Part of the art of film is to stir emotions in the viewer for a more immersive experience. Therefore, the composition of each individual and the sound in a movie is crucial in cinema. However, color and color theory are just as important. The aesthetic choices when coloring a character’s wardrobe or an object in the frame can signal the shot’s importance and affect the audience on conscience and subconscious levels.
But that wasn’t always the case in cinema history.
History in Color
Many think The Wizard of Oz (1939) was the first time color in cinema was introduced to audiences. However, Trip to the Moon (1902) was the first film to feature color images. The archaic method of coloring each frame was employed for the short movie but would kickstart a revolution in cinema.
A Visit to the Seaside (1908) was the first commercially produced film in natural color. Even though the British short movie was only eight minutes long, it used a process called Kinemacolor to capture a series of shots in color. This technique would again be employed for The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1914). Unfortunately, the feature-length movie has been lost over time. Later that year, Technicolor was created and would change cinema forever with films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
Color Theory: Your Mind on ROY G. BIV
“Color Theory” is a standard practice that helps the audience understand the significance of each scene and allows filmmakers to express their thoughts in an artful and cinematic way. Directors use color palettes or color schemes to interpret and experiment with color in their film projects. For most filmmakers, color is a must in any moviemaking toolkit.
In moviemaking, color combinations are used by directors to evoke a mood or atmosphere within the film. The significance of this technique is to help these artists evaluate the story, indicate a period, and foreshadow events or a general mood of the movie. What’s important to note are Hues, Saturation, and Brightness when it comes to color in film. These threes are what is the DNA of color.
Color DNA: Hue, Saturation, and Brightness
Hue is the color itself. This component is a baseline set of colors or colors like red, yellow, pink, blue, green, orange, purple / violet, brown, black, white, silver, and gold. Next is Saturation which dictates the level of intensity in each color. Saturation can make the color appealing to the audience or muted to lose its importance. Lastly, the idea of Brightness in color is easily understood. The more Brightness injects into color, the lighter it goes; the darker the color, you get the point. What’s important is the deeper meaning of each color.
Red: Love and Anger
Red is mainly associated with energy, love, heat, blood, anger, and violence. For example, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). The medieval story of a retiring warlord and his three sons showcases a level of anger and violence and the lustful desire of man to destroy. The film’s underlying message of the characters struggling to find their way in pursuit of power also opens the door for fragility. It’s when Kurosawa uses red in pivotal moments that enables the authority and vulnerability of his characters to surface.
Blue: Harmony in Color
The representation of blue goes with topics such as spirituality, loyalty, tranquility, childlike wonder, depression, security, and so much more. There is a level of innocence associated with the blue just as well as calmness. A status of innocence and calm undertones of blue is present in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016). The Oscar-winning movie features Little Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, who finds harmony and peace while standing in front of the ocean. The sea provides calmness and emotional stability to keep him grounded at his core.
Green: Nature and Happiness
Spring, healing, self-awareness, health, renewal, good luck, and envy are some hidden meanings behind this color. In many instances, green is more associated with nature and happiness in the film. Still, the color can be attached to characters or scenes. For example, Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (Happiness) (1964) uses a lot of nature and plant life around the film’s characters. The bright greens of the trees and bushes and the vivid colors of their clothes add to the happy atmosphere the film showcases. Though the film takes a dark turn, the director holds the use of green so the audience doesn’t lose sight of the movie’s happiness.
Yellow: An Idyllic Time
Many people look at yellow as a form of cowardice or even dishonesty. However, Paul Thompson uses yellow to convey a different message in his movies. The director has been known to have his films set in different decades of the 1900s. Therefore, the idyllic tone of a slight yellow tint is used as a filter for some of his movies like the Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2012) to give it that old footage look. The director even uses the same color, via sunshine, in certain scenes and interactions between Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson to give the audience a sense of hope and optimism.
Purple / Violet: Power and Mystery Within
Purple or violet does hold erotic, royalty, ceremony, and even enlightenment within its shade. However, a darker degree of the color will influence the audience that comes off as cruel, arrogant, or even powerful if used correctly on-screen. For example, a pivotal moment in the third act of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014) features heavy use of purple. Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt, makes a dive for the Power Stone and unleashes all of its might, inevitably unleashing its full strength.
However, mystery—another word associated with purple—is added when the Guardians can maintain the destructive nature of the Power Stone and harness its power. Using this color appropriately can produce stunning imagery that sticks with the audience for a long time.
Pink: Innocence and Delicate
The color is primarily viewed as feminine, soft, charming, and playful. Several directors and cinematographers use this color to show innocence and delicacies in characters or scenes without explicitly saying it, but Sofia Coppola gives it more layers. Her film The Virgin Suicides (1999) follows the mythicized stories of the Lisbon sisters and their suicide pact. In the third act, the sisters chill in their room after being confined to their home. They are no longer allowed to interact with the outside world. The space is layered with different shades of pink that showcase their innocence fading away and the delicate nature of their mindset reaching an end.
White: Purity with Death
Purity, simplicity, cleanliness, precision, and sterility are just some words correlated with the color white. In western cultures, marriage is connected to this and has been shown many times in films. However, in Eastern cultures, the color is seen as a sign of death and coldness. Director Guillermo Del Toro has used a mixture of the two to telegraph the hidden meaning of his films.
Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) is a gothic romance film set in a gothic mansion in the English hills. The location of the movie shows a level of purity in the setting. Still, the snowy backdrop amplifies the film’s topics of death and haunting. In addition, the film is an excellent example of merging cultures to tell a story filled with unique aesthetics and design.
Black: Restraints and Passion
Black has been known as “the sum of all color” when mixed with a variety of colors and an “absence of color” when all light is removed. In cinema, black’s meanings are wealth, elegance, fear, power, depth, style, and sadness. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) uses black—paired with red—to emphasize the painful restraint and passion the film holds. The complex relationship between the two leads share scenes of black paired with many other colors. It showcases their inability to act upon their feelings because of the ties to their respective marriages.
Brown: The Simplicity of Home and Earth
Besides the color green with nature, brown is another that is viewed as earthy. Brown’s coloration falls on the line of home, outdoors, comfort, endurance, reliability, and materialism. Director Denis Villeneuve Dune (2021) takes the notion of earthy, reliability, and home and makes it an epic multilayer journey. Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, is brought to the desert planet Arrakis.
Atreides goes through a series of visions in this sand-filled landscape where he realizes that his home is among the people and this planet. The simple setting of the story works juxtaposes to allow Villeneuve to make the movie more digestible for audiences.
Orange: Transformation in Horror
Warmth, energy, and humor are common traits of the color orange. The tone of the color has also been used as a caution or warning for some situations. Yet, the ancient religion of Confucianism correspondence the color with transformation. Yellow and red are compared to light and fire, like spirituality and sensuality. The opposites combined to become orange, the color of change.
This type of transformation has been used in horror films of the past. Some horror film scenes use the fire’s light to show the character’s transformation. For example, in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy (2018), Nicolas Cage’s character, Red, transforms when his significant other, Mandy, played by Andrea Riseborough, is burned alive in front of him. The light from the fire and subsequent embers show that Red is no longer an everyday man but a man out for vengeance.
There’s no right or wrong way when using color palettes in film. Artists use colors to find appealing and unique ways to stir feelings within audiences. Color Theory is a rule, but these rules are made to be broken when a creative mind finds ways to elevate the film. Just as long as the film’s color palette, this technique is a helpful way to decipher the underlying message and better understand what’s on-screen.