Cinema is a visual medium, so understanding the psychology of colours is highly beneficial for directors and cinematographers. Certain colours evoke specific emotions, as effectively demonstrated by the Pixar animated film “Inside Out.” In general, certain colours better pass on particular atmospheres, at least in the Western world, and directors utilize them to convey emotions and messages without viewers even realizing it. The video below compiles scenes from famous films categorized by their dominant colour, each associated with a different meaning.
However, colours also possess a symbolic function and represent peoples and civilizations of the past. Applying color psychology to historical films we instantly recognize the geographical area, the character of the depicted people, and the era in which the story is set. Difficult to believe? Below, I provide some concrete examples.
Colour Psychology in Cinema
Blue is the colour of cold, ice, night, and shadows where the forest is thicker. It’s a colour easily associated with the north, which is one reason why it dominates many films set in barbaric and medieval Europe. Furthermore, since ancient times, blue symbolized the world of barbarians, which also contributed to its lack of popularity in Rome.
Let’s take the Netflix series “Barbarians” as an example. It tells the story of Arminius, a Germanic prince who, after serving in the Roman legions, decides to betray the Romans and attack them in the Teutoburg Forest (9 A.D.), leading a coalition of Germanic tribes. The vast forests of Germany play a significant role in the series, and most scenes involving the Germans are marked by the colour blue. This also serves to highlight the contrast with the Romans, who are associated with another colour (see more below).
However, not all barbarians are those portrayed by the Greeks and Romans in classical sources. The barbaric world, at least as imagined by cinema and literature, is one dominated by strength, war, and rugged customs. It’s still somewhat genuine, while corruption, greed, and treachery find little room (the rough but valiant barbarian is a widespread literary trope). Within this category fall populations that emerged after the fall of the Roman Empire, such as the Vikings. The TV series “Vikings” follows the romanticized adventures of real historical figures from Viking history in the 9th century A.D. and is rich in scenes coloured with blue. Even the posters emphasize this colour.
With the Vikings, we’ve entered the medieval era, which in the collective imagination takes the form of central-northern Europe characterized by forests, cold winters, and somewhat rough and uncivilized populations. In other words, a bit barbaric. The Middle Ages is a historical period that suffers from a bad reputation, but for once, I don’t want to debunk historical myths. This time I just want to show how it’s portrayed on screen. And films like Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” or “Kingdom of Heaven” depict vast and dense forests coloured with bluish shadows.
The Middle Ages can be real or imaginary; it doesn’t matter. Its typical representation includes mud on the roads, fur-clad men, and shades of blue. Even fantasy doesn’t escape this convention, as seen in the TV series “Game of Thrones”. The Northern Kingdom resembles a typical European medieval realm, complete with touches of blue to make it colder and more northern.
Roman red, but also gold
If blue is the colour of barbarians, red is the colour of ancient Romans. Indeed, the standards of the legions, the cloaks of the officers, and the coloured stripes on the togas of senators are all red (or purple). In cinema as well, the Roman world is tinged with red, and this is not only due to ancient tradition but also colour psychology. Red is the colour of blood, passion, and violence, which suitably represents an empire and its power struggles, whether on the battlefield or in palaces.
However, in films set in ancient Rome, red isn’t the only colour that consistently appears, as using only red would make the viewing experience too intense for audiences. Scenes often illuminate with a sandy-golden yellow. Gold always derives from ancient tradition. For instance, the eagle standards of the legions were gilded, and ancient authors even referred to Rome as aurea (golden).
However, this also stems from the fact that a golden patina generally colours the ancient world, from Egypt to Greece to Rome. In films like “Gladiator”, the yellow or yellowish-white is also the colour of the arena sand and the tufa and travertine monuments that populate the Eternal City. It appears as a “Colosseum colour,” which, with its brightness, captures the light of the Mediterranean countries that mostly composed the empire.
While yellow is present in some way in films about ancient Rome, it truly comes to life elsewhere. Gold-yellow is indeed the typical colour of films with exotic or mythical settings, especially those tied to the Near East. This hue captures the desert sand, the intense sunlight, and the abundance of gold in Egyptian and Mesopotamian courts.
The film “Alexander” narrates the deeds of Alexander the Great, who set off from Macedonia on his military conquests towards the Persian Empire. The movie poster incorporates the golden colours found in scenes set in Mesopotamia and Persia. The latter is also the setting of a film based on a series of video games, “Prince of Persia”, where the use of gold is even more pronounced, as seen in the image below.
Ancient Egypt is also characterized by a golden hue. This representation is quite accurate, given that Egypt was immensely rich in the most valuable raw materials, including gold. Thanks to the opulence of the pharaohs’ tombs and the imagery of the sun and desert, films set in ancient Egypt also exude a “yellow” feel. In the 1999 and 2001 “Mummy” films, there’s a lot of yellow. It’s interesting to note how different the 2017 film “The Mummy” is, where the central figure is an ancient Egyptian mummy, but the warm and exotic atmosphere is replaced by much darker and almost horrific tones.
When Worlds Collide: Clashes of Civilizations and Colours
Within the same film or TV series, it’s not uncommon to shift from one dominant colour to another. Everything depends on the atmosphere and emotion one wishes to recreate. A particularly significant example in this regard is a film like “The First King: Birth of an Empire », (here the review). Given that the protagonists are Romulus, Remus, and the foundation of Rome, red should be very prominent in the visuals, shouldn’t it? On the contrary, darker and cooler colours dominate, leaning towards blue. Why is that?
It’s due to a deliberate choice by director Matteo Rovere, who drew inspiration for his film from productions like “Vikings.” He wanted to depict a primordial, violent, and gritty world, almost barbaric. This influenced linguistic choices that puzzled philologists, as they couldn’t trace back some words and expressions spoken by the characters to Latin. The linguists who invented this proto-Latin explained how the director preferred expressions that had a harsher and more “barbaric” sound over more accurate ones.
Color psychology: Rome and the Barbarians
Color psychology helps to recognize and distinguish different emotions, as well as different populations. This is particularly evident in two productions where Germans and Romans clash. In the opening scenes of “Gladiator,” Maximus Decimus Meridius leads the legions’ attack in the Germanic forests, and these scenes are all filtered through a very cold blue light. There’s a clear contrast with the interiors of the Roman tents, illuminated by the warm, golden light of torches, and with scenes set in Rome.
In “Barbarians,” there’s more color alternation, as Arminius initially moves between two worlds: blue Germany and red Rome. There are frequent intrusions of one world into the other. In the scene where Arminius returns to his village after years, he appears foreign among his people, wrapped in red amidst a cold, blue environment. I can’t say if this is an intentional choice or a fortunate coincidence, but when Arminius, now ready to betray the Romans, presents himself at the tent of Varus, the commander of the stationed legions in Germany, he wears a blue cloak, contrasting with the red of the tent and the Romans’ garments.
Color psychology: Europe and Asia
As mentioned earlier, blue is also the colour of the Middle Ages and Medieval Europe. It becomes an effective tool for visually telling the clash of civilizations, as seen in films like “Kingdom of Heaven.” Scenes set in Europe, with its abundant forests, are tinged with a deep blue, while those in Palestine shift towards yellow tones, more suitable for representing the distant and exotic world encountered by the Crusaders.
Once again, colours prove themselves as a powerful tool to tell stories. Also in the past.
Have you avere noticed the importance of colour psychology in movies set in the past?
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