COLOR: The Mood of Film (Part I)
Film. Is it Art or Science?
When considering film as an art form, its origin story couldn't be further removed from its modern day perception. Often, when discussing film as art, our focus turns to discussion of tradition, context and process. With almost 200 years of photographic history to draw from, it's no surprise we've been able to canonize and elevate notable works and, in turn, deconstruct and analyze them. Add to this the recent advances in digital color-processing and unsurpassed computational power within a climate of intense data analysis and it's easy to think of photography and filmmaking as 'the science of the arts.'
An Historical Perspective
Although there is a healthy amount of controversy in crediting the first person to successfully produce a photograph, they all utilized some form of 'camera obscura' to capture their images. While one can spend a lifetime studying the origins of the photographic image, the important aspect to THIS discussion is understanding the reality that photography was DISCOVERED rather than INVENTED. In fact, each of those who can claim to be first employed a different method of image capture and none could fully explain exactly HOW it occurred. One of the most interesting periods of film theory is the period between when the medium was discovered and when the process itself was understood. Many literary greats weighed in on what exactly was occurring when one sat for a portrait (often in non-complimentary terms). One could imagine at the time photography and filmmaking were thought of as 'the mystery art.'
The Ontology of Image Making
Understanding this mysterious aspect to the origins of film theory helps to inform our understanding of the 'history of the history' in a sense. Without being too obtuse, what we're meaning to say here is that the theories were off-and-running before the the science was fully understood. Why is this important? Because it informs our knowledge of the 'propaganda' of our history. That some aspect of this 'science of the arts' -some small center of this discipline- is still shrouded in the etherial. Theorists began the exploration of the ontology of image making with a reverence given only to the mysterious and we've (consciously or unconsciously) never fully let that go. No matter how much analysis is now done, the essence of photography and filmmaking is rooted in the fundamental discord of the human desire to create permanence. The desire to stop time and present the essence of a moment cuts to our deepest understandings of ourselves and of the relationship between memory and death.
Color Theory in Film
If we understand our perspective to be so fundamentally rooted in discovery, is it any wonder that when we turn our attention specifically to color theory we encounter color relationships we often observe in nature? It shouldn't. As with film's origin, many color relationships were ENCOUNTERED rather than INVENTED. Certainly, a good amount of work has been done to reinforce these concepts with an incredibly scientific approach, but our point here is that one doesn't have to have an advanced understanding of color to UNDERSTAND color. Color permeates our lives. We're green with envy, we seethe with a red-hot anger, we even sing the blues. A golden-warm sunset can elicit feelings of resolution, closure and legacy while the cold bleakness of a brisk blue dawn reminds us of the work ahead and the unforgiving beauty of isolation. We don't have to be told to remember these associations, they're formed before we even embrace language. You've been experiencing color longer than you've had the ability to contextualize and define meaning. Now that's powerful. Not powerful in the sense of how a well crafted sentence can change our understanding or a perfectly executed piece of music can evoke our deepest feelings, but powerful in the sense that it's so elemental you may not even remotely UNDERSTAND it, but you PERCEIVE it none the less.
Early Film Coloring Processes
While it is tempting to assume color theory in film only became relevant in the age of 'color' film, this isn't entirely accurate. Early filmmakers often utilized differing tints or tones to signify time or place within their narratives. TINTING is the process of adding color to black and white film (typically by soaking the film in dye), while TONING is the process of replacing the silver particles in the emulsion with colored silver salts. Toning effects the darkest areas of the image while leaving little impact on the highlights while tinting will effect the entire image. Another process used in early filmmaking is HAND COLORING in which parts of the image are colored by hand with dyes. In each case, color is utilized to reinforce story and to enhance mood. One could surmise that we successfully IMPLEMENTED color before we had the fully fleshed out the THEORY of color.
Using Color to Create Mood
How then does this intrinsic understanding of color mesh with the historical context of its application? Here's where the science comes in. While early filmmakers implemented color in a way that relied on the limited techniques available; their instincts (albeit informed by nature) have been reinforced by theory and application to the point where creators can utilize color in incredibly sophisticated ways that are almost imperceptible to the consciousness of the viewer, yet fundamentally acceptable to that viewer's understanding of the narrative. By taking to heart the psychology of color, and implementing the science of color relationships, photographers and filmmakers can communicate narrative in the most subtle fashion. While setting provides context, dialogue provides character, and narrative provides story; it's the color relationships that provide MOOD. Consider for a moment the utter chaos, fear, and uneasy apprehension of the green hued D-Day scenes in 'Saving Private Ryan' or the golden sunset of the "I'm flying" scene in 'Titanic' that subtly conveys the end of one narrative and, as the scene shifts to orange, the subtle anticipation of what comes next.
In Part II of this series, we'll delve further in to color theory and its application and practice. We'll examine the concepts of Hue, Saturation and Value as we begin to explore the principles of color Harmony and Discordance. As we explore the use of color to create mood our hope is to be informative without being overwhelming. Even as we delve into some of the more theoretical elements of these principles, remember that the concepts are in many ways intuitive. However, as with anything, being aware of how color and mood often relate in film requires SEEING. Take some time to look at how subtle toning is used in the films and shows you regularly watch and the mood they reinforce.