The Difficult Transition from Black and White Cinematography

During the ‘rona era, I have received a pretty nice benefit – more time. Time to do other things than work, that is. I now understand what they mean when people who fly privately say that private jets are like “time machines”. While private jets harvest time and the ‘rona has made me inherit time, the end game is the same. While I’m making less money, my life sure is more enjoyable. So maybe I actually have more treasure now. I’m digressing.

In this extra time I have been studying French and watching old movies on FXM and Turner Classic Movies. I love looking at the historical technology (i.e. dial phones), elaborate sets both in sound studios and in locations around the world, and the differences in culture between “then” and “now”. The history of movie making is also interesting to me. We like to take Spring Break in LA and I always try to hit one of the studios for the museum and historical tours they offer.

This morning’s feature was “Intent to Kill“, a somewhat ridiculous movie with some nice cinematography. As with anything, you win some and you lose some.

The movie is in black and white. When I looked up the movie I saw that it was filmed in 1958 and thought to myself “Didn’t they have color movies way before then?”. My Google-fu was strong this morning, and now I have the answer to that question. This is a fascinating article for those who like movies (especially old ones) or for those who are interested in economics and old tech.

28 thoughts on “The Difficult Transition from Black and White Cinematography”

  1. There were some amazing color photos (still photos) taken in Russian in the early 1900s. Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, who became the Czar’s official photographer, developed a color process involving 3 separate cameras, each with a different color filter. For viewing, the images were combined by precise alignment of 3 different projectors.

    In recent years, computer image-processing methods have provided a much more convenient method for combining the colors and displaying the images. Here’s a good collection of SPG’s work:

    So, as in the case of the color movies described in your link, a technology was available for color photography…indeed, very high-quality color photography..but it was too cumbersome for broad use.

  2. The above link is to a website which looks extremely un-wholesome by most of our standards; it is however the most extensive easily-viewable collection of SPG’s work that I have run into.

  3. When I was in college in the 1950s, I knew a girl whose stepfather owned Technicolor. That was near the end of its dominance according to that article.

    When John Wayne was shooting the movie “Hondo”, in 1952-53, he had three Technicolor cameras at the location in Mexico. They were all that the studio owned and all color production had to wait until he finished the shoot.

    According to imdb, the movie was also shot in 3D, which was popular about that time. I remember seeing “Bwana Devil” about then and it was the first 3D movie.

  4. It’s a matter of debate whether it’s technology of the day that drives particular artistic expression, or popular artistry that encourages the further use of certain technologies, or some combination. The stark contrast between shadow and light in the black and white film noir and psychological thrillers that were popular mid-century, as in Orson Welles movies, did convey some strong emotions. That technique was lost with the switch to color.

  5. Here’s a pretty good Wikipedia article:

    The Technicolor cameras were actually three cameras, each recording the scene on three conventional panchromatic film strips through a beam splitter and filter from a single lens. This made them very large, complicated and expensive. Until it was killed off by the widescreen, Technicolor wouldn’t sell cameras, they would only rent or lease them, either because of design or accident, there never seemed to be enough to go around.

    Because you were having to expose three negatives through the same lens, the lenses were very expensive and complex. Even with very strong illumination the lens needed a relatively wide aperture which greatly limited depth of field. This is why you see massive lighting setups even under strong sunlight.

    Panchromatic (black & white) film required none of this. Since it was naturally about two stops faster and could be “pushed” even more in processing, it worked in lower light, recorded much more detail in shadows and had much greater depth of field. This is why it was still used clear up until digital took over.

  6. A tangential issue that may be of interest. Black-and-white photography gives us a (literally, and so figuratively) different picture of the world. As color came in, we saw it as not only a technical improvement, but smuggled in the idea that we were becoming a more lively, more interesting, and better people. Very soon after, we started speaking disdainfully of “black-and-white morality,” pretending that those of just a few years earlier were somehow less capable of moral nuance and judgement. The technology subtly reinforced this idea, even though it was scarcely logical. When filmmakers later went back and used black-and-white they were sometimes going for that effect, as in “Pleasantville,” rather unsubtly.

    It was one of my first posts fifteen years ago, and still one of my favorite insights – though I would clean up the writing a bit now.

    Dan, thanks, I will pass on the links to my filmmaker son. Possibly already known to him, but sometimes I am able to give him something new.

  7. This is why it was still used clear up until digital took over.

    One of those “little known facts” is that Jerry Lewis, in making his movies, began using video cameras to frame scenes and run the continuity before anyone else got interested. I forget where I read that but he was a real pioneer in cinematography.

  8. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last time that a change in the medium of expression has had deep and lasting effects on culture/civilization.

    Consider the sea-change that took place when writing took over from the oral traditions and record-keeping. Then, the transition from writing to the printed word, which you might have thought would be merely a minor improvement on things. Instead, it revolutionized everything from story-telling to education to record-keeping.

    Likewise, there was an earlier change with regards to film; the shift from silent movies to the “talkies”. Where the movie theater owner and his musicians had had some part to play in the art of the silent films, the talkies took that away from them, and put it all into the hands of the auteurs who had made the movies.

    Color film was a relatively minor shift in things, yet one which looks enormously significant in hindsight.

    Where one might want to speculate is what is coming in the future, and what the ramifications of all that might be. Ubiquitous cameras everywhere, built into people’s cell phones and public surveillance systems? What are the effects that all that will have on public sensibilities? In a generation’s time, will you even be able to convince people that something happened without also producing imagery of it? What happens when we start “catching” the ephemeral things that have snagged our imaginations for generations? Suppose, for example, that some loch-side security camera catches Nessie coming up for air?

    It’s the same world, but it’s going to be perceived very differently.

  9. CCTV is already making a big change in law enforcement. About the only TV I watch (My wife loves “The Price is Right” and has TV on all day) is the “Murder Channel” which has several channels, one being Discovery ID. There are several shows just using CCTV recordings and their role in crime solving. Several older former TV news babes, like Paula Zahn, are on these shows.

    This shooting in Georgia might be affected if any more video of the guy who was shot is discovered. There is now a video showing him going into an unfinished house. That is not significant but are there others ?

  10. Silent films…it is interesting how well a story can be told almost exclusively through the action and facial expressions, with remarkably little use of subtitles.

    Screenwriter Robert Avrech listed some of his favorite silent movies here:

    (the link to part ii doesn’t seem to be working, at least at the moment) The only one of these I’ve actually seen is Orphans of the Storm.

    Kirk….”Where the movie theater owner and his musicians had had some part to play in the art of the silent films, the talkies took that away from them, and put it all into the hands of the auteurs who had made the movies.”

    The talkies also took away the jobs of the musicians. The American Federation of Musicians mounted a major PR campaign in an attempt to convince the public that ‘living music’ was better than ‘canned sound.’ A Music Defense League was established, with membership reaching 3 million…but the ‘talkies’ remained popular, and the AFM had to admit defeat.

  11. Y’know… Thought just struck me: Did any of the early silent movie theaters try having actors narrate the films as they were played, doing the dialog for the films?

    I can’t think of anywhere I’ve heard of that, but it looks like a natural idea that someone should have tried, from today’s viewpoint…

  12. Another aspect was the competition with TV. Color TVs once they became available were very expensive for a long time and not a lot of programming was in color until the 60s.

    The medium has always shaped what was portrayed as well as how. An entire fresco, or portion of one, had to be completed before the plaster set. Oil paints by comparison take months or years to finally dry which allowed changes to be made and some artists became very adept at exploiting it to create different effects that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium.

    The sort of movie you could shoot in black and white could be very different from the one you shot in color. I think most of the distinctions between color and black and white are gone with digital production. Especially if you have enough computer power available for post-production. I’m sure that present day film makers are just getting started exploring everything that’s possible.

  13. The past look was heavily determined by the few types of films and cameras available. Now video producers edit digitally to create whatever look they want – e.g., “Mad Men” or vampire movies. The best practitioners master the best qualities of whatever technologies are available.

  14. Kirk: “Did any of the early silent movie theaters try having actors narrate the films as they were played, doing the dialog for the films?”

    I don’t know about that — but perhaps 10 years ago I did see a Western movie on an Arabic TV channel in which an actor did a voice-over, reading the lines translated into Arabic. It is obviously a low-rent way of doing things compared to dubbing the movie into another language, and it becomes quite distracting when the same voice is saying all the dialog — hero & villain, male & female.

  15. Miyazaki’s 2013 film “The Wind Rises” (which is about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter) is entirely hand-drawn animation…after seeing it, CGI stuff looks pretty primitive by comparison.

    (The film is definitely worth seeing, but don’t take it literally as historical truth…it’s interesting to compare the story in the film with Horikoshi’s own memoir)

  16. Lex…the movie paints Horikoshi as more unworldly than he really was, as only wanting to make beautiful airplanes.

    Actually, he did have some pride about the combat record of the Zero and his earlier aircraft. (After the war, he heard that an American pilot, referring to his relationship with a women, said “Getting that girl was as hard as shooting down a Zero.” Horikoshi liked that)

  17. I once spent a week visiting all the sites in the movie “The Longest Day.” Aside from John Wayne being a bit miscast, it was terrific. On visiting the Pegasus Bridge, where the British airborne landed in gliders, we had lunch at the cafe right beside it. I can’t recall if the cafe is depicted in the movie (It’s been a few years since I last saw it ) but the owner of the cafe allowed the British to use it as an aid station for their wounded. He even dug up bottles of wine he had buried in his garden to hide from the Germans so the wounded could have a drink. His daughter was about 6 at the time. She still owns the cafe and she prepared our lunch. The bagpipes are in the museum across the bridge.

    Photos from that trip.

  18. It’s still on my “I’ll read it someday” shelf so I can’t comment on content, but a book that combines movie history and WW II is “Five Came Back,” by Mark Harris, about 5 directors who went to war: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens.
    Has anyone here read that one & can comment on it?

  19. I can remember many movies in the 50s still in B & W. The color from that era, up though the early 60s, was so bright and vivid it really detracted from the movie.

    There certainly was an art form in shooting B & W that is missing from color.

    That’s why so many objected to Ted Turner “colorizinkg” his Turner Classics library.

    Interesting about the hold of Technicolor on the industry.

  20. Re B&W photography.

    I was traveling by myself (oh, the single life!) in England in the early 90’s, pre-digital camera days. I had my trusty Canon 35mm SLR and a film bag stuffed with rolls of film of various speeds and types. For what it’s worth, I’m certainly no expert with a camera, but I can take a reasonably good picture from time to time.

    One day, I was in the Lakes District hiking and just seeing the sights and bemoaning the weather as it was spitting a cold rain from an overcast, dreary sky. It’s was not the best day for photography. Toward the end of the day, I finished the roll I had in the camera and went to replace it with a new roll when I realized that the newly finished roll was in fact one of the two rolls of black & white film I had brought with me on my trip. So, I figured my day was officially a total bust; cold, wet and now black & white film. Dumb mistake on my part I was thinking.

    Anyway, I came home and had my rolls of film developed. Of course the black & whites were easily the best pictures in the bunch. I still have three of them on my wall of the lake called Derwentwater.


  21. Has anyone here read that one & can comment on it?

    Yeah, I have it in my library. I read it a few years ago but it is good.

    Wyler’s story is the best. He lost his hearing making the “Memphis Belle” movie.

  22. Apropos dial phones, I checked Amazon to see if anyone offers a dial to digital retro phone compatible with current land lines. All I found was a push button phone disguised as a dial phone. Seems like a niche someone could make a buck or two filling. It’s a shame about those wonderful mechanical dial phone routers. They were so brilliant, and now as obsolete as steam locomotives.

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