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Why Modern Movies Are Filmed in Black and White

Why Modern Movies Are Filmed in Black and White

There’s a stigma surrounding black and white films. Many audience members today attribute a lack of color in a movie to being pretentious, inflated, and sometimes even visually boring - reserved strictly for film students, hipsters, or cinema nerds.

I don't think it has to be that way. For that reason, in this article, I’ll look at some contemporary films shot in black and white with the hope to discover some of the reasons why directors and cinematographers defended the decision to shoot in monochrome.

To set the stage I’ll go over a brief history of color photography in cinema, break down the justifications for shooting black and white from 4 modern movie examples and uncover why I feel black and white is still a valid contemporary format.

A brief history of color

Early 35mm gauge motion picture film stock could only record monochromatic color based on the luminance of what was captured. This meant that shadows recorded black and highlights recorded white with a spectrum of graduated shades of grey in between. The cinematographer's lighting for black and white photography therefore only had to focus on the contrast and quality of the light being captured, eliminating the variable of color.

When later film stocks began introducing red, green, and blue layers through methods such as Technicolour, cinematographers began to contend with capturing films in color.

The introduction of Eastmancolor in 1950 allowed color capture in one 35mm strip of film, simplifying the process. With its increased ease of use and decreasing costs, 35mm color began to grow in popularity until, by the 1970s, almost all films were shot on color stocks.

While this became the mainstream, some filmmakers still elected to shoot black and white films for budgetary or for stylistic reasons. With the advent of digital cinematography today, the choice of whether to shoot in black and white or color is now exclusively a stylistic choice.

The perceived financial limitation of black and white (at least in the eyes of studios) has meant that monochrome films have become few and far between, usually either being financed by independent means or by auteurs with a proven track record who are able to convince studio heads.

However, it does seem that with the rise of streaming, companies like Netflix are more willing to take risks on black and white films and support the vision of established directors wanting to shoot in black and white more than major production companies.

Reasons for shooting black and white

Coming off the topic of history, one clear stylistic reason for choosing to shoot in black and white is to evoke the style of an older filmmaking movement and the philosophy that comes with that movement.

DP Sam Levy, who shot Frances Ha, describes this as part of the motivation for the style of the modern film: [Noah [Baumbach]  was interested in making a black and white film with a small crew and minimal equipment, in the production style of the French New Wave.]

The French New Wave movement emerged in the 1950s and visually built on the rejection of filmmaking conventions, experimentation, and ideas of simplicity executed within a low-budget model. Films from this period were predominantly photographed in black and white.

Just as many French New Wave films experimented visually with rough low budget techniques, Frances Ha did the same, in a modern way, by electing to shoot the film on a Canon 5D.

[I shoot a series of tests with the 5D to better understand the camera and its dynamic range of exposure. "" Along the way, Noah and I discussed using alternatives to 5D, such as 35mm and 16mm film, Alexa, and RED. but we keep coming back to 5D. Especially after seeing our 5D tests projected. It was just the best format for this project.] 

Levy found the video noise in the midtones reminiscent of boosted film grain which would occur when enlarging Super 16 to a 35mm print. Although they recorded on the Cinestyle picture profile which widened the dynamic range captured, Levy still had to be careful to not push the H.264 digital codec too far, where it would begin breaking up.

So, using black and white to embody a past film movement is one reason for electing to shoot modern movies in that style. Another reason is using age-appropriate technology to capture a period-specific visual language.

Cold War is a historical drama set in Poland and France between the 40s and 60s. Łukasz Żal shot it in black and white for director Pawel Pawlikowski to create a photographic link to the past.

“We watched different films and archives, and realized quite soon that there was no color in Poland at that time.” And yes, before everyone in the comments starts saying that the film was shot digitally and therefore isn’t period accurate, I’d counter that in this context, the medium of black and white has a strong enough association with that period of history for it to still be valid.

Although they wanted to shoot on 35mm, the budget didn’t allow for it. They overcame this by shooting tests in pre-production on both the Alexa and on 35mm. [We [graded and] found a look we liked on 35mm; then we decided to find an equivalent on the Alexa and master it to the point where it would be hard to distinguish [from 35mm]. For shooting, we created LUTs — one for the day, the other for the night.]

Their choice of a 4:3 aspect ratio also evoked the format of older cinema which was specific to the period of the time. Żal notes that there was also a secondary reason for electing to shoot in black and white.

Black and white is of course not a realistic way of portraying events, like cinema, it acts as an interpretation of story and feeling by a creative team.
[We felt that black and white allowed us to create our own interpretation of this reality and stage our own vision of it, less naturalistic and mimetic. It’s much more interesting than color.]

So black and white can be used to paint a story in a more expressionist way with bold, stylized framing, imagery, and lighting which elevates the story outside the bounds of reality.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma argued the antithesis of this for electing to shoot in monochrome.
As he notes: “It was conceived in black-and-white, but not for any nostalgic or expressionistic reasons.” Instead of using the conventions of black and white photography, Cuaron hoped to play against them by creating a contemporary, naturalistic portrait of a character drenched in memory.

To do this, he took a more modern approach to cinematography by shooting on the large format, high-resolution Alexa 65 with Arri Prime 65 lenses, building on the sharp, widescreen look recommended to him by his long-standing DOP Emmanuel Lubezki, who was unavailable to shoot the project. “I wanted a naturalistic, very soft light with no grain. I wanted it to be a film where you are in 1970 but shot in a more contemporary way. It was about the moment and it was about trying to portray the intangible, like in life.”

The minimalism and simplicity of black and white became a way of visually representing memory without becoming nostalgic. Emmanuel Lubezki describes it as if “The camera becomes almost like a consciousness revisiting the story.”

Shooting the movie on an Alexa 65, which has a color sensor, and then desaturating the image in post-production also came with its advantages. Colorist Steven J. Scott explained how even though they were grading the film in black and white, having the color intact in the original image made it easy to isolate and manipulate certain colors in the grade.

For example, if there were two colors that translated to similar shades of grey, such as a piece of clothing and the sky, he could use the original image to isolate the color of one and manipulate it to a different shade of grey. This use of modern technology became a useful tool when paired with the old medium of black and white.

Finally, black and white can also be used as a way of paying homage to the filmmaking processes of old. Mank, a film that chronicles the writing process of Citizen Kane, pulls from some of the techniques Tolland used to shoot the original.

Like Roma though, Erik Messerschmidt chose to shoot the film in widescreen on modern technology, which is a favorite of director David Fincher. The film was shot on the Red Monochrome 8K Helium sensor with sharp Summilux C lenses from Leica. [It still pays homage a bit, I guess, to black and white cinema, or at least black and white cinema of the period, but in technique and sort of approach, it was more modern.]

Part of this head nod to Citizen Kane came from shooting Mank at a deep stop of T/ 11 for most of the film. This meant that more of the image remained in focus across the frame. Shooting at such a thick stop meant that plenty of light was required to expose the image.

Another golden age technique that Messerschmidt employed was shooting some exteriors day for night, a technique he had previously used on Ridley Scott’s Raised By Wolves (which I happened to work on as a crew member). This involves shooting during the day, ideally in full sun with lots of light, and then adding a day for the night look-up table to the footage. How to become a cinematographer.

The easiest way to identify day for night footage is to look for areas of highlights or raised mid-tones in the sky.
[What I learned in the testing process particularly for the black and white version of day for the night was I had to add so much fill light to the actors' faces to read them that in many cases they were uncomfortable and they would end up squinting.] [So we had sunglass-tinted contact lenses made for both of them for that sequence.]

Last words

What all of these case studies indicate is that shooting black and white today has clearly become a stylistic decision above a practical one. It often involves reinventing the medium by shooting with modern cameras, lenses, techniques, and aspect ratios while at the same time paying tribute to the monochromatic format of old.

Although some may still feel that using black and white is still pretentious, I’d argue that it’s just another stylistic choice available to directors and cinematographers.

No different than choosing to shoot handheld or on a tripod. Like any creative decision, it must come from somewhere, whether that’s analytical reasoning, a practical consideration, or just an artistic 6th sense that black and white is right for the job.

What are your thoughts on the article? If you found this informative or interesting please it a share and if you have any comments let me know below. 

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