The Effect of Colours: Emotion and Symbolism of Colour


23 Mar 2015 08 Jun 2017

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Keywords: theory of colour, colour and emotion, effect of colour, colour in film

Colour theory has been dated back to the 15th Century with the writings of Leone Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci. From these early beginnings, colour theory has developed to cover painting, optics, psychology and many other disciplines, including film making.

Colour and Emotion

There has been research into colour, emotion and how they interlock for at least the last 50 years. A lot of this research comes under psychology. This is still useful to many other disciplines including film makers so they can try to control the emotion of the viewer using colour.

T the work of Lois B. Wexner (1954) explores how mood-tone and colours are associated with each other. Her research shows that certain colours do have strong associations with mood-tones, such as red with excitement, blue with tender-soothing and yellow with cheerful-jovial-joyful among others.

The American psychologist Frank H. Mahnke (1996) has also conducted experiments into colour and emotion associations, in his findings he found some very strong associations, especially with red/love, black/hate, blue/peace & blue-violet/noble. In Table 1 tabulated from his experiments, it shows the range of colours chosen by participants with the term and the percentage match they gave. Mankhe also grouped certain colours together where there was strong overlap , for example, blue, blue-green, green with the term peace/tranquillity.


Colours Chosen



Red, Red-Violet



Black, Red



Blue, Blue-Green, Green






Yellow, Orange



Orange, Yellow









Blue, Blue-Violet, Violet


Table - Colour Emotion Associations (Mahnke 1996)

Wei, Dimitrova & Chang (2004) established their association of corresponding colours to mood-tones (emotions), which is summarized in table 2.


Associated Mood Tones (Emotion Terms)


Hatred, Mourning, Sorrow, Indefinite


Mourning, Grief, Depression


Love, Hatred, Life, Noble


Jovial, Happy


Tranquillity, Peace, Life


Peace, Tranquillity, Noble


Love, Noble, Authoritative

Table - Wei, Dimitrova & Chang (2004)

Use of Colours in Film

The use of colour by film makers is deliberate and planned (Bellantoni 2005). To ensure that a film will have the colour which will bring a response from the audience they can either do test screenings, such as what cinematographer Rodger Deakins does in Shawshank Redemption. He tested different colours and paints to find the "look" required for each scene.

While the use of colour can be analysed as it can have a strong affect on mood and emotions many times cinematographers will work by instinct and what "it just looks right" (Bellantoni 2005).

It is possible to distil each film into its own colour palette. Artist Alan Woo shows quite distinctly how a film can have a distinctive colour palette. In his project Pie (Woo 2008) he processed each frame of a film into a colour and produced a "pie chart" for that film.

Film makers have used colours nearly the whole spectrum of colours to their advantage in storytelling.


Red is associated with danger, risk taking, action, love, hate. Director Alfred Hitchcock used these associated in the film Marnie, where he added red frames to attempt to excite the audience (Hullfish & Fowler 2003).

Director Sergei Eisenstien use of selective red in The Battleship Potemkin where a hand painted Soviet flag is hoisted up the ships mast. As well as the glorifying the Communist regime, according to Misek (2019) the redness overwhelms its intended meaning, the viewer notices the colour red and its power over the Soviet connotations.

Reds can also convey action. In the film Run Lola Run, director Franka Potente uses the central characters' red hair, a red ambulance, red bag (Martell 2002) and saturated red light to keep the audience in a high octane state (Bellantoni 2005).


According to Bellantoni (2005), oranges on the other hand do not give a strong emotional response to the audience, they are often provoke a warm, romantic, welcoming and also a sense of nostalgia. This is strongly convey in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou? where the whole film was digitally coloured in a orange/brown sepia to give the viewer a sense of the Mississippi during the Great Depression, a look of "faded postcards" (Fisher 2000).

One place where orange does give the audience an unsettling appearance is when it's in the air. For example, the orange sky in Blade Runner shows the polluted atmosphere. Production Designer Larry Pauli mentions to Bellantoni (2005 p.142), that the orange sky is "acid" but conversely "softer and romantic" depending on the outside or inside of the shot.


The colour green can have two contrasting emotive responses in the viewer, depending on how it is used. Green is the colour of nature, health and vitality but also the colour of poison, illness and evil.

Bellantoni (2005) writes that green is used by cinematographer John Seale creation of the lush vista in Witness. The green wheat fields where the Amish work. They connect the rural Amish to the agricultural work they live to do. These scenes are also where the protagonist is healing and in a stage of renewal, which the greens convey to the viewer.

The colour green is used in The Matrix to show the virtual reality that central character Neo is trapped in. Directors the Wachokwski brothers took this green from "...was a whole motif inspired by the phosphorous green of old PCs" (Davies n.d.). The use of the green in the "simulated" world contrasts with the harsher blue-white palette of "reality", despite being a film all about the digital these greens were achieved optically through use of green lighting mise-en-scène (Misek 2010).


Blue has strong associations with peace and tranquility. However in film it is more used to show coolness, detachment and passiveness. Dorothy's dress in the Wizard of Oz is blue and white gingham showing her powerlessness in the film. It is not until she gains the bright red ruby slippers doe she gain any power (Bellantoni 2005).

Bellantoni (2005) writes that blue is used to show the detachment and coldness of the prison in Shawshank Redemption. The prison uniforms and walls are all bathed in a soft blue/grey light which also highlight the passiveness of the inmates. However, blue also represents hope and freedom, Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding (Morgan Freeman) says " I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams" talking about his dreams of freedom and when the audience does get to see the ocean it is a much richer blue than the pale washed out version in the prison.


Purple has a long history of being a regal colour. This can be seen in Gladiator, where character Marcus Aurelius wears a purple hood, symbolising his regal power. Purple can also represent death or change. In Chicago, the strong use of purple light alludes to the death and delusion, bringing a seriousness to the musical song and dance (Bellantoni 2005). The dark purples are also heavy, representing the closeness of the criminal underworld.

Death is also represented by purple in the film Apocalypse Now where a bright purple smoke flare is released and men start to die. Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void, a film about death, the afterlife and crime uses strong use of neon-purple contrasting with the dark Tokyo night where the film is set.


Yellow can represent happiness, jovialness, wealth and warning. The use of yellow of John's car as well as the yellow-neon lights in American Graffiti shows his youth and playfulness.

Gold, a shade of yellow is closely associated with wealth. Koszarski (1999) writes that in Erich von Stroheim silent film Greed, Von Strohiem used Handschiegl colour on certain film prints to colour yellow all the gold items in an otherwise black and white film. This gave it a recurrent symbolism of the main characters greed.


Even with the advent of colour film, many film makers still choose to use the absence of colour in their works. The first film to go through the digital intermediate process of colour grading was Pleasantville, a film which uses the absence and presence of colour in its story. As the film progresses from the black and white beginning, the introduction of selective colourisation is used as a disruptive force on the traditional suburban black and white town.

While other films have used the contrast of full colour and black and white scenes they are usually separate, giving the viewer an understanding of the differences between two places. For example the Wizard of Oz has a black and white Kansas, while the land of Oz is a glorious colour.

Schindler's List is another example of selective colour used, in an otherwise black and white film a red coat of a young girl is used to individualise the cold, mechanical horrors of the holocaust.

Greyscale can give a sense of seriousness and realism. Masik (2010) writes that Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It was made in black-and-white for aesthetic and budget reasons and also because the Director of Photography liked the film black and white film Raging Bull which he interpreted as summoning the photojournalism s in 1950's Life magazine.

Use of colour however is not always to the audiences and critics taste. Filmmaker Todd Miro (2010) blogs about the "Color Grading Virus that is Teal & Orange" He cites Hollywood productions of Transformers 2 and Iron Man 2 where the colour grading has been overdone to attempt to bring attention to the skin tones(usually orange range of colours) of the actors away from the background.

Journalist Phil Hoad (2010) spoke to Hollywood colourist Stefan Sonnenfeld, who says "

Traditional vs. Digital

Colour grading has a long history. From the early days of hand painting individual frames to the photochemical processes still used by modern filmmakers. The bleach-bypass method was introduced by Technicolor (Shaw 2010). Shaw (2010) explains that this is when film is processed in lab to alter the colour balance. This process is also expensive and not reversible.

This process has been used in many films, such as Dick Tracey, Saving Private Ryan (American Society of Cinematographers, 1998). Director Steven Spielberg and Director of Photography Janusz Kaminiski also used this technique in Munich. Kaminski mentions to Goldman (2005 p.14) "a sense of tenseness, a sense of rawness". Kamainiski works with traditional laboratory methods as that is what he has done in the past and feels that the use of digital technology allows the colourist to constantly change their grading and get lost as they have no standard.

Process used by Digital Colourists

Primary Colour Grading

When grading video, the first task is to set up the overall image. Tasks included including fixing white balance, removing colour casts, matching tones between shots and contrast levels.

The first task many colourists will tackle first is setting the black level of the image.


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