How important is Color?

Color is an important element of a picture. Its use means much more than the mechanical recording of colors. Just as music flows from movement to movement, color on the screen… flowing from sequence to sequence, is really a kind of music–R.E. Jones, Designer

The added richness and depth provided by color makes your awareness of color and its emotional and symbolic effects essential to film analysis and understanding.

Although color gives more immediate pleasure than any of the other visual elements in a movie, it is often the most difficult to understand. Our responses to color are psychological and even physiological. Some of color’s effects on the human brain and body are amazing.

Premature babies born with potentially fatal jaundice do not require blood transfusions if “bathed” in blue light. Decorating restaurants in red stimulates the appetite and results in higher food consumption.

Blue surroundings can lower blood pressure, pulse and respiration rate. And violent people who are placed in a small room painted bubble-gum pink relax, become calm and often fall asleep within ten minutes.

Color attracts and holds our attention; our eyes are more quickly attracted to color than by shape or form. Advertising research has proven that newspaper and magazine ads that use even one color in addition to black and white increase reader response by 50 percent.

Practically every package in your supermarket has at least a touch of red, for red seems to attract attention better than any other color. Maybe that’s why it’s used for stop signs, red lights, and danger warnings.

Any veteran TV viewer knows that a movie in color is much more likely to be watched than a black and white film; the primary motive for Ted Turner to have invested millions of dollars to computer colorize his library of black and white MGM and RKO features during the 1980s — an effort that proved to be so unpopular with movie fans, Turner wrote the effort off as a financial loss and returned the black and white versions to the air.

Although black and white films are now the exception rather than the rule, the use of color in movies still has a profound impact on how you interpret what you see.

To understand its role, let’s examine some of the basic rules about the effects of color; principles which impact the creative choices of the director, cinematographer, production designer and costumer.

1. Color Attracts Attention: In a black and white film, a director has several methods to focus attention on the center of interest. Our eye is drawn to large objects, the object closest to the camera, the object in sharpest focus, to movement and closeups.

However, when color is added to the list, the director can focus attention by the use of bright colors against a dark or contrasting background. For example, if a director wants the central character to stand out in a crowd of people, it is a simple matter to have that person dressed in colors which are brighter (white against dark blue) or in contrast (red against green) to the other colors in the shot.

2. Color Contributes to the Illusion of Depth: A trick borrowed from painters helps directors enhance the effect of depth by using colors which seem to advance towards us such as red, orange, yellow and lavender. They make objects appear larger and closer than they are. Beige, green or pale blue are receding colors. They have the opposite effect, making objects look smaller and further away.

By using advancing colors in the foreground and receding colors in the background, the director can enhance the sense of depth in a scene in a manner than is almost invisible except to those who understand how color distorts our perceptions.

3. Color Creates a Feeling of Temperature: Warm colors that imitate the sun (red, yellow, orange, and lavender) give a feeling of warmth, passion and excitement. On the other hand, cool colors (blue, green, and beige) create a sense of coolness, detachment and tranquility.

This effect can be seen in “The Lost Boys,” a film about modern teenage vampires. In one scene, Keefer Southerland (the leader of the bloodsucking gang) is dressed in blue and bathed in blue light on the left side of the image while in emotional contrast the other side of the frame is filled with warm yellow candles. The result emphasizes the conflict between the sensual attraction and horrific repulsion we feel towards Southerland’s character.

4. Colors Function Together in Different Ways: Certain combinations of color produce predictable visual effects. Monochromatic harmony uses variations of the same color but with differences in intensity such as bright red to soft pink, brilliant blue to rich purple. Complimentary harmony results from the use of colors directly opposite each other such as red and green, yellow and violet, orange and blue, etc.

Color-conscious directors like Stanley Kubrick (“The Shining”), Tim Burton (“Batman”), David Selznick (“Gone With the Wind”), Martin Scorcese (“Gangs of New York”), and David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”) have a clear idea of the color tone or types of color harmony they want in their films.

They share that idea with the cinematographer, production designer and costumer during pre-production planning to insure that the over-all color design remains consistent in aspects of the visual image.

One of the important uses of color is to signal important changes in time, place or mood by using color with black and white or by switching to a different color style at the point of change.

Director David Lynch began “Blue Velvet” with shots of an idealized small town with brilliant flowers, white picket fences, emerald green lawns, azure blue skies, and virgin white clouds.

Then, after the famous closeup of the maggot-covered severed ear found lying in the grass, Lynch changes the color values to blue, black, brown and other unpleasant tones for the journey into the world of evil hidden beneath the pleasant surface.

In the 1939 classic, “Wizard of Oz,” director Mervyn LeRoy used black and white to represent the “real” world of Kansas and brilliant, gleaming color for the fantasy land of Oz. An unrealistic choice, you might think since our real world is in color.

But the director created a black and white world for Dorothy (Judy Garland) to visually symbolize how dull, drab, boring and predictable reality was for our heroine in Kansas compared to the exciting adventures she experienced in the dream-universe of Oz.

Martin Scorcese used color as a transitional devise in “Raging Bull.” The film was black and white except when the director used simulated color home movie footage to contrast the tranquility of boxing champ Jake LaMotta’s private life with the brutality of his ring career.

Another transition, in this case from the present to the past, is signaled by a change from black and white to color in the opening sequence of the remake of D.O.A. with Dennis Quaid. As the film shifts to the past (and color), Quaid is seen in closeup writing the word “color” on a classroom chalkboard as we hear him discussing the use of color as metaphor in literature.

Expressionism is any visual or aural technique that attempts to show the “inner reality” of a character. These techniques include camera angles, POV, voice over narration, editing and color.

In “Joe Versus the Volcano,” Joe (Tom Hanks) is a hard-core hypochondriac, working at a dull job in a dismal factory producing rectal probes. During the factory segment, the color is muted to convey a sense of gloom and despair Joe is feeling.

Later, after Joe learns he is dying and begins to find joy and romance in his life, the color scheme changes to bright tones and saturated values which represent the shift in his mental attitude.

Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni is famous for the expressionistic use of color. In “Red Desert,” he used color to show the feelings of Giuliana, the neurotic wife of an engineer.

The garish hues of the factory vats, pipelines, slag heaps, poisonous yellow smoke, and a huge black ship (all custom colored to Antonioni’s design) makes us aware that she is overwhelmed and threatened by industrialization.

In her dull, everyday life, the color is muted, taking on a grey, nightmarish cast. But when Giuliana tells her young son a story reflecting her fantasies, the colors suddenly change from dull browns and greys to the brilliant sea greens, blue skies and the gold sand of a fairy-tale island, calling attention to the vast contrast between her real world and her fantasies.

Surrealism is a technique that uses fantastic imagery in an attempt to show the workings of the subconscious mind. Such images usually have a dreamlike or unreal quality.

The prolonged bloodbath at the end of “Taxi Driver” is separated from the rest of the film with slow-motion photography and surrealistic color. As Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) shoots the pimp on the doorstep and enters the building, the dominant color becomes a gritty, sleazy yellow in hallways and rooms, dimly lit by small light bulbs. In the dim yellow glow, the film looks like a nightmare. Even the blood, which is literally everywhere, seems gritty and dirty, more real than real.

The powerful effect was not the creative work of the director or cinematographer, but the Motion Picture Rating Board that made  director Martin Scorcese overlay the final bloodbath with a chemical tint so it would look less realistic. The black-red gore turned out to be more powerful than the original footage.

Directors may link colors with specific characters. Robert Altman used this technique in “Three Women.” In every scene, Milly Lammoreux (Shelly Duvall) dresses in yellow in combination with another color. Pinky Rose, as her name implies, in pink. Willy (Janice Rule) wears mostly purple, blues and greys.

As the story progresses, Millie and Pinkie go through a role reversal. Pinky’s pink outfits shift to red as her personality becomes more dominant, and Millie’s bright yellow clothing becomes subdued.

All the characters continue to wear clothing that contains some elements of their original colors until the film’s climax when the three women blend together in costumes of monochromatic tints of blue and grey to symbolize that the three women have lost what little individuality they had.

In Tim Burton’s “Batman”, the garish colors of the Joker’s costume and makeup reinforce his personality. As if his evil deeds and villainous sense of humor weren’t bad enough, his appearance assaults our visual sense with his green hair, bright orange shirt, purple jacket and bright red lips. The Joker’s taste in clothes visually clashes with the dark blue Batman costume to clearly define the forces of good and evil in the film.

Looking at the grey monochromatic color scheme of “Batman” (except for the Joker), it’s obvious that the director made the Joker (Jack Nicholson) the visual star of the story. His garish appearance and unpredictable personality dominate every scene in which he appears. He is the real star of “Batman” compared to the boring color palette and personality of the hero (Michael Keaton).

Cinematographer Nestor Alemendros has strong feelings about the automatic choice of color over black and white in modern movies:

Black and white still has a role in motion pictures, not everything should be in color. In fact, unless the color is perfect to the idea, it can come between the audience and the theme of the film.

 One’s eye can be deflected by the color. And one’s thoughts as well. For instance, I can’t possibly see doing “Raging Bull,” “The Last Picture Show,” or “Psycho” in color. Unless the colors and the values in the film go together, it is better to use black and white.

Black and white is not a poor cousin of color. It is an entirely separate medium with its own strengths and values. While a color film can rely on the relationship of colors for effect (with very little need for shadows), black and white is restricted to the shades of grey which exist between the black and white ends of the palette. Black and white produces its strongest visual impact with highlights and shadows.

Perhaps the most important artistic element in a black and white film is that the cinematographer is freed from the “reality” of color. In black and white, each shot is reduced to shades of grey, to basic elements of shape, tone, line and texture, producing an image that is less “real” than the same shot “in living color.”

A Kodak Guide to Photography describes the appeal of black white compared to color:

Black and white carries the viewer into a world of abstraction. Because it renders colors as light or dark shades of grey, it gives subjects new visual identities. Black and white is at its best when it is used to interpret rather than merely record. It is superb at capturing patterns and contrasts, textures and forms, and all manner of tonal relationships, from the most powerful to the most subtle.

Perhaps this is the reason many professional photographers still prefer to produce black and white images rather than color. Imagine, if you will, the artistic difference in the work of Ansel Adams, if he had chosen color instead of black and white to capture the natural wonder of Yosemite National Park, Death Valley and other geographical landscapes.

Although the artistic argument about the merits of color versus black and white continue, the reality of the feature film business demands the use of color. This is because Hollywood studios rely on sales to television and videocassette rentals for a large portion of a film’s potential profit.

Broadcasters and videocassette/DVD retailers insist on color movies to attract viewers which has drastically reduced the number of black and white films being produced. In fact, so few are made today that when a director insists on black and white (“Elephant Man, “Last Picture Show,” “Manhattan,” “Stardust Memories,” “Raging Bull,” “Schindler’s List”) they are praised for their creative courage.

If you truly love movies, you shouldn’t complain and feel cheated if a film is in black and white. Instead, you should welcome the chance to experience the subtle power of black and white to create a different reality than the “wonderful world of color” you take for granted in real life and the movies.

There is some logic as to how and why colors communicate meaning. The source of these meanings can be quite conspicuous, such as those found in nature; red is the color of blazing fire and blood, blue the color of cooling waters and the sky. Other meanings may be more complex and not universal As a starting point, the communicative properties of a color can be defined by two categories: natural associations and psychological (or cultural) associations.
Occurrences of colors in nature are universal and timeless. For example, the fact that green is the color of vegetation can be considered a universal and timeless association. Color may generate another level of meaning in the mind. This symbolism arises from cultural and contemporary contexts.

As such, it is not universal and may be unrelated to its natural associations. For example, green’s associations with nature communicate growth, fruitfulness, freshness and ecology. On the other hand, green may also be symbolic of good luck, seasickness, money and greed; all of which have nothing to do with green plants. These associations arise from a complex assortment of sources.

Furthermore, color may have both positive and negative symbolism. For example, although blue is the beautiful color of the sky on a sunny day, it can be symbolic of sadness or stability. American English reflects these traits in phrases such as singing the blues and blue chip stocks.

Red is another example of dual symbolism. On one hand, as the color of fire and blood, it is an energizing, aggressive and bold color. In direct contrast, red is used for STOP signs throughout the world today.

Psychological or Cultural Associations

Although there are no absolutes, there are logical sources for the range of complex and sometimes contradictory psychological/cultural meanings of colors. These may arise from any of the following as seen in the associations humans make with the color green:

1. Cultural associations: the color of currency, traditions,celebrations, geography, etc. (For example, green is associated with heaven (Muslims) and luck (U.S. and Ireland)

2. Political and historical associations: the color of flags, political parties, royalty, etc. (For example, green is the color of Libya’s flag; its the favorite color of Emperor Hirohito and the source of “Green Day” in Japan, and in the U.S., the Green Party.)

3. Religious and mythical associations: the colors associated with spiritual or magical beliefs (For example, the green man was the God of fertility in Celtic myths, a symbolism that carries over into today’s associations of Green M&M candies with sexuality in the U.S. Also, in contemporary Western culture, green is associated with extraterrestrial beings.)

4. Linguistic associations: color terminology within individual languages (For example, South Pacific languages refer to shades of green by comparison to plants in various stages of growth. In Scottish Gaelic the word for blue (‘gorm’) is also the word used for the color of grass.)

5. Contemporary usage and fads: current color applications to objects, sports, and associations generated by modern conventions and trends. (For example, green is used world wide for traffic lights signifying “go.” In Scandinavia, green has been a popular color for many decades. In the U.S., avocado green was a popular color for appliances in the 1960s. Today, lime green has been a hip and trendy color in fashion and advertising in the US since the late 1990s.)

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