Movies: The Colour Palette


Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019)

Movies are like paintings and photographs that speak to the viewer with their lights and colours. There is no need for words when colours and colour vibrations can deliver message faster than any sound can. For light travels at the speed of 299 792 458 metres per second as opposed to the speed of sound - only 343 metres per sec. Thus, visual imagery, colours included, is always received and processed quicker than spoken words.

Contrary to the belief, black and white movies of the silent era were not void of colours. The colours of the depicted garments and settings were relayed on to the screen as tones. Those tones were picked up, decoded and translated by the audience into colours. This was possible because the audience felt the colours rather than saw them.


I have had people say to me, ‘I liked that little blue serge frock you wore in the photoplay [movie] so much.’ How did they know it was blue? They didn’t. It might really have been blue or any of half a dozen other shades which would all register the same tone value.’ – Marguerite Courtot (1897-1986), an actress of the silent era.


Not being able to fully control the colours and tones of the environment, the silent era movie makers, in particular actresses, focused instead on the colours and textures of costumes they wore for the screen. Colours and textures translated in black and white movies as certain tones that helped to create mood and tell the story. For, the audience, which was mostly women, paid very close attention to what their favourite screen personalities wore. The textiles, colours and tones of their garments literally spoke a thousand words to the movie goers.


Purple always suggests the regal magnificence. It is therefore a color to be used in gowns for those scenes which call for stately effects. Dark green suggests the outdoors, and gives a freedom of thought that no other dark color gives me. Brown has a domestic element of quiet that may be utilized in those plays that demand that particularly. Blues are a very difficult color for wear in photoplays, although lighter blues suggest spiritual feelings that cannot be set down exactly but which may be shown slightly by wearing this shade. Pale green gives a thought of wide distances of sea and also of an ethereal feeling. Blacks are to be used, of course, only for grief, for mourning, for poverty, for despair, although white may be used effectively to suggest grief. Yellow is a difficult color to use in the movies, although it is the basis of much psychological emotion.’ – Clara Kimball Young (1890-1960), an actress of the silent era.


Nowadays, in a movie, all of the colours and their tones can be observed and enjoyed, provided that colours are engaged in the dialogue between the viewer and the storyteller. As illustrated in the quote of Clara Kimball Young each colour in the colour palette has its visual meaning and message that viewers can ‘scan’ and decode. Tones of colours denote the intensity of the delivered message, its importance and emotional deepness.

Combination of colours and their tones applied to the depicted environment and characters’ costumes can highlight themes and create moods for each scene of the movie, allowing for more emotionally engaging and thrilling experience.

Apart from moods and feelings, colours can also tell us about such things as seasons of the year, times of the day and night, gradation in social and financial ranking and status, harmonious or out of balance settings and places, they can also signal danger or enhance the feeling of security and safety.

Unfortunately, the contemporary movie makers do not always use colours to their full potential, preferring to stick with tones of grey, brown, black, and white. Pleasant exceptions however are films like The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) by Wes Anderson, Emma. (2020) by Autumn de Wilde, Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019) by Céline Sciamma.



The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)


The red, purple, yellow, brown, and black colours used in the movie are vivid and deep, almost electric, pointing to the high intensity of feelings, emotions, and actions involved. There are no half tones or subtle tones except for the hues of pink colouring the façade of the Hotel.

The red in the movie is the colour of passion and action. The purple, used mostly in the uniforms of the Hotel’s personnel, speaks of regal magnificence of the place. The yellow dress of the Madam D. indicates a need in passing an urgent message on to Monsieur Gustave H. Although he does not quite get it at the time, but the viewers can still pick it up from the colour of Madam D.’ dress. For the eyes of the viewers can single her out in that dress.

The brown and black colours and tones are used in the movie in connection with the Schloss Lutz – the estate of Madam D., - and her son, Dmitri. Browns refer to tradition, stability, family values, and domestic matters, whereas black represents secrets, sorrow, darker side, and mystery. It is also the colour of authority and hierarchy. Thus, regal magnificence, communications, passion, and later love come into conflict with tradition, authority, power, darker side, and secrets.



Emma. (2020)


In Emma. (2020) colours are actively engaged in setting the moods and themes for the environments, interiors and exteriors, characters, and even food. The movie is a feast for the eyes with myriad of messages looming at the viewer from the screen.

The overall palette chosen for the movie is of pastel tones and light and airy colours denoting the subtlety of feelings and intriguing nuances of relationships taking place between the characters. Greens, pinks, whites, browns are of light tones, and such colours as aubergine, yellow, and orange are of more vibrant and intense ones. The later are used in scenes where there is a need to highlight a contrast of the characters’ mood against the environment and the overall setting of the scene. Such are the scenes on images 2, 3, and 4.

On the image 2, the aubergine top of Harriet contracting with the subtle greens, beige and whites of the interior and Emma’s outfit. White is the colour of purity, but it is also colour of grief in some culture – Emma ‘grieves’ for her governess who married and moved out of the estate – light green suggests love, touches of pink suggest tenderness. In this setting the dark aubergine colour stands out and tells us that Harriet is creative, intuitive, and curious, that she is a compassionate friend with spiritual believes and a gentle nature.

On the image 3, the yellow dress of Emma almost shines onto the path as her half of the road is sunlit, whereas Harriet’s side is in shadow, enhanced by the light brown colour of her dress and hat. The colours used tell us that Emma is sure of what she says and communicates, and Harriet is doubtful and unsure of her feelings and thoughts as well as messages passed to her by Emma.

On the image 4, the contrast is created by the black and orange garments of the two characters placed in the subtly toned interiors. Mr. Elton the vicar, is in black – almost a stark dark ‘stain’ on the overall pleasant environment. His wife, wearing orange, sticks out as much as he does. The orange speaks of enthusiasm, happiness, success, and determination. Obviously, she feels on top of the game in the scene.

The scene in the image 5 is obviously a dreary and dull one. To highlight the mood such colours as brown, black, and grey are used. The colours are toned down to reflect on the mood and emotions of the characters. The scene speaks of domesticism, practicality, and traditionalism.



Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019)


Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019) shows just few chosen colours – interiors are set in pastel colours of blue and beige, denoting delicacy of the subject and relationships, and the main characters’ costumes are limited to deep green, blue, and brick red, highlighting the intensity of each personality and their emotions in a given scene. As emotions run deep and do not subside, the main characters wear these colours throughout the whole story.

Extra emotional tones are added by the light and warmth of the open fire – the symbol of passion and desire, as well as nature settings – the wild beaches, the sea, the rocks. The colours found in the nature correlated and contrast with the colours won by the main characters, enhancing the emotional storyline.

Pastel colours of the interiors refer us to aquarelle painting technique, and the simplicity and the naturalness of the colours used in outdoor scenes remind the viewer to the art of photography.

Seraphima Bogomolova


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Copyright 2018 -2020  

Seraphima Bogomolova

cinematographer, screenwriter, author

10711 Berlin, Germany 

seraphima@seraphimabogomolova.com