What do we mean by colour in film?

Before the story begins, even before an actor states their first line, the tone of a film is communicated to the audience through colour. The colour palette of any given film, or visual text, is essentially the visual character, or personality, of that text. Some films may have a warm, comforting palette, and others may have a more dark, futuristic look. There may also be films which switch between various, completely different, colour palettes for different scenes, time periods or locations.

When analysing the colour of a visual text, it is useful to consider these three different categories:

  1. Hue – the actual colour itself (Is there a predominant use of green? Yellow?)
  2. Saturation – is the colour rather vibrant, or more muted?
  3. Brightness, or value – how light, or dark, is the colour?

 

Each of these three categories has the ability to influence the way in which the responder connects with what they are seeing on screen.

Psychologically, different colours will have certain effects on audiences. Red, for example, is linked with emotions such as love and passion, though can also come to represent hatred or violence. Blue, too, can be both calming, and melancholy. The exact emotion you feel that the colour is evoking is completely up to your interpretation, though the context of a film’s story, as well as the saturation and brightness of the colours, may influence their meaning! Darker colours, for example, usually create more negative moods than their lighter counterparts – dark green, for example, can be viewed as ominous, corrupt, whilst a brighter green would more likely be linked with nature and innocence.

How does colour work as a technique?

Using particular colour palettes in visual texts can, as stated above, evoke different tones and emotions from the responder. So, directors make very specific colour choices in order to portray different moods and give their audiences more information about the story. While watching a film, or looking at any visual text, it is useful to ask yourself: What do these colours make me feel? How do these colours connect back to the story or characters at large?

Aside from using particular colours to represent particular emotions, the way different colours are placed together in any given scene is also important! Using different schemes and palettes will allow directors to create certain tones, though they may also be used to symbolise different character traits or plot points too. Colour palettes in visual texts can be summarised into those based around harmony, and those based around discordance.

Harmonious colour:

Harmonious colour palettes are comprised of colours that, when combined together, are pleasing to look at. This includes analogous colour schemes (colours that fall next to each other on the colour wheel), and complementary colour schemes (colours that are directly opposite to each other on the colour wheel). When a visual text has a harmonious colour palette, this engages its audience and creates an inner sense of balance.

Here are some examples:

The Velvet Room – Persona 4 Golden

Image: Still from Persona 4 2008. Dir. Katsura Hashino

and the colour palette

Image: Colour swatch from the shot

Within the universe of the Persona 4 Golden video game, the Velvet Room is a place located between the conscious and subconscious, where the evolution of your protagonist is physically manifested. Though the room itself may change form based on who enters it (appearing as a limousine, elevator or jail in different games), the one constant across all versions is the colour. The Velvet Room is draped in this deep royal blue; it smothers every wall, covering each length of furniture. The colour is calming, creating a feeling of security within the room. This is a space for the protagonist to take a break from the game’s challenges, and the harmonious blue tones immediately provide that safe atmosphere.

Discordant colour:

Colour palettes don’t need to be harmonious to be evocative, however. The use of discordant colours in scenes can throw the scene into disorder, making the entire look of the film seem unbalanced, or off. These colour palettes are those which contrast with each other, usually resulting in a more unsightly combination. However, discordant colour schemes do not need to be ugly in order to be effective. Let’s take a look at some examples:

The blue lamp – Amélie:

Amélie centres around its titular protagonist’s journey to better the lives of those around her. Though, even as she aids and interacts with other people, Amélie’s own life is one lacking purpose and fulfilment. Within the film, colour is used liberally to express different emotions. The apartment in which Amélie lives is plastered in red tones, representing her passion and desire for love. However, amongst all her warm-toned decor, Amélie also owns one or two bright blue lamps. Blue, here, contrasts strikingly with the rest of the scene’s colour palette. The lamps become a symbol of Amélie’s more lonely side; her wild imagination, and isolation.

Colour palette
Image: Film still from Amélie Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet 2001
Image: Colour swatch from the shot

How to analyse colour palettes – step-by-step

Step 1: What colours can you see in the scene?

It is first important to identify what hues you can see in a given scene. Is there a lot of, for example, red tones? Are those tones bright, or more muted? Are they lighter or darker in tone?

Step 2: Harmonious or discordant?

Take a look at the scene’s colour palette as a whole; do the colours complement each other? Or is there a discordant colour that throws off the balance of the scene?

For example, let’s keep Amélie in mind: Though the scene of Amélie in her apartment is predominately plastered in warm, red tones, a single blue lamp also exists within the space. This creates a discordant colour palette.

Colour palette

Step 3: What do the colours represent?

Keep in mind that certain colours will psychologically incite certain emotions (for example, red may represent violence or love etc.), though colours can also symbolise character traits or themes from the text. It is completely up to you to decide how you want to analyse the colour palette of a visual text, though keep in mind that you always want to use your techniques to prove a particular theme for a body paragraph!

Using Amélie as an example, the blue lamp can be said to represent her more secluded, childish side. It stands out so harshly against her background, much like how her imagination does when compared to the real world.

Step 4: T.E.E.L paragraph!

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example
  • Example: the quote/shot itself.
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning.
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

Let’s use this structure to analyse the use of colour in Amélie:

  • Technique: The use of a discordant colour palette.
  • Example: The shot of Amélie’s apartment, with the blue lamp in frame.
  • Effect: The blue lamp situated amongst the rest of the warm-toned, red apartment represents Amélie’s imagination and secluded place within the wider world.
  • Link: The colour blue thus becomes a symbol to represent the way Amélie’s character fits in with the rest of the world. She is an outsider, though does her best to try and fit into her surrounding regardless.

 

Let’s put this together into a sample T.E.E.L paragraph:

Throughout Amélie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a warm, nostalgic colour palette composed of harmonious reds and greens is established. However, in some scenes, a contrasting blue colour is added to the scheme, creating a sense of discordance. For example, in Amélie’s apartment, a bright blue lamp sits amongst her countless red/orange belongings. This use of discordant colour represents Amélie’s imagination and seclusion from the wider world. She is an outsider, different in her views and personality due to her unique, isolated childhood. As a result, Amélie is a bright blue lamp within a red and green world, though tries her best to fit into her surroundings and find love regardless.

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