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The Importance of Color Grading in Film Studies

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2636 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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To what extent does color grading in film interpret mood and overall meaning of the movie?

The arts are a form of application that allow the expression of creative skill, vision, imagination, and passion into one complete piece. Today, we have technology-based tools to create films, photographs, and collages. Unlike any other classic art media, the discovery of the motion picture can be dated back to the 19th century, approximately between the 1870s to the 1890s. It was not only until 1939, where the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made the first technicolor film; many know of this classic film as The Wizard of Oz. Also later that year, MGM produced another blockbuster historical romance film, known as, Gone with the Wind. Technicolor was popular back then and is still used up to this day. As time modernized films, technicolor was able to help develop different color techniques that can be seen in digital film today. This research paper will explore the many meanings and interpretations of color graded films.

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Today, there are many of those who are involved in film studies. Now we have an extended range of genres that can be selected from – comedy, adventure, romance, etcetera. From The Journal of Visual Culture, “Film studies as a field has been under construction for a mere quarter century, and the cinema itself is barely over a century old.” (Cartwright, 2002, p. 8) Cartwright, mentions the relationship between the art of both visual and film studies. Under the circumstances of embedding those two subject areas, “visual studies is an outcome of and a response to the conditions of media convergence.” (Cartwright, 2002, p. 7) As motion picture progresses to develop, a variety of questions arise with the use of “optical virtuality and medical imaging.”

Color grading is a process that allows an individual to enhance a creative scene further. By enhancing a scene, one can establish a new set of visual tones, moods, interpretations, and feelings. In most cases, one can often find color grading in motion pictures, video images, and digital and or electronic photos. “Color grading is used for a number of reasons, such as accentuating a certain emotion or expressing the signature look of a director. We collect a database of feature film clips and label them with tags such as director, emotion, and genre.” (Xue, et al. 2013, p.1) Eurographics, also mentions on model mappings of the tags, and how each can later form a specific hypothesis on the use of color in forming a goal for the film.

Color in a film is essential in effect of helping us understand the mood, the feeling of a situation, and a character’s journey. Kate Torgovnick May, an Arts & Design writer for TED, writes on How Color Helps a Movie Tell its Story. May points out many prominent figures who work in the motion picture industry including Danielle Feinberg, Barry Jenkins, and Barbara Flueckiger. Danielle Feinberg, a Pixar director of photography, pointed out “Lighting and color are part of the backbone of emotion.” (May, 2017) The color gray for example can suggest the sense of depression, boredom, and or dissatisfaction. Hence, many film productions include a “color script” that outlines the desired target of feeling to a scene to create a larger story.

La La Land is a critically-acclaimed, 2016 drama/romance film directed by Damien Chazelle. La La Land follows the main characters Mia and Sebastian through their story of love, failure and success. Director Damien Chazelle shows the audience his skill as a director and cinematographer by the usage of color and lighting throughout his film as a way to tell a story through the visuals alone.

“La-La Land” is a phrase typically associated with an imaginary world or a dream place, in which a person distracts themselves with the desire to escape reality. In La La Land, there is a recurring theme of dreams’ in distinct contrast with reality; usually, we tend to associate dreams as lively and bright. Chazelle acknowledges the connotation behind the meaning of dreams. The relationship between dream and reality can be seen in the film’s opening scene during a traffic jam in a highway in Los Angeles, California. However, a significant difference in color is not made obvious during this scene; instead, Chazelle gives the audience its second musical number set in a colorful scene.

La La Land constantly switches from a grounded tone into a dream-like state, and the only indication that a change occurred is a subtle difference in the color pallete displayed on-screen. When Mia’s roommates are convincing her through song to go to the party in hopes of finding Mia’s one true love, the color pallet of the scenes shifts to bright colors from clothing to the rooms. Mia is wearing a blue dress, and blue is typically associated with tranquility, stability and confidence and the audience is aware that Mia is neither of those. Her high-stress reality of wanting to become a big actress in Hollywood along with constant pressure over not being able to find a lover both made her feel even more stressed; that is why she is pulled from a blue hallway and placed into a red room and when Mia attempts to go back into the blue hallway, she is blocked off from doing so by her friend with a red dress. Red signifies passion, desire and strength, neither of which Mia seems to express interest in representing and is actively wanting to stay out of it. At first she refuses to go, opting instead to lie on her red bed while being called by her desire to live life for more than just getting by until eventually she gives in. She joins her friends in a blue dress and they form an ensemble of colors consisting of red, yellow, green and blue. Once she decides to join her friends the bright and saturated colors of their dresses contrast with the exterior shots and the color, along with the camera movement being aerial instead of eye-level, help the audience know that the movie is in the land of dreams in which anything is possible. The film switched into a more formalist version of itself when it’s been adhering to realism throughout almost the entire run up to that point. Mia finds herself in a restroom that has a red hue to it and the song slows down. The colors are saturated until a stage light effect is applied – at this point the colors are not bright and saturated, they are dimmed and don’t resonate as much as they did before, this helps the audience know that Mia is not in her dream-like fantasy, living her life through a lens, this is an important change since Mia is wondering if she really has a chance to meet someone , instead opting to find a place in where she can be herself. She walks out of the restroom into a rose-tinted room but she is visibly upset with the place and leaves.

Damien Chazelle expertly uses color to tell a story of Mia’s emotional displacement throughout the night in under five minutes. The coloring of this scene, together with the background song, helps tell the audience know what Mia is going through in a subtle way even though there’s nothing being told directly to the audience. 

The use of color in Lalaland was carefully planned out with the central theme of the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Zosha Millman from the Film School Rejects explains, “Director and writer Damien Chazelle’s bright, detergent-commercial colors are (like many mechanics of the movie) an homage to big Hollywood musicals of old. But the primary color choices he makes also conveys much more about the pair of artists, and the lives they choose to lead.” In the universe of the film of Lalaland, the blue signifies control and creativity. Sebastian wore a blue suit during his piano gigs, while Mia wore a blue dress in a party she was forced in. The color yellow, on the other hand, symbolizes a change in the road in the motion picture. Keith is a character that follows this example when he starts working with Sebastian as he wore a mustard-yellow turtleneck. Which then proved to give a massive change in Sebastian’s career. Lastly, the color red. Red in the film is the realization of truth. Mia wore a bright red dress when she came into realization she envied a famous Hollywood actress. After giving each primary color its meaning, Chazelle begins to play around with the colors together, to bring a masterpiece in every scene possible.

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Color-Mood Analysis of Films Based on Syntactic and Psychological Models published by the University of Columbia presents films theories, psychological models, color palettes, and emotions into an association with each other in cinematic pictures. “In the case of films, the rich representations of film plot and characters’ feelings unfolded on-screen all contribute to the affective “landscape” that is presented to the viewer, and they all help the viewer to interpret the mood tone of a scene.” (Wei, 2004, p.1) With the help of the color scheme, the association of feeling and emotion with one color can be defined by multiple mood settings.

It has been known that back in the day, Egyptians and the Chinese used colors as a way of healing; known as chromotherapy. Chromotherapy is often called color therapy, and is a pseudoscience in which is an alternative medicinal method that uses “visible spectrum and electromagnetic radiation.” With the use of Chromotherapy, various diseases have been seen to be successfully cured over the years. From past research,It was believed that the “quantum mechanical dipole moment” helps the absorption of colors; with that absorption, the effects of these in our bodies produce “charge quantization phenomena.” Hence, psychologically, the brain has learned to adapt to associate a color with a particular feeling or mood. For example, pink can signify innocence or love, whereas orange can mean youthful. The brain has the power to associate things together subconsciously, without us working too hard to look for the answer.

Marissa Miller, by the CNN Style, mentions the “exposure of wide variety” color to be a promotion into part of our education. “As language evolved, so too did our ability to notice certain colors and draw associations from them” (Miller, 2017). Color can influence people unconsciously physiologically and psychologically; from creating mood to helping us understand the “most significant communication” that is being conveyed. After the Supreme Court ruled out the use of colors as a source of a trademark for companies in 1995, today, colors are used to symbolize big foundations like breast cancer awareness for pink.

The influence of motion pictures on the society has permanently permeated the education, culture, and understanding of the humanities. “images, film and television, like the printed word, are symbolic codes that serve as arbitrary codes of representation.” (Hobbs, 1998, p.260) The use of these symbolic codes enhances our ability to learn and interpret the meaning of the image or scene. The learning process is very intricate in the department of visual arts. Learning this subject area is very complicated, and requires a system of high cognitive and motor functions in order to transfer information vice versa. “Another key aspect of learning that can be facilitated by the arts is the emotional inspiration… Inspiration is an integrative mental function at the intersection of (a) cognitive, (b) emotional, and (c) Conative Process.” (Tyler, Likova, 2012, p.7) Emotional responses are very crucial in applying a creative piece, and in interpreting these images or scenes. Because each scene is objective and is made by a particular viewpoint, the analysis of color, words, setting, and characters are fundamental to the learning process of a film.

The overall importance of using color grading in a film can be seen in the early decades of the twentieth century. Whereas, Colorists in the film industry have been very important; now the use of ‘DI’ or Digital Intermediate are the ones in charge of making a ‘flat’ picture to an exquisite image to relate to the scene of the story or overall film. The power of using this tool is vital in making a shot from great to outstanding in the works of motion pictures. Hence, communication and the learning process is essential through the use of feeling, mood, and emotion.

The use of color in science and the arts have impacted the developments and understanding of particular areas more thoroughly. Hence, those who involve themselves in the field of film studies can appreciate the learning process and theories of these characteristics in the production of a film. The impact of color grading in a film to interpret the mood and overall meaning of a motion picture have outstandingly been observed and studied over the years; with the use of the analysis of different genres, and its associated mood and color palette. There are many more characteristics to be taken into consideration when analyzing and interpreting a cinematic picture. However, the most advantageous area of studying motion pictures is the color and the intuition of oneself. “Both intuition and creativity are associated with knowledge creation.” (Pétervári, 2016, p.1) Because knowledge is very diverse and constructed differently from each person, the gathering of interpretation can be uniquely different from others.


  • Cartwright, L. (n.d.). Journal of Visual Culture: SAGE Journals. Retrieved September 03, 2018, from http://journals.sagepub.com/home/vcu
  • Hobbs, R. (1997, November 30). Teaching with and about Film and Television: Integrating Media Literacy Concepts into Management Education. Retrieved September 04, 2018, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED439453
  • May, K. T. (2017, April 06). How color helps a movie tell its story. Retrieved September 03, 2018, from https://ideas.ted.com/how-color-helps-a-movie-tell-its-story/
  • Miller, M. (2017, November 5). How colors change the way we think, feel and consume – CNN. Retrieved September 03, 2018, from https://www.cnn.com/style/article/color-design-marketing/index.html
  • Millman, Z. (2017, April 21). Never Shined So Brightly: The Use of Color in ‘La La Land’. Retrieved September 03, 2018, from https://filmschoolrejects.com/color-in-la-la-land-26939a11accd/
  • Pétervári, J., Osman, M., & Bhattacharya, J. (2016, September 20). The Role of Intuition in the Generation and Evaluation Stages of Creativity. Retrieved September 04, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5028408/
  • Tyler, C. W., & Likova, L. T. (2012, February 8). The Role of the Visual Arts in Enhancing the Learning Process. Retrieved September 04, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3274761/
  • Wei, C., Dimitrova, N., & Chang, S. (n.d.). Color-Mood Analysis of Films Based on Syntactic and … Retrieved September 03, 2018, from http://www.ee.columbia.edu/ln/dvmm/publications/04/ICMEjune04_nelson.pdf
  • Xue, S., Agarwala, A., Dorsey, J., & Rushmeier, H. (2013). Learning and Applying Color Styles From Feature Films. Retrieved September 03, 2018, from http://graphics.cs.yale.edu/su/pub/PG13/FilmStyle_1_Submit.pdf


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