In this article, we will analyze a specific case study of how color is used in film so you can get an idea of how to apply these color concepts in a practical way that serves your story. While nearly all movies rely on color to convey certain story elements, we happen to love The Matrix and think it’s a great example of how to use color as part of a film’s visual language.
The Matrix is a film about a computer hacker who discovers that the world he knows is actually a computer simulation designed by artificial intelligence to imprison humanity. The movie follows him and his companions as they fight for freedom and survival against the machines.
Released in 1999, the movie depicted some cutting-edge special effects as well as unique production design and color grading to represent different moods, environments, and meanings throughout the story. Here we will take a look at how color is used in The Matrix and what the filmmakers might be trying to communicate.
The majority of the film takes place within a computer simulation called the matrix, which is depicted with desaturated green hues in the shadows and highlights, and yellowish hues in the midtones (figure 1). This look is achieved through a combination of set and costume design as well as post color grading.
These colors can have many meanings based on the intention of the filmmakers. In this case, the colors may represent the corruption and sickness of a prison, almost like a mental hospital. The idea is that the world is “sick,” and the filmmakers communicated that in a visual way.
The colors can also be interpreted as a reference to older computer monitors that displayed monotone green text. The monotone color grade may reference the monotony of life in a prison.
Besides conveying meaning, having a specific color palette for different environments serves a practical purpose by helping orient the viewer about where we are at any given time. A movie like The Matrix jumps back and forth between several environments, so it’s helpful to have a visual cue that lets the audience know exactly where we are.
Figure 2. The Matrix, Warner Bros., 1999.
Outside the matrix simulation is the real world, which is the surface of the earth that has been rendered uninhabitable. This is where the characters wage their war against the machines. This environment is depicted in cool blues (figure 2), which are more saturated than the colors within the matrix. This effect is achieved mostly through lighting, costume, and set design.
While this future, post-apocalyptic dystopia was far from welcoming, the filmmakers perhaps wanted to create a world that was at least more honest and welcoming than the matrix itself. The colors here may represent the cold desolation of a dark future and the melancholy of learning that your entire life was a lie lived inside a simulation.
Figure 3. The Matrix Reloaded, Warner Bros., 2003.
In a world overrun by machines, humanity’s only safe refuge is deep underground. While only shown in the sequels, this area is mentioned several times in the original film. The filmmakers used warm hues of brown, yellow, and orange to show the home of humanity (figure 3). The colors here are more saturated than in both previous examples. This effect was achieved primarily through lighting and set design.
Perhaps the filmmakers intended to represent the welcoming warmth and stability of home. In a dark and dangerous world, this is the only place where humanity can feel safe. In general, warm colors tend to feel more welcoming, and this characteristic is used to good effect here. The earth colors also suggest we are more “grounded” to reality here compared to the lifeless surface world and the delusion of the matrix.
As we don’t see this location until the sequel films, the effect on the audience when it’s finally shown is quite striking. Once we arrive in this warm and welcoming place, we realize just how cold and stark the matrix and the surface world really are. This is a powerful way to communicate a concept with the audience without needing a single line of dialogue.
Figure 4. The Matrix, Warner Bros., 1999.
To enter the matrix, the characters in the film first needed to enter a kind of loading program called the construct. This area could be used to create weapons and training programs to aid their fight against the machines. The filmmakers chose to use stark white to depict this area (figure 4), which was achieved using chroma keying.
They might have wanted to show that this area is like a blank canvas, pure and untainted by the darkness and complexity of the outside world and uncorrupted by the matrix itself. It’s like a world between worlds where anything is possible.
The design of this environment was especially important because the concept of a “loading program” might otherwise be difficult to convey to an audience. When we see this stark white room, we intuitively understand we are in a blank slate that is neither reality nor the matrix. Again, no dialogue necessary to explain it.
Figure 5. The Matrix, Warner Bros., 1999.
While the previous examples focused on the overall palette and color grading, color can also be used effectively in prop design. Filmmakers can use specific colors to assign meaning to various props, which can communicate a lot of information without the need for expository dialogue.
At the beginning of the film, the main character is offered a choice to stay in the matrix or escape to the real world. This choice is symbolized by two pills, one red, the other blue (figure 5), which creates a sharp visual representation of the choice the character must make.
The filmmakers might be saying that the blue pill represents the safety and security of staying home and not proceeding with the adventure. The red pill is the opposite, representing risk, excitement, and danger. This is a good example of how filmmakers “teach” the audience what different colors mean within the story world.
This also correlates with the blue color grading mentioned above, which is used for the “safe but cold” area the humans travel through near the surface. Knowing the blue pill represents safety, we are primed to understand this when we see the “real world” later on.
Figure 6. The Matrix, Warner Bros., 1999.
Color can also have a powerful effect when used in costume design, assigning attributes to characters using visual language rather than dialogue.
The woman in the red dress (figure 6) is part of a training program designed to teach the hero that inside the matrix, anyone may be an enemy in disguise. As the filmmakers already taught us that red equates danger (with the pills), we can now associate danger with this woman, even if only on an unconscious level.
And remember, this isn’t because red inherently means danger. Instead, we’re using the visual language already established by the filmmakers. When this occurs in a film, it can be satisfying to an audience because it makes us feel immersed in the story.
Based on these examples from the film, we as an audience can start to decode the color language the filmmakers are using to communicate with us. We now know that green represents sickness and decay, while blue represents safety but also coldness and melancholy. True warmth and humanity can only be found in the warm gold and orange earth tones of the underground world. Red represents danger and risk but perhaps a risk worth taking.
Knowing this visual code can help us to better understand the movie and give us deeper insight into what the filmmakers are trying to say. This is important to understand for making our own films as we often have limited resources, so we must use every storytelling tool at our disposal to connect with the audience. Let your colors do as much talking as possible.
As you can see, The Matrix is an excellent example of how color can be used to convey meaning and ideas in your film. While it’s tempting to rely on dialogue to explain the world of your story, remember that film is a visual medium. Use the power of color to convey ideas without needing to depend solely on dialogue.
If you are looking for a powerful tool to add a striking color cast to an image, you should add monochrome LUTs to your toolbox.
In previous generations, color correction and grading was a tedious and complicated chemical process that required specialized equipment and an expert colorist. While expert colorists are just as valuable today, the tools are much more accessible now than ever before thanks to software developers.
At Cinegrading, we spent countless hours researching Hollywood films to create the most effective monochrome LUTs on the market. If you’re interested in trying out some LUTs to give your footage a Matrix-like color cast, you can check out our +Cine Monochrome LUTs.
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