What makes color have an impact in cinema?
How it’s used.
Why it’s used.
What subtextual value the filmmaker assigns to a given color.
What specific color palette is used.
Filmmaker’s Color Tools
In cinema, color comes in two forms – light and production design (which includes costumes, hair, make-up, props, and set design); top-of-their game filmmakers utilize both to fit the characters and the themes of their stories.
There’s a fascinating and informative book called “If It’s Purple, Someone’s Going To Die” by Patti Bellantoni. She dissects how color is employed in a film’s production design to elevate, spotlight, or suggest various themes, emotions, and foreshadowing.
The Vimeo video below will give you an idea of how certain directors have implemented some form of color theory in their work.
You don’t have to do this or even abide by these concepts. They’re not definitive, because you, as the director, can assign any color to any mood or theme in your film. That’s the beauty of being a director with a vision.
The other day I was re-watching Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN, and what I realized (and lamented) is that too many TV shows borrow the palette and color grading of that bleak future. (“Game of Thrones” being the most notorious). Everything is awash with a sooty tone that mutes all the colors. Those decisions work extraordinarily well to build that film’s world, but they’re over-used nowadays.
Celebrated cinematographer Vittorio Storaro researches and designs a color palette for the films he works on. He delves deep into the psychological motivations of any given color. In his masterpiece (one of many) THE LAST EMPEROR, director Bernardo Bertolucci and Storaro formulated a specific color palette that aids us in keeping track with various aspects of Pu Yi’s elucidating journey.
The epic scale of that story pretty much demands that kind of attention to detail, but it’s important to take color considerations to heart with any visual project you’re mounting.
What’s clever about the transitions in THE LAST EMPEROR is, as the story progresses in time, each temporal section is defined by a specific color. And then the next section’s color is the adjacent color on the color wheel… so Storaro starts off drenching his images in yellow, moves to red, then hits blue, and ends up at green (which represents knowledge in that film… green could mean life in another film; or be sinister as it is in THE WIZARD OF OZ).
As Sidney Lumet famously said, “there are no small decisions in movie-making,” so be bold with your choices for your palette.