Like any other artists, filmmakers eagerly embrace the set of devices they have in their power to potentially make their visual stories more memorable. In cinematography, one of those features whose importance prevails but often goes unnoticed is colour use. Varying colour is a modern form of experimentation that filmmakers and colorists cleverly arrange beyond pursuing the embellishment of their visuals. However, in an artistic expression where its origins initially lay in the absence of colour, one may wonder whether filmmakers are still keen to produce black-and-white films, and how this format’s reception may have changed in an industry where technicolor currently dominates.
Through a timeless monochromatic lens
During the inception of cinematography, B&W films were initially the common standard. From talkies to Hollywood classic movies, black-and-white had been embraced by pioneering filmmakers from the late 19th century. Technological advancements were still limited and social changes were occuring around the globe in response to economic depressions and world wars. At a time where technicolor film production was either not possible, costly or technology lacked the means to capture colours, black, white and the grayscale ‘coloured’ the shots of the different motion pictures released. Throughout the black-and-white film era, especially by the first half of the 20th century, filmmakers certainly did not need to bear in mind colour. After all, most cameras could only record in black-and-white, unable to perceive chromatic light.
For decades, filmmakers from the early 20th century counted with a public who sought to escape from their harsh realities with their films. As new equipment started being developed, artists started shifting from black-and-white movies to technicolour due to its increasing appeal as a novel and compelling production medium. With viewers mesmerized by the coloured works of the entertainment industry, the 1960s was a turning point where the black-and-white phenomena experienced a severe decay, which has endured decades, and remains to this day.
B&W movies nowadays
If black-and-white films were the dominant and most accessible production medium in the past, modern filmmakers currently have the clear advantage to deliberately make this artistic decision occasionally, for their storytelling purposes. As film production has progressed in both techniques and core values, most movies can now incorporate this stylistic choice by filming scenes in colour rather than B&W. This allows cinematographers to further convert them to the black-and-white format in post-production stages, and ultimately preserve the digital quality of it.
Several filmmakers have shown their preference towards black-and-white over colour for their film projects. Nonetheless, the revival of the black-and-white phenomena has encountered certain reluctance from both the audience and the film industry. Alexander Payne, creator of Nebraska, found himself pressured by his distributors into making a colour version of the movie for TV outlets, even when the original later-awarded version he premiered was on black-and-white. Arguably, there is some current scepticism as to whether movies, especially blockbusters, can survive the box office with a monochromatic choice of colour, and if this remains an attractive alternative for critical audiences. With some concern, distribution companies fear that black-and-white films may not produce enough buzz as compared to coloured ones, or generate instead a negative reception from film viewers, their potential customers.
The dim revival of the black-and-white phenomena
When it comes to cinematography, distributor companies seem to be more than willing to let go of filmmakers’ B&W proposals, as a way to ensure that films ultimately come ‘financially viable’ during distribution stages. In spite of this reluctance, several black-and-white movies have continued to be made. Some recent films have used this aesthetic in the hope to reinvigorate the appeal of black-and-white films in the contemporary cinema industry. Certain black-and-white movies have still made it to film festivals during the past decade, with some receiving merit from award organizations. Amongst nominees and winners, some films that stand out are The Artist (2011), Nebraska (2014), Cold War (2018), and Roma (2019), enjoying several nominations in different award categories, and acclaimances by experienced critics from the industry.
Black-and-white has currently served to tell profound and yet emotional stories about complex topics. An example is Cold War (2018), a romantic drama filmed entirely in black and white to transport the audience into 1960s Poland during a time of oppression. The selection of B&W here becomes essential to parallel the metaphorical grayness of Poland at the time: Poland “was very gray – there was no color at all, and we wanted to draw from that”.
The (lack of) colour has also been employed by filmmakers to encompass a social message. Zendaya, actress and collaborator in the production of Malcolm and Marie, remarks that the colour choice of black-and-white in a film set in our time was a subtle form of reclaiming the beauty and elegance from the black-and-white era, a time where black actors were not as present: “other than the fact that it’s pretty, it’s beautiful, it adds this timelessness to it, but there was a thought of reclaiming the narrative of black-and-white Hollywood, and black actors really having their moment”.
Filmmaker George Miller, creator of the recent version of Mad Max: Fury Road and who initially intended this movie to be watched through the monochromatic lens, argues that, although black-and-white is the best movie version, this artistic choice now remains reserved for art movies. Black-and-white movies, especially contemporary ones, remain framed as ‘sober’, dull, or ‘unlively’. For others, this artistic choice may encompass the seriousness and sophistication that the topic explored in the film deserves. Although the absence of colours has received certain aversion, some contemporary B&W movies would not result the same if viewed in colour. As Lukasz Zal, creator of Cold War remarks: “Black-and-white is more iconic. It allows you to build your own interpretation of the world”. Arguably, it would be unrealistic to expect black-and-white movies to surpass colour films. However, with a high appeal amongst those who produce them, new black-and-white films will further prevail.