Saturday, February 13, 2010

Color Theory for Cinematographers

At this year’s San Antonio Film Academy, I gave two lectures on three Cs of cinematography, composition, contrast, and color. Color is often overlooked by beginning DPs, and it is an extremely powerful tool. I described color in cinematography as “the use of analogous or complimentary color tones to create contrasts between elements in the frame and communicate emotional ideas to the audience.”

Not a great description, but good enough for starters. Color can be used to communicate information to audiences in all kinds of ways. For example, the storyline in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic takes place in three different places, each of which is a very different color. Viewers can instantly tell where characters are and what part of the story they are watching. This is a very obvious way to communicate basic information.

Color can also communicate emotional information. Certain cinematic conventions have developed which help with this, for example warm lighting to convey safety and cool lighting to suggest danger are about as standard as shadows to convey mystery and brightness to signify security. Some directors, like James Cameron, stick to these conventions religiously, but others are willing to shake things up.

It can be very helpful to depart from the expected if your film requires it. Spielberg flipped the light=good/shadows=bad expectation on its head for E.T., and Ridley Scott changed all the normal colors rules for Black Hawk Down. Because these films are more complex than say, a standard comedy, forcing the audience to adjust to and rethink the world of the film is very effective.

When we first see Scott’s Somalia it looks like this – dirty, grungy, and brown. A greeny-orangey tobacco-filter brown. This is not the rich golden Africa of Sahara or Gladiator, but a dingy and dangerous place. Diesel smoke makes even the sky grubby. So far, so good.

By contrast, US soldiers live in high-tech steel barracks lit by cool halogen lights and laptop screens. Remember, cinematic convention usually says that warm tones indicate a cosy safe place and harsh blues like these mean cold clinical uncertainty, but not in Black Hawk Down. This color palette is unfamiliar territory, just like Somalia.

When Task Force Ranger goes into Mogadishu they go into the warm, brown, dangerous sunlight and bad things happen. This bright warm orange light is not safe. This is different. The audience has been thrown a curve ball, just like our heroes.

Even the command center has warmer light in it during the attacks than it did previously. The monitors are still blue, so the fill light is cool, but the key light on JSOC officers is warm, like on their men in the field. Command is just as messed up as the operation.

Ever since Saving Private Ryan war movies have tended towards a very desaturated bleach-bypass look, especially for combat scenes (including the opening scene of Gladiator). Ridley Scott and DP Slawomir Idziak have bucked the trend here as well, and it is very effective.

Finally, our men begin to find cover. Inexplicably, the basements of the abandoned slums they hide in have a very cool lighting scheme. Subconsciously, even though this is not conventional color use, the audience knows that they are safer here that outside in the brown. By now, all our viewers have picked up on how the palette works.

As time ticks away the odds get worse, the situation becomes more and more dangerous. Even that deadly warm sunlight is trying to invade the cool blue safe house. Every part of the film, including the color palette, is communicating jeopardy to the audience.

Traditionally, nighttime is communicated on film by desaturation and an ever-present blue moonlight, but once again Ridley Scott has a better idea. Somalian night is spooky green, and the tracers and explosions add orange to the scene. It’s the same sickly warm tone as the daytime, but brighter and scarier. There is no blue here; no safety.

But fortunately, a relief convey is rolling out. The 10th Mountain Division brings bright blue halogen lights to banish the orange and green of danger. By amplifying the saturation of these night scenes far beyond what is “normal,” the audience finds them very unsettling. This is the perfect emotion for what is being depicted.

Up until now, most of the scenes have been almost monochromatic, despite being highly saturated. Only at the climax do all of our colors really collide. These soldiers are pinned between threatening orange fire behind them and the uncertain dark green night in front of them, but safe blue headlights are coming in from the right. It’s final showdown time.

And of course, the battle ends just as the blue light of dawn makes everything safe and secure. The grueling Mogadishu Mile becomes almost a victory lap with this new color palette. The Rangers are back to their normal hue, and all is well… pretty much.

Ridley Scott does a tremendous job with this film through clever color use. It might be a little surprising, since everyone wears the same clothing, all the buildings are the same shade, and a lot of the film takes place at night, but I think this film makes better use of color as a storytelling tool than even Gladiator.

To see how closely color is tied to the events of the film, take a look at the chart below. Brendan Dawes has come up with a great new way to examine the pacing and overall color of films, and here are a few more color charts to look through.

As you can see, since the colors are tied directly to the moods of the film, clear trends are visible as different things happen in the film. We can see the film’s acts and turning points highlighted clearly. I am certain that Ridley Scott and Slawomir Idziak created a color chart like the stripe I made on the right to plan things out, and by analyzing this chart (slightly cropped for clarity), we can see a coherent vision appear.

Color is such a powerful part of cinema storytelling that we should never neglect it. And despite the power of modern color correction tools, we can never leave it to chance or expect to come up with a highly effective Ridley-Scott-style color script in post. All the Cs of cinematography take careful thought and a lot of planning to use properly, but when plotted out, they add a tremendous amount of storytelling power.
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