Monochrome Memories - why Black-and-White did not fade away

An essay for 'Case Studies in Media Production and Interpretation'
MA in History of Film and Visual Media
David Mitchell
November 2001

Halfway through writing this essay, I came across the text of a lecture by Adrienne Redd that covers somewhat similar ground. Her primary focus is on how 'color and black-and-white have been used together for symbolic effect' and she mentions several of the same films I do, such as Pleasantville and The Purple Rose of Cairo, as well as many more that I do not. Although I found her work a useful stimulus, I have tried to avoid plagiarism by steering my essay away from the issues on which she concentrates. The lecture, 'Chroma-Cinema: the Use of Color in Color and Black-and-White Films', can be found at the Criticism.Com web-site:

We watch so many old movies our memories come in monochrome.

- Angela Carter, Wise Children, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1991), 10.

The opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939, US), set in Kansas, are shot in sepia. (1) It is not until the twister transports Dorothy and Toto to Oz that colour enters the diegetic world. In the 1930s such a transition was not unusual, colour was still seen as a type of 'special effect'. The technology to produce colour films may have been available since the early 1920s, but when The Wizard of Oz was filmed nearly twenty years later, less than one film in ten was in colour. It took more than another twenty, until the 1960s, for colour to become truly dominant.

Most transitions in cinema history are relatively sharp. The birth of the star system, the establishment of Hollywood's dominance, the invention of classical continuity editing, the adoption of sound, (2) the collapse of the studio system, the introduction of wide screen formats; all of these took just a few years. The introduction of colour was different, it was spread out over forty years. Why did colour take so long to become established? Why are black-and-white films still being made? And why do some films use both processes?

It is not difficult to find answers to the first of these questions - the key turning points in the history of colour films are well documented. (3) Technicolor, the dominant colour technology for more than twenty-five years, sprang, like another photographic invention, Polaroid, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where two of the founders, Kalmus and Comstock, were professors of physics. Technicolor's two-colour process was available from the early 1920s, and was tried by all the major American movie corporations. It was cumbersome and expensive and in the early years the number of cameras available was very limited - four of the eleven Technicolor cameras then in existence were used on The Black Pirate (Parker, 1926, US). (4) Few were prepared to risk the cost of producing a whole film in Technicolor, but during the mid-1920s colour sequences were used in major spectacles such as Ben Hur (Niblo, 1925, US) and King of Kings (DeMille, 1927, US).

The coming of sound proved a temporary inhibitor to the broader adoption of colour, but by the end of 1929, with sound firmly established, the major Hollywood studios made more and more colour features and Technicolor's processing plant was booked for months in advance. The boom turned out to be short-lived however, as the decline in admissions associated with the Depression sapped Hollywood's interest in technical innovation. Within a few years Technicolor was losing money.

In an attempt to reverse the decline, Technicolor introduced a three-colour process in 1933. This provided a much richer palette and thus more colour fidelity, but rather than the majors, it was the tiny Disney cartoon studio that first made use of it, on Flowers and Trees (1932). (5) Indeed it was not until the end of the 1930s, after Technicolor had made further improvements, (6) that Hollywood began to make colour films, such as A Star is Born (Wellman, 1937, US) or Gone With the Wind (Fleming, 1939, US), with any regularity. Even then less than one film in ten was in colour.

With ninety percent of colour films using Technicolor's process, it was not surprising that in 1947, as part of its antitrust campaign against the American film industry, the US Department of Justice took action against Technicolor and its film stock supplier, Eastman Kodak. As with the Paramount case, the DOJ prevailed. As a result, in 1950 Eastman Kodak developed a simpler process, Eastman Color, based on the German Agfacolor single-film system, and Technicolor signed a consent decree agreeing to license its patents on a royalty-free basis. Filmmakers were no longer forced to hire Technicolor's cameras, consultants and camera operators.

The effect of these changes was profound. The cost of colour filmmaking fell dramatically. Coupled with the rapid growth of black-and-white TV sales in the late 1940s and early 1950s, this led Hollywood to distinguish its offerings by making more and more colour films, although cheap second features continued to be made in black-and-white. When colour television began in the 1960s the studios bowed to the inevitable and almost all films were shot in colour by the end of the decade.

Cost had not been the only inhibitor to the adoption of colour, aesthetics played a part too. In The Film Till Now Paul Rotha argued that like sound, colour added a sense of realism to films, whereas the true aim of cinema was reality. Too often the camera was 'an instrument of photographic realism rather than a medium of creative imagination'. (7) Rotha wrote these words in 1928, when Technicolor was still in its infancy. He complained that:

… colours glow and pale at alternate moments (reds are revolutionary, yellows are dirty, greens are sickly… and flesh tints jaundiced) … [but even] assuming the possibility of perfect colour reproduction, however, it is hard to see where its use is of more value that the already existing beauties of panchromatic stock. (8)

For Rotha, the 'delicate textures and shimmering backgrounds' of La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc (Dreyer, 1928, France) would be lost by the use of colour. He felt that as realism usurped reality, less and less imagination would be required of the cinema audience. Rotha's views, at least those he held in 1928, when he argued even more forcefully against the use of sound, may strike us today as somewhat extreme, but he was certainly not alone, then or later. Arnheim advanced similar arguments in Film as Art, (9) although Perkins neatly countered them by comparing the two Hitchcock versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, UK and 1956, US). (10) In the later version, shot in colour, Hitchcock used the colour red to symbolise the kidnapped child instead of the badge he had used in the black-and-white version. As Perkins makes clear, this allowed Hitchcock much more subtle, integrated and direct control over our emotions during the climax at the Albert Hall.

In a letter to Kuleshov in 1948, Eisenstein expressed a call for restraint:

Hence, the first condition for the use of color in a film is that it must be, first and foremost, a dramatic factor. In this respect color is like music. Music in films is good when it is necessary. Color, too, is good when it is necessary. (11)

More than fifty years later filmmakers still occasionally heed Eisenstein and decide that colour is not necessary. The Man Who Wasn't There (Coen, 2001, US) was shot quite deliberately in black-and-white, (12) despite the extra expense that such a choice now incurs. As Joel Coen says:

For a lot of intangible reasons that aren't easy to explain, it seemed as if black-and-white was appropriate for this story. It's a period movie, and black-and-white helps with the feeling for the period. Black-and-white is evocative for a story like this [in ways] that color photography isn't. (13)

This cannot be the whole story however, since several Coen films, including Oh Brother, Where Art Thou (2000, US), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994, US) and Barton Fink (1991, US) are also 'period movies' but are shot in colour. Roger Deakins, the director of photography and cameraman for all these films, provides more reasons for the choice:

[Black-and-white] focuses you on the content and the story, and it really concentrates your attention on what's in the frame. All too often, color can be a distraction -- it's easier to make color look good, but harder to make color service the story. Black-and-white imagery is much more about the balance between the light and shade in the frame, and I think it can help convey story points a lot better with fewer distractions.

Lighting is not only about lighting; it's also about not lighting, and cutting light off of objects as much as shining light on them. Those kinds of considerations are as important in colour photography as they are in black-and-white, but the sheer beauty of a well-composed and well-lit black-and-white frame is hard to beat, because it's difficult to produce that type of focus and simplicity when you're shooting in color. It's vitally important to be able to separate shapes and surfaces through the use of light and shade, and to focus the audience's attention on what you want them to see. Color is seductive, but it's harder to get past the surface gloss to create a truly simple and relevant image. I almost wish every film were in black-and-white. (14)

There is no doubt that black-and-white can engender feelings and generate meanings in ways subtly different from those of colour, as the work of still photographers such as Adams, Arbus or Penn clearly testifies. John Boorman chose to make his last but one film, The General (John Boorman, 1998, Ireland/UK) in black-and-white. Asked why, he said:

I love black-and-white, and since I was making the film independently—I borrowed the money from the bank—there was no one to tell me I couldn't. If I had made [The General] for a studio, they wouldn't let me do that. The other reason, the main reason, was because it was about recent events and people who were still alive. I wanted to give it a little distance. Black-and-white gives you that sort of parallel world. Also, it's very close to the condition of dreaming, to the unconscious. I wanted it to have this mythic level because I felt this character was an archetype. All throughout history, you find this rebel, this violent, funny, brilliant kind of character. I wanted to make that kind of connection, and black-and-white film helps. (15)

Another argument for the power of black-and-white imagery can be seen in the angry reactions to Ted Turner's decision to start showing 'colorized' versions of old black-and-white films on his cable TV channels. In March 1986 Turner had purchased MGM's film library of more than 3,650 titles for $1.2 billion and in 1988 his decision to show a 'colorized' Casablanca (Curtis, 1942, US) resulted in angry responses from James Stewart, John Huston, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen among others. While the row actually had its origins in a dispute over profit sharing within the film and television industries, it suddenly erupted into a far more public squabble with Turner being accused of 'commercial debasement, despoiling motion picture art, and corrupting the sensibilities of the mass audience'. (16) Turner encouraged the controversy of course, even admitting that he 'had The Maltese Falcon converted just for controversy's sake'. (17)

Of course there is a certain inconsistency in the arguments against 'colorizing'. After all, films shown on TV have always been subject to distortions and alterations, such as frame cropping, losses in definition and picture resolution, censoring of dialogue, cuts, pan-and-scanning, and lexiconning (18) as well as frequent commercial interruptions. In any case, TV audiences lost interest in colorized films by the early 1990s. When the Turner Broadcasting System launched its 'Turner Classic Movies' channel in 1994 it did so promising to show films 'uninterrupted, uncolorized and commercial-free!'.

There is another way of 'colorizing', exemplified by Gus Van Sant's 1998 careful remake of Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960, US). Hitchcock shot the original in black-and-white, using the crew that made his TV shows, to keep the cost down. He succeeded - the total budget of $800,000 was somewhat less than the fee paid to Cary Grant alone for North By Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959, US), made the year before. While remakes in general take considerable liberties (19) with the original, Van Sant's is a faithful shot-by-shot remake except that it is in colour not black and white. For Van Sant, the use of colour was necessary to shock today's audiences, who have been exposed to much more explicit screen violence than the original audience for Hitchcock's film. (20) Few felt that Van Sant's effort was successful.

I began by referring to The Wizard of Oz. The decision to start the film in sepia was surely not just to heighten the impact of the first coloured scenes of Oz, but to differentiate the 'real' world of Kansas in the 1930s from the timeless 'fantasy' world of Oz. At a time when films were almost entirely black-and-white, monochrome was seen as 'natural' and colour was seen as 'unrealistic'. As a result, colour was mostly used to depict worlds removed from the everyday; not only for fantasies like The Wizard of Oz, but also for historical epics like Gone With the Wind and lavish musicals such as Meet Me in St. Louis (Minelli, 1944, US).

Today the situation is reversed - colour is seen as 'natural' and black-and-white as 'unrealistic' - so now filmmakers sometimes use black-and-white within a colour film to depict another, unreal, world. Thus in Dead Again (Branagh, 1991, US) the world of Los Angeles in the 1990s is filmed in colour, but the film's flashbacks to the world of 1949 are shot in black-and-white.

These monochrome sequences make many deliberate and artful references to the films of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941, US) and Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940, US). (21) In a clear homage to Dial M For Murder (Hitchcock, 1954, US), scissors are used as weapons in both violent deaths in the film. We see the frenzied, repeated stabbings of the murder viewed through a translucent curtain that masks the identity of the murderer, conjuring echoes of Psycho. These symbolic references are all the more potent for being shot in the same monochrome as their referents.

As well as explicitly signalling jumps back in time, the black-and-white sequences play a metaphorical, psychological role. We see the world of 1949 through the dreams and hypnotic recollections of the character played by Emma Thompson, a woman who has lost her memory as well as her power of speech. By seeing her mental world in monochrome we are made aware of the contrast between its fragile, hallucinatory nature and the solid, down-to-earth world in which she now finds herself. The echoes and counterpoints between what happened in 1949 and the unfolding, present-day investigation conducted by Kenneth Branagh's private eye are heightened, not diminished, by being filmed in different ways.

Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985, US) also uses monochrome to distinguish between two worlds, though they are both set in the 1930s. One is the real world inhabited by Mia Farrow, which is shot in colour, while the other is the fantasy world of the films she watches most afternoons, which are in black and white. For Farrow, going to the cinema offers an escape from her humdrum existence, a world of drab, low-contrast, washed-out colours. Heaven in films is often depicted in high-contrast monochrome, and so is the film world here, with a hero dressed in brilliant white. It might seem like heaven to Farrow, but the limited palette echoes the repetitive, indeed boring, nature of the cinematic world. Its restricted nature is all too apparent to its inhabitants, which is why Jeff Daniels walks out of the screen, takes Farrow by the hand and leads her out of the cinema, becoming immediately coloured in the process.

Maurizio Nichetti's The Icicle Thief ('Ladri di Saponette', Nichetti, 1989, Italy) has several themes in common with Allen's film, in particular the contrast between the drab grimness of real life and the glamour we often see on the screen. It too features a monochrome film world, in this case the neo-realist world of Italian cinema immediately after the war. The film within the film is being shown on commercial television, and somehow portals are opened between the world of the film, the real world of the present day and the imaginary world of commercial breaks. When the neo-realist heroine somehow escapes into an 'ad' she is immediately coloured, both literally and metaphorically, switching her poverty-stricken life in 1940s Italy for the musical fantasy world of a 1980s TV 'ad' for washing powder. (22) To replace her in the film within a film, a bikini-clad actress is stolen from another 'ad' and somehow transported the other way, being rescued from drowning by the neo-realist hero who turns her monochrome as he dries her with his jacket.

If we compare the 'meanings' attached to black-and-white and colour in these two films, it is clear that these are relative not absolute. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, colour is associated with real life and black-and-white with the fantasy world of cinema. In The Icicle Thief the situation is reversed, with black-and-white being associated with (neo-)realism and colour with the fantasy world of TV ads. There has been a long debate over the meaning of colours, but it is generally accepted that the division of the spectrum into colours is a cultural phenomenon and that colours have no intrinsic meanings . (23) The meaning of a given colour is usually determined by the local context of the film. Thus in Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, 1938, USSR) we find, contrary to our normal expectations:

the white robes of the Teuton Ritter were associated with the themes of cruelty, oppression and death, while the color of black, attached to the Russian warriors, conveyed the positive themes of heroism and patriotism. (24)

Pleasantville (Ross, 1998, US) uses colour in a particularly complex, symbolic way, mixing monochrome and colour objects in the same frame. The film contrasts the complex, colourful, contemporary world of the late 1990s with the simplified, black-and-white world of 'Pleasantville', a late 1950s TV sitcom. A bizarre TV repairman, played by 1950s TV comedian Don Knotts, (25) replaces a broken TV remote with a special one that transports two teenagers, played by Tobey MaGuire and Reese Witherspoon, into the TV world of 1959. The interactions of the intruders with Pleasantville's inhabitants gradually change the sitcom world and these changes are reflected by the gradual introduction of colour.

Pleasantville's world is simple. It is literally a closed universe, where the streets loop back on themselves. There are no toilets because there are no bodily functions. It never rains. There are no fires, so the job of a fireman is restricted to rescuing cats from trees. Everything is perfect because it is perfectly simple. The basketball team has never lost; indeed as Maguire discovers, it is impossible to miss a shot. While there are books in the library, they are filled with blank pages. The simple clarity of monochrome matches the idealised nature of the world.

Maguire, a shy, somewhat introverted boy, feels at home there; having watched re-runs of all the TV shows many times, it is a world on which he is an expert. It is his twin sister, extrovert, street-wise and sexually mature, who initiates the first changes because she is not prepared to live the life of a 1950s teenager, at least not the version portrayed on TV at the time. She gets Biff, the 'dreamboat' captain of the basketball team, to take her to Lover's Lane and introduces him to petting. Though he is confused, indeed terrified, when he experiences his first erection, before long she has seduced him. As he drives home afterwards, his head spinning, he sees a red rose, the first coloured object to appear in Pleasantville.

The next day Biff tells the rest of the team about his sexual experience. The knowledge is so unsettling they find they can no longer shoot straight, all of them fail to hit the basket. Later we see a second coloured object, when a girl chewing bubble-gum at the high school blows a pink bubble.

Sexual awakening spreads like wildfire through the town's teenagers. We see car brake lights suddenly glow red. Before long we see a pink tongue, then a green car. In the soda shop, Witherspoon knowingly nibbles at the red cherry on her ice cream. The parking spot in Lover's Lane becomes a riot of colour.

In fact the changes are signalled in a variety of ways, not just though the gradual appearance of colour. A tree busts into flame. Text and pictures start appearing in library books. The juke-box music in the Pleasantville soda shop, which starts with endless repeats of anodyne Pat Boone and Johnny Mathis songs, gradually advances through rock-and-roll (Little Richard and Buddy Holly) to modern jazz (Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis). It starts to rain.

It is the gradual introduction of colour that plays the biggest role however, as well as being the most complex technically. The film contains over 1700 digital effects, more than any previous film at the time. In many scenes some characters or props are black-and-white characters while others are coloured, and lighting such scenes proved particularly difficult, especially when a coloured character moved into a space previously occupied by a monochrome one, or vice versa. To cope with the necessary switches between hard (for monochrome) and soft (for colour) illumination, special lighting control boards had to be built so that the necessary changes could be done on the fly.

The whole film was shot on colour stock and digitally manipulated to produce the black-and-white effects. Chris Watts, the visual effects supervisor, explained some of the difficulties:

We found out very early on that if you simply draw a rotoscoped line around the [coloured] person and make everything [outside] black and white, that person would look too saturated. The way we fixed that was by limiting the saturation of even the color items in the frame, to use something closer to 75% or 80%, sometimes all the way down to 40% or 50%, depending on where in the frame the object was located. Obviously objects in the foreground would be a little more saturated, objects in the background would be a little less saturated.

We also found that if there was a color person and a black and white person interacting in the frame together, there was a really strong tendency for people in the audience to look at the color person, and not look at the black and white person. So, we would make something else in the frame on the other side of the black-and-white person have a little bit of color. Another technique was to essentially have the black and white person reflect a little bit of the color of the colored person. So that when a person who was supposed to be black and white got close to somebody in color, they would actually assume a little bit of that color. (26)

It should be clear that colour in Pleasantville is much more than just part of the mise-en-scène. It plays a more important role than the sets or the props, indeed it is almost another character, a kind of visible 'narrator' whose changing appearance reflects advances in the plot. (27)

The technology used to manipulate colour digitally is becoming, like CGI in general, cheaper and easier to use. There is a clear limit to the number of films that can be made based on the idea of being sucked into a TV set, (28) but the idea of manipulating colour, treating it as a character, could be a fertile one. There has been more of the sort of digital compositing we saw in Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, 1994, US), often unnoticed, (29) so we could well see more of the digital colour manipulation seen in Pleasantville. In any case, black-and-white sequences will continue to be used in colour films to signal a trip back to a time when monochrome was normal, as in JFK (Stone, 1991, US) or Space Cowboys (Eastwood, 2000, US).

As for 'pure' black-and-white films, though they have become rare, there is little sign that they will disappear altogether. As we have seen, there are good reasons why directors still want to make the occasional black-and-white film. Pressure from studios and distributors may make it difficult for all but the most independent directors to get their way, but the last few years have given us Celebrity (Allen, 1998, US), Pi (Aronofsky, 1998, US), The General, La Fille sur le Pont (Patrice Leconte, 1999, France) and of course, The Man Who Wasn't There. Monochrome has not yet lost its power over our imaginations or our memories.

Web References:

Martin Hart, 'Early Color Motion Picture Processes' (footnote 6)

Jay Holben, 'The Root(s) of All Evil: 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (footnote 13),1210,30961,00.html

Joshua Klein, 'Interview with John Boorman' (footnote 15)

Gary R. Edgerton, 'Frank Capra, Casablanca and the Colorization Controversy of the 1980s' (footnote 16)

Constantine Santas, 'The Remake of Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998): Creativity or Cinematic Blasphemy?' (footnote 20)

Bruce Weber, 'Interview with Kenneth Branagh' (footnote 21)

Gary Ross, 'Pleasantville - a Fairy Tale', original script, October 1996 (footnote 25)

Elif Cercel, 'Interview with Chris Watts, Visual Effects Supervisor, "Pleasantville"' (footnote 26),7220,114483,00.html


  1. These, and the closing scenes also set in Kansas, were directed by King Vidor, not by Victor Fleming (back)
  2. This was true in the USA due to vertical integration, but in some countries the adoption of sound was much slower. (back)
  3. See for example Douglas Gomory, Shared Pleasures (London: BFI 1992), Chapter 11. (back)
  4. Ibid., 234. (back)
  5. In dramatic contrast to the rest of Hollywood, Disney made no black-and-white films at all after 1935. (back)
  6. Lighting, cameras, processing and film speeds were all improved during the 1930s. For extensive details of Technicolor's history, including a lecture by Kalmus, see Martin Hart, 'Early Color Motion Picture Processes', American WideScreen Museum, 1999 (see Web References). (back)
  7. Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now (London: Hamlyn 1967), 89. (back)
  8. Ibid., 399. (back)
  9. Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art, (Berkeley: University of California, 1967). (back)
  10. V.F. Perkins, Film as Film, (London: Penguin, 1972), 55-56. (back)
  11. Quoted in Bill Nichols (ed), Movies & Methods: Volume 1 (Berkeley: University of California 1976), 381. Eisenstein devotes a whole chapter of The Film Sense (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947) to 'Color and Meaning'. (back)
  12. More precisely, it was shot on colour film (there was a contractual requirement to release a colour version on video in certain overseas markets) but printed on black-and-white stock. (back)
  13. Quoted in Jay Holben, 'The Root(s) of All Evil: "The Man Who Wasn't There"' American Cinematographer November 2001 (see Web References). (back)
  14. Ibid. (back)
  15. Interview with Joshua Klein, The Onion A.V. Club, 1998 (see Web References). (back)
  16. For details of the row see Gary R. Edgerton 'Frank Capra, Casablanca and the Colorization Controversy of the 1980s', Journal of Popular Film and Television, Winter 2000 (see Web References). (back)
  17. Ibid. (back)
  18. Lexiconning is the speeding up (time compression) or slowing down (time expansion) of a film shown on television to make it fit into an exact time slot. The name comes from the equipment used - a Lexicon Time Compressor. (back)
  19. One thinks of Jim McBride's 1983 US remake of Godard's Breathless (1959, France), or George Sluizer's 1993 US remake of his own The Vanishing (1988, Netherlands/France). (back)
  20. Constantine Santas, 'The Remake of Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998): Creativity or Cinematic Blasphemy?', Senses of Cinema, October 2000 (see Web References). (back)
  21. Branagh acknowledged these influences in several interviews at the time the film was released. See for example his interview with Bruce Weber, New York Times, August 23, 1991 (see Web References). (back)
  22. Hence the film's Italian title, a play on Ladri di Biciclette (de Sica, 1948, Italy). 'Saponette' means 'Soap'. (back)
  23. Edward Branigan, 'The Articulation of Color in a Filmic System', Wide Angle I, 3 (1976) 20-36. (back)
  24. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947), 151. (back)
  25. In the original script the character is described as Dick Van Dyke, another stalwart of black-and-white TV sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s (see Web References). (back)
  26. Quoted in Elif Cercel, 'Interview with Chris Watts, Visual Effects Supervisor, "Pleasantville"', American Cinematographer, November 1998 (see Web References). (back)
  27. Of course 'colour' also serves as an obvious metaphor for America's racial tensions as we see when 'NO COLOREDS' signs start appearing in Pleasantville shop windows. (back)
  28. As well as Pleasantville and The Icicle Thief, the idea has been used in Stay Tuned (Hyams, 1992, US) and the Poltergeist series. (back)
  29. For example, in Erin Brochovich (Soderberg, 2000, US), Cinesite (a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak) used CGI to create a seamless effect for the car crash scene. (back)

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