September 6, 2014

This Pixar Supercut Will Remind You Just How Important Color is in Storytelling

ROYGBIV: A Pixar Supercut
One oft overlooked aspect of filmmaking, whether it happens during production or post, is color. Sure, you grade your film to give it the look and feel you want, but how well are you utilizing color to tell your stories? Maybe we should refer to the storytelling masters at Pixar to find out how they put it to work in their narratives.

Makes you appreciate colorists more, doesn't it? (You, too, DPs.) This super cut, edited by Rishi Kaneria, does a great job of showing us how well Pixar grasps the ways color affects our emotions, and because it affects our emotions, it makes it a great storytelling tool. Color can make your films so much more visceral, especially if you know how and when to use it boldly. In the examples from the video, each use of color was brazen -- the entire shot swallowed in dangerous shades of red in Brave, a very sullen-looking Sully looks despondent in blues and purples, Jesse lies on a bed in a yellow, sun-soaked room that bursts with nostalgia.

However, it's probably not wise to go full-bore and saturate every scene in loud colors. Instead, take a look at your story, find the most pivotal scenes, and ask yourself how color can be used in an expressive way to create a mood or a tone. Study up on aesthetic theories of color -- which colors have which emotional responses and connotations and why. Furthermore, the examples from Pixar in the video are only a few ways to approach it. Highlighting objects, like the classic use of red in The Sixth Sense, can turn colors into characters themselves. There are limitless ways to use color to tell stories, so don't make the mistake of forgetting to do so.

What are some of your favorite examples of the use in color in films? How have you used color as a storytelling device? Let us know in the comments.     

Your Comment

22 Comments

I think it's a bit hard to compare an animated movie, such as anything Pixar does, to live action. Not to discredit the point of this article, as it's still completely relevant. Shindler's List, Sin City, The Wizard of Oz, etc. It's just hard to look at giant green characters and say, "Oh making Mike all green is progressing the story" or "I can't believe this ocean is blue in finding nemo."

There are a lot of great shots within this cut that incorporate what I would classify "Using color to tell a story," but some of them just seem obvious to me.

September 6, 2014 at 5:42PM, Edited September 6, 5:42PM

20
Reply
avatar
Alex Smith
Documentary/Cinematographer
1378

I agree. Jellyfish are purple. The ocean is blue. Fire is red. Those shots are totally obvious and have little to do with colors being influenced by tone or mood.

September 6, 2014 at 6:42PM

10
Reply
avatar
Valentina Vee
Writer/Director/Editor/Photographer
71

This gives little credit to the scores of hours spent in various art departments deciding and tweaking the various shades and nuances of color! Pixar doesn't approach its films with a pack of 24 Crayola crayons. There aren't one or two shades of blue to choose from, there are hundreds. And each shade tells the story in a slightly different way.

To say "the ocean is blue" is to miss out on so much of what Finding Nemo's environment so atmospheric and enriching! The evolving shades of blue reflect journey and relational values. Yes, SOME jellyfish are purple, but I guarantee you that that the claustrophobic and nauseating use of dense shades of pink and purple was very, very intentional in light of the sequence and emotions conveyed.

September 6, 2014 at 11:37PM

2
Reply
avatar
Jeremy Ratzlaff
Director/Editor
81

^This.

Hey I know you! I was in a sketch-writing workshop with you back in May. I'm the tall man who obviously had never participated in a table read in his entire life. That sketch on the church of Beyoncé was hilarious! Did you ever shoot it?
Wish you success.

September 7, 2014 at 8:59PM

14
Reply
avatar
Jorge L. Molinari
Mechanical Engineer / Family Man / Video Producer
73

Shindler's List, Sin City, The Wizard of Oz use a much more stylized approach to color, but watch essentially any film and you'll see that most of the pivotal scenes feature a prominent color. For example, scenes featuring happiness, love, tranquility can be a little warmer, while scenes featuring death, loneliness, or sadness are colder.

Another, more utilitarian example would be The Matrix, where the filmmakers used green to signify which scenes took place inside the Matrix. Color can be used practically (yes, bodies of water can be blue, but I've seen films where they're green, red, grey, black, etc.), but I'm talking about the overall grade.

The key here is not dwelling on the differences between animated and live action films, but on the tools and techniques used in both that can help filmmakers working in their preferred medium.

September 6, 2014 at 7:52PM, Edited September 6, 7:53PM

0
Reply
avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

I wasn't disagreeing with you, just being critical of the video :)

September 7, 2014 at 1:25AM

0
Reply
avatar
Alex Smith
Documentary/Cinematographer
1378

No, totally! :)

The video was more of a celebration of Pixar's use of color rather than an analysis or critique. It helped me realize just how big of a role color plays in evoking emotions, because I definitely felt something while watching those clips…not solely the work of color, but it definitely helped!

September 7, 2014 at 4:30AM

3
Reply
avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

True, colors in animated films are often more saturated, but going along with what V Renée said, there's defenitely a way to subtly tell story through colors in a live-action film.

For more of an analysis on colors in "real" film, check out this blog by graphic designer Roxy Radulescu, which breaks down the color pallets in a more simplistic manner:

http://moviesincolor.com/

September 6, 2014 at 9:30PM

0
Reply
avatar
Nate Shipley Lane
VFX/CG Artist
176

Excellent resource, Lee! Thanks for sharing that. I'm sure many of us are familiar with Wes Anderson's color palettes, so it's cool to see those of other filmmakers and films.

September 7, 2014 at 4:24AM

1
Reply
avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Anger - Fear - Awe - Danger - Happiness - Imminence - Joy. Or am I wrong, just remembering after one watch. But meh, it's not really clear on themes in this cut, mostly just colors for the heck of it.

September 6, 2014 at 5:43PM, Edited September 6, 5:43PM

4
Reply
avatar
Rean Combrinck
Film Maker
169

I think to go along with danger, green in some of these scenes also give a sense of mystery or confusion. Like Buzz sneaking around, or the weird witch in the pot in Brave.

September 11, 2014 at 5:41PM

0
Reply

Very cool! Also very fun to look at are Pixar's color scripts, such as this one from The Incredibles:

http://pixar-animation.weebly.com/uploads/8/7/6/3/8763219/9721487_orig.jpg

Some more fun on Pixar's color scripts can be found here:
http://pixar-animation.weebly.com/colour-script.html

September 6, 2014 at 9:22PM

0
Reply
avatar
Nate Shipley Lane
VFX/CG Artist
176

Definitely makes you want to take your next project up a notch color wise.

September 6, 2014 at 10:14PM

0
Reply
avatar
David Sharp
Video Editor, Cinematographer, Teacher
405

I read "Writer of Light" by Vittorio Storaro, many years ago. Ever since, color has been one of the first things I think about when working on a project.

September 7, 2014 at 4:37PM

10
Reply

Just so people can find it, isn't it called "Writer with Light"? And yes it is a great book

September 21, 2014 at 9:34PM

2
Reply

Damn, I mean, "Writing With Light". They need a post edit tool here.

September 21, 2014 at 9:35PM

0
Reply

My two favorite live action films that use color brilliantly: "Hero" with Jet Li, and "The Fall" with Lee Pace.

September 8, 2014 at 1:03PM

2
Reply
Sean Kenney
Event Cinematographer
301

If you're interested in reading more about the emotional impact of color, Patti Bellantoni's book, "If It's Purple, Someone's gonna Die!" is a good read.

September 8, 2014 at 3:02PM

2
Reply
avatar
Tom Montvila
TVProduction supervisor
255

Thanks Tom! Excellent recommendation!

September 9, 2014 at 10:52AM

5
Reply
Alexander Peterhaensel
Post Production Consultant/ Project Manager
81

Nice edit and use of colour and would be great to see the same principles in live action as well as animation.

September 8, 2014 at 5:14PM, Edited September 8, 5:14PM

6
Reply
avatar
Kyri Saphiris
Filmmaker
320

I actually wrote a paper about color in film and it's really interesting!
Like already mentioned there are those types of film, who use color for the mood. E.g. apocalyptic film use rather gray and washed out color, virtual reality like Matrix green...But there are some film, who use colors for certain elements. A great example would be The 6th Sense, where everything what has do to with death is red (door knob, rend tent, scarf of the wife...)

April 17, 2016 at 6:52AM

0
Reply
avatar
Sandeep Abraham
Director, DoP, Editor
180

What I find interesting is the ability to utilize each color in different ways. Gold can be both reminiscent and horrifying. Blue can be calm and sad, being able to tell a story with colour is amazing but we can't forget that a scene works when the entire production comes together.

July 30, 2017 at 4:43AM

0
Reply