Color Symbolism in Movies: What Do Colors Mean in Movies?

Movie clapper board on dual color table background

We often watch movies, rarely paying attention to the color symbolism depicted in them. But if you study the history of movies, you will find that all great directors have consciously used color symbolism and psychology to effectively communicate with their audiences.

But first: a brief history of the use of colors in films

In the beginning, color in films was only applied using manual tinting. This was a time consuming and expensive project where every object in the scene had to be tinted manually. The best examples of earliest films using hand tinting in this manner include the The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Last Days of Pompeii (1926). By 1915, Kalmus’s Technicolor came into being, solving the problem of time needed in tinting objects in films. His process helped capture natural colors of objects. It involved using two films along with dye transferring to create a single film but it still had many color limitations. Therefore, by 1930, Depression Era, most directors gave up making colored films due to expense and other difficulties (and the fact that most audiences were just not bothered by lack of colors. They simply did not mind watching movies in Black and White). By 1932, luckily, Technicolor solved the expense problems by using the 3 films and 3 cameras technique of tinting objects. The audiences by then were thirsty for colored films and Walt Disney further explored and revolutionized these processes. Critics however started paying attention to color symbolism in the movies by this era. For example, the overuse of certain colors was frowned upon, especially colors like Blue etc.

Color symbolism in the movies today

Today, design experts are all aware of the impact of colors while using them in media. The movies posters themselves show several layers of information through color symbolism; if stripped of colors, they will not convey the message in a powerful manner as they normally do. Naturally, age, culture, political views and geographical locations all impact how color symbolism in the movies is interpreted. Each genre of movies: be it romantic, Sci-Fi, Action etc uses certain favored colors to create individual identity for each movie. Take the example of the movie Kill Bill- the yellow color posters were used to grab attention but they also depicted Uma Thurman’s character’s madness and instability.

Color Symbolism for Transitional aspects

Colors are used not just for aesthetic purposes in movies but also for highlighting dramatic developments, or for giving a movie a certain look and feel . As early as the Wizard of Oz, directors used colors to show transition and change: Dorothy’s dream was shown in color while reality was depicted in Black and White. Likewise, color symbolism in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) (which won 3 Academy awards including one for the Best Cinematography), used color for showing several transitional aspects.

But perhaps, the best example of color symbolism that depicts transition in movies is seen in the film The Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Jen, the leading character is always shown in white; however, once she falls in love, she is shown in red. There are various other instances of color symbolism in this film: the other main character Yo Shu Lien is always seen wearing lilac for representing energy at its peak. The poison that kills Li Mu Bai is also Purple Yin poison that depicts the colors’ link to death and mourning.

Color Symbolism for expressions

In 2001’s Amelie, which again won many Academy awards, the director used colors to show the inner reality of the characters. The cinematographer used green-gold-red palette to depict her fairy tale view of the world.

Color symbolism to give a clue

M.Night Shyamalan is known to use red to leave certain ‘clues’ in his films. For example in The Sixth Sense, he used red to depict objects that were touched by the other worldly beings. He also used red in the Village.

Other movies directors like those of The City of Lost Children also used complementary reds and greens to depict danger or caution as well as the menace and eeriness of the evil character Krank’s world.

Color symbolism to transport viewers to another time and place

Directors Joel and Ethan Cohen have also used color symbolism to transport viewers to another era and place. They used dry and dusty color palettes to take viewers back to the post Depression era in the film, O, Brother Where Art Thou? (2006).

In conclusion

It is evident that film directors put a lot of effort and thought in using colors symbolism in their movies in a manner that helps them connect with the audiences. So, the next time you watch a movie, try and note what color symbolism is used therein.