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FTwo girls play in a field of flowers in "The Color Purple"
Image: picture-alliance

How color choice affects film

Bettina Baumann eg
December 19, 2017

While Pantone's "Ultra Violet" was declared the trend color of 2018, in films red is often the starring hue. Media expert Susanne Marschall told DW why — and how different people can perceive colors differently.


DW: Pantone picked its "Ultra Violet," a blue-based purple shade, as the Color of the Year 2018. What does violet stand for and how do people react to it when they see it?

Susanne Marschall: Generally speaking, there is no proof that a color provokes a specific reaction in people. It is very difficult to prove empirically.

What we can discuss, however, is how a color has gained cultural importance throughout history. Purple is a very strong for example in religion; you find it on certain Christian vestments. Violet is a color that consistently has been connected with spirituality. It's not without reason that the hippie movement liked purple.

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Pantone's "Ultra-Violet" is the Color of the Year for 2018Image: picture-alliance

Violet isn't a conservative color. You don't wear it if you don't want to stand out. It's not a really a warm color. It's rather celestial and cold.

Colors are often associated with fashion, but what can be said about the role of colors in film?

The atmosphere of a film is created through a color dramaturgy and through the colors selected for its cinematography. They create an emotional base where the story and the audience can meet. A film can be cold or warm.

Colors can also evoke a particular historical context and recall old times. We all associate, for example, certain types of wallpaper with a specific period. That means that through the artistic direction of a film, we are automatically able to recognize its codes.

There are also conventions in movie genres. For example, a horror film will have a different color palette than a melodrama or a musical.

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Do you have an example of a film with an exceptional color dramaturgy?

A famous example is Hitchcock's "Vertigo." The film works with green and red, which are complementary colors. There are strong graphic color effects as well, for instance black silhouettes set against a green or red background during the nightmare sequences.

The end of the film is also very famous. The detective Scottie, in love with a woman who is dead, gets another woman to dress and wear her hair like she did. She appears out of green fog. Hitchcock's way of staging the return of this ghost figure is incredibly refined. Green is often used in such cases to depict something surreal, and it's also often connected with a fog situation, just like Hitchcock's.

Film still from Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' (1958) featured an unusual color dramaturgyImage: picture-alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library

The color red often plays a special role in film, whether as you've just mentioned in "Vertigo" or Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run," as well as in Spielberg's "Schindler's List," where a girl's red coat is one of the few splashes of color in the black-and-white film. Does red have a special status among colors?

Along with black and white, red is the most important color in almost all languages, even in the way it's named. It is a color that's associated with many things on the symbolic level and that are often related to danger.

Our blood is red, and when we see it, it's normally not a good sign. At the same time, it's the color that was used in the first cave paintings, and it is also an important color in the dramaturgy of many films. A figure that's particularly important in a movie could wear red, for example.

Why? Is it because the color stands out?

Yes, it is a color you notice right away and that everyone can remember well. It is also a color we consider attractive. The history of art had also definitely already accustomed us to focusing on red. It is a standard of image composition; bright colors — and particularly red — are used to direct attention.

Susanne Marschall, Medienwissenschaftlerin Universität Tübingen
Marschall is an expert in the use of color in filmImage: Universität Tübingen/Institut für Medienwissenschaft/Foto: Martin Frech

We also associate many existential experiences with the color. Red can be seen as a negative symbol, through its association with injury, wounds and pain. However, as the color of ripe fruit, it also represents something sweet, important, nutritious and life-giving.

What are the factors determining the personal interpretation of a color?

There are different factors. There is, for instance, the question of our physical perception. Everybody sees colors a little differently. It also depends on the culture you grew up in, and the conventions of image composition you are used to. A person's creativity and interest for the arts also play a role. People who are more creatively inclined usually pay more attention to color. But this is never one-dimensional. The entire contexts play a big role.

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Clouds in a blue sky
A color with a universal character? Blue is one of the most beloved colors in the worldImage: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/P. Frischknecht

One thing can nevertheless be said: Red has never been used to stand for indifference. However, red has been used differently according to different cultures' color conventions.

Blue is another example of a color that's popular all over the world. That's likely because we all share the experience of the blue of the sky. At the same time, blue is also very abstract and transcendent.

The way we perceive a color is therefore a combination of psycho-physical factors and our acquired cultural knowledge, as well as the contexts in which they are presented.

Susanne Marschall is a media professor at the Tübingen University and the author of "Farbe im Kino" (Color in Cinema).

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