Beyond Color Theory I: Unexpected Ways to Apply Color in Film

By: Domonique Salberg

This article will show how color affects our film experience (Part I) and the unique, unexpected ways filmmakers can use and style it (Part II). Jumping in, we should consider a few basic assumptions about the effects of color and how it communicates—things that significantly affect the director’s creative choices, the cinematographer, the production designer, and the viewer.

How Colors Contribute to Three-Dimensionality

Bright or saturated colors on the object of greatest interest and placed against a contrasting background allow the director to capture the viewer’s eye; that is the simplest in which color functions in film. However, how creators can further capitalize on their color choice to ensure that attention is drawn to the proper object is considering how color contributes to three-dimensionality.

Top: Joker (2019)/Bottom: American Beauty (1999)

For instance, some colors seem to advance toward the foreground, and others seem to recede into the background. Colors such as orange, red, yellow, and lavender are advancing colors. When given high intensity and dark value, they appear to advance, making objects appear more prominent and closer to the camera than they are. A red chair will appear larger and closer to an observer than the same chair covered in receding colors: beige, green, or pale blue. Taking advantage of the advancing and receding characteristics of color fosters the illusion that the image on the screen is three-dimensional.

Top: The Godfather (1972)/ Bottom: Vertigo (1958)

Other techniques used in a color film to create the illusion of different planes of depth include the director dramatizing or emphasizing the illusion of closeness and form by contrasting darkness against lightness, pure color against grayed color, warm color against a cool color, and juxtaposing detail and texture.

Color and the Impression of Temperature

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Color can also convey a sense of temperature. The cool colors are the colors that recede: greens, blues, and beiges, while warm colors are colors that advance: orange, red, yellow, and lavender. Colors such as blues and greens may be deemed cool because of their associations with water and the shade of trees. In contrast, warm colors are so because of their association with the sun, fire, and sunsets.

But these generalizations are not without their complications as there are various degrees of color temperature. Yellow with a hint of green becomes a cool yellow. Red with a touch of blue is cooler than a saturated red. A reddish-violet seems warm, but a bluish violet is comparatively cool. Or how blue with a faint purplish hint suggests warmth, just how some greens have enough yellow to seem warm. As a filmmaker, is it helpful to be aware of these connotations to use them effectively.

Certain Colors Function Together Differently

The Matrix (1999) has a monochromatic color scheme where variations of the color black is intensified.

Specific color combinations, or color schemes, create predictable and consistent visual effects. Monochromatic harmony results from a scheme based on variations in the value and intensity of one color. Complementary harmony results from using colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green. Complementary colors react with each other more vividly than do other colors.

Amélie (2001) is an example of a complementary color scheme using colors opposite each other seen in the green and red mise-en-scène.
This Black Panther (2018) scene uses an analogous color scheme with the colors purple and blue.

Then there are Analogous harmony results from the use of colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel, such as red, red-orange, and orange. These colors create a soft image with little harsh contrast.

Back to the Future (1989) is an example of a triad color scheme using red, blue, and yellow.

Lastly, Triad harmony results from using three colors equidistant from one another on the color wheel, such as primary colors: yellow, red, and blue. Color-conscious directors typically have a clear vision of the color tone or types of color harmony they want to include in their films. They convey that vision to the production designer, cinematographer, and audience during the preproduction planning.

Moreover, Part II will cover the more creative side to color and how it is used to express, as a transitional device, to enhance mood, irony, themes, comic book and painterly inspired styling and considerations, and more.

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