Most moviegoers would be surprised to learn that the black-and-white silent film most likely to sweep the Academy Awards on Sunday was actually shot in color. "Black and white was too sharp, too clean," explains Guillaume Schiffman, director of photography for The Artist. "All movies shot in black-and-white recently are too sharp. It doesn’t make it come in a souvenir," he says, using the word as in his native French, meaning "a memory." He goes on: "We didn’t want to make an old movie, we wanted to make a new movie that gives you the souvenir of the old movie."
He had intended to shoot The Artist in black-and-white, of course, but after a number of tests nothing looked quite right. So Schiffman sought out different lenses and tweaks until he came upon the right way to shoot it in color before converting the picture to black and white. But even before he did that, it was as if he had converted it in his mind. "We watched all the dailies in black and white, and after two or three days [of shooting]," he says, "I saw only black and white."
Making a movie without dialogue means relying more on gradations of color and light to express emotion and nuance (and since color wasn’t quite the factor it usually is, in this case that meant the temperature of a hue). At the beginning of The Artist, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his career and the peak of his happiness; Schiffman worked with the lighting designer to create a saturated, shiny look that sparked a high contrast of black-and-white. As Valentin’s fortunes falter, that saturation diminishes and the images of him grow grayer, while those of his love interest Peppy (Bérénice Bejo), whose star is on the ascent, get whiter and whiter. "Black-and-white lets you play more with the shadows," he says. "You can be very intentional with your light."
The strict guidelines made shooting outside even more of a challenge than usual, so Schiffman had to do exterior scenes only at certain times of the day. Still, there was an unexpected benefit to making a silent film: You can talk to the director during takes. "We played music to set the mood. It was up to you in many ways," Schiffman says, referring to himself, "to tell the emotion, to tell the feelings. You don’t have dialogue so you have to get very involved in it, you have to get like an actor yourself."