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Essay: How Colour in Film Affects Viewers’ Perception: A Case Study of Hitchcock’s Vertigo

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How does the use of colour in film affect the viewers’ perception of the narrative? (a case study of the Film Vertigo – Alfred Hitchcock – 1958)

Colour has been regularly used in film since colour film’s invention in 1901 by Edward Turner. The early phase of its evolution was driven by a Filmmakers desire for realism.

Colour quickly developed into a key film-making tool to manipulate the viewer. Narrative in film can be defined as the essence of the film’s story – its plot and characters.  Colour has now become a tool which, when used correctly, can greatly enhance the viewers perception and reaction to the narrative.

A still from Edward Turner’s colour film of c.1902 showing his children, Alfred Raymond, Agnes May and Wilfred Sidney, with their goldfish and sunflowers. Photograph: National Media Museum/PA

We have always wanted to capture the world around us in the most realistic medium possible. Film became the best form to fulfil this want. But in the early days of its inception recorded a colorless world, unlike our human vision.

Before Turner had invented colour in film, filmmakers would colour their film frame by frame going so far as to hand paint it. Director Georges Méliès hired a whole assembly line of women to paint each individual film frame, which can be most easily seen in his 1902 film ‘A Trip to the Moon’. Other filmmakers would tint their films by hand tinting the entire frame a single colour. While most would see this as restrictive some filmmakers used this to service their creative vision. To play on our innate responses to colour, Directors and DPs (Director of Photography) would completely tint the scene, serene and relaxing shots were bathed in a blue tint whilst passionate and aggressive shots would be tinted red to match the feeling of the scene.

Two stills from Georges Méliès’s black and white and colour film ‘A Trip to the Moon’ of 1902 showing François Lallement, as the moon. Photograph

The most inventive form of this tinting process was in Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 feature ‘Greed’. We follow a man whose wife wins the lottery. Towards the beginning of the film all of the gold in the scenes is hand tinted gold, but as the film progresses so does the addition of the colour gold on the scenes. In the final scene of the film we see the man alone in the desert, the entire frame tinted gold to reflect and symbolise how his possessiveness and greed has completely engulfed his life. With only the addition and removal of one colour, we the audience, can see the internal battle of a single character. It was at this moment that filmmakers had discovered another tool to add to their stories.

A still from Erich von Stroheim’s colour film ‘Greed’ of 1924 showing three stills throughout the feature, Gloria Swanson, Billy Wilder and William Holden. Photograph:

However black-and-white cinematography dominated, and people got used to it. Studios were reluctant to employ colour, until the introduction of Kinemacolor. This was the first successful colour motion picture process, this was used commercially by studios from 1908 to 1914. Each frame would be shot alternately with a red and green filter in front of the film, then projected again through another alternating red and green filter, this then resulted in our brains combining the two alternating colours. The combination of these two colours still resulted in an amazing colour reproduction for the time but the colour fringing in the image and lack of blue became jarring for audiences at that time so this was soon replaced.

The birth of Technicolour in 1915 is seen now was one of the most influential moments in the history of filmmaking. Founded by Herbert Kalmus it introduced film-makers to the two-color subtractive process, where two negatives capturing red and green lights were placed back to back. Technicolor itself went through many iterations before being commercially released in its third and final form.

Technicolour’s third iteration was released in 1935, it revolved around using a beam splitter with a semi permeable mirror which split the light coming into the camera and separated it onto three separate film strips which each exposed a singular colour, Red, Green and Blue, these films were then passed all together and then all pressed together onto one singular clear strip which combined to create a full colour image

The first film to be shot on Technicolour’s newly released method was ‘The Viking’ (1928), with the first feature film to be entirely shot on this being Warner Bros 1929 epic, ‘On with the Show!’, soon after this release other studios followed suit, quickly increasing the popularity of a full technicolour experience.

Arguably one of cinemas most powerful moment in film utilizing colour was in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939). As Dorothy opens the door from her house to Oz, the film colour shifts, from a dusty sepia tone (created by tinting the entire frame) to a vibrant technicolour image displaying all of the amazing scenery of Oz. This moment cemented colour as now a key part of the story telling process, now going past its simple gimmick of making a film more lifelike.

This moment itself ushered a whole new wave of filmmaking, opening not only directors but the studios eyes to the endless potential that colour had on this medium. But such an elaborate process was time-consuming. The cameras were very heavy, which reduced the ability of transportation and limited the use of outdoor shooting. The Society of Motion Picture Engineers Studio Lighting Committee reported in 1936 that average black-and-white set illumination required 250 to 400 foot-candles, whereas colour productions needed 800 to 1000.

It was not long till there was another innovation in this area. In 1951 Kodak Eastman revolutionized the technicolor scene with the introduction of Eastman Colour, this improved the colour addition processes in motion pictures and as such generated its wider interest and adoption of colour among studios and their film makers. But there were still downsides to this development unfortunately it could not retain colour very well, so most films would have been filmed in Eastman colour and then remastered in technicolor.

For several decades the progression of colour in film remained stagnant, until the feature film Super Mario bros (1993), this was the first live action film to be digitally intermediated. Which is a digital finishing process where film is digitally scanned into the computer and then gives the ability to manually manipulate the colours of the film and other characterises. Now almost every motion picture not shot on digital will use digital mediates to colour and correct their film in post-production.

A key example of this is in the film, O brother where art thou, which was the first film to ever be completely colour graded to remove all traces of the colour green in the film to give it a dusky autumnal feel when the film was originally shot in mid-July during one of Mississippi’s most fertile periods. This digital colourisation allowed for a completely different look and feel to the film completely changing the audience’s perception of the not only the events of the film but also their sympathy to the characters and the narrative.

Colour is a powerful and very important tool, it has very strong ties to religious cultural, political and social influences. We have an innate human response to certain colours, forcing us to draw certain connotations about objects or people. By stopping to look at what each colour represents and is linked to, this can help shed an insight into why and how it used so effectively to further and impact upon the narrative. In colour psychology, red, yellow, blue, and green are considered as the primary psychological colours. They relate respectively to the body, the mind, our emotions.

One of the first pioneers of colour theory and documenting our reactions to them was renowned Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky came up with a set of qualities that are associated to a certain colour when viewing art, but many of these can be applied to other mediums.

Kandinsky described yellow as – warm, cheeky, exciting, “disturbing for people,” and also closely associated to madness. Blue communicates a peaceful and supernatural feel to an image. It is most commonly described as a “typical heavenly colour”, The lighter it is, the more calming it is, and “When in the end it becomes white, it reaches absolute calmness.” Green was closely linked to peace, stillness and nature as it is mix of yellow and blue. And to Kandinsky referenced “the absolute absence of movement.” Whilst Red throws out different associations such as those of restlessness, passion, maturity, life and also pain.

Whilst colour has communicated such a varied response in its meanings, in the medium of film our responses to colour have been further manipulated by the colourists, for example in the use of colour schemes and a how colours can be closely linked to specific characters and themes, both good and evil.

One key way that colours have played a key role in their use of film is through a films colour scheme. A predetermined palate of colours that are used by the DP to communicate specific meanings and gives a film a specific look, arguably the colour scheme of a film can be used to create harmony in a scene, bring in tension, or even bring to light a certain object or character that the audience would not have noticed without the aid of the films pre-chosen colour scheme. Colour schemes are broken down into the four most effective types of colour schemes, Complementary, Analogous, Triadic, and Split-Complementary in either progressing the narrative or giving a film a stylized and individual look.

All of the previously mentioned colour schemes revolve around one simple tool. The colour wheels. Simply the colour wheel comprises of 12 core colours, based on the Red Yellow Blue colour model. This model is comprised of the three primary colours, Red, Yellow and Blue, then the three secondary colours to these, being green orange and purple, as all three of these colours are created from mixing the original three. A further six colours are included in this scheme which are made from mixing the three secondary and primary colours together.

Figure 1 – Film still Complimentary colour Scheme, . C. Premium Beat, 2017

The complimentary colour scheme encompasses, two colours which are on opposing sides of the colour wheel. This is by far the most commonly used colour scheme, mainly as it is the easiest to implement into a film. This scheme will usually pair a warm colour with a cooler one, which contrasts simply yet effectively. This scheme is most commonly associated with the ‘block buster’ film look, where teal and orange are paired together. These two colours lie on opposing sides of the colour wheel, the teal works well to act as a background colour while the orange tones work well with skin tones, which in combination with each other gives a stunning separation of the subject from the background

Figure 2 – Film still Complimentary colour Scheme, C. Cinema 5d, 2017

The next most used colour scheme is the Analogous colour scheme, Analogous colours will lie next to each other on the colour wheel. They will always match well due to the fact that the colours will either all be cool or warm. Analogous colours will take away tension from a scene and relax the audiences as the entire scene is balanced. Analogous schemes will be most commonly used in interiors of houses, nature and generally areas where there is allot of repetition in the environment

Figure 3 – Film still Analogous colour Scheme, C. Cinema 5d, 2017

Triadic colours whilst used less regularly than any other scheme will give a spaced out and balanced feel to the image. The contrast of three very different images will give a very vibrant and saturated look to the image even if the image itself is using very dull hues.

Figure 4 – Film still Triadic colour Scheme. C. Cinema 5d, 2017

One of the most effective colour scheme at drawing our attention to a specific part of an image is the Split-Complementary Color Scheme, this is a very similar scheme to that of the complimentary colours scheme but instead of using two complete opposite colours it will use one colour then the two colours to the left and the right of that colours opposing colour. It uses the same high contrast principle as the complimentary scheme but can be used more technically to draw attention to one part of the scene.

Figure 5 – Film still Split-Complementary Color Scheme colour Scheme. C. Cinema 5d, 2017

The Split-Complementary Color Scheme, has been used to such a powerful effect in certain movies, not only in the Coen Brother’s film “Burn After Reading” as pictured above to draw attention to Brad Pitts Water bottle but also in features such as, “We need to talk about Kevin” When The Split Colour scheme is used to constantly draw attention to Red in the scene which throughout the course of the movie is developed into a motif for danger and violence.

A still from Lynne Ramsay’s colour film ‘We need to talk about Kevin of 2011 showing Tilda Swinton as Eva, Photograph: projectormagazine.net

Colour doesn’t have to be used in a colour scheme to affect a films narrative. Since the inception of commercial colour in filmmaking, filmmakers have played with our innate human reaction to colours, first given to us clearly and concisely by Kandinsky, and manipulated them to service the story they have wished to tell.

It is at this point where films no longer use the rules and conventions previously normalized by the psychologists and art critics before its time and began to create their own set of associations to colour, which have surpassed the medium of film and now span countless areas of our culture today.

Green, a colour which for almost all of human life has been associated with nature, forests and peace, now has a close link to the complete opposite of this. Green has, over the last century of filmmaking, become a representative of the unnatural the disliked and unappealing. Think of Frankenstein’s monster, a creature only seen as green after its appearance in the 1931 feature “Frankenstein” directed by James Whale. Think of the Matrix’s use of green in the unnatural and depressing office environments that Keanu Reeves is situated in for the first section of the movie, or even in the green type that become a clear symbol of the computer world. This is a clear departure from the previous luscious and captivating view that the audience had previously maintained of the colour green.

A still from the Wachowski brothers colour film ‘The Matrix’, Keanu Reeves as Neo, Photograph: cinevenger.com

Alongside flipping certain preconceived notions on colour films have also lead to reinforce the ideas set out by Kandinsky and his peers. Kubrick, who some consider obsessed with colour has played on the ideas presented by these critics and preserved the feelings that are drawn from them. A famous example of this being in his 1968 space epic “2001:”A Space Odyssey” red, a colour often associated to danger and anger, is given to the character known as HAL 9000. While inside Hal’s processor, Dave slowly begins to deactivate the computer. This else boring room is represented as a hellish end to the character Dave. This dreadful, inescapable feeling of impending death would be missing if not for Kubrick’s use of the color red, in this room, the Red serves to draw our previous connotations to danger and fight, whilst also visually representing that this is the core of HAL due to the colour red being sparingly used only in the context of HAL.

Overview of Vertigo as a quick plot synopsis

Step by step of the film and the narrative effects of colour In this film

How the colour in the film relates to our innate reactions to colour and films preceding it

How this film has influenced films and their use afterwards


References (In order)


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