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!


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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Color palette in The Incredibles

Looking at the movie bar code of Incredibles doesn’t seem like anything useful at first glance, but trust me, there is a story hidden in those bars, so let’s take a closer look…

The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles (2004)

The first set of pictures is basically random selection of screenshots from the beginning of the movie. On the movie bar code (above), I marked it as a “PART 1”. These were the glory days of superheroes, fighting crime in the city and saving people’s lifes. And those glorious times are further depicted by the color palette. The colors used in the first few scenes are highly saturated – full of live and energy.

But then, there was the lawsuit against all superheroes in the city. They were forced to stop using their superpowers and fit in with the rest of the citizens. So Bob (one of the main superheroes) starts working at insurance company and experiencing the “normal” life.

The following set of pictures was taken after the lawsuit, marked as a “PART 2” on the movie bar code.

The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles (2004)

The colors are now desaturated and muted. The prevailing color from these scenes is grey/pale green/brown (also visible on the movie bar code above).

Hopefully you can see now, what happened in terms of color palette- from highly saturated colors at the beginning (saving people’s lifes, fighting crime, basically doing what superheroes are meant to do), to desaturated, pale and muted colors after the lawsuit (having a boring job and “normal” life).

In this case, the color palette was used to document change of Bob’s life, when he had to stop using his superpowers and get a “normal” job, but I can easily imagine using this change in color palette in various different situations – the most obvious one would be being with someone who you love and than losing him/her. Or… (type in the comments below).


P.S. If you’d be interested in other example of cinematic storytelling in Incredibles, here is an article I wrote back in February 2012.

P.P.S. The movie bar of Incredibles can be found here:

Color scheme in American Beauty

I’ve seen American Beauty at least 50 times, but even after so many views, there is always something new I haven’t noticed before.

I was always aware of the color red appearing repeatedly in the movie – red is the color of roses present in several scenes, Lester’s new car (1970 Pontiac Firebird), door of Burnham’s house etc., but only recently, I noticed this color scheme: Red, blue and white. It’s hilarious how often these three colors appear simultaneously on the screen in various combinations and in various forms throughout the whole movie. Here are some examples:

Lester’s office (notice for example the handles of scissors on the table),

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

Lester’s suitcase (notice the color of papers and folders),

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

but probably the most noticeable is the Burnham’s house.

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

White walls, blue window shutters and red door. The same color scheme is found also inside the house.

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

I’m not sure what these colors mean, what do they represent and why, but they were used without any doubt on purpose. The importance of color further proves one of the first sentences of Lester Burnham: “That’s my wife Carolyn. See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident.”

Maybe the color scheme shows certain stereotype, or materialistic world of Lester’s wife Carolyn (she wears colors matching the colors of their house – red, white and blue – and gets furious and angry when Lester – almost – spills the beer on the couch).

Honestly, I don’t know, what does the color scheme of red, white and blue mean. But sometimes, the questions are more important than answers. Maybe Sam Mendes doesn’t know either, or does he?

Other examples

P.S. There is a short article trying to answer, what does the color RED mean in the movie, well worth reading!