Seeing the World in Black and White: What’s the Appeal of Decolorizing Movies?

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– By Joe Campbell –

When CBS released their reboot of Twilight Zone this year, they surprised everyone by releasing a black and white version of each episode side-by-side with the original “color” versions.  This was a publicity stunt meant to bring audiences back to the memory of the original ‘60s show they grew up loving, but it’s hardly the first example of modern filmmakers releasing B&W versions of their work.  In fact, it’s a movement that’s gained a little steam in the past decade, and in many cases audiences consider it an improvement.

But why?  What impact does this technique have on the original movies?  Does it actually make for a better viewing experience? I’m going to take a look at three recent examples (Mad Max: Fury Road, Logan, and The Mist) of this growing trend in an attempt to figure out what impact this is actually having on the movies involved.

Mad Max: Fury Road — Black & Chrome Edition (2015)

Directed by George Miller

Out of the three examples I’m going to look at, Mad Max: Fury Road is perhaps the most widely known and accepted example.  As early as the film’s release, director George Miller had been talking about releasing a B&W version of the movie.  This is surprising as one of the most striking things about Fury Road is its color. The movie is bathed in brilliant orange and red hues, with the sun glancing off the hot sand and rusted metal that permeates every frame.  Miller addresses this oversaturation when talking about the B&W version of the movie in an interview with Slashfilm:

“One thing I’ve noticed is that the default position for everyone is to de-saturate post-apocalyptic movies. There’s only two ways to go, make them black and white — the best version of this movie is black and white, but people reserve that for art movies now. The other version is to really go all-out on the color.”

Obviously the latter tract is the route Miller chose to go with his theatrical release, but after his comments fans of the movie clamored for the “director preferred” B&W version of the movie, and they got it with the blu-ray release.

Watching the Black & Chrome version of the movie, one thing struck me instantly: the action was harder to follow.  Many movies from before the ‘50s are shot in a simpler manner from movies today, with more locked down angles and wider shots.  The camera doesn’t rove around frantically like the action of today’s movies. As such, our eyes have an extra fraction of a second to adjust to what their seeing.  This isn’t a problem in color movies, as with more color there’s more information for our eyes to take in, and thus we can absorb the images quicker.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an extraordinarily well shot and edited action movie, but it’s also extremely fast-paced.  Director of Photography John Seale shot the movie in such a way that the viewer’s eye wouldn’t have to roam about the screen with each cut, and so even though the movie is cut quickly it’s still easy to follow the action.  Although the movie doesn’t lose this aspect in the B&W version, decolorizing it certainly hobbles it in some degree. Though the action is centered, the objects within the frame almost blend together for a fraction of a second in shades of grey, so our eyes are denied that extra time to orient themselves spatially.

I’ll admit the B&W version gives us some striking, high contrast images from time to time, but more often the movie feels claustrophobic.  The world of Mad Max is filled with open, dusty roads stretching out into the distance of sandy plains.  Removing the yellow of the sun, the melting blues of the horizon, and the orange clouds of dust takes away from the open feel of the movie.  It feels constricted by the dust, making the endless roads feel like they’re enveloping the audience instead.

Logan Noir (2017)

Directed by James Mangold

Logan is an interesting example where director James Mangold hadn’t initially intended to release it in black and white, but came around to the idea due to popular demand.  Some stylized B&W behind the scenes images from the R rated superhero movie made their way online months before the release, and fans reacted positively, so much so that they wondered whether the film itself was going to be released in B&W.  In an interview with Deadline, Mangold said he first considered that the treatment might work well in the actual movie because, “Jackman looks best with a kind of pretty harsh lighting and that transitions well into black and white.”

For my money, Logan looks a lot better than Mad Max: Fury Road when transitioned to B&W, and I think Mangold hits the nail on the head as to why.  Lighting is crucial to making sure the image doesn’t look flat. On the director’s commentary, Mangold points out that the lighting helps the B&W version of the movie greatly, as his use of sidelights and backlights molds the subjects in such a way that when the film is robbed of color the audience isn’t putting in extra effort to differentiate the foreground from the background. 

The film already has a grizzled, worn look to it, and that is only accentuated by monochromatic color pallet.  I’m not sure if I would say I prefer the B&W cut to the original release, but out of all the examples in this article I can say that it was seamless enough that I often forgot there was anything different about the version I was watching as I got caught up in the story.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a colorful frenetic ride that’s robbed of some of its energy in a B&W version.  Logan is a harsh sci-fi western that gets harsher in B&W.

The Mist – Black and White Version (2007)

Directed by Frank Darabont

But now we jump back to arguably the movie that started it all when it came to B&W alternate cuts.  Unlike Fury Road or Logan, director Frank Darabont intended The Mist to be a B&W movie from the very beginning.  On the blu-ray for the movie he explains that, “…this has always been a throwback to that mid-’60s, Night of the Living Dead, Ray Harryhausen era of film, and I always wanted to do it in black and white.”

Since it was generally presumed that audiences would reject a black and white movie today, Darabont released The Mist traditionally in color, but when it came to the blu-ray, he made sure to include his prefered B&W cut that harkened back to the grainy creature-features he grew up with.

Because of this, out of all three movies in this article I expected to enjoy the B&W version of this one the most, but I ran into a couple of issues that convinced me that when it comes down to it, I still prefer it in color.  One is that, much like with Fury Road, The Mist has a number of fast-moving action sequences that just work better in color.  If we’re going to compare The Mist to Night of the Living Dead, as Darabont rightly does (structurally and thematically The Mist has a lot of parallels to Night of the Living Dead), then Night of the Living Dead relies on more low budget, old-fashioned filmmaking techniques.  The Mist may have many wide, roaming shots like in Night of the Living Dead, but the action scenes once again employ modern techniques like quick cuts and lots of frantic motion, which makes a lot of the action difficult to make out, especially in B&W.

The Mist also has a number of digital effects that instantly take away any sense of throwback when they’re on screen.  In those moments it doesn’t feel like a gritty ‘60s monster movie, but a glossy mid-aughts film rendered in a computer.  This problem isn’t as noticeable when practical effects are on screen, but unfortunately a lot of the film relies on CG creations, and over the past ten years it’s been out, the CGI in this movie hasn’t aged terribly well.

It does work great in those dark, high contrast scenes where we’re watching characters interact in quiet settings, and when the movie branches out into the claustrophobic confines of the titular mist the B&W filter is absolutely haunting.  It’s only when those effects-driven high energy creature sequences start up that I found myself wishing I was watching the color version of the movie.

So What’s the Appeal?

So why do these B&W versions garner so much acclaim?  I think one reason is there’s a sense of prestige to black and white that draws in many in the film community.  It’s different, unique, and harkens back to a style of filmmaking we don’t see anymore. The images are striking, more often than not, so it would make sense that people would be drawn into the visual starkness of the medium.  To many people the simple contrast has a nostalgic draw that harkens back to the westerns and noirs and serials they saw as kids.

More importantly I think it often plays off the idea that filmmakers are held back by studios from releasing their “true” vision.  The reason many cinema fans champion B&W releases may have connections to why they champion “director’s cuts” and extended versions of movies.  There’s a perception that directors are forced to cut some of the best material from movies due to time constraints and arbitrary creative decisions by the producers.  If George Miller says his favorite version of Fury Road is in B&W, that’s certainly worth taking a look at, of course, but it discounts the fact that working with studios is part of the creative process, not a hindrance to it.  

Miller had complete creative control of Fury Road while shooting it, and he decided to give us the colorful explosion of action we got initially.  He may prefer the B&W version, but he’s never said he has any problems with his theatrical cut. In the same way, Jame Mangold only thought to release a B&W cut of Logan after the fact, and Frank Darabont never even considered releasing The Mist in B&W until the blu-ray release.  To many viewers, these versions may be superior to the original cuts, but I hardly think we need to see them as the “true” versions.

All this said, I’m glad this trend exists.  Having multiple versions of movies tells us quite a bit about the filmmaking process, and often highlights why certain techniques do or don’t work.  For me, this experiment has convinced me that if you’re going to release a movie in B&W, it’s best to shoot it that way from the beginning. All of these examples were changed after being shot for color, and I think this is where their shortcomings show most.  When taking into account the desaturation while shooting, you can account for loss of information, camera movement, and you can even light your scenes to maximize the impact of the effect.

Out of all the examples, I think the one that works best is the one that plays on nostalgia the most: the reboot of The Twilight Zone.  I’ve only sampled a few of the episodes in B&W, but the show is shot with deep focus, keeping the subjects sharp while blurring out the background, that makes it easier to absorb the imagery when it’s robbed of its color.  The show also has a lot of that high contrast lighting between light and shadow which makes each shot stand out in a way that’s complementary to the B&W imagery. The Twilight Zone is playing deliberately to fans of the original show, both in theme and style, and that not only makes the B&W version work, it almost makes it preferable. 

I think if filmmakers go back to really look at what made classic films work visually, rather than trying to cram modern cinematic techniques into an outdated color pallet, they could not only make better B&W movies, but could evolve the technique to make it better.


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

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