The Color That Makes Us Stay
meaning
30/07/2022
by Yar Varsobin

The undeniable magic of cinema lies in its ability to impart the same feeling to a huge audience. Emotional response to the feeling can vary, but the power of the visual language is evident. The complete immersion and details of Fincher, the imagist style of Hitchcock, the ambiguity of Villeneuve, – prominent filmmakers use a number of means to make their work unique and recognizable at the same time. While storytelling, editing, production design and even sound are lasting, the changes in color palette are swift, and can influence emotions drastically many times throughout the movie. In the time when no color, dull or bright, can surprise an audience, and new color palettes can't be found – how does the two-dimensional picture provide the lasting effect, and make the scene stay with us even when the movie is over?


Meaning by Associations
During the time when the major film studios were first established in America, new technologies were implemented in the field of cinema production, making the experience of watching a movie more exciting with each decade. Hollywood went from shooting with three strips of film, hand-coloring and chemically treating it, to a completely automated post-production process within the last century. Throughout the years, filmmakers used all the resources they had for two main goals: the accurate representation of their vision and the emotional influence on the audience.

In visual art, color is expected to replace words, acting like a perfect transmitter between the artist and the viewer. Many questions can be easily answered by the change in hue and brightness of the picture, setting the tone for a movie and showing what exactly the character feels.

With time, color acquires meaning by association. Red usually stands for passion, blue symbolizes isolation, while green often represents calmness and nature, and the list goes on. The beauty of art is that there are no rules, color is only there for one purpose – interpretation. For example, in The Village (2004), yellow and red represent good and evil, but in Kill Bill (2003) it's determination and death; Kubrick gives green the right to act a visual cue to death, while the color is mostly known to represent life and prosperity. This all can only mean that color is a language we are set to learn through art.

Besides the hue, the color itself as we know it, the manipulation of brightness of the color and its values can disclose even more information to the viewer. The washed out cool colors of Dunkirk (2017) or the sepia look of a faded old photograph in O, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) help immerse ourselves in a certain time period in the past. Saturated colors take us either to the future with the neon look of the Blade Runner 2049 (2017) or to a fantasy world like in the Life of Pi (2012). To go deeper, it's not the colors themselves, but the meticulously designed color palettes that create a specific look for the movie. Not only does it elicit emotions and reflect the artist's vision to the fullest, but also makes the movie stand out and worthy of praise for its remarkability.
Same Color, Different Meaning
The prominent examples of exceptional visual language in cinema are a great field for analysis. What makes the color choices so captivating and what purpose do they serve within a story? One might have their own preference in genre and color, but the following movies are a staple of every discussion of color within the popular media. By analyzing them, we note how the same limited basic colors are played out within the story that is connected to human emotions and love.
The Tinted Loneliness
For Bruno Delbonnel, color is the key element in storytelling. He chooses a palette of the main three colors – red, green, and yellow, which all help to tell the story. In Amélie (2001), we see modern-day Paris through the eyes of a young woman who is connecting with the world with her imagination. The Amélie theme is shown through strong reds and greens that are almost festive and cozy. They can represent love and envy, loyalty and mischief, but in Amelie's story, they mostly represent longing and loneliness as she tries to fully process her grief and find fulfillment.

Throughout the movie, Amelie tries to bring meaning into her life by helping others. When the help is received, the color shifts – the blue tint which is present all over the world is lifted, revealing the happiness and joy of a person shining with yellow. The theme of the movie plays out within those colors. The loneliness of Amelie is blue: it's in the water of the pond she throws rocks in, and in the glass of her window frame through which she watches the world, feeling isolated. Yellow is the true color of the world around her, but through the blue lens of her loneliness, everything becomes dull and green. That green tint of her world cracks when she meets Nino, a quirky young man she fancies. Amelie finally feels fulfilled and happy when she falls in love with him, and when they get together, the world shines with yellow again and never fades.
The Disintegration of Color
With the bold manipulation of the four simple colors, Damien Chazelle created a movie that millions of people instantly put into the "masterpiece" category. However, once again the point is not in the color itself, but its connection to storytelling. La La Land's (2016) main theme is there to teach us what dreams are made of through the story of Mia, an aspiring Hollywood actress, and Sebastian, a jazz lover who wants to make it big. From the opening scenes the separation of primary colors represents the dream about Hollywood, which is put together like pieces on the set. The main characters are there, too – Mia, discouraged, wearing the cold isolating blue, looking for a breakout, and Sebastian, red, bold and dominant. Disassembling and colliding, those colors will represent their journey throughout the movie.

The colors are saturated, they draw attention from a story. In the fight for dominance they inevitably mix to represent the key points in the characters' lives. The Lonely Night scene, where they dance for the first time, shows Mia abandoning her blue for a vibrant yellow and adding red for self-assurance, with Sebastian losing it in her favor. It's important, however, that blue and red are still present – it's their dreams and fantasies reflected in the purple sky that represent a mix of their assigned colors. Purple can be seen in the ending, too, when Mia and Sebastian meet again in his jazz club after they went their separate ways and achieved success. The purple is not consistent this time, as the characters are no longer together. Therefore, the color separates into pink and blue over hers and his face, giving their connection a bittersweet feeling. Mia listens to Sebastian play and imagines their last dance that never happened, but it has lost its color, compared to the first dance that they shared.
Recreated Time
In the Mood for Love (2000) is set in 60s Hong Kong, and tries to recreate a feeling of the past with color. The director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, through working together on many projects in the past, treat colors as something consistent: blue, red, and yellow have their place, their separate meanings and intonations. The story focuses on the feelings of two neighbors, Mr Chow and Mrs Su, who discovered their spouses' affair, and grew closer because of the shared secret. Through the value shifts of red from ruby to maroon,, we learn that the characters developed passion towards each other, but struggled to act upon it. The colors are subdued but present, never losing contrast within the palette. They reflect the emotions the two adults have, but don't have the luxury to explore.

The color saturation dominates the scene to illuminate the emotional state of the characters. Red is juxtaposed to blue and green, showing sadness and frustration of Su and Chow. Their marriage is beyond repair, they feel stuck, and it's shown through their constant transition between light and dark. The tone and brightness of an object emphasize the exact smell and texture – the vibrant green of the cup, the yellow flowers on her dress, the wet asphalt – each detail should be complemented by the right color. In the mood for love is the game of juxtaposing hues and values, it's an attempt to recall a color from a memory, when you reflect on the important moment in your life that has already passed. Everything works towards one goal: to show the viewer that It's only about the memory of love, not its colorful expression.
A lively curiosity always pushes the viewer to interpret the meanings behind everything that stands out – forms, sound or color. By learning how to interpret the meaning attached to these details, we change relationships with the world around us. There are plenty of studies explaining the way colors affect us, and still when the code has been cracked, the influence of colors has its presence in our lives, even when we are fully aware of it. In the age of digital color grading, color still plays a huge role, helping to create cinematic masterpieces that can't be overlooked. It's up to the visual artist to define the implications of colors and color combinations. It's up to us as viewers to decipher it, or to interpret it our own way. A filmmaker establishes a unique language, but it's your choice to find what you gravitate towards. Maybe it will let you learn more about yourself, if you ask yourself: "What was the exact color that made me stay?"
Made on
Tilda