How Filmmakers Like Kubrick, Jodorowsky, Tarantino, Coppola & Miyazaki Use Color to Tell Their Stories

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free MIT Course Teach­es You to Watch Movies Like a Crit­ic: Watch Lec­tures from The Film Expe­ri­ence

“Bleu, Blanc, Rouge”: a Strik­ing Super­cut of the Vivid Col­ors in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s Films

Wes Ander­son Likes the Col­or Red (and Yel­low)

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Obses­sion with the Col­or Red: A Super­cut

Ear­ly Exper­i­ments in Col­or Film (1895–1935)

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.

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