The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Painting, Film, and Color: An Annotated List

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Painting’s influence on film has been remarked upon in film scholarship and criticism for at least half a century. Lots of ink has been spilled, for instance, on the impact that German expressionism had on the work of Murnau and Lang, not to mention the aesthetic of American film noir; Dali’s collaboration with Hitchcock on the set design for Spellbound’s lurid dream sequence is now part of the lore of art and popular culture. Filmmakers often arrive at the visual look, compositional style, and color temperature of their moving images by sourcing them in the work of master painters. Rembrandt and Edward Hopper have been important touchstones for any number of cinematographers, past and present. And many world-class directors (Raoul Ruiz, Peter Greenaway, David Lynch, Youssef Chahine, Derek Jarman, Mario Bava, and Walerian Borowczyk) trained as painters before devoting themselves to narrative film.

As with all lines of influence, though, the depth and extent of inspiration has not been one-dimensional or unidirectional, as a recent exhibition on early film and cubism at Pace Wildenstein in New York laid out in explicit and thrilling detail. (Click here for a link to the exhibition catalog.) But contemporary artists find inspiration in cinema, too.

My friend Michael Brennan is a painter and instructor of color theory at Pratt Institute. He has an exhaustive knowledge of, and passion for, film history, and attributes many of his techniques as a practitioner of minimalism to the influence of cinema. For a recent show of his work at Minus Space in Brooklyn, Michael told an interviewer that, in film terms, he was trying to find a synthesis between the austerity and rigor of Bresson and Ozu and the passion of Dreyer in his chromatic knife works, scaled to the size of a flat-screen TV. Yet his interest in film technique and attention to the technical achievements of the medium go far beyond European arthouse gems of the ’50s and ’60s.

Below, I’ve pasted an annotated list Michael distributed to his students about the use of color in film. I like the way he’s organized it in terms of contrasts, specifically, and find his epigrammatic notes on Ford, Ray, Powell, and others not just insightful, but fascinating, too, as a window onto a working artist’s way of seeing.


Contrast of Hue

Johnny Guitar (1954) D: Nicholas Ray
Twisted Technicolor western. Black, white and red as a color triad.

Contempt (Le Mepris, 1963) D: Jean-Luc Godard
The opening sequence, Casa Malaparte, Mediterranean light. Also by Godard, Pierrot le Fou (1965), bright Pop color.

Red Desert (1964) D: Michelangelo Antonioni
Many hand-painted sets throughout. Very close to painting in a physical sense.

Ran (1985) D: Akira Kurosawa
Striking battles between color guard. Hue army vs. hue army.

Invaders from Mars (1953) D: William Cameron Menzies
Extraordinary color and set design in minor Red Scare sci-fi.

The Last Emperor (1987) D: Bernardo Bertolucci
Red and gold as dominant hues.

Contrast of Value

The Godfather I, II & III (’72,’74&’90) D: Francis Ford Coppola
Golden Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro, earned D.P. Gordon Willis his “Prince of Darkness” title.

Le Samourai (1967) D: Jean-Pierre Melville
Color as film noir. Meticulously constructed.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971) D: Vittorio De Sica
Autochrome-style period color. If you like this ancient-looking color, you may also like The River, directed by Jean Renoir.

The Third Man (1949) D: Carol Reed
Muscular B&W shadowplay.

Blue Velvet (1986) D: David Lynch
Lynch—like many directors—began as a painter. Notice the rich color of the opening sequence, and the subtle details of the interior décor.

Contrast of Temperature

Do the Right Thing (1989) D: Spike Lee
Color as hot as the hottest day of summer.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) D: Stanley Kubrick
How cold is technology? The temperature drops 40 degrees in some scenes.

Days of Heaven (1978) D: Terrence Malick
95% of the film shot in warm, natural light during the “magic hour” just before sunset.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) D: David Lean
An epic of the desert. You feel outdoors watching this inside.

Contrast of Complementaries

Amelie (2001) D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Much intentional use of complementary pairs.

Mystery Train (1989) D: Jim Jarmusch
Bold complementary contrast.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) D: John Ford
Originally the color was intended to mimic the sulfurous Yellow-Green range of Frederic Remington’s paintings, but it has been “normalized” by Ted Turner on some VHS prints.

Oklahoma! (1955) D: Fred Zinnemann
Vivid, spectacular color. An archetype of the American musical.

Dick Tracy (1990) D: Warren Beatty
Good-guy complementary vs. bad-guy complementary.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) D: Jacques Demy
Entire dialogue sung against candy-colored backgrounds.

Moulin Rouge (1952) D: John Huston
Not the newer film. Replicates the red/green bias of gaslight throughout.

Simultaneous Contrast

Fantastic Voyage (1966) D: Richard Fleischer
Microscopic submarine journeys through the Lava Light world of inner space.

Head (1968) D: Bob Rafelson
The Monkees’ psychedelic pastiche.

Sleeping Beauty (1959) Walt Disney Productions
Walt Disney’s most expensive and elaborate animated feature at the time. Many visual references to early Italian painting. Fantasia also includes much simultaneous contrast, especially in the “absolute music” segment.

Cartoons of Chuck Jones
Watch them now as studies in color. They’re assembled in a variety of collections.

Contrast of Extension

The Mirror (1976) D: Andrei Tarkovsky
Color film cut with monochrome passages, some alluding to Leonardo.

Come and See (1985) D: Elem Klimov
Desaturated color with occasional primary punches. The effect was copied by Steven Spielberg in Schindler’s List and the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.

The Road To Perdition (2002) D: Sam Mendes
B&W in tone with occasional splash of color, usually blood.

Pleasantville (1998) D: Gary Ross
Color as erotic awakening.

Contrast of Saturation

Black Narcissus (1947) D: Michael Powell
An absolute must see. Exotic, sensual color. Set in the Himalayas but filmed entirely indoors! Also by Powell: The Red Shoes (1948), Stairway to Heaven (1946), and The Thief of Baghdad (1940)—all unique and lush color masterworks. Strangely enough, in Stairway to Heaven, Heaven is B&W while earth remains in color.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) D: Victor Fleming
Supersatured, dense color—once you get to Oz. Fleming also directed Gone With the Wind (1939) which many consider the most spectacular color film ever.

Ju Dou (1989) D: Zhang Yimou
Dark rooms, then piercing color. Also highly recommended is Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991).

Early Color Processes

The Wedding March (1928) D: Erich von Stroheim
The wedding scene is shot in an early two-color Technicolor process.

Lyrical Nitrate (1991) D: Peter Delpeut
Recently rediscovered short films shot between 1905-1915 on highly flammable nitrate stock that have a unique color quality.

Ivan the Terrible Part II (1946) D: Sergei Eisenstein
Banquet scene of this intense saga was shot in bleeding Technicolor for a uniquely spectacular effect.

Many films of the silent era such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) are available in versions where particular reels have been tinted in specific hues in accord with the mood of the scene.


10 Responses

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  1. This is an excellent post, thank you for it. I just found your site and look forward to reading your coverage of the film world.


    February 25, 2009 at 1:11 am

  2. Thank you, William. I hope to keep you interested!


    February 25, 2009 at 2:44 am

  3. Nice post! Keep it real.I have looked over your blog a few times and I love it.


    February 25, 2009 at 7:53 pm

  4. Wonderful site, and great content, look forward to continue reading.


    February 26, 2009 at 9:01 pm

  5. Much appreciated, Niteshrohit. I recently discovered your site,, and very much look forward to digging in!


    February 26, 2009 at 9:10 pm

  6. […] Painting, Film, and Color […]

    Feb 27, 2009 - Dave Belden

    February 27, 2009 at 7:06 am

  7. I read that Eyvind Earle’s style for Sleeping Beauty also was inspired by old German works. I think that was one of the reasons Walt picked him. He thought it fit the setting.

    He had a massive influence on that movie reverberating through every department.

    I just finished a take on it (with lots o’ pics!) if you are interested:

    Fortress Guy

    May 3, 2009 at 3:05 am

  8. Thanks for this really good list. I find it useful to examine one art form in terms of another, especially to see the literary in film and the painterly in literature. Have you written anything else about use of color in film? I must have a deeper hunt around your site, its so good! David Nash (British sculptor) talks about the beginnings of his attraction to red, black, and white and alludes to all these Arthurian legends which use those three colors together … one was of a knight who was transfixed by some drops of blood left in the snow by a wounded black crow…


    May 18, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    • That is interesting.

      Thanks for the kind words and checking my site out. Aside from Sleeping Beauty, I may have mentioned color on the Twilight take. I did a take on the BBC Merlin series. It had interesting color work at times, though I am not sure I mention it.

      I limit myself to 599 words or less.

      Fortress Guy

      May 18, 2009 at 11:38 pm

  9. may I ask a Q privately?


    May 19, 2009 at 2:27 am

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