Color and Cinema: On Picasso, Ridley Scott, John Carter, and Charlie’s Chocolate Factory

As Picasso painted in his studio in rural France, a thief approached. The thief did not know that Picasso was home, so when he smashed through the windowpane, Picasso startled him.  The thief lunged forward, grabbed two small paintings, and sprinted into the woods.  Picasso had lost the thief, but not before getting a good look at him.  So Picasso went to the police to describe the thief.  “But you’re an artist,” the police chief said.  “Why don’t you show us what the thief looked like by drawing him?”  Picasso drew the thief and handed it to the police officer, who made an arrest the next day.  With the help of Picasso’s sketch, the police arrested a washing machine and the Eiffel Tower.

That was just a bit of fun.  Say what you want about Picasso, but he was brilliantly inventive not only with his visual translations of the world, but also with his use of color.  Picasso studied Paul “Color Sage” Cezanne for years, and I give Paul the lion’s share of credit for refining Picasso’s color sense.

Picasso – Saltimbanques

Outstanding color relationships fuel this picture.  Paul C would be proud.

By the way, if you actually try to apply these colors to your own painting, you’ll find it’s quite the challenge.  You have to get the ratios right, and that’s trickier than getting the swatches right.  You also have to worry  about which colors go next to each other.  Do you notice that the red figure is missing a leg.  That’s no mistake.  Picture first, meaning second.

If you like Picasso’s colors in Saltimbanques, then you’ll love Ridley Scott’s colors in Gladiator (2000).  Here are two frames from the movie:


You can see how Ridley Scott carefully engineers each color in a scene.  Had he directed the movie John Carter (2012), audiences would have enjoyed color palettes that were more effective, more pleasing, and more inspiring.  I assure you he would have never allowed the aliens with tusks to wear green skin.

John Carter fatigued the viewers with this kind of drab color, which is drab because the art department had to desaturate the color of the frame to play down the clashing green and tan.  Why not just change the green?  Or add yellow flags and black costumes to spice up the scene.

Ugly, ineffective color schemes also afflicted Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and not for lack of effort from the art department.  I could show you dozens of examples, and here is one.  The factory interior has an ugly candy-green grass that just didn’t work visually against the milk-chocolate brown.  Candy red mushrooms improve the situation, but the colors still should have been better:

For the green to work in this particular frame, it needs to occupy more than 75% of the scene or it needs to drop to under 5%.  If you can’t fill the frame with green, consider these alternate grass colors that harmonize with chocolate brown.

(Also, the lighting looks silly.  Might I suggest making the red mushrooms into lanterns that are the sole light sources in this room.)

How do you justify the choice of white grass over green grass to a supervising studio exec that doesn’t “get it?”  I see so many amazing, beautifully designed elements in the Chocolate Factory interior.  The problem was organizational–artists felt they had to provide wordy justifications for their color choices. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott would have let them get away with “The grass is red because . . . it looks good on the screen.”  Done!

I’ll leave you with one last showcase of color mastery.  Once again, this comes from our hero, Ridley Scott, who turns what could have been sword-and-sandals drabness into a visual treat using dazzling, remarkable, competent color.

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Color and Cinema: On Picasso, Ridley Scott, John Carter, and Charlie’s Chocolate Factory

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