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Reasons For Black and White


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#1 Rob Vogt

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Posted 26 November 2008 - 08:08 AM

My friend and I were having a discussion about his reel and he had some black and white material on it. Typical film noir type stuff. I asked him why he shot black and white and he said budget but added "the story wouldn't have worked in color anyway." Now I'm wondering why a story would ever be called for for using black and white, there have been excellent film noirs shot in color so it can't just be that genre. I mean a film like Pleasantville actually worked the black and white into the story, but other than that kind of obvious reasoning when does a story beg to be shot in B&W?
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#2 Simon Wyss

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Posted 26 November 2008 - 09:36 AM

Having thought a lot about that I tend to answer the question like this: The gray scale from black to white comprises everything (white is the sum of all light colours) in an undefined state, in an open status. The prism is not yet introduced, so there are no colours differentiated yet. Once you start with a colour you bring them all in. Blue can provoke yellow, green may call up some purple. The whole play of our retina rods begins.

The match with the plot is thus: Abstracts or mind games prefer to stay in black and white. Look at the chess board, it is an abstract game, very much in the brains. Sentimental journeys as an opposite, see a melodram, dive into a musical, these are something from or to the heart. No brains. There you pour out colours. Pastel or sirup. You give it a taste and spice it up, sweeten it. One story is sticky sugar sweet (offers to Rheese Whiterspoon), another one comes bitterly (ask Sigourney Weaver). But never present Marlene Dietrich in colours.
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#3 Chris Keth

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Posted 26 November 2008 - 02:32 PM

I don't see that you need a reason to shoot black and white. If one feels like it, that seems like as good as any other reason.
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#4 Brian Rose

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Posted 26 November 2008 - 05:55 PM

I largely agree with Chris that instinct is a very important part of the decision. Too often, to satisfy critics or whomever, there is this pressure to be able to explain every decision. If you overthink, sometimes it can distract from more important things in the story. The main thing is to get the picture made.

I can think of some instances where external forces could be important. Certainly budget. Color is more expensive than black and white. If you need to save money somewhere, changing stock is a great way to save.

I would also add climate to the mix. Say you're shooting in the winter, in snow. I'd lean heavily toward black and white, because (IMHO) it is a waste of color stock to capture a landscape that's already gray. Not to mention, nothing captures the cold, desolateness of winter time than black and white. I love "Fargo" but I wish they had shot black and white instead. But I digress.

I think time periods could also be an important factor. Again, this is my opinion only, but if I were to do a Civil War picture, I would NEVER shoot color, because for me it cuts against the grain. I was watching Cold Mountain on TV recently, and the whole film just plain bothered me, and i couldn't figure out why, until it hit me: The color. It was too vibrant, to postcard perfect. It went completely against the way the Civil War is ingrained in the social conscience: through Brady and Gardner's black and white photographs.

Now, let me be the first to illustrate some important exceptions. "Gone with the Wind" is a Civil War film, yet I regard it as one of the finest examples of color cinematography. Period. Ditto for "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" which is entirely set during the gray dead of winter.

There are no absolute rules, I suppose. I'd say trust your instinct, but also don't be afraid to ask if there is another way. One of the saddest things to happen to cinematography was the near total relegation of black and white to the realm of art, indie and student films. Making color the default medium is like limiting a painter to oils only. It ultimately limited a whole form of visual expression.

Best
BR
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#5 Saul Rodgar

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Posted 27 November 2008 - 01:22 AM

Why shoot B/W?

Because it ROCKS!!

Most modern film makers are afraid of B/W, the ultimate in mainstream picture stylization. But that aside, some are convinced it makes modern movies feel like "old", pre-color era films. BS, if you ask me.

The stylization that B/W brings to a movie project is a good conversation to have between the producers, the director and the DP. It is right for some projects in terms of historicity or what not, but it can also be as easy to justify as "I wanted this film to be B/W" as Chris suggested.

Edited by Saul Rodgar, 27 November 2008 - 01:24 AM.

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#6 Ira Ratner

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Posted 27 November 2008 - 09:51 AM

When someone is killed or injured on film, NOTHING is more dramatic than that black blood.

The color blood? Usually looks like Smuckers, and even if it doesn't, just no comparison.

The two are such different media that I'm always amazed when someone poses this question, but I know it keeps getting asked.

Maybe I'm just old.
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#7 Chris Keth

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Posted 27 November 2008 - 11:04 AM

When someone is killed or injured on film, NOTHING is more dramatic than that black blood.

The color blood? Usually looks like Smuckers, and even if it doesn't, just no comparison.

The two are such different media that I'm always amazed when someone poses this question, but I know it keeps getting asked.

Maybe I'm just old.


I definitely agree with that to some degree. I recently worked on a scene where a character is bleeding out in his garage. The DP shot the garage with quite green light and the blood recorded as very, very dark. Almost black, and very shiny. It looked great.
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#8 Dylan Kress

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Posted 27 November 2008 - 11:44 AM

I just finished production on a 72 hour film festival where we decided to go black and white. Honestly it was one of the best experiences I've had working thus far. It was just an illuminating experience to see this whole thing come together, and IMO it wouldn't have worked as well in color. Plus I got an award for cinematography so I'm pretty excited about the whole thing. :D When it comes to shooting B&W I def. think there's a time and a place to do it correctly , but SO many great movies were shot B&W way before color was even around, so I guess the decision ultimately comes to telling the story in the best way possible.

-Dylan

p.s.- If you guys wanna check out the film we did for the festival you can find it at www.fallenblue.mikewach.com

thanks for the support
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#9 Chris D Walker

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Posted 27 November 2008 - 12:20 PM

Last week I got to watch Frank Darabont's 'The Mist' on DVD. It was a two-disc edition that featured both colour and black & white versions. Listening to what my brother had to say I watched the black & white version first and then the colour version a little while after. I happen to agree with him that the black & white version of the film was far better despite being identical in every other respect to the disc in colour.

Before I watched the film there was a small introduction from Frank Darabont where he said he had always intended for The Mist to be black & white but came under pressure from the studio to shoot colour. The black and white film felt more atmospheric, evoking 'Night of the Living Dead' and adding to the sense of dread, the mist of the title was more brooding, and the visual effects looked more convincing and scary.

If you think black & white is the way to go you should fight for it. Alternatively, you can release a DVD with a black & white version so you can later tell people how much better it was than the colour version despite being released that way.
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#10 Dan Salzmann

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Posted 27 November 2008 - 12:21 PM

It is like any other option in a film - is it right for the story?
Many films that come out in black and white are shot on colour stocks because unfortunately Kodak's research and development for B&W stocks stopped over thirty years ago.
I've had several music video producers tell me (and the director) that we could not shoot B&W because people would think that their TV's had a problem. This is quite disappointing but that's the way things have "evolved".
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#11 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 27 November 2008 - 05:03 PM

In answering that question of when does a movie beg to be shot in B&W, I guess, it's a good question being that as cinematographers, it's not largely up to us to determine that. Generally a director will insist on something like that. I've suggested shooting B&W on almost every feature I've shot. Not as a rule but more just out of curiosity to see what the director would say. 9 times out of 10 it's been taken as a joke and never really considered for more than half a second. Occasionally people will think about the idea but no one has ever taken me up on it.

After finishing a script, the first question I have is generally HD or film which almost always is determined early on by the budget and rarely a matter of what's right for the script, then aspect ratio and then handheld vs hollywood style. etc. I don't make the B&W suggestion seriously but I always hope it gets considered. I wish more directors considered B&W and it was a question that came up more frequently. Especially since indie filmmakers don't often deal with the same sort of restrictions that studios deal with in relation to distributors general aversions to acquiring B&W films.

Edited by Michael LaVoie, 27 November 2008 - 05:07 PM.

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#12 Dan Salzmann

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Posted 27 November 2008 - 06:26 PM

A major stumbling block is the "black and white is retro" thing - a very shallow way of looking at things.
B&W can look quite modern depending on the subject of the film and its art direction.
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