Colour has the power to make us feel. As we go about our lives with associate colour with different things often on a subconscious level. Our response to colour varies depending on colour and context.

Colour and grading is the process during filmmaking where by the understanding of colour is used to manipulate the film. This provides a film with a particular style that results in an aesthetic that provokes affect on the audience. (Turner, 2015.)

This affect is the internal emotion that is a personal shift within our inner state. The experience of emotion can be confusing as different emotions can be experienced at the same time. (Plutchik, 2001.)

Colour grading has become the standard practice for filmmakers with the increase of digital technology.  Traditionally each genre of film is stylised by colour palettes that evoke particular emotions. Colour grading is the contributing factor that provides a film with it’s look and feel.

In this article I want to look at the industry standards of colour patterns that are used to make audiences feel certain things. Following on from my last article, on aesthetics and affect I will also compare filmmakers who use colour to make us feel vs filmmakers who opt to shoot in Black and white and the difference between these aesthetic choices. (Brown, 2012.)

To fully understand colour and it’s connection to emotion lets refer to the research of american psychologist Robert Plutchik. Plutchik relates emotions to colour in the way that we can conceptualise these ideas.

“Primary emotions can be conceptualised in a fashion similar to a colour wheel.” Where similar emotions are placed closely together, and complementary emotions are found at 180 degrees to each other. Some emotions are mixtures of each other, just like how some colours are the result of mixing 2 seperate colours.  

Psychoevolutionary theory believes that there are 8 basic emotion dimensions arranged in four pairs. If we follow the pattern used in colour theory and research we can obtain judgements about combinations – the emotions that result when two or more fundamental emotions are combined in the same way that red and blue make purple. (Plutchik, 2001.)

The following is Plutchik’s wheel of emotions that are represented by colours. Evident in the following graphic is the cone shape that represents how emotions (represented by colour) can blend and become interconnected.


Professional colour graders understand this link between colour and emotion and therefore adjust the colour pallete of their film the provoke an emotional impact that further reiterates the film script, sound and intent of the director. 

The reigning colour trend that is taking over hollywood is the colour tones of blue and orange. This colour treatment makes actors pop out of the background by highlighting the orange tones from the actors skin while the shadows and background information is cast with blue.

By referring to Plutchik’s wheel of colour and emotion we see the varying emotional impacts that these two colours have when mixed together. Orange the colour that promotes emotions of ; Vigilance, anticipation and interest is combined with blue that affects feelings of; amazement, surprise and distraction.  This colour / emotion combination allows audience to experience cinema in an emotional state of relaxed entertainment. 

We associate colour with different things in our lives. Traditionally red is the colour that has the power to increase our heart rate, increase appetite and vocal activity. The red carpet is that colour, as it is used to keep the traffic flowing. Conversely the colour blue creates a calming effect. 

So what are the other genre to colour archetypes that filmmakers use to make their audiences feel? 

  • Romance: Warm Red Tones
  • Apocalyptic films: Desaturated Colours
  • Horror: Blue cold tones for horrors
  • Science fiction: Fluorescent greens
  • Desert Set Films: Yellows tones
  • Comedy: Vibrant Saturated reds.
  • Epic, Drama, Bio: Blue and Orange

A great example of a filmmaker who has used the power of colour to affect an audience is Derek Cianfrance in the film ‘Blue Valentine’ (2010).

Director of Photography: Adrij Parekh.

In telling the story of a failing relationship between the two central characters, the film cuts back to warm red scenes shot on a ARRIFLEX 416 16mm film video camera. This combined with a wide angle 25mm lens allowed the characters to fit into the same frame and therefore celebrates the intimacy of nostalgia of young romance. Cutting to present day within the context of the film, dark and cool blues are used not only in the lighting , but the film was shot with a REDone digital camera with a 250mm lens that isolated the characters and highlighted the divide that had grown between them.

The Blue and Reds in the set design, costumes, lighting and environment tied these grading techniques together, as an audience we switch from nostalgic romance to blue violets full of grief and sadness. (Silberg, 2012.)

In contrast to the use of colour in Blue Valentine, I want to look at the use of how Black and white is used in modern cinema. This is an aesthetic choice that is used by directors such as Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismaki, Orson Welles and Anton Corbijn. 

Black and white is its own distinct aesthetic endeavour; there are things that can be done with tone, grain and contrast that are simply impossible, or less satisfying in colour photography. (Patterson, 2009.) Director Andrei Tarkovsky is an influential filmmaker who at times would cut his films from monochrome to colour. He stated “ On the screen colour imposes itself on you, whereas in life that only happens at odd moments. It’s not right for an audience to be constantly aware of colour.” (Everette, 2007.)

Film Noir: The Case For Black And White Filmmaking. 

When we watch the films of Jim Jarmusch such as “Down By Law”, Dead Man or Anton Corbijn’s ‘Control’. The film is stripped of its colour, providing the audience with an effect that celebrates tone and contrast that is rich was feeling. In muting the colour the music fills in the gaps where the colour would play. There is a photographic simplicity that recalls the an earlier time where these films find themselves working against the grain in a cult art aesthetic. 

DOWN BY LAW (1986) – Director Of Photography – Robby Muller: 

CONTROL (2007) – Director Of Photography – Martin Ruhe:

Colour films have been adapted by the mainstream as the aesthetic that best represents our reality to an audience. In the mimesis of life colour and the way that filmmakers use colour is a powerful tool that provokes our emotional response. In understanding colour and it’s connection to our emotional states filmmakers and audiences are able to go on emotional rollercoasters that cut back and forward through time, to nostalgic memories or hyper realistic dreams. 

“Colour is in reality, both a physical characteristic of light, and pigment and a phycological and physical sensation, both an objective and subjective phenomenon.” (Everette, 2007.)


Brown, Kornhaber. (2012). The effect of Color. PBSoffbook. [Video File]. Retrieved From:

Everette, Wendy. (2007). Questions of colour in cinema; From Pixel to Paintbrush. Peter Lang. Switzerland.

Filmmakermagazine. (2001). The Way We Were: Derek Cianfrance “Blue Valentine”. Filmmakermagazine. Retrieved from:

Patterson, John. (2009). Hurray For Monochrome Movies. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Plutchik, Robert. (2001). The Nature of Emotions. American Scientist. 89.4 (July 2001): p344. Retrieved from:

Silberg, John. (2012). ‘Blue Valentine’: Relationships, Realism, Red. Creative Planet Network. Retrieved from:

Turner, Hadaya. (2015). How Filmmakers Manipulate Our Emotions Using Color. The Verge. [Video File]. Retrieved From:

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