Sometime last fall, I took one of my sons to see director Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it was that it was in black and white. That’s striking because it’s an extremely rare occurrence for an animated film to be released that way. Frankenweenie came out one week after Hotel Transylvania, a
similarly horror-themed cartoon. Despite Burton’s name recognition, Frankenweenie was absolutely trounced at the box office by Hotel Transylvania, which didn’t seem to receive half the pre-release publicity of the Burton film. Both films, surprisingly, receive the same exact viewer rating on IMDb.com at 7.1/10. So why did one do so much better than the other in drawing moviegoers? Did it matter that one of those two lacked color?
Whenever I read a demographic study of viewing habits stating that young viewers automatically surf past channels playing something in black and white, I get a little depressed. That’s because literally hundreds of big screen masterpieces and dozens of small screen classics were shot in black and white, and are no lesser for it. Anyone who dismisses everything produced in black and white out of hand is cutting her/himself off from many rewarding viewing experiences. I suppose that such viewers just assume that anything in black and white is therefore old and automatically unrelatable to their own experience. Well, that strikes me as fallacious reasoning, as great art – whatever the format – is, by definition, timeless.
So, why do many viewers entirely disregard black and white photography? Sure, there are many old movies and TV series that are just plain bad and likely not worth your time, but isn’t that also true of many new movies and TV series? I suggest that choice of film stock shouldn’t be a make or break attribute in judging the overall effectiveness of a given title any more so than aspect ratio (so-called full frame vs. widescreen, for instance), language (locally spoken, silent or foreign), editing style (languid takes vs. quick cutting), or do numerous other factors that differentiate films, one from another. A film is a complex weaving of various artistic (and, yes, financial) considerations into a unified whole. The greatest examples cohesively bind many of these choices together, even overcoming one, or more deficiencies. Personally, I don’t consider lack of color to be a deficiency, but apparently many people do.
Black and white, in the hands of a great director (let’s not forget the absolutely crucial role that the cinematographer plays here, as well) makes the screen glisten, producing a wondrous sheen not unlike a dream image. I use that comparison quite purposefully, as dream research by the psychiatric community has long stated that a portion of one’s dreams are in black and white (though the amount differs greatly from one person to the next). Additionally, it’s worth noting that in nocturnal situations without artificial lighting, we regularly see everything on a grey scale (whether it‘s a late-evening walk, or waking in one’s bed before sunrise). Many people claim that films in black and white film are lesser than those in color because they are unrealistic, unnatural. We may be living in an increasingly electrified world, but living and dreaming without color is very much part of the natural human experience. And so, making movies in black and white is another way of representing that shared human experience artistically on screen.
Black and white film, of course, was perfected first, but numerous attempts were made in the early years to create a lifelike color stock, but with varying results. The first film shot in a successful modern color process was Becky Sharp in 1935, which utilized three-strip Technicolor. At the start, color was a very expensive proposition, meaning that only a few films were chosen each year to receive the color treatment. In the forties, as more color processes were introduced and the cost dropped, an increasing number of films were shot in color. During the fifties, when the motion picture industry was ferociously competing with the television industry for the viewing audience, the percentage of films shot in color annually finally surpassed those made in black and white. As the decade wore on, more and more Hollywood movie studios moved into television production and the two mediums were no longer at such odds.
By the early sixties, the percentage of films made in black and white actually increased to the point that black and white nearly equaled the number of films made in color. At that point, black and white vs. color became less a financial consideration than an artistic one. Once network television went to all-color lineups in the mid-sixties, however, the silver screen was forced to follow suit. By 1970, black and white films had become a rarity, generally reserved for extremely low-budget titles.
It’s true that aside from rare, individual episodes, all American network television series have been shot in color for forty-five years. Thus, any black and white TV series is indeed old (relatively speaking, of course), but that’s not necessarily true of movies. Typically, there is a big-budget Hollywood movie filmed in black and white every year, as well as a few low-budget, independent ones. Some of these films include short color sequences or colored special effects, but they remain primarily black and white films. Today, it’s actually more expensive to shoot a film in black and white, as few companies produce the film stock needed, and few labs process it. Any film shot in black and white in the current era is done so purely for artistic reasons.
Since 1970, many of America’s greatest living filmmakers have shot black and white films: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, Joel Coen, Darren Aronofsky, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and the aforementioned Tim Burton. Independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has made four black and white movies, but no one has worked in shades of grey more than Woody Allen, who has made seven such works. Clearly, these filmmakers believe that there is an inherent quality in black and white cinematography that’s key to putting over the subject matter of their films.
With that in mind, I now list a dozen outstanding movies made during the past forty years that were very intentionally shot to utilize the artistic value of black and white film (listed in reverse chronological order, with director), all of which are available from the Des Moines Public Library:
The Artist, 2011 – Michel Hazanavicius;
Sin City, 2005 – Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino;
The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001 – Joel Coen;
American History X, 1998 – Tony Kaye;
Ed Wood, 1994 – Tim Burton;
Schindler’s List, 1993 – Steven Spielberg;
The Elephant Man, 1980 – David Lynch;
Raging Bull, 1980 – Martin Scorsese;
Manhattan, 1979 – Woody Allen;
Lenny, 1975 – Bob Fosse;
Young Frankenstein, 1974 – Mel Brooks;
Paper Moon, 1973 – Peter Bogdanovic.