Monday, June 13, 2011

Filmmaking analysis: The Color Conspiracy

Everyone knows filmmaking is visual storytelling. A book tells a story through words, a movie tells a story through pictures. But you can't just stop there. How the pictures are expressed defines the idea you are trying to get across. Even the smallest things, things you don't even notice, like camera angles, can communicate a different idea with the slightest change. Here's an example from our movie Deliver-e.

Jacob is trying to get home. He's had a long, hard day, he's beat up, he's dirty, and he's hungry. How do we show this on film?

Notice how the camera angle changes throughout Alexander's speech. It starts out with a shot of Alexander approaching Jacob, then it switches to Jacob's reaction and see that he's apparently not looking at Alexander. Then the camera changes the third time to Jacob's P.O.V., and instantly the audience knows what he's thinking. HE WANTS A BITE OF THAT HAMBURGER....

But right now I'm going to be focusing on particular mode of storytelling: color. Color is, in my opinion, the most subtle mode of communication used in movies. However, it is also one of the most powerful. Color can subconsciously portray non-present characters, awaken memories, evoke emotions, all without you noticing.

That's right. It's the Color Conspiracy.

The actual term for it is a "color scheme", but it's pretty much the same thing because if you look it up in the thesaurus you'll find the two words synonymous.

Pixar is probably the most well known for implementing color into their movies to portray a mood, particularly in the movie Up. Carl Fredericksen is a grumpy 72-year old man who promised his wife Ellie at an early age that he would take both of them to the lost world of their childhood dreams: Paradise Falls.  Unfortunately for them, their everyday married life gets in the way, and Carl eventually finds himself heartbroken as his wife dies and his promise is left empty. And you know the rest of the story.

Watch this clip from the movie and see if you can see the changes in the color and how it reflects Carl's mood. Observe closely.

Wow. I love this movie. I could go on and on about the incredible artistry and philosophical insight of it, but back to the color. Did you see it? lets break this down.

At the beginning of the scene, there the color scheme is dreary. It's lifeless. In fact, it's nearly black-and-white. Not just the in the room, but Carl's whole skin-tone seems to be this shade of gray.

But as the scene progresses, Carl discovers pages in the book he didn't know existed. The story of his life. Ellie. His adventure. No dialogue is used. Just pictures.

And slowly, the color begins to wash in.

Side by side, the change is drastic, isn't it? But when you watched Up in theatres (or on DVD, however you watched it) did you notice that before? Me either.

All the same, I knew what he was thinking. I was feeling what he felt. I was with Carl every moment of the way. How, I didn't know why, and I didn't think why. I just was. The color was the dialogue that silently whispered his feelings.

The Color Conspiracy.

And it's not just in Pixar movies. It's in any movie that's worth watching. The next time you watch a movie, look closely and see if you can catch sight of a silent voice. It may be a change color, a change in camera angle, or even a certain tune that plays whenever a particular character is feeling something. Filmmaking conspiracies are everywhere.


  1. That is really cool.
    I LOVE that video you made. It was SO funny, all I could think while I watched that was, "I want a cheese burger".

  2. Thanks Raymond, that was a very useful and informative post.

    A note to aspiring filmmakers; When you have color changes in your film, you want to make sure that they are as subtle as possible. If they're too apparent, your audience will become distracted and will lose connection with your film. The same goes with lens zooming. Though there are some times where you will find it necessary to improve the film, make sure to not overuse it.

  3. Awesome. The Color Conspiracy.
    I thought you might enjoy this article; I thought it was really fascinating how they used the colors backwards.

  4. Andrew: That is very true, with both color and lens zooming. You don't want your audience to notice what's happening to the color scheme or to the camera's focusing. As director Andrew Adamson puts it, "They notice it when it's not there."

    Ariel: That was a super cool article! It was very interesting too. It also reminds me...Toy Story 3 also used the idea that blue suggested safety and comfort. For example: Andy's room and his house in general has a lot of blue on the walls and the doormats and even his clothes, as does Sunnyside Daycare when the toys first arrive in it. However, when Sunnyside becomes more of a prison and the film gets more intense, all the blue is taken out to suggest coldness and danger. At the end of the film the color scheme returns to blue. And the last shot is the camera panning up to a blue sky.

  5. This was really interesting!!! Now whenever I watch a movie, I notice the color conspiracy everywhere!

  6. Hmm. Very interesting... however, I caution ya'll up n' comin' filmmakers, It is very difficult to utilize the color conspiracy in a live action film without looking tacky. It is easy for animators see'in as they can change the color of the set and all.
    By the way, my favorite Bible verse is Luke 22:36
    Look it up.

    With Endearing kindness your Uncle Francis

  7. Ah, that's not quite true, Uncle. The use of color is prominent in live action as much as it's used in animated films, and just as subtle. Read the article Ariel posted above.

  8. The movie I noticed this the most in was The Matrix. Everything IN the Matrix had a green tint, while everything outside of it had more of a blue tint, to represent reality. It really helped shape the difference between the dream world and the real world.

  9. oh, and then whenever they were in Zion there was a red tint.

  10. That's pretty cool. I need to see that movie. Except isn't it rated R or something?

  11. uh... yeah... watch the TV edit, though. It's sooo hilarious... they cut out all the swearing and replace it with irrelevant words... the violence is pretty much PG-13. It's a pretty amazing movie.

  12. No no no do NOT watch the Matrix!! Ick. That is the worst movie I have ever seen. But most people like so I guess maybe you should. And that is so cool about TS3. I never noticed!

  13. I really liked the Matrix because the special effects and cinematography are extremely creative and it has a lot of philosophical themes. Plus it has insanely awesome fight scenes. But I guess it's a matter of opinion.


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