If there is one thing I wish I'd said in this discussion of color, it's that using color in cinematography should really be seen as an opportunity to make careful choices. This is an essay which advocates for greater attention and selectivity when it comes to deploying color cinematography. The reasons for doing this basically fall into two important to understand categories. First and foremost, cinematic choices and the use of color in cinematography has a semiotic result. Using color and particularly using color judiciously create part of the meaning of any film. Second, color and by extension the meaning associated with its use in film impacts the audience.
The argument I lay out about color cinematography here is simple but has profound ramifications for how we may understand the use of color in film. Right off the bat I'd like to dispense with the idea that somehow color film is some important, groundbreaking moment for filmmaking. It's not, especially by comparison to the addition of sound to the typical movie going experience, color has just been part of going to the movies basically since the word go. It's a technical improvement rather than a more categorical change.
Similarly, I want to dispense with the idea that the uses of color in film are tied up with directors, cinematographers, auteurs, and the rest. The uses of color in a film can be understood irrespective of their context, this is perhaps part of reading the image more plainly. In this respect I'm really trying to narrow my focus. Style is of little consequence to the meaning of a given image or the effects the uses of color cinematography has on audiences.
Moving on from there, I can finally talk about color cinematography in isolation. In this area I see a scale along which directors and cinematographers can be selective about the appearance of their film. Starting from a point of naturalism, I look at There Will Be Blood (2007). This is a film which to my eye really looks as natural as can be. But, as should be obvious to anyone who's seen Gone with the Wind (1939) or Star Trek (2009), this naturalism doesn't have to be indulged.
On the contrary, we can scale back or ramp-up the degree to which a film reflects reality in its use of color cinematography depending on the selectivity of the colors used. The result tends to move the film away from pure naturalism and more towards expressiveness or expressionism. Basically when we begin to leave behind reality through the door of color, we tend to find more emotive or contemplative films. A Clockwork Orange (1971), is a movie that leads us a long a bit with a distinctive lack of colorfulness whereas The Fifth Element (1997) really wants to rub our face in all the vivid color.
What is happening here is the creation of meaning though. There's a vocabulary and grammar to using color which is pretty unique to this medium. The use of color can be seen to say profound things generally about the film or in particular the world of the film as it appears on screen. Naturalistic films make a statement as to the appearance of the drama reflecting reality itself. Vivid, expressionistic films are often appealing to emotion or generating excitement. Expressive films, where colors are as carefully selected as they are in Nostalghia (1983) are very overtly trying to enter a discursive space of thoughtfulness.
At least in general. Something that I love about Dunkirk (2017) is that it is very naturalistic, while also being one of the most exactingly judicial films about what is on screen I've seen in years. And all this in a very action packed, maximalist package. Nevertheless, Dunkirk is really stripped to the essentials. It is that quality of having no frills and finding ground on which to make a statement about the possibilities of the cinematic medium and how combat films should be made that Dunkirk succeeds with its audience though.
When we go to the movies we should really understand to be being spoken to on a wide sensory level. There's a lot to interpret. But what's more, the way a message in an film is constructed will effect an audience in meaningful ways as well. Audiences will find themselves immersed in certain uses of color and held back by others. It's hard to say that a work of art like a film is sending emotional content or even semantic content is a bit of a stretch. But to say that film doesn't sign to an audience via semiotic vectors such as cinematography is just silly. In this video essay, I speculate about how those symbols could conceivably be received.