'Much Ado About Nothing' and Why the Future of Monochrome Cinematography Isn't Black & White

much ado about nothing amy acker

When cinematographer Jay Hunter was recruited to shoot "Much Ado About Nothing" (read our review here), director Joss Whedon insisted on a black-and-white palette. "For him it was a mix of something he always wanted to do, the perfect story for black-and-white, and the logistical concerns of shooting a low budget movie at his own house," he says of the modernized Shakespeare adaptation, shot in just 13 days on location at Chez Whedon. "We thought it would be a cool way to tell the story in a modern setting and also throw it into this alien universe of monochrome. Taking a text that's hundreds of years old, bringing it into the modern world, then sending it back another 40 years."

Although it was the default for more than half a century, black-and-white continued to be an appealing aesthetic for filmmakers after the introduction color. Hunter was reminded of the movement that kept monochrome alive while Hollywood shifted gears. "We were thinking a lot about the French New Wave. Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol," he says. "These filmmakers who were shooting black-and-white, some of the first people to shoot handheld." Hunter cites Godard's "Breathless" as a talking point for "Much Ado," a free-flowing, softer touch to a style known for its stark qualities. "We didn't want to take a John Alton ["Raw Deal," "He Walked By Night"], super shadowy, chiaroscuro approach to the black-and-white. We wanted it to be very natural. Soft lighting, realistic lighting."

Hunter and Whedon see a value in black-and-white, but they exist in a world where it's even less prominent than it was in the days of the rebellious French New Wave. There isn't a demand for monochrome, so as the wells of color film dry up, black-and-white film is already a distant memory. What's left are digital options, and it's changing — not for better or worse, but different — what we'll picture as black-and-white photography.

Hunter used the RED EPIC camera to capture color footage for "Much Ado," which was later desaturated in post-production. He sees things missing from shooting native black-and-white on film. He also sees advantages. Monochrome film is less sensitive to light, requiring for more lighting on set and higher contrast levels. And because of the photochemical process required to develop it, film has the natural grain that can't be replicated on digital (unless you're Michael Mann and you're cool with static). The digital alternative opened up the image on "Much Ado," allowing Hunter to shoot scenes they could never do on film.

"I was shooting a lot of scenes in the movie in very low light conditions. Particularly the night interiors and exteriors. To the eye they looked too dark. Then we'd turn the camera on, set the camera, and it would pop like crazy. It's cool for the actors because it puts them at ease, like they're in a real environment," he says.

That said, they still tinkered with the image after the fact, adding "visual grain" that actually decreases the quality of the image. "Digital looks very clean and sharp which when you're shooting color doesn't bother you much," Hunter says. "With black-and-white, when you take the color element away, you're left with 'less information.' So your brain is able to identify other elements of the photography more. They seem more dominant even though they're not." What the cinematographer was able to achieve using the tiny camera and digital black-and-white made Whedon downright giddy. He cites a scene during the masquerade party: "They're all around the dinner table and I remember Joss going nuts. It looked so pretty and it was a low light level and it looked natural. I remember him being giddy. 'I want to light every movie like this! This is awesome!'

For black-and-white diehards, there's still a bit of hope in the digital age — RED recently developed a monochromatic camera that David Fincher used to shoot Justin Timberlake's "Suit & Tie" vide. But is the difference between modern films shot on black-and-white film, color film and desaturated, or color digital and desaturated all that different to the moviegoer's eye? Here are a few recent examples, to test your own sensitivity:

"Schindler's List"

Shot on Black & White Film

schindler's list

”The goal of the film was to work in black and white, but not to film the villains in the typical villainous ways. Whatever darkness was in the characters would come from inside them, what they were born with, not what we dictated in the lighting.” Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (NY Times Magazine)

"Casino Royale:"

Shot on Black & White Film

Casino Royale

“I love the way there aren’t many midtones. The shadow area drops off quickly, so if you have something that’s jet black, you have to lose it entirely or put a hell of a lot of light on it. In color, the stocks seem to resolve forever and ever. You get to the [digital intermediate] and say, ‘Can I see what’s in that dark corner?’ and [the colorist] cranks the whole thing up and it’s like sunlight in there. In black-and-white, there’s nothing there. It’s a discipline.” - Cinematographer Phil Méheux (ASC Magazine)

"The Man Who Wasn't There"

Shot on Color Film and Desaturated in Post-Production

the man who wasn't there

"The thing about black & white is you’re so much more aware about the composition of the frame, the depth of the frame, and the way the light is falling in the frame. Quite often, it’s easier to make an attractive picture if you’re shooting in color. I think that black & white focuses you, the viewer, on the subject of the frame." - Cinematographer Roger Deakins on (Venice Magazine)

That is true if you want the 'colour' balance of a traditional B/W film stock where skin tones and red lips translate differently. The question is, though, whether the traditional 'colour' balance of B/W stocks is actually the best representation of an image.This was something we looked at when I tested for 'The Man Who Wasn't There' as was the translation between a colour negative and a B/W print stock or intermediary." - Deakins writing on his personal blog.

"Good Night, and Good Luck"

Shot on Color Film and Desaturated in Post-Production

good night and good luck

"From a lighting and design standpoint, the film I looked at the most was John Cassavetes’ Faces. It’s marvelous because he uses people’s bodies and faces, and the shapes of people’s faces. The whole movie is designed around completely non-traditional, non-cinematic gourmet ideas about what photography is. And it just feels so honest and real- it’s almost impossible to achieve that if you think about it too much." - Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Studio Daily)

"The White Ribbon:"

Shot on Color Film and Desaturated in Post-Production

the white ribbon

"From the start, it was goal of mine to create a modern black and white film, not a nostalgic one. It’s a new quality that’s possible now, because black and white film has not progressed since the 1980s, everything that’s in a color negative you can transform into a very fine grayscale, so it was an advantage." - Cinematographer Christian Berger (Wall Street Journal)

"The Artist"

Shot on Color Film and Desaturated in Post-Production

the artist

“I made some tests, and it was immediately obvious that we needed the texture of film stock,” he says. “I wanted soft whites and deep blacks, but not so much contrast that the image begins to look like HD. I experimented with some digitally shot images, and they were too sharp. I was fighting against the sharpness.” - Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman (In Camera)

"The Turin Horse"

Shot on Color Film and Desaturated in Post-Production

The Turin Horse

When I was reading the script, I was thinking of Beckett, and that was something I really liked about it immediately. There is a convincing radical minimalism and an awareness of our human condition besides all illusions. The humour you discovered is a hidden and fine one. And for sure, the movie is not dark or depressing—it is rather purifying." - Cinematographer Fred Keleman on The Turin Horse

"Sin City"

Shot on Color HD Digital and Desaturated in Post-Production

sin city

"This movie was going to be so different from regular movies were going to be shot ... if you read [Frank Miller's] book, you see he's a director working with paper instead of a camera. I wanted to emulate that in the movie and make the cinematic equivalent of his book. If you want to have fun, learn your technology. Technology pushes the art form to create new ideas. It's all in your house already." - Cinematographer Robert Rodriguez on Sin City's "Making Of" Feature

"Frances Ha"

Shot on Color DSLR Digital and Desaturated in Post-Production

Frances Ha

"It’s something that evokes film, but looks like something else. I felt the film should be shot classically in a way. A little bit like Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Black and white focusses your attention because you’re not distracted by associations that color brings you. And it was a way to see New York again." - Director Noah Baumbach on Marc Maron's WTF Podcast