Why do the black and white sequences in modern films never actually *look* like vintage film?

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I’ve seen so many movies that try to replicate an old film aesthetic, or have a sequence with a fictional vintage film, that sort of thing. The audio and video quality is always way too sharp and modern and never actually convinces the audience that it’s a legitimate piece of vintage camera work. Is it that hard to replicate the effect? Would you need an actual 80-100 year old camera to achieve that quality?

EDIT: Thank you literally everyone for your responses. Seems like the general consensus is a mix between technnology and artistry…both the way film handles light/shadow/colour/speed, and the advancements we’ve made in artistic direction. I can’t wait to watch Mank (as recommended) because just the trailer is fascinating. I can definitely tell how much of the difference is amplified by the cinematography itself–quick changes into closeups, lingering shots of objects as opposed to faces, just general directorial taste. Older films utilize fewer angles, quick shots, and camera tricks for longer, more sterile sequences and that a really matters so much. I loved learning all of this, seeing it firsthand with a different psychological lens, and I appreciate the time you took to help me along!

In: 35

Probably they want to say “this is an old footage” without dealing with downsides of an old footage, like poor picture quality.

It would look really crappy on a modern screen. I’ve seen one that *did* use actual old footage. It looked really bad on a giant modern movie screen.

They pick making the movie look better over authenticity.

Was there a recent film you saw that had this problem? It might be easier to speak to the problems with a specific example.

In general, there are a few different things going on. One of them is film grain. Digital camera tend to not be as grainy as cameras from back in the day, so something shot digitally in black and white may have pure whites and pure blacks that you could never get from an old camera. This is a problem I had with Mank.

You don’t need an 80-100 year old camera, but if you really want that look you need to use actual black and white film (which hasn’t changed much).

Maybe it has something to do with color balance. Even in black and white color saturation, hue, and whatever the third one is all affect how those colors appear in relation to other colors in bnw.

Some movies do it well. I thought the light house looked pretty old school, but I believe it was actually shot on 38mm film. Also a lot of old film we see was quite aged before being digitally transcribed, so it had physically deteriorated by the time you saw it.

It has to do with the film stock used then and the lenses. On top of that it most likely looks bad now because it was not preserved well before being scanned into digital. Theres nothing inherently bad about older lenses or film. If you had a good lens from the 20s and perfectly preserved film stock you could make something that looks very good. We also have much better equipment now to make glass lens that have stricter tolerances so they can let more light in etc… the answer is that its really a combination of many different things. Audio was much worse back in the way because it couldnt be recorded digitally and had a high noise floor. Microphones didnt have much dynamic range to pick up the softest or loudest sounds.

It is a combination of available film and projection technologies. One of the reason we can keep releasing HD versions of classics is that 35mm film resolution is something like 87 megapixels *a frame*. Provided the film was properly exposed initially and then protected, you can scan that with increasing resolution almost at will.

We are still shooting some movies on regular old film with all the benefits and drawbacks, but because screens are so sharp they have spend a lot of time in post editing with computers that you simply didn’t get before the 90s.

In iron man 2 the old retro films of Howard Stark looked really good in my opinion, I just rewatched it yesterday and noted exactly this.

There are a few reasons. Let’s explore just some of those :

1. Film Grain : Digital cameras provide much, much cleaner images compared to film cameras used back in time to shoot BW films. Film cameras tend to be grainy, have imperfections and have “off-white” and “off-black” colors while modern cameras pick up full spectrum of color and digitally turn it into BW by color correcting.
2. Lighting : Our methods and tech of lighting have changed drastically since the times of OG BW films. You can clearly tell that when comparing a modern and old BW film.
3. Filming methods : Again, times have changed the methods and techniques we use to shoot movies. New angles, new movements, new panning. You can subconciously tell that it is in fact a modern movie.

Did you watch Mank (came out in 2020)? I think it would be the exception to this rule. There’s some good behind-the-scenes explainers on how much effort went in to making it look AND sound like a movie from the 30s/40s.

Trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSfX-nrg-lI

Well you asnwered the question yourself: The audio and quality is always way too sharp!
I am a conossieur of the classics! Casablanca is one of my favorite films! And even if I watch a Blu-Ray HD version, the image will never look too clean!
Also I am not sure, but I think camera angles also have something to do with it. Vintage films usually had a very stiff camerawork, where a lot of movies the camera was more or less just set up to shoot the scene like they were shooting something from a theatre company. (there were exceptions of course)
But todays film uses different angles, they move the camera around a lot etc.

Compare this to, say, Ed Wood which is supposed to look like a vintage film. They try the hardest, but it still doesn’t look like a vintage film.

The simple answer is that they don’t actually want to recreate that same aesthetic. Older films are grainy, blurry, have obvious blemishes, bad sound… The nostalgia may seem cool in our head, but seeing it for an extended period of time in a modern cinema screen or 4K OLED TV will get frustrating really quick. So they only want to go as far as giving a semblance of a vintage look.

Maybe because it’s obviously modern times, so black and white is enough to get the desired effect? Why would you want it to look worse than it has to, from a production standpoint?

Check ‘the lighthouse’, is an actual 35mm production filmed in b&w. They used a filter to recreate the tones of old time b&w movies. You need to understand that different film stocks reacts different to the colours, and to my knowledge the only current production professional b&w film available to film makers is Kodak double-x.
This film is panchromatic, it can see all visible light, but older film was orthochromatic, the red part is the visible light doesn’t register, thus rendering reds as blacks and affecting the overall tone. You can fix this to some degree in post, but what makes film different is that this response is not linear. Also the grain is also a big part of that old b&w film aesthetic, and even if you can add grain in post is not convincing.

Sometimes the issue you’re seeing is just a difference in the capture technology.

Old B&W film captured images directly in film stock that was only capable of capturing images on a spectrum of gray, going to black to white.

Many modern B&W images are captured by:

1. passing the image’s light through a filter that captures captures light on a color sensor, which results in a color curve that’s “off” from what you’re used to.
2. converting one or a select pair of the RGB color channels from the sensor to black and white
3. converting to B&W during editing in post production

There aren’t a lot of “pure” B&W camera sensors on the market these days. Movies that want a B&W effect have to either try to trick the camera into capturing a B&W image on a color sensor during shooting, or convert color footage to B&W later. This may very well contribute to why you think it looks off, since this conversion process will never be able to perfectly replicate how B&W film would convert color to grays.

As a curious sidenote, the following short video clip filmed in 2018 looks more like a 1910s B&W movie than anything I have seen in years.

The twist?

[It was filmed from 13 km above comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko](https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/04/a-short-new-movie-of-a-comets-surface-is-pretty-incredible/)

Thank you literally everyone for your responses. Seems like the general consensus is a mix between technnology and artistry…both the way film handles light/shadow/colour/speed, and the advancements we’ve made in artistic direction. I can’t wait to watch Mank (as recommended) because just the trailer is fascinating. I can definitely tell how much of the difference is amplified by the cinematography itself–quick changes into closeups, lingering shots of objects as opposed to faces, just general directorial taste. Older films utilize fewer angles, quick shots, and camera tricks for longer, more sterile sequences and that a really matters so much. I loved learning all of this, seeing it firsthand with a different psychological lens, and I appreciate the time you took to help me along!

0 views

I’ve seen so many movies that try to replicate an old film aesthetic, or have a sequence with a fictional vintage film, that sort of thing. The audio and video quality is always way too sharp and modern and never actually convinces the audience that it’s a legitimate piece of vintage camera work. Is it that hard to replicate the effect? Would you need an actual 80-100 year old camera to achieve that quality?

EDIT: Thank you literally everyone for your responses. Seems like the general consensus is a mix between technnology and artistry…both the way film handles light/shadow/colour/speed, and the advancements we’ve made in artistic direction. I can’t wait to watch Mank (as recommended) because just the trailer is fascinating. I can definitely tell how much of the difference is amplified by the cinematography itself–quick changes into closeups, lingering shots of objects as opposed to faces, just general directorial taste. Older films utilize fewer angles, quick shots, and camera tricks for longer, more sterile sequences and that a really matters so much. I loved learning all of this, seeing it firsthand with a different psychological lens, and I appreciate the time you took to help me along!

In: 35

Probably they want to say “this is an old footage” without dealing with downsides of an old footage, like poor picture quality.

It would look really crappy on a modern screen. I’ve seen one that *did* use actual old footage. It looked really bad on a giant modern movie screen.

They pick making the movie look better over authenticity.

Was there a recent film you saw that had this problem? It might be easier to speak to the problems with a specific example.

In general, there are a few different things going on. One of them is film grain. Digital camera tend to not be as grainy as cameras from back in the day, so something shot digitally in black and white may have pure whites and pure blacks that you could never get from an old camera. This is a problem I had with Mank.

You don’t need an 80-100 year old camera, but if you really want that look you need to use actual black and white film (which hasn’t changed much).

Maybe it has something to do with color balance. Even in black and white color saturation, hue, and whatever the third one is all affect how those colors appear in relation to other colors in bnw.

Some movies do it well. I thought the light house looked pretty old school, but I believe it was actually shot on 38mm film. Also a lot of old film we see was quite aged before being digitally transcribed, so it had physically deteriorated by the time you saw it.

It has to do with the film stock used then and the lenses. On top of that it most likely looks bad now because it was not preserved well before being scanned into digital. Theres nothing inherently bad about older lenses or film. If you had a good lens from the 20s and perfectly preserved film stock you could make something that looks very good. We also have much better equipment now to make glass lens that have stricter tolerances so they can let more light in etc… the answer is that its really a combination of many different things. Audio was much worse back in the way because it couldnt be recorded digitally and had a high noise floor. Microphones didnt have much dynamic range to pick up the softest or loudest sounds.

It is a combination of available film and projection technologies. One of the reason we can keep releasing HD versions of classics is that 35mm film resolution is something like 87 megapixels *a frame*. Provided the film was properly exposed initially and then protected, you can scan that with increasing resolution almost at will.

We are still shooting some movies on regular old film with all the benefits and drawbacks, but because screens are so sharp they have spend a lot of time in post editing with computers that you simply didn’t get before the 90s.

In iron man 2 the old retro films of Howard Stark looked really good in my opinion, I just rewatched it yesterday and noted exactly this.

There are a few reasons. Let’s explore just some of those :

1. Film Grain : Digital cameras provide much, much cleaner images compared to film cameras used back in time to shoot BW films. Film cameras tend to be grainy, have imperfections and have “off-white” and “off-black” colors while modern cameras pick up full spectrum of color and digitally turn it into BW by color correcting.
2. Lighting : Our methods and tech of lighting have changed drastically since the times of OG BW films. You can clearly tell that when comparing a modern and old BW film.
3. Filming methods : Again, times have changed the methods and techniques we use to shoot movies. New angles, new movements, new panning. You can subconciously tell that it is in fact a modern movie.

Did you watch Mank (came out in 2020)? I think it would be the exception to this rule. There’s some good behind-the-scenes explainers on how much effort went in to making it look AND sound like a movie from the 30s/40s.

Trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSfX-nrg-lI

Well you asnwered the question yourself: The audio and quality is always way too sharp!
I am a conossieur of the classics! Casablanca is one of my favorite films! And even if I watch a Blu-Ray HD version, the image will never look too clean!
Also I am not sure, but I think camera angles also have something to do with it. Vintage films usually had a very stiff camerawork, where a lot of movies the camera was more or less just set up to shoot the scene like they were shooting something from a theatre company. (there were exceptions of course)
But todays film uses different angles, they move the camera around a lot etc.

Compare this to, say, Ed Wood which is supposed to look like a vintage film. They try the hardest, but it still doesn’t look like a vintage film.

The simple answer is that they don’t actually want to recreate that same aesthetic. Older films are grainy, blurry, have obvious blemishes, bad sound… The nostalgia may seem cool in our head, but seeing it for an extended period of time in a modern cinema screen or 4K OLED TV will get frustrating really quick. So they only want to go as far as giving a semblance of a vintage look.

Maybe because it’s obviously modern times, so black and white is enough to get the desired effect? Why would you want it to look worse than it has to, from a production standpoint?

Check ‘the lighthouse’, is an actual 35mm production filmed in b&w. They used a filter to recreate the tones of old time b&w movies. You need to understand that different film stocks reacts different to the colours, and to my knowledge the only current production professional b&w film available to film makers is Kodak double-x.
This film is panchromatic, it can see all visible light, but older film was orthochromatic, the red part is the visible light doesn’t register, thus rendering reds as blacks and affecting the overall tone. You can fix this to some degree in post, but what makes film different is that this response is not linear. Also the grain is also a big part of that old b&w film aesthetic, and even if you can add grain in post is not convincing.

Sometimes the issue you’re seeing is just a difference in the capture technology.

Old B&W film captured images directly in film stock that was only capable of capturing images on a spectrum of gray, going to black to white.

Many modern B&W images are captured by:

1. passing the image’s light through a filter that captures captures light on a color sensor, which results in a color curve that’s “off” from what you’re used to.
2. converting one or a select pair of the RGB color channels from the sensor to black and white
3. converting to B&W during editing in post production

There aren’t a lot of “pure” B&W camera sensors on the market these days. Movies that want a B&W effect have to either try to trick the camera into capturing a B&W image on a color sensor during shooting, or convert color footage to B&W later. This may very well contribute to why you think it looks off, since this conversion process will never be able to perfectly replicate how B&W film would convert color to grays.

As a curious sidenote, the following short video clip filmed in 2018 looks more like a 1910s B&W movie than anything I have seen in years.

The twist?

[It was filmed from 13 km above comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko](https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/04/a-short-new-movie-of-a-comets-surface-is-pretty-incredible/)

Thank you literally everyone for your responses. Seems like the general consensus is a mix between technnology and artistry…both the way film handles light/shadow/colour/speed, and the advancements we’ve made in artistic direction. I can’t wait to watch Mank (as recommended) because just the trailer is fascinating. I can definitely tell how much of the difference is amplified by the cinematography itself–quick changes into closeups, lingering shots of objects as opposed to faces, just general directorial taste. Older films utilize fewer angles, quick shots, and camera tricks for longer, more sterile sequences and that a really matters so much. I loved learning all of this, seeing it firsthand with a different psychological lens, and I appreciate the time you took to help me along!