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Monochrome Past

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Albus Dumbledore in 1993 and 1945

"This is the past, and the past is in black and white. Get it?"
Bugs Bunny, child of a black-and-white cartoon, Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue

Ever since the advent of colour photography, the past has been depicted as in black and white, sepia tone or muted colors. Usually invoked for a Flashback or silent film homage. Sometimes made fun of by claiming that the real world was, in fact, black and white prior to the invention of color.

Gloriously averted by world's first non-artificial-color footage from 1927.

Subtrope of Flashback Effects. See also Deliberately Monochrome, for when the entire work is this way, and Decade-Themed Filter, for when this filter evokes an era.



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  • A GEICO commercial, presenting the scenario of Abraham Lincoln's wife asking him whether a dress makes her look fat, was done in heavy sepia with conspicuous film grain, as though it were filmed in the 1930s.

    Anime and Manga 
  • Done in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood during one Scar's flashbacks. They mix it with Splash of Color to contrast both the blue eyes of the Amestrian Soldiers invading Ishval and Winry's parents with the red eyes of the Ishvallans and Envy in disguise, just before he shoots the young girl to start the war.
    • Yoki's flashback to when the Elrics put an end to his scam in Youswell is shown in the style of a black-and-white newsreel, though the flashback switches to color as he relates his Humiliation Conga after he was kicked out of the military.
  • Most of the flashbacks in Season 1 of Tower of God are various shades of sepia and brown.
  • In season one of Hetalia: Axis Powers, when America thinks about the time England spent with him when he was growing up, the Flashback sequences are all shown in an old-fashioned sepia tone.
  • Typically, in Kill la Kill, majority of the flashback sequences are shown in some sort of sepia, as shown here and here.
  • In the Warrior Cats manga SkyClan and the Stranger's full-color rerelease, Sol's past is shown in washed-out sepia tones compared to the colorful rest of the book.

    Asian Animation 
  • The Lamput episode "Origins" is a Whole Episode Flashback showing how Fat Doc and Slim Doc met as kids. The flashback parts are depicted in a deliberately muted color scheme, unlike the rest of the show which has typical cartoony, bright colors.

    Comic Books 
  • Batwoman (Rebirth) uses black-and-white flashbacks, with the only colors being muted reds.
  • The Smurfs comic book story "The Wild Smurf" uses a limited number of colors in the part depicting the origin of Wild Smurf.

    Comic Strips 
  • Discussed in one Sunday Strip of Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin asks his dad why old photos are in black and white, and Dad explains that the world used to be in black and white before the 1930s ("and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too"). His dad Hand Waves the fact that old paintings use colors that supposedly didn't exist back then; as to why the photos didn't turn to color with everything else, the explanation that they're color photos of a black-and-white world.
  • Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft use sepia tinted panels with clipped corners (to look like a photograph in an album) for flashbacks.
  • A clever variant in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip story "Doctor Who and the Nightmare Game", an Affectionate Parody of Roy of the Rovers and other 1970s football comics: The flashbacks to how the Shakespeare Brothers took over Delchester United are in duotone, just like the strips being pastiched.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The prologue to Pineapple Express is this.
  • Dead Again: The extensive flashbacks to the 1940s are in black and white.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Riddle's Pensieve Flashback is in black and white with Harry remaining in color.
  • Inverted in the film version of Johnny Got His Gun, mainly because the present takes place in a hospital where the main character has no limbs and most of his face blown off. His memories are in color.
  • The prologue to Space Cowboys is this, with a tint of blue.
  • The flashbacks in American History X are in black and white, whereas the rest is in colour.
  • The flashbacks of Give 'Em Hell, Malone are in black and white with a Splash of Color, such as the bloody hearts torn from people’s chests.
  • The opening scene of The Whales of August, set some fifty years before the main story, is shot in sepia tones. The scene ends with a closeup of a buoy, which turns to color as the film transitions to the present-day story.
  • Inverted in the time-travel romance The House in the Square (American title: I'll Never Forget You, or sometimes Man of Two Worlds), a film adaptation of the play Berkeley Square. The present-day (1953) is shown in black-and-white, while the main storyline (1784) is in color, giving an effect like The Wizard of Oz.
  • Inverted in The Dawns Here Are Quiet. The present-day 1942 story (a Russian Amazon Brigade unit) is filmed in black and white, but all the flashbacks of the various women in the squad are in color, possibly symbolizing how much better life was before the war.
  • In God Told Me To, Pete interviews a man about the time he found Mrs. Phillips naked on the side of the road, insisting she'd been raped by aliens in the early '40s. His flashback is in black and white. Later, when he interviews his biological mother about the time the same thing happened to her in the early '50s, her flashback is in sepia.
  • In Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, Aunt Roo flashes back to her daughter's death in sepia.
  • Inverted in the music documentary film The Sparks Brothers with the modern day mostly in black-and-white, and archive footage in color.

  • In Forced Perspectives by Tim Powers, some of the characters are able to see visions of the past. Being magical in nature, they include light spectra not usually visible to the human eye, including infrared light which the seers' brains interpret as a sort of coppery color — with the result that the visions are sepia-toned in-universe.
  • At least two Goosebumps books ("The Haunted School" and "Streets of Panic Park") have had the protagonists travel to the past, which is rendered in an eerie black-and-white world.
  • In Where's Wally? in Hollywood, "Shhh! This is a Silent Movie" depicts all the actors and sets in black and white, though the crews filming them are drawn in color.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Heroes
    • Done for flashbacks in the episode "Company Man". With an excellent Lampshade Hanging/pun in the first such flashback:
    Bennet: I'm comfortable with morally gray.
    • And again in flashbacks during the Volume 4 episode "Cold Wars". Complete with a reprisal of above line.
  • Supernatural: When Castiel sends Sam and Dean back to 1861, it's brown and sepia.
  • Cold Case: If flashback is set in period where monochrome footage was widespread, flashback will be monochrome. One episode subvert this, by beginning in full old-photo sepia and appearing to take place in the early 1800s. Then a car full of people pull up. It is 2006, in Amish country.
  • CSI: NY uses brown/sepia tones for especially significant flashbacks:
    • Mac recalls the 1983 Beirut Marine Barracks bombing during "Charge of This Post."
    • He has memories of his father's illness in "Blacklist."
    • More of those memories and scenes from the Holocaust are depicted in "Yarhzeit."
    • In "Flash Pop," scenes of a case from 1957 are shown in black & white and muted colors.
  • In Eureka's season 4 time-travel episodes, the 1940s are sepia-toned.
  • Hustle has an episode centered on the grandson of a legendary American grifter. It includes a number of flashbacks and Imagine Spots featuring the grandfather, played by Mickey as a Chaplinesque silent film hero.
  • All flashbacks in Babylon 5.
  • In the War of the Worlds (1988) episode "A Time to Reap", the scenes set in 1953 are in black and white — despite the fact that the 1953 film whose time they are visiting was originally filmed in color.
  • The opening flashback scene of Toby's father being a gangster in 1952 in one of The West Wing Christmas episodes ("Noel").
  • Angel has a comic flashback to 1950s Italy, lasting some three seconds or so, in black and white, with Spike and Drusilla looking like they were in an Italian modernist movie.
  • Parodied in the Noir Episode of Warehouse 13; Pete thinks they must be in the past because everything's in black and white. Myka points out "No it's not time travel. The 1940s were in colour, much like the rest of history."
  • Played for Laughs in the Doctor Who episode "The Crimson Horror". The episode already takes place in 1893 (and is a bit low in color like many past-set episodes). Partway into the story, the Doctor explains how things got to a certain point, and the flashback is shown in black-and-white with obvious film artifacts and comical old-timey music (all to portray events from within mere days before).
  • On The Pretender, flashbacks are all shown in black and white. Most are shown as Jarod watching DSA's (film records of everything he did at the Centre, some dating back to the early 1960's) on his laptop.
  • Every memory fragment recalled by the Amnesiac Hero of Blindspot is depicted as a monochrome flashback.
  • In one episode of Childrens Hospital, Dr. Maestro travels back to the 1940's, where everything is monochrome even to him. He refers to a nurse as a "black and white lady", only to have her ask him to hush up about her biracial lineage.
  • Parodied in "Chapter Nine" of Jane the Virgin. A flashback to Petra's past in Prague starts out in monochrome, then changes to color when the narrator points out that it was only five or so years ago.
  • Downplayed in Person of Interest where scenes set in John Reese's past have a blueish hue.
  • The 4400:
    • In "Mommy's Bosses", the Flashbacks to October 2004 are in sepia tone.
    • In "Try the Pie", the memories of Tom, Billy and Paul and Kathy Weir are shown in black and white.
  • St. Elsewhere: In "Time Heals, Part 1", all of the 1935 sequences are shown in black and white. The first 1935 scene in "Time Heals, Part 2" begins in black and white but changes to full color when the six-year-old Donald Westphall sees Patrick O'Casey's blood on the floor as he is being brought into St. Eligius. From then onwards, each 1935 scene is in black and white for the first few seconds before changing to color.

    Music Videos 
  • Fergie's "Glamorous" video has black-and-white flashbacks.

    Video Games 

    Visual Novels 
  • Flashbacks in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney always do this (except in cases 1-4 of the first game). The one in case 3-4 is even shown with lines running down it like errors on an old film reel. The fifth case is different because it was not in the original release of the first game.
  • Shiki's memories in Tsukihime are often in black and white; in one case to deliberately hide the fact that the girl in the window was Kohaku and the girl that was outside was Hisui. The girls are identical twins other than their eye color.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Employed in Avatar: The Last Airbender, although just with muted, sepia colours. The exact shading depending on which character's memories we were seeing; Aang's were washed out with a bright yellow, Zuko's were a darker gold, and Katara and Sokka was a blueish tint to theirs.
  • In Code Lyoko, some flashbacks of Aelita's previous life are sepia-colored — including in the usually brightly-colored world of Lyoko during her first virtualization. And the final episode consists entirely of flashbacks done in this manner. The sepia-toned tower deactivated sequence in particular invoked many Manly Tears.
  • One House of Mouse short showed a flashback involving Mickey Mouse and Goofy being animated in black and white while everything else is done in color.
  • In one episode of Kim Possible, the picture turns sepia when we are shown in flashback (sort of) how Ron invented the Naco (a nacho/taco hybrid).
  • The Legend of Korra uses a sepia wash over Korra's jumbled-up dreams. The scenes are eventually replayed in colour as Korra meditates, while imprisoned by Tarrlok, and finally connects with the warning Aang was trying to give her through her dreams.
  • In Loving Vincent, the present-day is brightly colored, but all flashbacks are in black and white.
  • Played straight in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episodes "Family Appreciation Day"(sepiatones and desaturated colors), "A Friend in Deed"(completely monochrome), and "Leap of Faith"(sepiatone). Averted in "Apple Family Reunion", where the flashbacks are full color.
  • The Rugrats flashback episode "Sour Pickles" has this when Lou tells a story of Stu and Drew when they were babies, having been fighting all their lives.
  • Parodied in one episode of Sheep in the Big City in a line sort of like, "A long time ago, when the world was black and white..."
  • The Simpsons, Treehouse of Horror XVII segment, "The Day the Earth Looked Stupid" was done this way since it took place in Springfield 1938. It was even Lampshaded by Lenny.
    Lenny: I like that everything's sepia-toned; makes me feel all nostalgic.
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks: In "Terminal Provocations", Ensign Fletcher's "recollection" (really a fake story) of what happened to him while Ensign Mariner and Ensign Boimler were at the Chu Chu dance show is in black-and-white except for the phaser fire that hit him.


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