoid of potent symbolism, and a cinematographer working in black and white should execute their ideas boldly and with confidence.
And as Spielberg showed us, we don’t have to dogmatically stick to one approach or the other. Although it’s technically more challenging to only highlight certain props or characters with vibrant color while all else is in grayscale, the resulting effect can be extremely compelling as we saw in the first Sin City movie:
As long as the filmmaker is armed with a good screenplay, a talented team and a dose of confidence, black and white filming—when appropriate—can add a very complex atmosphere to a production, and can also lend an air of reverence to the subject matter when done right. A case in point is last year’s compelling A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—of the choice to film the vampire flick solely in black and white, critic Drew Taylor writes: “[the movie gives] the impression that you’re witnessing something iconic and important unfold before you.”
A study in how to create an atmosphere if ever there was one:
In short, as long as you’ve got the preliminary substance, shooting in black and white can deliver the style. But more than anything, it’s knowing when to shoot in black and white—all of the both are great examples of this, but there are some occasions where it becomes superfluous…
… and on those productions, great color design takes precedent.