Hello, my name is Ryan and I am addicted black and white.
Part of it is tied into a nostalgia I have for all things old school; the same way I adore vinyl and handwritten notes. Another part of it comes from the part of me that always wanted to be a photographer, and spent several years hand processing shades of grey under the glow of a red light.
And yet another part of it comes from the way it affects the mood of its image.
To me, monochromatic images seem starker…more immediate…dare I suggest, more authentic. Strip away the colour and you can really see just how well a film has been photographed, as the manipulation of light takes centre stage.
When I was younger, I sometimes dialed down the colour controls on my TV and watched the movies I owned just to see how they held up (you’d be amazed what SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK look like as monochromatic films.
So I thought, why not go back to that? Take a film, drop the colour, and see what happens to the imagery. So allow me to begin with Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film CHILDREN OF MEN.
Spoilers will abound…
I should admit off the top, that skimming through the film again for this post made me realize that precious little happens in this film without Theo in the scene. So, apologies in advance – there will be a lot of Clive Owen in this post.
Also, if you haven’t seen this film before, I’d suggest getting your mitts on it immediately. Made about ten years ago, and set ten years from now, the film has a freakish sort of timeliness. Like a twisted harbinger that is slowly getting louder as the political climate of our planet takes a turn.
Much of this film’s imagery could be captured in the world we now know.
The shot above is an image I must admit feels lesser without colour. The lights shining at Theo are incandescent, and cause the scene a sickly yellow cast. It gives the whole moment a greater sense of ominousness and DIY intimidation.
Without the yellow, the lighting behind Julian feels more ethereal. She’s less an x-factor, more like a beacon of hope.
Confession: I’m fully aware that stripping the colour from a film as desaturated as CHILDREN OF MEN is a lay-up. If this turns into a regular series and gains some traction, we’ll talk about me tackling something more challenging like MOULIN ROUGE! or IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE.
For now, pipe down.
Another moment where the absence of colour would affect the emotional impact of the film: the vibrant orange splash from the fire on the road, and the vibrant red splash of Julien’s wounds feel especially shocking in comparison to the rest of the muted imagery in this film. They are heart-stopping moments made all the more heart-stopping by the violent colours they employ.
This whole encounter is a case to keep the film in colour.
Here’s a moment where I wonder about the whole experiment. Is there something missing from Kee in this moment? Something, perhaps in her skin tone? I love the way the whites of her eyes pop…and the way the dairy cows take the black and white theme up a few pegs…but I can’t help but wonder if this shot is somewhat lesser.
Sometimes detail shots just look better without colour.
No, Emmanuel Lubezki didn’t win an Oscar for the way this film was shot. Yes, he totally should have. Forget about the multiple long takes, the composition of this movie and the way it balances foreground and background are unreal.
That said, this same year, Guillermo Navarro did do some pretty incredible things with PAN’S LABYRINTH. And I’m sure Lubezki is quite content with the three Best Cinematography Oscars in a row he would eventually win.
Like I said, some of this film’s imagery just seems so very timely right now…and all of it is ten whole years ago now. The way that woman looks at us feels like it is more and more accusing with every passing year.
Sometimes a beautiful shot is just a beautiful shot.
At this late stage of the game, I should admit to something. The last time I did a post like this, my friend Matthew Brown pointed out the following:
Not an entirely fair experiment, as there are significant differences in how the photographer lights for black and white vs. colour. In BW the shape and intensity of the highlights are used to give depth and definition to the images; in colour much of that definition is automatically supplied by the colours themselves so highlight and rim light is used more sparingly.
This is completely true and I admit it here. If it was shot without colour, many of these images might look even more drastically different than they already do.
The stripping away of the colour is my interpretation.
Those soldiers always looked so taken aback, but for some reason dropping the colour palette makes them feel even more frozen by the shock of what they are seeing.
It truly amazes me how, even in black and white, so many moments in film can seem like a chiaroscuro painting.
…and there we have it! What do you think folks? Should I try this again? If so, any requests?