Analyzing Color

Benefits and limitations of color analysisOn this blog I am generally analyzing color as a storytelling device. These analyses primarily tell us how film makers use color to tell their story - to evoke certain moods or to get information across. Additionally, such analyses may help us grasp the underlying concepts of color relations and color compositions. The findings however should not be taken as rules. If anything, they should inspire to break currently established conventions.

Colors in artwork never have absolute meanings. Likewise there should not be any absolute rules how to use color as a storytelling device. However, there were times and places in history when conventions did not simply occur because they represented a general agreement of what was fashionable or looked good. Sometimes these conventions came from normative sources and had to be followed like rules. While it may be necessary to take such historical circumstances into consideration when interpreting color decisions, analysis is first and foremost concerned with what is visible in the actual film frame.

We can never reconstruct a film makers intentions but we can examine how what we see works in the context of the film. It is very important to remember that although a color concept may make perfect sense when examined rationally, the artist may have applied it intuitively. Maybe it just felt right or expressed the desired mood. But if you want to find out why it is working or what makes it work you have to analyze it carefully.

About restorations and available film formatsFinally, we always have to take into consideration the version of a film we analyze. Are we looking at a pristine Technicolor dye-transfer print? Or a faded 35mm, a DVD, a BD? Is it an original release print or a restoration (digital or analog)?

While it is tempting - especially in the field of animation - to restore colors to what they looked like in front of the camera (the original artwork), the frame of reference must always be the original color corrected film frame.

Sometimes color schemes are easier to study in digital restorations (like the Disney Platinum Edition) however distorting they may be historically. But always keep in mind that these paintings and costumes (in live-action) have been made to be filmed and that the transformations happening by photographing with a certain type of film stock had to be taken into consideration. No matter how blue a shirt may look in broad daylight. If it looks white or beige in the finished film, this is how it affects the audience and this is the color we should analyze.

Whether one thinks that the restoration looks better, more beautiful or represents the filmmakers' intentions more closely is a question of personal opinion and therefore irrelevant to the question of what the correct version of a film is.

So as long as one is taking the different historical layers (technical limitations and tastes at the time of production and at the time of restoration) into consideration, restorations should not be excluded from analysis. Most of the time looking at an original print isn't possible. And since we are looking at how color affects an audience, sometimes the most widely seen version of a film is indeed a faded VHS or a pushed Blu-ray Disc. In such cases, however, it is almost impossible to attribute specific decisions to the filmmakers or the restoration team.

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