In 1939, audiences gasped when Dorothy Gale was hurled from her sepia-toned Kansas farm into the vividly Technicolor Oz. Nearly 60 years later, as “The Wizard of Oz” returns to theaters, filmmakers are discovering that juxtaposing color and black-and-white can still provide moviegoers a heady experience. Perhaps it’s just a quixotic coincidence along the lines of multiple asteroid movies, but a number of films have come out recently using the same visual technique. Even now the startling impact of changing palettes can affect us aesthetically--and emotionally.
“Color is one of the few things that bypasses your intellect,” says writer-director Gary Ross, whose film “Pleasantville” uses the black-and-white to color contrast as a central metaphor. “It’s a very visceral thing--you have strong associations to black-and-white and color. And when the color is taken away, you begin to long for it, to fill in an empty coloring book, which is what the characters [in “Pleasantville”] are experiencing emotionally.
“And when people are open to that idea, they connect with it more than I thought they would.” The color contrasts can be almost shocking, as in “American History X,” or more subtle as in “Life Is Beautiful.” But ultimately, all of these films deal with big emotions, and expanding the cinematographer’s palette is a way to portray the expansive psychological terrain they cover.
“Pleasantville’s” deconstruction of nostalgia and its discontents focus on two troubled ‘90s teenagers (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) transported to a safe-but-bland, black-and-white ‘50s sitcom world. When they introduce to the good citizens of “Pleasantville” ideas and passions heretofore unexplored in this sanitized land of dutiful dads and happy homemakers, the residents are rocked to their cores. As the philosophical (and metaphorical) shades of gray become increasingly pronounced, color, literally, must take over.
Nostalgia also informs the upcoming Mark Herman film “Little Voice,” the story of a timid yet inspired singing mimic (Jane Horrocks) who also lives in a world of nostalgia, immersing herself in the music of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Her late father watches over her from a photo in her bedroom, and when she sings the songs they both adored, his ghost manifests itself to her--but only in black-and-white.
Tony Kaye’s racially charged “American History X” examines Venice Beach skinheads. While present-day scenes are shot in grungy color, flashback sequences featuring the lead character (Ed Norton) at his most virulent and hateful are literally depicted in terms of black-and-white.
Roberto Benigni’s acclaimed Holocaust fable “Life Is Beautiful” also uses a selective color scheme to comment on racial issues. Although Benigni’s film doesn’t technically use black-and-white, the second half of the film, set in a concentration camp, is shot with an extremely limited palette of colors and, in a strikingly disquieting sequence, the film comes to a hush of grays when Benigni’s character confronts a mountain of corpses. Color, and life, have been virtually drained from the screen.
Other filmmakers have also dabbled with expanding their palettes. In DreamWorks SKG’s upcoming animated epic “The Prince of Egypt,” the angel of death descends upon the land during the passover in a striking monochromatic sequence, punctuated only by splashes of blood. And even “The Waterboy,” a film of limited artistic ambitions, presents flashbacks of star Adam Sandler’s childhood in sepia tones, which only raises the question: What’s next?
Part of the reason “The Wizard of Oz” was such a dazzler in 1939 was that color was new to the film medium. In 1947, for example, 88% of the films made were still in black-and-white; seven years later, more than half would be in color.
Black-and-white would make a brief rebound for the next four years as Hollywood made movies with an eye toward airing them on television, but by 1970, fully 94% of all films were shot in color, according to “A History of Narrative Film,” by David A. Cook.
Blending color and black-and-white “forces audiences to pay attention,” notes Denise Mann, vice chairwoman of the Producer’s Program at the UCLA Film School. “Entering an alternative reality [through the use or subtraction of color] speaks to their psychological or emotional or spiritual lives.”
Mann notes that the rise of film noir in the ‘40s and ‘50s changed the way audiences thought about black-and-white films. “These black-and-white films dealt in the extremes, of dark and light, where just a portion of a character’s face was lit. Black-and-white was used abstractly then, but ironically, it seemed more realistic psychologically.”
Mann adds that today’s audiences, consciously or not, take that film history with them when they walk into theaters to see, say, “Pleasantville.” “Contemporary audiences have a complex and contradictory response to black-and-white, in part because of a shared memory of old Hollywood films seen on cable TV. They have a nostalgic relationship to those films made in the classical period, and because black-and-white has been used many ways at various in points in film history, they can conjure up a collage of different responses.”
From its outset, film has always been about spectacle, and color helped contribute to that sense of spectacle even before true color film was available. Erich Von Stroheim’s 1928 “The Wedding March” juxtaposed black-and-white scenes with sequences shot in a two-tone process in which an entire shot appeared in a certain hue, with objects within the frame tinted to give an even more vivid version of the color or a slightly different one.
Two 1946 films followed “The Wizard’s” legendary melding of color and black-and-white. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “A Matter of Life and Death” (also known as “Stairway to Heaven”), about a fighter pilot tenuously wavering between life and death, depicted the afterlife in black-and-white, while earthly sequences were in color.
Russian iconoclast Sergei Eisenstein, best known for his groundbreaking use of montage editing in “The Battleship Potemkin,” filmed a lavish banquet and dance sequence in color in the otherwise black-and-white “Ivan the Terrible Part Two.” More recently, major Hollywood filmmakers have dabbled in the aesthetic. Martin Scorsese used touches of color in his otherwise elegantly black-and-white 1980 classic “Raging Bull"--boxer Jake LaMotta’s home movies provide a wistfully innocent document in direct counterpoint to his life’s brutal reality. Steven Spielberg, in his Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List,” colored in the red of an innocent’s topcoat amid the black-and-white turmoil of Jews being rounded up for concentration camps, and added a color coda in which Holocaust survivors and the actors who portrayed them in the film visited the grave of Oskar Schindler.
And Oliver Stone, in a series of films--"JFK,” “Natural Born Killers” and “U-Turn"--experimented endlessly with sundry film stocks to give his stories a visceral underpinning. Though black-and-white films are nowadays considered something of a financial risk, some filmmakers embrace it for artistic reasons; that they are black-and-white serves to transport audiences to worlds of a filmmaker’s choosing and to force viewers to consider a director’s images more actively. Earlier this year, the black-and-white of the indie hit “Pi” underscored its protagonist’s paranoia. The current documentary “The Cruise,” as well as Woody Allen’s upcoming “Celebrity” and John Boorman’s drama “The General,” also eschew color.
When watching films in color, Ross observes, “You’re more of a passive recipient to a certain degree, and in black-and-white, it may force a more active participation.” He adds that in “Pleasantville’s” case, “I found that when the color would enter the frame, it would almost be a much more shocking thing. It was the combination of the two that turned out to be the most striking images and the most engaging images in our movie.” Of the new films, “Pleasantville” blends the two formats in the most unique and artful fashion. As Ross explains, “It’s not just a stylistic conceit, it’s part of the story. The first five times that it happens in the movie, people go, ‘Oh my God, look at that color.’ A character stares at the rose [blooming red amid the black-and-white town], he’s blown away. There’s constant reaction to the bits of color.”
While “Pleasantville’s” characters are transformed into color by some form of inner awakening, other items do so less predictably. “It was important that there not be a strict tautology to the way the color filled in, because life is random and that’s where the beauty is,” Ross says. “So sometimes it’s a coffee cup and other times it’s the clock over there. It’s like a virus that spreads. It’s done in part to keep the viewers off guard and give them a sense of surprise and wonder, because this world of predictability is breaking down.”
It’s that predictability the title character of “Little Voice” embraces. Director Herman chose to make the character’s father--otherwise seen only as a photo on the young woman’s bedroom wall--black-and-white when his ghostly image appears, in an effort to make the film, based on a stage play, more cinematic and less stage-bound.
“Basically, it’s all done through the photograph--the idea was to make it come to life,” Herman says. “Originally in the script, I had a sort of home-movie-type scene in which he appeared, but in shooting it, it made sense to use that photograph.” And since “Little Voice’s” character has virtually imprisoned herself in her bedroom, Herman also played with color there, decking it out in the sort of pastels frequently seen in tinted photographs and advertisements.
“Her room borders on a magical quality, which is put up against the realistic, grim Northern house she lives in. I didn’t want it too over-the-top, but I wanted a level of colorization that would give you a clean feeling upstairs, contrasted with the reality elsewhere and the garish look of the music hall where she performs.”
Ironically, the father first appears when “Little Voice” sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.” Herman attributes that to “happy coincidence. That was not planned.”
The color scheme for “Life Is Beautiful,” on the other hand, was very carefully planned by director, co-writer and star Benigni, who was very mindful of how difficult it was to make a comedy incorporating the Holocaust.
“I spent a lot of time with the director of photography, Tonino Delli Colli [who has worked extensively with Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone],” Benigni says. “This is an extreme choice, because you’re creating a sensation with the colors, with the lighting. The first part of the movie with the comedy is very cold, and warm in the second half. I wanted to light the concentration camp in a very warm way, to create a contradiction. I didn’t want it realistic, but lyrical, like dreams, fake. Like a Sistine Chapel design of hell.” Benigni worked against cinema stereotypes because of his unique subject matter; in his film a Jewish father tries to convince his young son that their internment in a concentration camp is all part of a grand game.
“With the lighting in this movie, I was afraid of the cliches. I didn’t want the concentration camp all in rain and mud,” Benigni says. “If you think, ‘There’s the sun in the middle of the hell,’ it makes it more terrible.”
In the camp barracks, Benigni employed brown, though it went against his better judgment--"Brown is the color of the period movie,” he believes--with grayish-green walls, to make his actors’ pallor more sallow. “You become a skeleton,” he explains. He tried a number of variations in shooting the scene in which his character confronts the mountain of corpses, finally choosing three separate paintings of different heights to give a three-dimensional look to the scene.
He also employed extreme visuals in the first half of the movie, shooting a party sequence in harsh whites, a notoriously difficult color to photograph, and then punctuated the sequence with the introduction of a horse that was colored green.
“I asked, ‘What is the color in relation with white that will explode the most?’ ‘Grasshopper green,’ they said, which is a real terrible color.
“It was difficult, because the horse sweated a lot,” recalls Benigni, smiling at the memory. “As soon as you put the color on him, he’s sweating, and revolting stuff is coming off him. When we rode him, then got off him, we had the stuff dripping off all over us.”
Revolting images are all over “American History X,” which, like “Life Is Beautiful,” deals with the abject depths of prejudice. Its central character is a reformed skinhead (Ed Norton) who finds that abandoning his previous, hatred-ruled life is trickier than he expected.
Mike De Luca, production president for New Line Pictures and an executive producer on the film, says that director Tony Kaye (who very publicly disavowed the final version of the film) decided to shoot the flashbacks in black-and-white soon after having read the script.
“He didn’t want high contrast, he wanted something monochromatic, so that everything looks like one tone,” De Luca says. “He wanted a faded, less vibrant look for the memories, and a gritty, docudrama look for the rest of the film.”