Black and White Live Theatre


i am involved with a local community theatre. the director of the upcoming show asked if it would be possible to do the show in black and white (much like an old movie). so my question is, does anyone have any idea how to do live theatre in black and white? i have a few ideas but i don't know if they will work. at this point i'll take any advice that i can. thanks in advance.
I take it you want to do a washed-out black and white look--and not just the typical "ambers" look to a set to make it seem "in the past". You truely want to make a no-colors on stage look so everything looks like an old B&W film. I did a similar effect once that changed to full color..Wizard of Oz...blah.. This is a fairly complex effect to work out because it involves MORE then just lighting technique & gels (something the wizard of oz folks I worked with just didn't understand or plan for). It involves the costume, make-up, set & senic artists ALL working together with paints & colors for everything on stage that will "wash out" or react under certain gels, equally, to make that bleached grainy effect. Then you add some hard shadow angles, that would look like a B&W flick. Additionally when doing this--it helps to have the entire stage & theater completely dark--IOW no light bleeds from fixtures or ""ambient" light bleeding in from doorways, audience or backstage areas. All fixtures would have to be masked with black-wrap foil. It even becomes more challenging if you wish to suddenly "add" color and have the set in full color again--as if a transition. Easier to do on film of course... =)

Ever notice how some black shirts will glow "magenta" under certain blue gels? Ever notice how some colors of red will turn brown, green or black under certain other gels--but other same colors will not make the same hue? This is all in colro mixing and balance--something many lightingclasses don't teach anymore. Regardless, Its those reactive color hues that need to be used and researched by scenic & costume plus make up and lighting all together to get this to work--and make sure it is kept preserved thru the show run. For example--black shirts washed in woolite or with a color-safe bleach/detergent like Sodium Perborate will "tint" the dyes to give the black shirt that magenta hue under the right "blue" conditions.. A show on Broadway a year or two ago did this with a show of thiers...can't remember the show but it won awards for its lighting & scenic techniques doing just this B&W to color to B&W transistions by planning in-depth about everything that went on the stage and it scolor and dyes.

Anyways...To do this type of stage effect--this is the starting base you have to work from--selecting carefully the colors that go on stage. Why not just make the set black and white? Cause even black and white have hues & tints to them, or can be reflective enough which could show some coloring that does not match the rest of the set--or worse stands out. Plus if you wish to have a transition to go to color--when you add color the set stays the same--only a little brighter and more obvious as being black and white. Remember--the set colors, make up and costumes will react with the gel colors you use--and could make a hue or just make something stand out when it should not. To solve this--as a lighting person you need to come up with some basic gels & color corrections you plan to use. Then every color of paint, every swatch of clothing should be looked at under these gels and selected based on that lighting for continuity of hue. I'll have to dig up my gel list from the show if I still have it and post that to help ya, but you should start by looking at a gel swatch book for your idea--especially color & temp correction gel that removes blues, red and greens to "wash out" everything as best as possible. Do not just expect that you do not have to use gel--color temperature of a lamp at 40% will make your set look yellow or amber. Trick to this is you want to paint an even color temp thru out as best you can and watch your lamp intensity's to keep things consistant--and use color correction gel to help even things out.

Lighting on this is easier from angles you use--very front, sharp focus and side light for that "one-dimensional" look...very little to no top and backlight because you want the shadows. Also, I would suggest you use as few fixtures as possible per area you light...that way you can keep the intensity's a little more to Full and get what you need out of them. Helsp to add to that washy look...

Hope this helps answer your question and get your creative thoughts going now.

my 2cents worth of input. =)
so far it sounds like i might be on the right track. i really appreciate you taking the time to try to find the information from the show you did. right now i'm looking at gray and pale blue gels. with lighting from the middle of the theatre and cyc lights used as foot lights. i was also considering silk diffusion gels for an overhead scoop or two. as far as makeup i was looking at "sallow" as a color for skin, and brwon lipstick to produce a red effect. costumes i was thinking gray, black, light blue, dark blue, and possibly brown. i haven't given much thought to set colors yet. the set design will depend on the lighting effects we can pull off. my other large concern is hair color. i'll either need to color hair spray people or get a lot of wigs. what do you think? am i on the right track here or should i go a different route? thanks again for the help.
Just the thought of producing an all black and white show gives me a headache. I mean makeup, set, costumes, lights, sound.........well..........not so much sound. But before making any changes in the show, you need to think about whether it will still look like an old B&W film. I mean so much thought and creativity needs to go into a unique show like that. What show is it? You would think that maybe there would be a very special clear scrim that you can buy that you can put in front of the set like on the grand border or something like that. Some kind of device that would make everything look B&W to the audience. You think technology these days would be much more useful on something like that.
You could use a scrim if you wanted the audience to get the impression that they are stareing straight at an old TV... since you most likely won't be using the FOH instruments to light this play, you may be able to get away with it... doing twelve angry men this summer. an old tv might work. but what kind of scrim would i use, and where do i get one big enough to cover the whole stage? if i can work this out next year i will use it for count dracula.
old tv screen

Not sure exactly what kind kind of scrim to use, but I am envisioning something that seems to emulate an old tv screen. Let's think abou the visual qualities that make up an old black& white screen.
  1. when they were off, they had a silver reflection (not a black reflection like today's tv's)
  2. They "pixels" on the screen weren't as tightly packed together as they are today
  3. Most black and white tv's only recieved broadcast signals and the quality wasn't great all the time
  4. the CRT gun wasn't as precise as they are today and you could often see little horizontal lines across the screen
Now, how do we apply these visual qualities to a scrim?
  1. since they had a silver reflection, maybe you would want a nylon scrim or a plasic netting to get that reflection. (from personal experience, BMI has a greate selection of scrims)
  2. Since the pixels weren't very tight together, youmay want to consider a netting with larger holes, say 1/4 inch or more
  3. not really sure how you could show the "fuzz" of a tv broadcast, anyboyd else have any ideas for that?
  4. As far as the horizontal lines go, that might just work with some carefully placed gobos
Well, that is my 2 cents for the day!
that is an interesting idea. however, i think in this case it would be extremely cost prohibitive for out small group. we have a limited budget but a large stage. 32 feet long. i think the best option that i have been getting from people here as well as elsewhere is go with small angles, intense light, and gray and bluse correction gels. however, since i still have time before the show opens, i am still open to other options if anyone can think of them.
Vulcan, this is a very lively discussion going on. I'm very impressed with the wide range of solutions available and interesting concepts. As originally thought of, it's a concept for design that will at very least be unique if not of merit in study.

I hope at some pont you might have time to summerize and play test all the very impressive ideas (mine included off-line with the plano convex and reflectorless instrument ideas amongst others) and write up something on it with all ideas and you final design.

Think I would also take it to Stagecraft and pick their brains on your general concept and the details you are heading for. It would be another good source for other ideas or conformation on those already presented.
i started working with a lighting swatch. so far i'm just working with various gels. i also began experimenting with make up. i had tp give up the project for the day because i was coming up with too many questions to deal with at the time. i'm falling bac and regrouping. onw of the things i'm going to try in addition to the gels is gray make up for the actors. but i have also had some interesting results with various "normal" make up colors. i am still looking for new ideas if anybody has any. if i figure it out i will be sure to post the results.
Hi vulcan, sorry it took me so long to reply. Got suddenly busy...hate that when it happens. Anyway here is a list of the gels used for the black and white scenes from some of my notes...not sure if there were any more. hope they help with your research.

Rosco98 Medium Grey, double sheets
Rosco99 Chocolate
Rosco163 powder frost
GAM1590 Flourofilter CT
GAM1523 Full Blue CT
Gam 395 amber

Vulcan, I also have started a project to do some black and white live theatre. Has your show gone to stage? How did it turn out? Can you give me any further suggestions or problems that you ran into.

We are taking much the same approach. Everything on stage is going to be some shade of gray or black including set, make-up, props, everything. We've decided white is a no-no since it will really stick out. I am planning on lighting the stage with as few instruments as possible so that I can run them fuller and avoid the yellow range of most of my instruments. I've also ordered some of the gels that were suggested to take a look at.

I would love to have some more comments from all of you on things that have to be considered. I still have a few weeks before I have to nail anything down, but I would really like to get a jump on things as soon as possible.
I'm finding sucess with Rosco 98 and NC blue. The makeup was tricky but I'm going with Cadaver grey as a base for most actors with Ben Nye Grey 23 as lowlights, rouge and some lips CLown white mixed with coal dust also gives some great foundation shades. Be sure to add areas of high and lowlight to the makeup or you end up looking like blackface. The blue gels seem to bounce the flesh tones away.Gobos add to the shadow/film noir look I'm going for. I had no sucess with any shades of browns.
As far as the "flicker" of the TV I'm fortunate enough to have moving fixtures which, with a lot of experimenting are giving me that look.
Just FYI, the post before tekgoddess's was made in 2003. This is quite an old thread.
OK. I've found a website for latex body paint (with sponge paint brushes) and then we're using cadaver grey and blithe spirit Ben Nye Aquacolor for highlights. I like the body paint as it doesn't rub off hands once it's dry. No color blue and grey (98, I think) gels are working well. We're starting the play with a full color beggining with actors turning on the tv. Large controls on one side of the proscenium and rabbit ears on the other. When "she" turns on the set "he" goes to adjust the rabbit ears. We found an old film of the countdown to the broadcast coming on, then voila, the play begins as our couple sit down to watch. We also found some b/w commercials to air the 1/2 hour the house is open to really give them an idea of what we're doing. If I get pix that are any good I'll post them. we go up Oct. 22.
I was going highly recommend the medium gray and the no color blue, it works amazingly well, I love the Idea of silk scoops. have you thought about under scoring the action with a noise track, something like what silence sounds like on an old record player? most of the old B&W I've seen are never truly silent, so there's a couple of coppers at you. Mostly I'm writing to see if you can post some pictures of this show when all is said and done, cause this is sounding a lot cooler than the last sort of Black and White piece I worked on.

Much love
I think this post is probably pretty old... but for what it's worth.
We just put The Crucible in b/w to bed. It turned out pretty awesome after much hand wringing. The biggest issue turned out to be skin tones. We used blithe spirit and cadaver grey makeup with great sucess. But the hands. We found that body latex paint is the best. It dries fats and doesn't smear. We used mostly no color blue gels and lots of breakup gobos as we were trying for a film noir shadowy look as well. Just be sure the idiot actors know to get their faces where the shadows AREN'T. Take the costumes or swatches and light them. We had some odd colors appear on black dyed (formerly yellow) cotton. They read red at certain intensities. It takes meticulous attention to detail but it's worth it. I have color pix that look b/w except for the inside of the actors mouths. Couldn't get them to swallow the paint..go figure!

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