We are in March 2021. You are excited for the release of Zack Snyder Justice League, better known as the Snyder Cut. After nearly four years of waiting, the director’s true vision for the team of all your favorite DC heroes has finally arrived.
But you notice something when you start the movie on HBO Max. The image appears square, with black bars on either side of your widescreen TV. What is going on? You notice something else. Another version is available on the application, entitled “Justice is gray”. You click on it. Not only is the image square and square, but this version is also black and white! It’s like Zack Snyder has traveled back in time and decided to make a superhero movie in the 1940s.
Snyder isn’t the only Hollywood director to embrace a format that hasn’t been used regularly for nearly 70 years. Rebecca Hall’s first film, Who passed, is on Netflix and uses the same black and white square style. that of Wes Anderson The French dispatch, now available on VOD, constantly switches from color to black and white, from the large screen to the square. These films have major studio backing and feature many Hollywood stars, from Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot to Tessa Thompson and Andre Holland. While no one expects black-and-white square films to make a real comeback, big studios are allowing great filmmakers to explore what style could do for modern audiences.
A little history lesson: before 1953, almost every movie ever made was shot in what is called the Academy ratio: 1.37 times wider than it is tall. Have you ever watched Casablanca Where It’s a wonderful life? This is the relationship in which these films and all the other films of their time were made.
During this time, color didn’t become regular use until 1935, and until the mid-1950s it was incredibly expensive, so most movies were still shot in black and white.
Widescreen formats and inexpensive color films made Academy-format black-and-white films extinct in the mid-1950s, but the style has not completely gone away. However, now being the exception instead of the rule, the format can still be found in fine art films from Europe and the independent American scene.
Why did Snyder, Hall, and Anderson decide to make their films in black and white and Academy ratio, and why were their studios comfortable with their decisions? All three recognized the visual possibilities of a square image and adapted it for very different purposes.
Snyder claimed he had always intended Justice League be in the square, ratio 1.43: 1, because it is the native shape of a true IMAX screen. (Snyder can be rewrite history a bit here.) According to him, the added height of a square ratio allows the cosmic scale of its superheroes register with the public. For âJustice is Gray,â he could push the already heavily desaturated image of the color version to its logical conclusion.
Snyder is not entirely successful here, in my opinion. By simply desaturating a color image, “Justice is Gray” does not create much contrast or the kind of detail that movies actually shot in black and white can offer. Likewise, while the square image is meant to show the scale of Superman and Wonder Woman, it rarely gives us any other visual cues to make us feel it. Snyder films his characters the same way most films film characters: with the human body as the main point of interest, rather than placing that body in an environment. The ladder is lost, and with it, the fear that Snyder wants to summon.
If Snyder was looking to add height to the Snyder fit, Hall wanted to subtract the width from Who passed. Like she said, she wanted her characters to feel “constrained.” The story of two women in 1920s Harlem grappling with their racial identities is perfect for such an approach. Hall emphasizes this constraint by framing his figures in doors, hallways and windows. The outside world still locks them in, just as racism has limited the way they see themselves.
Black and white also manages to abstract the image and blur the perception of the physical appearance of the characters. Clare (Ruth Negga) has been posing as a white woman for decades; Irene (Thompson) has tried it, and is both seduced and repelled by Clare’s behavior. Hall blows up the image so that women’s skin tones are never stable. As Hall said, âblack and white is not really black and white. It’s thousands of shades of gray, like everything else.
Anderson is well versed in using the Academy ratio from his experience on his previous live-action feature film, The Grand Hotel Budapest, and his approach to the frame in The French dispatch does not change much compared to the previous film. What he adds to it is by using black and white as the base palette and then switching to color as an accent tool.
The French dispatch tells several stories in a fantastic setting, New Yorker-inspired by France, and a few of them relate specifically to the artistic pleasure that makes the world more exciting. A little like The Wizard of Oz, the sudden injections of color in Anderson’s stories bring the sensations of experiencing a beautiful painting or savoring a transcendent meal to a thrilling life. Black and white moments are a dull reality, allowing color to be a glorious, ecstatic truth.
Even though the three filmmakers had different goals, the way Snyder uses black and white and the square aspect ratio almost like an afterthought in “Justice is Gray,” while Hall incorporates the two into every storytelling decision. in Who passed, are striking. Anderson, meanwhile, uses black and white as the next piece of his elaborate stylistic puzzle to help make his color photos even more breathtaking, and therefore more Anderson-esque.
But then again, as one side of Snyder Cut’s Flame Wars was supporting it so strongly, we should perhaps not be surprised at Snyder’s monotony. Hall’s achievement, however, is as surprising as what we’ll likely get from a Netflix movie this year. Anderson bending his styling choices to his own eccentric will is as predictable as the weather. Will their use of black and white square images become more common in Hollywood? Probably not, but it’s exciting to see it added to the options menu.
Evan Davis is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on twitter @EvanDavisSports