Desaturating Private Ryan

Jeremy Davies as Corporal Upham

After reading about Steven Soderbergh's multiple viewings of Raiders of the Lost Ark in black and white (mentioned in this post), last weekend I turned the colour down on my telly and watched a couple of films. As a designer, I'm forever challenging to presumption that more colour equals more quality, so I'm curious to see how adjusting this variable might effect my enjoyment of films. (And yes, I know the sun was shining and I should've been outside playing, but I have a wide-eyed, pale, geekulous complexion to maintain, okay?)

First up was Saving Private Ryan. I maintain that pretty much any Spielberg film would suit the black and white treatment, but was surprised at just how effective it was in this case. The cinematography is incredibly desaturated anyway, but dialling it right down gives the film a more authentic feel. I say authentic – I realise WWII wasn't actually fought in black and white, but the majority of photography and footage from that period is, so that distancing layer is already part of how history has been recorded. Watching Saving Private Ryan in this way was like delving deeper into a clip from The World at War.

Robert Capa's stunning D-Day photography

More specifically, it brought the action a lot closer to the Robert Capa photographs of D-Day that clearly influenced the film's look. Spielberg was trying to drop the audience into the middle of the action of the various battle scenes (all of which are amazing, but often get overshadowed by the opening one), but our usual accepted experience of war is through documentary. The visual language of reportage is the reality of war to us, so replicating this era-specific look makes the story and the characters just that little bit more believable.

After that, I watched David Fincher's Zodiac. That film gets better with every viewing – I'm tempted to say it's even better than Seven – but for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, the black and white approach didn't work as well as I'd expected. Fincher puts a lot of effort into colour correcting his films, and I think robbing Zodiac of its nocturnal, seedy yellowness took away far too much.

Still, I'm going to persevere with this experiment. I'm thinking that perhaps an earlier Fincher picture Alien ³ – would work quite well. Any suggestions for other films that would benefit from this approach?