A View From Behind The Meter
While I was studying Theater Arts at the University of Miami I went to see an avant- garde motion picture by a then new Swedish film maker Ingmar Bergman called Virgin Spring. I was captivated. When the film was over I went to my car and literally fell to pieces. I wept in the front seat and at that moment I decided that if a movie could do that to me, I had to pursue motion picture production as a career. Soon I was going to the movies almost every week and saw such films as The Bicycle Thief, The Good Earth, Wild Strawberries, and a plethora of classical black & white productions that changed my life forever. The artistic visions created by film noir cameramen and their directors captured my imagination. Theater was still in my blood but the powerful emotional appeal of film was overwhelming. I say all this because while I was speaking to a group of students at one of the film schools I overheard someone say, “Oh I couldn’t watch a black & white movie.” I have to say I was struck dumb and all I could think about was how much this individual was missing. Going back to George Melies in the nineteenth century the images produced by the early film makers have been inspirational to hundreds of people including the present day. If you only start your film knowledge from the first days of color photography an entire fifty year span is lost. Contained in that group are some of the most revered films of our lifetime. Films such as Citizen Kane, It Happened One Night, 8 ½, Casablanca, The Treasure of Sierra Madre have been exceptionally instrumental in guiding my creative hand. Without these images my work would definitely have suffered. They say mimicking is the height of creative compliment. I watched and I copied.
The colored versions of these wonderful stories always seem silly to me. First of all the colors are obviously limited and the contrast ratios are terribly distorted so that much of the drama in the shot is lost. Black and white has its own color. Dark and light are explored and the result is emotional contrast that promotes the story. In Fritz Lang’s classic murder mystery M Peter Lorie was discovered as a child rapist murderer and he never played that character again. The shadows of the downtown streets of Berlin are so exaggerated that in many scenes it appears to be surreal. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the first horror films ever made and has been copied by most modern horror film makers whether they are aware of it or not. I worked with a present day film maker who by the use of a computer created the original sets and recreated the entire film on a green screen placing the characters on these same sets but in color. Personally I don’t think the added color did anything that added to the drama. In fact I would have to say much of the insanity was lost in the color adaptation. The two mediums of color and black and white have to be lit as differently as could be imagined. In black and white the concern of color temperature of the instrument involved is of little concern where as in color it is an essential concern. The color rendition index or CRI is also a great concern in color photography but not so in black and white. Hard light is very effective in black and white and generally not so in color. These differences allow a completely different approach in the lighting process. Contrast becomes a much greater concern in black and white since it is usually the way a cinematographer separates the subject from the background. In color, a backlight in almost essential in separating the subject from the background even with contrasting colors between the two. The eye is much more distracted in color photography so in most cases the background is lit with a two stop differential in order for the viewer eyes to concentrate on the primary character or prime subject. I happen to enjoy black and white photography. In black and white photography I concentrate more on the basic texture of the subject, the sense of everyday life is cleansed of distractions and I see the naked human emotions. I like that raw quality and when you look at older films produced in this medium the story seems to take a greater precedence. The characters are more crystallized and as an audience we easily see who the “black hats” are and who the “white hats.” are. Color photography works wonders in “The Wizard Of Oz” but in “Days of Wine and Roses” it is black and white photography that tells the morality play that we view so graphically. Do not make the mistake of believing there is no place for this medium in today’s productions because you will be surprised to find out you are very wrong.
Lighting Consulant & Educational Outreach
BIRNS & SAWYER