/ Technology

Are some films best left in black and white?

To mark 100 years since the end of The First World War, director Peter Jackson has restored archive footage of the conflict with dramatic results. But should some things just be left as they are?

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has just revealed the results of his latest project: the enhancement of hours of First World War footage – fully colourising it and adding a soundtrack.

The film, They Shall Not Grow Old, combines archive footage from the Imperial War Museum and interviews with those who fought – and is being released in UK cinemas on Tuesday 16 October.

The result is striking. The enhanced and coloured footage, along with the soundtrack, brings the viewer a lot closer to what the war must have been like for those fighting in it.

Full colour war

As Peter Jackson told the BBC: “Our image of the First World War was as a black and white war, but it was not a black and white war. It was a war in full colour if you were a soldier there.”

“I wanted to give people a feeling as accurately as I could… to what it was like to be in that war and just what it was like from a human point of view.”

And the film certainly does that. Here’s a preview:

Enhancement ethics

But are there some things that shouldn’t be restored? As CGI and film technology progress, there are clearly broad ethical questions to be asked about whether films should be left in their original state or restored.

But for me, black and white footage can only go so far in educating modern audiences about historical events – and there are few events as important as The Great War; if a better medium is available to do this, like colour film, why not use it?

There’s a clear educational purpose to They Shall Not Grow Old, IE. to accurately as possible show audiences now what the war looked and felt like then.

I think things are different when restoring entertainment, as George discussed on Convo last year raising questions about artistic ownership and vision.

Colourisation craze

The colourisation of black and white films isn’t a new thing: it’s been going on since at least the 1980s, as this extensive Wikipedia list of b&w classics that have been colourised shows.

And – probably because most of these early colourisations looked fairly terrible – there’s been a backlash against them from the beginning, with some film journalists describing it as “Hollywood’s new vandalism”.

One classic that resisted the colourisation craze in the 80s was Citizen Kane – a film which, as a megalomaniac journalist, I’ve always been a huge fan of.

Kane avoided this fate after the entertainment company proposing to colourise it found doing so may have breached Orsen Welles’ contract with the film’s production company.

But the question remains, would colourising Citizen Kane have made it a better film? Probably not, I’d say.

B&W is best?

Orson Welles (who produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in the film) will have planned everything from the script and the casting to the sets, locations and lighting with the limitations, but also virtues, of black and white in the back of his mind – If he’d planned this all for colour, the film would likely have been quite different.

Film critic Roger Ebert has said of colourisation:  “What was so wrong about black and white movies in the first place? By filming in black and white, movies can sometimes be more dreamlike and elegant and stylized and mysterious.”

Colourising Citizen Kane, though technically possible, probably wouldn’t enhance it and might actually make it a worse film – all the good things that go with black and white, pointed out by Ebert, having been lost.

But what do you think? Have your favourite black and white films or TV shows been colourised – and what do you think of the results? Do you think Peter Jackson’s enhancement of black and white footage is useful for remembering the First World War?


I enjoy watching black and white films, despite the far greater detail that colour brings. I’ve been watching a lot of early documentaries, and just started on Mitchell and Kenyon’s rediscovered short films from the beginning of the 20th century. They would, I think, be better if they were in colour in the sense that more information would be conveyed. However, the colours would have to be authentic and I don’t know how that could possibly be achieved. What colour is that building, the signage, long since demolished, for example? The colour of clothing, of vehicles……If it could not be “real” then I’d stick with B&W.

As for feature films, the skill was in transforming a coloured world effectively into black and white, ensuring the meaning was conveyed in both a technical and artistic sense; adding colour could well destroy part of the film’s concept. And again, could authentic colours possibly be added? I’d have thought not.

On balance I’d leave well alone.

There are definitely cases where the unique features of black and white mean that a colourisation (or even a colour remake) could only worsen the visual experience. A clear example to me would be The Third Man, which uses the light/dark aspects of B&W as a motif and a medium. There’s something a bit alien about the lack of colour, and in cases like the one I mention that alienation can serve the plot better than a colour alternative.

Jennifer White says:
17 November 2018

I agree re The Third Man. Every shot is a masterclass in composition and lighting. Black and white used to its very best. It is of course an ‘art’ film. Some documentary footage may be enhanced by colour to emphasise the reality of the subject, that it’s not ‘detached’ from our present-day experience.

Part of the joy of seeing old films is that their black and white status adds to their vintage nature and helps dim the desire to criticize any flaws in the plot or mannerisms on screen. This is how it was and the old cars and lamp posts and telephones fit the black and white scene perfectly. Though I have no moral or artistic objection to anyone wishing to add colour to any film it does seem a great deal of effort for little gain. I do admire Peter Jackson’s work and his selection and colouring of the war archive serves a purpose beyond enhancing audience pleasure. I look forward to seeing this film and learning more of what my ancestors did and went through. It will add to my collection of war writing from the trenches provided by great uncles killed and injured in that conflict.

The original cameras used during WWI were hand cranked and thus had variable frame rates. They generally varied between 14 and 17 fps (frames per second), so uneven movement and an almost comic effect was the consequence. Jackson’s work in standardising the frame rate at 25fps (UK) and 29fps(US) is remarkable, as every film strip had to be analysed to detect the variations.

Just getting the films to appear natural was probably the biggest achievement of the entire project. Adding colour was essential, if we want our history to be relevant to our children and grandchildren. Again, that was an immense task, as adding colour well takes an enormous amount of time.

But one aspect hasn’t been discussed and that’s the sharpening of the images. Jackson worked from 2K scans, yet the final product has been increased to 8K. The footage I’ve seen is simply stunning and repays the effort he’s put in many times over. Again, this was done on a frame by frame basis which, even with the right algorithms, takes a lot of time.

This will revolutionise a view of history for the current generation, and I think Jackson is to be applauded. But the world is in colour; black and white was simply what was available in reasonable cost terms at the time. Those who want to watch them in the original B & W can do so, but those who want to see history as it was made, whether in entertainment or reality, will almost certainly prefer colour. And Citizen Kane isn’t really mworth adding colour to, anyway. It is, after all, a rather self-indulgent piece of cinematic hubris that has almost no relevance today.

Now Things to Come, on the other hand…

Hi, I think Peter’s film is so much behind just adding colour. He’s cleaned it up and then slowed down the footage so that it doesn’t look like people moving at an unnatural pace. I think this has more impact than adding colour. They also used lip-reading experts to add in what they were actually saying in the footage.

I think having things in black and white and at an unnatural pace makes it easier for you to divorce yourself from the reality of the event and the people within it.

That’s my view on historical footage, but I agree on entertainment. I would only back this if the director was included in the colourisation and it was their vision (which may not be possible).

I agree that overall there’s a huge amount of value in bringing the WWI footage ‘to life’ by making it visually familiar to current audiences. Such projects can help make visually ‘unavailable’ historical events far more relatable to new audiences that are used to different ways of watching video.

Colourisation is one way this can be done, as are stabilisation of footage and the various cleaning techniques on the original medium.

But there is one aspect of what Peter Jackson’s production company has done that I do morally wrangle with – that this involved CG recreations of frames.

In order to produce smoother footage, visual artists would have had to recreate the ‘missing’ frames in the original stock, which was shot at lower frames per second than the 24/25/30/60fps with which we’re now familiar – this kind of old footage ends up looking a bit sped-up, jittery and movements sharper when played back ‘naturally’ at 24fps, giving people in the film the awkward appearance of automata or visually reminding us more of silent comedies than documentary film.

Creating those ‘filler’ frames must have been an enormous endeavour and was probably conducted algorithmically, with graphics processors computing the likely trajectory of every object in a frame and rendering it, with manual corrections. It’s far more sophisticated than simple frame-blending.

However, the fundamental nature of these techniques does technically mean that the company has generated and animated computerised, lifelike images of the real soldiers fighting and dying.

Now, you could argue that this is no different from creating a computer game about WWI, or telling the story through hand-drawn animation. You could make a more fundamental argument that it’s not substantially different from film in the first place – a silver nitrate cell is arguably no more ‘truly’ the people in question than a painting, even if it is a more lifelike representation. However, most modern computer animations are careful to avoid replicating the images of real soldiers, and usually use modern models.

I feel like this aspect means there is a personal judgment to be made. Some might make the comparison with the animated version of the (late) Peter Cushing that was used in a recent Star Wars film without the permission of his estate (I believe). Personally I feel that there is a difference in purpose here – one that isn’t purely for entertainment – and a far closer-to-life use of technology.

I’m okay with it, but I wonder if all others would be, particularly if the men featured are family members.

The Mitchell and Kenyon documentaries, largely of people as far as I have got so far, are at normal speed and I think adds a great deal. No sign of them being in any way artificial even though it was no doubt achieved “digitally”..

With or without the permission of his estate, using an animated version of Peter Cushing has everything to do with commerce and nothing to do with art, same with the Ford Puma advert with Steve McQueen, or a pseudo-Audrey Hepburn selling Galaxy chocolate (how dare they??!!).

I know of at least two family members who were in WWI, a great-great-uncle (he was killed) and my great-grandfather, whom I knew. If their images were used to make such a film as They Shall Not Grow Old, which is fundamentally to the opposite of anything that glorifies war, I would be profoundly touched and I would feel that their time as soldiers would have come to some use eventually. My great-grand-mother, whom I also knew, never recovered from losing her brother. No-one ever recovers from war, they learn to live with it, if they can.

The war to end all wars didn’t end any war unfortunately. I saw They Shall Not Grow Old at the Cameo, Edinburgh, last night. Comparatively, not many of us know we’re born, do we? Given humanity’s (“humanity”…) past performance and what it is capable of doing as we speak, I’m not naive enough to think that the film will dampen our general appetite for conflict, but it may have an impact none the less. It should be shown everywhere in the country for a few weeks and then in secondary schools, if edited in places, and then shown again regularly, on television and in cinemas.

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez-vous… The song has been in my head since last night. The only earworm I can remember that I haven’t tried to get rid of, at all.

Thanks for your poignant report, Sophie. I find anything about the Great War very touching and thought-provoking. I am not sure I would be able to contain my emotions in the cinema so I shall get the DVD as soon as it’s available so that I can watch it scene by scene.

In Sheringham, on the north Norfolk coast, a There But Not There transparent effigy of a WW1 soldier was decapitated by vandals soon after its installation on a public seat by the Royal British Legion. Understandably, this has caused immense outrage and demonstrates that much more needs to be done to educate and inform – not just about war, but about respect, pride, remembrance and civic values.

There will be grey areas 🙂 , but:

– If something was created specifically in B&W for artistic reasons when colour already existed, putting it in colour is meaningless, like changing the colours of something already in colour.

– If something was created in B&W when that’s all there was or when it still was the most common medium, I would credit the artist with being perfectly aware of it and using it in the best possible way. Colourising it afterwards seems arrogant.

– When it comes to passing on information and attempting to bring non-fiction home, colourising now has a part to play. We only have to think of blood: what impact does it have when we see it in B&W and when we see it in colour?

Presumably the original black & white films still exists in the state they do, or at least copies of the original state they were in were made before restoring them and colourising them?

Hitchcock preferred B & W for some of his films.

Quite a lot of the footage shown of the Great War was actually recreated scenes and posed shots because there was no practical way of getting film technicians into the battles; they would soon be mown down because of their cumbersome apparatus. Behind the lines footage is often real but selective because the War Office did not want to show the worst horrors of the war nor reveal the army’s logistical activities. Personally I welcome this work by Peter Jackson as it brings a new reality to the war and helps us see that the soldiers were human, the horses were animals and the guns were real; for every scene you look at you wonder what happened next and whether you are looking at one of your ancestors. My mother’s father was killed at the battle of the Somme and I examine all pictures I come across in case I might see him. I shall study this film with great interest.

Some years ago Channel 4 had a short series of documentaries called [if I recall correctly] The Third Reich in Colour. It was chilling to see, in full colour and detail, close-ups of the leading figures as well as ordinary people and their behaviour over the period 1933-39. It was original Agfa coloured film stock that had been cleaned up and slightly enhanced and it looked stunningly realistic.

I hope no one tries to de-Technicolorise [to a modern colour standard] the beautiful musicals and other movies that emanated from Hollywood in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Due to the technical necessities of the time they were gloriously over-drenched with colour which complemented the sumptuous sets, spectacular costumes and immaculate choreography; these effects succeeded in distracting filmgoers from the poor sound-dubbing, continuity lapses, limping dialogue and leaden acting in most motion pictures of the time.

The only one that could do with some modifying is South Pacific, with the absurd use of a filter they applied in three scenes.

I noticed ‘The Man In The White Suit’ starring Alec Guinness was on Talking Pictures recently, a thoroughly enjoyable film.

That is one film that would not benefit from colourisation as the effect of the brilliant white suit would be lost.

Whisky Galore! please, Oscar. Whiskey Galore! sounds Irish to me. 🙂

The old black and white classics should be left as such Black & White. I recently watched The Third Man again. The camera work was stunning and the black & white images were amazing. I think putting this film into colour would distract the viewer from the actual images. The images from WW1 should be left in black & white some how when you watch them in colour it makes you think you are watching “a film” and not actual events. Sometimes we just have to leave things be.

I beg to differ, Digger, having seen They Shall Not Grow Old, where I think the colour rendering was very sensitively done and added more realism.

News films of wars over the last 60 years have nearly always been in colour. Does that make them look less real? Not actual events?

This film shows what modern feature films have to live up to: no more fat and puffy-faced actors required with a full set of teeth, beautifully coiffed hair, and designer uniforms. The Bridge on the River Kwai got it right but it was a rarity in the genre.

I like to watch the film Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim, at Christmas on television. Some years ago, I wasn’t enjoying it for some reason. I then realised that I was watching the colour version for the first time. Turning the colour off restored my enjoyment. Definitely a film made for monochrome. (Another one for black and white is The Winslow Boy).