A filmmaker is often thought of in many ways as a visual artist, kind of like a painter. Using various colors, he takes the audience on a journey. When making a movie, an adept filmmaker has the ability “to show” his intentions rather than tell them.
A prominent violent red, an introspective turquoise, or a yellowness that oozes hope.
The colors you see on film are not by chance.
Driven by color theory, filmmakers use color to deepen the narrative. Color is emotion. Our whole world revolves around it, and we derive meaning from them. Hence, the manipulation of colors in modern cinema influences our biases and perceptions of a film.
Colors make you feel a certain type of way. For example, brighter tones tend to give off a joyous and carefree feeling. They offer the sense that all’s right with the world and nothing could go wrong. Darker hues on the other hand paint a gloomier atmosphere.
They set the mood for melancholic storytelling, giving off an air of desperation or disaster. That is basically what color theory is in film. It is the concept of using various shades to elicit certain emotions. Filmmakers implore color theory to bring scenes to life. It allows us to go through the experience with the characters and live the adventure through their eyes.
If a screenplay is the outline and canvas of a story, then the use of color is what makes the movie come to life. The use of color theory allows filmmakers to maximize the use of film as a visual medium.
Let’s illustrate that further with an example, as we take a look at other purposes of color in film as well.
An example of the powerful significance of color is visible in the 1939 musical fantasy, The Wizard of Oz. Particularly, the scene where Dorothy enters the world of Oz for the first time. When we first encounter Dorothy Gale in sepia-toned Kansas, her life seems a bit depressing and boring.
She is on a mission to save her dog from euthanasia and her personal life seems a bit dull. Dorothy is caught up in a tragic tornado that somehow teleports her to a new realm. All this while, the film maintains its monochromatic backdrop until Dorothy opens the door to Oz.
The subsequent scene changes from a singular shade to an explosion of color in an instance. Her once boring world is turned on its head. The audience joins in that rollercoaster of excitement as we see multiple colors for the first time in the film. From the bewildering transition, we know that Dorothy is no longer in her home in Texas. We are ushered into a strange new world, and we are just as baffled as she is.
As the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Nothing could be truer. A picture is a combination of various elements and hues. It communicates a story that would have otherwise needed heaps of pages to adequately capture.
When you hear the term “early film” what probably comes to mind is the black-and-white movies of long ago. But color has been implored since the very first filmmaking days. Silent films back in the day were colorful, but the inception of soundtracks got in the way.
At the time it was hard to combine sound and hues, given the dye technique they relied on.
Before then, the color theory offered complex storytelling benefits like in the biggest production of the early 20th century, the 1916 silent epic Intolerance. Director Griffith uses the color theory to reimagine four different eras of history in his movie.
Each of the four storylines got a unique tint to differentiate the various periods that they were from. He is able to communicate clearly his intentions and provide exposition without using title/text cards.
Filmmakers also implore color to guide the audience to an object in the frame. It is colored differently so it doesn’t disappear into the mise en scene. The object may be of some use or significance down the line.
By making the object distinct, the object becomes memorable and gives a hint of its importance.
Alternatively, its unique shade offers a powerful punch that the film may have been building to. In the 2008 Pixar success WALL-E, we meet a lone robot in a depressing world, set in hopelessness and overwhelmed by a sad orange. He encounters loneliness and lifelessness wherever he goes. The shade brings out this theme.
When the robot comes across the first plant in the film, and the first use of the color green, the scene is quite powerful. It offers a visual punch and exhilarates this important moment in the character’s journey. The cerebral difference it makes is huge. The audience has been drenched in a limited range but, instantly, an intense green dazzles the eye.
Moonlight, 2016’s Best Picture Oscar Winner, features color theory and its effectiveness in detailing a character’s journey. The director and his cinematographer spent over 100 hours fine tuning the hues to turn the ordinary into something extra. Specifically, it’s incredible how they are able to portray character development via color transitions.
As the main character evolves, different tones paint a different personality each time. The protagonist Chiron is a young African-American struggling to grow up in a tough neighborhood. Lush blues and greens (mimicking Fujifilm stock) characterize the first part of his development, as a young, impressionable kid.
In teenagehood, as he wrestles his demons, cyan highlights (replicating Agfa stock) bring out the imbalance and distress. Finally in adulthood, when he comes into his own, he gets a refined Hollywood makeover via Kodak film stock.
In terms of conveying ideas, if a color appears often enough in a movie, viewers tend to associate it with a certain meaning. Green is a common theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The creative director uses this shade to represent the main character’s obsession with Madeleine, who is linked to the color. It features more prominently as the story unfolds, boiling to an eerie crescendo throughout.
Red is a very emotive shade. It is associated with fire, roses, blood and brings out sharp emotions. Red is one of three primary colors in the wheel, alongside blue and yellow. All others are derived from a combination of these three fundamental elements.
Red represents several things including desire, love, passion, power, danger, strength, and war. It is one of the most striking and charged colors in the wheel.
Hence, red is a prominent color featured in horror films. Indeed, it features prominently for many warrior archetypes featured in Hollywood cinema.
It features heavily in horror films to portray violence or to warn of impending doom. In The Sixth Sense, a movie about a child that can see ghosts, red is used strategically to illustrate supernatural presences.
For example, the slow turning red doorknob that terrifies with questions about what’s on the other side. In another scene, a red balloon floating up a staircase alters the audience to a ghost. As the boy writes down his conversations with dead people, you’ll notice he does so using a red pen. The color is often thought of as loud and uneasy and works to bring those aspects to the scenes.
Schindler’s List is made almost exclusively in chromatic fashion save for two or three scenes where red makes an appearance.
The girl in the red coat, surrounded by a world of black and white, is representative of the bloodshed and the lives lost during the Holocaust. How the genocide robbed the world of innocence, and its monstrous nature. We see her last in a pile of dead bodies, further illustrating why red was used in this scene.
In Pleasantville, red injects passion and breaks the monotony of everyday life. A red rose is the first appearance of the color in the film. It awakens emotion and diverges from the routine, evoking sexuality, youth, passion, and life.
Although a derivative of red, pink may represent different qualities entirely. Unlike red that comes across forcefully and strongly, pink soothes and calms. In the filmmaking business, the color has long been associated with femininity and the subsequent qualities expected of the gender. However, the tone has been re-classified in recent years across the gender divide.
Pink can signify the purity and beauty of people, things, or places. Characters who wear pink appear inviting to audiences. They seem sweet and innocent in a way. Pink also commonly portrays empathy and playfulness.
The color pink can be often used to feature a caregiver character, or someone who acts motherly to other characters in a movie.
In line with how our minds perceive the color, pink elevates the romanticism in a film. Case in point, Wes Anderson’s 2014 masterpiece, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Director Anderson implores archetypal colors to perfection to lay the stage for innocent love. Agatha mostly wears pink to bring out her feminity and purity of heart.
The kind and sweet baker is as good as they come. She is eager to lend a helping hand. During flashbacks to the 20th century, pink depicts the Hotel during happier times. Pink sets a nostalgic, joyous mood and illustrates a time of healthiness.
Pink is not always associated with good though. In certain instances, it can be a smokescreen for more deceptive personalities. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter loves pink. She wears it more often than not and her office is mostly pink.
It represents her childish girliness, which is evident in how she talks and carries herself.
Unlike what audiences would expect of the color and the character who wears it, Dolores is ruthless and cruel. The shade is used to a similar effect in other movies as well such as Mean Girls and Grease.
Orange is a cross between red and yellow. It consequently combines some traits from both. In many films, the color depicts happiness or joy. You may have noticed that orange features heavily in commercials advertising children’s toys.
It elicits a mental response that’s mostly positive. Orange also represents stimulation and creativity.
Like the fruit itself, orange additionally gives off the impression of wellness or good health.
Moreover, filmmakers may use the color to depict seasons. Orange is usually associated with autumn due to its commonality during harvest season. So its use might cement a sense of time, complementing other giveaways in the plot.
Wes Anderson famously uses sepia-like, orange tones for many of his movies to achieve a calm or happy effect. He also uses orange to portray more peaceful flashbacks.
On the flipside, orange, like red, can be a foreboding of danger or death. In The Godfather movies, whenever the color pops up, we know something sinister is about to go down. The color manifests in the appearance of the fruit during these scenes.
It features during the death of the Godfather and when the five families meet. Afterward, the mob bosses are sent to meet their maker.
Vito is also playing about with an orange before his death.
Here is Vito buying oranges right before the attempt on his life:
The director uses the color to convey an idea. Its repetitive appearance cements the concept. It becomes a silent code for impending doom.
Orange can also be a sign of desolation. This polarizing color is used to this effect in Mad Max: Fury Road. Set in a vast desert, orange represents the destructive heat of the environment. It reminds of the devastating threat, and its constant presence.
In this scenario, the color orange symbolizes the harsh society (and nature) that “Mad” Max Rockatansky has to deal with. It serves as a visual reminder of Max’s man vs. society struggle to live in an apocalyptic world.
It is the predominant color in most shots. The absence of all other life is evident. In this case, orange depicts a reality of harsh nature and lays out that tone for the movie.
The use of yellow in film varies widely according to context. Like the colors before it, there are two sides to this coin, good and bad. Yellow is a contradictory color that can mean a whole lot of things. On the dark side, it is mostly associated with obsession, insecurity, or physical illness.
Yellow can also hint at madness, egoism, betrayal, villainy, and cowardice.
It is the most luminous shade perceivable by the human eye. That’s why it’s a popular choice for cautionary signs in film and real-life as well.
Breaking Bad painted yellow in a bad light. Throughout the series, the color is continually linked to the meth business. Walter White and his accomplice Jesse Pinkman wear yellow jumpsuits when they are about to make meth or disintegrate a body in sulphuric acid.
The fast-food joint that acts as a front for Gus Fring’s drug operations has screaming yellow highlights. Fring himself is fond of a yellow shirt. Yellow can also achieve the same negative purposes as orange, depicting tropical and dry environments.
Contrarily, yellow can be a positive influence in a movie. It is the color of sunrise, bringing with it the joy and optimism that a new dawn offers.
SpongeBob is a great example of the loveable qualities that the shade can represent. The playful character is a sweet, carefree sea sponge who seeks out fun and loves adventure.
He couldn’t be bothered by problems and makes a lot of friends easily. The creators have attested to the fact that the character’s color was not by chance. His yellow hues represent the radiant happiness of the sun. SpongeBob embodies enthusiasm and warmth, and his happy-go-lucky nature is infectious.
The first thing most people think about when they see green is nature. Green gives off a youthful vibe, the hope of a brighter tomorrow, and a feeling of wellness and growth. The color is idyllic and warm. It is imposingly refreshing in a way that calms the mind. In many movies, green tells the story of a place without the characters needing to.
In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, one of the protagonists, Bilbo Baggins, lives in Bag Ends. This viridescent paradise is lush and beautiful.
It is a place filled with charming people and known for its easy life. Other places that aren’t as pleasant as Bag Ends are notable for their absence of green in the film.
Star Wars’ choice of green for certain Jedi lightsabers also had meaning beyond denoting a Jedi’s class. Sure this choice of color for a lightsaber indicated a Jedi Consular. Consulars often play the role of a mentor for less experienced (or in-training) Jedi knights.
Here is Yoda with his green lightsaber:
The evil sith lords fancied red lightsabers, a symbol of their threat, while the resistance’s use of green countered that effect. The color was a beacon of hope as the Jedi worked to liberate the galaxy from the clutches of Imperial tyranny.
While green is mostly a positive color, that’s not always the case in filmmaking. Many movies have associated their villains with green. In the 2014 dark fantasy Maleficent, the scorned and vengeful fairy personifies wickedness and cruelty.
Her powers manifest in green brilliance, and she typically uses them to enact her evil desires. Lord Voldemort, the blood-thirsty antagonist of the Harry Potter franchise, has a fondness for green robes. It is therefore not uncommon for green to portray someone sinister or dangerous.
Blue is the color of the sky and the sea. It represents faith, stability, divinity, trust, wisdom, and intelligence. It is often linked to calmness, positivity, and isolation. In The Truman Show, blue depicts the all-knowing and ever-present director, who is kind of like a god in the movie.
When he speaks to Truman about choosing to leave the fictional world he had created from him, his voice beams down from the blue sky. The color, in this film, denotes the higher power at play that remains faceless to Truman and, from his perspective, seems to be God.
As an archetypal and primary color, blue can also be a symbol of masculinity in the traditional sense of the word. The color is popularly associated with male purity and modern cinema often uses it to this effect as well.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, as we witness the innocent love play out between Zero and Agatha, you’ll notice Zero often wears blue. His girlfriend is mostly in pink. The two colors symbolism the gender divide and the genuine love between a boy and a girl.
Engulfing like a sea, blue may also be a blanket of helplessness or sadness. The Shawshank Redemption tells the tragedy of Andy Dufresne. He is wrongly charged and convicted of murder. Andy wears and is surrounded by blue during his life in prison.
Inmates at Shawshank wear blue uniforms and the prison is mostly full of dull colors. They reel the audience into the desperation of prison life. Freedom is highlighted by the use of green and vivid colors. We see those colors when Andy escapes to a beautiful island after 19 years in prison.
Purple has long been a sign of royalty. It generally alludes to a life of privilege or the desire for the finer things in life. Cinema has long used purple to bring out these qualities. The color sets the stage for a grandiose lifestyle or place of such repute.
Marie Schrader from Breaking Bad loves purple. Most of her kitchen is drenched in the color and she likes wearing purple clothes too. The color speaks to the audience about what kind of character Marie is and what to expect from her. She regularly shoplifts to get extravagant items that catch her eye. Plus, she likes to make herself seem wealthy and classy.
The color is not common in nature. Purple is hard to come by and signifies something that stands out from others. Many films these days implore purple to demonstrate the extraordinary. It depicts supernatural elements in many science fiction flicks.
In 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the world-ending power stone, the object of conflict in the plot, is purple and emits similarly-colored beams. Purple also commonly alludes to the mysterious or something spiritual. It features prominently in James Cameron’s Avatar, a fantasy set in the strange and supernatural planet of Pandora.
Purple may also stand for cruelty and arrogance. In Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, the big bad stands out with his purple complexion. Thanos is a king and a galactic conqueror, and the shade acts as a visual metaphor that implies his position in the hierarchy.
Apart from that, the color also gives away certain traits about the protagonist. He’s arrogant and cruel, often underestimating his foes and taking what he wants through force and violence. Disney has also leveraged the color to represent greed and the hunger for power. Yzam, the throne-hungry villain of The Emperor’s New Groove, has a penchant for purple attire.
The application of color theory is nothing new. It has been used in many paintings, in particular the application of color appears prominently in Impressionist paintings.
Artists learned long ago that you can manipulate how a viewer reacts to paintings with color alone. Pablor Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh… These are just a handful of artists who mastered the use of color and inject their art with a unique tone.
Combined with composition, color can take a still portrait to another level.
This use of color and composition is no different in film. Film is just 24 frames per second.
And just like the masters of still art, filmmakers use color theory as one of their tools to impart their unique style on a film.
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