Colors often convey certain emotions and themes. So, color is used carefully in creative projects like artwork, video games, and film. When watching a movie, we might not notice the color scheme being used, even though it may evoke certain emotions. So, next time you watch a film, pay close attention to the main colors of a scene.
Looking at a film’s color scheme can help you understand the emotions and themes of the story better. Those colors can help people realize why they feel a certain way when watching a movie scene. Let’s take a look at how different colors and color schemes can affect a movie’s success.
Why Is Color Symbolism in Film So Important?
A lot of film creators take color seriously. When working on a scene, they may choose one or two colors to focus on based on the mood of that moment. Certain colors can amplify emotions and symbolism in a scene, so even if we don’t notice the color scheme, it can make us feel a certain way.
Some obvious examples are how dark scenes in films often suggest that something bad or scary is about to occur. Scenes using vibrant colors are often perceived as joyful and uplifting. Specific colors can enhance the audience’s reaction, so it’s always good to use colors purposefully in films even if those patterns aren’t obvious to viewers.
Controlling the colors in films is much easier than it used to be. There are lots of options for altering colors in post-production, allowing filmmakers to get creative with colors. However, most films use a strong color strategy with props too.
Using Color Schemes in Movies
There are several common color schemes used in films. Each one can have an impact on the audience, whether that effect is obvious or subtle. It’s up to the creator to decide what they want certain colors to mean in their film. Here are some ways to use color schemes in movies.
The term “hue” refers to an individual color. It’s often used to describe primary and secondary colors on the color wheel. Any hue can be used as the main color for a movie scene, and each one will evoke different emotions.
There can be lots of other colors used in the scene, but the hue you choose to focus on will be predominant. Certain scenes might be tinted with the hue or there could be a lot of objects in the scene that appear as that color.
Saturation refers to a hue’s intensity. If you bring down the saturation, color is drained from the images. It makes scenes appear cold or depressing. Low saturation scenes may also show that an event is happening in the past, such as a historical moment. High saturation makes scenes more vivid and intense, which may be used for action-packed or happy scenes.
Changing how bright or dark a color is can also affect the mood. Some movies are mostly dark or mostly bright, but many films alternate between the two depending on the scene. Using different levels of brightness in a film provides contrast and creates a wide variety of emotions.
Sometimes, the brightness is created by using light or dark colors, but other times, it’s accomplished by using darker versions of vibrant colors. By using hues, saturation, and brightness together, you can create an effective color scheme unique to the film.
Monochromatic color schemes use a variety of tints and shades of one color. In these instances, a movie or a scene is mostly one color to make the mood or symbolism clearer. For example, a scene might use a blue monochromatic color scheme to represent a sad moment.
Analogous colors appear next to each other on the color wheel, such as red, red-orange, and orange. These colors have similar effects to monochromatic color schemes, but they have a little more variety.
Complementary colors are colors that are on the opposite side of the color wheel from each other, such as red and green, orange and blue, and yellow and purple. Using complementary colors in a scene will provide contrast, making the situation feel tenser.
Triadic colors are three colors spaced evenly apart on the color wheel. The most common example is red, blue, and yellow. Triadic colors represent balance. Most triadic color schemes focus on one of the three colors and use the other two colors to accent the main color.
Whenever you use a color that doesn’t fit into the color scheme, it causes the audience to focus on that color. So, colors that seem out of place could be used to represent something important in the film.
Sometimes, a color may not be the main hue of the film, but it’s used regularly to represent a certain character or idea. A famous example of this is The Godfather, which uses the color orange to represent death. Orange isn’t usually associated with upsetting events, but when orange appears in a scene of that film, it’s suggesting that something violent will soon occur.
Color is sometimes linked to a specific character as well, such as the central character of Kill Bill, who is known for wearing yellow-orange colors.
Not all color schemes are consistent throughout films. Some colors change and evolve as the film goes on to portray character arcs. These transitional colors could reflect a change in a character’s personality or a change in the movie’s tone.
For example, Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films had a gradual change in his color scheme to reflect his character arc. At first, he’s shown with light earth tones, but when he learns that he’s Darth Vader’s son, he’s seen wearing all black to represent the dark truth he discovered.
The Pixar film Up has some examples of transitional colors in its themes. One example is when Carl and Ellie are painting the nursery for their future child during the intro montage. The colors are bright and vivid, but when it shifts to a new location, it shows them in the hospital crying. The colors are suddenly dark and shadowy, portraying the emotions without words.
What Do Colors in Films Mean?
Each individual color in a film can mean whatever the creators want it to, but most colors have some consistent meanings. So, here are what certain colors may symbolize.
Red often represents one of two drastically different meanings: anger and violence or passion and love. Depending on which meaning the creators intended, red objects or lighting could suggest that something dangerous is about to happen or something romantic and/or sensual. Context matters greatly for the color red.
Movies like Her used red as a symbol of romance by associating the color with the main character, who was searching for love. American Beauty is another example of a film that uses lots of shades and tints of red to convey romance and passion.
Then, The Sixth Sense is a movie that uses the color red to foreshadow fear and dread. In Carrie, the color red is used frequently as a symbol of power.
Orange is a color with a lot of energy, so it’s often associated with characters and themes that are warm, friendly, and happy. Adding an orange tint to a scene may give it a joyous or youthful feel. This color is often used when the creators want a certain object to stand out.
Orange is used frequently in The Fifth Element, especially when showing Leeloo, who is represented as quirky and friendly. In Amelie, orange is used when showing a homey or warm environment, and it’s often paired with blue to make it pop.
Mad Max: Fury Road takes a different approach when using orange because it’s used to symbolize chaos.
Yellow is a color commonly associated with happiness, but in film, it’s usually a sign of madness, sickness, and insecurities. That’s because using yellow tints can make scenes look sickly. It could also be a sign that something hazardous is coming up.
In Sin City, most of the film is in black and white, but certain characters are depicted as yellow to show madness or illness. The film Enemy uses lots of yellow tints for the same reason.
Green is often used in two unique ways. On one hand, it’s used to represent vibrant plants in nature, giving it a sign of growth and hope. However, scenes with a green tint may be seen as sickly or lifeless. Sometimes, green may even be seen as ominous or dangerous on screen. So, context is extra important for scenes focusing on green.
The Matrix is an example of a film that mostly uses green because it takes place inside a digital matrix, and code is often associated with green. The film Amelie uses green paired with red to provide contrast.
In Vertigo, green is a recurring color used to represent the main female character, along with things that are mysterious and sinister. Many movies, such as Maleficent, also use green to represent evil things, which is why it’s linked with villains’ powers.
Lots of films utilize blue color schemes because blue makes scenes feel cold, depressed, and isolated. Sometimes, blue may also be used to show that a scene is calm. Monochromatic blue color schemes are a great way to show that something sad is happening or about to happen without directly saying so.
Most of The Corpse Bride seems to be in black and white, but hints of blue are used to represent the living world. The Revenant also has blue themes throughout the film to give off a somber tone. In The Truman Show, the blue sky that’s in many scenes represents freedom because it’s a barrier from the real world.
The color purple is often associated with fantasy themes, along with things that are magical and mysterious. So, it may be used to show that something unusual is about to happen. In some scenes, it’s used to represent eroticism, royalty, or wealth.
In Avatar, there are lots of purple color schemes in the forest because there are magical abilities that don’t exist in the human world. In Blade Runner 2049, scenes that include something bizarre or puzzling often have a purple theme. The film Moonlight also uses purple because it represents the strangeness of the character’s journey.
Pink is often associated with femininity, but some deeper meanings include sweetness, beauty, and innocence. Scenes with a lot of pink are often light-hearted and playful. Characters who wear pink are often viewed as beautiful.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has a unique pink color scheme, giving it a soft and soothing feeling. Characters in films like Mean Girls, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Legally Blonde wear pink to signify beauty and femininity.
In films, black is commonly a symbol of grief, fear, and evil. Villains in films often wear black for that reason. It’s also used in certain scenes to express a change in tone, specifically from happy events to somber ones. Modern films that use black and white may want to indicate that the movie takes place in the past.
Schindler’s List is a film that uses black and white to indicate that the film is in the past and to show that it takes place during dark times. In Black Swan, the color black is used to represent pure evil. Movie villains like Darth Vader and Maleficent are known for wearing black as well.
White is often used to contrast black in film. It’s a sign of innocence, purity, and peace. However, it could convey negative emotions, such as cold, distant, and insane. The color white is a common color that’s often used without purpose, but if it’s used in large amounts, it’s likely meant to symbolize something.
In American Psycho, a lot of objects are white to symbolize blank and empty feelings. In Star Wars films, some characters wear white to show they’re on the good side, contrasting the black suit Darth Vader wears.
Colors Impact Films
Next time you watch a movie, pay close attention to the color schemes used. Those colors might help explain why the movie is so impactful. If you’re interested in creating your own films, it’s a good idea to decide what colors will be prominent in each scene and how those colors might change throughout the story.