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Take a minute to think about how our eyes perceive color all around us. Blue skies, green grass. The orange or yellow hue of city streetlights. There’s something pretty incredible about how this perception emerges from within us, right? As filmmakers, we work toward a primary goal of getting our audience to feel something while watching our films. Color is one such tool that will help us craft something truly emotionally resonant.
Firstly, it doesn’t matter whether you’re directing or editing the film, writing the screenplay or acting as cinematographer; knowledge of the effects color can have on a story will always strengthen your capacity to tell a visual story.
Take writing, for example. Is it a blue room? Purple lipstick? Brown grass? Adding that bit of detail will help whoever’s next in line in perceiving the story. Who knows? Maybe the director wants a green elephant, not a pink one. Either way, color will help make a screenplay pop in the reader’s imagination.
But now we’re into preproduction. We’re figuring out costumes, props, set design, lighting. We’re trying to figure out how to implement that color knowledge on a more tactile basis. This is where we’re really going to need to know what color represents. Enter the color wheel.
(color wheel from peach pit)
There’s some handy info on the site too about color theory fundamentals. Essentially, though, this wheel is a guide. It gives us a sense of what colors best complement each other. That way when we’re thinking of how best to utilize color with props, sets, lighting, etc. we’ll know more about what colors work and what colors clash. We will return to this!
Okay, so we know what colors are out there (and there are more; looking at you film noir). But why use yellow? Why use green or purple? This is where we really get deeper into color theory.
Each color represents a variety of emotional states and instincts. This is called color psychology and it’s huge. Now we can think about how to build character and mood with what colors we use, rather than just choosing what pops (though that is still huge). Here’s a page with a nice breakdown of what many colors represent.
There are also plenty of great videos out there that can give us a sense of color in action. Channel Criswell on YouTube has a great breakdown of color usage in film that can really help us understand strong film use of color.
Our goal is to use the various colors in such ways as to emphasize (or deemphasize) certain aspects of our characters and settings. Think of the emotional combinations. Why a character would be wearing green while perhaps sauntering through city streets dotted by reds and yellows. Is this someone earthy and real being tempted by something chaotic? Or are they even being tempted? Are they being welcomed? Maybe they’re not wearing green by the end of their experience there.
And don’t forget we still have blacks, whites and greys to use as well. Sadly there are a lot of people out there who think black and white somehow equates to “boring.” Light and shadow can create extremely effective black and white moods. Perhaps that stripped down aesthetic is what your story needs. This is a great video from Now You See It that goes into why shooting in black and white should not be underestimated.
Recall my mentioning about of colors working and colors clashing. So far we’ve briefly touched upon the color wheel (the basis of color theory) and working uses of color and black and white (their emotional meanings). Say you want to dive a little deeper. A common question someone may ask when reading over why blue means “calm,” for example, is “why does blue mean calm?”
Why indeed? It really comes down to how we physically and emotionally respond to the colors around us. It’s truly inborn. Red, for example, excites passion ultimately because it’s the color of blood. Blood makes us humans go, of course. Green and brown, though they get at different aspects of it, are the colors of nature. There’s something grounding about both of them. Black is mysterious because it reminds of the night and an absence of light.
This is a great quick breakdown of why colors mean what they do. The article bases its work primarily on the text The Symbolism of Color by Ellen Conroy, a good book to read through if you’re interested in learning more about this.
Knowing why a color means what it does beyond just what it represents is a great way to add even more depth to your characters and the situations they find themselves in. This all works subconsciously; in the moment of watching, it just affects us in a primal way. Then once we have the opportunity to sit back and think about the way color was used, we can understand, enjoy and interpret a film’s message on multiple levels. Something to think about!
Now that we have a better understand of the whats and whys behind color, let’s get to it! Good luck!
Adam D. Johnson is a New York-based writer and filmmaker with a taste for the weird. When he’s not writing, reading or watching appropriately strange films, he’s usually hanging around odd artists and performers. He also really digs traveling. Connect with him on Instagram