Greetings and salutations our blog brethren! To begin this week’s blog, I want you all to think of your favorite scene from your favorite movie that really catapulted it into its now favorite movie status. Maybe it was the final scene in “The Shawshank Redemption,” where SPOILER Red and Andy reunite on the beach of a Mexican town that’s unreasonably fun to say, ZIHUATANEJO (love that word). Or the scene in the legendarily awful “Mac and Me” where our protagonist captures the titular alien, a scene that comes off as a truly terrifying moment. In my case, it’s a scene halfway through “There Will Be Blood” where a massive fountain of oil explodes out of the ground, at one point catching fire against the night sky.
Now, picture all of these scenes … completely devoid of color.
Ever since "The Wizard of Oz" totally blew the roof off of using it in 1939, color has been a pivotal part of cinema, one which we find hard to live without. Suddenly all of those aforementioned scenes go from glorious (or gloriously bad i.e. “Mac and Me”) to just kind of … eh.
Color is in a similar boat as as the subject of last week’s blog, composition, as it can be used for a number of purposes when filming a production that have made it essential to the realm of visual storytelling, yet rarely goes appreciated in a casual viewing. Why does Jessica Rabbit wear red in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Why do certain scenes in “The Matrix” have a green tint to them when others don’t? Why are the colors in the first half of “La La Land” so bright, but so normal in the more realistic, latter half? These are just some examples of ways that color is used to tell a story.
But before we get into how color’s used in that way, it’s important to understand how what goes into creating that color..
Balance Beams of Light: White Balance
First off, can we note the sheer genius of the title of this section? I used “balance” for white balance which transitioned directly to "beams" which went right to "of light," which is perfect since color is how we perceive an object’s reflection. Apologies for the tootage of my own horn ... moving on.
So, when shooting something, even something that may be as basic as a talking head interview, color is still essential, and it needs to be tampered with right there on the spot. Sure, there’s always digital style, where you go back and color correct afterward, but if the colors are off from the onset, you’re in a veritable pickle.
Which is why white balance is essential when filming. It’s fairly self-explanatory as a concept; you’re using in-camera settings and lights to make sure any white objects in frame are actually white. White balance is rated by a specific number, called Kelvin, but it can vary due to the time of day and light source. Bottom line is, if you don’t have your whites balanced, all other colors will be a bit off as well. The human eye is able to notice even the most distinct variations in color, so while viewers may not be able to tell you what specifically is wrong, they’ll know something’s off.
If you want to try this out for yourself, check your camera manual to see how to adjust the white balance settings. And, of course, have something white in the frame to be sure it's properly set. A piece of printer paper is a simple tool to have on hand for a basic white balance test. If you want the real nitty-gritty details, check out this post from BLANK.
By Air and By See: Methods of Using Color
We mentioned using digital color correction to go change things in post, but there is the classic way, with good old practical lighting techniques, costume design, and set design. How do you think bigwigs of the past like Ingmar Bergman, Frederick Mephistopheles*, or Alfred Hitchcock used color to tell their stories?
Color gels are often used to alter the look of a scene, and they are exactly what they sound like; just filters placed over the lights illuminating the scene so they have a particular hue.
But a narrative theme that's expressed through uniformity, or a lack thereof, is key when dealing with color. That's also where costume and set design come into play. Allow me to return to my idol, Paul Thomas Anderson, and another of his amazing films, “Punch Drunk Love,” starring Billy Madison himself, Adam Sandler (do you have any more gum?).
Take a look at the film’s opening scene above, where Sandler’s Barry Egan sits alone at his desk. Firstly, let’s give a shout-out to last week’s blog and look at the amazing framing of this shot, with Barry all alone in the corner of the frame, showing how isolated and, well, lonely he is.
But the framing and color go hand-in-hand here to portray that loneliness, as he’s wearing a blue suit, which he wears trough the entire film, and sitting in a room that’s half blue and half white. There’s a reason why people say they’re feeling blue, as it can be used to symbolize sadness or depression, while white can be a stark, sterile color. With that in mind, and even not with that in mind considering our brain can read into color without us even realizing, we can tell right off the bat that Barry is a depressed, lonesome guy. Pretty nifty eh? Which leads us to …
Throwin’ Some Shade: What Does Each Color Mean?
So while we’ve broken down ways to get color into a scene, it’s time to answer a question that a wise man with the middle name of Danger once asked; “Whoopty doo, but what does is at all mean, Basil?” My answer to Mr. Powers in that circumstance would: Color influences storytelling. More specifically, it can elicit psychological reactions, characterize a particular person in the script, and draw the audience's focus to an event or character.
The most basic of these is to draw your focus. Important elements in a frame will have a color that contrasts to its surroundings.
Check out this still from this little known indie film, “Forrest Gump.” The scene is absolutely dominated by greens and browns, save for Forrest and his new pal smack dab in the middle of the shot, with Forrest rockin’ his tan suit and blue shirt and the woman he’s bothering wearing a white dress and shoes as well as purple jacket. Sure, it’s just clothes, and it’s a casual scene, but this was not an accident. Without even knowing it, your eyes are drawn to the pair before they even begin chatting. If you'll notice, the background is even brighter than they are, but still your eyes are drawn to their figure because of the color contrast.
Color can also be used to establish characters. Recently I watched a movie I had never seen before, Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” about a wine sommelier and aspiring writer named Miles (GREAT NAME) played by the criminally underrated Paul Giamatti. Miles is going through a wicked midlife crisis as he traverses through wine country with his buddy Jack, played by Thomas Hayden Church. Jack is free-spirited, trying to dabble in some hardcore irresponsibility and have himself a fling before he gets married, so he’s often wearing some zany, patterned clothing. Miles, meanwhile, is struggling with depression, and in almost every scene is wearing something that’s blue. While it’s not something you may notice readily, the subtle coloring in this costume design further aids in personifying the characters on top of the fantastic writing and acting.
Another example might be Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), from Quentin Tarantino’s awesome “Pulp Fiction.” She wears a white shirt, white being a color that typically exudes innocence, but it’s her jet black hair and red lipstick that help convey her as what she really is, which is a femme fatale of sorts for John Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega, as black can symbolize mystery or just plain old evil, while red is of course the color of passion and lust.
Which brings us to the final use of color that is by far and away the most pivotal reason it's used in storytelling, which is to use psychology to set a tone by using the symbolism commonly involved with each color. Each and every color gives humans a sort of Pavlovian response as to what that color means and is trying to say. Black and white are a little more of the obvious ones, brown too (it’s brown like dirt so it’s a natural color -- yay we’re done), but let’s go through the remaining color spectrum to go over what they mean, because while you instinctively may know, you may not be consciously aware.
Let’s start with red, since we were just talking about it. It figures heavily in our example, “American Beauty,” and for good reason, since there is quite a bit of lust and passion in the film, as those of you who’ve seen it may know.
Next up is pink, which is used typically to convey femininity, but it can also mean sweetness or innocence. Some of the best examples of the use of pink in film are actually used in an ironic sense, such as the truly malevolent Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” where pink has a more saccharine tone.
Orange is a color that you don’t see used on a regular basis -- except in the Trove office! But when it's used, it’s usually to show a sense of warmth, comfort, almost welcoming to an extent in its exuberance. Look at this shot from Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Not to sound like a hippy, but definitely has a good energy to it, doesn’t it?
Yellow is a trickier one. It can be used to show off bliss or happiness, such as in the tale of young love that is the freaking amazing “Moonrise Kingdom,” also from Wes Anderson (not many people do color as deliberately as he does). Or it can be used to show instability, like in this first scene from David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” where Mark Zuckerberg’s decaying relationship with his girlfriend is on full display with the darkness and yellow tint of the scene.
Next we’ve got green, which can be used to show nature, because, like, trees are green, but is actually a very foreboding color at times, one that implies sickness or danger. “The Matrix” immediately springs to mind here, as the scenes that take place in the matrix have the aforementioned green tint to them, while scenes outside of it are just sort of run of the mill, drabber colors to show how brutal the actual world has become. Disney also uses green to light nearly every single one of their villains.
Next is blue, which is an easy one and one we’ve talked about. For further information, please watch the below video.
Finally, there’s purple, a color similar to orange, obviously not in hue, but in when it shows up in film. When it does show up, it’s meant to represent the mysterious or the mystical. I HATE to use this as an example, but look at this scene from “Avatar” to get what I mean.
So there we go folks, that’s color for you! Now, similar to last week’s advice after we spoke ... well, I wrote and you read ... about framing, I want you to pay close attention next time you’re watching something, and figure out why particular colors were used. Were they going for gritty, drab realism with dull grays, browns, and blues? Are they going for upbeat and cheerful with bright yellows and pinks? Or dangerous and unknown with purples and greens?
Or if you like black and white movies, I’m sorry to have wasted your time.
*Frederick Mephistopheles is not a real person. Did you actually buy that?