Color in Film


Color has been in film for many years now, we have improved color in film in many ways, and  we use it to express feeling and emotion. Today when we go see a film we expect it to have color, however that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning of film all movies that were made didn’t have any color. As a forward warning, this article isn’t about the history of color in film, it is an overview, meaning I’m going to explain how it came to be how we improved it, and how we use it.

The first instances of color were done by tinting the film itself, which was really time consuming, and didn’t look to good. The most famous instance of this was Georges Méliès’s A Trip to The Moon. It is a very important movie in the history in film. He colored the entire film by hand. Then they created a way of filming, where they would shoot on red film, then in green and combine them to create a pretty good looking image.There are a couple famous films shot like this like, Hello, Baby and The King of Kings. This process didn’t have the color blue, though, which was a  problem. Technicolor, a company you may have heard of, then created a way to see color almost exactly like we do in everyday life, by doing the same thing as earlier, but with the added blue. Many movies and shorts were filmed in Technicolor, like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and all of the countless early Disney shorts.

That is some of the history of color in film, but what have we done recently to advance color? Well, the digital world has completely changed the game. Now, you can digitally “color grade” a film. This means that when you are editing a film, you can tint the shots digitally. Nowadays, it sounds easy, but it used to be really hard and expensive. The first movie to actually use this tech was a movie called Oh Brother Where Ought Thou. They shot the movie in Mississippi during the summer, to get the dusty orangey-yellow color of the Great Depression, they turned to digital color grading. Digital color-grading was the only good option. Why the colors are important for the look has to do with the dusty/dirtiness of that time, I explain a bit more about how color is used in my next paragraph.  This was very important in the history in film. Digital color grading is a very useful tool in film making.

Now that I’ve covered the ‘then and the now,’ let’s talk more about ‘how and why.’ There is a very popular thing called color theory, how color can portray feeling, red for passion or danger, blue for calmness or sadness, yellow for vibrancy or joy, green for lusciousness or nature, black for fear and death, white for purity and life, so on and so forth. This is the same for movies.

Many movies use these colors in a certain way to portray a feeling or a mood shift. The colors almost become a new character. Many movies do this either by letting loose with color and light like in movies like JJ Abrams Star Trek movies or The Life of Pi. These movies use tons of color and make the movie a sort of magical experience. They look towards neon colors and bright shades. Other movies limit there color use like in Sin City or Pleasantville. These movies are in black and white almost  the entire time, and only show color as a major significance. Meaning that these movies show the color as a big part of the story. Another style of limiting color pallets or  when you stick to a certain color and use different shades and saturations. These are movies like The Matrix with it’s greens or almost all of Tim Burton’s movies with their deep blues. These movies usually are this way because of a director’s vision like I said earlier, Tim Burton, and in The Matrix’s case, the Wachowskis.

There are many other ways to do it but those are the only ones I will talk about.  That was just was an overview of color in film, talking about the history and how it’s used. Color is a very important element in film almost, if not more important than many other key elements. So, the next time you watch a movie, try to focus on the colors and how they are used.



Examples of a limited color pallet, bubble gum one is Pleasantville and the car is Sin City


Examples of letting loose with color, guy in car is Blade Runner: 2049 and the spray of color is 2001 a Space Odyssey