When production started on Looking for Charlie back in March we (naively) devoted little thought to how the finished film might use colour. Of course we put a lot of effort into trying to capture images that were as vibrant and consistent as possible but big questions remained. Would the finished film look stylised and, if so, what type of style might we employ? We were never going to make our film look like Zack Snyder’s 300 but we could, if we wanted, alter colours to make to make a more beautiful or fulfilling image. But with that power comes a question of ethics – would using the extensive array of digital tools at our disposal make our film less honest? We are, after all, making a documentary, a piece of non-fiction which is meant to depict reality, not distort it. By playing with colour we might make a more visually interesting film, but we run the risk of creating a piece which is ultimately less honest, less real, as a result. On the other hand, our documentary features several short historic re-enactments which might well be enhanced by subtle colour-coding, shifts in palettes which signal a change from the real to the unreal, the documented to the staged. And by drawing attention to such a change, by acknowledging the fictive nature of non-fiction filmmaking, would not we not achieve a deeper, if more abstract, sense of truth in the final piece? The possibilities were (and are) endless – but so too are the quandaries which come with them.
It was in Central Park, New York, that some of the crew expectantly (and wisely) asked us if our film would be black and white. The idea was brilliant but, at the time, it was one that I had privately discounted. We were shooting in colour, and so the final film would be in colour. Black and white would have fitted the era we were exploring but it seemed obvious and, thus, crude. No, black and white was not something we were seriously considering. Following our return from New York, I spent a vast amount of time testing out different colour schemes. Some were heavily stylised, almost like old 16mm stock. Colours bled into areas where they didn’t belong, creating a balance that felt unnatural but was, nevertheless, pleasant upon the eye. We saturated colours, and in other cases we went the other way, de-saturating scenes and giving sequences a starker, more striking look. Individual hues were selected, manipulated, and changed. Shadows were deepened and highlights blown. There was little that wasn’t tested. Some of those experiments yielded promising results, like moving Polaroid pictures or sequences with rich, pastel tones. Others were not so successful but even in failure we learned and we grew.
I’m not exactly sure when the idea of making the film black and white became more viable in my mind but it took a while. For a long time I rejected black and white (though not openly) but the earnestness of the crew’s question (and enthusiasm for the idea), kept revisiting upon me. At some point, as we ploughed through colour-experiment after colour-experiment, I began to ask myself a different question. Why wouldn’t we make our film black and white?
There is a certain unreality inherent in the documentary making process. No matter how honest a filmmaker’s intentions, the camera captures what we tell it to, not necessarily what it should. We pick and choose our footage and, in the case of interviews and discussions, the presence of a camera, let alone a crew, could greatly impact the tone, style, and quality of the dialogue captured. Put bluntly, people act differently when they are being filmed. That being the case, should the film not reflect that reality by embracing the sense of unreality that black and white creates? We’re back to those same ethical questions – even as we seek reality we cannot help but create a fiction.
A fiction, true, but a fiction that tells the truth. Film is a powerful storytelling device and pretending otherwise can be dangerous. I love to show selected documentaries by Michael Moore to my students – but I especially love the resultant discussions where the assumed truth implied by the documentary format is laid bare. It can be tough for students used to treating documentaries as depictions of fact and fact alone. Documentaries are trusted, and enjoy a privileged place in our culture. Sure, the veracity of documentaries is sometimes challenged (again, see Michael Moore) but, by in large, they are seen as a source of fact and reality, rather than carefully constructed arguments in favour of one particular candidate for the truth. As I’ve said before, the documentary which does not acknowledge its own subjectivity is problematic indeed. Lagging far behind my crew, I realised that black and white should never have been off the table. Indeed, the more thought I devoted to it, the more it felt like a natural fit for our film.
Then, of course, there are aesthetic considerations. Early experiments with black and white did not win me over (black and white can be just as stylised and problematic as colour) but as we played with our footage we increasingly found that a lack of colour could bring clarity to a shot. It was as if a lack of colour served to create a semi-blank canvas onto which an audience could project emotion or sentiment. As early experiments gave way to more consistent and satisfying results the advantages of the format became increasingly evident. Even to me.
Of course black and white gels with the period that we are depicting, but that is not why we have chosen to abandon the infinite possibilities of colour. Yes, there is an element of style to our choice, but there are deeper considerations at play. Ethics and honesty helped inform our decision but, ultimately, we could do little else but confirm the crew’s instinct. They were right – and theirs is the vision we now happily set ourselves to realising.
Unashamedly Black and White – The first Looking for Charlie poster
Introducing Looking for Charlie – @Youtube