The Basics Of Colour In Film

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Author: Charlie Staindl
Date: October 7, 2021

Colour is everywhere all the time, and like many things that are everywhere, it’s easy to forget just how much of what we perceive is based on colour. Most of us will remember a point in time when our English teachers tried to show us how colour is used by authors and directors with obvious examples. “The curtains were blue because the main character was sad”, or something along those lines, was a standard line. Thanks for that one, Mrs Doyle. But the funny thing about those lessons is not only were they onto something, but they completely undersold it. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent creating the right colour scheme for ad campaigns, for the next big blockbuster, for the critically-acclaimed Oscar juggernaut. More still, some of history’s artistic geniuses have poured over the use of colour and not so much used it as compelled it to show their ideas. For this week, we’ll be focusing on how colour works in film, and what exactly people mean when they talk about palettes and colour wheels and pastels. 

Matt Jasper using colour in this creative shoot

Hang on, how much to colour is there?

The first thing to do is to unpack what we mean by colour. There are many components to colour, and I’m sure that PhD film students could list a multitude of meanings and categories to colour but for now, we’ll focus on the basics: hue, saturation, and brightness. Hue refers to the tone of a colour, which is just the basics of the colour without brightness or saturation. You can have a red hue, blue hue, green hue; it’s the building block of your colour. Saturation refers to its intensity, or how strongly it strikes. De-saturated colours are closer to grey, while highly saturated colours are pure, vivid colours. Finally, brightness is – you guessed it – how bright or dark the colour is. With brightness, you can turn a blue hue into a light blue without making it look grey, as would happen if you desaturated it. 

So what do you do with that?

In film, you can play with colour more than any other medium so pay attention to how it makes your project look. 

Many big-budget films focus on some of the basics of colour theory, and some of the simplest ideas can create massive changes on-screen. One thing to do is use saturation and brightness to make a clear shift in a film. 2011’s Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper and produced on a budget of 37 million, desaturated and re-saturated scenes based on whether Cooper was taking the powerful cognitive drug NZT (don’t worry, we haven’t spoiled anything for you).

Limitless, Neil Burger, 2011

The critically-acclaimed Schindler’s List followed a similar route, filming in black and white but showing a solitary red dress in colour, adorned by a young girl to highlight the innocence and beauty lost in the horrors of the holocaust. These examples are ways that colour can be used simply to illustrate moments and themes, without needing to reinvent the wheel. 

Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg, 1994

But what is this actually doing?

Hue, saturation and brightness are all tools to change how we perceive colour, but what can does this do? Framing, lighting, sound and positioning all help guide the eyes but colour is what designates this focus. Colour shows what should be focused on in a scene, and what shouldn’t. This distinction is a key facet of filmmaking as it highlights differences and similarities, which go on to portray themes, moods and environments. 

For instance, showing a saturated background with green grass and a clear blue sky evokes a warm, summery day, while showing an office decorated with neutral colours and desaturated greys, whites and browns compare not just a different background, but how we should feel about those backgrounds. We’re subconsciously primed to blend the similar, dull office colours, and now that office evokes a sense of monotony and boredom. This is a popular trope, epitomised by films such as The Matrix’ opening office scenes, or moments in Fight Club.

The Matrix, 1999, Lana & Lilly Wachowski

Alternatively, films can show bright or saturated colours, or make use of a vivid colour palette. Director Wes Anderson is infamous for his use of colour palettes, all of which are carefully constructed to depict a mood or theme, to the point of seeming surreal. So make sure to align your mood with your palettes, and take into account if you want to make dramatic shifts, use colours to create binaries, or simply create a delightful Anderson-like tribute to the beauty of colour.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014, Wes Anderson

Knowledge of filmmaking techniques, from the basics of colour to expert techniques, is a great way to help deliver a quality film experience. The Jasper Picture Company is one of Melbourne’s leading videography firms, with years of experience and a wealth of successful projects. To find out what we can do for you, check out the rest of our blogs or catch a glimpse of our other projects on our website.

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