Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey on Using Colour Theory in Cinematography

DOP Seamus McGarvey talks about the use of colour in his films, the characteristics some colours can have, and how they can be used to create emotion.

In the video above, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey speaks to CookeOpticsTV about the use of colour in the films he’s photographed. He discusses what characteristics some colours can have and how they can be used to create an emotion or define a character.

The essence of cinematography is evoking emotion for the narrative.

Seamus believes that the essence of cinematography is evoking emotion for the narrative. Not just the lens’ and camera technology, which is where he feels too many directors of photography get lost. He particularly loves storytelling through cinematography and pays a lot of attention to colour. Not just colour, but colour contrast and the juxtaposition of colours. He feels this is a vital tool at his disposal- the colour red being his favourite colour to pierce the viewer.

There are colour theorists out there, according to McGarvey, who describe what particular colours mean to the narrative, as the video showcases to great effect. Seamus pays a lot of attention to these theorists and their philosophies on colour. He firmly believes colours have an unconscious physical impact on your body when you watch a film. Colour story slips in subconsciously as you’re watching the moving image.

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The strategic use of the colour red in We Need To Talk About Kevin

Seamus feels lucky he has been able to work with directors who understand the importance of colour. For instance, on We Need To Talk About Kevin, he reminisces that Lynne Ramsay was very precise about using the colour red as a harbinger of doom and as a signifier of anger or unease. It’s a great colour in cinema to do just that as you can see in the photos above.

Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey

Nocturnal Animals

Seamus also used red extensively in Nocturnal Animals, with director Tom Ford at the helm, because he says the frequency of the colour oscillates and vibrates off the screen. He believes film as a medium is a great way to showcase the colour red since digital hasn’t quite perfected its translation of the colour yet. Film records deep tones in a very chemical way that trickles into the mind. Film creates a stained glass window effect on celluloid that the brain processes differently.

Bad Times at the El Royale

In Bad Times at the El Royale, Seamus and the other key crew who he collaborated with, used colour as a “photographic signature for each character” to separate each character’s identity and foreshadow their underlying story. They spent a lot of time defining the roles through their own colour trope. It’s interesting to see what colour can do for an audience and Seamus is a big fan of playing with colour in that way.

For The Greatest Showman, colour plays a different role. Rather than defining the individual characters, colour helps define the bombastic environment of the carnival, which is its own character. Working with bold colours on that film proved fun for Seamus, and he was able to incorporate it into the lighting as well.

The Greatest Showman

What do you think of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s work? Which colours do you associate with a certain film because colour was used successfully to tell the story? I instantly think of In The Mood For Love when I think of the colour red. I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.

Check out other videos on Art Departmental, here.

Posted by Rose Lagacé

Rose Lagacé is a production designer for film & television by day and an emerging filmmaker by night. Rose is also the creator and editor of Art Departmental where she celebrates the art and craft of production design.

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