Black and White: The Rise

Today black and white movies are quite often seen as something pretentious, nonessential, and simply boring in contrast to the eye-catching visuals we're so used to. With the industry so focused on getting people to sit through two hours of action, it seems unnecessary or even impossible to go back past all the advancement of modern cinematography to where the cinema was born, back to the age of shadow and light. However, the rise of black and white cinema in recent years displays the interest not only for revered monochrome classics but also for new vision and unique storytelling of modern directors. Black and white production might possess something that makes some filmmakers so adamant about making their movies monochromatic, despite the myriad of opportunities that contemporary cinematography can offer. This leaves us wondering whether black and white is far more than a tribute to the honored past and still has an influence on the industry.

by Yar Varsobin


The first advancements in cinematography shocked the public: the pictures everyone expected to be static were moving, interacting, living albeit silently. Late 19th-century motion picture movies were shot with 35 mm gauge film stock, which could only record monochromatic colors by capturing the picture by the luminance of its objects. That way all shadows were depicted as black, all the light appeared as white, leaving everything in between to be located on the scale of gray. The first filmmakers were mainly focused on the contrast of the scene and the quality of the light – the main interlocutor of the filmmaker's vision. Another great thing to remember about the black and white filmmaking process: with said color limitations, some rules were settled for effective on-screen color portraying – set items, costume designs, and makeup shades had to be strategically used for achieving the director's goal.
Even in the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers found ways to incorporate colors into the movie, no matter how expensive or difficult it was. In the early 1900s, the technology of tinting and manual coloring was mastered. It was not unusual to see night scenes tinted blue to give the intimate feeling of serenity or key elements to be painted bright colors for importance, leaving the viewer amazed. Without a doubt, colorful, new, exciting images found a way to provoke the feelings of the audience, making movies more of an entertaining experience. Later, the 20s and 30s determined pivotal moments in cinema – Technicolor mastered a way to capture two primal colors and then all three, making movies lively and vibrant. Thus, a new way of communication with the audience was established once again. Hence, the importance of tedious costume design and special makeup techniques could be finally forgotten. However, for budgeting reasons some films were made black and white, creating a nickel and dime solution to the problem as well as acting as a clever tool to interact with an audience.
Several decades later, in the 1970s, the majority of films were shot on color stocks. New ways of cinema production swiftly pushed films from some sacred enjoyment of novelty to an established mass entertainment industry. When the era of color began, black and white cinema production became a stylistic choice rather than a question of budgeting. The monochrome film production still served as a specific visual language tool, striving for a more intimate connection with the viewer. The gruesome palpability of reality, the absurdity of horror, an ascending almost sacral purity – throughout the years of monochromatic motion picture longevity, the black and white as a genre mastered all ways of influencing the audience.

The purpose of monochrome film production ranges, and it's safe to say that it only corresponds with the artist's specific vision. To share some easily recognizable reasons, we will break down some black and white movies of recent years.
The feeling of reality that monochrome movies share is unmissable. To capture the visual language of the epoch, Cold War (2018), a movie about post-World War Poland was intentionally made in black and white. It was meant to resemble archives files movie director Paweł Pawlikowski and cinematographer Łukasz Żal came across while doing their research. The opening image of working-class men dressed in worn-out clothes of rough textures, playing and singing national songs – hits with its genuine authenticity. Nothing distracts the viewer from catchy melodies and piercing voices – the audience stands there too – on the grimy streets, in stuffy bars, on the well-lit scenes. Clean simple cotton dresses of young girls, who came to audition, contrast with ethnic clothes full of patterns and embroidery that we see on older women who sing national songs on stage. These minutiae could be simply lost to the color. The whole movie might be perceived like a scenery meticulously created by the director to make this look like a part of the history. This is just a film, but it feels authentic, it feels real. The story of a four decades-long battle-like relationship between singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a talented composer, sinks deep, making the audience worry about all the twists and turns of the story. The visuals make it hard not to want this pair to save their love and be together against all odds. Сharacters are based on Paweł Pawlikowski's parents and their post-war hardships. Maybe that's why it feels so genuine and time accurate. Without a doubt, the black and white format is enough to create a strong link between the movie shot digitally to the historical period it depicts.
Not all movies strive to evoke a feeling of reality in the story – some monochrome films were meticulously crafted to create an apparent distance. The Lighthouse (2019) succeeds in making the audience question the reality created. The 19th-century story of two men stuck together on an island in New England is filled with lies, and the visuals echo the deceitful mood of the plot. From the misty tint on the screen to the dark fury of the storm – the degree of tension swiftly escalates. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), the lighthouse keeper, scares with his insanity – the shadows on his face contrast with the whites of his eyes and teeth when he spits out his monologue. The sounds feel rougher and details stand out more in monochrome settings. The island itself – misty, muddy, and moody, with its symbols and secrets, is the perfect setting for horror. Robert Pattinson's character, Ephraim Winslow, slowly goes insane, exhausted from monotonous work and the weight of something bizarre and inescapable. It makes all the maddening visuals shown through his eyes feel more dream-like, feverish. Shadows and light are still the key elements of the story – the bright light of a lighthouse promises hope, while the light of a coal fire represents the mind-numbing turmoil of work. The Lighthouse succeeds in creating an abstract sense of reality, a dream-like aesthetic, occasionally elevated to surreal ecstatic paranoia.
The blacks sort of bottom out suddenly in a way that's very satisfying as a nice microcontrast and toothy grain. And it is kind of flat and primitive, but in a way that helps the crusty, dusty rusty, musty, atmosphere of the movie. And communicates the bleakness and austerity of their lifestyle and this island much better than if we'd shot digital with color.dir.

Robert Eggers

Genre is an interlocutor with the audience, a smart way of conveying meaning without putting it through the characters' speech. The artistic purpose of 'show don't tell' in Passing (2020) helps the audience to draw a clear line between the two main characters. The shades of gray, being the base of black and white movies, tell a clear story of racial ambiguity and show its vital importance to the story. The sounds of gray streets of 1920s New York cease when the protagonist Irene (Tessa Thompson), hiding her face under a white wide-brim hat, gives one of the white ladies a toy that accidentally fell on the floor in the shop – a doll of a black girl, that was talked about in a quite controversial manner. The juxtaposition of the prime opposites is clear and gets more crucial when Rene meets her old school friend – Clare (Ruth Negga), whose racial ambiguity and upbringing by her white relatives helped her assimilate into white culture and live a more convenient life – a life of luxury, social status and safety. However, she had a price to pay, having rejected her culture, family, ethnicity – everything that her old friend, Rene, has. When the two friends meet in Clare's apartment the white gets blinding: the interior stands out, smooth textures, and round beautiful modern designs catch the eye. After catching up and meeting Clare's racist husband, Rene leaves with an uneasy feeling – she passes as white, which saves her from the direct mockery of a man. She goes home to Harlem – the streets appear darker, the stones are rough, and their interior is more simple, but the miscellaneous clutter and patterns create a striking difference from what we've seen earlier. Rene's skin – an unmissable focus of the story, is far more than just a monochromatic spectrum. Through this limited view, the story shows us that life is never black and white, and despite all the differences Rene and Clare are two sides of the same coin. Their struggles for freedom and authentic expressions are real.
All of the above gives us an answer to the main question of the influence monochromatic filmmaking has on modern cinema. Throughout history, black and white movies mastered ways of setting the atmosphere, tone, mood with limited instruments. The lack of color in monochromatic films was compensated with stark contrasts, mysterious shadows, and revealing light that drove both the plot and the interest of the audience. Thus, making a black and white movie not only serves as a reminder of various other ways of communicating with an audience via visual language but also acts as a statement. Expected to give freedom of expression, the modern approach places restrictions. Now movie industry executives need to be convinced the film is apt to be a huge box office hit. But with the rise of streaming platforms, companies are more likely to take risks and support the director's artistic vision, making the release of monochromatic movies more frequent. The fact that monochrome movies are long-lived and continue to successfully strive for the viewer's rapidly shifting attention shows that there's something more than just the urge to make the movie feel 'classic'. Although not setting any particular trends, black and white films secured a place in the modern industry as a valid contemporary format.
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