Color Theory and Cinematic Language in Anime

It’s shocking I know, but I m going to babble about colors… Weird huh? Have you guys ever seen those YouTube videos of colorblind folks trying on those glasses that allow them to see colors for the first time and just going nuts with joy? I binge those. They make me cry every time. We take color for granted. Take it from someone who has white hair and 95% black clothes.

white grey hair anime

I couldn’t find the artist but it’s beautiful!

Thankfully, smarter people than me out there figured out a long time ago how to convey mood and information through the use of color on stages and sets. Simply throwing a tinted filter on the camera lenses can dramatically impact how the viewer takes in a scene.

For example, blue shade. Blue is a fairly rare color when you really think about it. We paint water and skies as blue but the sky is only blue on nice sunny days and water rarely is at all. It’s one of the rarest shades for flower petals and animal coloring. And it certainly doesn’t affect ambient light a lot. So presenting a scene with a blue tinge not only cools everything off, immediately giving the audience a sense of slower pace and colder temperatures, but also adds an edge of menace. It makes everything look just a little unfamiliar and off, because it’s not supposed to be quite that colour, but in a subtle way our mind won’t immediately perceive as fake. This is unsettling and makes us uneasy.

This sort of thing applies to every color. Cool white gives the impression of aseptic environments, yellow light is warm and joyful, warm white calming and so on. For a long time however, I’ve been wondering if this can directly be applied to anime. Since at least part of the impact comes from making things either familiar or unnatural to the human eye, is that all lost in anime that rarely bothers to look natural at all.

the disappearance

why so sad?

Certainly you can color code in animations. Using a color or palette in certain scenes or episodes to make a point. Since color in anime is always deliberate and not just what the actor happens to look like, in a way all anime is always color coded. It’s just that sometimes the message being conveyed is “pretty colors”. What I’m talking about here is the more subtle cinematic color shorthands.

I know the answer. Despite finding little to no articles on this specific subject when researching the post (believe me, I’m as shocked as you are), I have noticed on more than one occasion how a series will manipulate the tint or tone of a color palette to change the atmosphere. I have even mentioned it in reviews from time to time. The first example that comes to mind right now is the lantern festival in Beyond the Boundary.

The episode and scene are a bit of a break in the action. A comparatively light story that’s just a touch melancholy as we explore one character’s self imposed isolation. It has a happy ending though. Point is the story is uplifting and relaxing. But the entire episode has a slight green shift. A cold dark green at that with very little yellow in the mix that intensifies in the final dark scenes of the festival. And that makes everything seem just a little ominous. This unnatural shift tells us that something more is going on. Things aren’t quite what they appear to be, how could they, the light is green and that just doesn’t happen. Moreover it gives characters a slightly sallow look that will make the viewers worry for them just a little without knowing why.

Beyond the boundary

that hair!!!

In effect, they created an episode that broke the action and slowed down the pace, even injected some levity and familiar tropes, without breaking the tension at all. It sustained the feeling of unspoken menace without use of exposition or contrived situation. I bet a lot of people didn’t notice.

This is a small example, like I said there are plenty, and I would absolutely love to hear about your favourite one. The question I have is why is it still effective in anime. Mind you, it may only be effective *on me*.

Manipulating ambient light to give scenes a certain tinge works well in live action because we associate it with reality. I mean that even with full suspension of disbelief in effect while watching a Harry Potter movie brimming with magic a wonders, some part of our brain knows those are actors, and because they look like humans we will immediately subconsciously form all the connections to what we know about humans. We know humans live on earth and on earth, light isn’t green. So if it is in a scene, something is off. Someone must have made it that colour and we don’t know why. Most of us don’t have those thoughts consciously, but it’s enough to convey a general feeling.

anime-landscape-road-buildings-trees-sunshine-clouds-scenic-anime-4204

sunny but still cool

However, anime already have completely impossible colour palettes and our brains don’t mind. Because drawings can have any colours they like. This is why you’re here folks. The deep one of it’s kind insights! Yet our mind *well mine* still make those general color connections when production plays with the general tint of a series.

That’s pretty amazing. The fact that anime has yet another tool at its disposal to tell its narrative makes in one of the most complex non interactive forms of storytelling available. Unless I’m just biased but that couldn’t possibly be it….

Beyond the boundary

finally chose a warm picture…

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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57 Responses

  1. Loved reading this! 😁

  2. Brooke Cannon says:

    I suppose it could be that this computer’s just slow….

  3. Brooke Cannon says:

    SERIOUSLY!?!?!? Why did this site NEVER show the comments I tried to send until just NOW!?

  4. Brooke Cannon says:

    I am just dead today…. -_-

  5. Brooke Cannon says:

    I’m just dead today… -_-

  6. Brooke Cannon says:

    I’m dead today. -_-

  7. This was a great post! Different colors really evoke certain emotions from the watchers! Anime movies are especially good with this, and that probably why they’re so easy to cry to LMAO

  8. ManInBlack says:

    I’ve been doing some colour grading as part of a film editing project and I’ve become rather amazed by how a subtle shift in hue, tone, or intensity of a certain colour can make all the difference to an image.

    It can provide depth, vividness, mood, emotion, and character. This is largely because the human eye sees colours differently from a camera thus the process of representing them caseus a massive shift between the two perceptions. And because most shades of colour are in fact combinations of primary colours, a simple manipulation of one or more of those prime colours creates something unique.

    This might sound like a digression to the point you are discussing but from a production aspect, this is the sort of thing the artists and animators take into consideration when creating these visual delights for us to enjoy. 🙂

  9. ameithyst says:

    I love it when colors are used as part of the narrative. They can convey a lot of messages through colors which is one of the plusses of visual media. Not anime, but the first that came to mind is actually Wong Kar Wai films. But yeah, anime has more creative freedom in terms of use of color and it’s amazing when shows take that privilege.

    This is a great read, Irina! Thank you! 🙂

  10. wingking78 says:

    KyoAni is always one of the best at taking full advantage of color. A lot of their shows have distinctive palettes to begin with (like the purple and red sunset colors of Chunibyo, or the rich green and brown earth tones of Euphonium), but then colors and saturations get played with and switched around as scenes dictate. Hyouka is one of the very best at that, where the base palette is warm but muted late afternoon golds and auburns, but then you get scenes like at the start of episode 3 where everything is suddenly saturated in pink when Oreki thinks he’s about to be confessed to, or the riot of colors in the very last scene of the series (which is one of my personal favorite uses of color). Shaft is also very good about that kind of thing, even if their style is totally different than KyoAni’s. As for why I appreciate that kind of detail in an anime production, it’s pretty simple. If I see a show putting in the time and effort to make the coloration an integrated part of its visual storytelling, it’s one of those small details that indicate the staff care about the series they’re making and aren’t just half-assing it to get something out the door.

  11. Dawnstorm says:

    There’s also the dimming of colour pallette (often in the shadows). A good example is the opening of Neverland this season (where they also colour code our kids in yellow for Emma, blue for Norman, and red for Ray). Often, the entire screen is black for contrast. It’s a very interesting opening with respect to colour and lighting (to emphasise colour).

    Another opening that comes to mind is C3 (the one with the cube, not the survival-game show), where the colours are very bright and dominated by sakura petals. Then there’s rain, and colours are dimmed to the point of almost seeming black and white, but then there’s a ray of light, and then there’s a literal colourstorm (the light literally races across the screen bringing back the colours). It’s a really, really good opening.

    And then there’s episode one of Kotoura-san, where I didn’t notice that the colour palette was dimmed until halfway through the episode the television screen shatters and the filter is removed.

    • Irina says:

      I’m trying to remember, there was an anime that had stunning light and shadow play that altered the palette and contrast dramatically to set the emotional tone. I mentioned it in my review but for some reason I can’t think of it right now.

      • Dawnstorm says:

        I remember you mentioning that, but I don’t remember which show it was either. It’s not an index-entry in my mind, it appears.

        For example, in a delayed response, the post made me remember Miss Monochrome, whose black-white colour scheme reflects her android personality. But she wants to become an idol (who are all more “colourful” than her). [A five-minute show, about a deadpan monochrome android idol with an unexperienced manager and a pet roomba. Two seasons; absurd comedy. Worth checking out.]

  12. Very insightful, as someone who is quite fascinated with color theory and psychology it was a nice read. I think Anime can definitely have great examples of nuanced use of color for it can be seen as an artistic endeavor and has unlimited control over the presentations of scenes. Personally, from the film world The Last Emperor is one of my favorite examples of color being a component of storytelling as well as being remarkably beautiful and if you’re interested in color, Studio Binder has a “50+ examples of Movie Color Palettes” that is such a good read.

  13. Fred Heiser says:

    My daughter has white skin, black hair and 95pct black clothes

  14. BiblioNyan says:

    Observing and analysing colour is one of my favourite parts of watching anime because sometimes it’s subtle and can feel insignificant, or other times it’s a big part of the narrative style and it can be mind-blowing (Dororo comes to mind immediately here). Blue is totally a colour that we take for granted, I know that I do all the time. I actually realised how much while I was reading your post! I feel like yellow is another colour taken for granted, but not because it’s not seen often, but because it’s seen so often that we don’t even think about, until a dreary season where it’s sort of disappeared. This was such a fun post to read!

    • Irina says:

      You just made my day! I sometimes think I’m the only one who cares at all about this little bit of wonder. I do love the significance of colour in anime though!

      • Fred Heiser says:

        Some anima have a color theme that sets the theme for the show. For example green and gray express the subdued and lonely mood of Garden of Words. Pink is a color used for youth and spring and hope. All those cherry blossoms have to mean something.

        • Irina says:

          Someday maybe I’ll put a post together on the more obvious color coding in anime. It generally matches up with western cinematic language but there are a few divergences. Yellow is much more ominous for instance.

      • Brooke Cannon says:

        I kind of agree but I usually try to follow the plot. I do ADORE romance and the graphics though. If this comment ends up somewhere else, thanks to the dreaded mistakes of either this site or WordPress, this is aimed at Irina.

        • Irina says:

          I’m not sure which of y comments you are responding to but it’s nice you like romance.

          • Brooke Cannon says:

            Thanks. Sorry if it gets confusing, either this site (not really saying it’s bad, it’s nice), WordPress, or this computer keeps putting them where I don’t want them.

  1. March 24, 2019

    […] Irina talks color theory and cinematic language in her post this week and how colors are used to heighten the message of a scene. […]

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