Impact Of Color In Joaquin Phoenix’s Movie ‘Joker’ (2019).

This article is based on how Lawrence Sher, the Joker D.P., explains the impact color has on the film.

Technical Aspect Of How Color Is Achieved In Film:

The process of adding colors to a monochromatic moving picture is called Film Colorization. The first film to be colorized was by manual methods, also called hand colorization. There are two variations of this method: Pathéchrome stencil system (invented in 1905) and the Handschiegl color process (invented in 1916).

The Pathéchrome stencil method (also called the Pathécolor) used stencils that were cut manually. Since this method was expensive and time-consuming, filmmakers started adopting the Handschiegl color process. Soon it became the most widely-used artificial coloring process in motion pictures.

Eventually, the digital methods of colorization took over because the Handschiegl color process had a complex working process, while it could add only three colors at one time. Computerized colorization processes started in the 1970s using the technique invented by Wilson Markle.

The process of digitalized colorization uses a digitized copy of the best black and white film print that is available. Technicians then use computer software to associate a range of gray levels to each object and indicate to the computer any movement of the objects within a shot. The software also senses the variations in the light level from frame-to-frame and correcting it if necessary.

The colorist chooses a particular color for each object based on common “memory” colors—such as blue sky, white clouds, flesh tones, and green grass—and any other given information about colors to be used in the movie. Hereafter, the software automatically traces each object from one frame to the next and applies the same color until the object moves out of the frame. As any new object comes into the frame, the colorist has to associate colors to each new object in the exact same fashion described above.

Color Helps A Movie Tell Its Story:

“Lighting and color are part of the backbone of emotion.”

Danielle Feinberg, director of photography at Pixar.

A few roles that color plays in a movie are:

  • It evokes certain emotions in the viewer. Yellow can invoke hopefulness, while aqua can invoke feelings of tranquility. Red may convey both violence and romance. Colors in a movie are no accident – they are carefully chosen to guide the viewer’s attention and feelings.

In Toy Story 3 (2010), a yellowish-green around the character Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear foreshadows that maybe this isn’t the sweet, lovable bear you thought. For each film, Pixar creates a “color script” that maps out the hues for all scenes so they fit within the larger story arc. The goal: to make key moments feel appropriately vibrant or somber.

TED Blog: How color helps a movie tell its story
  • It helps simplify complex stories. Filmmakers use different colors and tones in order to help the viewers follow stories that jump between characters, time periods, and locations (like this movie ‘Joker’).
  • It communicates the central theme of the movie.

Filmmaker Lewis Bond hosts a YouTube channel on film craft and he has made a poetic explainer on color in film. In it, he explores how colors reveal a film’s meaning, and he recommends watching movies for specific color repetitions. “When a color repeats, it’s associated with an idea,” he said. “When the color changes, it shows you this concept has changed.”

TED Blog: How color helps a movie tell its story
  • It shows the journey of a character within the movie.

In this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins tells the story of a boy named Chiron growing up in a rough neighborhood and wrestling with his identity amid the crack epidemic and extreme bullying. While sharing this difficult story, Jenkins also wanted to capture the “magic of Miami,” the city where he grew up. Cinematographer James Laxton worked with Alex Bickel, colorist at Color Collective, to think about the color design of the film early in the process — and then they spent about 100 hours after filming fine-tuning the color grade digitally. “Miami is an inherently colorful place,” said Laxton. “We were able to saturate colors and bend hues to enhance things.” They also emulated the color characteristics of three different film stocks to show the evolution of the main character. Moonlight tells Chiron’s story in three parts: in part one, when he’s known as “Little,” they emulated Fujifilm stock, which brings out lush greens and blues; in part two, as he becomes the teenage “Chiron,” they emulated Agfa stock, which has cyan in its highlights and makes things seem a little off-kilter; in part three, when he transforms into the adult “Black,” they moved to Kodak Film stock, which gives a polished, Hollywood look.

TED Blog: How color helps a movie tell its story

How Color Is Used In ‘Joker’:

The basic building blocks of color grading used in Joker are the primary colors red, blue, and yellow, each signifying a very distinct aspect of the story. Arthur Fleck’s struggle is one both inside his own head as well as in a society that disregards him. Blue is the colour of that city, of a Gotham that pushes him down and alienates him for being different. Blue is the society around him, which is the suffocatingly dominant colour of the first act. The teenagers who steal his advertising sign and then rob and beat him up in an alley are dressed in blue, the woman on the bus who gets angry at him for fooling around with her son is wearing blue, all outdoor shots are tinted blue, the Wall Street Three that beat him up on the subway are in blue shirts and suits, the office of his therapist who never listens to him is blue, the hospital room his mother ends up in is blue and so on. Whenever we see the colour blue, it’s working against our protagonist.

Mooncube blog: Significance Of Color In Joker (2019)

Colors in ‘Joker’ opening scene:

Red is the opposite of that: it represents sanity, love, and Arthur’s healing. We see it rarely, much less than blue and yellow, but when we do it’s a positive experience. Sophie, Arthur’s neighbor with who he imagines a relationship with is frequently dressed in red, the young boy on the bus he fools around with wears a red jacket (until the mother in blue shuts it down), Murray’s TV show is dominated by red while Arthur enjoys it with his mother. When he is invited onto the show his confidence rises; he dresses in all red at home while practicing his entrance – the same outfit he wears during the first stand-up comedy show that marks a big step up for him personally, in a small club lit by red table lamps with his neighbor Sophie present, also wearing red. That same stand-up scene comes up again later when Murray shows a clip of it on his show to mock Arthur – but the image is of course faded and tinted blue.

Mooncube blog: Significance Of Color In Joker (2019)

Colors in ‘Joker’ in a scene in the middle:

The last and most important color is yellow. It represents Arthur’s descent, him losing his control and his grip on reality, but it’s also his strength and resistance. Yellow is his dark side that comes out more and more to fight back the oppressive blue of a society that shuns him. Arthur often wears a yellow hoodie in difficult times, the walls of his apartment are yellow, there are weak yellow street lights guiding his way home from work through the blue night, and the walls of the mental ward inside Arkham hospital were he goes to retrieve his mother’s file (which is red by the way, since it finally gives him clarity about her) are also yellow. The teenage muggers in the early chase sequence steal his yellow sign, then break it over his head along with all his resistance and power. He is left weak and alone on the ground. The most beautifully shot and color graded moments are when Arthur begins to take the power back. He getting beaten up on the subway quickly turns to yellow when he fires his first shot, and when he chases the last survivor crawling away for his life on the subway platform to execute him he is all-powerful. The shot is entirely yellow – even though it is night, the blue has been completely eradicated.

Mooncube blog: Significance Of Color In Joker (2019)

Colors in ‘Joker’ towards the closing scene:

In the end, Arthur’s final outfit when he becomes Joker achieves balance: a red suit with a yellow vest underneath – he has accepted his descent, he has embraced the strength that comes from being different, and has found healing through that acceptance. He is no longer sorry, doesn’t accept society’s dictate on what is funny and what isn’t, on what he is supposed to be and how he is supposed to appear and behave. Waiting for his entrance off-stage in blue shadow, he is showered in the yellow spotlight as the curtains open and he enters the stage. The culmination of his struggle peaks in killing Murray, the symbol of what appropriate and socially accepted life is supposed to be. Emancipation through murder.

Mooncube blog: Significance Of Color In Joker (2019)

Colors in ‘Joker’ closing scene:

The closing scene shows Arthur in a medical institution, and everything from the architecture to furniture to the outfits is white, the union of all colors. The only thing that stands out is the therapist that talks to him – until he presumably murders her off-screen. He has found himself and has achieved an inner equilibrium. The colors are no longer fighting, instead, they have become one – Joker is born.

Mooncube blog: Significance Of Color In Joker (2019)

We understand Arthur slowly because the color moves us forward. 

Jill Bogdanowicz, The Colorist On The Film:

Jill Bogdanowicz (colorist for films like Joker and John Wick 3) breaks down her approach to coloring a film, and discusses her process of working with directors, developing styles, and other tips & tricks:

Post Script: This article is a part of one assignment by David Ulrich in his book ZEN CAMERA. Read more about it here.