Colour as a storytelling device in films

Colour as a storytelling device in films

This article was originally published in 2015 on what was then my personal blog. I've published this article unedited from that original form. I have added links to other articles on this blog and included attributions and references at the end, as is standard with all articles on the Fourth Wall Content blog. It should also be noted that colour as a method of communication is inaccessible to some and a total reliance on colour to convey your message isn't inclusive.

Colour is a powerful form of non-verbal communication and some films have used this to their storytelling advantage, as the examples in this article highlight.

Colour can have political, religious and cultural connotations, represent gender and as believed by Kandisnky, have emotional and physical effects on us. Colour can also:

  • improve our memory
  • influence buying decisions
  • indicate meaning
  • tell stories

It’s that last point that interests me most.

Using colour as a narrative device

In this article I'll share examples of films that use colour as a conscious narrative and storytelling device. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the examples chosen show how both the absence and use of colour can add layers to the stories being told, engaging, enticing and surprising the audience along the way.

Oz the Great and Powerful (2015)

This film uses colour as a prominent storytelling device and there’s nothing subtle here.  The first twenty minutes or so (including the beautiful opening credits) are black and white, this brings a nostalgic feel to the film.

A still from the film Oz the Great and the Powerful with the character Oz in black and white holding his hat outside of a hot air balloon.

As Oz travels through a storm in his hot air balloon he arrives in a magical land that also happens to be called Oz, a place full of colour. The transition from black and white to colour isn’t instant. First the sky becomes a little blue, then the landscape in the background seems tinted and gets brighter. Over the course of a minute or so the black and white has given way to full colour.

A still from the film Oz the Great and the Powerful with two characters running through a forest in bright technicolor.

There is a clear nod here to 1939′s The Wizard of Oz which also started off in black and white and when Dorothy reached Oz, the film became colour. In the 1930′s Technicolour technology was new and The Wizard of Oz is applauded for its technical achievement. The storytelling device in the original film is to show the contrast between the two worlds. In the original text, Kansas is described as grey and lifeless whilst Oz, being over the rainbow, is colourful. There is also an element of reality (black and white) versus fantasy (colour) between the two worlds.

This pattern is mirrored in Oz the Great and Powerful. Production Designer on the film, Robert Stromberg notes:

This was a tribute to going from black-and-white to Technicolor. In 1939, Wizard of Oz used this amazing three-strip Technicolor. People’s eyes were blown out because they’d never seen color like it, so we played with that concept of going (from black-and-white) to really vivid color to jar the senses.

As well as being a tribute to a film it was so heavily influenced by, the use of colour works as a storytelling device because it represents the contrast of Oz’s life. When black and white, this character is a magician not taken seriously by people and working in a circus. In Oz, the land of colour, he is seen as being great and powerful and the saviour of the people.

Colour, or the lack of, is part of the narrative and the meaning that it represents isn’t spelled out literally but is communicated through the story. This is a clear tale of two halves.

Memento (2000)

In Memento, the black and white scenes are interspersed with colour scenes. The black and white scenes are in chronological order and the colour scenes are in reverse chronological order.

A still from the film Memento showing two scenes with the main character without a top on showing his tattoos. One scene is in black and white and the other in colour.

Memento’s non-linear narrative is a challenging watch but the point that’s relevant to this post is that once again, black and white and colour can be used to represent two distinct periods in time for the same character, or two worlds.

The roles are reversed nowadays. Black and white is used to represent the un-real, of times past and other-worldly. Colour is more realistic and current. Roger Deakins, the Director of Photography on several Coen Brothers films has an interesting opinion on the matter:

Black-and-white focuses you on the content and the story, and it really concentrates your attention on what’s in the frame. All too often, color can be a distraction — it’s easier to make color look good, but harder to make color service the story. Black-and-white imagery is much more about the balance between the light and shade in the frame, and I think it can help convey story points a lot better with fewer distractions.

I’ve always thought that colour brings a lot more to the story rather than being a distraction. In a media form like comics I’m not sure Deakins opinion is as applicable. Here’s a snippet from the brilliant book by Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics.

An excerpt from the book Understanding Comics.

It’s interesting that McCloud sees colour as a way of bringing things to life, just like it was used in Oz the Great and Powerful. McCloud also touches on symbolism which is something that colour is closely linked to in many films, I’ll talk about this in more detail shortly.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Colour to represent different periods of time or different worlds is a common practice in film making. Away from being totally black and white or completely vivid in colour, tones and shades can be used to communicate to the audience part of the story. If you read anything relating to the production and design of Pan’s Labyrinth, you’ll likely read how Director, Guillermo del Toro made very conscious decisions about colour throughout the film.

Again, this is a film of two worlds. In the fantasy world the colours are warm, “deep crimsons and golden ambers, almost like amniotic fluids,” notes Del Toro. There are also lots of round and soft edges in this world. In the harsh reality of Ofelia’s life though there are many sharp edges and angles and the colours are predominantly blues and greys.

A still from the film Pan's Labyrinth showing the character Ofelia reading a book.

As the film develops and the two worlds or narratives start to come together,  the colours begin to mix. “I decided that we were going to do a contamination process, that one world was going to start infecting the other,” says Del Toro. “As the movie goes on, they combine more and achieve a unity, and Ofelia’s view of the world becomes as real as the fascists’.” By using colour as their key, says Navarro, “we found the language we needed to help the audience understand the complexity of the movie.”

A still from the film the film Pan's Labyrinth with Ofelia and a monster character talking at a dinner table.

Traffic (2000)

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic uses colour to differentiate story strands. It’s not evident in the design of every element that makes up the scene but is achieved through the use of colour filters. The filters give the overall scene a certain tone and feel.

Michael Douglas’ strand is blue and grey.

A still from the film Traffic with a male character sat behind a desk.

Then when we are watching the characters in Mexico and their own story, the scenes have a yellow tint.

A scene from the film Traffic of three characters standing in the Mexican desert.

Traffic is one of those films where there are several groups of characters and stories that are interwoven. The colour filters help to distinguish between these groups and colour has a purposeful narrative function.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Colour can also be less intrinsic to the narrative and more symbolic. Decisions are made about colour in relation to the subliminal messages they share or the connotations of them within a certain context.

Symbolism is defined in Oxford Learner's Dictionaries as:

The use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities

In the animated version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for example, Belle is the only one in her village that wears blue. This is to symbolise that she is different to everyone else. This isn’t referenced in any of the dialogue but rather it is inferred in the clothes of all the characters. Belle certainly stands out amongst them.

A still from the animated version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast with Belle reading a book surrounded by villagers.

Schindler's List (1993)

One of the most striking uses of colour committed to screen is in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. This is a black and white film but there is the brief inclusion of  the colour red on a girl’s coat.

A still from the film Schindler's List of a girl in a red coat with everyone else in the scene black and white.

This is a symbol of the change in Schindler but it is also a hint to wider and more significant reference. Spielberg himself said:

America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening, and yet we did nothing about it. We didn’t assign any of our forces to stopping the march toward death, the inexorable march toward death. It was a large bloodstain, primary red color on everyone’s radar, but no one did anything about it. And that’s why I wanted to bring the color red in.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense is well referenced in its colour symbolism. When I first watched the film I hadn’t picked up on all the references but once made aware of it, it is quite clear how important the use of red is. The most common explanation (on the internet) for the symbolic use of red is that anything in the real world that has been tainted by the other world.

This is shown in Cole wearing a red jumper, hiding under a red blanket, the red balloon heading upwards, the red handle on the door to the cellar.

A still from the film The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis' character stands by a door with a red door knob.

The references are numerous and as with other examples, if the audience don’t notice how red is symbolic it doesn’t spoil the film. If they do notice however, it adds something to the story.

A still from the film The Sixth Sense with a red balloon floating up a stairwell.

Director of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan, also uses colour symbolically in his other films. For Unbreakable it is green and purple, in The Village it is red and yellow and in Signs it is blue. Nothing is a coincidence. Colours are chosen with specific reasons in mind and scenes are constructed. Everything from the lighting, set, costume, props, colours and dialogue are considered to create the final piece.

Pleasantville (1998)

The use of colour in Pleasantville is fascinating. Pleasantville is the setting of a black and white sitcom. It never rains, the roads all loop back onto one another so there is no outside world, the basketball team literally cannot miss a shot and have therefore never lost and nothing bad really happens. It’s an idealised and simple way of life that is represented by monochrome.

A still from the film Pleasantville with two characters at a dinner table, all in black and white.

The teenagers that become part of the naive existence of Pleasantville approach it in different ways. The brother tries to fit in, the sister acts just as she did in her 90′s life and seduces the captain of the Basketball team. After said seduction, Biff drives home and he spots a red rose, this is the first sign of colour in Pleasantville.

A still from the film Pleasantville with a red rose against a black and white bush and fence.

As more of the town residents are awakened to new experiences, sexual activity and different emotions, colour is slowly introduced. This no half and half here like in Oz the Great and Powerful. There is no single colour used throughout. Rather, this is the clever combination of colour elements in black and white scenes to show everything and everyone that has been exposed to this new way of life.

It starts off in a more subtle way, the sister chewing on a red cherry, a girl blowing a pink bubble gum, car lights turning red. Then it becomes more people and more objects. This film would not work without the spread of colour and its symbolic use. It is not only part of the story but a significant part of the narrative.

One of my standout scenes is when Tobey Maguire’s character puts grey makeup on his mum so the dad doesn’t realise she has experienced the transition. It’s poignant and emotional.

A still from the film Pleasantville with a black and white character putting makeup on his mother who is in colour.

There are many scenes worthy of being captured and added to this article. Here are three of my favourites.

A still from the film Pleasantville with two characters standing outside a house. He is in black and white and she is in full colour with a yellow dress and pink umbrella.
A still from the film Pleasantville with a large house in black and white and a tree on fire outside in full color.
A still from the film Pleasantville where a row of people in a courtroom are in color and everyone else is in black and white.

The technical feat of the film is stunning. It is such a good example of the power of colour and how, when used intelligently and in consideration of the story, it can communicate to the audience in a way words can't.

Engaging audiences with colourful storytelling

There are so many other examples of colour being used as a storytelling device in films, ranging from tints and filters, specific objects, transitions and symbolism and costumes. The purpose of using specific colours, or having an absence of colour, should be considered with the story in mind. The choices made should be a new layer to the storytelling and further the narrative rather than be a distraction or detract from the message being conveyed.

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