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This is the second article in our Color in Film series. If you haven’t read the first article, Color Basics, we recommend checking that out first.
Now that we know what color is, we can start to explore what colors mean to us emotionally and psychologically. Here we will break down the meaning of different colors, so you can know how to apply them in your own work.
But remember, these are not hard and fast rules. The meaning of color is often subjective to the viewer depending on culture and previous experiences. For example, the color red symbolizes lust or danger in the US but signifies happiness and luck in China.
The list here generally corresponds to western culture, but you will notice that even within a culture, colors sometimes have opposite meanings (e.g., green can mean both health and sickness). The important thing as a filmmaker is to figure out what you want that color to mean in your story, then use it consistently as part of your visual language.
Now, let’s take a look at some meanings often associate with different colors.
Possible Meanings: Passion, love, lust, danger, intensity, horror
In this scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the character has entered the mainframe of an intelligent computer system to shut it down. The machine previously attempted to kill him and succeeded in killing his crewmate.
The intense monochrome red helps us feel the overwhelming sense of danger and horror the character must be feeling as he attempts to shut down this powerful machine.
Figure 1. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968
Possible Meanings: Nature, healing, greed, rebirth, fertility, sickness
In this example from Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019), the title character has just murdered several people. After a lifetime of being bullied and stepped on, he is celebrating his newfound power and liberation.
The green cast here might suggest healing, growth, and health. Despite the horror of the situation from the audience point of view, from the character’s point of view, this is the most positive moment of his life. He has been reborn into something powerful and unstoppable. This helps us to empathize with the character, despite his monstrous behavior.
Figure 2. Joker, Warner Bros., 2019
Possible Meanings: Melancholy, stability, wisdom, health, security, cleanliness
In this classic scene from James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), the characters have survived the sinking ship and are now stranded in the ice-cold water. Their chances of survival are grim.
Anyone who knows the work of director James Cameron knows he loves to use blue, but the color may be communicating two important messages here. First, it’s simply communicating that the water is very, very cold.
Figure 3. Titanic, Paramount Pictures, 1997
Possible Meanings: Warmth, energy, humor, enthusiasm, balance, vibrance
In this scene from Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the protagonist has tracked down another character to the ruins of Las Vegas, which has been destroyed in this future dystopia.
Interestingly, the colors are almost used ironically here as this warm, vibrant color is used to represent a dead wasteland. Perhaps the color palette here hints at the underlying theme of the movie, which is that things are never quite what they seem, and nothing can be taken at face value.
Figure 4. Blade Runner 2049, Alcon Entertainment, 2017
Possible Meanings: Joy, dishonesty, illness, cowardice, betrayal, fear
In this scene from Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), the characters are in search of a missing boy who ran away with his girlfriend.
Wes Anderson is known for his strong use of color as a visual language, which is captured well in this scene. While there is an element of joy and innocence in the scene, the color here may be more to communicate a bygone era, as though the entire film is a memory of youth.
Figure 5. Moonrise Kingdom, American Empirical Pictures, 2012
Possible Meanings: Ethereal, otherworldly, spirituality, power, mysterious, transformation
In this scene from James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), the main character is on a journey to the outer reaches of the solar system in search of his missing father.
The director might be trying to communicate just how mysterious and lonely space is. The farther the character travels, the more surreal and transformative his journey becomes. It seems the director wants us to feel the same awe the character experiences during his journey.
Figure 6. Ad Astra, Regency Enterprises, 2019
Remember, these meanings are not inherent. They are ways in which the colors have been used before based on cultural norms. The key to remember is that colors are not arbitrary. No matter which color you choose, it will convey meaning to an audience, so be sure to choose in a way that best supports your story.
Now we put it all together. As a filmmaker, you must use every tool at your disposal to tell your story and affect the audience. You have acting performances, camera angles, sound design, and music, but you also have color to help shape the story.
Color in film can be used in a variety of ways from costuming, set design, and lighting during production, and also when color grading in post-production. Post color effects are usually achieved through a combination of specialized grading and look-up tables (LUTs). The final result is an image that can affect the viewer both consciously and unconsciously.
It’s also important to note that we can never know for sure, unless the director states it explicitly, exactly what colors are supposed to mean in films (or in any art, for that matter). Instead, we can only do our best to interpret what colors mean to us, the individual viewer, based on the clues the filmmakers provide within the film.
For filmmaking, it’s less important to consider the individual meanings of colors and more important to consider the meaning of all colors within the film and how each color relates to the other. In this way, colors can become a visual shorthand language to help tell your story.
Now, you should have a basic understanding of how color in film can affect an audience, and how you can use it to get the most out of your story. If you found this article helpful, feel free to check out part 1 and part 3 of our Color in Film series.
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 are interested in trying out some LUTs to give your footage a monochrome look, you can check out our +Cine Monochrome LUTs.