Weekend Reading: Color in Black-and-White

Sam Riley and Samantha Morton in Control

Photo: The Weinstein Co.

I finally watched Anton Corbijn’s Control last night based on the life of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis and on top of being a good film, it is a beautiful film to look at, but one I am sure most general audience members wouldn’t even give a chance. Why? It’s in black-and-white, but there’s a slight twist to this story and it’s the only reason I bring it up.

Control was actually shot in color and then converted to black-and-white in post. In the special features on the DVD Corbijn explains he originally considered shooting the film on black-and-white film stock, but he said the tests “were so grainy, which was one thing, but the grain also moved around and it became just another element you had to look at and I didn’t want that in the film.” So they ended up shooting in color and flipping to black-and-white, something I bring up because I can most often figure out when this has been done, but in this instance Corbijn and his DP, Martin Ruhe, did an amazing job making sure the film didn’t have that silver sheen films that attempt this technique typically have.

Scene from Good Night, and Good Luck.

Photo: Warner Independent

Most often I can sniff out a monochromed color film stock such as the Oscar-nominated work done by director George Clooney and his DP, Robert Elswit, on Good Night, and Good Luck. as well as Steven Soderbergh’s work on The Good German. As you can see from the capture from Good Night, and Good Luck. directly above taken from a 3:30 AM scene in a darkly lit and smoky bar. It is beautiful cinematography worthy of an Oscar nomination, but there was always something about the picture in GNAGL that seemed just a bit too perfect, a bit too pristine. I tend to look at it as something of an exaggerated “high-definition black-and-white”, which is fine, but I think Ruhe’s work on Control was far more precise in accurately mimicking the lighting necessary to duplicate traditional black-and-white when originally shooting in color.

(left) Cate Blanchett in The Good German; (right) Orson Welles in The Third Man

Photo: Warner Bros. / Criterion Collection

Of course, as you can see from the comparison of Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006) to Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948), there is no comparison. You can click the image for a larger look where you will notice the immense amount of detail in Reed’s Third Man compared to the almost dreamlike and washed out quality of Soderbergh’s Good German. Perhaps this was Soderbergh’s intention, but the 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio German was released in, along with the use of 1940s era lenses and sound-recording techniques tells me he was really trying to nail down the era and if you read the “Making Of” section on the official site you will see what pain-staking lengths he and his crew went through to do what he did. I applaud the effort, but in the end I just didn’t get the same comforting feeling I so often get from watching quality black-and-white photography.

Martin Landau in Ed Wood

Photo: Buena Vista Pictures

Of course, black-and-white films are pretty much extinct at this point as many studios are afraid to back a monochrome film for fear it won’t be profitable. Columbia Pictures, for example, passed on both Ed Wood and Young Frankenstein. Of Ed Wood, Tim Burton is quoted at Tim Burton Collective on the subject of converting to black-and-white after shooting on color, “I went through that ten years ago on Frankenweenie. It looks like shit. If you’re going to make a decision, make a decision. You don’t hedge it.” Columbia put the film in turnaround a month before principal photography was scheduled to start and Burton went to Disney where he received total creative control, an $18 million budget and the film went on to win two Oscars. Of course, Disney released the film in a grand total of 623 theaters and it only made $5.8 million.

“What hump?”

Photo: 2oth Century Fox

A more profitable story of a filmmaker sticking to his “I want to shoot in black-and-white” guns comes in the form of 1974’s Young Frankenstein. Columbia Pictures again would not greenlight the film as a black-and-white effort prompting Mel Brooks to go to 20th Century Fox where he turned out the horror-comedy classic on a budget of only $2.8 million to the tune of over $86 million in box-office receipts. Of course, instead of winning two Oscars it was merely nominated for two Oscars, but I think Fox will take the “it’s just nice to be nominated” road with a profit that looks like that.

Coming to theaters next week is Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro a film shot in stark black-and-white while also utilizing splashes of color throughout. The film has been moderately received to this point, although I personally enjoyed it quite a bit, but one thing many are talking about is the black-and-white cinematography. In talking to CNN, Coppola had this to say:

Well, black-and-white is a great photographic tradition in movies. Most of the great films made were made in black-and-white, and if you took a list of the greatest movies ever made, probably eight of them would be in black-and-white.

It’s a very different photographic discipline, just a very beautiful one and right for my story. I thought, why should we not have black-and-white anymore just because some television executives don’t pay as much for the black-and-white form, which is ludicrous?

I recently interviewed Coppola about Tetro, which I will be running next week, and we talked about how he is in the position to be able to make his films now without immediate thoughts of studios. He is producing his own films and Tetro will be released on June 11 through Coppola’s own American Zoetrope and not a major studio. This affords him different opportunities than most filmmakers, but it is nice to see another black-and-white feature in theaters and the work Coppola and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare have put in on Tetro pays off immensely.

Mouse over the image to compare the black-and-white to the color

Photo: USA Films

However, back to the original conversation of shooting in color and releasing in black-and-white. This is not as easy a subject to research as I assumed it would be. Outside of Good Night, and Good Luck. and The Good German I could only find a couple of other examples when this was done including the obvious Sin City (2005), John Boorman’s The General (1998) and the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the latter of which has actually seen both a black-and-white and color DVD release, which was previewed by DVD Beaver. Mouse over the image above to compare the black-and-white to the color.

I can only assume the opening segment of Van Helsing was shot in color then converted, but other than that I am at a loss. If you know of more, please share in the comment section below. I was surprised there wasn’t a list anywhere on the Internet. At least none that I could find.

Instead of black-and-white, one of the more interesting techniques in use now was exhibited in both of Clint Eastwood’s World War II films — Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima — which both deliver a purposely desaturated color palette. It’s not black-and-white, but I guess it could be considered the 21st Century equivalent.

I don’t bring any of this up outside of the fact I think it is interesting and something I have never seen discussed. Corbijn’s film really surprised me when I learned it was shot in color because I can typically tell when that is the case. Hell, many people made the same mistake such as Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian praising the film saying, “Corbijn’s movie is shot in a stunning high-contrast monochrome, perversely turning Macclesfield’s grimness into grandeur. It effortlessly revives a British cinematic style that you might call beautiful realism, reaching back to Christopher Petit’s Radio On, and further back to Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and A Taste of Honey. And in fact Ian Curtis’s working-class married life, with its pram on the step and the stark laundry hanger in the kitchen, looks straight out of the 1960s.”

I found Bradshaw’s review courtesy of Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere who seems to take the same delight in black-and-white as I do and also thought the film was shot in black-and-white. Wells says, “In re-reading Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw’s comments about Control that ran last May, I was reminded that a lot of the enjoyment I took from Anton Corbijn’s film was due to the soothing visual bathwater effect of watching any film shot in black-and-white widescreen (2.35 to 1), which is perhaps my favorite mode of all.”

It’s a truly beautiful film and on top of that it is a quality film as well and one I certainly recommend you check out. Here is one final shot from it before I go.

Sam Riley in Control

Photo: The Weinstein Co.


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