Filmmaking

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

By: Domonique Salberg

Continuing the discussion of color in film, Part II will cover the creative ways in which color is used to express ideas, as a transitional device, to enhance mood, irony, themes, and painterly inspired styling and considerations, and more.

Color as a Transitional Device

Color has possibly been used most often to signal important changes. Therefore, it can be done using color combined with black and white or switching to an obviously different color emphasis or style at the point of transition. Director David Lynch used the latter strategy in Blue Velvet. The film begins with an idealized small-town atmosphere portrayed in glowing colors, white picket fences, and brilliant flowers. Then Lynch mutes the colors, darkens the image, and takes us on an unforgettable journey into the dark underbelly of vice, evil, and corruption beneath the surface. The Wizard of Oz is another example when the story opens in a black-and-white Kansas and transitions into the technicolor land of Oz.

Or, take Pleasantville, a seriocomic examination of evolving American life during the past fifty years, where two teen siblings from the ’90s are magically transported to the black and white fantasy world of the 1950s television sitcom. The siblings gradually become the catalyst for blossoming color in characters who manage to reach a strong personal and social awareness.

Expressionistic Use of Color

Expressionism is a dramatic or cinematic technique that attempts to present the inner reality of a character. In film, there is usually an adjustment or exaggeration of normal perception to let the audience know that it is experiencing a character’s deepest feelings. For example, in What Dreams May Come, color is used in an expressive manner to make us experience the world of the film through the mind and feelings of the central character.

Early in the film, Robin Williams’ character tries unsuccessfully to console his widow, Annie. The colors are muted to convey her despair. Later in the story, they are reunited, and as they frolic in a spectacular oil-painted paradise, the colors become bright and saturated. 

Surrealistic Use of Color 

Surrealism is a dramatic or cinematic technique that uses eccentric imagery to portray the workings of the subconscious. Surrealistic images have a strangely dreamlike or unreal quality. A great example of this use of color is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

The prolonged slaughter at the end of the movie is separated from the rest of the film with slow-motion visuals and surrealistic color. At that point in Taxi Driver, everything goes out of whack. The story, color, and sounds of the street can no longer be heard, and the weird slow-motion occurs. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) shoots the pimp and enters the building. The dominant color becomes a gritty, sleazy yellow in hallways and rooms dimly lit by naked tungsten bulbs and seemingly gritty dirty blood everywhere, taking on a nightmarish quality. 

Motifs in Color 

Directors may use colors linked with characters for a kind of trademark effect. Jack Nicholson’s Joker costume in Batman is a great example, as his costume reinforces his personality. His evil, mischievous deeds are not villainous enough; he also offends us with his hair, bright orange shirt, purple jacket, and bright red lips. The colors of his costume additionally serve as a stark contrast to his foe, Batman’s rich, dark, and formal attire.

The Euro-gore Suspiria is another example that uses color intensely. To where color itself becomes a character in this gory horror masterpiece. 

Painterly Effects of Color

More and more directors and cinematographers are beginning to think of filming as being similar to painting. In addition to their efforts to achieve painterly-like results with lighting, much experimentation is being done to create a kind of palette in color film. That is so that the actual nature of the color can be mixed to achieve the same kinds of effects that artists achieve with the subtle blending of the colors on the palette. Shakespeare in Love, for example, re-created the look of a faded Rembrandt painting and captured a sense of time past by muting rich colors and softening the focus.

Ironic Use of Color

Finally, directors typically set to use colors to match the mood of their film, but sometimes they choose effects that go against the film’s emotional tone. In Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger took an ironic approach as he wanted a garish street look, with the neon signs resonating—it was grittier, grainier. Ironic color can add another layer of richness to a film in either a humorous way or hauntingly, as in Midnight Cowboy’s bleak story.

Nonetheless, color can exceed the general idea of color theory and be manipulated how the director wishes as long as there is a clear, thoughtful vision and execution.

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