You don’t always consider it when you watch movies, but you are being manipulated by color. Think about Wes Anderson’s pastel films, or the vibrant tropical birds in nature documentaries. The real world certainly doesn’t look that way. That’s because for every film there’s a colorist behind the scenes, controlling the hues in each shot. And they’re not just trying to make the footage look pretty—they’re also using color to influence what we think and feel. Here’s how it works.
Colorists’ main job is to make film footage fit with what we’d expect to see in the real world. If they’re editing a scene of a woman walking down a street in daylight, the brightness and hues need to be consistent in each shot because that’s what our brains anticipate. But beyond those standard fixes, colorists have a sort of “rulebook of emotions” they use to convey feelings in a scene, says Dave Markun, a colorist who has worked in film and TV for four decades. (Credits include Nova and Nature documentaries and the National Geographic Explorer TV series.) For example, he says that warmer colors like yellow are inviting and friendly, whereas blues are considered more negative and distant. So if you pay close attention to, say, a political ad, you’ll notice that scenes of the candidate and her family have a yellow tone while a scene of her opponent has more of a dark blue tint. That’s the colorist’s subtle influence on your emotions.
The same approach applies to other hues: colorists add red to suggest strong emotions, like anger or passion or love—it tells the audience to pay attention. Red’s close cousins, magenta and purple, are the unicorns of film. They tend to be applied to something unusual, Markun says, because they’re such noticeable, atypical colors.
And when a colorist wants to express creepiness or disgust, he’ll pick fluorescent green (think: The Matrix). “When you see green at night, it’s a disturbing color,” Markun says. “Nothing looks normal or beautiful.” Weirdly enough, colorists also use green to make a scene look normal. When we see green where we normally expect it, like a lush green lawn, it conveys happiness and health. “If I want to create a somber scene, the first thing I do is desaturate the green,” Markun says. “It takes the happy connotations out of a scene because it indicates that things are dry and diseased.”
Colorists can even express more abstract concepts through their work, like going back in time. To show a past event, they add contrast and desaturate the scene, and everyone recognizes it as a flashback. “It distances the viewer from reality,” Markun says. “It tells them that we’re watching something we’ve seen before, like a childhood memory.” The technique also works to convey a dream sequence.
Colorists’ work gets even more surreal than that: If they need to create a foreign world—a place that no one has seen before—they add color to blacks, grays, and whites. For instance, Markun says, if you look closely in the movie Transformers, you’ll realize that all the gray-scale tones are pushed in two directions: turquoise and orange. Something that should be black, like a shadow, is actually biased toward a blue-ish green hue, and skin tones have more of an orange-y tint. “If you need to make something look like a new world, you make the blacks un-black and the whites un-white,” Markun says.
So how have colorists come up with these emotions and ideas for colors? And why do we (the audience) understand what they’re trying to express through color? It’s not really clear, says Bevil Conway, a Wellesley College neuroscientist who specializes in vision and color. He explains that it makes sense that colorists communicate through hues, because color appears to be an important source of information for humans. “We’re biologically wired to care about color, because it’s a useful cue for telling us about people’s social condition and our environment,” Conway says. “It becomes a very important way to tell you how angry someone is, how sick or healthy they are.” But Conway says it’s not all about biology—he thinks it’s likely that color-concept associations may have more to do with random choices filmmakers made in the past, which eventually became conventions. “You can’t say it’s only nurture,” Conway says. “The eyes are determined by genetics, so on some level it’s an interaction of both.”
Regardless of how colorists make their decisions, their choices work—we feel and think what they want us to. But even if colorists didn’t manipulate a film, film itself is a manipulation of color. “Every single digital image has been subject to color correction—either deliberately by someone tweaking the knobs, or implicitly in the algorithms someone wrote to take the digital images,” Conway says. “We think those images are accurate representations of the real world, but they’re not.”