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Artists use colour to express a variety of emotions. In Van Gogh’s Starry Night, damp blues and greens in the night sky represent the artist’s depression and isolation, while warm yellows and oranges in the light emitted from houses and the stars show as beacons of hope.
Before colourised film existed, directors such as Méliès, and even inventor Thomas Edison, hand-painted individual frames with dye to get the effect they desired by including colour. Nowadays with film artistry being so accessible, the way colour is used has changed even further, with particular palates being as memorable, if not more so, than the films they feature in.
Even artists themselves are associated with particular palates and styles, such as Wes Anderson’s pastel motif, Baz Luhrmann’s theatrically surreal “painted” look, and the bright neon palate of Nicolas Winding Refn.
In his two most recent films, Refn uses excellent examples of colour to enhance plot and character association. These features prove even more impressive considering the director is colourblind: “I wanted to show having any kind of handicap can be a blessing, and anything that’s normal is so fucking uninteresting.”
Due to Refn’s inability to see mid-range colour, shots are either near black or completely bathed in a luminous neon glow. In Only God Forgives (2013), sickening yellows and oranges to passionately sensual reds are used to imitate both the look of the Bangkok nightlife where the film is set and the growing sexual tension between Ryan Gosling’s character and his Mother.
Comparatively, in The Neon Demon (2016), colours are used specifically to represent individual characters and traits that they grow to possess. Red threatens danger but also represents the lustful nature of the film’s main characters; blues signify innocence but also narcissism and the enticement of beauty.
— Mathew Watkins
Das Leben Der Anderen (2006)
Director — Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Stories are crafted by the choice of colour, its frequency in a film, and the scenes it is featured in — careful considerations a filmmaker will decide to enhance the narrative of the film. Apart from the colour symbolism that springs to mind — dressing Gladiator’s Marcus Aurelius in purple to indicate royalty and opulence, for example — colour can also be used to visually depict time skips or separate various storylines from one another, as well as create balance or discordance in a scene.
Colours are intrinsically associative, evoking specific emotional responses which can be manipulated by changing the hue, value, and saturation of a film. By dressing a character in the same colour, audiences will think of them whenever that colour is on screen, generating the potential for thematic-subject interrelations. Furthermore, a character’s changing characteristics can be visualised as a set of colour transitions.
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature film debut is the 2006 Oscar award-winning Das Leben der Anderen, or in English, The Lives of Others. Set in the state of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the Cold War, Das Leben der Anderen follows the transformation of Stasi officer Hauptmann Wiesler’s (played by Ulrich Muhe) loyalties and ideology as he conducts surveillance on an artistic East Berlin couple, and becomes increasingly absorbed into their lives. Five years in the making, Das Leben der Anderen’s every second has been carefully filmed in a way that heightens the anxiety and lack of privacy that Von Donnersmarck believed was “the essence of the GDR.”
Colour is used in two main ways: to convey the feeling of living in the GDR, and also as a symbol for Wiesler’s morality. Von Donnersmarck opts to film entirely in a palette of beige, grey, and small amounts of sickly-coloured green and yellow — a totalitarian oppression on the eyes devoid of any brightness. Employing a desaturated palette, dim lighting, and dark shadows, the film is a constricting and monochromatic visualisation of the rigid control of the Stasi regime in the GDR from the 1950s until its dissolution.
An example of the film’s “anti-aesthetic,” the opening scene unfolds into an interrogation in Stasi HQ. The empty hall, with its grey walls, barred doors, and grey concrete floors, is enhanced by the exorbitant use of artificial light which highlights the prisoner’s face in nauseating yellow and casts the rest of the room into shadow, creating a visual aura of Wiesler’s menacing power. Prisoner 227’s beige clothing only serves to demonstrate more clearly how the interrogation is physically draining away his life as he incriminates himself. Colour is used here both to set the institutional and ominous tone of the scene and to symbolise the characters’ power dynamics.
Wiesler’s attire — a confining grey jacket that demonstrates his dreary life and his initial desire to adhere to the Stasi ideology — becomes a metonym for the character. Grey has traditionally had negative connotations, and this is true for Das Leben Der Anderen, but grey is also associated with the spectrum between good and evil, stimulating ambivalent emotions within viewers as they are positioned in sympathy with him so as to enhance his emotional metamorphosis.
Das Leben Der Anderen is a cohesive film that is deeply troubling to watch, and very successfully evokes a feeling of discomfort, especially given contemporary standards of privacy in our digital world. The film’s colour restrictions, maintained throughout, successfully induce audiences to regard its visual spartanism as synonymous with the creative and physical oppression of the GDR.
— Livnè Ore
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2014)
Director — Ned Benson
Originally two films subtitled Her and Him, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Them) tells the story of a separated couple gradually coming back into each other’s lives and attempting to put past traumas to bed.
It’s not uncommon in pieces like this for characters to be given set colour schemes — it is an easy task when the narratives of romantic comedies and romantic dramas often only feature two key characters — but this film uses its colour to the utmost.
At the most basic level, the scenes featuring Conor (James McAvoy) are graded a dark blue, and scenes featuring Eleanor are graded orange. It’s a simple technique; orange and blue oppose each other on the colour wheel, so the pattern is basically appealing (for more evidence watch any Michael Bay film).
But the resulting effect is that, despite the fact that the two characters are living in the same city, you get the feeling you are watching two totally different narratives. This is probably amplified by fact that Eleanor primarily operates during the day, while Conor takes long walks at night, but it gradually becomes clear that Eleanor’s orange matches her proactivity in the way she is attempting to move on with her life, while Conor’s blue denotes far more sadness and longing.
This comes to fruition further along when the two meet, and the colours used come to represent the view of the characters. If we see Eleanor but the film still appears blue, we know it is either Conor who is dominating the scene, or it is Conor’s viewpoint of Eleanor we are seeing. Similarly, many of the memories shown throughout the film are strongly orange, indicating not objective moments but Eleanor’s re-collection.
In the end, in one brief scene of reconnection, Conor and Eleanor’s colours combine in a messy portrait of rain and car headlights; almost as messy as their respective attempts to find catharsis in each other.
— Finn Holland