Sometimes subtraction can add a lot. Removing color to create a film in black and white can add depth, shadows, and uncertainty, a sense of distortion or nostalgia. This year’s awards conversation includes an unusually strong handful of monochromatic films, all with their own reasons for choosing the aesthetic. But they also have one powerful thing in common: a desire to place the viewer somewhere far from the here and now. “This film is a drawing, not a painting,” says C’mon C’mon writer-director Mike Mills, who chose black and white to give his film the feeling of both a documentary and a fable. “It has the immediacy and the quickness of a drawing, as opposed to the formality and the thickness of a painting.”

BelfastBy ROB YOUNGSON/FOCUS FEATURES.

The choice to go black and white rests with the director but changes the work of almost everyone else on the project, particularly the costume makers, production designers, and cinematographers. In the preproduction phase, they have to think in gray scale, which is harder than it sounds. “We get used to just having our iPhones out with video in black and white,” Mills says. “You have to see everything or take a picture of everything, so you’re not looking at it in real life. You’re only looking at it transformed into black and white.”

C’mon C’mon, a contemporary, bighearted drama starring Joaquin Phoenix as a loner uncle who must take care of his live-wire nephew, could not be more different from the other black-and-white films out this season—and they, in turn, could not be more different from one another.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is filmmaker Joel Coen’s stark take on the Shakespeare play, with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the bloodthirsty power couple. Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical Belfast tells the story of a working-class Irish family during the volatile start of the Troubles in the late 1960s. And Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, Passing, stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as Black women in the 1920s who grapple with the moral and emotional consequences of being perceived as white.

The Tragedy of MacbethBy ALISON COHEN ROSA.

When talking about the how and why of black and white, the makers of these films often reach for the same word: abstraction. “One of the things that Joel has talked about, and that we talked about on our very first meeting, was he wanted to use black and white to abstract the imagery,” says Macbeth production designer Stefan Dechant (The Call of the Wild, Kong: Skull Island). “Once you move a film into black and white, that happens completely.”

Dechant designed askew modernist backdrops that only hint at Scottish castles and woodlands but have a piercing, geometric sharpness. “The sets in this film are not necessarily held together by plaster and nails and wood. They’re held together by light and shadow,” he says. As the story of Macbeth plunges into its characters’ darkest impulses, the black-and-white world becomes a razor-like manifestation of the lead character’s murderous mind. “It became about, how much can we keep stripping out to create the psychology of the environment?” Dechant says.

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