Meditations on Monochrome

Should we be defaulting to colour? ☛

During the first film on which I worked, I got chatting to an old-timer in the camera department who bemoaned the lack of black-and-white films being shot. “You’ve got to have a reason to shoot in colour,” he argued. I should add that this was in the ’90s – colour had been the default for at least 25 years at that point. His Luddism amused me at the time, but his question has stayed with me since. Why default to colour? Why not choose to shoot in black-and-white?

A little bit of history. Different colour film processes were around for a time, but the first feature film in colour was Becky Sharp of 1935; up until then all movies were monochrome. Early colour, mainly Technicolor, was fiercely expensive so was only used for the most prestigious of productions. The rest of the market stayed black-and-white. Then, in 1950, Kodak introduced Eastmancolor, making colour film a lot more affordable, although it didn’t hit the lower half of the market until the end of that decade. The ’60s were the cross-over period: in 1960 black-and-white movies were in the majority. Ten years later colour was the default, black-and-white being mainly confined to student films (it was still cheaper than colour). As time rolled on, the economics shifted and—because so little monochrome was being shot—it became more expensive to work in than colour. Since the digital revolution, however, the economic question has become moot: unless you want to shoot on black-and-white film stock (still dear) there is no price difference between colour and black-and-white. And monochrome still has its followers, accounting for two out of the five nominations for Best Cinematography at the Oscars in 2018 – Roma and Cold War. Roma won.

Becky Sharp (1935)

So why choose to shoot in monochrome? Here I’m going to have to challenge my old-timer’s assumptions – the world is in colour, why record it any other way? The most common answer seems to be genre reference – often to look ‘olde’. Roma (2019) and Ida (2013) both based their look on European art movies of the ’60s. The Artist (2011) took a lot of its style from Hollywood of the 1920s. Other examples like Good Night and Good Luck, The Good German, Suture, Schindler’s List and many others were seduced by the curves of cigarette smoke into reviving film noir lighting of the 1940s. Monochrome is an easy way to place your movie in a bygone tradition. But is there more to it than that?

Good Night and Good Luck (2005)

Looking at films that combine colour and black-and-white might give us a clue as to what monochrome means. Time for a list:

The Wizard of Oz RealityDream
A Matter of Life and Death HeavenEarth
Wings of DesireAngel’s realityMortal’s reality
PleasantvilleConservative townHip young town
Dead Again   PastPresent

As you can see, in most cases black-and-white is used to indicate that something is lacking: life, excitement, immediacy. While the filmmakers are charmed by shooting in monochrome, there’s a sense that colour is the real deal. The exception is perhaps The Wizard of Oz where colour takes us into a larger-than-life world; here monochrome represents a return to normality, that being the standard format of the day. For me, most of these approaches undervalue or do-down the virtues of monochrome.

Je t’aime John Wayne (2001)

So, what properties does monochrome have that colour lacks? One of the reasons why shooting in black-and-white is so commonly used for films set in the past, is that depriving us of a colour palate deprives us of a sense of an era. In Toby MacDonald’s short film Je t’aime John Wayne the hero is obsessed with the films of the Nouveau Vague and the grainy 16mm black-and-white film stock magically transforms London of 2001 to Paris of 1960 – we momentarily mistake Marble Arch for L’Arc de Triumph. This timelessness can make monochrome useful for stories with a heightened, dream-like or otherworldly setting. The Lighthouse, Institute Benjementa, Pi and Steven Soderberg’s early film Kafka are good examples of this.

Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal

Another effect of removing colour is to draw more attention to form and texture. This is one reason why monochrome remains popular for portrait photography – take away skin-tone and hair colour and you can really appreciate the shape of someone’s face: the thing that makes them… them. Similarly, black-and-white can be a great medium for viewing architecture – the shape of a structure, the texture of its stone or concrete – something Orson Welles well-knew when he shot the composite city of The Trial in black-and-white.

L’Avventure (1960)

A third quality of black-and-white is that it draws attention to tone. With tint and saturation gone, we only see contrast or lack of it. This makes the quality of light and lighting more visible – in this respect monochrome is still more expensive than colour: you really need to light carefully if you want it to look good. But the drama that can be achieved through black-and-white lighting is worth the cost, if it can be afforded. Shadows are never inkier, headlights never brighter, and fog (which dampens colours in the real world) is never eerier. In short, monochrome allows atmosphere to shine.

A photograph, ‘Roof Tops’ by Bill Brandt

While I reject the idea that black-and-white is only suited to movies set in the past, or in genres of yester-year, clearly the format doesn’t suit all projects. The Artist aside, I can think of few upbeat crowd-pleasers shot in monochrome, when colour was an option. For good reason: colours lift the spirits, perhaps through association with bright summer weather. Those modern comedies shot in black-and-white—Clerks, Manhattan, Francis Ha—have all been for the most part down-beat. Similarly, there have been very few futuristic science fiction films shot in black-and-white since colour became standard. It wouldn’t be impossible to make such a decision work, but the ‘past tense’ associations of monochrome would be a tricky hurdle to cross. There have been black-and-white films of gritty social realism—La Haine and Roma spring to mind—but they definitely feel ‘artier’ or more stylish for using that format.

La Haine (1995)

If you have a project that would suit monochrome, the rewards are worth it. In addition to its other characteristics, it can be beautiful, poetic and uniquely cinematic. What’s more it can make your film stand out – shooting in black-and-white is a bold directorial statement. Do you have a reason to shoot in colour?

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2020

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

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