One of the fundamental parts of filmmaking and photography is color. Since the first Technicolor process was invented, the film industry has been creating new ways of harnessing the power and magic of color on the big screen.

The Psychology of Color

Color elicits emotions; it stimulates the eyes and touches the audience at the subconscious level. Color adds depth to a film and by gaining a much deeper understanding why color is so important in visual storytelling, you could learn how to use it to develop a character, enhance a narrative or tell a story in the most compelling way possible.

In filmmaking, color is utilized as a way to establish a story. And this strategy goes well beyond the Technicolor era. Black and white films utilized colors to tell a story. For instance, silent films used blue and deep purple to distinguish daytime and nighttime visually.

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Before Technicolor films, Western movies used white and black hats to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys: black hats for the villains and white hats for the heroes. Incredibly, the same technique is still being used today.

Back then, film processes were expensive, rudimentary or both. But color was such an effective tool in visual storytelling that filmmakers were always looking for new ways to incorporate it in movies despite the cost.

Modern series and movies are no different. Color remains paramount in differentiating stories, setting the mood, and directing the attention of the audience. The saturation, hue, and value of color are still being applied to depict character relationships, progression, and transformations.

Color Representation in Filmmaking

Using Color to Represent Intentions

Movies and series use color to represent inner and outer conflicts. Complimentary colors are used suggest the often-positive transitions of a character while contrasting colors mirror a character’s strong emotions, usually when the said character is getting the opposite of what s/he needs.

In films such as the Star Wars saga and all of Disney movies, color plays an integral role in telling a story. In Star Wars, villains use lightsabers that give an unnerving red glow (Darth Vader, Darth Maul, and Kylo Ren) while the heroes use blue (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker) or green (Luke Skywalker and Yoda). Lightsabers were also used to illustrate a character’s moral ambiguity, like Mace Windu’s violet lightsaber.

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Disney has always used dark, dominant colors like black and purple to depict the villains while white, blue, yellow was used to highlight the heroes. Traditionally, Disney uses an unearthly lime green glow as a sign of unfathomable evil, think Maleficent’s dark magic or Lady Tremaine’s death stare.

Color could also represent the progression of a character. In the movie Amelie, green was used to add vitality and contrast to the movie’s otherwise warm and saturated color palette.  The color green was used to represent Amelie’s hopeful and playful nature while red was used to reflect the character’s changing moods.

Using Colors to Convey Character Perspective

The worldview of a character is also represented through color. In the film “Fight Club,” David Fincher used a distinct orange-blue tint to symbolize internal and external conflicts. Edward Norton’s feelings of boredom and stagnation were represented by a wash of dreary earth colors until Tyler Durden came in the picture with his red leather jacket and pink shades.

In the hit series Breaking Bad, the characters’ clothing was used to clue viewers in on their changing states. Walt’s identifying color became darker (from red to black) as he transitioned from being the main protagonist to the antagonist, a sign of Walt’s corrupted worldview and state. Jesse wore mixed clothing throughout the series, which suggests moral conflict, but the changing colors were greatly affected by Walt’s influence as well.

Using Colors to Build Anticipation or Tension

Colors are used in cinema to represent hope or doom in order to built tension or anticipation. Black, red, and purple are often used to built anticipation for the horror that’s about to unfold in the scene. Yellow, blue, and green are used to highlight light moments. A mix of contrasting shades builds tension, reminding the audience of the main baddie’s presence lurking in the background: a black shadow is cast on a bright, sunny day or a dot of yellow on a vast ocean.

Color Psychology in Cinema

In filmmaking, color is utilized to convey important or complex messages at a subconscious level. It offers a layer of meaning to every scene and adds depth and dimension to a character. Even when it’s black and white, color could draw and hold the attention of movie viewers.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that color is used to enhance a scene. Just because you could add colors in a scene does not necessarily mean you should. Being adept at controlling this element is key to effective storytelling.

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