The Psychology of Colour in Cinema

Colour is not just something we see; it is something we feel. It is the most immediate form of non-verbal communication. Colours can induce instinctive feelings, like how blue makes us feel safe while red alerts us to danger. Such principles can also be applied to the art of cinematography.

Ever since the introduction of colour in films, the cinematic world has experienced a radical shift, and what was once conveyed through numerous black and white images, is now enhanced through different hues, shades, and tints. Colour has made it possible for filmmakers to add another layer to their narrative interpretation, throwing their audiences into a vast ocean of colour.

Taking a look at Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the clever use of black and white cinematography, mimicking World War II footage from the 1940’s, complements the plot. However, by singling out the red coat of a little girl, Spielberg manages to produce one of the most powerful moments in filmmaking. Without any use of dialogue, the director represents the innocence and suffering of the Jewish population during the Holocaust.

Yet, what if the girl’s coat had been another colour? Would it have altered the viewer’s perception and interpretation of the scene? Colour interpretation is a learnt behaviour —  influenced and affected by one’s cultural beliefs and traditions. While the colour red has associations of alarm, blood, and danger in the West, in China, for instance, red represents luck and happiness. At the same time, white, usually a symbol of peace and purity, is interpreted as the colour of death in eastern cultures. 

Colour interpretation remains fascinating, providing ample investigations into how it affects our psychological and emotional responses — evidence that colour is truly a visual language and a powerful tool for storytelling.

Sarah Zammit is a 2nd year student reading for an M.A. in Film Studies at the University of Malta.

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