May 21, 2023
How filmmakers paint the picture.
Since the inception of color film, filmmakers worldwide recognized the power of color to elevate worlds beyond performance. Over time, the usage of color in film has evolved along with the technology available to capture color, which reflects an evolution in aesthetic and cultural values. As the implementation of color evolved in creative ways over time, so did cinematographic techniques. In this piece, I’ll be diving into how technology and creativity reached a perfect symbiosis with color film and how frame composition can create visually entrancing images. These next few paragraphs will dive deep into the color and framing theory present in the filmography of a few talented filmmakers, and beg the question: why?
The first real successful motion picture film process with colour was Kinemacolor, where a black and white film would be photographed and projected behind alternating green and red colour filters. This technology evolved into Technicolor, which was the biggest leap into capturing natural colors since the inception of film. Technicolor used three colour filters (Red, Green, and Blue) on three strips of film, pressed onto a clear strip, leaving a full-color image on a single piece of film. From this point forward, artists who previously painted frames with light and shadow gained a whole new set of tools to tell their stories.
Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz is perhaps the most renowned example of using technicolor for spectacle and storytelling alike. The yellow brick road and emerald city stand in stark contrast to sepia-toned Kansas at the beginning of the film. Who could forget the ruby red slippers and the ghastly green face of the Wicked Witch of the West? This film was one of the first to utilize newfound technological innovation in camera technology to directly elevate the story and world of the film. By doing so, the artists behind the film were able to alter how the film feels and is received by audiences not just on a storytelling level, but as a newfound spectacle in film as well. The audiences of 1939 experienced a magical experience of technicolor spectacle which solidified The Wizard of Oz as one of the most influential films of all time.
Wong Kar-Wai’s usage of color in the film In The Mood For Love is very deliberate in its placement to enhance mise-en-scene and visually tell the story. The 99-minute romance drama consistently employs color to tell its story and shape its characters effectively, in which Kar-Wai then frames each shot to show those colors akin to a book. The primary color seen painted across the film is rose, heightening the romanticism and intimacy of each frame. Red is used for much of Mrs. Chan’s attire, while blue encompasses Mr. Chow’s. When the two share a scene in a bedroom, the wallpaper between them is a mild wash of purple, presenting a blend between the two characters and their developing feelings. The blocking and framing in the shot also make it appear as if the characters are turning their backs at each other slightly, never fully opening up. When put together, the result is a visually entrancing frame that leaves a lasting effect on the viewer, even if they don’t pick up on why.
The 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the best examples of using color and frame composition to blur the lines between mood and tone to achieve a unique look that entrances the audience. When examining this color theory, no director accomplishes this style with triumph as much as director Wes Anderson. His dreamlike eccentricity shines in the backdrop of the 1930s European hotel, presenting stories within stories in every single frame. The themes and story of the film often stand at odds with the colour palette seen on screen. Uniformity and relentless symmetry juxtapose the chaos of the world the story takes place in, heightening the familiar, yet dreamlike feeling for the audience. The colors pink, red, purple, and blue form the identity of the characters and setting. Outside of the hotel area, many places are dark and unsaturated as a result of the ongoing war. Indoors and on the hotel grounds is the complete opposite, with vibrant hues creating a feeling of beauty and comfort to mask the cruelty of war going on outside.
A single frame can tell a whole story. The curated process of crafting a shot in a storyboard or carefully planning color palettes in pre-production has an astronomical effect on how an audience receives the story being told in a film. The dynamic experience of colour is unique to the medium of film, and the sheer power it carries to influence and sway the reaction of an audience is often overlooked. This begs the question: As an artist and storyteller, how will you translate words on a page into a mosaic of metaphor and meaning?