Art Direction: Color Choices in Film

The fascinating thing about colors is that every single different hue affects us differently- both psychologically and emotionally. A character in a red shirt will affect the audience much differently than a character in a pale blue shirt. Therefore, making motivated color choices in art direction are essential to achieving the desired effect the filmmakers want on the audience.

BLUE- Blue is an intellectual color. It does not make us want to act, but instead stop and think. Blue can make us passive and introspective.  That’s not to say blue only affects us on an intellectual level, though. Blue can also imply depression and an emotional coldness as is the case with Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt (2002). Though this emotion is still on a very psychological level.

PALE BLUE- Making a color pale, drains it of its power. Pale blue is synonymous in movies with powerlessness. Pale blue is a victim color. Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot (2000) is often dressed in pale blue to reflect his feelings of being trapped in a dead-end existence. Want to ruin your marriage? Fill the bedroom with pale blue and let your subconscious do the work for you!

GREENISH-BLUE- When green is added to blue, it is perceived as an exotic and tropical effect to our brains. Like orange, it is also makes us want to talk more and excites us socially, which is why Ellen DeGeneres’s show is full of green-blues. Will Ferrell’s character in Semi-Pro (2008) plays basketball for the Flint Tropics which we understand from the green-blues on his team’s uniforms.

DARK BLUE- Dark blue is viewed as a classy and intelligence. The Detroit Tigers’ uniforms are often seen as “smart” and “elegant,” due to having dark blue. Gordon Gecko in the Oliver Stone Wall Street movies is usually dressed in darker shades of blue to show off his suave intellect (and sometimes black to reflect his dark nature!).

Jack Nicholson About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson depressed in About Schmidt (2002)

RED- Unlike blue, red is an impulsive color. It does not make us want to stop and think but instead act. Our hearts will beat faster when we see red. Red is a powerful color, which was one of the secrets of the Roman Empire (They wouldn’t have become Rome if they were clothed in pale blue or pink!). Our brains associate red with blood. Therefore, red is viewed as a dangerous color and therefore is used to elicit anxiety and dread on the audience, which is shown well in HBO’s Rome (2005-2007).

Red also has an important feature as a lusty, sexual color. If you want to heat up the audience and make them think about sex, then you’ll use red. Julia Roberts plays a prostitute in Pretty Woman (1990) and wears a red dress.

The ironic thing about red is that despite being a hot, lusty color that makes our hearts beat faster, red is perceived as a ‘cold’ color emotionally. Think about Rafael from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. Although he’s seen as an impulsive hot-head, he’s also seen as a loner. This is the cold effect that red has on us.

ORANGE-RED- Orange-red is viewed as a romantic sexual color on the human brain. While still retaining the sexual and lusty power that red achieves, it gains a respectful romantic effect when orange is added to red. Remember what I said about the wedding bedroom and pale blue? If you want to enhance your marriage fill the bedroom instead with orange-red! (Some pale yellows will help too). Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic (1997) share a romantic moment on the ship’s bow during an orange-red sunset.

DARK RED- When bright red is darkened, it gains a respectful, elegant effect. While still retaining its power from red, it becomes less impulsive when it is darkened. It therefore comes across as more mature. Ian McKellen as Magneto in the X-Men movies usually is featured in dark red to give him a mature, powerful look.

PINK- Pink is automatically associated with romantic femininity to our brains. No matter how many bros try to pass it off as a macho color it will always be seen as a color capturing the feminine romantic heart.  Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls (2004) wears pink throughout the movie to emphasize her female beauty. Other times she wears red to emphasize her sexual power.

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Powerful, dangerous, sexy and even emotionally cold- red achieves all of these.

BRIGHT YELLOW- Yellow is perceived as the brightest and fastest color in the color spectrum to the human eye. In a room full of every color we will see yellow first, and therefore it is the fastest. Bright yellow is seen as exuberant to us. Like a rubber ducky it comes across as happy and full of life.

The interesting thing about yellow though is that the more we look at it the more frustrated we can get with it. Since yellow is the fastest color, it can come across as visually aggressive and advancing towards us. Yellow is therefore used by filmmakers to make audiences feel nervous and anxious.

Study Roman Polanski’s Rosemarry’s Baby (1968), a David Fincher mystery thriller, or really any suspense movie and you’ll discover yellow’s effect to make us feel anxious.

Like red, yellow is best used as a highlight color or an accent color to the scene. If it is, yellow will ‘cheer’ up the scene. Add exuberance to it. However, if the scene is overloaded with yellow, it will annoy us and make us anxious.

Like a yellow warning sign, yellow warns us and implies danger is ahead. Robert De Niro’s bright yellow taxi from Taxi Driver (1976) reflects his increasingly unhinged, demented psyche.

PALE YELLOW- When yellow is drained of its power by making it pale, it turns into an elegant color that makes us feel warm and comforted. Pale yellows are used to lull us into memory or into a day dream. The soft glow of the sunlight in Much Ado About Nothing (1993) reflects the characters’ carefree, happy lives. 

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David Fincher’s mystery thrillers are full of yellow to make the audience feel nervous and anxious- like this scene from Gone Girl (2014).

ORANGE- We perceive orange as a happy and social color. It’s also seen as a funny color. Many comedy clubs are full of orange. And like green-blue and purple, orange is seen as a tropical or exotic color.

The interesting thing about orange is that it is a color that we don’t take seriously. Think of Michelangelo from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. He’s fun- a funny guy. He’s talkative, and yet we don’t take him seriously. That’s the same thing with orange.  The reason is because it is a seen as having little depth. Unlike purple that’s seen as a very “deep” color, orange is a simple-minded color.

It’s worth nothing that orange in the sky or in other gasses is seen as a toxic and poisonous color. Apocalypse Now (1978) has several good examples of this effect.

Finally, orange is the working-class color, which is why many blue-collar characters and construction cones are orange.

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See how orange affects your brain in this shot of Ace Ventura (1994)? Like comedy movies we think it’s fun but we don’t take it seriously.

GREEN- The majority of the time, when we see green we think of nature. Our brains associate green with nature and healthy living. And since nature blends into the background instead of the foreground, art department will often use green in the same way. Extras are often clothed in earth-tones: greens and browns. The Vietnam soldiers’ green uniforms in The Thin Red Line (1998) emphasize their jungle environment. 

However, when an unnatural object is green, instead of natural objects like tree, the object is seen as poisonous. For example, the witch’s skin in The Wizard of Oz (1939) is an unnatural green and therefore she is seen as poisonous and corrupt. Likewise, buildings that don’t have a nature context to them will be seen as poisonous.

While using green to imply nature is easy and simple, its other main purpose in film is a bit more complex. Green is used to imply an ambiguity to a character, an either/or. If a character is stuck between two different decisions he is torn between, he will be clothed in green. Harrison Ford’s character in The Mosquito Coast (1986) has an ambivalent nature, keeping the audience guessing if he’s a hero or egomaniac.

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The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man (2002) makes us think of nature, but since it’s an unnatural green he’s seen as poisonous and corrupt.

PURPLE- Purple may perhaps be the most interesting color in film. A combination of impulsive red and intellectual blue, purple achieves a fascinating middle ground. Purple is a color often associated with spiritualism- a mystical and magical color.  Richard Harris’s character in Gladiator (2000) wears a velvet robe in battle and comes across as an ominous grim reaper on his horse.

Rarely do you see purple in the natural world. You may see purple on synthetic objects like cars and clothes, but rarely will you see purple elsewhere. Purple is therefore often seen as rare and precious. Purple is a color that is seen as a very deep color, due to its spiritual properties.

Much of what I learned about color effects is from the book If it’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die by Patti Bellantoni, which I would recommend to all film students. Purple is often used in movies to imply the death of a character or of an idea. Madonna’s character throughout Dick Tracy (1990) wears purple to imply her true character.

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The mystical Merlin in John Boorman’s masterpiece Excalibur (1981) plays with death all around him.

Written by: Alumnus Alexander Ray

Alexander Ray has worked on Batman Superman, Transformers 4, House Hunters, The Voice, and Misled as a Production Assistant. 
Alexander also works as an Administrative Assistant at Motion Picture Institute, assisting with student relations.


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