In The Shape of Water, you’ll see a lot of green and aquamarine.  It’s everywhere, from the skin of the mysterious Gill-Man, to the walls of the corridors.  It's like Cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, has deliberately suppressed most of the other colours, to reflect the watery nature of the tale.  Indeed, practically the only time you see a more balanced colour palette, is when Gill-Man goes to see a Deluxe Cinemascope film at the local cinema.
            This made me think about the use of colour in recent movies and how, thanks to the efforts of some new kids on the Hollywood block, things seem to be changing.
            At one point, in The Shape of Water, Michael Shannon’s character buys himself a new car.  He thinks it’s blue, but the salesman corrects him and advises him that it is teal.
            Teal is a colour one sees a lot in films these days.  Amber and teal - or orange and blue, if you prefer - are opposite sides of the colour wheel, which means they complement each other and, therefore, you see them together.  A lot.
            Sometimes, in a movie, you’ll get nothing but orange and blue.  Take Mad Max Fury Road, for instance.
Mad Max Fury Road: Witness amber and teal!  Cinematographer: John Seale.
            Other films are subtler, less vivid.  Take down the saturation and the amber and teal look more like brown and grey.  Take, for example, pretty much every film that Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński has shot for Steven Spielberg, from the moody interiors of Minority Report and Lincoln ...
Moody lighting in 2002's Minority Report (top) and 2012's Lincoln (bottom)
serves to make the future more mysterious and the past more serious.
            ... To the unforgiving office lights of The Post.
All three films - Cinematographer: Janusz Kamiński

            It’s always been the case that films have altered the colour of the image to create mood.  Silent black and white films would ‘tint’ the image, different colours for different locations.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925) famously did all of that, and even had a sequence in early Technicolor.
Phantom of the Opera:  a black and white film with an amber tint for a warm interior,
green to imply mystery, and blue for a night-time exterior. 
Cinematographer: Milton Bridenbecker, et al.
            Today, these effects are achieved by Colourists, who adjust the tone and saturation of the colour in the image, reducing the vibrancy of the reds, taking down the temperature of the greens, and leaving those oranges and blues behind.  
            Brown and grey.  Amber and teal.  For almost twenty years, that has been the visual shorthand that a film is to be taken seriously.  The colour palette helps the audience understand - immediately - what the mood of the film is, bright and breezy or dark and heavy.  Look at what happened to the Harry Potter films; the first two were whimsical in tone, and visually bright and warm.  Then, as the danger to Harry became more serious, the films became much darker and colder.
Warm and friendly Philosopher's Stone on the left (Cinematographer: John Seale).
Dark and deadly Deathly Hallows on the right (Cinematographer:
Eduardo Serra).
            Most films use this limited palette with great subtlety, to create a natural-looking environment, like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy:
Lord of the Rings (2001 - 2003) Cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie.
            Other films go just plain mad with the artifice of it.  Yes Tron: Legacy, I’m looking at you:
Tron: Legacy (2010) Cinematographer: Claudio Miranda
            And that’s been the way of things ever since colour grading became a digital process, allowing the film-makers to control every aspect of the exposure, tone, saturation and, yes, colour that we see.
            The first film to make waves with altering its colour grading like this, was the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? in the year 2000.  What The Coens (and their Cinematographer, the legendary Roger Deakins) did, was scan the film (they still prefer to use film, even though that is increasingly rare these days) into a computer and tweak the colours.  This was to turn the lush green trees to an autumnal gold, without affecting the colour of, say, the characters’ skin.  As he told the American Society of Cinematographers at the time: “I had to find a way to desaturate the greens and give the images we were going to shoot the feeling of old, hand-tinted postcards”  You probably have an app on your phone that can do that now, but 18 years ago, that was a big complicated process - and it introduced Hollywood at large to the notion that the image in a film doesn’t have to stay the colour it was in the real world.
O Brother, using a limited colour palette to re-create those golden days. 
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
            But why did this lead to the constant sorrow of amber and teal?  Well, I’d be interested in hearing back from an actual Colourist on this; but the consensus view seems to be: because skin tones tend to be warm and, since films are about people, their skin will be in the majority of shots.  So, the warm end of the spectrum will be there, and needs to be contrasted by the cooler end to create colour harmony.  That’s Colour Theory, innit. Warm contrasting with cool: orange with blue.
            But, here’s a thing.  A few Hollywood newcomers have quietly been ignoring Colour Theory, they’ve broken away from the boring browns and grotty greys, and they’re going mad with - shock, horror - purple and green!
            I recently rewatched Kong: Skull Island and was struck by the vivid colours used.  Legendary Pictures put their own ‘official’ Colour Palette Supercut online (here) for the film, putting the spotlight on, for example, the bar scene, or the fight scene in the green smoke.
Cinematographer: Larry Fong.
            Once was the time when, to see colours like that, you were either watching a Nicolas Winding Refn movie, or you were tripping. 
Nicholas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives.  Cinematographer: Larry Smith.
            He, of course, with his Only God Forgives (2013) and Neon Demon (2016), was channelling the demonic spirit of Dario Argento’s 1977 expressionistic giallo classic, Suspiria. Argento’s Cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, told American Cinematographer magazine that the intention, with Suspiria, was to make the film look like a ‘gothic fairy tale’, with a visual style inspired by Disney’s Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Suspiria (1977) Cinematographer: Luciano Tovoli.
            Forty years on, Argento’s animation-inspired livid, vivid colours are back with a bang.  John Wick made its secret underworld seem exotic by lighting it in strong neon blues and reds.
John Wick (2014)  Cinematographer: Jonathan Sela.
            Its sequel, in 2017, did more of the same.  David Leitch made an uncredited contribution to that, but got all the credit he deserved for bringing the same aesthetic to Atomic Blonde.  Bad memories of 1980s nightclubs came rushing back.  There was also some brown and grey in there, but those colours knew their place and served simply as contrast.

Cinematographer on both John Wick & Atomic Blonde: Jonathan Sela.
            But, where this reckless abandonment of amber and teal has taken greatest hold is in the MCU.  In 2017, both Guardians Vol. 2 and Thor Ragnarok went psychedelic, as befitting the garish colours of the comics from which they take their inspiration.
            First out of the gate, we had James Gunn’s Guardians sequel, which took the pizzazz of the first film into a whole new galaxy.  His Planet Ego was, as they say, a visual feast.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 ... Kurt Russell's ego is so big, you can see it from space.
            And, let’s be honest, when James Gunn goes orange and blue, there’s no messing about.
We're amber and teal, y'all! Cinematographer: Henry Braham.
            Then, six months later, we got another film heavily inspired by the mad genius of comics maestro, Jack Kirby.  Director Taika Waititi, taking his cue from what Gunn had done, literally wove Kirby’s artwork into the fabric of his film.  Check out the extras on the Blu Ray if you don’t believe me.  Part of paying homage to the great man, was to make the film as colourful as those old four-colour comics.
              This gave us a lot of red and, inevitably, green.
Red and green.  The very odd couple.
            And, again, when he goes amber and teal, he does it with a purpose - here to make the flashback to Hela’s defeat of the Valkyrie seem all the more shocking and tragic.
Cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe
            So, can we expect this trend to continue in 2018?  It’s hard to tell from trailers, because they aren’t finished pieces.  The final colour timing decisions haven’t been made, so the images in the final film could look very different from those same images in the trailer.  But we’ll do a little detective work and see what we can find:
            Dazzling David Leitch and Jonathan Sela are back together with Deadpool 2Expectations are high that it won't just be the language that's colourful.  If the publicity shots are any guide, we’ll be having a lot of orange and green.  So that’s at least different from orange and blue.
Cinematographer: Jonathan Sela
            Similarly, I’m expecting to see a lot of orange and green in Jurassic World 2.  Green cos it's in a jungle and orange cos, well, y’know ... volcano!
Cinematographer: Óscar Faura
            I think we already know that Black Panther is going to be pretty colourful, but I’d expect this to be more restrained and serious than in either of 2017’s cosmic entries.  It’ll literally be more down to earth.
Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison
            Francis Lawrence’s latest team-up with Jennifer (no relation) Lawrence, Red Sparrow, seems to have, as its name suggests, a more vivid colour palette at its disposal.  Of course, it's entirely possible we'll quickly get as tired of purple as we already are of orange and blue!
Cinematographer: Jo Willems
            Meanwhile, Disney’s Wrinkle in Time , directed by Ava Marie DuVernay, looks like a concerted effort to launch a new franchise, with a lot of merchandisable bright colours in play, as well as some very tasteful amber and teal in President-elect Oprah’s frocks.
Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler
            Traditionally, in times of woe, Hollywood steps up with colourful fantasy movies, offering long-suffering people an escape from Recession and war.  Maybe, then, this is Hollywood’s latest attempt to divert us from the fresh Hells the news media serve up every day.  Instead of depicting a dystopian future of harsh blues and greys, which seems oddly unchanged from the world we live in today; maybe Hollywood’s new players are harking back to a time when film was more fun, more vibrant.  A time when the world was in full colour.
            At the very least, if Dan Laustsen's work on The Shape of Water gets him to take home a gold statue from the Academy Awards ... We can expect to see a lot more green and aquamarine appearing in films from here on in.
            And, if you’re scratching your head over my title ... It’s an Angry Bob quote from the 1990 Richard Stanley film, Hardware.  Another movie which wasn’t afraid to saturate the screen with colour. 
Cinematographer: Steven Chivers.

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