When did B&W switch from being cheap to being artistic?

I’ve been watching some older movies this last week and several of them were black & white. Back in the 30’s and 40’s, black & white was fairly common. Into the 50’s and 60’s it was still there but getting rare. But by the 80’s and 90’s nobody was making black and white movies anymore.

The exception, of course, is all the directors who were (and are) using black and white film for “artistic” effect. Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Kevin Smith have all gone “retro” in at least one movie.

Offhand, the last movie I could name that seemed to have been made in B&W for commercial rather than artistic reasons was Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Can anyone think of later examples?

Was there some specific process that was invented that marked the watershed or was it a gradual evolution?

And on a related note, have there been any TV series since the mid-70’s that emulated the directors I mentioned above and were recorded in black and white for artistic reasons?

I think the main reason black and white movies died off is because the people who made black and white movies – specifically cinematographers – died off.

Working with shadows and contrast is an art form in itself. In the 1950s color became the norm for most mass-market movies, because it was one area where movies had an edge over television. By the 60s b/w was mostly a budget decision (at least in the U.S.) and those directors couldn’t afford to hire the best cinematographer anyway.

So after the great black and white filmmakers were (ahem) out of the picture, it was time for b/w to come back as an art form.

The TV production of Fail Safe in 2000 (with George Clooney and Richard Dreyfus) was produced in black and white.

It’s a mistake assume that black and white films from the '30s to the '60s were so for strictly budgetary reasons.

Many filmmakers stuck with black and white for artistic reasons, for a long time. Colour was considered by many to be a distracting gimmick.

If Alfred Hitchcock thought that Psycho would have been improved by being in colour, then it would have been a colour film. It’s not like the producers couldn’t afford the Technicolor process.

Interesting question. My best guess is Raging Bull, but I’m sure the gimmick predates that one.

At least part of Spike Lee’s first film, She’s Gotta Have It was shot in B&W to save money (It’s listed in the IMDB as B&W & color). That was in 1986.

And the Coen brothers did The Man Who Wasn’t There in B&W for artistic reasons.

Even more recently: 1998’s Pi, though that was also an artistic choice – the deliberately used high contract B&W stock.

I thought Kevin Smith used black and white for Clerks for economic reasons–he financed that movie himself and couldn’t afford to film it in color.

I don’t think we can ever draw a sharp line, because for many indie filmmakers (especially before digital filmmaking became more common), black and white was their cheapest/fastest option. Another example–the guy that American Movie is about.

Use of B & W as an art form is not recent. Orsen Welles shot “Citizen Kane” in black & white on purpose, not on budget. Before he died he had it written into his estate that Kane would NOT be colorized. I believe he said something along the lines of “…Keep Ted Turner’s crayons away from my film.”

I realize that filmmakers like Welles and Hitchcock were certainly using black and white for artistic reasons. But I think we can safely assume that people making movies with titles like The Vampire From Planet X and Bikers and Bad Girls were operating on a more commercial level. At some point however, color film became cheap enough that anyone who could afford to make a movie could afford to make it in color. Porno movies with $10,000 budgets are made in color nowadays.

Well, those types of movies are made on video.

I don’t necessarily think it was simply a matter of color film becoming cheaper, but film processing (i.e. the lab work), too. Even if you can track down B&W stock, fewer and fewer labs are skilled at processing and timing B&W film, thus making a once common discipline increasingly expensive. I can’t say I know exactly when that economic tipping point occurred in the industry, but the early 70s is probably a pretty good estimation.

As others have said, B&W has always been closer to pure art — even the junkier productions — than color. Color “looks like” reality. B&W doesn’t look like anything except B&W.

Honestly, I think the fact that the older movie stars like Bogart and Grant and Astaire and Garbo and such are considered to be so much more iconic, almost demi-godly, than our modern variety is attributable as much to the fact that we remember them primarily for their otherworldly B&W appearance as anything else. We really do perceive B&W differently, and this was recognized by cinematographers fairly early on, before color started coming into wider usage in the 1930s and 1940s.

Go check out the documentary Visions of Light. Lots of great stuff about cinematography there.

Something that came to mind while I was reading this thread was that when The Last Picture Show came out, my mom refused to see it because it was in black and white. At first I thought she had something against black and white films, but it was because they filmmakers chose to film it in B&W because it would make it more “realistic” or something. She ranted about it for a while and said something like “Artistic schmartistic! We didn’t live our lives in black and white!”

This is a weird thing to say, but that was the moment I realized that my mom actually existed as a human being before I was born.

Woody Allen’s Manhattan fills the bill better than any other movie I can think of. Filmed back in 1979 as a deliberately arty, deliberately b&w homage to earlier romantic movie making.

Often, too, when TVs were only in black and white, moviemakers would choose to use black and white to enhance the verisimillitude of their films; that is something I’ve heard cited as one of the reasons for Wells’ choice for Citizen Kane - he wanted it to seem as much like newsreel/news footage as possible.

If… 91968) kept switching between colour and B/W. Critics assumed it was done for artistic reasons. Actually, it was done because they intended to shoot in colour, but were running out of money, and switched to cheaper film stock. Perhaps the first “artistic” B/W film, even though it was accidental.

As far as Jim Jarmusch goes I’m fairly sure all his B/W movies were filmed that way because of costs. The fact that he likes the medium seems to be purely a secondary benefit. Regarding Kevin Smith, “Clerks” was filmed in B/W due to cost as well. If he’s done any other B/W movies since becoming bankable I am unaware of them.

B&W really worked for the movie Dead Man. I can’t really see how the other films mentioned are off better in B&W.

The Longest Day (1962) was shot in B&W so they could seamlessly intercut genuine WWII footage.

The Man Who Wasn’t There ws actually filmed in color and then processed in black and white. At least one theater received an incorrectly processed print of the first reel in color.

B&W, as a stylistic choice, often makes sense; if you are filming something with a lot of dramatic shadows, B&W is the way to go. Dead Man, for instance, would have been less stunning in color. It is hard to imagine, say, The Third Man, or M, or Seconds in color. (Cinematographer James Wong Howe, a regularly collaborator with John Frankenheimer, nearly always worked in B&W.) Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, would have come across as cheap in color, due to its technical limitations; instead, the B&W serves to make it look more like a documentary.

Scorsese used B&W in Raging Bull primarily to dampen the violence during the boxing scenes. (If you’ve seen it, you can understand why.) There are some color scenes, filmed as home movies. The B&W probably helps make DeNiro look even more unrecognizable.

Few directors can do the same things with color photography as the greats (Welles, Frankenheimer, Lang, Wilder) did with B&W; to my mind, only Terry Gilliam, the Wachoski Brothers, Sam Raimi, and the Coens (and maybe Tim Burton) can bring out the same kind of contrast of light and shadow with full color.


That was shot in B&W to match the stock footage of B-52’s in flight, which was only available in B&W.