What do Different Colors Look Like on B&W Film?
September 14, 2009 2:20 AM   Subscribe

Shooting a black and white 16mm film. It's my first (an "exercise"), and I'm not yet sure of the stock. How do different colors show up when filmed w/ BW film? My specific concerns: how best should I costume my actors so they remain dynamic when photographed (ie. nice deep blacks or pure-ish whites; avoid grey)? Esp: how can I costume them to keep them distinct from the background (grey/brown garage walls). Let me know if you need more info to be helpful; thanks meta people.
posted by barfmann to Media & Arts (8 answers total)
Some films are higher contrast than others. Which brand/type are you using?
posted by embrangled at 2:51 AM on September 14, 2009

Your stock should have a chart that shows response to different colors. There are orthochromatic films, which are not sensitive to reds - a scene lit with red lights would show up black, etc. Most film is panchromatic which means it's sensitive to all colors, but different stocks will react differently. What are you planning on shooting with?
posted by jedrek at 3:01 AM on September 14, 2009

If you have access to a digital still camera, do test shots in the camera's b&w mode or, if it doesn't offer such settings, desaturate the images in PS or the like. That should get you started.
posted by theroadahead at 3:28 AM on September 14, 2009

This recent question has a couple of mentions of how costumers of black and white films/TV made costumes stand out and suggest colors.
posted by illenion at 5:53 AM on September 14, 2009

I have used a color tone screen for similar things.
It is just a piece of red plastic in a frame, but when you look through it at your subject it brings out all of the differences or similarities in tone. It would work for either orthocromatic or panchromatic, as you could see the problems in the first case or the varieties of tone in the second.

You can get it at a fabric store that has a quilting section (some quilters use them to design and test color blocking and layout) or at an art store. You could also make one from transparent colored plastic, but I don't think office supply stores carry it anymore.
posted by Tchad at 5:54 AM on September 14, 2009

If you're working outside, shooting with a polarizing filter will also give you very stunning results, as well. Very full, rich spectrum of grays and blacks with nice contrast.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:55 AM on September 14, 2009

how can I costume them to keep them distinct from the background (grey/brown garage walls)

Aside from costumes, lighting makes a big difference as well. You can do things like using just a key light or a key light and a back light on your actors while keeping the background unlit to make them stand out. Or you could go the opposite direction and use a harsh back light so that the actors are dark silhouettes or keep the scene mostly dark and just have some lights high above to get some good shadows. It depends on what kind of mood you want to set or how stylized you want it to look.

Also, a good way to get a feel for classic black and white cinematography is to find an old film and watch it upside-down with the sound off. It sounds like a silly idea, but it is the best way I know of to force yourself to just think about the images on the screen and not worry about the acting or plot.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:14 AM on September 14, 2009

Lighting is what you should be more worried about than the color of their clothes. Lighting will keep hair color, skin color, and clothing color distinct from the background. While you can make clothes contrast with the environment you obviously can't do the same for skin or hair. You also don't want to have clothing that contrasts sharply with skin or hair otherwise keeping one or the other from being over/under exposed will be a nightmare.

That being said a good cinematographer will take test shots with a film camera using b&w similar in characteristics to get a feel for locations and lighting.
posted by JJ86 at 8:30 AM on September 14, 2009

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