The Psychology of Color

7 minute read

While it’s necessary to talk and think about color as physical entity (a certain amount of light falling on a certain kind of surface creating a certain value that can be mapped to a certain color space), it’s important to remember that human beings are not perfect observers of color. We’ve all had the experience of two people describing the same color differently (“the blue car, over there,” one person says, while the other corrects “you mean the green car?”), and that’s typical even among people who have accurate “full color” vision. Once you add in variations in human vision (for example color blindness, which has a great variety of its own), the tricks of memory, and the power of associations the psychology of color can be a tricky rode for a filmmaker to navigate.

We want to discuss here not just the subjective human nature of color perception but also the cultural and narrative associations we create with color that make the process of effectively using color in your film even more powerful once you understand the goals.

Human Color Perception

The first thing to understand is that the human visual system is more complicated than a simple manual camera. It doesn’t neutrally reproduce what it perceives, but processes visual information before you are aware of it. Much like a modern digital camera, it is constantly working to adapt itself to whatever environment it is in in order to see as clearly as possible, which can often lead to mistaken perception when you don’t fully understand how the system is operating. On the flip side, once you have an understanding of how humans perceive and analyze color, it’s possible to deliberately manipulate it for the benefit of your project and can be a powerful tool in your arsenal.

The brain is constantly analyzing the visual information it is getting and attempting to create a neutral image. This is because in the natural world human beings encounter a wide variety of lighting situations that create a color cast that can interfere with properly distinguishing elements in a scene. Daylight in an open field is very bright light, and very blue. Dusk in the woods is much darker, and oranger. Oranger still is the light of a fire at night time. However, our brain renders all of those to “neutral” colors in order to give ourselves the best chance to analyzing the information in front of us.

Complementary Contrast

This phenomenon is often first appreciated when introduced as an optical illusion in childhood. The classic illusion is one where you stare at a red square on a piece of paper for more than a minute, then look at a wall and magically a cyan box appears is a result of your brains image processing. Your brain sees the blank red box and adds cyan to your vision to attempt to “neutralize” the image, in the hopes of balancing it out to reveal more information through contrast.

Your brain is constantly doing this while watching film and video entertainment; it’s part of the process for how your brain neutralizes color casts out of various lighting situations. Thus, if you make a scene or sequence exceptionally red, your brain will gradually add more and more cyan to your vision in order to “neutralize” the red away and allow you to see the image from a more balanced perspective. There is a technique to control for this, and that is the use of a contrasting color. Color has an interesting phenomenon of complementary contrast. This means that human beings have a tendency to see colors as being more intense, or more saturated, when placed against a complementary color.

If you have a blue can of soda, as an example, and you place it on a blue table, it will look less saturated to your eyes than if you place it on a red table. The simultaneous contrast between the colors helps push both colors “away” from each other and make for a more intense image.

If you have a red field with cyan dots in it, your brain won’t add cyan since it is already there: a wide variety of visual information is present and your brain doesn’t need to try and neutralize out the color cast. The presence of complementary colors has the power of preventing your brain from neutralizing a color and also creates the impression that a color is more intense than it appears without its complement nearby. There are three primary complementary pairs (red and cyan, green and magenta, and blue and yellow), and all have this effect.

In general it is a good idea, if you want to maintain the feeling of a color, to have elements of its opposite. While a film like “Eternal Sunshine” is quite well know for the blue cast to it’s images (which fit the melancholy mood created by the story, production design and music), if you watch the film closely there is often a yellow reference in frame, such as a vase, a painted bollard, or another prop that helps create the contrast that keeps the blue images blue. Without those yellow elements your eyes would quickly “tune out” the blue creating more neutral images, which was not the intent of the filmmaker.

Of course, there might be situations where as a filmmaker you want to tune out a specific color. For instance, if you want to end your film with the theft of a famous emerald that will be greener than any audience has ever seen, you could shift the scenes leading up to the emerald’s reveal more and more magenta. This will cause the audience to “add green” to their vision, so that when the green emerald appears (sitting on a magenta velvet pillow, of course), it will be far greener than if it hadn’t been preceded by several scenes preparing the audience for that intensity. By the end of the “magenta” sequence the images might not appear magenta at all to an audience who has gotten used to it, but it well set them up well for a rich green in the next sequence.

The “Meaning” Of a Color

Of course in many productions there is an emotional meaning that is attached to color. Take the classic Steven Spielberg film “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Red in that film means “danger.” It is first introduced when Indiana Jones reveals his pistol against a red carpet while packing for travel. It continues with the red pants Marian wears when she’s kidnapped. It’s of course echoed in the red Nazi flags towards the end of the film as Indie prepares to rescue Marian and attain the ark. It is a clear, distinct association in the film, undercut only by the red lines used on the map to indicate flight paths, which doesn’t forebode danger, but doesn’t distract too heavily from the association. Whatever reason Spielberg had for those red lines (perhaps tradition), they don’t undercut the association since Spielberg quickly shows us a Nazi reading “Life” magazine with it’s signature red logo, to keep up the connection.

You will find many discussions from various artists about the inherent meanings of a given color. In truth, while many would argue that these associations are “core elements” of a color, that simply doesn’t seem to be the case when observing real world filmmaking. Yes, “red=danger” in RAIDERS certainly lines up with stop signs, fire, and even blood as being things human beings are biologically preconditioned to view as dangerous, However, “biological human” association of color breaks down quite quickly when analyzing a variety of films when it becomes clear that different films use color to have different meanings. “Raise the Red Lantern” uses red oppressively, while “Her” uses a desaturated red (pink) for loneliness, while using a bluish shade for closeness and warmth. Name any color association that is considered “inherent,” and countless counter examples can be found.

The truth is that the filmmaker creates the meaning of the color as they work. During the exposition of a film, in addition to introducing audiences to the characters and setting, the filmmaker has the opportunity to introduce how color will be used narratively. It is likely that, absent those meanings being created, that overall cultural bias will come into play for the audience. But the filmmaker always has the power to change those associations, and it’s up to the filmmaking team to clearly establish those associations in the opening of the film so that they can best be utilized through the storytelling process.

This is seen in countless productions across both film and television. One famous example is “Breaking Bad,”, where the colors are so prominent as to show up in the characters names (Jesse Pinkman, Walter White). The color of wardrobe is designed to symbolize character change. Supporting character Marie Schrader, who grows the least, consistently wears purple throughout the show. Walter White transitions from sickly greens and yellows (best exemplified by his puke green Pontiac Aztek) to movie villain black (including a “black hat”) by the end of the show. These sort of color decisions take advantage of audience’s ability to subconsciously track color, and work in conversation with cultural assumptions about color and character.

It’s important as filmmakers to understand the physiological underpinnings of color perception, and the power that gives us to implement our own meaning, as we plan and execute our productions.

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