Noel T. Manning II
The impact of color on cinema and audience interaction is something that has been explored for over a century. Art color theory has been transferred onto the cinema canvas with amazing success, and filmmakers have learned (and are still learning) how to manipulate audience emotions, expectations and interactions with the screen through the power of hue, saturation and brightness. Filmmakers can create the psychological tone of cinema through numerous means represented by colors in lighting, costumes, production designs, make-up/hair, or post production manipulation.
As we examine color theory in relation to film, we discover that color can be used to:
- Bring clarity to complex stories.
- Enhance emotions within the audience.
- Engage the characters within the narrative.
- Show the journey or transformation of the character.
- Communicate ideas, thoughts or messages about the story or a character.
- Distract the audience.
Although not all film color is used for specific purpose, filmmakers have come to understand its importance in the overall landscape of movie narrative. Using the right color for a scene or character is just as important to cinema storytelling as is written dialogue, acting, camera framing, musical score, and sound design. The color palate selected for a film (or individual scenes) can help the audiences distinguish between good and bad characters, scary places, and intriguing dream-like fantasy situations.
For those with sight, our physical and emotional reactions to colors, generate interest and engagement in some form, or it should. Artists, psychologists, graphic designers, marketing executives, filmmakers and even paint manufacturers continue to seek an understanding on how and why these colors impact us in certain ways.
While it is true that filmmakers use proven methods to utilize color to interact with an audience, these visual artists also have the license to shake things up, or to distract the audience. Some have been known to throw the psychology of color theory out with the trash. While that does happen, especially with certain filmmakers, that is the exception, not the rule. But, when that does occur, you may discover that a particular filmmaker develops her or his own color-psychology-structure of story-telling. They make their rules, and usually stick within those.
With millions of color variations, do we ever find filmmakers that limit themselves or set different standards? Actually, we do, and there are a few who have established their very own trademark color wheel that they rarely venture beyond. Why? Well because they’ve developed their very own color-psychology. Filmmakers like Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Hayao Miyazaki and David Lynch have deliberate styles, techniques, and palates they pull from for most of their works. It is intentional and with purpose. Fans and scholars of these filmmakers can immediately recognize the works of these legends, many times just by looking at one frame of their film.
It is also important to know, and worthy of note, that the use of a standardized color-theory wheel is not the same around the world; colors may be interpreted differently across cultures and countries. So, to fully begin to understand the meaning of the colors you witness on screen, you should also explore the filmmaker’s background and history; this may give you a glimpse into the appreciation of color through cultural implementation. As an example: in Western culture, the color “black”, is often used to represent a time of mourning or death, yet in some Eastern cultures, that same representation would be exhibited with the color, “white.”
But, for the purposes of understanding film created for U.S. audiences, explore this sampling of color representation within cinema. One thing I hope you’ll discover, is that within several color categories, contradictions sometimes exist. That is one of the reasons it is important to get to know the filmmaker’s style and seek to gain her/his understanding of color usage:
Blues: Cold, calm, passiveness, sadness, loneliness, analytical, faith, peace, harmony, stability.
Greens: Danger, darkness, corruption, naïveté, health & healing, luck, jealousy, envy, anger, life.
Red: Love, passion, violence, desire, danger, rage, power, aggression, heat, war.
Orange: Warmth, youthfulness, happiness, welcoming, social, exotic, barren, apocalyptic, energy, warning.
Pink: innocent, love, romance, happiness, delicate, beauty, playful, feminine.
Yellow: Naïveté, madness, sickness, insecurity, obsessive, insecure, hazardous, wisdom, happiness, optimism, imagination, richness.
Purple: Mystical, eroticism, fantasy, menacing, royalty or power, mysterious, transformation, cruelty.
Black: Elegance, wealth, sadness, evil, death (Western cultures), sophistication, fear, the unknown, formality, anger.
Silver/Grey – sleek, elegant, technology, uniformed, conformity, placid, depression, loss, strength, age and wisdom, frailty, conflicted, apocalyptic, war.
White: cold, sterile, marriage, purity, cleanliness, simplicity, goodness, life, peace, death (Eastern cultures).
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University of Zurich
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