Colour in Films: An Introduction

Colour in Films: An Introduction

November 4, 2020
  • Mohit Arora
  • Colours, Films, Auteurs, Colour Theory, Wes Anderson

“Color is a power which directly influences the soul. Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.”

Wassily Kandinsky

Squares with Concentric Circles, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

Colour exists all around us. It is the basis of our visual perception of the world and even the complete lack of it is an omnipresent aspect of our being, black.

And what are films if not a very intriguing and compelling reflection of our world and imaginations. So, one could argue that colour is an integral aspect of this ever evolving form of art.

Although the evolution of films began only with use of black and white imagery, the technological limitations never hindered the early 20th century filmmakers to use hints of colours in varying forms of tints and tones.


Tinting is the process of adding color to a black-and-white film, usually by means of soaking the film in dye and staining the film emulsion. The effect is that all of the light shining through is filtered, so that what would be white light becomes light of some color. Tinting every frame by hand to evoke a certain mood or emotion had been experimented with since the earliest days of motion pictures. Even though it was a cumbersome and extremely expensive process, the motion pictures always reflected the growing shadow of colours over time.

Tinted frame of Danish Landscapes, 1912

Technicolour Filmstrip of The Red Shoes (1948)


It wasn’t until the era of Technicolor in the 1930s that the audiences could be blown away by the vibrancy and impact of colours. There was indeed a time in the history of films where people flocked to the movie theatres just to experience this new exciting world of colours on screen where their potential was just starting to be realised. It was the beginning of a new unfathomed depth for motion pictures.

Wizard of Oz (1939) could be a compelling example of how the world was captured in awe of the bright hues of the film’s main character Dorothy’s magical journey into the land of Oz.

Wizard of Oz, 1939


To understand colours in films, it is imperative to dive into the fundamentals of what colours make the basis of our visual spectrum.

Primary Colours: Red, Yellow and Blue are the primary colours. In traditional colour theories, these colours are 3 pigments that can’t be formed by any combination of other colours. All other colours are derived from these colours.

Secondary Colours: Green, Orange and Purple are colours formed by the different combinations of primary colours.

Tertiary Colours: These are colours formed by the mixing of primary and secondary colours.

These sets of colours are arranged in a logical sequence in what is called as the Colour Wheel. The first diagram of colours in a circle was designed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 and it has evolved ever since.

The colour wheel gives us a very holistic idea of usage of colours in every artform. It defines harmony, contrast or intrinsic relations between various colours based on their position on the wheel.

In a way, you could also say that the colour wheel is the first sneak peek into the understanding of colour palettes in films.

We can interpret the term “colour” in three ways, especially with regards to films.

Hue: This is simply the colour itself. Hue defines what colour you’re looking at.

Saturation: This is the intensity of the colour, how red is the red you’ve chosen.

Value: This defines how light or dark is the colour.

Every combination of these components evokes a unique mood, emotion and atmosphere for a film and a specific selection of such colours create a colour palette for a scene or the film itself.

2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968

In the Matrix, you could feel the presence of a green hue throughout the film. This is a creative decision to build an atmosphere of a digital age that the movie is drawing you into. The numbers and codes on the computer screen are a similar shade of green and thus, this gives the viewers an experience of actually being inside of a digital matrix throughout the movie.

The Matrix, Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 1999

The director Mathieu Kassovitz chooses a monochromatic black and white colour palette for La Haine (1995). The film is set against a backdrop of police brutality in the projects of Paris and the chosen colour palette doesn’t let the viewer forget the pressure of the situation. It evokes a strong sense of melancholy and gloominess which serves as a great cinematic tool for the story.

La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995

A film’s visual language can be defined with its colour palettes and schemes. We now realise that the audience associates certain colours with distinct emotions and responses. This knowledge has been used by film directors and cinematographers to add a layer to their craft. However, as with all art, this is a rule that can be broken if one really understands the language of colours. Any film can establish and communicate its own distinct vocabulary of colors and assert its own unique meaning to the colours used.

At Eternity’s Gate, Julian Schnabel, 2018

In the film Blue is the warmest colour, hues of blue are used to convey a sense of love and longing. You find these shades of blue present through the entirety of the film establishing blue as the colour of intimacy.

Blue is the warmest colour, Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013

Similarly, with a closer look into the Godfather films one finds that orange is a colour associated with death. Everytime a death is around the corner, we find the subtle presence of orange in the cinematic universe of that movie.

The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, 1972

Films are one of the most engaging and interacting art forms the world has access to and this is why colours in films are not only restricted to pigments on a canvass. Colours in films are an accessory for every department to experiment with.

The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson, 2001

Wes Anderson maybe the auteur who demonstrates how colours can seep into every aspect of the filmmaking process and contribute to the magnificence of the story like nothing else. His films are the standard of finessing colours in every department from production design to costumes to lighting and finally, editing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson, 2014

The intricacies of colours in films are fast evolving. It has become one of the most definite aspects of the filmic universe and filmmakers now can revolutionize their stories by gauging the language of colour. As Roger Deakin once said, “It’s easier to make color look good, but harder to make it service the story.” Perhaps, that is something the use of colour in any film should ever strive for.


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