4.04.2015

I watched a remastered version of the movie, Casablanca, last night and was amazed at how much better the black and white imaging was versus anything I see today....

Belinda, Circa 1980.

I get it but I don't get it. We were home. We had a copy of the movie, Casablanca, on DVD. We tossed it into the player and sat back to watch. We've both seen the movie maybe a dozen times. Together at a theater, on VHS, on broadcast TV---in the cathode ray tube days, and also recently on a DVD and a 50 inch flat screen. But last night I was paying attention and really watching not only the pacing and editing but also the amazing quality of the lighting and the wonderfully translated range of tones rendered by the black and white film of 1942. If you've never seen the movie you might want to stop reading right here and get a copy to watch. It's one of the best movies to come out of the Hollywood studio system---ever. 

There's a scene in Casablana, in a marketplace (I'm sure it was filmed on a set), in which Ingrid Bergman is wearing a wide brimmed hat and there is wonderful detail in her eyes even though they are in shadow. At the same time nothing burns out in the areas lit by full, direct light. The tonality of the movie in general is really amazing. 

So I'm sitting here doing the math and best as I can calculate that movie was made, in a rush, over 73 years ago. So why is it that with all our technological advances nothing I see in magazines, on websites or up on the modern movie screens comes anywhere close to the image quality of this movie? They didn't have the ability to post process in the ways that we do. They didn't have miraculous computer designed optics with Nano Crystal coatings. No Arriflex Alexa or Red Dragon cameras. No video assist. No on set monitors. No digital techs. Just light, film and a measuring tape with which to check focus. And that film? Research says it was probably panchromatic Kodak ASA (ISO) 50 or slower. 

Makes me wonder if technology as it relates to real visual craft has been going through a de-evolution over the past 70 years with people willing to trade for explosions and special effects instead of flat out quality and professional attention to detail and workmanship.  Besides the time and cost savings have we gained anything of real value (visually) in our madcap rush to digital imaging and digital movie making? A quick comparison between Casablanca  and just about anything out there on prints or on the screen today says, "No. You've been had. Suckers." 

It's instructive to look at what brilliant visual artists were able to construct in the past. And we do need to look at it and become more aware of these treasures before each successive generation sweeps the real magic under the rug in an attempt to make audiences believe that what we're getting right now is the best that can be done. Tragic.

24 comments:

Jeff said...

In the movie Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick uses a 50mm F0.7 lens to film in candlelight only. Stunning.

Art said...

It's not just 'Casablanca' that has superb tonality. I have often been amazed at the tonal quality of many of these old movies. I seem to remember reading that they were shot in studios using arc lamps (very bright) to cope with the very slow films of that era. I presume the great tonality is a result of expert cinematographers matching the shadows and the highlights precisely to the dynamic range of the film in use. That would be easier to do in a studio than on location. It's also possible that they have a different tonal signature because they may have been shot on orthochromatic film. I am not sure when panchromatic film became the standard but prints I have seen from the old ortho films have a different look about them.

Anonymous said...

This isn't Five Minuet Film School. So I have nothing to say about technique or gear.

The main point is that you started at the bottom, and worked you way up. This OJT meant that by the time you were doing "All Quiet on the Western Front" or "Casablanca" you knew what you were doing.

Cicero the Younger said...

I was thinking "maybe she's never sen Barry Lyndon" as I read the very insightful essay. And then saw Jeff's comment....the tale of how Kunrick was able to use the wide open reverse lenses to shoot interiors using only candle light..or daylight streaming through windows is a remarkable one...leading to an Oscar for the cinematography...Barry Lundon achieves a level of tangible reality that significantly enhances our willful suspension of disbelief and transports us into the 18th Century...it is a wonderful story of Kubrick's imagination and tenacity....and the impact of a technique now much copied by other directors...you can even see period-specific emulation of the technique in interior shots of the new 18th Century Scotland-set cable series Outlander....

Jakob Donnér said...

Maybe a different esthetic of the past times. The interest in film as visual art has varied over time. Watch the Polish film Ida from 2013. Recorded in colour in Arriraw and then turned into black and white, much resembling the visual art of Polish and Cech films of the sixties. There is hope for us all!

Bill Danby said...

Sets, costumes, props -- everything was coordinated to ensure that contrast was maintained, that tones didn't blend. And when they screwed up, they did it again. Hot lights, you bet. They paid attention to every, last, freaking detail.

Casablanca is a favourite of mine, too.

Gordon Lewis said...

They also had incident light meters--and knew how to use them. Another thing worth pointing out is how intentional the lighting was. In one scene the wall behind Ingrid Bergman is lit to look like prison bars. You might not notice if you're not looking for it, but it still sends the subliminal message that she's feeling trapped.

Max Rottersman said...

I went to see "Black Narcissus" at the Dartmouth Film Society a few years back. I had remembered such a beautifully shot film (Jack Cardiff / The Archers). A disappointment; I must have romanticized it over the years. I went up to the woman running the program and lamented how bad the image looked. She apologized. She said, "I'm sorry we had to show it on DVD, the Blueray player broke". I was shocked. "Why didn't you announce that before you showed it?" I asked. She didn't see the point. Any young person in the audience would have went away thinking old films aren't up to today's standard. Like other posters here have remarked. No instant preview back then. No going back and re-shooting.

Anonymous said...

I am in agreement with your comments of de-evolution. This is what is happening - old skills fall to the wayside as new technology is added. I have worked in x-ray for over 30 years, and in my time, I have seen skills drop away with the advent of new technologies, such as CT and MRI. These new imaging modalities surpass anything which can be produced with flat film or digital. I remember an "old" tech telling me that as she was 1mm off with her internal auditory canal images (yes, we did take x-rays of those), she needed to repeat them. I used to be able to do them - forget about it now. Other areas than photography also have changed because of changing technologies. In 50 years, people will lament the "old digital from 2015" as much as anything else, simply because something will have replaced it....

Anonymous said...

Tuck is right. It's not about style. It's about expertise being replaced by code and code being homogenized for the lowest common denominator or the largest audience for the dollar.

wtlloyd said...

What, nobody saw "Ida" last year? The most beautiful film I've seen in decades. Won best foreign film Oscar.

Kirk Tuck said...

I saw "Ida" and it was a beautiful movie. Very well done. But that takes nothing away from the basic premise here.

wtlloyd said...

Yes, well, my only point was that there are still people working who are capable of fantastic work in B&W...It's not a lost art, but maybe unfortunately it's use in motion pictures is viewed now as a "gimmick" by most consumers, rather than a preferred format in that medium.

Max Rottersman said...

I haven't seen "Ida", but "The Artist" and "Nebraska" didn't come close (image wise) to matching the good stuff from the 30s and 40s. I believe that most digital cinematographers don't understand how a bayer sensor works, and why it has tremendous implications for black and white shooting. I don't believe current digital technology (where tonality is split between RGB) can duplicate what was done then . My Dad used to say that black-and-white is true photography, that color is emotionally distorting. Now that I'm in my 50s I couldn't agree more. I'd even go so far to say one of the reasons more films aren't shot in black and white these days is you CAN'T get that look anymore, for whatever reason. If you think Casablanca looks goon on a digital monitor, you should see it on film. There is a glow in film projection that cannot be duplicated with digital equipment.

Howard said...

I am somewhat confused. Does remastered not include the original being digitized, (in this case a 4k scan) then frame by frame restoration and dare I say altered to improve. The new remastered version is then copied to dvd. Probably played in a machine that at least would upgrade to 720p, (if not a bluray). The tv would again at minimum convert 720p to 1080p, and further enhance viewed quality if it is properly calibrated. Casablanca is a great movie and was exceptionally well recorded, but I don't see how the new factually, represents the original.

Michael Matthews said...

This is a definite add to the gallery of Kirk's all-time best portraits.

Kirk Tuck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk Tuck said...

...And indeed the "new factuality" is just the original cleaned up properly and recorded to a higher level delivery source. It's not a colorization or wildly new conversion method...

Anonymous said...

Artistry goes out the window when the films have to sell to the "most explosions per hour" customers. Hard to get that old fashioned quality when CGI pays the bills and makes the movie.
Computer nerds rule the roost.

Mark Davidson said...

I completely agree that Casablanca is a beautifully who film but then almost all the B&W films showed astonishing control over exposure and lighting. I never cease to be amazed by the skill of the lighting and composition of the filmmakers of that era.

When I first started in photography a friend gave me his collection of American Cinematographer noting that if I wanted to learn about lighting theses were the guys to study. Still photographers were only concerned about making great light in a small space. Cinematographers need great light over a large space that will make their million dollar movie look magical. I still go to these magazines to help me improve my lighting in interiors. Of course two million dollars of grip makes a lot of excellence.

Rick Popham said...

As Art said above, it isn't just Casablanca. Even those classic Universal horror films: Tod Browning's "Dracula", James Whale's "Frankenstein" -- "The Wolf Man" were wonderfully presented in B&W. I never thought about the type of film used -- I just think those guys REALLY knew how to light.

Robert Hudyma said...

Don't forget the photography of George Hurrell, the master of Hollywood portraits:

http://georgehurrell.com/

I am wondering do you still need large format film and multiple tungsten hot-lights to set this style of lighting up or are there some easier ways to do this today?

AlecMuffett said...

This is going to round really strange, but I saw an documentary that was about "Best TV adverts ever" or similar, and mentioned the Courage Best (beer) adverts that ran in the UK in the 1980s.

Apparently the advertisers were trying to evoke a black-and-white movie "look" and pulled out of retirement a lighting engineer who had worked on some of the classics - I regret I can't remember which ones - and I remember the documentary as saying the rest of the crew thought "he must be [senile]" or something, because this guy went around setting-up [lots, more than usual, of] smaller light sources, all highly directional.

Then they saw the result and it was incredible, very cinematic, and of the era. It won awards.

Doing some digging I found the videos on YouTube - including a commenter who corroborates my memory - but apparently neither of us can remember the name of the lighting engineer.

Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6rsPPqSAuk

Sarah said...

I agree - so often it seems that these technological 'advances' are just an excuse to not spend the time crafting the scene. "it's so easy now"... But what good is new technology if we don't use it to further the craft? I wish more filmmakers considered ALL the tools (old and new). The new shouldn't replace the old. It just gives us more choice - what tool can I use to best support my vision....