On Color: Its Role in Cinema and Filmmaking

How much do we know about color? Typically its what we learned in school: primary and secondary colors, complementary colors, warm and cool tones, etc. But in photography and video, color can do much more than that. We can add an emotional layer to a scene, story, or picture through colors. Ive always liked the architectural photography approach of photographing exteriors at dusk, when you have cold light outside, and warm lights inside the house. The warmth inside evokes the feeling of home, safety, and protection.

Let’s say we are shooting interviews: we can use a different color in the background not only to separate our subject and create additional depth, but also to make a statement. The popular show House of Cardsis a great example; we constantly see a blue (cool) foreground against a yellow (warm) background. In Wong Kar-waisIn the Mood for Lovethe extremely beautiful and colorful qipao dresses that Li-zhen wears are often the only clue of the passing of time. In that particular movie very often we can only discern two seemingly identical scenes, and therefore, two different meetings, by the color of Li-zhens dress.

The movie Trafficby Steven Soderbergh used a highly innovative color-coded cinematic treatment to distinguish his interwoven stories on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The scenes that take place in Mexico are green and textured; while the ones in the U.S. are blue and polished. In Soderberghs case, color is used to distinguish locations or countries.

We see a completely different approach in Alejandro IñárritusBabel.The plot has different stories told by different characters in very different parts of the globe; however, the color treatment is used to unify the film. In this case the unifying color is red. The Moroccan landscape possesses lots of amber, orange, and red tones. In Mexico, the palette is mostly red: the dresses, the wedding tent, and the lights are all red. In Japan the filmmakers chose a more purplish-pink shade of red.

Color can also be used to mimic a state of mind, being under the influence, or to represent a dream sequence. A great example is Neil Burgers Limitless.The story is about a failed writer who takes a pill that gives him superhuman mental abilities. When he is off the pill, the color palette is gritty and green, a mood that is enhanced with shaky handheld camera work and the use of long lenses. When the writer is on the pill, the palette is vibrant, slick, and he mostly leads the camera from a POV perspective.

A well known color treatment can be found in the Wachowski’s The Matrix.All the scenes that take place within the Matrix have a green tint, as if watching them through a computer monitor, while the scenes taking place in the real worldhave normal colors. Interestingly enough, the fight scene between Morpheus and Neo, which is neither in the real world nor in the Matrix, is tinted yellow. All the blue was sucked out of the exterior shots to convey how grim the world of the Matrix actually is.

Other great examples are Warren Beattys Dick Tracyand Three Kingsby David Russell, Woody Allens Purple Rose of Cairoand M. Night ShyamalansThe Sixth Sensewhere color is virtually another character within the story. Or it can become a symbol, like the red dress in Spielbergs otherwise black and white Schindlers List.

The lack of color can be used to great effect. In this video we visually separated the principal photography (in black and white) from the behind the scenes footage (in color), while in this project, we chose to grade the interview in black and white and the b-roll in color.

Color can have a strong impact on your story and some filmmakers might assign different color palettes to different characters or have a color scheme evolve with the story. Some stories might even have a specific color palette to signify a location. On upcoming projects I want to break some rules and try something different, say a warmer color palette for a shot in a jail and a cooler approach for a romantic scene. Or, perhaps Ill start a story with a very monochromatic palette and start adding color as the story grows. Who knows, maybe Im onto something here!


Eduardo Angel is an independent technology consultant, educator, and Emmy Award-winning visual storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.

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