Colour in Films

You are watching a movie and you realise that there is this underlying feeling leading you throughout the film. Perhaps you start to wonder what is causing you to feel what you feel, at least I do. Perhaps you feel unease, or deep sadness, or a sensation that everything is going to be ok. It is like a background, something between the lines, something that not everybody can grasp or reflect on. It is not in the surface - not the actors, not the dialogue, not even the motif in the movie. Certainly soundtrack is one of those powerful things that sets the tone of the movie. This time, however, I would like to discuss colour in films, as it is something I actually haven’t thought about until a few years ago, whilst working on a project at uni.

As a designer, I believe that colour can affect mood and emotions. Designers of various disciplines are aware of that and so are movie directors, at least those whose movies are artistically crafted and not just whipped up overnight in Hollywood. And each colour has several associations, that movie directors play with. Have a look at this short clip on colour psychology: https://vimeo.com/169046276

Quite a few scientific studies have been done, trying to figure out if and how colour affects us, but none of them seem to have a strong enough conclusion. Certain film directors, however, manage to master colour in films and achieve the result they aim for nevertheless. Not everything can be scientifically measured and concluded yet, but that does not mean it’s nonexistent. Here are some fabulous examples of colours telling a story in films.

Red

Red seems to evoke strongest emotions, but each director can use red to convey a different message. Caspar Noé used red to depict brutality and cruelty in his movie Irreversible (2002) which tells a story about  Alex who is brutally raped and beaten by a stranger in Paris underpass.

Irreversible

One of the most recent examples of colour red in film is a tv series actually. Handmaid’s Tale got people talking for various reasons. Let’s talk about what colour red symbolises in this series.
Handmaid’s Tale is based on the award-winning, best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood and tells a story of a dystopian future where environmental toxicity has dramatically decreased womens’ chance to get pregnant and have a healthy pregnancy. There are handmaids (women who can still get pregnant) and infertile wives of influential men. In Handmaid’s Tale general tone of the movie is dark and cold, except for red outfits of handmaids.
Historically, colour red has been seen as a symbol of power (often worn by kings). However, red also symbolises sexual sin. A handmaid’s only power in this story is the ability to carry a child.
In contrast, infertile wives wear blue, which is associated with Virgin Mary.

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In one of my favourite movies American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes, red is used to convey the feeling of overwhelming lust. I fell in love with the soundtrack of this movie to begin with, but the use of colour is admirable just as much. American Beauty tells a story about a suburban husband who is incredibly unhappy and sexually frustrated in his marriage. Colour red dominates in his phantasies about his daughter’s friend.

American Beauty1

Green

Green also has diverse meanings in films. Green can symbolise fertility, growth and a sense of wellbeing like in Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee.

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However, in legendary Matrix, directed by The Wachowski Brothers (movie that really creeps me out..) green scenes symbolise the mundane, completely lifeless and unchanging.

Matrix A1

Orange

Orange normally symbolises warmth, friendliness and youth. However, In Kill Bill Vol. 1 by Quentin Tarantino colour orange brilliantly depicts Bride’s madness. Blood is spilling free and The Bride is on a killing spree in her bright orange costume. What a movie!

Kill Bill

There is also more depth and technicality in using colour in films. Knowing how to adjust hue, saturation and value of colours is also key in order to achieve a particular feel of the movie. If any of these elements are changed, the tone of voice in the movie is changed as well.


Playing with colour combinations can also produce a very different result. Using balanced, analogue colours that don’t greatly contrast one another can create a pleasant, soft feel. Throwing a saturated colour that disrupts the rest of the palette in a scene can set the mood of something being not quite right. One colour that stands out from others also draw viewers’ attention towards a key element in the movie.

A great and well known example of a movie director mastering colour in films is Wes Anderson.

Wes Andersons Film Scenes Visualized As Color Palettes 00
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Hopefully this blog post has helped you to see movies in a different light and appreciate wonderful thought and craftsmanship that goes into making an impactful movie.
Now go on and interpret colour in your favourite movies!

Author Ugne Zoe Photograph

Ugne Zoe

Graphic Designer