The History of Black & White Film

By Robert Vaux

Movies started out in black and white, and for the first few decades of their existence were produced entirely in that form. Indeed, the phrase "silver screen" stems from those early days, when shimmering black and white images became synonymous with the medium. Today the vast majority of films are in color, but some enterprising directors still use black and white for aesthetic effects, and film aficionados still adore the unique look that black and white film provides.

Early Days

Film is based on photography in many ways, and when the medium first appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, there was no real method of creating color images. Every movie was in black and white, though the images could sometimes be tinted with single colors to provide a certain thematic impression. As filmmaking became more sophisticated, directors based their aesthetic choices on the "limitations" of black and white, and in the process created some truly stunning pieces of art. The German Expressionists, in particular, make brilliant use of black and white in films such as "Nosferatu," "Sunrise," and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

The Coming of Color

The process of making color films began as early as 1906, but wasn't perfected until the 1920s. Technicolor, a method that broke black and white film into three separate strips colored red, blue and green, finally cracked the code; 1917's "The Gulf Between" was the first film to use Technicolor, and the first 100 percent all-color film was 1928's "The Viking."

Slow Displacement

Despite the technological breakthrough, Technicolor remained a slow process and was often much more expensive than black and white films. It was mainly used to lend a sense of spectacle to a given movie: musicals like "The Wizard of Oz" and epics like "Gone With the Wind" were the most common beneficiaries. Movies shot more cheaply or that didn't require such spectacle remained in black and white. Indeed, many black and white films made after the advent of color are considered some of the most beautiful in cinema, including Orson Welles' masterpiece "Citizen Kane" and the film noir movement of the 1940s.

Gradual Fade

By the middle of the 1950s, black and white films still constituted about half the total films produced. In 1952, a new color process, Kodak Eastman Color, began to supplant Technicolor. It made color films much cheaper and, from that moment, black and white suffered a slow decline. By the mid-1960s, it had all but disappeared.

Artistic Legacy

Though they remain in the distinct minority, black and white films continue to appear every now and again as part of a director's vision. In many cases, they're intended to invoke the past, as in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," which recounts the Holocaust, or Kenneth Branagh's "Dead Again," an homage to film noir. Furthermore, film enthusiasts have rigorously defended the purity of earlier black and white films—most notably in the 1980s when Ted Turner undertook a controversial effort to "colorize" black and white movies like "Casablanca." The results were considered disastrous and eventually abandoned.