In this instalment of Flickering Myth’s Film Class, Tom Jolliffe looks at intentional use of colours in film…
When it was discovered that film stock could have colour painted onto it, though painstaking and meticulous, it opened up a new dimension in cinema, previously locked into black, white and grey. It allowed a film-maker to create a world that wasn’t so much a clearer representation of our own, but something, at times that relayed certain emotions. It may have been in the case of something like The Wizard Of Oz for example, that those very strong primary and secondary colour palettes, bright and vibrant which were a complete antithesis to the “reality” of the black and white depiction of Kansas, were deliberately heavy in contrast and saturation. Deep colours that were more fantasy than reality. More metaphorical than literal. They had a certain reality for Oz, but furthermore, it evoked particular feelings within the viewer.
Now I’m not really looking at colour in general. There is colour in the vast majority of films these days, unless through stylistic choice, the film is shot in Black and White. However sometimes a particular colour is made prevalent within a picture. It may symbolise something or someone, or may be there to provoke an emotional (maybe even physical) response.
Take as an example, Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Vertigo. An undoubted master-work and as per normal with Hitchcock, every aspect of the frame is treated with the utmost care and attention to detail. Within that, through use of lighting, sets, and mise-en-scene, there’s a recurrent use of the colour green with every passing reference to the late wife of a client Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) was following (with the notion that she was possessed by a dead ancestor intent on suicide). Scottie becomes infatuated with Madeleine and due to his vertigo cannot prevent her committing suicide. The colour itself becomes ever more prominent, deeper and bolder as the film progresses and Scottie becomes infatuated with a woman who resembles Madeleine. He engages with her and starts a relationship. Slowly he begins trying to shape her image into that of the late Madeleine. As he descends further into madness whilst trying to overcome his psychologically driven vertigo, Hitchcock goes further with colour, with the kaleidoscopic and disorientating sequences of Stewart’s breakdown. There was a slow crescendo in the use of greens, rising until the apex of the film when reality is distorted. We know for example that being overcome with a green hue in your vision isn’t real but the technique (as Novak exits the bathroom of their shared room, now dressed up as Madeleine) is used to good effect.
Occasionally a film may decide to segment itself through the use of colour. Clearly defined stages where the actions exist. If we look at Peter Greenaway’s artistically enthused erotic drama, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, there is a strong and prominent use of three colours (as well as some use of a couple more). The three predominant sets that make up the core of the film are the kitchen (bathed in greens). The restaurant (deep red) and the bathroom (an angelic and eye cleansing white). Later you will see an amber meat truck, some blue exteriors and an Earthy brown for the home of Michael(Alan Howard) the “lover” to the “wife,” played by Helen Mirren (her costume will often switch in colour to match that of the set she inhabits). Red has often had many different connotations. It can be danger, anger, love, indulgence, lust. This we can figure fairly literally with the core restaurant set, an area of wilful excess, as “wife” and “lover” begin a relationship through longing looks. This whilst “thief” played by a majestically marauding Michael Gambon expels his unrestrained urges over all in the room. His bouts of anger certainly match those of the red set dressings. There’s plenty open to interpretation too.
Green has differing connotations too, both positive and negative. There’s a conflicting aspect to the kitchen setting for example. It represents both creation and destruction. There’s an organic feeling here. The place is busy with mouth-watering culinary invention but the green, as well as an underlying threat, has some deceitful connotations too and it is here that “the cook” aids the illicit “wife” and “lover” in their affair. This is merely my interpretation but the point is, these artistic directorial choices open up this interpretation which may differ to yours, and indeed Greenaway himself. Ambers which evoke breakdown, decomposition and rotting come into play too.
Before I mention a great example of intense colour use to manipulate a physical and emotional response from the audience, I will look at the opposing end of the spectrum. When films drain the colour out. Now black and white was once a necessity (and in that film-makers had the canvass to play only with shadows). Now it’s a stylistic choice. There is an in-between though. Near monochrome desaturation which is normally associated with the choice to go “gritty.” To paint everything with an overt sense of reality and to ground everything. Sometimes this works. The finest exponent probably remains someone like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, known for several collaborations with Steven Spielberg among others but Saving Private Ryan was a film that drained most of the colour out from the frame. It showed effectively the relentless, murky, grey enthused horror of war. Everything grimly melds together in a mass of panic and confusion. Of course that style bred followers and the creative decision has been used again, often without it necessarily fitting what the filmmakers are trying to make.
Take for example a mass of comic book films. Somehow bright colour is associated by studios with purely positive, bright, bubbly connotations. Gone are the costumes and vibrancy of the source material. Look at near every adaptation since Bryan Singer’s X-Men franchise began the new wave. Largely these films have sapped colour out of the worlds they’ve created. To varying extents. Christopher Nolan’s dark, gritty visualisation of Gotham suited his vision for Batman and indeed as one of the darker characters in the comic book world, it worked. On the flipside of course, Nolan as an auteur inspires mimicry. Zack Snyder’s heavily Nolan infused vision for Superman was drained of colour, drained of fun. It looked dull, it played dull and it was a long, lifeless mess of a film lacking any of the inherent fun and heroism associated with the character. However, look back through countless fine examples of cinema and their use of colour, and studios will find that even in the most eye blisteringly bold use of primaries, lies within the ability to tell dark stories. To grab you dramatically. I don’t know why the brightness of Superman’s pants should account for how seriously the film will be taken. Studios become more focused on issues like this, rather than the quality of the piece.
So this brings me back to an explosion of colour in a film many will not have got round to seeing (to be fair, even fewer will have seen the aforementioned Greenaway masterpiece). Any self-proclaimed horror enthusiast must tick off Suspiria from their bucket list. If you like horror and you haven’t seen Suspiria, then you haven’t lived. Many more will likely see the needless remake. The truth is, the original is one of the finest horror films ever made. If you think of an essentials list you rank it up there with The Exorcist, The Shining, Halloween, Psycho. Just watch a trailer and instantly you will notice something. The colour.
Dario Argento’s masterful horror sets the tone from the opening. From the set dressings, to the costumes, to the lighting (both sourced and filtered) there is a distinct and very deliberate use of colour. The opening to the film is dazzling to the eye as a dancer arrives in Germany to attend a prestigious ballet school. She comes through the airport, neon coloured lights dazzling each frame, out into rain-soaked streets. It’s a gorgeous film. Blue lights invade the screen before arriving to a blood-red building. It’s a deep almost glowing crimson which shines in the night light. It evokes a sense of imposing dread and threat. As a fellow pupil departs in panic as the protagonist arrives, the sense of unease increases. What follows is a build up to probably the best horror opening of all time. It’s visually dazzling, unnerving, ghoulish and the payoff is macabrely brilliant. Cut to the red building in day time, minus the night times moonlit glow and things seem calmer. As the film progresses though, the deeper reds return among with tonal shifts from blue, to green. Each evoking their own differing sense of expectation. Almost like threat levels. Occasionally one colour bleeds over to another. These don’t always come from light sources, occasionally they become almost metaphorical, designed to evoke, or occasionally to accentuate the mise-en-scene of a similar, or polarising colour. A deep red in a frame of blue stands out. Argento brings together horror and art-house and it’s seamless. And indeed when he takes colour away, be it all white set dressings, or grey monochrome exteriors during a particularly horrifying death, there’s always a reasoning.
Hopefully that gives you a few key and differing examples of colour use and how directors can use it as a visual tool to guide how their audience reacts. Let us know your thoughts and any examples of films which used colour to great effect. Class dismissed.
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