captain america: the first avenger, captain america: the winter soldier, color, j.r.r. tolkien, lighting, marvel, movies, peter jackson, setting a scene, story dynamics, the avengers, the lord of the rings, tricks and tips, worldbuilding, writing
Color is a tool.
Watch any well-made movie, and you’ll see what I mean. Some movies (such as Star Wars) use color to define a character’s alignment and/or leanings towards another side. Aladdin notably uses color to hint at danger, greed, or corruption. Military units use color as an identifier.
Color is a hint to character. Humble, soft-spoken characters will often prefer muted colors; browns, dark reds, navy, royal blue, gray, forest green. Vivid, vibrant characters love the jewel tones. And if you have a sweet little girl, princess or otherwise, she’s almost certain to like pastels.
However, color isn’t just useful in reminding the reader what sort of character he or she is dealing with at the moment. It’s also handy in setting a scene, adding to a mood. (Watch “The War Was In Color” if you don’t believe me. Then again, listen to it anyway. Even if you’re not a fan of the movie-from-which-the-fanvid-was-made. I could’ve found another one that would have also worked, but this is more fun.)
If you have not watched The Lord of the Rings, then you won’t be able to relate, but Peter Jackson masterfully uses color saturation and lighting to set the scenes, highlighting a progression through the story in a way that characterization might be able to convey, but never in the exact same way as Tolkien’s words do. However, Jackson is able to reasonably emulate Tolkien’s literary style through an art style, visual cues, and lighting.
In the Shire, the light is warm; the most common colors are green and bright yellow, and the lighting feels natural, like bright summer sunlight. As the travelers leave the Shire, the lighting moves towards grays and blues; still natural, but more like the light of a cloudy day. Rivendell is fittingly full of fall colors, as a refuge of the Elves that may be compared to their eternal autumn; the lighting is, again, natural, warm, but softer, full of memory; “sunbeams” and avenues shot with frequent lights are commonly seen in Rivendell. Upon leaving Rivendell, we are again exposed to a similar winter light. Moria’s strategically placed beams of white light against the overall dimness create a greater impression than mere blackness could, and Lothlorien is filled with a soft silver radiance, colder and purer than any other light in the whole set of movies, symbolizing the eternal refuge of the Elves in which the world is forever young.
However, it is not until The Two Towers that the lighting really takes on a role all its own. The blue, pale lights of Frodo’s journey, washing out the hobbits’ faces and making them seem paler, almost sickly, contrasting Frodo’s hair still more strongly with his skin and eyes, the drab, gooey look of the Dead Marshes, and the sickly, greasy light of the Morgul Vale reflect the growing darkness and danger of Frodo’s quest, and the poisonous lure of the Ring. Of course, it leads to the pass at Cirith Ungol and Shelob’s lair, which was nearly impossible to convey through film as written; with the dirty gray-and-white look in the movie, Jackson did a fair job. The journey culminates in the red-and-yellow-saturated Sammath Naur on Orodruin, the lighting underscoring the crux of the quest. The remaining scenes of The Return of the King have a soft, distant, dream-like quality, which is best summed up by Frodo’s quote: “We set out to save the Shire, and it has been saved; but not for me.”
The two Captain America movies and The Avengers use a similar progression of color, though more subtly than Jackson’s use in The Lord of the Rings. In The First Avenger, many of the scenes are cast in warm sepia tones, like a haven from the horrors of war; the entire film has a charming vintage-yet-unexpected look. The Avengers expertly uses shadow and light to convey a mood, while many of the scenes from The Winter Soldier (which I still have not yet seen) appear to be cast in a bluish, cloudy winter light, similar to some scenes from The Two Towers.
However, these colors are not all mutually exclusive. The First Avenger uses the chilly, cloudy natural light to hint at forebodings of ill-fortune, while certain deleted scenes from The Avengers make use of a similar sepia cast, and the forest confrontation scene uses a nighttime moonlight that is reminiscent of the blue cast from The First Avenger. While I can not say much about The Winter Soldier, I think it is safe to assume that it follows the same trend, using sepia to highlight memory or safety, pale blue light for foreboding or the realization of a horrible fate, and a chiaroscuro theme for the uncomfortable truths that will come to light (no pun intended.)
So should it be with your stories.
Not that you can pick a color scheme to symbolize every last thing in your story, but you can at least use a color scheme to evoke an emotional response in the reader, and reusing those color schemes is just a bonus to help keep the reader interested. (Readers like repeated imagery and symbolism, because it makes them feel good because they’ve been paying enough attention to notice it when it first appeared.)
Think of yourself as a filmmaker. Pick a color palette and stick with it. Use color effectively.
Thanks for reading, and God Bless!