FILM / Making them like they used to: Studios hate them, actors love them and directors are driven wild by them. Sheila Johnston on the enduring appeal of black-and-white films

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Penny Plain, Tuppence Coloured: since the dawn of mass reproduction, monochrome has always been the poor relation, and it often seems as if the movies hurtled headlong into inglorious Technicolor the minute the technology allowed. And yet, now and again, a director will insist that black-and-white can be much more than second best.

This week Schindler's List was the first black-and-white picture to win the Best Film Oscar in more than 30 years: the last was Billy Wilder's The Apartment back in 1960. Seven years later, the Academy stopped giving a separate Oscar for black- and-white cinematography, and monochrome quietly faded from the spotlight (Schindler is also the first black-and-white film since then to win the award in that category). Perhaps more significantly, advertisers are wising up to black-and-white too: check, for example, the award-winning super-realism of the 'Creek' commercial (Quaker girl spies on bathing hunk) from the current Levis campaign.

Spielberg is certainly not the first modern director to be seduced by the format. Francis Coppola chose it for Rumble Fish, and David Lynch for Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Woody Allen has been repeatedly drawn to it, in Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose and Shadows and Fog. Steven Soderbergh was Hollywood's blue-eyed boy after sex lies and videotape but wanted brooding black-and-white for Kafka, his follow-up movie. In Germany, Wenders and Fassbinder regularly used it. The latest convert is Tim Burton, now in post-production on a film about the Z-movie director Ed Wood. And Martin Scorsese made probably his greatest film in monochrome: Raging Bull. It's not an easy option; there are the moneymen to win over. Post-Jurassic, Spielberg was in a uniquely strong position: 'Steven is so powerful he can do whatever he wants,' says Janusz Kaminski, Schindler's cinematographer. But Burton, despite being one of Hollywood's most bankable directors thanks to the Batman films, fell out with Columbia over the Ed Wood picture, now with Disney. According to one source, Alex Cox passed on Let Him Have It because he wanted black- and-white (it was eventually made in colour). And it looks as though Peter Greenaway has had to shelve what was to have been his next project, the black-and-white Augsbergenfeld.

That's one reason why so many film- makers make one or two films in shimmering black-and-white (Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Stranger than Paradise, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Leos Carax's Boy Meets Girl, Gus van Sant's Mala Noche, Beineix's The Last Battle) before going down in a blaze of colour. It's not that black-and-white is cheaper: quite the opposite, according to Ben Gibson, the head of production at the British Film Institute, who has just co-produced Anchoress. Processing laboratories geared exclusively to colour charge more for it. And it's a hard sell when it comes to video and television rights. Independent mavericks might not care whether BSkyB buys their picture, but when they move on to lusher budgets, the pressures to shoot in colour are much more severe.

Technology, in fact, is a major stumbling block in an industry for which black-and-white practically went out with hand-cranked cameras. Where new, improved colour stocks are introduced regularly, black-and-white emulsions, according to Soderbergh, haven't changed in 35 years. 'It's a very, very difficult medium to work in. I don't have any regrets about shooting Kafka that way, but it was hard.'

Kaminski explains: 'There is a silver built into the emulsion and, during the friction when the film goes through the gate, it causes electrical discharges: once in a while you see little lines going across the frame that look like lightning. And there are only two choices of stock, Plus X and Double X, both much slower than colour, so you end up needing many more lights. It's a pity because still photographers have got all the new technology.'

The unexpected popularity of Schindler created more headaches. 'Originally we weren't going to have more than 50 prints, and we're going into 700 prints right now,' Kaminsky says. 'Kodak doesn't manufacture that much black-and-white release stock and so some countries, especially in Asia, may get a colour release print with the colour pulled out.'

And the spot colour, the splashes of red in two scenes, demands an artisanal attention. 'The movie was shot on black-and- white negative except for little chunks which we shot on colour negative then pulled the colour out digitally. They have to be hand-spliced into each individual print. Of course it's very hard to match them. And the colour negative is thicker than black-and-white, so there's a problem with focus between the shots.'

But film-makers will still fall for black- and-white, despite the obstacles. It's a handy signifier of 'the past' (how many historical films compromise by beginning in monochrome, then sneakily fading to colour?) - so much so that Jarmusch says audiences immediately assume that his early films (both contemporary stories) are period pieces. It announces 'gritty realism'. It enables film-makers to use colour in a selective, creative and memorable way (many modern movies contain spot colour or colour sequences).

And it instantly connects them to a classy classical heritage: Scorsese invoked Weejee in Raging Bull; Soderbergh's Kafka draws on the visual imagery of German Expressionism. It's the buff factor: 'Film-makers have seen more movies that affected them profoundly in black-and- white than their audience,' Gibson admits. 'Their idea of a perfect frame is slightly different.' Above all, it concentrates the mind in a manner quite different from a colour movie. 'Shapes and forms become much more important,' says Chris Newby, the director of Anchoress. 'The light seems to bloom.'

Actors benefit too (what modern star will ever come close to Dietrich's or Cooper's miraculous sculpted beauty?). Kaminsky recalls, 'Ben Kingsley came out from the first day of rushes and said, 'People think that actors are not as good as they used to be. It's not true - actors are the same; it's the medium that has changed.' In black-and-white you're immediately drawn to the performance and story, whereas in colour you are distracted by other elements such as the set design. You have to be much more tender with colour because it's very easy to allow the audience to look at the wrong things.

'Lighting is the main thing in black- and-white. In colour, you can put a splash of colour in the background, and another in the foreground, and immediately you have a three-dimensional feel. In black- and-white, you have to do that by creating a contrast range within the frame. And you have to light the faces, because otherwise they will simply vanish. In colour, even if you don't, you can still see them.'

The success of Schindler will give monochrome film-making a shot in the arm and there is certainly a stirring of interest (though a lot will ride on the fortunes of Burton's Ed Wood later this year). 'Hopefully the people responsible for those decisions won't be afraid . . . ' Kaminsky says hopefully. If only they would put it in black and white . . .