August 13, 2015

How Color Has Become Such An Important Storytelling Tool in Cinema

Though much of early cinema is of the black and white variety, color tinted films go all the way back to the silent era. 

These days, color is an integral part of film, and it has incredible power over how we perceive the film and the characters. In this terrific video essay from Lewis Bond, he explores the history of color and how color has become one of the most important visual tools at our disposal:

If you're familiar with color theory and you have a design background, many of the concepts in the video are going to be familiar, but even if you don't, it's important to have an understanding of how the audience perceives a given film. One of the more interesting concepts is Criswell's ideas about the way films use color for either balance or discordance. Certainly not every film does this, but it can be extremely powerful to set up a color palette and then break it when you want to draw attention to something — and it's something filmmakers have been doing since the beginning.

Just like we saw with the video on the importance of chairs in films, how we use different colors has a dramatic impact on how we subconsciously relate to the characters. The Breaking Bad example is perfect, as it shows Walt, a character just starting to do bad things, slowly being consumed by evil, and by removing his red shirt and revealing a darker one, we're seeing the progression of his character.

And when it comes down to it, that's really the best use of color — to serve the characters and move the story forward. As Roger Deakins said: "It’s easier to make color look good, but harder to make it service the story." Just because you can do something with the colors in the scene doesn't necessarily mean you should, but if you can enhance a scene by utilizing color to your advantage, the film is going to benefit. With the powerful color correcting/grading tools at our disposal, we have an even greater degree of control over that element than at any point in cinema history —but we must use those tools wisely.     

Your Comment

11 Comments

AMAZING! Alex Buono touches on this area during his Visual Subtext lecture on the Visual Storytelling 2 workshop. During my Color Theory class in college I remember thinking, "Am I ever going to use this?" I'm glad I took that class now. ;)

August 13, 2015 at 3:40PM

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Bryan Tosh
Director of Photography
467

I majored in graphic design and hated it for a while, also thinking "Am I ever going to use this?" Turns out that this was the perfect start for me as a filmmaker/visual storyteller. Life is weird.

August 14, 2015 at 1:33AM

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Miko Jacildo
Filmmaker
198

Amazing Effort by Lewis Bond, Tons of Information & experience in a matter of minutes, virtual peek into the minds of the cinematographers / directors, torchpath (so overwhelmed, I made up this word as an expression) for wannabees, Overall a very productive post. BTW, you sound like Simon Cade.
Thanks & Cheers !!

August 14, 2015 at 2:32AM, Edited August 14, 2:48AM

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Arun Meegada
Moviemaker in the Making
457

Awesome. Makes you aware of why you like certain movies even when you yourself didn't consciously know.

August 14, 2015 at 1:15PM, Edited August 14, 1:15PM

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Dantly Wyatt
Musical Comedy & Content Creator.
774

Great Insight.

August 15, 2015 at 1:22AM

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John Kaweske
Film Student
163

Great informative piece. Thanks Lewis.

August 15, 2015 at 10:41AM

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Wayne Yip
Director
225

Thanks for a lot of useful information! :) Enter the Void, one of the best movies.

August 17, 2015 at 6:56AM

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Krzysztof Dziewiątkowski
Film Student
105

You have given me everything I have been searching for in terms of use of color in film from metaphorical/symbolic perspectives in 15+ minutes flat. Thank you so much!

August 19, 2015 at 12:06AM

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Matthew Geoffino
Film/Audio Editor, Screenwriter/Reader, Director, Critic
77

Only God Forgives didn't make much sense but mesmerized by the colors.

August 19, 2015 at 2:11PM

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We created a free e-book inspired by Criswell's video called "How to Use Color in Film: 50+ Examples of Movie Color Palettes" if y'all are curious ;-) https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/e-books/how-to-use-color-in-film-free-...

September 27, 2016 at 4:57PM, Edited September 27, 4:57PM

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Shant Kiraz
Co-founder of StudioBinder
193

WOW! Stunning! The movie "Her" is so beautiful, I loved it!

September 24, 2018 at 9:36AM

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James Lassiter
writer
79