By Will Mavity
During May 2018, as I was scanning Cannes reviews for Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” and knowing Alfonso Cuaron’s black & white “Roma” was due out later the same year, I tweeted, “It just occurred to me that with Roma and Cold War, 2018 could be the first Oscar lineup with multiple black-and-white Cinematography nominees since the 1960s.” At the time, the idea seemed like a long shot. And even if it happened, I figured it would just be a fun little bit of Oscar trivia, not indications of a trend. But then they both were, in fact, nominated, making the first Oscar cinematography lineup with multiple black & white nominees since the Academy stopped separating cinematography awards into distinct black-and-white and color categories. And of course, they dominated the cinematography awards that season with “Cold War” winning the ASC and “Roma” taking the Oscar.
A year later, “The Lighthouse” defied the odds, snagging a cinematography nomination despite a light campaign over Best Picture contenders like “Ford v Ferrari,” “Parasite,” and “Little Women.” In a year in which the Academy rallied around its Best Picture nominees in nearly every category, “The Lighthouse” sneaking in, especially without a branch-favorite cinematographer’s name attached, was notable.
And of course, most recently, “Mank” upset Best Picture winner “Nomadland” for the Best Cinematography Oscar win. Meanwhile, the ASC awards nominated the black-and-white “Dear Comrades” for their prestigious Spotlight award and the black-and-white documentary “Gunda” for Best Documentary Cinematography. That same season featured other black-and-white contenders in the race, such as “Malcolm & Marie” and “The Forty-Year-Old Version.”
If there were any doubts that we were looking at a trend, this year’s field of cinematography contenders put that doubt to rest. Look at the fall festival lineup, and you see a sea of black-and-white. This year, Kenneth Branagh’s TIFF Audience Award-winning “Belfast” and Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” are two major black-and-white films. But that’s not all. Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, “Passing,” Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon,” and Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District” also opted for black-and-white. Meanwhile, Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor” and Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” feature portions of their films in black-and-white.
We have always had the odd modern mainstream black-and-white film here and there. Sometimes they even are nominated for Oscars like “Nebraska” and “Good Night and Good Luck,” among others. In an era of digital film, we are long past the point where it is cheaper to shoot black-and-white than to shoot in color. So any director who chooses this method must have a reason. And if the last few years are any indication, more directors and cinematographers are finding a reason, and the Academy is taking notice.
Staring down the barrel of potentially yet another year with multiple black-and-white cinematography nominees, I decided to reach out to the Directors of Photography behind this year’s black-and-white Best Cinematography Oscar contenders to gain some insight into the reasons behind both presenting their own work this year in black-and-white and also the reasons behind the increase in black-and-white mainstream films overall recently.
Here is what Bruno Delbonnel (“The Tragedy of Macbeth“), Eduard Grau (“Passing“), Paul Guilhaume (“Paris, 13th District“), Robbie Ryan (“C’mon C’mon“), and Haris Zambarloukos (“Belfast“) had to say in response to those questions…
NBP: How did you and [Director] come to the decision to present the film in black & white?
Delbonnel: After a long conceptual discussion with Joel Coen, we thought this movie should be like a Haiku…these Japanese poems in which, in a couple of sentences, describe a world or a feeling (to be simplistic). The sets are just walls, staircases, corridors… There is no furniture, no practicals. We thought that color would be an obstruction to the kind of abstraction we were looking for. By nature, black-and-white is a form of abstraction. It has its own reality.
Grau: When we first talked with Rebecca [Hall] about “Passing,” she had already been approved to shoot black-and-white and 4:3 because that was the only way she wanted to do this movie. She was clear from the beginning, and it made perfect sense. We shot with a color camera, but we never even looked at it in color. We always had a black-and-white image on the monitor, and we made sure (painting the house walls with a horrible red) that the movie would never be seen in color. We mainly painted that red color on the walls to be able to select the walls in the DI and darken them or brighten them depending on the mood of the scene.
Guilhaume: The film is based on a graphic novel, which was in black-and-white, so making the movie black-and-white really fits with the universe of the comic. When I met Jacques [Audiard] at our second meeting, he said it would maybe be black-and-white to match. He had one reference for the look, which was “Lenny” with Dustin Hoffman. Also, we were going to be filming Paris in the daylight. Paris is not the most beautiful city in the movies for me. The green fences, the garbage. When you film in the streets, it’s not like NY or LA; nothing looks right with the color. Very often, something is pleasant to live in but not to film in. Black-and-white helped with that.
Ryan: Mike Mills’ reason for shooting black-and-white on was twofold. One, he always wanted to shoot a film in black-and-white, and this film offered the opportunity, and two, the black-and-white afforded a unity to all the different locations, making them connected in a way via the monochrome.
Zambarloukos: “Belfast” as a film was born out of the desire to tell a story that excluded the unnecessary and that concentrated on the vital elements of the human condition that we were exploring. We wanted an effortless portraiture that drew the audience in and allowed the story to come out naturally. Colour focuses on how people look and not on how they feel.
NBP: Tell me about some of the unique opportunities you faced as a DP shooting a film for black-and-white that you would not have had with color.
Delbonnel: I liked the opportunity to alternate between a very grey palette where there are no whites nor blacks and a very black-and-white image with almost no greys. Like writing a musical score following Shakespearean lines.
Grau: Basically, you are making a more naked image, rawer, where the main things to play with are brightness and contrast. Sometimes the separation with the walls behind can be a problem, but generally speaking, I loved shooting black-and-white because you concentrate on the important things and a lot of the visual noise goes away. Simplicity is an asset and a beautiful thing to come back to. Sometimes, I feel color is redundant in a lot of movies and gets in the way of the characters and the story. With black-and-white, we come back to the essence of an image: the light and the shadows.
Guilhaume: I’m not usually a fan of definition and optical perfection. Very often, I choose my lenses and camera, look at old movies, and look for old lenses and cameras. But Jacques wanted to make Paris look new, so I had to shoot with sharp lenses and a sharp camera for the first time in my life to make it look modern instead of vintage because black-and-white makes everything look vintage.
Ryan: Black-and-white is very pleasing to the eye. It is by its nature more graphic as it has fewer things for the eye to catch, and that makes it unique photographically. “C’mon C’mon” is all about people living in cities …this was great for the monochrome approach as cities are graphic structurally, and people’s faces photograph so lovely in black-and-white.
NBP: What were some of the biggest difficulties you faced as a result of choosing to present the film black-and-white instead of in color?
Delbonnel: The biggest challenge was having African American actors side by side with Caucasian actors. Black-and-white makes [lighting those scenes] a bit more difficult to handle than with color.
Grau: I think there were only good things for us shooting black-and-white! It also made so much sense for us, as the movie’s main subject is colorism, and it talks about race and identity. This movie would have a totally different meaning in color. Black-and-white in this movie connects the form and the content in a way that is a dream for any filmmaker. For us, there was never a better way to tell this story.
Guilhaume: One of the strong desires of Jacques was to make a movie in a quicker way than he had done before. So we developed a strategy. We used a lot of color on the set. We painted the walls in primary colors. And then would key things out in post. That enabled us to remove the background easily. The set is super colorful, the curtains are purple, the walls are blue, but I would see it black-and-white on the monitor. At one point after a day of shooting, I would come home, and I would do this pre-grade after each day of shooting. For a minute, I would look at it in color, and it would shock me because I saw it as black-and-white when I was shooting, and you forget what it looks like.
Ryan: Usually, the only difficulty in this approach is getting the ok from producers to allow the film to go black-and-white. Luckily, A24 was on board with this look for “C’mon C’mon” from the beginning.
NBP: Why do you think black-and-white is making such a comeback lately?
Delbonnel: The two last Black-and-White Oscar winners were simply beautiful photography. Period. Can we really talk about a comeback when you have five or six black-and-white movies amongst 1000 in color? My feeling is that it’s about time to acknowledge that black-and-white photography is one of the choices we have in our hands. If it suits the project, then why censor ourselves for no reason and go for color? Same with the format. We shot “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in Academy (1:1,37). It is a beautiful format as is 1:1,66, 1:1,85; 1:2,4…What I’m sure about is: would we have shot this movie in Color and Anamorphic…it would have been a totally different movie. For better or for worse. We’ll never know.
Grau: Black-and-white has never been gone, but it suddenly feels like more awards movies decide to go that way. Certainly, it is a powerful visual directorial choice, and I am happy to see filmmakers making strong statements because that’s potentially the way to make good movies. Isn’t it incredible the percentage of great black-and-white movies that came out in recent years? I also feel there are some audiences ready to be challenged and surprised. That excellent record of black-and-white movies is helping directors, producers, cinematographers, and audiences take risks and accept that some movies are better told without the need for color.
Guilhaume: Many of these filmmakers trying black-and-white have already done a lot of films in color and wanted to have this experience. I think many are students of old movies and want to try and make something in that style.
Ryan: I think cinema is opening up to lots of different approaches these days, whether it’s shot on black-and-white or maybe in 4×3 square format or IMAX; there is a desire to see all kinds of ways of presenting a story. Thankfully black-and-white is in there with that desire as it’s gorgeous, especially on celluloid.
In short, probably to the surprise of no one, there is no clear consensus as to the reasons behind the recent uptick in black-and-white in mainstream film releases. What is clear is that the style is allowing many directors and directors of photography to expand their range and explore new layers for their storytelling. Whether Oscar will take note once again remains to be seen.
What are some of the best films you’ve seen shot in black-and-white this year? Which ones do you think will be nominated for Best Cinematography? Take a look at our latest predictions for that category here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies