How Color Elevates Atmosphere (and Why You Should Use It In Your Films)

Filmmakers have a surprisingly wide array of tools at their disposal when they begin pre-production. Cinematography and sound design are the most important, obviously, but lighting, writing, and production design all have important places in the filmmaker's toolbox.

This is especially true in horror films -- creating a film that terrifies people depends on being able to combine all of these elements effectively.

However, many filmmakers, both amateur and professional, either don't know about, or have underutilized, the power of color. And yet, ironically enough, color is the best way to elevate your horror film.

This is perhaps most notable in Dario Argento's 1977 classic, Suspiria. In it, Argento harnesses a few colors to elevate his horror, to set mood and atmosphere, and to set his horror film apart from others.

Argento uses color in a bold way. It sets up the atmosphere of the scenes, and the colors themselves become an aspect of the horror. The deep crimson reds are often contrasted with cooler blues and greens. Even the normal colors -- walls, floors, ceilings, etc. -- all pop out of the scene, and have a vibrancy that is difficult to ignore, and is extremely unsettling.

Kubrick used color effectively in his 1980 masterpiece, The Shining -- though he used it in his production design to enhance his horror.

In this scene, the design of the bathroom, and the vibrant red walls clashing with the stark white urinals and sinks, helps enhance the narrative implications of the moment, the cinematography, and the sound design, not to mention the uneasy feeling we get during this scene.

We can also see this in William Friedkin's film The Exorcist -- often considered one of the best horror films ever made.

The blue color tint helps sell how cold the room is, while also adding this eerie, ethereal atmosphere to the scene. It's a simple touch, likely accomplished with a filter being placed over the camera lens, or gels placed over the lights. Either way, this simple touch adds a lot to the scene.

We see this tool pop up all throughout film history, including back during the silent era. Hitchcock's 1927 film The Lodger uses this element both to differentiate between interior and exterior locations, and to set up specific moods during specific scenes. Since it was 1927, and the coloring process was wildly expensive, Hitchcock used dye to tint certain parts of his film a specific color -- blue and orange, mainly.

Now you might be saying "well duh Keith, all horror films use color to their benefit." Ah, but that is where you would be surprised. Because somewhere along the way, we stopped using color in our horror films -- at least, we stopped using color as a way to elevate our horror. Instead, nowadays, directors are using darkness to sell their horror. This isn't a bad thing, but has changed the way horror films looks.

Compare this scene from The Conjuring with the scene from Suspiria where everyone is sleeping in the dance hall, and marvel at the sheer difference. Both scenes are shot at night, and both scenes involve two characters discussing something one of them finds eerie, or scary (in Suspiria it is the snores; in The Conjuring it is the presence behind the door).

This isn't to say what The Conjuring did was wrong -- just different, and indicative of a larger wave of lighting scenarios that have taken over modern horror films.

In Matt Reeve's excellent film Let Me In (a surprisingly great remake of the Swedish film, Let the Right One In) we see this usage of darkness and lighting, not color, to sell suspense in a scene. The orange light that surrounds the characters faces, and exists in the background of a few shots, is just there to light the scene, not to make any sort of statement by itself.

In Robert Eggers socially and critically lauded film, The Witch, color is drained from each frame, giving it this sort of washed out, unsaturated feeling, again relying on lighting to enhance the horror rather than color.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, of course. Trey Edward Shults's 2017 film, It Comes At Night uses color in an interesting way. The color of the door to the house is a vibrant red (much like the red we see throughout Suspiria), and the darker scenes all have an amber tint to them, like this scene below.

Now you might say, "Keith, what's the difference between this and the other scenes you've presented as examples". That's a fair inquiry -- the difference is that Shults uses a color to sell the atmosphere of the scene -- that orangish, amber color we saw in The Lodger. This is a natural element to the lighting scenario Shultz has set up, but it also serves to add a little bit of mystery, tension, and atmosphere to a scene that would otherwise be rather boring. Rather than shying away from color, Shults uses it to enhance his scene here, in a way that the other scenes chose not to do.

It Follows -- another highly lauded film, this one from 2016 -- uses color in this way as well, so that it is both natural to the environment of the film, and so that it adds a little bit of personality to the images we see. It's not as drastic as Suspiria (and I'm not advocating that every film should be as drastic as that film was), but it does stick out. The colors pop, and they add something to the scene which you can't quite describe.

There should be no mistake. Lighting is a vital component to filmmaking, regardless of whether or not color is being used, but there is no denying that color adds an important element to atmosphere, especially when horror films are concerned. It is an aspect of films that is too often forgotten, thus taking away tons of potential from scenes, and films.

You should keep this in mind for your short films, as well. Color can enhance mood, emotion, and the power of your images. You should never discount how much just a dash of color can add to your scene, or how powerful your scene can become when you understand color theory.

Even in simple short films, like Cargo -- a finalist in TropFest film festival -- color adds so much to a scene. It makes it feel full, and robust.

Even in non-horror films, this is true.

Color adds so much, while doing so little, and it cannot be undersold just how important that is in filmmaking. When the medium you are working in is built around the adage "show, don't tell" it is imperative to understand all aspects of filmmaking, and film language, so your film can stand out from the pack.

So the next time you enter pre-production on a film, or begin outlining an idea you have for a script. Think about color. Think about how utilizing color can enhance your film's aesthetic, and atmosphere. Think about cool ways you can use color to evoke certain moods, feelings, and ideas. You just might be surprised at how powerful a tool color can be.