Blood Reds and Oceanic Blues: Looking at Color in Film

Film is a medium that combines so many elements to present one work to the viewer. It’s made of images, sound (or lack of sound), movement, color, performance, and so much more. Looking more in-depth at color in film proves that the variances in pigment on screen yield emotional responses and resonate with the themes of the movie. I’ve always been a fan of really dramatic instances of color that set films apart from standard and bland Hollywood fare. That’s not to say that blockbuster films can’t have incredibly colorful visual components, however. It’s just not usually the focal point of your average Fast and Furious vehicle. I love when filmmakers really attempt to connect the viewer to the characters through specific color palettes. It’s details like this that, while clearly visible, can often go unnoticed by someone casually viewing a movie.

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

When you think of color in film, Amélie is generally a great jumping off point. The palette of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 romantic comedy is one of lush greens, vibrant reds, and calming yellows. This is the definition of a feel-good film and the color in the images only adds a layer of calm and beauty. Paris is shown as this magically surreal world where Amélie helps those around her, solves mysteries, and falls in love. Romance is paired with awkwardness and tender self-revelation as she discovers herself through her desire to learn more about the world around her.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004)

I’m about to hit you with a pretty unpopular opinion. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is my favorite Wes Anderson film. I can’t even really explain why. It’s a hot mess. But for some reason, this one always hits me in a more emotional way than any of his other films, which I love. One thing that does stand out here is his use of more vibrant and bold colors. Anderson is usually one of the first filmmakers that pops up when discussing color in film, and that’s because each of his films feature very dramatic and calculated color to accompany the feel of each work. The Life Aquatic uses bright blues, soft greens, strong yellows, and bold reds to accompany the maritime surroundings and the decaying ship the characters live on. Like his other work, this film ties its use of color to the thematic content, as well. Passions run high throughout the entire film as romances bloom and die, pirates attack, familial relationships are challenged, and the sea creatures are examined with stunning stop-motion images.

Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrman, 2001)

Chicago (Marshall, 2002) is often credited with rejuvenating the modern Hollywood musical. But I think that credit must be paid to Baz Luhrman’s lush pop music production of Moulin Rouge! Luhrman’s films are all known for their spectacular production design. Romeo + Juliet (1996) brought Shakespeare’s tragedy up to date with tropical shirts and a stellar pop soundtrack. Moulin Rouge! fuses its romantic tragedy with images so colorful and vibrant that it’s nearly impossible to catch everything. Luhrman’s frenzy of a film delivers one beautiful moment after another, capturing the love of Christian and Satine in nearly every color imaginable. This is a film meant to soak in the look and feel of the period while you listen to fun music being played.

Cold War (Pawel Pawlikawski, 2018)

Going against the rest of the films here, Cold War tells its tragically romantic tale in a 1.33 aspect ratio with stunningly beautiful black and white images. With the A24 crowd proving that black and white films in classic aspect ratios can be successful (looking at you, The Lighthouse), contemporary B&W films are becoming more and more visible. While a lot of this can often be linked with hipster film trends, Cold War proves that it is the genuine article. This is a film that was truly meant to look this way. It was my favorite film of 2018 and continues to be just as emotionally effective for me. That is in no small part because of the spectacular cinematography. With such a small image, the lingering moments with these characters in these stark spaces add an extra punch. If you haven’t seen Cold War and are into depressing films that make you feel all of the emotions while being gobsmacked at just how beautiful the film looks, this one is definitely for you.

Three Colors Trilogy (Krysztof Kieślowski, 1993-1994)

With each of the three films being named after one of the three colors of the French flag, symbolizing the political ideals of the French Republic: liberty, equality, and fraternity. All three of these films are outright masterpieces, with Kieślowski giving each film it’s own thematic narrative while allowing the protagonists to cross over in the background of the other films. As the titles suggest, Blue (1993), White (1994), and Red (1994) all feature their titular color heavily in the aesthetic of their film. Blue and Red remain the most effective for me of the trilogy, but I love all three. If you’re looking for three films to make you feel a wave of emotions and to see incredibly beautiful visuals accompanying these themes, this is the trilogy for you.

Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Spike Lee’s film could not be more relevant for the climate of the US at this point in time. This is one of those films that somehow has managed to become, tragically, more relevant as time has passed. The messages of how to counter hate in this film are driven by powerful quotes from Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and Spike Lee molds their perspectives together to create a really impactful message for the viewer. While the message about combating racism is clearly the main takeaway from this film, the color palette is critical in assisting Lee with hitting that message home. Red is a color that has always been used to convey passion, ranging from anger to love to desire. Here it’s used to convey all three, in addition to the rising heat in the neighborhood due to the aggressive heat wave in New York City.

Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003-2004)

Paying tribute to the kung fu movies he grew up watching, Kill Bill incorporates a very colorful palette that includes over-the-top reds for the many explosive instances of blood spray, blues in the Bride’s stunningly beautiful showdown with O-Ren Ishii, and yellows as in the Bride’s Bruce Lee-inspired jumpsuit as she slays her way through the Crazy 88.

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

For a very dry post-apocalyptic world, Mad Max: Fury Road features stunningly colorful sequences to counter the many instances of sand and dirt. The sandstorm that Furiosa drives through highlights explosive bursts of color to accentuate the moment with tension. The nighttime sequences are bathed in a stunning blue. Overall, Miller uses color so effectively here, especially in comparison to his earlier films in the series, which rely mainly on sand-colored aesthetics.

Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)

This controversial folk-horror film is one that features aggressively bright colors to tell its increasingly dark story. Most horror films utilize darkness to create moody atmospheres to scare the viewer, like Aster’s previous film Hereditary (2018). Aster goes the complete opposite direction here, with nearly all of Midsommar taking place in the vibrantly beautiful and colorful Swedish countryside. It’s hard to imagine something horrific happening when the space is filled to the brim with vast numbers of colorful flowers, maypoles, and lush green grass. That’s one thing that sets Midsommar apart from the rest, not to mention the graphic and disturbing images that accompany the colors.

As these films show, color is used to capture themes, highlight emotions, and signal meaning to the viewer, sometimes warning them of things to come. While it may seem like a very simple thing, color is critically important to production design, and these are just a few films that prove just how effective it, or the extreme lack of color, can be.

Until next time, folks!

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