Sitting down and watching a movie is simple for an audience, but behind the scenes, complex decisions are made so that viewers receive a specific message.
When making a film, color and lighting are essential details in the development process. Like any art form, choosing a color can change the meaning of the art altogether. Any photographer will need lighting to take a good photo, and sometimes the way a scene is lit can change the way it is perceived.
The use of color and lighting in films goes beyond technical considerations; it is an art form that enables directors to communicate complex emotions, themes and narrative elements to the audience.
Joel Berry, adjunct professor of film studies, explained what both color and lighting do and how they each help in creating a film.
“Color and lighting are big parts of setting not only the location and the time of when a movie was shot but also the mood,” Berry said. “To help set the mood or even set the time of day, there can be oranges and certain looks that you see more at sunset. Or blue is more associated with evening nighttime or moonlight.”
As audiences engage with films, commercials or TV shows, the subtle nuances in film often remain mysteries. Viewers may find themselves pondering the director’s rationale behind a particular shot
“I think the biggest reason it’s important to think about it intentionally is because your audience is very sophisticated,” Berry said. “Everything that they see on screen, everything that’s within the frame, they believe there’s a reason for it, and if you didn’t have a reason, they’re going to make one up.”
Not only can colors and lighting help in setting the scene of a film, but they can aid in reinforcing a narrative. Berry spoke on informing the performers or actors about why they are wearing a certain color, and being intentional.
“Think that through and then think through the ‘why’ you’re doing it, because that can also actually help inform your actors,” Berry said, “If the character is more muted and they’re shy and then by the end, they’re bolder and you find them wearing more bold colors, that kind of just helps reinforce the story that you’re telling.”
Colors are known in the world of psychology to convey a certain mood or feeling and film majors use that to their advantage. Alan Katcef, junior film production major, explained how adding color to a film helps when translating a message for his projects.
“Color theory and lighting are used to convey a certain type of meaning, whether that’s a universal meaning that’s seen in the industry or it’s meaning that the director himself specifically wants to convey,” Katcef said. “If someone wanted to add a red hue or a kind of red somewhere in the film, that would sometimes translate to anger.”
Moreover, the artistry of lighting enters the stage, saturating scenes with colors that harmonize with the prevailing emotions. The strategic interplay of light and color becomes a visual language, amplifying the mood and guiding the audience.
“Usually, the lighter colors are for more happy or lighthearted scenes and the darker colors are used to show deeper emotions or parts within the film,” said Emily Pettet, senior film major.
Through the orchestration of these elements, filmmakers help audiences witness the narrative unfold and to feel it on an emotional level.
“As a cinematographer, you need to make sure that your lighting is showing the viewer what you are trying to get across,” Pettet said.
As the final frame unfolds, it is evident that the director’s mastery lies not just in storytelling but in the artful manipulation of color and lighting that transforms a narrative into a journey.