Color and the look of a film – Visual Analysis

Cinematic storytelling is about connection between various filmmaking techniques (in this case color palette) and their function within the narrative of the film.

This excellent article guides you through color palette in various movies and answers questions to “what, how”, but most importantly answers the “WHY” question! Love it!

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Have you ever wondered or noticed why certain films look a certain way tonally? It is not just a simple matter of color grading an image in post-production. A director works closely with a director of photography, production designer and costume designers to create a color palette that fits the story of the film. The color of the film is controlled on a set. Each story itself can be told in a plethora of ways – meaning, depending on what that story is about, and what is the thematic underpinning of it – the look of the film will often be based on those factors. For instance it may depend on the setting and the world within which the story takes place; time period, location of it. Therefore the color palette of the film will largely be dictated by these elements. So let’s start looking at some examples..

In a scene…

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Two worlds in Limitless

When I read articles related to movies, it happens quite often, that I’ll read something like this:

“We used camera to tell a story…  Sound played a really important role, it helped to tell the story…”

And I always get frustrated, because usually (99% of time) it is not clear what they meant by that. The sentences above leave me asking: It’s nice, but what exactly did you do?

Well, the interview by Debra Kaufman with cinematographer Jo Willems at creativecow.net is one of those rare exceptions, where you’ll learn not only what they did to help telling the story, but most importantly – why.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a wrecked writer whose life is falling apart. Well, one day he is visited by old friend Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) and he offers him a pill: “You know how they say we can only access 20% of our brain? This lets you access all of it.”  So what this pill does is that it fully unlocks the potential of human brain, in other words, you get access to super human abilities.

Limitless (2011)
Limitless (2011)

When I saw the movie for the first time, I noticed the change in color grading, when he takes the pill – everything is graded towards warm sunny tones (especially yellow and orange),

Limitless (2011)
Limitless (2011)

while when he is not on the pill, there is a lot of cool tones (especially blue), the colors are desaturated, everything seems darker and more contrasty.

Watch the trailer and try to focus only on the tones. I’m sure, that just by looking at the tones/colors you’ll be able to tell, whether he is on the drug or not. But there is more to that, so let’s take a look what else did they do, to differentiate the two worlds:

World 1 – Down and broke (off pill) World 2 – Powerful and charismatic (on pill)
Camera moves hand held dollies, cranes, steadicam
Film stock Fuji Kodak
Lighting uncontrolled (hard and fractured) controlled (softer and diffused)
Lenses longer focal length (tele) shorter focal length (wide)

Ok, the table above sums up, what they (Neil Burger, Jo Willems and others) did, to differentiate the two worlds when he is on/off the pill. But far more interesting is to read why! 🙂

Links:

Behind the Lens: DP Jo Willems & Limitless


Watch the trailer and notice the dolly-zoom move at 0:45. You can read more about this technique by clicking here.

Red as a symbol of sexuality and desire

There is a great scene in Mad Men (S1 E6), where girls are asked to try out some lipsticks. Secretly, they are being watched by a couple of men through a mirror in opposite room. Joan (the red dress) is the only one among girls who knows that and she does enjoy it.

So while other girls are trying out the lipsticks, Joan entertains the men behind the mirror and drives them totally crazy, especially when she leans over and puts out a cigarette. Wow, that was sexy! Sexy is also her dress, but most importantly, the color!

Mad Men, Series 1, Episode 6
Mad Men, Series 1, Episode 6
Mad Men, Series 1, Episode 6
Mad Men, Series 1, Episode 6

 

The red color of her dress is by no means an accident. Costume design plays actually a big role in each episode and gets even analyzed!

I am completely aware, that this color may represent many other things (violence, danger, happiness, anger) and this largely depends for example from which country do you come from.

But in this case, I think that the color red represents the symbol of sexuality and desire. Here are other examples from the same episode:

  1. Roger seduces Joan in a hotel room.
  2. Don dates Rachel.
Mad Men, Series 1, Episode 6
Mad Men, Series 1, Episode 6
Mad Men, Series 1, Episode 6
Mad Men, Series 1, Episode 6