Color Theory and Cinematic Language in Anime

This is a repost of one of my older posts. I’m trying to inspire myself to write more about color theory so I decided to start things off nice and easy by just sharing one of my older posts.

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 shorthand.

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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12 Responses

  1. Maica says:

    This is random, but where did you find your header-image thingy (heheh, I don’t know what it’s called)? The artwork style reminds me of The Count of Monte Cristo. Mannn, I LOVED the animation in that anime… but was it disturbing (even more than the original story).

    • Irina says:

      I have about a dozen headers that are randomized. Whenever you click a page. Which one are you refering to? I think it may be the one with Nora but I’m not sure

  2. Maica says:

    I love this post! I am so glad that your reposted it, so that it could be highlighted.
    I do not know that much about colour scheming, but I find it fascinating.
    The colours in Ponyo (a lot of oranges, and teals), for instance, in comparison to the colour scheme in Ratatoille (I immeadiately think of purples), or La La Land (so far, these are all rather bright).
    I think that use of colour and sounds are especially interesting.
    Like, how adding a simple music box can suddenly make a scene feel blissfully sad and innocent, or terribly off-kilter.
    Hmmm… lovely food for thought.

  3. ManInBlack says:

    Have you seen the series “K”? the whole show has an overpowering blue hue to it so much so that whenever I hear the show’s name I immediately think blue and nothing else (well, except maybe the naked cat girl). Couldn’t even tell you what the story was, my mind is just flooded with blue… :-/

  4. I think pink is one of my favorites. A blush, a breast, a baby’s bottom, or a cherry blossom. It makes me think of life and love and springtime.

  5. K.A.L.T says:

    Honestly, while changes in colour during the course of the anime to suit the tone of the scene, like they did in ERASED if I remember correctly, can be very impactful and draw you in, in general, different anime already have a set colour palette from the start. Slice of life shows (many KyoAni shows) have lighter colour palettes and play with lighting, camera angles and slight body movements for drama (in KyoAni anime at least). In contrast, more serious shows like Attack on Titan and Drifter take on darker colour palettes from the start. All of the pre-determined colour palettes for each anime are suited to their individual genre and anime type.

    Or at least that’s what I feel/think. I know nothing about animation and film but I just felt like commenting this. Feel free to reply and tell me if I’m wrong ^^”

    • Irina says:

      I think you’re right although they’re more guidelines than rules. NGNL did some very interesting things with it’s palette.

  1. February 23, 2020

    […] know what else I like. Talking about cinematography. Irina shared an old post she wrote about color theory, which had a fascinating idea in it. All of the color in anime is […]

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