View Full Version : B&W imagery from 1940-1960 movies - observation

Robert J Cardon
11-May-2004, 11:58
Since gas is $2.20/gal, I'm becoming more of a homebody, seeming to get out less. Occasionally I get older movies on video from the public library for entertainment. After doing the B&W bit for a while, I pay more attention to the photo quality of the old B&W movies from the 40s-60s. I'm struck by how good a lot of the 40s-early 60s B&W cinematography was. The exposures, filtration, the sets, and totalities are perfect in a lot of these movies - they work well in B&W and have no need for colorization, and I'm not only talking about the gritty film noir, Orson Wells stuff. Not sure if they used the zone system type development for films, or how good their films and meters were, but it's obvious that the filmmakers and their technicians were extremely skilled when it came to B&W imagery.

I think we'd all agree that getting consistently good B&W negs requires a fair degree of skill and a thorough knowledge of the process. Often for me it's a real struggle as I'm still in the learning mode and make my share of mistakes. While movie making is different in processing, B&W is still B&W. So after seeing the quality of many older B&W movies, I can really appreciate how good these filmmakers were.

Do any of you ever find yourself looking at these old films, or even today's B&W productions, and magazine ads, in terms of your own B&W photographic endeavors?


11-May-2004, 12:08
I feel that the really best B&W cinematography was in the late 1920s, just before the introduction of sound shook up the industry.

David A. Goldfarb
11-May-2004, 12:17
Where all the lighting could be measured and controlled on the studio set there would have been no need for the zone system. I don't use + or - development for studio portraits--much easier to change the contrast ratio by changing the lighting. They also pretty much used only one shutter speed, so any variation in aperture would have to come by changing the amount of light on the set (or changing the film stock, but that would potentially create an inconsistent look).

Robert J Cardon
11-May-2004, 12:21
All good points, but some of what I see was shot outside, and not in the studio (of course they still probably used fill lights). Also it's obvious that the colors of the props and customes was thought out as to not have tones merge. This is so critical and I see a lot of current color and B&W ads which ignore this concept and aren't as effective as they could be.


Mark Sampson
11-May-2004, 12:40
Motion-picture DPs, then and now, have a lot of time, money, and a lifetime's worth of experience in getting just what they want on the film. Not to mention a large crew and lighting gear beyond the wildest dreams of your average still shooter. So it's not surprising those films look good!

John Kasaian
11-May-2004, 12:49
Maybe its kind of a lost art, to "see" in B&W? To mentally translate color into tone comes by way of training or experience and maybe thats lost in the digital age when the click of a mouse can convert color into B&W and everything tonal gets "tweaked" from there. It would make for an interesting experiment to take two students, one color blind the other not, and turn them loose with a couple of cameras loaded with B&W film and see what they come up with. OTOH, maybe the difference between the old films and the new stem from what the intent is of the cinematographer. Is the intent simply to make a film(like it was in the olden days) using light and tone to help tell the story, or is the intent to make a copy capturing the "look" of old film with light and tone being simply elements to copy for the sake of the "look?" I think this would be as much of a distraction as any other "gimmick."

Bruce Watson
11-May-2004, 13:41
Me, personally, I like the films from the 1940s. That, and 1940s jazz. I might have been before my time, but I definitely understand the style.

It's interesting to look at some of the films that were all about style. That is, were designed to give depression and war-weary people an escape into a nice, clean, cheerful place for a couple of hours. For example, some of the old Astair/Rogers flicks. Everything was done to produce a stunning B&W image, from the perfectly reflective black bakelite floors to Roger's dresses.

But if you want seriously interesting B&W, used an an integral part of telling the story, I think you have to look to some of the amazing thrillers like "Double Indemnity" and "The Maltese Falcon." And who could forget the famous entrance in "The Third Man" which is a classic example of something that is stunning in B&W and wouldn't work, or work poorly, in color?

Since this thread is mostly about aesthetics, it is quite clear that YMMV.

But the question is, "Do any of you ever find yourself looking at these old films, or even today's B&W productions, and magazine ads, in terms of your own B&W photographic endeavors?" I do, actually. Not to emulate, but to learn from the past masters. Same reason I go to shows and exhibits, like the Bourke-White show I saw just a couple of weeks ago. Now there's a photographer who had composition down cold, but that's another thread maybe.

Jay DeFehr
11-May-2004, 14:34
Anyone see The Man Who Wasn't There, by the Cohen Bros.? Great movie. After seeing the Making of O'Brother Where Art Thou (another great movie), I wonder if The Man Who Wasn't There was really shot on B&W stock, or just digitally desaturated?

Nick Morris
11-May-2004, 14:40
A recent movie shot in B&W by Roger Deakins, and really a treat, is the Coen Brother's "Man Who Wasn't There". Different parts of the movie are like prints with different paper/developer combinations. Some scenes have a warm tone, some cool to blue tone. Features a good deal of "noir" lighting.

David A. Goldfarb
11-May-2004, 14:51
Regarding the Technicolor look--indeed there were Technicolor consultants who would make sure that the colors chosen for costumes and sets were colors that reproduced well and separated nicely in the Technicolor process. From the perspective of these consultants, apparently, the main purpose of the film was to show off the virtues of Technicolor--story, scene and character be damned--and this sometimes resulted in conflicts with directors, set designers, costume designers, and I'd imagine even the actors ("I look terrible in that color!").

Brian C. Miller
11-May-2004, 15:41
I haven't seen a B&W movie since starting photography. The B&W movie which really does stick in my mind, though, is "Citizen Kane." I read a web page about the photography which was introduced in the movie, and it was suprising how many new things they tried.

Neal Shields
11-May-2004, 15:59
The first Bogart/Bacall movie, wasn't released for a couple of years. When they got ready to release it, they decided to re-shoot some of the scenes. In one scene a detective ages 2 years between one cut away and the next. Think how good you have to be, to splice scenes together that were shot days, and even in this case years, apart and not have it look like the lighting changed.

David R Munson
11-May-2004, 16:06
With my own interests in filmmaking growing all the time, I find myself watching a lot of films now - more than I ever watched few years ago. Great cinematography is not dead or dying by any means - it's just something you have to spend a bit of time looking for, that's all. You won't find it in the vast majority of mainstream flicks. It is out there, though, and I think worth looking for.

Right now my two favorite DP's are Christopher Doyle and Kazuto Sato. Sato works with Japanese director SABU and worked on two of my favorite films - Monday and Drive. Both are new-school Japanese films and follow a logic and style you pretty much won't find elsewhere. If you're not a foreign films nerd, though, you're probably unaware of his work. The man whose work you've seen the effects of, whether you've seen one of his films or not, is Christopher Doyle. Doyle seems to churn out at least 10 films a year, being driven by passion for what he does. Some of you may have already seen trailers for it, but in the next few months there should be coming out in the US a film out of Hong Kong called Hero. [Side note/peeve: while Tarantino is the man behind getting the film released in the US, he had nothing to do with making it, so resist the urge to credit him with anything on this. It's all Zhang Yi-Mou] Hero takes place at the beginning of the Qin Dynasty and stars the likes of Jet Li and Maggie Cheung, among others. The movie site can be found here (http://www.herothemovie.com/). Anyhow, even though I tend to completely dislike the Crouching Tiger wire fighting stuff, this has got to be one of the most gorgeous films I have ever seen, visually speaking. I will recommend that everyone with the least big of interest go out and see this when it's in the theatres here.

Doyle's work really has widespread influence, though. He pretty much reinvents his style every few years, and my take on that is that he pretty much has to, since after a few years so many people are ripping off his style. You see echoes of his cinematography in films from all over the world. Some of it is color, some of it is B&W. He's done a lot with director Wong Kar Wai (to whom some of you might remember Sofia Coppola giving a shout out at the Oscars). Obviously, I am slightly obsessed, but I think rightly so. I wouldn't see any problem with a person considering him the greatest living cinematographer.

Good cinematography is definitely out there. If you don't know where to look or just don't like the style, a lot of older films may seem to indicate that cinematography is a bit of a lost art. There are lots of films with really fantastic camerawork from all over the last 100 years, but I don't see the talent pool as having dried up one bit. And thankfully, sometimes the really beautiful films make it to mainstream and become huge successes. Just look at Amelie.

I definitely look at films (and every other visual medium from anime to oil painting to graffiti) and consider them in the context of my own work and vice versa. Comparative study of these things can give you perspective, inspiration, and a whole lot more. And the value of comparison is undeniable regardless of whether you're shooting B&W or color and regardless of whether the things you're looking at are B&W or color. Meaningful comparison can be had across the color gap.

In the world of film, the thing I'm really looking forward to seeing is the project photographer Gregory Crewdson is said to be working on. While many have criticized his work for being boring (which I cannot deny is the case sometimes, but in my opinion primarily with his earlier work), the technique he is doing this film with is something to take notice of. Essentially, lighting is tied to the camera in such a way that as the camera moves during a shot, the lighting moves with it. And if you've seen some of his more recent work, you can probably get a feel for the kind of lighting that will be involved. Apparently the particular technique he's using has never been used on nearly this large a scale. And regardless of whether or not it turns out to be an utterly pretentious art film, it's likely to at least be of visual interest. I'm definitely looking forward to it.

william linne
11-May-2004, 20:09
"The Man Who Wasn't There" was shot in color and desaturated.

Erik Gould
12-May-2004, 08:09
A great looking contemporary black and white film: Dead Man directed by Jim Jarmusch; 1996 release. With a great soundtrack by Niel Young. Don't be put off by Johnny Depp in the lead role.

12-May-2004, 16:38
I reciently aquired a 16mm movie projector with sound. The kind they used in school when I was young. I really would like a real movie to watch outside this summer. Anyone know where I could get a black and white copy of African Queen?

Michael Chmilar
12-May-2004, 17:31
I have heard that B&W films are mostly shot on color stock, these days. It is a matter of economics, as color stock is cheaper than getting a batch of B&W custom made.

I agree that Chris Doyle is one of the most interesting DP's working today. He works in Hong Kong (most closely associated with director Wong Kar-Wai), but did a couple of Hollywood films in 1999: Psycho remake, and Liberty Heights.

He is a wonderful visual stylist. Those interested can also check out his book of still photographs: A Cloud in Trousers.

I have not yet seen Doyle's only directorial foray, Away With Words. I have heard it is visually interesting, but rather unintelligable.

Those interested in the development of cinematography should make an effort to see the documentary: Visions of Light.

David R Munson
12-May-2004, 19:52
Away With Words is absolutetely gorgeous and very fascinating, but indeed is rather bewildering at times if you're looking for a plot or something to that end. I just got a copy on eBay. I'll put up with the lack of coherent story for the sake of the visuals. Definitely something worth having around if you're a total visual addict. Apparently there's a documentary about Doyle out there somewhere. A friend of mine is currently trying to convince a television station somewhere into sending him a copy, as it seems to be essentially nonexistant in both legit or bootleg DVD markets.

Two of the more interesting things of his I've picked up recently are Motel Cactus and Happy Together. Both thoroughly gorgeous, though not for those sensitive about sexual content.

One other indie Asian film worth checking out if you're into that sort of thing is called Dragon Heat. It has a very different sort of style to it. I liked it, but with a big grain of salt and while indulging the art-flick fan in me. I get the feeling a lot of people would flat out dislike it. Interesting visual fodder, though.

mark lindsey
12-May-2004, 21:47
Don't you think that the reason all the old movies look so great is due to the fact that no one keeps collections of all the crappy ones? I doubt that many of the bad films of today will survive to be put into the library collection forty years from now.

David R Munson
12-May-2004, 22:05
That's usually a pretty good answer to anything along the lines of "Why isn't X as good as it used to be?" For the most part, the worthless crap churned out in every industry and art form is forgotten ten years after the fact, if not sooner. While there are times when there's more good going on than at other times, for the most part it's always as good a it's ever been. Sometimes we just need a few years to realize this.

James Driscoll
12-May-2004, 22:45
About shooting current B&W films on color stock....

According to an article I read in the a Cinematographers trade mag.....the films are shot on color stock because the studio wants a color print for certain markets. Apparently it is hard to get people in certain parts of the world to pay money to see an "old" looking film. In the case of "The Man Who Wasn't There"...the studio would only agree to fund the project if it was shot in color.

The film was actually printed down in the lab to black and white...it was not done on the computer. The article goes into extreme depth about the process the lab tech came up with to give the film its look. If I recall...it was contact printed onto high contrast title stock....and pulled in development.

If I ever find the article.....I could post the little details.

tim atherton
12-May-2004, 22:57
Theres the new movie with Isabella Rossellini - The Saddest Music in the World (I think?) by Guy Madden - about 97% B&W - not sure how it was shot.

Then there is the first ten minutes of Jude (the Obscure) - shot on Ilford B&W film stock as I recall - a beautiful stunning sequence - by Michael Winterbottom. I see Ilford has finally stopped making film stock?