"It’s easier to make color look good, but harder to make it service the story." - Roger Deakins
In the early days of cinema, using color (hue, value, chroma) in a film was a deliberate choice made by filmmakers, whether it was through the use of filters or through the painstaking process of painting each individual frame. Even in primordial cinema, color's potential to communicate and manipulate was well understood, and today, it's more important than ever to understand how it can be used to not only make an image look beautiful, but to help tell your story.
The Verge takes a look at how filmmakers use color to influence their viewers' emotions in the video below:
Though the video doesn't offer much more than a good, albiet limited, primer on color theory (and before you say it, yes, the music in their example did more to change the tone of the shot than the color correction did), it does point out a few great pieces of information on how we experience and interpret color emotionally.
First of all, our emotional responses to colors depend on several different factors. Cultural norms, traditions, and personal experiences change the significance of colors and their meanings for every individual. For example, American's might feel a sense of patriotism, pride, or bravery when viewing the colors red, white, and blue, while a citizen of Ghana or Portugal may feel that way when viewing green, red, and gold.
Contextually, colors change their effects based on the situation they're appearing in. Red, for example, may signify "love", "passion", and "intimacy" when it's shown within the context of a romantic encounter, but if it's shown during a fight sequence or highly suspenseful scene it could signify "danger", "blood", and "death".
Despite the fact that emotional responses to colors varies greatly based on culture and context, there are fairly universal interpretations for many colors, which is visualized in Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions below:
We've covered the science of color before, namely in a post highlighting a video essay by Lewis Bond, which thoroughly breaks down its storytelling potential in film. But, perhaps before we learn about how cinema has utilized color to aid narratives, we should first get a deeper sense of how we perceive color not just on an emotional level, but on a physical and psychological level as well. This episode of PBS' Off Book offers an interesting perspective:
Color has the potential to create a tone, change the meaning of a scene, and alert your audience to something important within the frame. It's not solely an aesthetic tool -- it's a narrative one. Understanding how your audience will respond emotionally to different colors can add so much dimension and depth to your story, all without having your characters speak a single word of dialog. In fact -- like Lewis Bond says in his video essay, many times color expresses more than words ever could.