Colors in Movies and Television
November 11, 2009 6:35 PM   Subscribe

I watch a lot of movies, and I have noticed that in modern movies, almost every shot has a very restricted palette of two colors. Could someone tell me when this practice became standard?

I was watching Twin Peaks last night, and there was a pair of shots that were particularly interesting, because in one, the dominant colors were orange and blue, then, without a cut, one actor leaves, another comes into the shot, and the colors shift to a range of brown and black. The actors moved to cover up the orange elements that still showed from the earlier exchange. So that places the practice to at least 20 years ago.
posted by Jimmy Havok to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I think the biggest impact has probably been Digital Intermediates and that started with "Oh Brother where art though". The blue/green back ground orange flesh tone thing I don't know where it started. Not completely off topic is this link is interesting color correction wise.
posted by jade east at 7:09 PM on November 11, 2009

To the OP, can you please provide links to images demonstrating what you mean?
posted by meadowlark lime at 7:20 PM on November 11, 2009

I'm curious, but strictly about which scene/episode you're talking about.
posted by dinx2582 at 7:47 PM on November 11, 2009

Response by poster: Which episode...I think it is season 2, episode 4...Lucy is talking to Agent Cooper in the coffee nook about her romantic troubles. The orange of her lipstick is the dominant color, and it is echoed in several other places.

Agent Cooper steps out of the nook to talk to Harry...the palette shifts to match Harry's uniform, but we can just barely see a couple of the orange elements from the first scene between them, though they've moved to block the rest

Here's an example of this duotone palette in action: nearly every shot in this trailer for 2012 uses the technique...unless it goes even further to a single color.

Likewise, this trailer for The Alamo seems to show the same sort of use of color, so I guess it was around a long time ago. However, The Searchers has a more realistic palette.

It seems to me that this duotone composition is nearly universal in movies and video today. Violations are done for effect, as in this trailer for Planet 51, where it's intended to be cartoony (yes, it's animation, but note the duotone scenes in it, which are intended to be dramatic).
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:50 PM on November 11, 2009

I've noticed this, too, and I really like the effect. Here are a couple of examples that came to mind:

In A Serious Man, Mrs. Samsky's front hall is bright orange with intense pops of bright blue created by her eyes and two candles in the foreground. Although the colours look washed out in that pic, they're laughably vivid in the film.

Almost every scene in Amelie is vividly red and green. Here's another. As I recall the DVD commentary shows how these scenes were colour-corrected. Often a splash of yellow or bright blue was added to pop the red and green even more.

Here's rusty brown + icy blue in The Graduate.
Red + brown in Taxi Driver.
Twin peaks: Red + Grey.
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:31 PM on November 11, 2009

Just piping in with some color theory here to explain the blue+orange/ brown-blue that's stupidly popular these days: yellow and blue is a basic complementary color pair. Since most people already look kind of orange-yellow already, the most pleasing contrast is considered to be blue and that way, people don't look "weird."

Another reason is that basic studio lighting is all 3600k color temperature because they are Tungsten lamps. To get studio lights to match outdoor sunlight, a blue gel is placed over the lighting fixture. That means that there are basically two lighting colors: orange, and blue.

The director of photography or set designer will sit with the directors and producers to set up a "look-and-feel." This includes things like practical (on-set, "real") color palates as well as post-production palates. Some of the time they're arbitrary and the orange/blue gets followed. Most of the time, the director has a direct goal with color: the bad guy is always cast in purple light; bad guys use red lightsabers with lots of brown and gray; good guys are blue and green and yellow; yellow=energy=life=main character...etc etc.
posted by Khazk at 9:48 PM on November 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

One notable example of the technique is the pilot episode of House, M.D. (directed by Bryan Singer) which has a striking orange/gray cast.
posted by Lazlo at 10:16 PM on November 11, 2009

Hitchcock uses this technique in Vertigo (1958) where red and green are used in interesting ways.
posted by at the crossroads at 10:53 PM on November 11, 2009

Very observant; good question. I guess it's too much to hope that an industry type will supply us with a name for this and a theory behind it. If you could bump threads to the top here, I'd be doing it over and over.

From the supplied examples I'd say it's generally split between warm and cold. If you want to divide the color spectrum in just two, that's the way to do it. Leave out yellow.

People like binary opposites, like with a hero and a villain: one enhances the other. I'd speculate that a lot of the digital guys are ramping up the contrast in this way without being explicitly conscious of it.

Besides, they let those digital guys get the bit in their mouth too much. But I'd better not get started on that, the mania for "punching-up" everything these days.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 1:43 AM on November 12, 2009

Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy uses this technique a lot, but not through filters or post-production color correction. If memory serves, there were only five colors used in the production design, plus black and white. The costumes were color-matched to the sets. I'd pay whatever a merchant wished to charge to have that movie on Blu-ray.
posted by Prospero at 4:46 AM on November 12, 2009

This type of technique was used so much in Eyed Wide Shut, that it ended up distracting me from what was going on plot-wise.
posted by misteraitch at 5:26 AM on November 12, 2009

The production designer for No Country For Old Men had pocket sized laminated cards made, that showed a set of color chips. They were given out to the crew, and included the message, "call me at this number, 24/7, if you see any colors but these being photographed."
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:54 AM on November 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

This has been going on for as long as there have been color movies. A filmmaker chooses everything that goes in front of the camera. They choose the color of objects based on color theories that are useful for storytelling or thematic reason. Directors are aware of what they are shooting and do not make decisions arbitrarily.

However, back in the early days of color films, it was VERY VERY expensive to shoot in color, so films generally chose colors that gave the most spectacle (Think The Wizard of Oz). Some more artistically-minded auteurs, such as Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo) or John Ford (The Searchers) would have had leeway to experiment with the power of color. They were probably directly influenced by art movements like impressionism, where artists had been doing this very thing for a century or so.

I have not seen Twin Peaks, but David Lynch makes very artistic and stylized films and I would not be surprised that he used color so specifically in the scene you mention. This sounds quite experimental and avant-garde for television.

Other posters are right that this has become more common with digital color correction. It is now MUCH cheaper to have this sort of color control over a film and it allows for sloppy camerawork since the colors can pretty much all be adjusted afterward.
posted by AtomicBee at 12:06 PM on November 12, 2009

AtomicBee: I have not seen Twin Peaks, but David Lynch makes very artistic and stylized films and I would not be surprised that he used color so specifically in the scene you mention. This sounds quite experimental and avant-garde for television.

I'm not sure I'd call it experimental or avant-garde, any more than I'd call it experimental or avant-garde when a painter uses a purposeful color palette.

As far as Lynch goes, you can see this pretty evidently in Mulholland Dr-- look for cotton-candy pink and powder blue.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:15 PM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone who contributed. I can't single out any one answer as "best," there was a lot of meat there and I learned something new from most everyone.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:38 PM on December 24, 2009

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