Monday, August 3, 2009

Cognitive use of color in films.

Today I read a very good article on cognitive use of color treatment in films by Isaac Botkin, the author of book called Outside Hollywood.

According to Botkin, 'Color can be used to communicate information to audiences in all kinds of ways. For example, the storyline in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic takes place in three different places, each of which is a very different color. Viewers can instantly tell where characters are and what part of the story they are watching. This is a very obvious way to communicate basic information.' He also states that colors can be used to create an emotional state such as safety and danger by altering the mood from warm to cool colors.

It is interesting to note how different directors use colors differently, to explain this Botkin closely examine Ridely Scott's Black Hawk Down and how it bended the normal norms of color treatment. To read more on that check out Botkin's article Color Theory for Cinematographers.

Finally Butkin had posted color chart of the movie Black Hawk Down created by
Brendan Dawes.
(For more color charts check out Dawes's website)

Butkin states that if we look at right color gradient strip we can clearly see the film’s acts and turning points highlighted clearly. When I first vaguely read this article it reminded me of visual cognitive lessons I took back in my college. So Just to refresh my memory on this subject I read through some of my old notes and wrote my insights here as follows:

It is important to note that color is only one of the visual component the director has in his arsenal to alter the visual intensity of any shot. The visual intensity of the shot depends upon the intensity of the story structure and story structure is break down into basically four sections namely Exposition, Conflict, Climax and Resolution. Here is the graph which shows the story intensity at various levels of a story.
Here we can see the graph rising at the Exposition (EX) leading to Conflict (CO) then reaching its peak at the Climax (CX) and finally falls down to the Resolution (R). According to Bruce Block, the author of book called 'The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media' , all good stories follows this uphill structure.

I think this structure is very apparent if we look at the color gradient strip of Black Hawk Down, in which according to Butkin, cool colors suggest safety, warm colors suggest danger and finally green color suggest most intense part.

So once we understand the story structure we could use the visual components to get desired intensity. The author Block explains this in his book
using Principle of Contrast and Affinity which basically states, the greater the contrast in a visual component, the more the visual intensity. The greater the affinity in a visual component, the more the visual intensity decreases.

The other main visual components that can be used to create visual intensity are Line, shape, tone, color, movement and rhythm. Its beyond the scope of this post to go into detail of each of them but here are couple of screenshots from Block's book which explains these components graphically.
As a compositor/VFX artist, I strongly believe it is important to understand the story structure in order to alter the intensity of the shot according to director's vision. Since all of these visual components plays a important role in achieving a good composition which helps to sell the particular shot to audience.
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