I see your true colours

Colour in film is not used to its full potential – but why should it? Don’t most films just depict a real or fantasy world anyway? If the viewer considers theories of colour’s effects on mood and symbolism, a film becomes a more full experience. Like a second music track, colour in films can be used to influence emotional shifts and theme connections.
Wes Anderson’s palette of mustard yellow, oranges and golds, is distinctive; you can instantly recognise a frame from his work. For Anderson, colour is a tool for immersion in a fantasy world and the themes of the movie. We associate his palette with the 70s, yet his historical placing is more ambiguous – perhaps a comment that the only reality we should be focusing on is that of his characters. Colour seems a choice of the characters in the clothes they wear, their business branding, hotel décor – a nod to their romanticism and hyperbolic personalities. This seems an intrinsic part of why Anderson is so popular among young artistic types and why his body of work serves as a gateway into the rest of art cinema. His cinema is a manifesto to live a ridiculous but self-fulfilling life to make the world more colourful, a bit less modern, a bit less “tasteful” and instead your own.
Now on to red – primal connotations. In Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is recovering from a divorce. It stands out that as he regains his capacity to love he starts wearing red – a mute point? He wears red on top consistently when he hangs out with his new love interest Samantha. Samantha herself is entirely pink and appears first in a bright red glow. In flashbacks to his divorce proceedings and office work, it stands out that he is depressed in white. Therefore Samantha gives his life ‘a splash of colour’, a passion, a desire and freedom of expression that usually connects to red. Colour is such a subtle device and yet these patterns can’t be ignored, although they seem to infect the audience on a subconscious level. But if you hold an artist’s eye, these things stand out when considering the whole movie as a series of designed pictures – which it definitely is in the storyboard stage. Some directors make their device more obvious, like Antonio Antonioni with Red Desert (1964) where the protagonist’s weakening grip on reality is marked by the use of red. As she depersonalises, she becomes more strongly attuned to desire – where red appears amidst a bleak colourless landscape, there is hope in her sexual desire, done to mirror her subconscious in unassuming objects like a wall, a bed post, steel drums. Paris, Texas (1984) also makes subtle use of red as marker of desire. When Travis takes up the search for his lover he shifts from drab brown flannels to a red shirt and cap, getting more soiled throughout until he reaches her red decorated room, lips and sweater. Their child wears red – the couples’ most stable tie has an aesthetic symbol of our hope that Travis’ desire is mutual.
Surely colour can be used more ambitiously than colour palettes for the fantasy worlds of Studio Ghibli or Peter Jackson. Yet the hand-stencilled colour in A Trip To the Moon (La Voyage dans la Lun) (1902) is unneeded as the film’s depth of field and odd spanning of film and theatre is enough to hold attention and wonder. Metropolis (1927) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) use pure black and white to its full effects by creating other attentions for the eye and simply using gradations of white as plot device. Caligari divides the screen and its scenery into eerie shapes – perspectives of light and distance are now made material and more angular. There are lines where there should not be to fill the frame, twisting reality. Similarly, Metropolis uses the strongest concentration of white to achieve the effect of light emitting from the screen. Here we are as stunned as the characters who associate that white with the electricity that stirs the city. The scenery exudes the sleek modernism of the 20s, down to Man Ray style photo collage; the film is like an art gallery. When true colour film arrived and was marketed properly it was used to its full advantage in The Wizard of Oz (1939). The yellow brick road, the green witch, the blue monkeys, the emerald city… this was adapted from a bestselling novel series so Dorothy’s story isn’t gimmicky. Released at the close of the Great Depression; when Dorothy opens the front door on the technicolour Oz she is encountered with a wildly different future from her dustbowl black-and-white Kansas life.
Audiences are now used to colour films, so switching to black-and-white transports the movie far away from our contemporary reality, like in the 50s or a comic book world. But colour can be used in far more effective ways, as a device to tell the story and stir us. Does a painter use one shade? Isn’t film an art? Often audiences want escapism in a film but they mostly receive realism relocated.


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September 2021
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