Sunday, January 10, 2010

Filmmaker's Journal: the elegance of black & white underwater

Ever since movie-goers watched Dorothy step out of the farmhouse and into the rainbow-hued Technicolor world of the land of Oz, filmmakers have worked with color film and video but often kept a soft spot in their hearts for black and white imagery. There's a stark beauty in its expression of pure contrast; and yet, it provides a myriad of subtle shadings - something that millions of colors cannot achieve.

From the gritty photos of Matthew Brady and war photographers like Joe Rosenthal and many others, to Ansel Adams' striking images of Yosemite and other U.S. forests and national parks, to the black and whites films of the '30s and '40's; monochromatic images have often been a welcome respite to color pictures and films.

When it came to underwater images, it seemed that color would understandably have a strong foothold. Capturing the explosive vibrant color of coral reefs and exotic fish seemed a natural fit and it has remained the established format to date.

But black and white can be fun and challenging - and sharks can lend themselves as excellent subjects because of their basic gray color and contrasting counter-shading (check out the Oceanic Dreams blog for some wonderful examples of b&w stills of sharks). For video, it usually requires more time spent in post-production, because what might look great in color, may not deliver in black and white without some tweaking of gamma, black, and contrast levels. But the end results can be worth all the effort.

Here's a brief experiment I completed recently using footage shot in the Bahamas of lemon and tiger sharks. Black and white helps bring out some of the wonderful effects of sunlight beaming through the blue water of the Bahamas. And leveling the playing field to just black and white helps focus attention on the graceful movements of the sharks. But it can be tedious work, requiring each and every shot to be adjusted and compared to the rest. Tedious but worth it.

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