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Don’t Color (All of) My World: Let’s Not Leave Black and White Behind
July 9, 2017  | By Eric Gould
 

There’s no denying the “Oh, my God,” moment when you click on the colorized version of Mark Twain. Rather than another black and white ghost pulled from the dented file cabinet of history, he’s about as alive as can be.

But as tempting as it is, should colorization's "more alive" argument keep moving black and white TV and films to the rear as dull, unwatchable and less entertaining?

It might seem so, given the regularity of series that restore old photos and footage into color. Blood and Glory: The Civil War in Color (2015) was a sober and shocking representation of the carnage that happened within our borders and made those photos perhaps more cautionary than ever before. World War II in Color, the American Heroes Channel stalwart, with 13 episodes in 2008, did the same.

Twain, of course, isn’t a subject in the current Smithsonian Channel documentary miniseries, America in Color, which spans American history and culture from the 1920s to the ‘60s. (It premiered last weekend and will run through July, Sundays at 8 p.m. ET.) But his colorized portrait, which started making the rounds on the Internet a few years ago, is a prime case for the effect color has on audiences that would otherwise let history drone by, unsaturated.

The original aesthetic knock against colorization – the early, candy-coated Crayola versions – isn’t always a problem anymore. The makers of America in Color, Composite Films, have used the best in current digital techniques to sharpen and restore footage (right) while also applying color. Many of the clips have the clarity and feel of modern footage.

The production company also used a team of “color investigators” who went back through archives and collectible material matching up clothing colors that were authentic of the day.

As good as America in Color and other shows like it are, it nags that black and white series and news footage are somehow less, and more difficult to get air time and interest.

You get the feeling that black and white detective series like Peter Gunn, perhaps the greatest TV example of noir cinematography, are becoming the electronic equivalent of eating your peas. It’s out of the ordinary, maybe visually dry – but you know it’s good for you.

When The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012, it won in part because of its homage to decades of film shot in black and white format. (The maybe better examples of using the genre to great success are the Coen brothers’ 2001 The Man Who Wasn’t There, or George Clooney’s 2003 Good Night and Good Luck.)

Ken Burns has made a career out of black and white history, and Turner Classic Movies' library of thousands of MGM and Warner Bros. films, the majority of them black and white classics, are accessible to TV audiences on a nightly basis. (Ted Turner took early criticism when he began colorizing films that TCM owned the rights to in the 1980s.)

There are also plenty of black and white series still around, too, on classic cable TV channels like MeTV, Decades and Antenna TV. Many veteran Hollywood cinematographers took television shows like The Fugitive (right) and Route 66 back in the ‘60s to make ends meet between film shoots. Their legacy should somehow live on as part of television’s inaugural black and white age.

Color isn’t always a fix. Or needed. A replay of Walter Cronkite’s live broadcast on the day JFK’s assassination wouldn’t be more real or more grave in color. In fact, altering it might trivialize it more than anything else.

It would be one of many cases where color would be less.

 
 
 
 
 
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