Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World

Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World

Black and white is a tool that, when used effectively, can set the mood in a film. It can also give projects a visual style and feel that can’t be obtained from shooting color. What’s nice is that it’s easier than ever today to experiment with different monochrome styles or “looks.”

“Artsy. Pretentious. Old fashioned. Boring. Period look. Outdated. Rich. Simple. Silent movie. Horror. Film noir.”

In the world of film and television production, those are some of the adjectives you’ll generally get when you mention the words “black and white.” What’s intriguing to note is that often the types of responses you get depend on the age of the person talking. (Of course, the responses also depend on how much media a particular group consumes.) In general, younger audiences have much less association with black-and-white filmmaking, and it may appear as a novelty to them.

Audiences a bit older will have some recollections of watching black-and-white television when they were a kid. This is the category I fit into. As a kid in the 1980s, I had a 13-inch black-and-white television in my room, while my family had a massive 19-inch color set in the living room. If you go back to an older audience, they may have experienced a lot more black-and-white television and have seen black-and-white films in the theater.

But why do filmmakers continue to experiment with black and white? One reason is that it can appear more visually powerful than color footage—which seems counterintuitive since color is obviously how most of us see and experience the real world.

Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World
In this still from a Western, black and white sets the mood for a confrontation that will happen in this space.

Is Black-and-White Filmmaking Still Relevant in 2020?

From a commercial viewpoint, black and white has been synonymous with “art house, obscure and novelty” for quite some time. If you are a commercial filmmaker and mention the words “black and white” to your executive producer or distributor, you may see a look of fear and dread come across their faces. That’s because black and white can be a tough sell commercially for audiences who have never experienced it. Or even if they have, many audiences regard black and white as a dated effect.

But you shouldn’t discount black and white. That’s because it can be a viable artistic choice and, for certain projects, black and white can look exquisite and make a connection with an audience in a way that a color film or project never can.

In 2011, the French film The Artist, which was filmed entirely in black and white, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won five, including best picture. In the 1990s, Schindler’s List was released almost exclusively in black and white, although it had limited sequences in color as well. That film went on to become a modern classic.

Besides Academy Award winners, many other smaller and lower-profile projects have been produced in black and white over the past few years. So, the answer to the question “Is black and white still artistically relevant for film, television and online content?” is “yes.” However, that’s with some qualifications.

Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World
Black and white effectively sets the mood for the cynicism and violence of such genres as film noir.

Still, how can you tell if you should tell your story in black and white?

Ask yourself these questions: Who is your audience? What’s the subject matter? Also, look carefully at your script and story—does black and white improve the story, style or genre of the film? Does it help tell a better story?

If it does, then go for it. But if you aren’t sure, discuss it with your team or your distribution apparatus, client or even your audience, if that audience is online.

Another key point that you’ll want to remember is this: Film, television, digital cinema and digital media creation is a collaborative process. It means that it’s best to at least involve the portions of your team that will be directly affected by shooting in or at least finishing in black and white (more on shooting versus posting in black and white later in the article!).

How A Monochrome Production Can Affect The Crew

As you can see below, choosing to create a monochrome film affects many roles. That’s why you should really think of black and white as a directing, producing and even writing decision as well.

Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World
In this still from a short film about decay and its effect on life and the living in comparison with the dead and memories, black and white conveyed a mood that was impossible to achieve in color.

But once the writers, producers and director are all on board with shooting or ending up with a black-and-white project, how does this decision affect the crew? Consider the following roles and how they’re affected:

Gaffer: The gaffer-team function is tied to the cinematographer, and their job is to deploy the lighting that the cinematographer needs to realize the director’s vision.

So, when lighting for black and white, which means once you take color out of the equation, you’re telling the visual story simply with black, white and various gray tones. That means contrast and contrast ratios become much more significant in a black-and-white film.

Wardrobe: Yes, your wardrobe choices can look dramatically different in black and white. And that means you’ll need to shoot wardrobe tests, along with lighting, hair and makeup. So, those powerful colors that you might have relied on for a character’s identity or personality go out the window, which means you may need to rethink some various aspects of your project. 

Hair And Makeup: A lot of what will make hair and makeup a creative part of the process on a color film will be lost on a black-and-white film. You just won’t be able to see the subtle tones and gradations in hair color and skin tones.

It’s why it’s imperative to shoot tests. You don’t want your characters to inadvertently end up looking like pale extras from a gothic horror film—unless you are, in fact, making a gothic horror film.

One good thing about shooting a monochrome movie these days: Depending on how your black-and-white filmmaking project is shot and lit, you’ll have a lot of latitude and dynamic range—more than filmmakers did a few decades ago with black-and-white-film stocks. It’s smart to exploit that latitude, if it suits your story. 

Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World
An abandoned trailer in the desert becomes much lonelier in black and white.

Production Design: Sets and props will look quite different in black and white. Be sure to test these as well. Make sure that your location or sets look how you want them to look. That means you’ll want to work with your production designer, art director and props department to ensure that they all buy in on the vision of shooting in black and white and can offer you choices that will work.

Postproduction And Visual Effects: Depending on how you decide to end up in black and white, whether that’s shooting in black and white
or first using color but monitoring in black and white and converting the color images in post, your editorial team and visual effects/motion graphics team will need to work with you to make sure that your end result is what you and/or your client expect.

Planning is key: You’ll need to partner with your editor and visual effects team to make sure that whatever process you’re using will give you the desired look you’re going for. There are a lot of subtleties and nuances to shooting in a black-and-white project, many different looks and feels that you can experiment with. It’s essential to plan all of this out
with your team, even if your team is just you and an editor or you’re producing, filming, directing and
editing yourself.

Methods Of Producing Black-And-White Media

There are many different ways to arrive with a black-and-white end product, but let’s just cover a few of the simplest and most obvious: 

Shooting With Film: For the most authentic look, you might consider shooting with black-and-white film.

Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World
A prisoner awaits his fate in a Middle East prison cell. I shot this in color but converted it to black and white using Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 16.1.

It may seem more expensive than shooting video, but it may not be much more if you consider how it’s used. For instance, you can rent film cameras now for
bargain rates.

But be sure you factor in the following: buying film stock, developing it and transferring it to video to edit—all of which can be expensive. But there are still plenty of rental houses renting the cameras, both 35mm and S16/16mm.

Unless you have experience with motion picture film, though, you’ll need to hire a DP and ACs who know how to shoot with film cameras. The end result will be unmistakably filmic; it will have all of those film characteristics that many of us know and love. Shooting film, if you have the right concept, can be a very viable way to end up with that look you’re seeking. 

Shoot In Black-and-White Digital Video: Believe it or not, there are cameras available that only shoot monochrome/black and white. High-end cameras like the RED Monstro are available with a monochrome sensor. For a lot of technical reasons that we don’t have room to cover, the Monstro Monochrome camera actually has measurably better image quality than a regular RED Monstro color camera. Of course, the RED isn’t an inexpensive camera, even to rent, but it does represent what’s probably the state of the art in black-and-white native acquisition.

Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World
Night scenes are often devoid of much color anyway. This moody sequence of soldiers doing a house-to-house search became more ominous in black and white.

At a more down-to-earth cost, there is the Fujifilm XT-3, a mirrorless, high-quality 4K-capable hybrid camera system. One of the Fuji’s strongest selling points is that it includes film simulations of famous Fuji film stocks, one of which is called ACROS, a black-and-white film stock.

The X-T3 offers a “monochrome adjustment” function to faithfully reproduce warm and cool tones, which were conventionally achieved using specific photographic papers and developers.

This function, available in the standard “monochrome” as well as the “ACROS” mode, provides smooth halftones, deep blacks and beautiful textures to broaden the scope of monochrome expression.

Shoot In Color And Convert To Black and White In Postproduction: This is probably the most common method, and with the quality of modern digital cinema and mirrorless cameras, it has become an even more viable option than in the past.

Post-production tools have become more sophisticated, and shooting in various Log and RAW formats gives you a very clean digital negative, which you can affect in hundreds of ways to give you the exact look and feel you’re going for.

The best part about this option is that if you shoot in color and decide later that a few scenes or even the whole project just seems as if it will work better in color, you still have that option. Shooting black-and-white film or with a digital black-and-white camera doesn’t give you these options; once you’ve shot the project, you’re married to black and white forever.

Post-Production Processes To Obtain Black-And-White Footage: There are several ways to achieve a black-and-white effect in post.

Black-And-White Filmmaking In A Colorful World
Scenes like this one of a heavily backlit group show how important shooting with the widest latitude and dynamic range is when shooting for black-and-white.

The easiest method is to apply a color correction to a clip and desaturate the image to monochrome. Depending on the look you’re trying to achieve, this may or may not suffice. Software plug-ins like Red Giant’s Magic Bullet have black-and-white presets that can also be applied to clips, tweaked and customized, then rendered out.

Personally, I like DaVinci Resolve: It offers very sophisticated node-based image manipulation with a lot of fine control over many different curves. It’s just about the perfect application to create your look for your project. Also, be sure to try duotones and Sepia tones.

Keep in mind that gradations and grayscale have a tremendous influence on how the viewer will perceive your black-and-white footage. Just as when shooting film, applying color filtration will have an effect on the tonality of your black-and-white images. This is a good time to shoot tests and have some fun with colored filters. Each application of a color gel or filter will affect how the black-and-white conversion looks in your final image. In the days of shooting black-and-white film stock, cinematographers would often play with yellow, orange and red filters to vary the contrast ratios within the grayscale between the black-and-white points. There’s no wrong or right answer here; this is your time to play around and concoct an original look for your black-and-white footage.

Go Forth And Play

One upside about the digital video era we live in is that it’s so easy to play with the looks of the footage you’re shooting. So for your next project, go forth and experiment.