Once upon a time, a film could impress simply by using color at all. Now, with a wider field of visual possibilities open to cinema than ever, filmmakers must not simply use color but master it, actively, as a way of conveying emotions, ideas, and even more besides. Channel Criswell’s Lewis Bond, who describes color as his “favorite aspect of visual storytelling,” breaks down some of the main ways filmmakers have used it so far in his video essay on color in cinema.
“Since before we were even able to actualize sound in film, we’ve been obsessed with color,” Bond says, having shown us clips drawn from the work of Stanley Kubrick, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Hayao Miyazaki, Ang Lee, and other directors known for their visually lush pictures.
“Film has always been about the visual, and the primordial age of cinema displays the lengths we were willing to go to just to capture its essence.” Then came Technicolor: when Dorothy passed into the land of Oz, “we became completely free to use color however we wanted, and artists began to understand the disciplines of aesthetics and symbolism.”
Yet “the methods of the silent era,” a time when filmmakers had to hand-tint each black-and-white frame they shot with the properly evocative color, “have held through to the 21st century.” Red, perhaps the strongest color, signals “hate and cruelty” just as forcefully as it does “passion and love.” And while “a luscious green field gives us hope and shows us fertility,” other green locations “show the mundane and lifeless, and the green on a person” — again, The Wizard of Oz provides the go-to example — “tells us who the monster is.”
Bond finds traditions in the use of color that connect the films of the classic era to those of modern masters like the apparently color-obsessed Wes Anderson, whose use of non-contrasting greens, browns, and yellows in Moonrise Kingdom “suits the film’s nostalgic tone,” and who fills The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel of pinks and beiges in order not to pile on emotional weight, but to reduce it, to tell us not to take the events of the story too seriously.
Quentin Tarantino, a fan of both the subtle and the unsubtle, uses color in a variety of ways, from the codenames of the thieves in Reservoir Dogs to the bright yellow track suit (itself a tribute to the films of Bruce Lee) worn by the protagonist of Kill Bill. In Apocalypse Now, subject of another Channel Criswell essay recently featured here on Open Culture, Francis Ford Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro “used a balanced color scheme in kurtz’s compound, but the orange mist gave a feeling of toxicity in the air.”
In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, “as the character discovers more about the world around him, the color palette shifts. The world of tradition and the character’s naiveté is displayed by the world of red. However, as the character begins to learn more, the color goes from red to orange, yellow, and finally, once he becomes fully comprehensive of his surroundings, he’s bounded to green.” And so, by the end of the movie, “both the character and the wheel have turned 180 degrees.” Bond means the color wheel, a circular diagram of the colors first developed by Isaac Newton and still central to color theory.
If cinephiles give that subject a little study, they’ll see how their favorite films tell stories in a more, well, vivid way. No matter how many times you’ve seen Vertigo, for example, a working knowledge of color will help you appreciate exactly why it has such an impact when Scottie first sees Madeleine in a green dress surrounded by a field of red. Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece stands, of course, as one of the most effective cinematic examples of color as a storytelling device. Should any filmmaker working today bother trying to top it? Bond quotes cinematographer Roger Deakins as saying “that it’s easy to make color look good, but harder to make it service a story. He’s probably right, but let’s try and prove him wrong.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.