Are black and white feature films in the middle of a new renaissance? Many think so considering how many black and white movies have been out in the year passing since the time of this writing. Everything from “Nebraska” to “Frances Ha” showed us compellingly told tales that were helped along because they were shot in black and white. But why did they work that way when there seems to be a growing backlash in the population who find black and white to be dull?
With proof that new emotions can be tapped with black and white without needing the story to be retro, there may be audiences more willing to accept it in the future. It’s why if you’re planning your first indie film feature (or just working on your next one), you should seriously think about filming in black and white. The reasons go beyond just the saving of money on using color film. Regardless, you shouldn’t use black and white without very good reason to.
Using Black and White to Represent the Emotions in Your Movie
Many of the successful indie films shot in black and white this last year had certain emotions at their core that were enhanced with the austere cinematography. “Nebraska” enabled thoughts of the past through its use of black and white while giving the austere feeling of the flat lands in the Great Plains. Coupled with a warning about seeking false hopes in the American Dream, it’s right up there with other classics shot in black and white 80 years ago during the Great Depression.
Think about the theme of your indie movie and the evocative aspects to it. Would it translate well in black and white? It doesn’t always have to be about bleakness and can give a romanticism of a different era. Other times, it can be just out of practicality when using too many bright colors would simply water down a story set in a small environment. Study Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” to see how black and white changed the emotions of the movie based merely on how it made the interior sets look.
Use it as Homage to Great Directors of the Past
Many films today pay homage to favorite directors or include references to a prior classic movie. Most filmmakers know that Woody Allen’s old black and white movies were a tribute of sorts to his major directorial influence, Ingmar Bergman. The movies being made in black and white now about New York City (like “Frances Ha”) seem to be referencing Allen’s “Manhattan” from 1979.
All these influences seem to influence each ensuing generation. And it’s something you shouldn’t be afraid to do, even if you may be clearly giving a nod to the cinematography in “Citizen Kane” or the dark Film Noirs of the 1940’s and ’50s. However, just give some brief tributes in the movie and not do an exact copy. You need to find a through-line in your story that gives a reason why you’re using black and white in the first place.
Finding the Real Purpose
One problem with black and white movies becoming popular again is that everybody is going to be making one soon. Even if the financial benefits are still fairly mild, the critical acclaim recent b&w films received can be enough impetus. In time, all those films from last year may pull in enough profit due to the exposure they received. This perhaps wouldn’t have happened had they been filmed in color.
The important thing is that they all had a compelling reason to be in black and white. They’re proof you shouldn’t use this device just because it’s trendy. In fact, you may want to experiment with filtered cinematography in the vein of something out of Instagram. It can give the same effect as black and white, except bringing an entirely different set of emotions. In this instance, think the burnt sienna color in the opening segments of “The Wizard of Oz” or the one-color tints used in the old silent era.
While you don’t necessarily want scenes in your movie to be bathed in a red or blue tint, the point is that straight color is finally being realized to have limitations in movie storytelling. With perhaps a slight uptick in demand for black and white or other options, it’s worth experimenting to see what new film emotions you might be able to conjure using the same techniques.