One Cinematographer’s Obsession with Color

Filmmaker Toolkit
by Cybel Martin
February 10, 2014 6:16 PM
11 Comments
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It began with an innocent curiosity in a box of 64. Amplified by a French balloon. Hit a frenzy with yellow smoke and the smell of napalm. 

I’m the type to discuss, ad nauseum, whether an object is aubergine, plum or violet. Not only am I fascinated by color nuances, but how their effect and interpretation can vary. I love bedrooms painted cerulean blue. Reminds me of the perfect summer sky. But others feel like they’re drowning. Imagine the power you have as a filmmaker with a solid understanding of color?

The cheapest way to increase the production value of your film is through color. You don’t need a gazillion dollars to live and dream in Pantone or Lee Filters. If you have a rigorous discussion of which colors to use and why during prep, you can spend your budget more wisely.

Let me expose you to my color addiction. If you’re short on time, bookmark this article and in the interim, click on “The Psychology of Color : A Guide for Designers” and flip through the books If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling” and “Interaction of Color” by Josef Albers.

Much like my article on camera movement, I’ll certainly forget to mention several important films. The ones mentioned may not be the first to use color in a certain way nor the best example of it. What they did do is ignited previously dormant neurons in my brain through their use of color.

I love films that use color to represent two worlds or two states of consciousness: a filmic diptych. Of course, The Wizard of Oz comes to mind. It’s black & white. Wait! It’s color! Pretty effective. I adore Lynch’s “Lost Highway”. No one seems to agree on what the film means but for me, the key shift in the narrative occurs when Arquette’s hair changes from dark brunette to platinum blonde. Sounds simple but Lynch makes it terribly disturbing.  “Silent Hill”, perhaps not the strongest horror film, made excellent use of a common way to differentiate two worlds: shifting in color temperature (from warm light to cool).

Color of Natural vs Artificial Light: No one films nature like Malick. “Days of Heaven” is the definitive magic hour film. However, it was the color in “Thin Red Line” that left my mouth gaping, specifically the contrast of phosphorus green grass with the deep blue mountains. With the same effectiveness that Tarkovsky paired green grass with grey to express toxicity (of environment and thought) in “Stalker”, Malick paired green with a blue to express “unrealistic” or “idealistic”. Appropriate for a dreamer protagonist caught in a war. Imagine my joy when I was driving through Northern California and noticed if I were a certain distance from a mountain and the sun was at a certain angle, the mountains, with green grass, were indeed blue. That meant I could recreate the same visual without a DI. After that, I became fixated with studying the inherent magic of nature. Conrad Hall’s work on “Searching for Bobby Fischer” taught me how I could do the same with interiors by adding color to the shadows like an Impressionist painting. “Raising Victor Vargas” was the first time I noticed how natural sunlight shining through bright yellow curtains could beautifully (and cheaply) affect the entire room.

I’m accustomed to natural light playing differently (might be softer, more flattering) vs artificial light sources within the same film. So I was quite mesmerized by “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and how both the car headlights and fire light seemed to be the same amber and luminosity. Compare that to this scene in “The Shining”; Wendy moves from the soft cool natural daylight, towards the infernal warm overhead light. One approach unifies. The other slashes.

The rule in film school (many years ago) was to not draw attention to artificial light sources. Lights should be corrected. But when we saw “Fight Club”, we all rushed out to shoot film with uncorrected fluorescent lights (giving the film a sickly green quality). Wong Kar Wai, of course, annihilated that rule with gorgeous results. It was Gaspar Noe’s exploitation of artificial colored lights in “Enter the Void” that taught me how their significance (Brain circuitry? Interconnectedness? Life and death?) could go FAR beyond a color shift of the image or representing the future (think “Blade Runner”).

Importance of a Predominant Color/Theater: I prefer my films to look like films and plays look like theater. However, there have been instances, when a scene’s theatrics were effectively heightened through production design and a predominant color. Frequently, it’s illogical, as in “no one would paint their bedroom that color." My favorites are Cyd Charisse’s dance number in “Singing in the Rain” and the pink room in “Mishima”.

Predominant Color/Nostalgia: Some directors can combine one color with natural/soft light to give their film a cohesive look without seeming campy. Whenever I hear an early jazz score with an opening scene of canary yellow light/sets/wardrobe, chances are it’s a Woody Allen film. He’s the king of nostalgia. “McCabe and Mrs Miller” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou” both used revolutionary techniques (at the time) to create the world of a faded yellowed photograph. “Buffalo 66” was the first film, I recall, to recreate my nostalgia for late 60s/early 70s films. Films such as “The Conversation” were shot on films stocks that had this wonderful cardboard/basement wood panelling brown sheen to them. Lots of films have that faded Kodachrome look. But! (can you hear my excitement?!) “The Color of Pomegranates” gave me the serenity and reverence of an 18th century painting through it’s production design and unifying use of pink.

Of course, the director who sent my mind into a tailspin over the significance of one color, is Kieslowski. You should watch his three films “Blue”, “White” and “Red”. But first, see my favorite, “The Double Life of Veronique”, which I affectionately refer to as “Gold”. I blame Klimt and Fra Angelico for my love of gold. It’s rare and opulent. I take note whenever it’s dashed into frame. Magical. Or in the case of “Frida”, gold was magic and destiny. Tarsem and I suffer from the same neurosis. I love something about each of his films. In “The Cell”, gold perfectly represented the inflated sense of power.

Red: I have a knee jerk reaction to red (ask any of my directors). When it’s in a film, my mind searches for significance. It’s hard to ignore. Caution. Sin. Exit sign. Hell. Passion. Life. Power etc. “Raise the Red Lantern” was ALL that. Red clothes are usually too direct in meaning for me (Maria in “West Side Story” 2:47 mark, “Carmen Jones”). But what about Bergman’s red wall in “Cries and Whispers?” Demi’s red lamp in “Margin Call?”. The rare uses of red in “Heat” are clearly pivotal. “Shallow Grave” used red to reinterpret the film noir genre by breaking up the composition like a Mondrian. Honorable mentions for Marnie and Andromeda Strain.

Without question, the implications for red lipstick reached the height of significance in “Black Narcissus (3:08 mark). 

I noticed I search less for meaning behind red in Latin American or Spanish films (“The Secret in Their Eyes”) which got me thinking: Does each country and community have it’s own inherent colors? When I teach, I frequently show my students the opening scene from “Brick Lane”. It does a lovely job of contrasting the colors of Bangladesh with England. Then there’s the omnipresent dusty rose of the Australian outback in “Rabbit Proof Fence”. The glaringly obvious use of red, white and blue in “U-Turn”; a bastardized “Easy Rider”.

I find films with two dominant colors soothing. I’m not sure why. “Margin Call” was shot on a relatively low budget but its strict adherence to different values of blues and bronzes increase its cohesiveness and production value. Not as rigid as "Margin Call", but I was equally enamored with the rich browns and sea-glass blues of "Things We Lost in the Fire".  I didn’t realize until this weekend, when I saw “Stoker”, how three dominant colors (orange, green, blue) could be relentlessly manipulative and hold me hostage. Yet when three colors/light sources represented three different people, as in Melancholia, it felt like I’d tapped into the order of the cosmos.

A multiple color palette, done effectively, is DP Porn. Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief...” heightened my sensitivity to color saturation. No one was cooler (sorry QT) than Seijun Suzuki’s “Youth of the Beast”. Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” were like gorging on platters of macaroons and Thiebaud gumballs. Certainly these films triggered my love for “The Royal Tenenbaums.” John Waters and “Pink Flamingos” taught me the importance of camp. Almodovar’s genius control of color taught me how the same color palette can go from absurdity (“Women on the Verge”) to showing pain in plain sight (“All About My Mother”). “In the Mood for Love” was straight up sexy. “Mermaid” made depression somehow delightful. I’m not a fan of his melodrama, but everyone remembers their first Sirk.

Kurosawa is the ultimate master. 

“Non-Colors”: White/Blacks/Neutrals: “The Others” color palette was so devoid of color, it was (purposefully) like the wind, a memory. The purity of acres of snow in “A Simple Plan” and “Fargo” made me fear small towns. But “Daughters of the Dust” was my ultimate lesson of the beauty of cinematic white (hat tip to Arthur Jafa). Birth” showed that the color brown could be luminous. While in “The Yards”, brown was mysterious. Thanks to my devotion to film noir, I know how black can be wielded in film. A recent crop of Korean thrillers, with their use of silky and inky blacks, has me salivating. My favorite by far is “I Saw the Devil”

I could seriously go on forever. We never even talked about the orange wall in “Tinker Tailor...”. I hope you draw on my neurosis for your inspiration.

This post is sincerely dedicated to the very knowledgeable, generous, passionate and supportive Roger Ebert.


You can see my work at MagicEyeFilm.com and chat film @CybelDP.

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11 Comments

  • CC | February 11, 2014 1:12 AMReply

    Had I read this post before your "85 essential films list", I would have approached (commented on) your list (that post) from a different perspective. Your eyes see what the average eye does not. Consequently, your "essentials" list will be, or may appear quite different than your average joe smoe's - like myself.

    Btw, you should get paid for all the knowledge you're dropping in here.

  • Cybel | February 14, 2014 3:29 PM

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. Thank you

  • urbanauteur | February 10, 2014 7:37 PMReply

    Cybel , check out these selections}
    YiYi , A Confucian Confusion , a Bright Summer Day -Edward Yang
    Eternity and a Day , The Suspended Step of the Stork , Ulysses Gaze - Theodoros Angelopoulos
    Three Days ,Few of Us, A Casa -Saranas Bartas

  • Booker T. Mattison | April 19, 2013 8:34 PMReply

    Cybel = Bright (pun intended)

  • Jason Gilmore | April 15, 2013 3:29 PMReply

    Great piece Cybel, maybe my favorite so far. I will check out those recommended readings.

  • Devon | April 14, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    Beautiful Article! Reads like a poem : )

  • Katie | April 11, 2013 3:41 PMReply

    Excellent book recommendations. I've added it to my GoodReads to-read list.

  • MADE IN NYC | April 8, 2013 4:27 PMReply

    Steven Latta, so-called cinematographer in NYC by way of Missouri -- stay away from him at all cost. He tries to take advantage of independent filmmakers, shouting union rules when he isn't part of the union. And when he doesn't get his way fast enough, he will try to sabotage your production with idle threats. Remember the name filmmakers: Steven Latta. You've been warned.

  • jeni | April 8, 2013 4:06 PMReply

    Thanks for this educational post! Also, "Daughters of the Dust" made me look at color in films in an entirely new way...I don't know if anyone's made the spectrum of African-American skin tones come alive against the backdrop of nature in such a spectacular way on-screen.

  • Christina B. | April 8, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    Another great post! Takes me back to a college lecture I had about color. We also watched "Wizard of Oz", "Singing in the Rain" and "West Side Story".

  • Angela | April 8, 2013 1:34 PMReply

    Truly enjoyed reading this article. Inspired. And yes, kurosawa, and I would add ousmane sembene, are great masters of color!

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