How colour choice affects film

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Purple tulips in the field. It’s not without reason that the hippie movement liked the colour purple. Reuters

While Pantone’s “Ultra Violet” was declared the trend colour of 2018, in films red is often the starring hue. Media expert Susanne Marschall tells Deutsche Welle why – and how different people can perceive colours differently.

DW: Pantone picked its “Ultra Violet”, a blue-based purple shade, as the “Colour of the Year” 2018. What does violet stand for and how do people react to it when they see it?

Marschall: Generally speaking, there is no proof that a colour provokes a specific reaction in people. It is very difficult to prove empirically.

What we can discuss, however, is how a colour has gained cultural importance throughout history. Purple is a very strong for example in religion; you find it on certain Christian vestments. Violet is a colour that consistently has been connected with spirituality. It’s not without reason that the hippie movement liked purple.

Violet isn’t a conservative colour. You don’t wear it if you don’t want to stand out. It’s not a really a warm colour. It’s rather celestial and cold.

DW: Colours are often associated with fashion, but what can be said about the role of colours in film?

Marschall: The atmosphere of a film is created through a colour dramaturgy and through the colours selected for its cinematography. They create an emotional base where the story and the audience can meet. A film can be cold or warm.

Colours can also evoke a particular historical context and recall old times. We all associate, for example, certain types of wallpaper with a specific period. That means that through the artistic direction of a film, we are automatically able to recognise its codes.

There are also conventions in movie genres. For example, a horror film will have a different colour palette than a melodrama or a musical.

DW: Do you have an example of a film with an exceptional colour dramaturgy?

Marschall: A famous example is Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. The film works with green and red, which are complementary colours. There are strong graphic colour effects as well, for instance black silhouettes set against a green or red background during the nightmare sequences.

The end of the film is also very famous. The detective Scottie, in love with a woman who is dead, gets another woman to dress and wear her hair like she did. She appears out of green fog. Hitchcock’s way of staging the return of this ghost figure is incredibly refined. Green is often used in such cases to depict something surreal, and it’s also often connected with a fog situation, just like Hitchcock’s.

DW: The colour red often plays a special role in film, whether as you’ve just mentioned in “Vertigo” or Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run”, as well as in Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, where a girl’s red coat is one of the few splashes of colour in the black-and-white film. Does red have a special status among colours?

Marschall: Along with black and white, red is the most important colour in almost all languages, even in the way it’s named. It is a colour that’s associated with many things on the symbolic level and that are often related to danger.

Our blood is red, and when we see it, it’s normally not a good sign. At the same time, it’s the colour that was used in the first cave paintings, and it is also an important colour in the dramaturgy of many films. A figure that’s particularly important in a movie could wear red, for example.

DW: Why? Is it because the colour stands out?

Marschall: Yes, it is a colour you notice right away and that everyone can remember well. It is also a colour we consider attractive. The history of art had also definitely already accustomed us to focusing on red. It is a standard of image composition; bright colours – and particularly red – are used to direct attention.

We also associate many existential experiences with the colour. Red can be seen as a negative symbol, through its association with injury, wounds and pain. However, as the colour of ripe fruit, it also represents something sweet, important, nutritious and life-giving.

DW: What are the factors determining the personal interpretation of a colour?

Marschall: There are different factors. There is, for instance, the question of our physical perception. Everybody sees colours a little differently. It also depends on the culture you grew up in, and the conventions of image composition you are used to. A person’s creativity and interest for the arts also play a role. People who are more creatively inclined usually pay more attention to colour. But this is never one-dimensional. The entire contexts play a big role.

One thing can nevertheless be said: Red has never been used to stand for indifference. However, red has been used differently according to different cultures’ colour conventions.

Blue is another example of a colour that’s popular all over the world. That’s likely because we all share the experience of the blue of the sky. At the same time, blue is also very abstract and transcendent.

The way we perceive a colour is therefore a combination of psycho-physical factors and our acquired cultural knowledge, as well as the contexts in which they are presented.

Susanne Marschall is a media professor at the Tübingen University and the author of “Farbe im Kino” (Colour in Cinema). This article first appeared at http://www.dw.com

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