Film in Color: Del Toro and Others

Pick up a DVD or BD copy of any film you own by Guillermo Del Toro. Now go to the special features. It most likely doesn’t matter which film it is: You will find a special feature called “Director’s Notebook” in which Del Toro gives you a peak into his book, in which he notes every single detail he had in mind for specific characters in the film. It’s always fascinating to watch the director talk about how he came up with his vision and it makes you pay more attention to the characters.pan-s-labyrinth-screencaps-movies-1749289-1024-576

The other special feature you will see, however, is named differently at times but it says even more about each character then small details do. It’s always about the director’s use of color, in which he talks about each character, which color he assigned them, and why. In Pan’s Labyrinth for example, he talks about the real world being sad to the main character, and the fairy tale she falls into being more real and more vivid, in a sense, then the grim world she wants to escape. Throughout the entire film, the cold colors and warm colors (Predominantly Gold/yellow, Green and Red) are in constant battle with each other, due to the main character’s predicament. It’s a wonderful film just to look at how color can mean something.

The reason I bring up Guillermo Del Toro first is because he’s one of the main directors which does not shy away from the use of color and how much it can mean . He uses it to gain attention, to represent characters, and to add metaphor and specific feelings to scenes. Today, we’ll be talking about different ways in which colors can be used to have a strong effect on the viewer, in various different ways.

The color red will take attention away from anything!

The color red is perhaps the biggest attention hoarder in the whole spectrum of the rainbow. It’s perhaps the warmest color and as such it demands more attention. It’s used every day to guide your eye without some even noticing. Every fast food restaurant you go to has either Yellow or Red in it’s emblem. If you put a woman in a red dress, according to psychological studies, it increases the amount of attention and attraction which is shown towards her, and if you look at the shot up there ^ you know the first thing you noticed was her blood. This basic knowledge is used by many directors in many films.

The first thing that might come to mind, specially after mentioning dresses, is the woman in the red dress scene, from the Washowskis The Matrix. Check it out:

You were most likely paying a lot of attention to the woman in the red dress during the scene, even your second and third time watching the movie. What you might have not noticed is the warning given by the Washowskis at the beginning of the scene. The red light of the walking signal, followed by the moving crowd when it turns green. Simply by showing this small shot before anything happens, they show you that the bright color red will make you stop and look, without even noticing.

Other films use the color red to keep you thinking about a certain character or shot. Spielberg, for example, uses the girl in the red dress in Shindler’s list, a film otherwise in black and white, to make her presence linger in your head throughout the film, as it does for the main character. Red is the simplest choice of color to choose just because it’s so vibrant but it has it’s obvious other uses. A lot more on the color red as we go on.

Certain Directors use color themes for style:

Guillermo Del Toro  uses color in Pan’s Labyrinth to tell us where we are. As stated before, Blue=real world and Yellow= Fairy Tale. However, whenever the Faun shows up, a green hue and lighting of colors take over the screen. He often appears around trees and grass before sending the character off into the different sets. Some directors, rather then using color for specific scenes, use certain colors to “Uniform” the entire film in. It’s hard to explain in words, but sometimes people use filters after shooting to give a different color or dark tone, or to give the illusion of night. Some, however, use it just as a style choice that fits the entire film. This is becoming more seen in Comic book films, like The Watchmen, in which Zack Snyder tried to stay inside the color palette of the comics, recreating colors by putting his film frames side to side with the comic panels.

The biggest example of using color stylistically I can think of is Wes Anderson.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a warm, comfortable place, and as such, the entire place has a lot of pink in it. The scouts in Moonrise Kingdom are in the woods, and green is the color of choice for the film. Now while other colors do appear in Wes Anderson films, most times in full saturation, a certain color scheme can always be found in most shots. Check it out.


Anything that has to do with the hotel is uniformed in pink, purble, and light blue. There are a lot of films and directors which use this method, but Wes Anderson and his cinematographers are great at exaggerating it. It works well for his films as the characters are often not quite normal.

Colors often represent characters:

Guillermo del Toro also gives his characters colors. Colors often have meaning and a character can be assigned a certain color due to it’s meaning, or maybe just to represent the character, so when you see the color, you think of that character. In Pacific Rim for example, Mako is always wearing Blue, due to her sadness and insecurity.

Other directors also play with color in this way. If you look at the series Breaking Bad, each character has their own color which is almost assigned to them.

An example which is not mentioned very often is M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. Samuel L. Jackson’s character can break every bone in his body with one fall, whereas Bruce Willis is completely the opposite. Jackson’s character is often wearing the color purple because the color represents Envy. He’s envious of Bruce Willis’s character and by the end of the film it’s clear they’re complete opposites. Another simple example of this is Star Wars, which uses earthy and lighter colors for characters with stronger enlightened minds, and dark, mostly black colors for people who have gone over to the dark side. Not to mention the colors of the light sabers which undoubtedly give meaning to what type of characters they are. That’s two times Samuel Jackson was thought of when you saw the color purple.


So,see a color more then once? it most likely has meaning

The amount of movies that have meaningful colors in them, and the amount of people talking about colors in film are very different in number, and it’s bad!

When you see something like say, The color green in the scenes of the matrix, it means you’re in the computer world vs. the gray/blue color of the real world scenes. The yellow in the matrix is spiritual energy. Watching the film again with that theme in mind gives the film so much more meaning.

When you sit down and watch the Shining, you’re not just creeped out because the kid is riding a tricycle through an empty hallway. The context, thoughts of murder, and the Red carpet and walls covering the entire hotel make you feel uneasy throughout the film.

When you watch Sin City, the color yellow, green, and red are the only colors visible in the entire film. Not just because the characters wearing them have distinct details about them, but because Green, Yellow and Red are colors that represent Money, Gold/ Greed, Sexuality/Violence, and that’s what Sin City is all about.

Sometimes the director even talks to you through the color of the film in a simple matter. In a recent film in theaters now for example (Triple 9) the use of red represents danger. Every time a red light bulb or glow stick, red paint, or even just someone wearing red shows up, someone is in danger or being threatened.

Watching a film for meaning in it’s colors gives you a whole different perspective on the film sometimes. It’s great once you notice it and gives you another thing to talk about once you come out of the theater, so keep looking for it.


So which films have you watched in which the colors meant something? do you have a favorite director which uses color to his advantage? I mentioned as many films as I could but there’s lots more. If you feel I didn’t mention one worth mentioning, sound off in the comments section! and as always:

Thanks for Reading!








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