Black and White

Eclectic director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's 11, The Limey, Contagion) recently shared a list of all the movies, books, TV shows, plays, and short stories he watched and read over the space of a year. In terms of detail, it's not quite up there with the legendary annual reports of Nick Felton, but it's still a pretty incredible – and revealing – account of art consumption (slightly let down by the fact he refers to Seven as Se7en …). Looking at it, you have to wonder how he actually finds the time to make his own films. 

Going through it, feeling like a philistine, one particular week of art-consumption jumped out at me: in the space of a few days, Soderbergh watched Raiders of the Lost Ark three times … each time in black and white.

Raiders is one of those perfect films, where every single element, from the casting to the sound design, is about as close to cinematic perfection as its possible to get (don't argue – this is a solid, absolute, indisputable, uppercase FACT). To mess with it in any way seems sacrilegious and pointless, but given its b-movie nostalgic influences, stripping it of colour is actually quite an interesting experiment. 

I tried it myself, and it really does work. I gave it a go with a random selection of other films piled up next to my Mac, and in some cases, it works perfectly (particularly in the films of Spielberg for some reason): strangely, Saving Private Ryan looks more harrowingly realistic – perhaps because we're used to seeing actual footage of that war in black and white, so it feels more documentary-like, even closer to Robert Capa's iconic photos of the Normandy landings. In other cases, it's horrible: David Fincher's carefully considered colour palette of Zodiac is lost in a grey splurdge.

(Incidentally, if you want to try this on a Mac, just pop into universal access preferences and tick "use grayscale". And yes, that "a" bugs me too. One day Apple will acknowledge the fact we spell grey differently over here … mostly.)

So it's definitely an interesting experiment, but one that highlights that making something black and white isn't a sure-fire way of making something look moodier or more sophisticated (just like turning down the sound doesn't turn every film into The Artist). When the experiment does work, it's mostly by chance, not design – those films were deliberately lit, composed and shot for colour, just as a black and white film is shot and lit in a completely different way. Although it's all too easy for us to tweak our creations at the last minute, the absence of colour should be a creative choice: black and white isn't just something you apply, willy-nilly.

And this doesn't just apply to films. What was once a technical constraint – you had to print in one colour, you had to take photos in black and white, early video games could only cope with simple white blocks pinging back and forth across very small, very black screens – is now being embraced as an aesthetic choice in every medium. 

This is most evident in text-based apps like iA Writer or Instapaper, but one field that's shunning colour in really interesting ways at the moment is the games industry. After decades of chasing the ever-increasing number of colours available to them, games designers are now embracing the beauty of no colours at all.

One of the most striking games of recent years, Limbo, owes a lot to the incredible artistry of light and shadow. The silhouette of the terrain and the gribblies that emerge from it are all one big nightmarish shadow. Shapes and shadows and light are all part of the threat. And the absence of technicolor detail just makes your imagination fill in the gaps make those giant spiders and messy spike-falls that much creepier. It really is a game that deserves to be played with the lights off and the curtains closed.

In crazyfast games like running-and-jumping-and-falling-to-a-horrible-death simulator Canabalt or quick-draw reaction-tester Ready Steady Bang, the attention to shape and form over colour brings focus to the nerve-shredding gameplay where you don't necessarily have time to admire the scenery. 

Chambers Judd, makers of Ready Steady Bang, used black and white as just one of many elements to create a deliberate aesthetic for the game. For example, along with being monochromatic (no matter what the Clints and Quentins of this world will tell you, cowboys are black and white), the graphics are built with deliberately chunky pixels, harking back to blocky games of of the past. My initial response to playing the game was "oh dear lord it's just like playing Outlaw on my wooden trim Atari 2500 … but on my phone … I'm living in the future and past all at once … where's my hoverboard? WHERE'S MY HOVERBOARD, DAMMIT?"

That's not to say that black and white is solely about nostalgia – it's just one of many ways in which it can be used as an integral design element to give a project a feel simply not possible with colour. It creates, as film critic Roger Ebert puts it:

…something more dreamlike, more pure, composed of shapes and forms and movements and light and shadow … light and shadow, which can actually create a world in which the lighting creates a hierarchy of moral values.

Films, games, design – no matter the medium, black and white is a creative tool, not an afterthought, not a filter. Think about it from the beginning of a project, and use it appropriately and with consideration and you can achieve results that simply aren't possible with colour. 

And now I'm off to create a Ready Steady Bang rip-off which pitches a gun-toting archaeologist against a swordsman … monochromatically, of course.

Originally published in MacUser (Vol 28 No 14).