Black and White Movies: How to Calibrate

I have a KURO display that has the ISF-Night mode calibrated to 30 foot-Lamberts with a 6500 K white point. I also had the Pure mode calibrated with a 5400 K white point for black and white movies. Should I use the 5400 K calibrated Pure mode with black and white movies on Blu-ray? I have always wondered which is the most accurate white point for black and white movies. Do they always correct the white point of black and white movies so that it looks correct on displays calibrated with a 6500 K white point?

– David A.
Dublin, Ohio

The quick answer is that there is no right or wrong way to watch black and white content on modern displays. The reason being is there is no single standard for the color temp of this content. Remember, a movie shot on true black and white film has no white point. That term only came about once color video displays; using red, green, and blue primaries, became available. Before that, only the projection lamp could determine the actual color temperature of an image. The film and camera could not.

To understand where the 5400 K guideline came from, we’ll need a short history lesson.

During the era of black and white films, cinema projectors employed a 5400 K lamp. Why was this done? Like most display technology of the past, standards were based on the limits of the equipment available. Simply put, a bulb capable of the tremendous light output necessary to project a movie onto a large theater screen did so with a large amount of red in its spectrum; hence the image’s warm sepia tint.

Of course there were other variables to consider. The age of the lamp would almost certainly change its color temperature over time. The color of a theater’s particular screen would also have an effect. Today we have plastic-derived materials and white screens. 50 years ago, screens were fabric covered with a metallic substance. Hence the term “silver screen.” They literally were silver; and highly reflective as a result. In fact, they reflected more than just the movie. They also reflected the colors of the theater’s walls, drapes, seats, ceiling, and, you get the idea. As beautiful as the movie houses of old were, they were poor environments for achieving consistent image quality.

So fast-forwarding to today: When a black and white film is transferred to Blu-ray (or DVD for that matter), it is done using a standard 6500 K white point. Therefore, if you want to view the film exactly as it was intended to be viewed by the telecine operator, you would use 6500 K as your white point. However, the sepia tone of a 5400 K setting is quite pleasing to many viewers. And it’s closer to what audiences saw in theaters decades ago. The added warmth can really enhance the experience and perceived depth of the image. You see where I’m going?

The choice is purely one of personal preference. There is no right or wrong way to view a black and white film. If science is your priority, go for 6500 K. If you want that vintage feel and a taste of a cinema from Hollywood’s Golden Age, 5400 K is where you want to be.