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Cinematography Color Palette of Film: The Impact of Color and Its Use by Cinematographers

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Examining the Color Palette of Film: The Impact of Color and Its Use by Cinematographers by Jacqueline Frost


The color palette of a film is a subtle way to visually enhance the emotional aspects of a film and guide the viewer to respond to it on a visceral level. Understanding the basic components of color, warm colors and cool colors, as well as how the audience responds to these colors is essential. Cool colors are violets, blues and greens. Warm colors are reds, oranges and yellows. Cool colors are generally used in science fiction films, murder mysteries, suspense films, and in some action and drama films. Warmer colors are generally used in comedies, love stories, family stories, and in some drama films.

The cinematographer’s job is to interpret the screenplay in a visual form and to guide the viewer’s emotions through color, light, shots, angles and movement. When cinematographers and directors discuss the interpretation of the script, it is inevitable that the color palette and look of the film will be discussed early on. A color in its purest form is saturated, unaffected by other colors. But saturation is affected by brightness levels, how much white or black is added to the pure color. By adding blacks we de-saturate the color; and by adding whites it is brightened. Using the color in its purely saturated hue gives us the Dick Tracy comic book effect, or the brightness of color in animated films.

Natural daylight provides a bluish hue, mixed with the greens of foliage. Daylight and HMI’s create a blue light, which, of course, is reflected in the nature of daylight film stock. Tungsten film and light has more amber tones to it, so naturally provides a warmer look. Cinematographers utilize the proper selection of film stocks to provide the visual look appropriate for the story they are telling. They also extensively test specific film stocks in similar situations to what they will be shooting and screen them with the director prior to production beginning.

Janusz Kaminski who has collaborated with Steven Spielberg on ten films says:

“The story is always the most important aspect of my work, and it always leads me to find the visual style that works for a given movie. Sometimes cinematographers get caught up in doing lighting that looks nice but doesn’t reflect the story. For me, finding a visual approach that’s relevant to the story is the part of my work that’s the most fun.” (American Cinematographer, July 2004.)

The use of cool colors such as greens, blues and violets punctuates the cold or isolated aspect of a number of the films Kaminski shot for Spielberg such as Minority Report or AI, which had very blue hues to them enhancing the science fiction aspect of the story while creating a non-welcoming environment, a sense of isolation. His work in The Terminal gave us a realistic representation of an airport terminal, which is mixed with fluorescent and daylight, a somewhat cold environment. But as the main character becomes more comfortable with his lifestyle in the terminal, the color becomes slightly warmer, a subtle way to underscore what the character is experiencing emotionally.

Kaminski’s collaboration with Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan included discovering different visual textures with a mix of film stock, lab processes and specialized techniques such as “the deconstruction of the slickness that you usually get with modern lenses” (Spielberg). Kaminski stripped the coating off the lenses and flashed the film using the Technicolor ENR process to alter contrast. Spielberg wanted deeply saturated colors, an idea he attributes to watching 16mm Ektachrome Signal Corps footage documenting the invasion of France by the Allies. Ektachrome film has a blue hue that is evident in Spielberg’s film. Without the coating on the lens, the light enters and bounces all around, creating flares, which diffuses the light and colors, and adds a haze to the image. This created the illusion they wanted, that there were several cameramen landing with the troops at Normandy.

This is distinctly different than the visual interpretation of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now shot by Vittorio Storaro. During the opening scenes of this epic Vietnam War film, the colors are almost monochromatic. Then as the conflict moves deeper into the jungle, Storaro imposes an unnatural color (red) or a natural one (green) to visually represent the escalation of the conflict. By the end of the film, the use of color borders on surrealism. In the ending sequence with Brando, Storaro borrows from the paintings of Caravaggio, utilizing chiaroscuro lighting, a single light source that creates extreme contrast. Storaro uses colors like a language: “There is no doubt that every color is a specific wavelength of energy that can represent or symbolize a specific time of life…the meanings of colors are universal, even if they have different cultures. Even if the audience doesn’t see the meanings of different colors, they can feel them.”

Generally warmer tones such as oranges, yellows and reds reinforce a sense of warmth in the story. In some films, the warmer tones support the bonding of family, the warmth of the home. Romantic comedies often use warmer tones, which provide a softer, more romantic response in the viewer. Color should always be used in accordance with the story elements. One would not select bright colors for a somber film or de-saturation for a comedy.

In the beginning of Far From Heaven (2002) a warm autumn hue opens the film, but as it becomes more apparent that there are problems in the home, blues and violets replace warm hues. This film directly pays homage to Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas of the 1950’s such as All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, which are both quite saturated in their color renditions.

Cinematographer Edward Lachman adds more layers to Far From Heaven by also creating color coding for the characters. For example, when Julianne Moore’s character is with her lady friends, there is a very warm amber feel. All the women are dressed in oranges and yellows. And, the atmosphere is comfortable, inviting, and safe. But whenever she enters her husband’s forbidden world, the color scheme turns to blues, violets and greens. The cool colors signify the cold or distant state of their troubled marriage. The time she spends with the gardener is warm, which supports their mutual connection despite the fact that they can never be together.

The skip bleach process is used to de-saturate color and enhance the grain structure of film stock, which gives films a grittier look. If the story is a grim drama, this look enhances the story all the more by creating an ominous environment where color seems to be drained from the characters lives. Films such as Seven, Fight Club, and 21 Grams have used this process effectively, and many films are using variations of this process to de-saturate the intensity of colors in subtle ways.

But the process of silver retention (skip bleach) must be extensively tested before beginning the film, because leaving the silver on the negative during the bath affects not only grain structure and contrast, but greatly affects color rendition. Therefore, costumes and sets must be tested, and the amount of silver left on the negative must also be tested before a final decision is made. Most of the time, this process takes place during the intermediate stage. But, it can also take place when the negative is being processed, which is a serious commitment to the look of the film, which is why testing is highly recommended.

In Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, which was filmed handheld in super 16mm by Elliott Davis, the story begins with fairly normal color but de-saturates as the innocence and life drains from the protagonist as she is negatively influenced by a not-so-innocent friend at school. The drama of the story is reflected in the handheld camera movement and in the draining of color. By the end of the film, all of the warm colors have been eliminated, and it is almost black and white. This de-saturation metaphorically symbolizes the lost innocence that has been drained from the main character. In the final shot in the film, a touch of color returns suggesting hope for her future. This is a very aggressive use of color palette, which directly reflects what is happening in the script thematically.

In The Hours, which was beautifully photographed by Seamus McGarvey, three separate color palettes are used for the three main characters and their separate storylines which take place in different time periods. For Virginia Wolfe, played by Nicole Kidman, tobacco filters and brownish tones were used to convey the time period of the late twenties and the state of her depression in England. Julianne Moore’s character was given a more yellow hue for her life that takes place in the 1950’s in Los Angeles. The present day story of Meryl Streep’s character takes place in New York City in the winter and has been given the cold blue hue of winter as she cares for her dying friend. The three colors intertwine perfectly to separate the storylines while subtly providing the emotional states of the characters lives and their environments.

Romantic comedies are consistently bright and more saturated, which makes the audience respond in a light comedic manner. There are no dark shadows, or questionable areas where a character is lurking in shadows. Even illumination shows each character’s face evenly lit, and the audience responds to this emotionally. We feel safe, comfortable and ready to laugh. Between the soft even lighting and the use of production design and costume, scenes that in some films could have a tragic look and feel are made to feel comedic by the combination of light, music, production design, dialogue and acting. In Something’s Gotta Give, there is a scene where Jack Nicholson’s character is having a heart attack. As he lies on the floor gasping for breath, every light is on in the room, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” plays in the background, Diane Keaton comes in to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and we laugh. In every scene in the film source lights are on, and production design is very bright – all these elements telling us it is okay to laugh.

Arriving at the brightly lit hospital, Keanu Reeves is the attending physician, and we laugh again! The scene plays comically despite the serious circumstance occurring. The direction of Nancy Meyers and cinematography of Michael Ballhaus creates an environment that remains safely in the genre of romantic comedy.

Vittorio Storaro structures his use of colors on the Greek philosophers’ belief that four primary elements bring balance to our lives, water (green), fire (red), earth (ocher) and air (blue). He believes that when our lives are in balance, these colors combine to form pure energy, which is white. During his preparation for every film, Storaro writes an “ideology” that guides his use of colors for conveying information and emotional subtext.

In Dick Tracy, he used bold colors, purple roads, cobalt blue skies, green reflections and yellow shafts of light to reveal that this was a comic book on film. Heroes and villains could easily be identified by color.

There are also films which need to be played out more realistically. A film such as Brokeback Mountain shot by Rodrigo Prieto is an example of understated cinematography. “Ang Lee and I felt the camerawork had to be very much like the characters are, very stoic in a way, and simple.”

For inspiration, Ang Lee and Prieto looked at “In the American West” portraits and William Eggleston’s stills which particularly interested Prieto because of the “limited color palette and sometimes strange but simple compositions.” Also influential were the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, as well as the classic photography of Ansel Adams.

Additionally, their choices of film stocks were used to tell the story in a subtle way. As Prieto said: “For day exterior mountain scenes, I used (Eastman EXR 50D) 5245 because I wanted those images to feel a little crisper and cleaner-daylight scenes down in the towns were filmed on Kodak Vision 250D, 5246 to achieve a ‘touch of grain and a touch more contrast’.” (American Cinematographer, January 2006, p.62)

So, how does one come to a visual style appropriate for the film?

The visuals must always help drive the story forward, and in a subtle way, enhance the thematic elements of the film. So de-saturation would not be used in something more romantic or comedic. The predominant use of blue would not be used in this type of film either, since it is a cool color. In dramas, shadows can be present; faces obscured from direct light. In comedies, no shadows present; faces evenly lit. Wardrobe and set must also be considered in the color palette. A character dressed in all black is usually deemed as evil, in opposition to the protagonist who is not. Think of Star Wars as an example. Luke Skywalker is in white and Darth Vader is in black (just like cowboys from old westerns).

The director and cinematographer could use past films, photographs and paintings as visual references for the color palette they are envisioning for the film, or for segments of the film. The cinematographer can test films stocks s/he may feel could enhance this visual style, working alongside the production designer, a specific visual mood can be established. If any lab procedures are to be utilized, such as bleach bypass, this should be tested prior to production, with the appropriate colored wardrobe and sets since the process reads color much differently depending on how much silver is left on the negative.

Knowing the subtle differences in the film stock is also very important. For example, for someone who is interested in a saturated look that can be achieved on the negative directly without additional processes, Fuji’s new E.I. 160 stock provides the saturation of reversal stocks without the increased grain. It was used most recently on The Astronaut Farmer shot by M. David Mullen, ASC.

Color is such an essential part of an audience’s emotional response to a film that it can be discussed for hours. Today’s use of digital technology such as the digital intermediate, allows for amazing color flexibility that was not possible in the past. Today’s films are a reflection of this new technology, and they are utilizing its benefits in the creation of more stylized and color enhanced films.

Jacqueline B. Frost is a Los Angeles-based cinematographer and author. She teaches cinematography and advanced film production at California State University, Fullerton, as well as a course through the UCLA Extension entitled, “Cinematography for Directors.” Jacqueline has shot numerous short films, independent feature films and documentaries that have screened in film festivals around the world. She has also taken on the role of producer, director, and editor on many projects.

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