The use of color in cinema has been on my mind in recent days because of a site called Movie Barcode, which offers a new way of experiencing a film. Movie Barcode compresses every frame of a movie into a single image. While these images may be interesting in their own right, they are more intriguing for the glimpse they provide of a filmmaker’s overall vision. While we may not always notice how a director employs color while watching a film, it is impossible not to see a movie’s color palette when viewing these compressed versions. It is a reminder of the myriad of artistic choices any film director must make.
Many serious filmmakers give careful consideration to the color palettes used in their work. Hitchcock was notoriously preoccupied with color. The symbolism of the green, red, and gray costumes and scenery in Vertigo is just one example.
The Coen brothers’ recent film True Grit is another case in point. The film is awash in muted earth tones–browns, whites, blacks, and grays. According to a recent interview with the brothers on Fresh Air, production designer Jess Ganchor, who has worked with the Coen brothers on their last four films, is partly responsible for the color choices used in movies like True Grit and No Country for Old Men. Ganchor has been known to create a palette of approved colors for scenery, props, and costumes, and any color that deviates from this palette is forbidden.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s wonderful Three Colors Trilogy may be one of the most obvious examples of a director using color effectively. Kieślowski employs the colors of the French flag–blue, white, and red–to set the mood of each film (appropriately named Blue, White, and Red).
In Cries and Whispers Igmar Bergman makes striking use of a limited color palette of red, white, and black. But it’s not only foreign directors who are concerned with color–so are the directors of more commercial movies. The color red is of central importance in The Sixth Sense, to give one example. And when I think of a classic like Gone With the Wind, it’s not just Clark Gable’s witty comebacks or Vivien Leigh’s drapery dress that I remember, it is also those lush, orange, Technicolor sunsets. And who can forget The Wizard of Oz and the first time that Dorothy opens the door of her storm-wrecked farm house to find a strange, alternate world ablaze in color?
Many science fiction films have employed color effectively. Spielberg used high contrast, saturation, and bleach bypassing to create a film noir look for Minority Report. In The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers use color to help the audience understand the complex narrative. Scenes with a green tint indicate that the characters are inside The Matrix (the green palette is reminiscint of the eerie, green glow of the earliest computer monitors), while scenes with a blue tone show the characters inhabiting the real world.
Sometimes it isn’t the use of color that is most significant, but the complete lack of it. Filmmakers as diverse as Spielberg, Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, and Jim Jarmucsh have deliberately chosen to shoot in black and white, even when color film was available to them. Alfred Hitchcock reportedly chose to shoot Psycho in black and white because he feared the famous shower scene would be too gory in color.