Black And White Cinematography: Old News Or New Fashion

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Schindler's List, Oliwia Dabrowska

WORDS | Raelee Lancaster

 

THE GREAT GATSBY

The Great Gatsby is a great novel that has been turned into a film five times. At first, it was a black-and-white silent film. This was filmed in 1926, and sadly, this version has since been lost. The second was also a black-and-white film from 1946. The sequential film adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literally creation were filmed in colour. While I quite liked these films and I wholeheartedly agree with critics who say that the 1920s were encapsulated perfectly in technicolour, I did feel as if I was being hypnotised by the colour aspect of the films, especially after watching the 1946 version.

“The audience can watch the film without being distracted from the action by colour,” said film-maker, writer, film editor, film theorist, and theatre and opera director, Andrei Tarkovsky in his 1966 interview with Maria Chugunova.

SABRINA 

Sabrina (1954) is a personal favourite of mine, starring Audrey Hepburn. It follows the life of a chauffer’s daughter who is hopelessly (and almost fatally) in love with her father’s employer. At the beginning, Sabrina is always hidden by shadows, and literally on the outside looking in. In the scene where Sabrina attempts suicide, it is shrouded in darkness. After her time spent abroad, she cuts her hair short as a symbol of her newfound maturity and sophistication, a trademark used by Hepburn in several other films, including Breakfast At Tiffany’s. In 1994, Sabrina was remade, this time in colour. While I enjoyed this version, I felt as if it was missing elements that the 1954 film captured explicitly, that made the lack of colour as a positive because they used strong techniques to convey the emotion and personality of the characters.

Black-and-white films have the ability to transcend time. The audience is not enraptured in the bright, striking colours. Instead, they are able to focus on the film itself and soak in the wonderful film techniques, dialogue and motifs, as well as character and plot development.

SCHINDLER’S LIST

Schindler’s List is another iconic black-and-white film. Filmed in 1993, Schindler’s List was created in a time where coloured television and cinema had been around for decades and was the cultural norm.

However, Steven Spielberg, the creative genius that he is, decided to film this movie in black-and-white. He was critically acclaimed for this, and the movie went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Best Film at the BAFTA Awards and Best Motion Picture (Drama) at the Golden Globes.

By filming in black-and-white, Spielberg was able to make the focus of the film on the plot and characters, who were the focal point of the film; not the colours of war-torn Germany. He used colour in certain parts of the film, namely for the red coat, to highlight an important aspect of the film and to make sure it captured the audience’s attention. Spielberg also filmed in black-and-white in order to give his film a documentary-type feel. The flim is based off a real person and Spielberg wanted to encapsulate that.

Another film which does this is To Kill A Mockingbird. This film was also filmed in a time where technicoloured films were the norm. I strongly believe that the movie would not have been half as good if it was filmed in colour. The strong, deep plotline called for a more serious undertone, which the black-and-white cinematography provided. Facial expression and shadows were used incredibly well and the segregation between the African-Americans and the “white” Americans was emphasised.

The black-and-white cinematography also gives it a documentary-type feel, like it did in Schindler’s List. This is an important aspect because the things that are portrayed in the film are based off things that had happened to real people, and it drove home the message that this type of power and behaviour must never happen again.

This would be no article about the intriguing nature of black-and-white films without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock. His films drive home the notion that black-and-white cinematography really is timeless. Half a century on and we’re still studying and enjoying his films regardless of their lack of technicolour.

Some may let out groans of torment when I mention Mr. Hitchcock as he was studied quite fervently in high school. Psycho (1960) is a timeless classic. Everybody knows the film and that iconic shower scene, even those who have never seen it before. Birds (1963) is another classic of Alfred Hitchcock’s. He directed against a time of technicolour, and I’m glad he did. I have watched the black-and-white version of Birds, and the digitally remastered technicolour version, and I was quite disappointed with the latter. Hitchcock was able to capture the suspense and horror of this film in black-and-white perfectly, which the technicoloured version did not live up to the standards of the original.

Andrei Tarkovsky called colour film a “commercial gimmick,” and I would have to agree with that statement because colour and commercialism do seem to go hand in hand. We tend to associate a certain colour with a particular object or emotion. When seen on screen, these colours have the ability to evoke emotion from an audience, whereas black-and-white films have to use camera techniques, dialogue, and motifs to convey emotion. This allows the director to explore their artistic tendencies.

As previously stated, black-and-white films are timeless, and while they may be deemed “old-fashioned,” they seem to be making a comeback. In 2013, Noah Baumbach filmed Frances Ha in both black-and-white and technicolour. The former version is the only version I’ve seen, but I truly loved it. CBS News compared Frances Ha’s style to the works of Jim Jarmusch and François Truffaut. Tim Burton, whose creative genius is adored by millions, filmed his fourth stop-motion film, Frankenweenie, in black and white.

Other honourable mentions include, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and Frank Miller’s Sin City. While some of these films do use colour, it is only a small amount and only to highlight important aspects of the films, and to capture an audience’s attention like in Shindler’s List.

 

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