Colour palettes in historical movies

In 2000, the Coen brothers released ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’, a film set in depression-era Mississippi. The film was a landmark, in that it took advantage of colour correction techniques. Previously this had been used for, well, colour correction. However, in the George Clooney flick, it was used to wash colour from the entire film, giving it a largely sepia-toned appearance.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou

This was seen as a positive step by film studios, to the point where pretty much every film studio used this technique to reduce their films to just two colours: teal and orange. There are many reasons for this, but largely it’s because these two contrasting colours look good together. And, I suspect, if you live in an arid state like California, these are colours that you are used to seeing.

Back to the sepia tone, though. This is actually a very popular palette for historical media. In the UK, for example, all signs for historical places are brown (technically all tourist signs are brown, but that might undermine my argument somewhat, so please ignore it).


My theory is that this is inspired by archaeology. Bones, mud, and terracotta are all part of the sepia spectrum. Add in elements like wood, leather and parchment, and our lazy assumption is that the past must have been a browner time. Forget seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles, our view of the past is plain muddy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in films about war.For example, while ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was released a couple of years before ‘O Brother…’, it overwhelmingly uses a palette of greys and browns.


You might expect war films like this to make more use of reds, with blood, fire, and explosions. In fact, these are kept to a minimum, with the colour only used for shock value. The ‘desaturation’ of colour is regularly used in war films, and those set in communist-era Eastern Europe to suggest a grim reality, devoid of the colour of normal life.

In contrast, period dramas tend to use a combination of rich dark shades, and pastel highlights. This tends to suggest an opulent setting, with delicate features.

danish girl

Of course, the biggest issue with colour manipulation in this way, is that it doesn’t always reflect historical reality. True, palettes have changed throughout history. As new dyes became available, so new colours became fashionable. However, there simply wasn’t the narrow band of colour that is presented today.

Lessons from ‘The Witcher’ about Medieval Europe

The ‘Witcher’ series of books and games has become very popular recently, and so I thought I should check them out (purely for your information, of course). What I discovered was a fully formed universe, which, while very much a ‘high’ fantasy, still reflects a lot of truth about our world, both in the modern day, and in the historical era.

witcher thieves

The original books were written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The stories weave in European folklore as part of their narrative colour. The Brothers Grimm are heavily sampled. In fact, The Witcher is regarded as such a major cornerstone of modern Polish culture that a copy of one of the games was once given to Barrack Obama as a diplomatic gift.

The basic premise is pretty straightforward, the main character is called Geralt. He is one of a number of ‘witchers’. It’s their job to kill monsters. Bish; bash; bosh.


The slightly more complex premise is that this world is in an unnatural state. It got to this state when something called the ‘Conjunction of the Spheres’ happened. This is actually a riff on the old ‘many universes’ theory, which Phillip Pullman put to use in the ‘His Dark Materials’ series (currently being made into a TV series). This event wound up with Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and a wide array of colourful monsters all inhabiting the same place.

But here’s where it gets interesting. By the time of the latest additions to the series, the monsters are less of a threat. Sure, they are still present in the games, but not in numbers large enough to maintain a stable breeding population. This actually reflects a historical truth that is often overlooked. Europe, which is the basis for the world of The Witcher, did have megafauna of its own, even into the historical era. The last lion died in Greece in 100 BCE; the last aurochs died in Poland in 1627 CE.

Geralt Griffon

In the more recent additions to the series, monsters aren’t the problem, humans are. In fact, they are causing problems in more ways than one. Pogroms against the ‘non-humans’ (elves, dwarves, etc) are pretty common, reflecting the way that medieval Europe dealt with external cultures, such as the Jews.

War, disease and death are common themes. In fact, many of the most common ‘mob’ enemies, are a reflection of this; bandits, or undead ‘drowners’ and ghouls are all intent on killing pretty much anyone who comes across them. Even the religions can be pretty heavy-handed. Playing the games it becomes apparent that most of the general population distrusts your Geralt with his unusual appearance. However, while the Witch Hunters actively pursue magic-users and non-humans, you always get the feeling that witchers are next on their list.

stake doppler

The Witcher series does come from a historical background. The story is warped through the hands of many folk stories, and completely high-fantasy, but it reflects a degree of historical reality. And that is the excuse I’m sticking to.