Color in film
April 25, 2009 6:44 PM   Subscribe

How does color in a movie influence emotion?

I'm trying to gather research done into the use of color to bring out certain emotions in audiences when watching a movie. We often associate red with anger or fear but it can also be used for love. So how do cinematographers and directors decide when building a scene?

Thanks for any input or suggestions...
posted by rocco to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I would refer you to two movies that use colour VERY effectively.

1/ O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2/ One Hour Photo.

As to the direct question of how it influences emotion (though your question seems limited to just emotion). The movies above use colour as a character in the movie, including it in the storyline. Just as a character has it's part, so does the colour.

None of that is "research", buf it you've seen neither movie it might give you food for thought.
posted by devbrain at 6:52 PM on April 25, 2009

You're looking for color theory.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:11 PM on April 25, 2009

Here's an interesting article for you - Cracking the Color Code of Hero.
posted by HopperFan at 7:22 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a book on this very subject - If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die.

You might want to check out Wong Kar Wai's films for very rich examples of how color and tone operate.
posted by bxyldy at 7:37 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

The movie Traffic is a good example of the director using post processing effects to change the color of the scene in order to influence mood. All the scenes shot in Mexico have a hazy yellow look while all the scenes shot in DC have a blue tone. It works very well.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 7:44 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

IIRC, there was a special feature on the Amelie DVD that discussed this. Many of the scenes are absolutely (and purposefully) saturated with color.
posted by charmcityblues at 8:10 PM on April 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

The anvilicious color tinting in Traffic was a bit much for me. After two minutes of "Okay, I get it, Mexico is yellow" I wanted it to be over.

Taxi Driver and Chinatown both use red-oranges for rage/anger pretty cleverly.
posted by rokusan at 8:24 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oliver Stone uses a kinda glowing lime green to symbolize mental illness in Natural Born Killers. It's about the color of Mr. Yuck.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 8:26 PM on April 25, 2009

Krzysztof Kieslowski (or, more specifically, his cinematographer Slawomir Idziak) used hand-made filters throughout their collaboration: sickly greens for A Short Film About Killing, warm yellows for The Double Life of Véronique, the respective colours for the Three Colours trilogy. (He once said, tongue in cheek, that he invoked the tricolor because the money was French; but with different backers, the films would have been the same.)

Idziak talks about his use of filters on the Criterion DVD of Véronique: it's worth seeking out.
posted by holgate at 8:29 PM on April 25, 2009

You might want to consider Blue, which is the only movie I've ever walked out on (and I am usually into films like that).
posted by Casuistry at 8:44 PM on April 25, 2009

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is a pretty seriously fucked, if not interesting movie with regard to colour.

Not only are the sets magnificent, but the characters' costumes change colour as they move from room to room.
posted by dancinglamb at 9:05 PM on April 25, 2009

Three Kings and Man on Fire are the first to come to mind. Both of them have the contrast and saturation turned up. I think this adds to the sense of place in both of them', Iraq for Three Kings and Brazil for Man on Fire. It makes the films feel more dreamlike/hallucinatory, and in that it is easier to imagine yourself in the same atmosphere (specifically the severity of the sunlight in both places).
posted by thylacine at 10:43 PM on April 25, 2009

This paper by Ornan Rotem, The Syntactic Use of Color in Film, is more about the syntax than the semantic meaning of color, but obviously needs to distinguish and as such does mention and discuss several color-as-emotive-force applications.
posted by rokusan at 10:44 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Coen brothers have always played mind-games using color. While it's over the top in O Brother, it can also be seen in films like Barton Fink and Blood Simple.

Even the opening scene of The Big Lebowski is so carefully color-matched and massaged... the next time you see it (has it been more than a month?), pay attention to how the viewer is color-shifted from the surreal opening tumbleweeds into the too-real supermarket for scene one.

Pretty damn brilliant, pardon the pun.
posted by rokusan at 10:47 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

charmcityblues beat me to Amélie. Looking at my DVD collection, I'd also nominate... Moulin Rouge, Fight Club, Dark City, and American Beauty.

A director I'd pay particular attention to is Tim Burton. One of his trademarks is the color style of his movies.
posted by sbutler at 10:55 PM on April 25, 2009

Tokyo Drifter

I disagree with some of the recommendations of movies to watch simply because they are too familiar. Watch movies that you haven't seen already that are making a clear and unmistakable effort to utilize color as one of the driving forces of the narrative (like the above suggestion). The stranger the better, I think. Get out of your comfort zone, see the color with fresh eyes, and then rewatch American Beauty or The Big Lebowski or (etc.) and realize what was there all along.

There are books and essays on film that explore the meaning of color, but I would hesitate to give them too much weight. The meaning of colors vary greatly between cultures, and even between films by the same director. Your example of red, for example, means something quite different in China than it does in America, and in any given movie, it has the potential to mean anything at all. When there is a code of color meaning in a film, it is meaning that exists in a closed universe. Sometimes cultural expectations are embraced, or intentionally refuted. Sometimes they are not considered in any way. Sometimes the director has a personal color scheme that persists between films. Sometimes that's not the case.

Whatever you do with this research, try not make hard and fast rules like THIS COLOR = THIS EMOTION. Emphasize the flexibility of color, and recognize that each movie constructs its own language of color to a greater or lesser extent, and you'll be on to something.
posted by Nonce at 11:37 PM on April 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Of course The Matrix is famous for assigning the cooler, more human blue tone to the real world, and the green color of the Matrix code to all scenes in the Matrix, which makes it feel stifling and artificial.
posted by Dukat at 1:52 AM on April 26, 2009

Go watch Seven, the "platinum" commentary - the DVD has the colorist and the head of the FX talking about the specific techniques they used adn why.

You're going to find that the choice of color is particularly culture based...color is also something that's set up as a thematic element, so it can have more than one connotation; it's not an absolute.
posted by filmgeek at 7:25 AM on April 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in the first movies done by Ingmar Bergman in color, Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) and Autumn Sonata.
posted by ubersturm at 7:57 AM on April 26, 2009

The Coen brothers have always played mind-games using color.

I heard their production designer, on No Country For Old Men, say that he had little laminated cards made with the approved colors, and gave them to everyone on the set. The back of the card said, "If you see any colors being shot that don't match these, call me at this number 24/7."
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:37 AM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

How does color in a movie influence emotion?

I don't think it does. I find I get as emotional from a well-made black-and-white as with a well made color film. That said, I believe the first person to focus on this in an over-the-top manner was Godard with Contempt in 1963, but Godard doesn't engage me, therefore I don't find the experience of watching emotional. I look at as art and say "Oh, that's interesting," but does it affect me emotionally, no.
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 9:16 AM on April 26, 2009

I once took a "philosophy of emotion" class that illustrated color's influence on emotion with one of Hitchcock's lesser-known films, Marnie. It deals, in particular, with emotional responses to the color red.
posted by jbrjake at 9:53 AM on April 26, 2009

You might be interested in looking at the use of color tinting in silent films. It was very widespread, and color choice (aside from obvious things like deep blue for nighttime and red for fire) was determined to some degree by the emotional associations of the colors used.
posted by bubukaba at 10:57 AM on April 26, 2009


Pretty bad movie but Vittorio Storaro used color like mad for all the character emotions and motives.

In fact, looking at Vittorio Storaro's filmography itself is a good list of fantastic color usage.

Reds, Dick Tracy, Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor.
posted by M Edward at 11:54 AM on April 26, 2009

Arguably, it's one of the few things M. Night Shyamalan is good at when making his movies. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village all feature some deliberate color choices to correspond to different themes and characters.
posted by emelenjr at 12:19 PM on April 26, 2009

The show Pushing Daisies uses oversaturation to achieve a surreal effect, much like the movie Amelie.
posted by JauntyFedora at 11:24 AM on April 27, 2009

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