Why Film in Black and White in 2021?

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Monochrome films often get overlooked simply because they are associated with “old” cinema – that’s what early 20th century films look like, why should we watch this when we now have colour? And of course there is a reason for this popular opinion; it is a risk for a production company to support a black and white release. The film has to be notable and exceptional in order to stand out if it wants an audience. So in this article we’ll take a look at some of the most important aspects of why black and white film still has relevance in 2021. 

Stand Out from the Crowd

As touched on in the introduction, if you make a black and white film it will stand out simply by virtue of not being in colour which can be good or bad. It means that there is hopefully a great reason for doing so – the cinematography or acting for instance is so captivating that it can exist without colour. Monochrome offers a unique appeal that means you can’t just rely on stunning colours or golden hour light for catching the audience’s eye – it has to come from the contents within the frame. As a result of the restrictive colour palette it can be very challenging to portray your film just in monochrome which is why it has to be so meticulously crafted – standing out may not be such a good thing if you can’t back it up.

A Sense of Memory

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a recent example of a monochromatic success story and for good reason too, it’s a wonderfully shot and acted film. The reason I chose this film is because a part of the director’s vision was to give the film an overarching feel of nostalgia or that you’re watching someone’s memory which is why he chose to develop it in black and white. Interestingly it wasn’t filmed that way, it was shot digitally in colour but was then painstakingly edited in monochrome during post production. 

In this instance Cuarón used black and white film’s stigma of being old-fashioned to his advantage as it allowed him to present the film in an “unrealistic” or dreamy way – in the sense that we don’t see in black and white but in colour. This also allowed him to play with textures and contrast to exaggerate this nostalgic feeling whilst also creating visual intrigue for the viewer. This is another great feature of black and white film which is that it allows for visual cues and effects that often go unnoticed in colour film. Texture in particular stands out in a monochromatic film; digital cameras can record immense detail and when stripped back of its colour, texture is really noticeable which Roma is a prime example of.

Both Real and Surreal

As previously touched on, monochromatic filming allows a distortedly real view of the world and what I mean by this is that the picture or image is correct, with forms, light and shadow also being accurately represented, but it’s the lack of colour that twists an audience’s perception. Subtracting colour is one way to not only evoke “the past” but it also subverts the viewer’s experience of the film itself. 

I’ll use Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse here as reference because it’s a great example of the power of monochromatic filming. The impact it has on his film isn’t only that it looks great (thanks in part to the director of photography Jarin Blaschke) but it adds that uncertainty and possibility for the surreal or fantastical to take place naturally within this world. The stark black and white film emulation also allows for two great performances to come through without any visual distraction – all part of Eggers idea for filming in monochrome and in an almost square aspect ratio. The effect heightens the feeling of claustrophobia and the main characters’ treading on one another’s toes. The Lighthouse is a wonderful example of how black and white film is still relevant and successful but you must be absolutely sure of your creative vision in order to pull it off. 

Learning Curve

Shooting black and white film, much like in photography, is a great exercise in mastering the craft. It’s not only that it’s a different feeling but it just forces you to think about other things such as contrast, texture, tone, composition and more in other and maybe revealing ways. The concept of light and shadow which is essentially the entirety of photography and videography is much more obvious in stark black and white contrast. It’s a great learning opportunity to explore imagery in a new way and one that can help to inform photography/ cinematography in general – it applies to the whole gamut. 

For all these reasons and more, there is a purpose and intention behind monochrome films that is relevant today and in the future too. We’re starting to see a few more great examples of black and white films filter into the mainstream consciousness which is great to see. Hopefully we’ll start to see a bit more risk-taking from filmmakers in the future now that we’ve seen commercially successful examples of monochrome films. 

Author Bio: 

Andrew Farron works for Fable Studios, a Creative-led boutique video and animation studio that creates tailored brand stories that endure in your audience’s mind. Fable combines your objectives with audience insights and inspired ideas to create unforgettable productions that tell the unique story of your brand.