Oscars’ love affair with monochrome is not black
Feb 16, 2019-
If Roma takes home the best picture Oscar in nine days’ time, it will be only eight years since another black-and-white film achieved the same feat—The Artist in 2012. “I wanted to do a modern film that looks into the past,” Alfonso Cuarón, Roma’s writer, director and cinematographer told Emmanuel Lubezki, Oscar-winning director of photography on Cuarón’s Gravity. “It’s not a vintage black and white. It’s a contemporary black and white. Black and white was part of the DNA of the film.”Roma was filmed in colour and converted to black and white in post-production, with the tonal values manipulated to achieve the desired look. This is how most black and white films are made now, though Alexander Payne, whose Nebraska was nominated for best film and cinematography in 2014, was pressured by his distributors into making a colour version as well as his preferred black and white one, for TV outlets. “I hope no one ever sees it,” he said. “Something about the screenplay, the austerity of it, the austerity of the people and the landscapes it would evoke just felt black and white to me.”
The Artist, in which a silent movie actor struggles to adjust to the coming of sound, is, like Roma, set in the past, but the choice of black and white also panders to a popular misconception about silent movies. In fact, 80 percent of films released in the early 1920s were in some form of colour—either early Technicolor, or tinted, or toned.
Then, as talkies took over from silents in the late 20s and early 30s, the use of colour declined. Dye processes interfered with audio recording, and three-strip Technicolor was cumbersome (requiring three separate negatives), expensive (the switch to sound coincided with the Great Depression), and the slowness of the film stock required such bright lighting that some actors claimed it caused permanent damage to their eyes.
In 1947, only 12 percent of Hollywood movies were filmed in colour, but by 1954 that had jumped to more than 50 percent. This figure wasn’t just boosted by the big screen’s attempts to present a spectacular alternative to television, but by Kodak’s introduction of the more versatile, less cumbersome Eastmancolor, a one-strip colour negative process.
Before The Artist, you have to go back to 1994 to find a black-and-white best picture winner. Unlike Roma and The Artist, Schindler’s List was shot on black and white film stock. Janusz Kaminski, whose cinematography won the film another Oscar, says he was aiming for a documentary-like quality for the images. “The Holocaust was life without light,” said his director, Steven Spielberg. “For me the symbol of life is colour. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black and white.”
Spielberg’s film isn’t wholly monochrome; it features a dash of red, in the form of the little girl in the red raincoat, a symbolic victim of the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto. The last 100 percent black and white best picture winner before The Artist was Billy Wilder’s The Apartment at the 1961 awards.
Besides best film, Roma has also been nominated for cinematography alongside another black-and-white film, Cold War, directed and co-written by Pawe%u0142 Pawlikowski. Although if either of those end up winning, you probably won’t be able to watch the award live, because the Academy has controversially decreed that the presentation of this year’s awards for craft categories (cinematography among them, one assumes) will be relegated to the commercial breaks.
Roma and Cold War were both rapturously reviewed. Roma was praised as “an immersive view of the past”, and “gorgeous, deeply immersive”; Cold War as an “immersive portrait of rural Poland” and “one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I got to witness in 2018”. Another 2018 film praised for its immersive qualities (although it missed the filing deadline for the Academy Awards) was Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, in which old footage of British soldiers at the Western Front in the first world war was restored, and the frame rate tweaked to avoid jerkiness. Reviewers marvelled at how the colourisation enabled them to connect with the men in the footage. “A fully immersive event, in which we understand the experience of WWI soldiers as we never have before,” said the Wrap. “The soldiers are no longer just images on a screen—they’re real people” (Empire). The Daily Mail also praised the documentary, and dismissed black and white as “a medium that is automatically distancing and draining”.
So is black and white immersive or isn’t it? I consider the inference that we can’t relate to people in black-and-white films patronising and presumptuous—and obviously wrong, when you take Roma into account. And while the restoration, dubbing and frame-tweaking in They Shall Not Grow Old lend immediacy, I found the colourisation a step too far —distracting and offputting, the very opposite of immersive. The unnatural homogeneity of the flesh tones reminded me of the kitsch hand-tinted imagery of French artists Pierre et Gilles.
On social media, well-meaning folk often post colourised portraits by masters of black-and-white Hollywood glamour photography, such as George Hurrell or Clarence Sinclair Bull. This vexes me not just because adding colour to someone’s work without their permission is disrespectful to the original artist, treating their images as some sort of adult colouring book, but because it encourages viewers to look on black and white as inferior—as an absence of colour, rather than as a medium in its own right. As anyone who has ever had to prepare colour pictures for monochrome printing will be aware, contrast and tone have to be manipulated so the image doesn’t end up as a grey smudge. Black and white is a different beast, with its own values and techniques, which are not necessarily compatible with colour reproduction.
You have only to look at the breathtaking use of black and white in the work of cinematographers such as James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success, Seconds) or John Alton (Border Incident, The Big Combo) to realise it is a long way from being a poor person’s alternative to polychrome. (Ironically, it would be for his colour work—in the ballet sequence in An American in Paris — that Alton would win a best cinematography Oscar in 1952.) Even Hollywood seemed to recognise this; from 1939 to 1967, there were separate Academy Awards for colour cinematography and black-and-white cinematography.
Cinematographers had to have a working knowledge of how colours translated into black and white. Jezebel, an antebellum romance from 1938 often considered as Bette Davis’s consolation prize after her failure to land the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, features a scene in which the heroine scandalises New Orleans society by wearing a red dress to a ball at which unmarried women like herself are expected to wear white. Since the film is in black and white, the dialogue has to tip us off: “You know you can’t wear red to the Olympus ball!” But the dress itself was actually bronze-coloured, which looked more “red” in monochrome.
Red can be tricky. Alfred Hitchcock used watered-down chocolate syrup for the blood in the Psycho shower scene, while Akira Kurosawa used carbonated chocolate sauce for the explosion of gore at the climax of Sanjuro (a compressor hose malfunction caused a bigger gush than anticipated). The castle set of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc was painted pink, so it would show up as grey on the finished black-and-white film.
Max Factor developed an entire range of makeup specifically for black-and-white television. If, on screen, the lipsticks looked red, in real life, they were green, while those of us who had grown up with black-and-white TV were shocked (and thrilled) when, many years later, we finally got to see Endora’s garish blue eyeshadow in Bewitched. Meanwhile, one of the most brilliant uses of colour manipulation in a black-and-white movie is Fredric March’s transformation in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 film Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—all done with colour filters.
It does audiences a disservice to assume (as the big studios surely do) that they won’t tolerate movies in black and white. Roma and Cold War might be catering more to an arthouse crowd, but black-and-white versions of Mad Max: Fury Road, Logan and The Mist have been hailed by fans of these films as superior to the colour releases. At the same time, the modern trend is to digitally drain the colour out of movies, leaving a desaturated look only a few tinges away from monochrome.
Even if the ratio of monochrome to colour releases will never get back to 50:50, black and white is here to stay, in one way or another. It is just too valuable a tool not to. From The Wizard of Oz to The Purple Rose of Cairo to Matinee to Casino Royale, Memento or Wonderstruck, alternating colour with black-and-white footage is one of the simplest and most effective ways for film-makers to differentiate between past and present, reality and fantasy, films within films. Not to mention this world and the next. To quote Conductor 71 in A Matter of Life and Death: “One is starved for Technicolor up there.”
— © 2019 The Guardian
Published: 16-02-2019 10:23