“Everything,” Paul Simon sings on the album cut of “Kodachrome,” “looks worse in black and white.” In later live performances, he often amended the lyric to, “Everything looks better in black and white.” He’s right on both counts.
The best film of 2015 became one of the best films of 2016 when Mad Max: Fury Road enjoyed a brief theatrical run in black and white followed by DVD and Blu-ray editions that include the original color version and director George Miller’s preferred “Black & Chrome” presentation. Miller has said he envisioned a black-and-white Mad Max movie since seeing a rough, monochromatic print of The Road Warrior (1981) used for scoring sessions.
Obviously, Warner Bros.—which backed Fury Road—isn’t about to bankroll a $100 million-plus black-and-white movie, even one with lots of ’splosions. But Miller was working with the great cinematographer John Seale, with whom he collaborated on the underappreciated Lorenzo’s Oil and whose mastery of light and contrast can be seen in films as diverse as The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, The English Patient (for which he won an Academy Award) and The Talented Mr. Ripley, all of which I guarantee look just as good in monochrome.
Seale, in turn, shot Fury Road primarily with Panavision’s digital Arri Alexa cameras, which have been employed on the likes of Rogue One, The Revenant, Sicario and Spotlight. Alexas were also battle-tested on two of the best black-and-white features in recent years: Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, both of which were conceived in black and white but drained of color post production (in the latter’s case, the studio insisted on a color version as well).
While lensing Fury Road, Miller had the movie’s colorist conduct black-and-white processing tests. Miller liked what he saw and eventually had the entire film converted. “Something about black and white … makes it a little bit more abstract … a little more iconic,” Miller says in an introduction to the “Black & Chrome” edition, echoing renowned photographer Elliott Erwitt’s sentiment, “Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.”
Perhaps because we experience the world in color, its absence from a film emphasizes the illusory nature of what we’re seeing and heightens our focus on the subject and composition. “Color is part of our physiological and psychological perception of the external world,” said filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who preferred black and white to color. “We live in a colored world, but don’t realize that unless something makes us aware of it.” On movie screens, Tarkovsky believed, “color imposes itself on you … In a black-and-white film there is no feeling of something extraneous going on, the audience can watch the film without being distracted from the action by color.”
It’s hard to imagine anything distracting from Fury Road’s action, which is nearly relentless. But black and white further distills the elemental nature of Miller’s cinematic storytelling, which leans on visuals and performances—expressions—to anchor its kineticism (you may not appreciate how tremendous Charlize Theron is until you witness the colorless Fury Road). The dialogue is minimal, and it comes in punchy, comic book-style bursts as the movie hurtles forward like an amphetamine-fueled imagining of The General (though Imperator Furiosa’s cause is more righteous). Black and white also lends the film a timeless look that enhances the effect of the glorious vehicles, an extraordinary battery of leftover cars, trucks, motorcycles and semis from an age not long passed that have been repurposed to outlandish ends for post-apocalyptic times.
There are moments in Fury Road’s original version in which color threatens to overwhelm content, in particular the storm sequence, which is the movie’s most CGI-heavy scene and one that shows its digital seams; black and white is more forgiving to its artifice and leads attention to the storm’s impacts rather than its spectacle. In a 1961 interview with The New York Times, the director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds) said filmmakers who use color have a tendency to “start shooting scenery rather than scenes.” Likewise, to viewers, color can steer our attention toward scenery rather than scenes.
That said, there are segments in Fury Road that I feel play better in color. In the “Black & Chrome” version, for example, the night sequence amid the toxic morass that was the Green Place takes on odd, almost purplish hues. And there is a certain power in seeing the environment in all its vibrant, gritty detail; color accentuates the precious green resources amid the desert wasteland, it amplifies the swirling dust and magnifies the sun’s heat.
Unlike Miller, I don’t prefer one edition of Fury Road to the other. And research into people’s perceptions of color images versus those in black and white supports some artistic notions about the matter as well as my own ambiguity.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who were shown color images of consumer products were more likely to focus on minor product details over practical aspects; black and white images drew subjects’ attention to form and function. The findings of a 2002 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology indicated that people are more inclined to remember color images over the same images in black and white; the study further suggested that participants’ visual memories responded better to natural colors than colors that were adjusted.
While it’s important to distinguish a still image from a motion picture, it should be noted that Fury Road’s colors were adjusted to augment its pulpy aesthetic, which certainly influences the movie’s tone and impression upon us. I’m curious about the thoughts of those who have the opportunity to see the “Black & Chrome” edition prior to the color version.
The internet is chock full of “color versus black-and-white” research and arguments, and each format has its situational merits. Yet some photographers maintain that black and white more effectively conveys the essence of visual ideas, and many cinematographers yearn for the opportunity to shoot black and white. There is magic in the light and shadows.
As for Mad Max: Fury Road, I fell in love with the color rendition. But mama don’t take my “Black & Chrome” away.