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February 08, 2014

Fade to Black-and-White: Pretty Little Liars

How one executive producer's passion for noir inspired a pretty little retro revival. Joseph Dougherty talks of how the actors and production team so artfully embraced black-and-white.

Libby Slate
  • Troian Bellisario, Keegan Allen

  • Troian Bellisario, Shay Mitchell, Lucy Hale, Ashley Benson

  • Sasha Pieterse

When network executives reach out to showrunners, it isn’t always good news.

But a call last summer from ABC Family director of programming Jennifer Gerstenblatt was 1 that Pretty Little Liars executive producer Joseph Dougherty was happy to take.

“ABC Family noticed that we were going for a darker, noir feel,” says Dougherty of the teen drama about 4 high school friends trying to solve the murder of the leader of their clique  — who, it turns out, isn’t really dead. “[Gerstenblatt] asked us, ‘Would you like to go all the way and do it in black-and-white?’”

The result, an episode called “Shadow Play,” which airs in February 11. Bookended by contemporary scenes in color, the story takes the characters back to the 1940s, still trying to solve that disappearance, but in true noir style.

Like Dougherty, Liars director of photography Larry Reibman is a fan of noir. Already using a DSLR camera from the popular Red line, he upgraded for more options.

“We did some testing and added filters to the lenses,” Reibman says. “We added blue. [The color] red was increased in the camera electronically. In post, we increased the sensitivity of the red. Then we took all the color out, which gave us the result we wanted: the stark contrast, the look of noir.”

Makeup department head Cindy Miguens and costume designer Mandi Line did pre-production tests; lipstick, for instance, had to be darker. Hairstyles and wardrobe were those of the ’40s, the latter supplied by the costume shop at Warner Bros., where the series is shot.

“The girls loved it, because it gave them the chance to wear something different,” Dougherty says of the actresses. “Troian [Bellisario, who plays smart girl Spencer Hastings] told me she actually had on Lauren Bacall’s lingerie,” though the garment ultimately wasn’t used. For wardrobe test photos, Line’s team used a special filter on their smartphones’ Instagram app.

The lighting also adhered to the period.

“Lamp technology has changed so much — there’s LED, HMI,” Reibman says. “We made a conscious decision not to use those. We got a selection of old lights and put them in different places than we would today.

The lighting in the ’40s was much more specific, and actors had to be much more specific as they moved, to get that light on their faces.”

Dougherty is grateful for the opportunity to indulge his passion for noir. “I won an Emmy for thirtysomething,” he says of his drama series–writing win in 1989. “But I’ve never been prouder of anything I’ve done.”

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