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  • Writer's pictureBryony Neylan-Francis

Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey on Using Colour Theory in Cinematography

This may be geared more towards camera department, but understanding colour theory is integral for the entire art department - it informs choices that add nuance, clarity, and emotion into our sets. I've also attached details at the boom for the book 'If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die: The Power of Colour in Visual Storytelling' which makes some excellent references to scientific studies on how colours affect us, in which ways, and then ties in those studies to how we can construct worlds on screen and weave layers into how we read them. One case study goes into the highly detailed structuring of colour in 'American Psycho' that is truly the most brilliantly executed example of tying colour themes across script, set, and lighting in film that I have come across. That 'oh my...' moment has stuck with me and I won't spoil it for you, but I cannot recommend this book highly enough; for anyone interested in colour theory it is a must read.

Now for the main event: DOP Seamus McGarvey on the use of colour in his films, talking about the characteristics of some colours, and how playing off of that can create emotion.

In the video above, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey speaks to CookeOpticsTV about the use of colour in the films he’s photographed. He discusses what characteristics some colours can have and how they can be used to create an emotion or define a character.

The essence of cinematography is evoking emotion for the narrative.

Seamus believes that the essence of cinematography is evoking emotion for the narrative. Not just the lens’ and camera technology, which is where he feels too many directors of photography get lost. He particularly loves storytelling through cinematography and pays a lot of attention to colour. Not just colour, but colour contrast and the juxtaposition of colours. He feels this is a vital tool at his disposal - the colour red being his favourite colour to pierce the viewer.

There are colour theorists out there, according to McGarvey, who describe what particular colours mean to the narrative, as the video showcases to great effect. Seamus pays a lot of attention to these theorists and their philosophies on colour. He firmly believes colours have an unconscious physical impact on your body when you watch a film. Colour story slips in subconsciously as you’re watching the moving image.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Seamus feels fortunate that he has been able to work with directors who understand the importance of colour. For instance, on We Need To Talk About Kevin, he reminisces that Lynne Ramsay was very precise about using the colour red as a harbinger of doom and as a signifier of anger or unease, and it is very effective in this.

Nocturnal Animals

Seamus also used red extensively with director Tom Ford for Noctural Animals, because he says the frequency of the colour oscillates and vibrates off the screen. He believes film as a medium is a great way to showcase the colour red since digital hasn’t quite perfected its translation of the colour yet. Film records deep tones in a very chemical way that trickles into the mind, creating a stained glass window effect on celluloid that the brain processes differently.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Seamus collaborated with key crew to use colour as a “photographic signature for each character” in separating the identity of each character and foreshadow their underlying story. A lot of time was spent defining these roles through a colour trope specific to them.

The Greatest Showman

Colour here plays a different role. Rather than defining the individual characters, colour helps define the bombastic environment of the carnival, which is its own character.

Original Seamus McGarvey story: Art Departmental, Rose Lagace 25.07.2019

Additional reading: If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die: The Power of Colour in Visual Storytelling, Patti Bellantoni [2005]

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