Colors, generally speaking, are instinctively associated with emotions. Working as a colorist and having to manipulate color everyday – I feel that most directors and cinematographers intuitively ask for specific colors to enhance specific emotions on special scenes without even realizing it. Here is a little help on how to actually use color in film making to activate – or not – a physical reaction in your audience.
Color and Emotion: A Misleading Direction?
“Some evidence suggests that the light of different colors enters the eye and indirectly affects the hypothalamus, which in turn affects the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland controls the hormone and perhaps thus our moods”**Linda Adler, M.A. , University of Kentucky
When we see color, let’s say the color red for example, we instantly – and most of the time unconsciously – associate it with a certain feeling, emotion, or memory. While it’s true that some strong colors like the primaries (blue, red, yellow and green) can easily make us think of a specific emotion, it’s also true that it mostly depends on the individual.
While the color purple could evoke anxiety in a person, it could also be very calming for others.
Let’s continue to focus on the color red, which is a very dominating color! Below is a chart that illustrates some symbolism associated with red. While is it well known that we associate the color red with danger, love, violence or other words on this chart – it may also be because of its frequent use in our everyday lives. For example, a stop sign or a heart… this symbolism is well implanted in our society! However, as you can see, a single color can evoke many emotions. Depending on the individual, personality, experience, culture, sensitivity and memories, it’s difficult to assume what one should feel upon seeing a color.
Image courtesy of Arttherapyblog
Having graduated in Art Therapy before becoming a Colorist, one of the most important things that I learned is that you don’t want to interpret the creation of the patient yourself. If one patient was working on an all-red painting during a session, you shouldn’t just assume with what type of emotion it could be linked for this simple reason: the red could represent something totally different for the patient than for you. It could remind them of a happy memory or of war, love, or hate. It could be anything, and this may change depending on the precise moment of creation. This could be the same with a film audience: is your viewer in a good mood? Did something special happen before watching your creation? This can influence the emotions that a color can evoke.
While using this chart is a good way to understand how colors CAN act on emotions, it also shows underscores the subjective nature of color.
What I want to share here, isn’t that we shouldn’t use this kind of chart. Given the context of a scene, a film maker can easily indicate an emotion to an audience. However, we should keep in mind another process that could work more efficiently : physiological reactions.
To sum it up – one thing that we can’t do is control the emotions of our viewers with every given color. What we can do is try to understand how certain colors tend to activate and awaken the brain and how others tends to be more calming and relaxing. In other words, I want to induce a physiological reaction instead of an emotional one. This physical reaction could later lead to an emotional one.
Exploring Sensory Reactions Instead of Emotions
You want your viewers to react. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them scream, make them even feel arouse! Whatever you’re doing, you want them to physically feel something and physically react.David McKenna, teacher at Stonestreet Studios for Esra New York (Cinema Studies)
Instead of thinking about the color red as representing love, passion, or danger, think about it as a brain stimulation. For example, you might want to think more generally about warm colors if you want your audience to feel hungry. Warm colors tend to remind us of food and a lot of restaurant commercials will use this trick. By seeking a physical reaction rather than an emotional one, you are engaging a larger audience.
I recently colored a very promising short film named Older Brothers, directed by the talented Erin Roth. Through this project, she talks about the relationship of two brothers, one having autism. There is one specific scene during a party where she wanted to make the audience understand what a panic attack associated with autism could feel like. We talked a lot about it, knowing this is a sensitive subject. We wanted to be truthful and respectful.
During the party, there are changing colors and flashes of lights. We decided to use these lights by multiplying and enhancing them with a certain rhythm. This would give us the reaction we expected when watching it: a sense of being overwhelmed. So, more than just color, you can also play with lights! This is a very good example of how you can use other sensory stimuli to catalyze a reaction with an audience besides simply using a specific color.
If we want to focus more on physiological response, we have to know what kind of physical response a color can induce. Below are some examples of colors and their corresponding physiological results taken from a population sample during a recent academic study.
The color red has been shown to receive an “attentional” advantage. This means that this color can be used for selective attention in order to enhance an element in a scene. Red also enables faster response in a visual search. The color red can be used to “activate” the brain of our viewer, and make them more aware and in the moment. This research also suggests that the color red helps with athletic performance. Statistics show us that athletes wearing red outperform athletes wearing blue. It’s also interesting to note that viewing red before a cognitive task has been shown to undermine performance. Red worn by women has also been found in research to increase attraction from heterosexual males. Physiologically, red induces body-type responses and spontaneous reactions that skew more toward impulsiveness and attraction rather than a more complex emotion like love.
The color bluer helps to sustain mental alertness over time helping to increase performance on attention-base tasks. This is a good way to keep your audience focused and calm. Blue also induces trust! In fact, brands use blue to impart quality and trustworthiness. If you are creating a scene that involves people having a serious and open conversation, consider using the color blue! Physiologically, blue induces clarity and calmness.
The color green is special. In fact, the human eye sees more shades of green than any other color. This is the result of human adaptation within a natural world where green is predominant. Using green in color grading will feel more “natural” in many ways. Primarily because it brings us back to one of the strongest symbol of nature, and secondly because the eye feels more comfortable with green! If you look closely at Hollywood movies and television you’ll notice how green is used to give a more natural feeling overall. Often associated with good health and comfort, green can be very calming for a viewer. Physiologically, green evokes a more natural, soothing and comfortable state.
Like red, yellow is used with caution. Bright yellow is the most fatiguing color of all, often over-stimulating the eyes and becoming an irritant. It can be used to suddenly wake the brain of your viewer after a calming scene. Yellow is the most visible color of all, and can be used (with even more effectiveness than red) to bring attention to a particular detail on the screen. If you want to emphasize a scene with yellow tones without being irritant to the eye, you can use lighter shades manifesting a more instantaneous cheerful state.
Orange can be a warning sign. For example, the orange sign usually comes just before a red alert – it can put the viewer into a warning state, knowing something is going to happen – or, more generally, that there is another scene coming and that it’s not quite the end. Orange, used in another context and more on the warmth and yellow side, can enhance amusement! In fact, orange is the opposite of its complementary color, blue. While blue helps us to remain calm and reflect, orange induces frivolity and entertainment and will keep the audience pleasantly alert.
Overall color saturation also has a quantifiable affect on the physiological response of a viewer. While lower saturation can be more calming and soothing, higher saturation can be more stimulating.
One thing that is possible and that we can trust with more confidence is the use of color dissociation to trigger a specific response in an audience. While we can’t depend on a specific color to induce a specific emotion in our viewer, a chromatic association with an element – an object, or a location – can be leveraged to indicate something specific to the audience.
In Western society, the human heart is often associated with the color red. However, using a dissonant color like blue or yellow calls the viewer’s attention to something specific that the film maker is trying to say or do. Using unconventional colors for elements in your story that have strong culturally normative color association can be a powerful storytelling tool. This is why we recommend consulting with your DP and colorist on all of the chromatic possibilities you have at your disposal when planning the palette of your film.
Image Courtesy of Patrice Laborda
While there is still much empirical research and experimentation that remains to be done regarding the human relationship with color, this article is the beginning of my exploration on the topic. I believe that, while less significant than personal color association, the physiological response induced by different colors can be used as a tool by film makers. Follow my series on the topic as I continue to explore the human relationship with color.
The Physics of Light and Color by Kenneth R. Spring, Thomas J. Fellers and Michael W. Davidson.
* Responding to Color by Linda Adler, M.A.
** Color and Psychological Functioning: A Review of Theoretical and Empirical Work by Andrew J. Elliot